Waouw, time flies, already a month that I crossed the 49th parallel and so many unforgettable experiences have filled my heart and soul with joy!
After exploring Glacier National Park’s trails network, I jumped on the famous Great Divide Mountain Bike Route - a mainly dirt roads itinerary running along the divide from Jasper to Mexico - with the intention to follow it until the snow blocks me, most likely on Colorado high plateau. To put things into perspective, I am a road cyclist with NO-NADA-AUCUNE mountain biking experience or skills and my first gravel ride was the Dempster Highway a few weeks back, at the beginning of my trip. But, you know, when your first bike tour is 30.000km long and across the Americas, why not starting your off-road career on the GDMBR, with a gravel bike ?
Well, fortune favors the brave and so far I have had such an amazingly enjoyable, challenging and rewarding three-ish weeks in Montana. The first half of the route was mostly in the forest and the second one was, unexpectedly, in high-desert landscape. Regardless, the riding through either scenery was breathtaking and very diverse. Tons of fun were had with some gravel grinding, pavement flying, steep climb sweating (and swearing), downhill bombing and technical singletrack hike-a-biking. Did I regret it? Not for the tiniest second. Did I wish I had another set-up ? Not at all but the contrary! My new best friend allows me to have a non-stop blast, either with high-speed on the hard-packed dirt roads or with rougher rides on the bumpier sections, or with hard-core pushes on the ascents. I guess we all have fun in different ways, and I found mine.
Other than the limitless enjoyment, two aspects will be remembered from this part of the trip.
First, the funny weather. The short Autumn season brought some interesting torrential rainfalls turning the gravel roads into mudholes and the riding into something pretty miserable, let's admit it. But it has not just been wet, it has also been cold. Before you knew it, winter was trying to make its way with nights below freezing and snow accumulating at higher altitudes. I had to adapt and tried to plan my riding accordingly, pushing into the sunny days and sheltering on the stormy ones. My body was actually (and still is) happy that something forced me to give it a rest… Ain’t no rest for the wicked ya know.
Second and last but not least, people’s endless kindness. Looking back at it, I still cannot believe how lucky I have been to meet such friendly and generous beings. I will forever be grateful to : Hunter and Felicia who took care of my bike while I was hiking in Glacier and fed me with the best beignets I had in a long time ; to the Isaak family who hosted me very last minute and cooked a plethora of fresh veggies to give me a break from dehydrated mashed potatoes and peanut butter on tortillas ; to the small Ovando’s community who offered me gallons of warm coffee and an eccentric roof (a XIXth century jail) on a rainy day ; to Barbara and John who provide free cabins stashed with food to cyclists ; to Tim who welcomed me in his artist’s studio ; to John who proffered me a home, fresh sushi, home-roasted coffee, a trip to natural hot-springs and an introduction to curling while I was unexpectedly stuck in his town awaiting for a new back-wheel after cracking mine on a probably too intense descent ; to Travis who rescued me from a snowstorm, hosted me in his “man cave”, supplied me with the tastiest pancakes and a memorable expedition to show how much snow there is at higher altitude getting his truck stuck into the snowy ditch. All those people, plus all the others I chatted with along the way , are the true heroes that make this journey possible, singular and magnificent. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to cross their paths and hear their stories.
It looks like the weather is pushing me off the Divide a little sooner than expected so I will try to get some hiking done in the gorgeous Wind River Range’s wilderness before heading to drier climate in Utah.
Believe it or not, crossing the imaginary line that the 49th parallel is - the border between Canada and the USA - was an overwhelming process. Despite the fact that the mountains, the plants and the animals are the same, the humans codes change and I had to adapt. In the meantime, as I was riding towards Glaciers National Park’s entrance, I realized I had absolutely no clue about where I was headed neither of anything else I would do. All I knew was that I was going south, that I was hoping to catch up with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and that I wanted to check out some of the hiking trails in the area. I tried to keep it easy and cycled over the world famous Going-to-the-sun road but is was not doing justice to the surrounding scenery plus I was already sick of the intense, uncautious, traffic and the crazy amount of people rushing everywhere. After figuring out the US Parks backcountry permits system, I left my bike at a campground and hit the trails again.
Over 6 days I covered 250km, gazed at almost all GNP’s highlights, swam in 8 different lakes, went over a dozen passes and last but not least, experienced the mentally toughest roller coaster of the journey, switching from absolute joy to the darkest darkness of inner storms filled with doubts and fears. The Canadian leg of the trip was sort of lined up beforehand and I was adventuring in a familiar environment. Now I was truly stepping into the total unplanned unknown and it was vertiginous. Time and distance started to freak me out but the absolute beauty of the pristine landscape always dragged me back to the moment and made me realize that it was just my mind messing up with me. At the end of the day it reinforced my willingness to dive into the unknown without planning and let things be. Day after day, learning to let it go a little bit more and fully trusting Burroughs quote : “Leap, and the net will appear.''
