A Grizzly Journey
February 11, 2018
Words & Photos: Lindsay Gault
My fascination for the Arctic dates back to my early days. National Geographic magazines featuring narwhales and beluga whales, and polar bears hunting seals. The Inuit people at home in this harsh environment – what distinctions did they make with their fifty terms for snow?
Canadian North airline had a rough outback feel. Big beards and boots. Everyone seemed to know each other. The nervous Kiwi cyclist was the odd man out. We hopped between places like Yellowknife and Norman Wells to arrive 325 kilometers(202 miles) above the Arctic Circle in Inuvik.
This was the start of a solo cycling adventure that would see me riding down from the Canadian Arctic, touching the Pacific Ocean, then crossing the huge continent to finish at the Atlantic in Nova Scotia. It was a ride of over 11,000 kilometers(6835 miles). The aim was to raise funds for research into cancer, a disease that was indiscriminately attacking members of my family.
From the air the McKenzie delta led a maze of glistening waterways out into the Arctic Sea at Tuktoyaktuk, north of Inuvik. The space was immense from the air, from a bicycle on the ground it was breathtaking. Huge flows of glacial ice rushed down the kilometer-wide McKenzie and Peel rivers - big, black monster chunks of ice. Obstacle one: the river ferries were out of action for perhaps another two weeks. I had to wing it, hoping for a local fishing boat to ferry me across. To compensate for the uncertainty I had to carry enough supplies to last three weeks. Supply points were 400 kilometers(249 miles) apart.
The space was immense from the air, from a bicycle on the ground it was breathtaking.”
Inuvik was just one week out from shedding its winter coating of snow. Lakes were still frozen, vast expanses of Bear and Great Slave lakes. Surprisingly the preparation days were a balmy nineteen degrees Celsius(60 degrees F). It put me off guard. On the day I set out, the wind turned to the north, blowing straight from the polar ice cap which wasn’t that far away. It was four degrees Celsius(39 degrees F) with wind chill. I wouldn’t remove my Icebreaker merino jacket for the first 10 days, after which its seams were white with the salt of sweat.
I camped beside the first of the two giant rivers (McKenzie), waiting for a ride across. A smooth, flat, black boulder beside my camp provided a great base for cooking my breakfast. Or so I thought! I returned from my tent to find my gas cooker had melted a few centimeters down into black ice. Returning from the tent, my gas cooker had melted its way a few centimetres down into black ice.
The local Inuit community network quickly spread the word that a crazy cyclist was looking to cross the rivers. This led to one of the highlights of my trip: a long conversation with Qwich’in elder, Ernest. He gave me a tour of his fish store and told me the story of his fight to survive cancer. His determination led him back to his fishing and hunting roots. His knowledge of the environment and wildlife was vast to the point of being instinctive. His words forewarned me that this was grizzly country in a real sense. It was a warning that would help save me down the trail.
The climb from the McKenzie delta into the MacKenzie mountains was surreal. This is the zone of 24-hour daylight. I crossed the Peel River late in the afternoon with two local hunters. I had just started riding when they circled back to warn me of the first bear up the road. Then the climb started. It would be 10 hours at mostly walking speed. I was hauling over 100 kilograms up the steep, loose gravel road. When I lost traction and dropped the load, it was a huge struggle to lift the bike and restart the climb.
“It was a ride of over 11,000 kilometers(6835 miles). The aim was to raise funds for research into cancer, a disease that was indiscriminately attacking members of my family.”
“I was making the long, slow climb south of the midway point of the Dempster, when I heard a faint pant and a thud. I looked over my right shoulder, straight into the face of a grizzly.”
The climb from the McKenzie delta into the MacKenzie mountains was surreal. This is the zone of twenty four hour daylight. I crossed the Peel River late in the afternoon with two local hunters. I had just started riding when they circled back to warn me of the first bear up the road. Then the climb started. It would be ten hours at mostly walking speed. I was hauling over one hundred kilograms, the road was steep loose gravel. When I lost traction and dropped the load, it was a huge struggle to lift the bike and restart the climb.
I entered a narrow pass. Big green glacial ice framed the passage, the clear trickles running off it creating a pristine water supply. I gradually realized that the bear safety rule of riding 10 kilometers past the last fresh bear sign was impossible to follow. Fresh bear footprints and droppings continuously lined the roadside. The images of grizzly tracks I’d seen on the internet hadn’t prepared me for the real thing. They were the size of dinner plates!
Exhausted at two am I found a terrible exposed tent site. The flapping tent took the last of my energy. The light was just slightly dipping to the west. Just as it had been most nights in the tent, sleep was instantaneous and deep. The morning revealed fresh grizzly footprints circling my tent.
I peddled on past the marker for the Arctic Circle itself. The few vehicles that had ventured up the Dempster Highway this early in the season reported many bear sightings. But despite all the fresh bear signs, I hadn’t seen any bears. I dropped my guard a little. I felt slightly disappointed. Maybe my bear chant warning was too effective.
I was making the long, slow climb south of the midway point of the Dempster, when I heard a faint pant and a thud. I looked over my right shoulder, straight into the face of a grizzly. He was literally half a meter away. He looked at me, then sank his teeth into the bag (containing my snacks) on my handlebars, his head centimeters from my hands. He then pulled away, ready for the second bite. I’d stopped and was standing over my bike, so the bear spray was in easy reach. It was the only option. Seeing the bear, such a magnificent animal, that close somehow gave me a moment of calm. The bear spray at point blank range sent him scrambling to the side of the road.
Then the nerves kicked in. There were no quick options, no passing traffic or safe havens for hundreds of kilometres either side. I couldn’t ride faster. My neck couldn’t swivel often enough backwards. It was twenty agonising kilometres later that I dared to stop. I looked at my snacks, sealed in an airtight bag, inside the canvas handlebar bag. There was a two centimetre gap in the seal. Only a sense of smell two thousand times more acute than our own could have thought that bag was worth a bite.
That was day seven of a ride that would last four months, cross the Great Divide three times, cross the prairies and finish over eleven thousand kilometres later at the Atlantic. It was a ride that would discover the diversity of Canadian wildlife, from arctic rabbits and foxes, to wolves, bears, elk, bobcats and cougars. It was also a ride that was supported by great generosity of Canadian people all along the route. Farmers who appeared in the dry Badlands with water and fruit, restaurant owners who opened their restaurants to all I could eat. An experience of a lifetime.