The first leg of the trip is done: Canada. 1760km cycled, 13 days of riding.
Canada may not seem like an obvious place to pursue cycling around the world after leaving London. But we had a clear reason for it: Covid. Being double jabbed, we could both enter Canada and then, if taking two weeks to ride there in place of a quarantine, be able to enter the US. This is also why our preparation for Canada was very last minute and not without immediate effect.
Let’s just state something: we were not fully prepared for what Canada would throw at us. We knew it might be cold, but just not that cold. For us Europeans end of September and start of October are still pretty mild. We have a long autumn and sometimes in the UK September is even nicer than August. Canada is most definitely not like that. Autumn can be very short in Canada and this yes, winter started in October. When we started in Whitehorse we were in the snow and temperatures were well below zero. With our extra light gear and tent, camping was made virtually impossible. My one night in Teslin, I did not sleep a wink and suffered the whole day after.
On the bike, our equipment was adequate enough against the cold. But riding up in the Yukon or north of British Columbia is not like riding in heavily urbanised Europe: there are no places to eat or grab a coffee and hide from the cold en route. You are all alone facing the elements and must carry all food and water. Sure, there are the random motels or gas stations here and there but they are generally at least 100 miles apart from one another and often closed for the season from end of September.
One big issue was the need to change our route due to snowfall: we could not go to highway 37 and to request help to drive to another junction to avoid snow storm and bisons flocks. This meant a loss of 500km and a change of route we did not want.
Riding in these uncertain and freezing conditions was difficult. David suffers most from the cold. While on the bike, I felt relatively fine. But your body does work an enormous amount to keep you warm and this adds to the overall fatigue of the ride. And then again, the cold was not the worst of it: the wind, continuous and relentless headwind, absolutely sapped all our efforts and hit our morale the most. The Alaskan highway is pretty straight and in the bleak landscape of the North there is not much to shelter you from the wind. All the way to Vancouver it felt like we were in a wind tunnel. Despite our efforts we could not break an average speed of over 20km/h.
And then, the bikes and the load. We both took too much and not enough for the trip. But in any case, we were too heavy. This is mostly due to a lot of winter gear and we hope to lighten
the bikes now that temperatures are more hospitable. But the weight did not help the speed and surely did not help with the multiple punctures we dealt with: 10 or so between us.
Finally, combining grime and snow and wet and extreme cold and extreme weight meant the bikes and equipment have suffered a lot in Canada! My Dynamo connectors got damaged and I can not run my lights anymore. David has broken his own front light and he already had to replace a derailleur, tyre, and gear cable. Our bikes are in desperate need of a wash and we need a bike stand and equipment to get them a good review and check the bearings.
I must say I was a bit disappointed by the bike shops and the cycling scene in Canada in general: although one bike shop was helpful in Prince George by letting us clean our bikes and another gave us spare bike boxes for us to fly from Vancouver, we did not find the nice chat or friendly advice you often get when visiting a shop in London. Canadians are nice but are not road cycling enthusiasts and are probably too used to see bikepackers to care to give them a hand. In addition, COVID having been quite harsh on some businesses, you cannot blame them for not being keen to give you a spare inner tube or land you a hand to fix your own derailleur.
All that being said, in exchange for the hardship, we have experienced a true sense of escape and adventure. I loved the Yukon: its large empty roads, its huge open sky, its ghostly looking forest. The autumnal colours of British Columbia were breathtaking and well worth the trip too! Nature was at its best until Bucking Horse river and we also enjoyed the mountain passes into and from Lillooet. And of course wild life is both sparse and incredible up North: all seems quiet and dead until you see a black bear crossing the road at twilight, porcupines hiding behind a bush, a bison unskilfully trying to get over a road barrier or a flock of geese flying away in large V for the season. Even livestock seemed absolutely bemused to see us: cows clearly had forgotten what a bikepacker looks like and we throw some of them in quite a bit of confusion as we passed.
Finally, I will remember from Canada the absolute respect of all drivers for cyclists and the kindness of a few strangers who made our trip better and gentler. When you see huge trucks in the UK you do not think they care or are interested in a cyclist’s safety. Well the pickup and truck drivers in Canada were: huge Canadian lads in their big trucks did their utmost to give us space. Drivers on the other side of the road would sometimes even try to drive even further away from us to make sure we were not at risk. And always a "hi", and hand by the window, a cheer or a friendly honk. Things in the south of Canada are a bit more European like but even then, most drivers acted kindly and with a lot of regard to our safety. And of course, no issue with leaving our bikes out to grab a coffee: refreshing!
We will in particular remember some lovely people we met on the way. First the lovely couple who own the Continental Divide Motel and were luckily still open when we arrived: a big warm meal, a nice conversation, and a home-made can of tomato sauce for our next picnic... all little things that made a huge different for us. The stranger at Junction 37: with his three dogs and his boxes of books ready to retire all alone for the months of winter, he perhaps saved our lives by stopping us to take the Road 37 already deep in snow. And of course, and most important, Don Ross, who took us in his truck and drove for over 500km with us to bring us to Fort St John. Don was the nicest person we could have found to drive us: we learnt a lot about Canada with him, the Yukon, trucking life and some natural wonders of British Columbia. It is thanks to Don that we stopped for our only tourist attraction of the trip, Liard Hot Springs. Thank you Don! We vote him best man in Canada!!
Two weeks have passed: it both went in a wink and feels like an eternity. It is all a bit of a blur… Perhaps because of the solitude of the places we have visited. Perhaps because we have been so very tired.
On our way down to the US now, I am just praying for an easier ride, and hopefully even more nice encounters with lovely strangers!