The idea of improvising my route day after day was confirmed by all the recommendations made by the people I met on my way. Being back on busy Nation Parks trails was shocking after wandering in the Canadian wilderness but it was the opportunity to meet tons of nice folks and scribble down their favorite secret or not-so-secret sports, trails and rides along the divide. The itinerary is slowly building itself up. It was also the perfect way to adapt to the American style and general mindset (it here is one).
Another big difference between the endless Canadian Wilderness and the US National Park was the amount of wildlife I encountered. On the Northern side of the border I would run into an animal every other day because there is so much room that they can live their lives and see humans every now-and-then. Here I had several close encounters everyday. On one side it was awesome. Seeing wildlife is always such a privilege. But at the same time it made me sad because I realized the horrific lack of room they have to roam. The density of population out of the park keeps them in it but even there they have nowhere to go without being bothered by humans. (fun facts : in the US there is no “bear policy” in the out of park campgrounds where in Canada it is bear country everywhere) The amazing trails system takes you everywhere to experience Nature’s beauty but it means that animals do not have the possibility to avoid those noisy bipeds. Everything always comes down the debate between arrangement for enjoyment and protection…
But why bears stick around here then ? Seeing the amount of berries I shoveled in my mouth over those few days, I cannot blame them!
Anyway, it was the perfect way to get me back on track and with my hip starting to hurt again, it is definitely time to jump on the bike again. Let’s pedal south !
The GDT was the first link of my project’s chain, everything else built up around it. It was the only roughly planned section of the trip and, of course, nothing went accordingly. I had to skip a section because my backpack delivery was delayed then I strained my hip during my third day on the trails. Two weeks later and after cycling the two next sections, my hip felt strong enough to give it another try. I had half of the trail left to explore and just over 500km of pure epicness rolled out ahead of me. It has been such an intense and unforgettable two weeks, let’s look at it a little closer.
What really struck me and hugely impacted the experience was the realization that both the body and the mind needed much more transition time from cycling to hiking than I thought. Different muscles in use with the obvious issue of my hip bodywise but the hardest was the mind. Even if the backpacking and bikepacking routines are very similar, they are also very different. You suddenly lose the little extra comfort conferred by the road, the odd rest area or gas-pump to shelter and get a warm drink every now-and-then. Even if fairly minimalist, you can always have a little extra food in the bike bags that you do not want to carry in your pack. The speed is also very different and it was hard to accept that I could “only” hike 30 to 50km in a day rather than 150 to 200km. It was even harder when the GDT used the same gravel road that the GDMBR (the gravel cycling route that runs from Jasper to Mexico and that I am going to follow across the USA) and that I saw a few bikepackers flying passed me as I was stumbling on my sore hip.
Nonetheless, starting the hike on the super well-maintained and easy going Banff National Park’s trails was the perfect way to gently get into my hiking shape, rhythm and routine. You can go fast, it is hard - not to say impossible - to get lost, there are five stars campgrounds sprinkled along the way, you meet plenty of other overnighters and are rewarded with world-class views behind every corner. Slowly all this started to faint, except for the views.
The long 200km stretch to Coleman started a little sideways in a heavy downpour, walking on a road plus I had to live 5 days out of pop-tarts, ramen, mashed potatoes and mac&cheese after a rough resupply at a campground store forced by my non-planification. I have never missed my oatmeal, tortillas, chia pudding and quinoa that much… BUT after sheltering in a public cabin for the night and chatting with a South-African coupe riding GDMBR, I woke up in a fairy scenery. It rained all night and by the first light the clouds were evaporating along the two ridges circling the wide valley, only leaving bright blue sky and snow on the mountains behind them. Leaving the dirt road, I stepped into the wild. It started straight away with bushy faint steep trail and creek crossings, goodbye dry feet. I had to adjust my pace and focus but was rewarded in my effort with bushes filled with wild raspberries. Even if only a simple thing, it felt amazing to gather some of my food and those fruit tasted better than any I had before. For the next following days I was forced to stop several times to crawl in the bush, going after the tasty berries. Yummy !
After a long climb I reached a pass, the doorway to the human-free zone I would wander in the next following days. The trail vanished and with it the last sign of civilization. It was just the bear landscape, the rock, the snow, the wind and me. I was moved by an intense feeling of freedom and aliveness. Behind the pass, the trail reappeared to guide over multiple ridges for the next three days. A blissful successions of endless views towards the Rockies on one side, the plains on the other, and steep creeks gullies nested in magic silent forests. A wonderful journey filled with beyond the ears smiles, evenings by the campfire and starry nights. I had a blast and remembered why I decided not only to cycle.
I crossed back over the range and slowly made my way back to the human world as the singletrack changed into ATV roads, gravel road and paved road to Coleman. After three days in Nature’s silence it was weird to hear the engines noise again and walking by a busy gun range was not very welcoming but everything was forgiven with a huge stack of pancakes, a shower, a laundry and a bed. I stayed at a Bed&Breakfast experienced with thru-hikers. They fed me properly and even managed to stuff my pack with muffins and cookies as I was making my way back on trails towards Waterton and my bike.
