The Arctic bike-a-thon

Our bicycle journey that began in Whitehorse 15 days earlier had taken us through 1254 Km of Canada’s Northern Taiga and Tundra, including 740 Km of both the famed and feared gravel road – the Dempster Highway – Canada’s only road access through the Arctic.
This had to be one of the most physically and mentally grueling adventures I have experienced over a period of two weeks, nowhere near a leisurely July vacation. It seemed that we got all the weather that a summer in the North could throw at us. Despite these difficult challenges of the road that included a wetter than normal summer, periods of strong wind, places with gravel several inches deep  and airscapes of mosquitoes, we had some wonderful experiences. We saw magical places that had only until then been names and images in our heads: Tombstone territorial park, the Ogilvie and Richardson ranges, the transition into tundra, rivers such as Mackenzie, the Peel, Ogilvie and the Yukon, and the winter home of the Porcupine caribou herd.

(c) Ummat Somjee/WWF-Canada
We traversed through the traditional lands of the Gwitch’in and Inuit, crossed the continental divide, Wright pass and the killer seven mile hill.  We discovered mosquitoes could travel up to 12 Km/h, and were ruthless feasting on us when we slowed down. Our trip was peppered with sightings of other mega fauna too – moose, elk, black bears (at a distance), Arctic fox, great horned owls, ptarmigan, tundra swans and several types of shorebirds among countless other types of birds. I knew not that these seashore dwellers used the tundra to nest! What we did not see we felt and heard around us – wolf tracks and bear scat, and once to our surprise the call of sandhill cranes. Dragonflies clearly became our  favorite insects as they went about devouring the mosquitoes and flies we came to grudgingly accept.

We learnt about the cultures and traditional ways of the Gwitch’in and Inuit and we were humbled to have been educated in small part about their way and their special relationship to land and water as we stopped along various sites along our route. We felt deeply honored when one young Gwitch’in artist in Fort McPherson gave us two small packs of dried caribou for our journey onward. Though we did not see caribou, we were able to “taste” them and appreciate the presence of these animals to the land on which we travelled on one hand and to the people who were here connected to them as part of their tradition and way of life on the other.

While our time in Inuvik was short, we were generously welcomed and hosted by our colleague Dan Slavik. Dan who spent a few years as a researcher in the Arctic had just “permanently” arrived himself in Inuvik with his fiancée Brenda to head up WWFs newest regional office to work on marine planning the Beaufort Sea. The town was abuzz with artists and residents alike drawn to Inuvik Arts Festival. We were also able to pay a visit to the recreation center, pass by the community greenhouse and make a stop by the famed midnight sun mosque – incidentally past midnight.

It would be an understatement to say this was a memorable trip with many eventful things and experiences but yet seemingly grueling and dejecting at times. Perhaps one of the most powerful things we discovered during the trip was the generosity of people and northern peoples. Our friends Keir, David and Tanis housed and fed us in Whitehorse at the beginning and end of our journey. On the road, many times we flagged passing cars for drinking water when we ran out. The visitor centre in Dawson City helped us with a food drop midway on the Dempster and Cynthia Hunt, a Yukon naturalist and artist, went out of her way to make sure we made it back to the junction at the start of the Dempster after picking up our supplies. Many others “just” stopped by the road to ask us how we were doing and wish us well after reiterating they thought we were crazy. One generous man even brought us strawberries. Inherent goodness that is part of the human spirit is such a powerful thing. Above all else, we were thankful to the universe for having taken care of us, and enabled us to experience this special, wonderful and memorable part of Canada’s North.