The previous weeks events ( delay, injury, weather) kept me away from the scenic and even more arduous alternates sprinkled along the GDT. But this time nothing was blocking the way between the gorgeous-strenuous Barnaby ridge connecting onto the famous La Coulotte ridge. It was even more marvelous that everything I dreamt of :following the landscape lines instead of a trail, going from one peak to another with endless panoramic views on untouched mountains, oscillating between hiking and scrambling. It was a gem, the absolute cherry on top of this hike. It made every harder moment worth it, a thousand times, even the depressing last dozens kilometers in burnt forest with torrential rain and snow at higher altitudes. The weather threw at me everything it did not on the previous and offered me the typical GDT-weather before letting me go to the next chapter of the journey.
THANK YOU Great Divide Trail and Canada overall for the past few weeks. Time to rest, scramble a few more peaks and reunite with my beloved bike. Montana, Glacier National Park and Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, here I am !
There were two options to cycle south from Jasper. The main one, the scenic and touristy Icefield Parkway or the alternative one, a 200km detour via gravel backroad parallel to the Rockies. My hip injury was holding me from hiking Alberta’s trails so I went to explore its gravel roads. And it was worth it.
Firstly because it was amazingly fun and beautiful. I found everything I came for : steep climbs, big views with no one around, no traffic, fast hard pack and super rough sections. I took my bike into some trails that weren’t suited for a gravel bike but it hold strong. I eventually had my first puncture but I guess that I cannot complain that those tires already last almost 5000km.
Secondly, it was very interesting to leave Parks Canada’s Wonderland and see Alberta’s backside, or darkside. The mountains were blown open with mines and everyone I met in this wilderness was enjoying it via motorsport. I had to share the dirt roads with ATVs, quads and motocross. I also met a totally different type of campers who apparently cannot look after their trash. For the first time on the trip I came across random dumps in the wild. Not cool.
Thirdly because this itinerary made me pass by the Folding Mountain Brewery and its restaurant that serves the best (and biggest?) poutine of the West.
Halfway down to Banff I started missing the epic mountains and the Parkway’s world class views so I headed back west towards Saskatchewan Crossing with a strong headwind for 100km. It felt like I would never reach those peaks in the horizon but lakes and sky were magically blue and the sun was shining.
At the Saskatchewan Crossing Resort I found the first very unfriendly people on my route. Not bad after 8 weeks on the road but it was surprising. After talking to a few other people in a close by campground, we came to the point that the HR made sure people were unhappy and rude before hiring their employees. Despite that and the highway traffic, it was good to contemplate this scenery one more/last time. Kilometer after kilometer the weird feeling of riding home was growing. This was the first known section of the trip as I lived in the area the past year. It was amazingly enjoyable to see it covered with green and flowers rather than with snow and ice. The very last section into Banff, along the Bow Valley Parkway, was even more familiar and exciting as this was the road I used to train on.
I had a close call escaping a huge thunderstorm by a few seconds and found refuge in campground cooking area. It turned out to be a bloody excellent spot as it poured down all night and I was stoked to be sleeping on the benches under a roof rather than in my tent. The storm brought one of this summer’s nicest bluebirds and I made the best out of it hiking up one of Banff National Park’s emblematic summits : Castle Mountain. I had an early start in the morning fog that added some beauty to the winding trail in the forest. I popped above the clouds when I entered the alpine meadows blooming with flowers. From here the steep ascension passed the tree line into the Land of the Rocks started and the views turned from bucolic to breathtaking. My initial plan was to stop at the higher lake but I could not resist to push to the perched view point. From there, feet hanging above the turquoise lake and the clouds in the valley below, surrounded by a perfectly sculpted rocky cirque, bathing in the sun, listening to the marmots sing, I gazed at the massive ridge in front of me and its appealing towering peak. If I had come all the way here, I might as well make the extra effort there. I picked my own route along the landscaped and fully enjoyed this unique feeling of freedom. I could not believe the epicness of the scenery surrounding me but it even got better when I reached the last summit, at the very end of the range where I was encircled by sheer 800m drops in every direction except the one I came from. I could gaze in every direction, the Rockies flowering in the horizon. All this majestuousness all for myself as no one else was in sight, except the highway far below at the valley bottom. This was more than I could have dreamt of and it fed me joy for at least a few weeks.
The last dozens of kilometers ride to Banff was an absolute pleasure even if my legs were (un)expectedly tired after this 30km and 1600m of elevation gain morning hike. I think I am ready to try thru-hiking again !
The biggest enemy for the kind of long=haul, self-propelled adventure I have embarked on is injuries, when the only essential tool you have, the body, fails. For any reason, that idea never crossed my mind, until today.
Today is day 4 of thru-hiking after cycling over 4000km and living in my tiny tent for 6 weeks. Today, as I was putting my backpack on and stepping onto a new trail, a sharp pain burst out of nowhere in my left side hip. I have a pages-long history of small injuries linked with this kind of intensity, could it be thru-hiking or heavy multi-sport training, but this was completely new, something I had never experienced before. I tried to suck it up and kept going uphill for 3km until I couldn’t do a step further and collapsed in the middle of the trail in pain, with despair trying to crawl into my mind. There was no point, I just couldn’t do it and I had to face that reality now without thinking about everything it could involve later. The insane amount of mosquitoes that instantly buzzed around my legs and head forced me to make a quick decision. Good luck in this misfortune was that I was not embedded in the wilderness but only 3km from a trailhead busy with people. I stumble downhill cringing and heavily leaning on my one hiking pole. I stopped every 200m to breathe in a grunt but finally made it back to the road and thankfully found friendly helpful people who gave me a ride back to civilization.
I am still unsure of what happened, if it is serious or just a body warning that requires a few rest days but so far this event taught me two things.
First, even if I would like to believe so, I am not indestructible and overuse, overtraining and fatigue injuries do not only happen to others. Despite the fact that I am well=trained and that I need less recovery time than most people, there is still a limit, a line that cannot be crossed. My body is the only piece of gear I cannot easily replace and I should therefore take a greater care of it if I want it to take me all the way to Ushuaia.
Second, this is just a bump in the road and not, as my thoughts tried to make me believe so, the potential end of it. It might be a turn I did not expect but that is the very beauty of the journey and why I embarked on it. Right now I have no idea of what is gonna happen, I might be back on trails in three days or pulled over for two weeks but restlessly going over all the options will only drive me insane. This was the only planned section of my itinerary, the exception to my golden rule : “why would I make a plan knowing that nothing is gonna go accordingly?” This episode just confirms it. All I have to do is letting it go, or going with it. Things happen and they are just things happening. We chose the way we experience them. I won’t let this one ruin my good vibe !
At the end I am so grateful this happened in this place, at this moment. Jasper is not the worst place to get stuck and it was super easy to get the help I needed. Also it was a perfect way to make me step back from my “pushing south” mindset and rethink the journey as a whole.
For many weeks, people kept asking me which way I would go into BC after riding across Yukon. I would answer : “via that smaller road, highway 37 I think.” And them to reply : “Ho, the Stewart-Cassiar highway, you are a brave man! There is massive elevation gain and bears everywhere! It sounded like I was about to ride the Himalayas with angry grizzlies ready to eat me behind every corner. A very exciting and appealing program indeed but one should not listen too much to people stories, even more when they experience the scenery without stepping out of their RVs. As a friend of mine used to say, the scariest bear is the one that is in your head. I took the bet to go check it out myself.
I will relieve the suspense right away, I did not see any grizzly. Not even half of one. But I did see countless bears. Everyday I would ride along at least three blackbears. They never bothered me, at all. They were either scared to death and flew into the bush or intrigued and lift their heads from their munching to observe that weird looking animal with a helmet before going back to their food without paying more attention to me. For more than half of them, I realized that : “Ho, there is a bea right beside me in the ditch” only when I had already passed them. Regardless how many I saw and how they reacted to my presence, it is still such a pleasure and a privilege to be able to encounter wildlife roaming in its natural habitat. Too bad someone put a road there. Ho wait, I am riding it. Bloody paradoxes…
Coming from the Alaska highway, the first thing that struck me was the narrower, windier and more charming aspects of the road. It was not cut through the landscape but going along with it, which involved some rollercoaster-like sections and a bunch of nice steep and strenuous hills. But I am still waiting for the tremendous passes climbs. The narrower and windier aspects of the road also meant no shoulder, forcing me to ride in the lane. I loved it because I would not get all the odd gravel and debris but also and mostly because it would force the cars to slow down and take on the other side of the road, leaving a lot of room in between us. There was less traffic anyway and it was forced to be slower because of the terrain.
The scenery changed almost drastically as I was now riding through dense lush bush. I was astonished by how bright and green it was, full of life. No doubt this was a wildlife heaven. To have so much vegetation, you would need a large amount of water, which also meant a large amount of mosquitoes. The water was ever present, coming from the Earth and the Sky. I found numerous creeks and countless lakes from all sizes, shapes or colors. Some were dark blue, others emeraude green or crystalline turquoise. It even felt like I was already in Central America when I laid on Boya Park’s white sand beach with my legs dipping in the transparent blue water empowered by the clear blue sky and the glorious sun.
It did not last the entire trip. On the second day, qs I was about to leave Dease Lake after a late lunch, lightning and thunder started their dance in the horizon. But I did not smell the unique scent of the rain coming and a local firefighter confirmed that it would likely be a drystorm. I went on and got lucky except for a 10min little shower. I was not as fortunate the next day. I saw the darkness raging towards me , the atmosphere turning to humid and electric. With no shelter for the dozens of kilometers I had no other option than keeping on pedalling. For five hours I rode through a massive hail and thunderstorm with torrential rain but at least it was not too cold. The highlight of this idyllic cycling afternoon was when I bushwhacked in the mud, carrying my bike over slippery boulders, trying to find refuge under a bridge to finally realize it was a metallic grid platform it was pouring through.
I was cycling long days and was a little ahead of schedule which allowed me to do a side trip to scenic Stewart. Less traffic, smaller road, fun climbs, long descents, bluebird, big mountains, steep gorges, massive glaciers, roaring river and wild cascades, everything you could ask for the most enjoyable bike ride ever.
Getting closer to the bigger highway I was slowly getting bored of the pavement monotony and the heavier traffic. But I found a few gravel forest service roads to cut across the mountains and get back to the wilderness. It was gorgeous and super fun, the perfect way to end this marvelous section of the trip on a good note before grinding the last hundreds of kilometers to the next resupplying place, Prince George, and transitioning to my hiking gears in Jasper. It is gonna feel weird to part with my bike for an approximate five weeks but I am very keen on leaving the roads to step into the backcountry.
Dawson City was the perfect place to take care of both the bike and the body after the Dempster experience. I spent all my money on food, especially on icecream. After two days resting, I went for an unloaded dayride on the so-called Top Of the World Highway and started my journey South again on the fourth morning.
It felt awesome in many ways. The legs were fresh, the chain was not grinding sand, the weather was perfect, the terrain was easy, I had a tailwind and I was now flying on the pavement. The scenery was not as stunning as the last days on the Dempster but still offered some epic views.
After only a few hours, I saw a big cloud rising from the horizon and knew what it was ; a forest fire. I was not expecting to get any as so far North and early in the season but so it started. What I did not know was that it was the start of multiple days of smoky conditions. I first went through a very, very dense area with an apocalypse-like atmosphere. It was pitch dark and you could not see 20 m away. I was worrying about my lungs but it was too late, I was in it and just had to get out of it. I put on the breathing face-mask I had brought for the dust on the gravel road thinking it would do the trick for the smoke. I rode this dark scene looking like a dark lord.
When it started to lift up a little bit, I found a charming roadside lodge, an old log cabin I could not resist entering. Here started the trip’s biggest battle against myself: it is not because there is a restaurant or bakery or any kind of food that YOU HAVE TO get something, because you already carry food. I lost the battle that time, and I’m still losing it almost everyday, especially when I found a 1kg freshly baked cinnamon bun.
I decided to do side-trips and explore as much of Yukon as I could on my scheduled way to Jasper and the Great Divide Trail. Half-way up the one-way road to Keno, a tiny historical community with an identically named peak granted with 360 view, I had to turn around because the smoke was getting too thick again. But I found a nice little spot with a clear creek not far from the road to camp. Not all my bush-camps were that bucolic!
The trip ended up being divided into three sections. The first took me from Dawson City to Whitehorse with the aborted side-trip to Keno in 5 days. The second turned into a relaxed 4 days resupplying in Whitehorse plus riding, camping and hiking in the Carcross area with freshly made friends. It was truly amazing to be able to put the trip aside and spend some quality time with nice people. Our plans kept changing because of the thick smoke but we finally ended up hiking and scrambling one of the local peaks. It was such a great experience, untouched landscape with no-one else around. The legs appreciated the change of discipline and were fresher than ever when I started the third and last section from Carcross to Watson Lake in 2.5 days. This section on the Alaska Highway made me meet more cyclists in one day than over the two prior weeks.
The road was mostly flat, I mean no major elevation, and cut as long straight lines which allowed me to often get down on the aero-bars. Days were hot and nights fairly chilly so I decided to start late (9.30 to 10am) when it was not freezing, stop for a long lunch break in the roosting afternoon (2 to 4pm) and ride into the evening breeze (8.30 to 9pm) because there was so much daylight anyway. It was cool to observe the darkness slightly conquering time on the light as I was riding South. I left Dawson with 24h daylight and got to Watson Lake with a few hours of dusk-like twilight.
Being back on the pavement not only impacted my average speed but also my nose. Because of the hot weather, the typical smell of the warm asphalt bathing all day in the sun was ever present. Depending on the breeze, it was dominant or a subtle background flavour mixed with the creeks, the flowers and the forest breath. The cars, RVs and trucks passing by would add a more or less pronounced exhaust smell to this fine blend. Most of the drivers were nice and left some room when passing me but I always needed to be ready to be hit by the odd loose gravel sprinkled on the Northern roads, especially over the multiple construction sections. For dozens of kilometers I would have fine sand crushing in my teeth, making my mouth even drier than the smoke already made it. From time to time it would get so drained out that I would not have any saliva left and be unable to swallow. But maybe it was because I could not close my mouth, amazed by the surrounding wildlife, scenery, lakes, mountains, flowers and trees exploding all around me. My skin was fondled by the wind, which made me forget the sticky mix of sweat, dust, repellent and sunscreen layered on it. When stopping for lunch or in the evening, I loved to listen in the silence to the breeze in the trees, the many birdsongs and the insects humming. Such peaceful music after hours of wind harping on my ears because of the speed and all the super loud engines.
All this might not sound like a dreamable and idyllic journey but all my senses were stimulated and excited by the discoveries. It made me feel more alive than ever. I did not just see Yukon, I truly experienced it in all ways, and it was wonderful.
A newbie on the Dempster, or can one transfer backpacking skills into bikepacking.
Let's first set up the pitch.
The Dempster highway is a 900km gravel road that stretches from Dawson City (YK) to the Arctic Ocean's shore in Tuktoyaktuk (NWT). It is the Canadian equivalent of the Alaskan Dalton Highway which runs from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.
I'm a 27 y.o. outdoorsy guy with a good physical condition (marathon 3¼ hours, half ironman 5 hours) who, other than swimming, cycling and running, loves to embark on crazy adventures, mostly on foot. After one month of hiking the Continental Divide Trail in New-Mexico, I realized how much I missed a bike on those endless gravel roads.
The idea of crossing the American Continents, from North to South, hiking and cycling, was born. The only thing was that I had never bikepacked before, neither rode anything else than my carbon road bike. I assumed that I was fit enough to cycle consistent distances daily and that I could easily transfer my backpacking experience into bikepacking. Live in the wilderness according to the elements, find and treat water, plan resupply, search for camp spots, packing light with only what you really need, have a rodent minimalist lifestyle are the same things in either scenario, as is the daily routine : walk/pedal, enjoy the scenery, eat, sleep, repeat. The Dempster was the perfect way to start my Arctic to Antarctic journey and a straight forward baptism by fire. How did it go?
I flew to Inuvik, the small town 150km south of Tuktoyaktuk, during the second week of June. I was gladly surprised on how warm and sunny it was. But it did not last. After a few days resting from the long journey and the jet lag, I hitched a ride to "Tuk", where I was welcomed by an overcast sky and glacial wind. After a greasy lunch and dipping my back wheel into the ocean, it was already 2pm but I was not stressed timewise thanks to the midnight sun and its 24/7 daylight. The game was on.
Many people warned me about the loose and unstable gravel making the ride back to Inuvik fairly sketchy. And it was. I took the time to make it safe and enjoyable, going up and down those rolling hills gazing at the endless tundra turning into boreal forest. I swore to myself to keep it easy on the first day(s) but the lack of camping spots and the permanent daylight fooled me. Before I had realised, I was 145km in and it was 1am. It was time for a first chilly night. I woke up a few hours later with the rain and urged my way back to Inuvik where I was kindly offered a bed to shelter from the nasty weather and to rest.
The next two days brought me to the first mountain range. First along long straight lines cut through the bush, then over a more hilly terrain. The weather kept teasing me, throwing in freezing headwinds, big dark clouds and beautiful clearings. The road got slightly better but still had a lot of loose spots. I was happy to have my 47” tires and an ultralight setup. On the way I discovered the two small communities of Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson where I was invited to share the free "Dad’s Day" lunch with locals. One thing is for sure: the bikepacker hunger is the same as the backpacker's! Fort Mac was the last resupply place, except the meal at Eagle Plains restaurant. Here again, no big difference with my backpacking strategy, same food and number of planned days +1. After the Peel river crossing, the road steeply climbed up to a plateau with a pristine view on the Richardson range. I truly felt blessed to be right there, right then. I just could not stop worrying about those stormy clouds rolling over the peaks. I understood that I quickly had to leave this super exposed place and miraculously found shelter right when the sky started falling on me with lightning and thunder. Locals had mentioned this summer village where a big music festival happens once a year in August. I sheltered in one of the stage's corners and woke up humid and shivering. The thunderstorm lasted all night with insane winds and had transitioned to a snowstorm. I quickly found burning wood and an unlocked cabin, lit a fire and spent another cozy rest day reading a book. The extra day of food came handy.
The next morning brought a bluebird and I was super excited to finally enter those mountains. The climb was strenuous but the view could not stop getting more awesome. I was totally overwhelmed by such beauty and the luck I had to be there. The day flew by with endless epicness as I went over two passes, across the Yukon border and the Arctic Circle, as well as a last climb out the Eagle River up to Eagle Plains. The last ascent made the big fat meal in the warm restaurant taste ten times better and the first shower in 6 days feel even better.
The rain came back during the night but turned to be just a drizzle when I woke up. I then made a big mistake by heading off. This was a totally ok weather to hike but bad conditions to cycle on a gravel road. I was quickly covered with cement-like mud and soaked to the bones but was going at a decent speed and had a lot of fun. It lasted one hour. Then I started to shiver and was not able to warm up. The rain had intensified and the road turned into an absolute mess. I revived some good hiking memory and took refuge in a roadside toilet. For 5h I tried to hitch a ride back to Eagle Plains because "there is no shame in turning back". But it didn't work and despite the changed clothes I was still unable to recover feeling in my feet. It eventually stopped pouring down and parts of the road looked like drying up. I decided to take my chances and keep going. Second worst idea, ever. I struggled over crazily muddy sections and had trouble finding a decent water source. I just found a nasty murky pond infested with thousands of mosquitoes that at least allowed me to clean my bike from some of the clogged muck in the chain and derailleur. It was the roughest ride of my life, no doubt. I finally made it up a ridge where the road improved but the wind was blowing me off it, and almost off my bike. I was exhausted and pushed to the next rest area where I found another toilet, big enough that I could lay down in it. My survival reflexes made the rest with warm dry layers, a hot tea and a warm meal. I had my space blanket ready but finally did not use it as I got up early and went straight on pedalling. From here everything started to change, first with a long downhill, followed up by straight flat lines that I could grind out in an aero position.
The landscape totally changed and the road was now winding along a large river surrounded by big cliffs and rolly mountains. It felt like I was entering Patagonia already. I stopped for a second brekkie, a nap, lunch, another nap and in the early afternoon the weather started to clear up, along with my foggy mindset. I climbed up another small pass and continued riding across this gigantic scenery. The forest was replaced by the tundra. I called it a day and gazed at the panorama while recharging my inner batteries with the beautiful sunshine.
I woke up in a dream and rode through this pristine landscape with only my sore legs reminding me it was real. The early sun with few clouds brightened the scenery with that unique intensity that only lasts a moment. Without realizing it, I went over the last pass and started the long 80km journey downhill to the pavement. I slowed down and took the day to fully enjoy the view. My experience told me that my stomach could wait another day before shovelling food into my mouth but that my soul could never get enough of those scenes. Bikepacking, like backpacking, tends to make me focus too much on the objective and the “back to civilization” feast. Learning to drop off and let it go is not an easy job but I succeeded this time and even left the bike to scramble up a small peak to get more of those panoramas. My legs were surprisingly happy to switch discipline.
The majesticness vanished with the last kilometers of gravel that suddenly changed into pavement. Leaving the Dempster got me fairly emotional as it was such a magical and unique experience in all respects. One chapter closes to let another begin. Again, I knew that I’d better take a little extra time to rest and process this experience rather than rushing into the journey's next leg.
With hindsight, I think my bet was totally legit. For me, bikepacking worked exactly like backpacking and the only problem I faced was the difference of exposure to the elements. You get colder more quickly and playing with layers was even more crucial.
I hope this can help others stepping into the amazing world of bikepacking. Now I just have to add packrafting to my belt and be totally polyvalent!
The tech + : 47” tires
The gear - : the 15°C sleeping bag
The orga tip : Dempster mail allows you to ship anything you want from either Dawson or Inuvik visitor centre to Eagle Plains.
A perte de vue
La nature, pure, s'étend
Plus loin que l'horizon
Pas une trace d'aménagement
L'oeil cherche une route, une barrière
Il ne trouve que des rivières
Ici tout n'est que terre, eau, roche
Végétation, glace, ciel et vent
La pureté dans toute son aridité
Pourtant je vois tout ça et ne rêve pas
Encore un paradoxe
Par ma chance de vivre cette scène
Je souille sa virginité
Et je contribue à la destruction
De ce que je tiens le plus haut
Dans mon coeur
Petite localité de 3500 âmes, Inuvik se situe à 300km au nord du cercle polaire, à 150km au sud de l'océan arctique, à la frontière entre le Yukon et les Territoires du Nord-ouest, au Canada. Endroit singulier car c'est la ville canadienne accessible par route la plus au nord du territoire. D'ailleurs ici tout est un record par rapport au cercle polaire.
Ces étendues immenses, partagées entre forêts boréales, méandres du delta et tundra abritent quelques autres communautés mais aucune n'est aussi accessible et développée qu'Inuvik. Ici on trouve tout ce qu'on peut attendre d'une petite ville n'importe où ailleurs : grandes-surfaces, restaurants, banque, quelques magasins, pompe à essence, école, terrain de sport, hôpital, hôtels, 4g et wifi haute vitesse! Si l'on enlève le climat, on vit ici exactement comme de la même manière qu'à des milliers de kilomètres au sud.
Il faut le reconnaître m, c'est quand même très pratique et ça permet à de nombreuses personnes de vivre cet expérience unique, dont moi.
Mais qu'on se le dise, cet endroit est l'exemple le plus poussé de la dépendance énergétique, et pas que ça. A peu près rien n'est produit ici et vivre sous ces climats, avec notre mode de vie occidental est totalement absurde. Les populations qui avaient élu domiciles sur ces terres vivaient à un tout autre rythme, un mode de vie et une culture qu'on a également piétiné.
Comment négocier ce paradoxe qui me permet à la fois de vivre de telles aventure, de découvrir et d'explorer des endroits aussi reculés qu'uniques mais qui par leur essence vont à l'opposé de mes valeurs? La route est encore longue jusqu'à Ushuaïa et je risque encore de faire face à mes contradictions!
Pour finir sur une touche plus joyeuse, je ne m'attendais pas à trouver un gigantesque potager collectif sous un stade de hockey sur glace recyclé en serre. Un endroit magique qui uni les différentes communautés.
En tant qu’Européen, on entend souvent parler des USA à travers leur politique extérieure. Ils interviennent militairement dans tel ou tel pays, leur président signe tel ou tel traité. Ils sont également très présents dans le monde économique, la bourse de New-York ici, les industries de la Silicon Valley là. Lorsqu’on se penche sur les événements intérieurs, on voit généralement les fusillades, les combats politiques, la sur-consommation, le surpoids, la peine de mort. De temps à autre, on aborde un sujet plus précis, le système social et éducatif, une catastrophe naturelle. Au final, tout ce qu’on voit de ce pays dans nos médias ne fait que souligner ce qu’on aperçoit dans les films.
Après plusieurs mois à traverser et explorer ce gigantesque pays par, presque, tous les moyens de transport possible - à pied, en bus, en train, en voiture et en stop - ma vision a bien changé. Je continue certainement à voir toutes sortes de clichés et je suis toujours sidéré de me dire : “Hé bien non, ils n’exagèrent pas dans les films, c’est vraiment comme cela” mais ce n’est pas tout. Il y a trois choses qui me sautent aux yeux et qui forgent toute mon expérience américaine. Trois choses dont on parle très peu ou très mal dans nos médias. Voici les trois points clés que vous ne saviez - peut-être - pas sur les Etats-Unis.
Premièrement, une sombre constatation. Ce qui choque le plus ici, c’est l’ampleur et la profondeur de la pauvreté. On en est vaguement conscient mais tant qu’on ne l’a pas vécu, on ne se rend pas compte de l’envergure du problème. La misère est présente, partout, tout le temps. Elle saute et s’impose aux yeux. Il n’y a pas d’histoire de pourcentage minime de la population. D’ailleurs parler de pourcentage n’a pas beaucoup de sens. D’une part les USA ne mesure pas la pauvreté de la même manière que la plupart des autres pays. A quoi servent ces calculs si l’on ne peut les comparer? D’autre part, réduire la détresse humaine à des seuils, des chiffres et des statistiques est atroce et n’aide qu’à la banaliser. S’il faut tout de même parler d’ordre de grandeur, en 2016 le nombre d’américains considérés sous le seuil de pauvreté équivalait à plus de trois fois la population totale de la Belgique. Il ne s’agit pas que des SDF et des junkies - le pays a également un problème majeur de drogue - qui errent et campent dans les rues d’à peu près n’importe quelle agglomération mais d’une large tranche de la population. Quartiers dévastés, délabrés, effondrés sont monnaie courante. Toute ville en a son lot, plus ou moins gros, plus ou moins visible et dérangeant. Rien dans l’étendue, l’opacité, le déploiement ou l’épaisseur de cette pauvreté ne rappelle ce qu’on connaît en Europe. C’est effrayant, c’est inquiétant.
Deuxièmement, le tableau s’éclaircit. On ne souligne jamais assez à quel point la nature est présente. On connaît les grandes plaines de l’Ouest, les chaînes de montagnes, les nombreuses forêts, les parcs et réserves naturelles, sans réellement se rendre compte de l’étendue. Ces espaces vides de presque toute trace humaine - une route ou l’autre, une clôture rouillée - sont grands, très grands. Les proportions sont hors proportions. A perte de vue. Si l’ouest est terriblement sec, l’est est terrifiquement humide. Bien que amplement plus densément peuplée, la face orientale des Etats-Unis est incroyablement verte. En exagérant les traits, d’un côté le désert, de l’autre la jungle. Au-delà des gargantuesques espaces vides, ce qui marque encore plus, c’est la présence de la nature dans les zones urbaines. Toutes les villes débordent d’arbres et de parcs, de promenades en tout genre, de fleurs et de plantes. C’est impressionnant. Même dans les zones sèches, la nature est omniprésente. Et ici encore, la taille des espaces verts est hors normes européennes. On critique ou caricature souvent la taille XXL américaine pour la nourriture mais elle n’est qu’à l’échelle de l’étendue et de la richesse naturelle du pays.
Troisièmement, on reprend espoir dans la nature humaine et ce pays. Les gens sont inconditionnellement gentils. Il y a bien un trou-du-cul ici ou là, mais dans la grande majorité, les américains sont avenants et bien-intentionnés. D’abord il y a cette manière d’être très ouverte, directe et en quelque sorte innocente. Au premier abord, on est charmant et souriant, on fait mine de s’intéresser à l’autre. Beaucoup de gens disent que ce n’est que de la façade voire de l’hypocrisie. Surement pour certains mais il est vachement plus agréable de ne croiser que des sourires et de s’entendre demander comment on va à tout bout de champ que les mines grises et indifférentes qui défient tous regards que l’on connaît chez nous. Mais ça ne s’arrête pas là, les gens sont profondément serviables. A l’ouest, à l’est, dans les villes, plus ou moins énormes, à la campagne, les gens donnent spontanément un coup de main. Mais ça va encore plus loin, du moins dans une certaine partie du pays. Huckleberry Finn en fait l’expérience lors de son expédition le long du Mississipi et les locaux y tiennent comme à la prunelle de leurs yeux. Dans les Etats concernés, on ne rigole pas avec l’hospitalité du sud, c’est la fierté nationale et on ne lésine pas dessus. Connaissez-vous beaucoup d’endroits dans le monde où un parfait inconnu vous paye votre addition sans même se manifester, juste parce que vous êtes un marcheur ; où, parce que vous êtes un voyageur, on vous invite à la maison, dormir, boire et manger ; où les gens cachent des boissons et de la nourriture, au beau milieu de nulle part, pour les randonneurs ? Moi non.
Tramping, cycling, running, skiing, travelling, I keep exploring this amazing planet we live on. The following texts give an insight of my various wanderings. From poetry to trip reports or thoughts on particular subjects, this pages try to reflect how I travel through this modern world.