A Summer of Not Mountain Biking
I haven't ridden a bicycle since March. It's the longest I've gone without riding in the last 15 years. Instead, from mid April to the beginning of September, I picked up another carbon fiber stick, sat down on an equally-but-differently uncomfortable seat, and clipped into a different piece of high performance super plastic. Instead of riding, my friend Nathan and I spent the summer kayaking from Vancouver, BC, to Yakutat, AK, with a bunch of detours & sub-plots in between.
At this point, you’re probably wondering: "why has Pete published this? How did Cam let this past his watchful eye? Do they not see that we are here to read about bikes?!" Me, too. But give me your attention for a moment and I think you'll see where this is going.
It's a trope that a bicycle is a kid’s first chance at freedom, but it was true for me as well, starting with the Pierard Rd/Platt Crescent loop near my house in Lynn Valley*, and slowly broadened to the nearby trails and jumps at Ross Road Elementary school. Around every turn was something new to discover. Over the next 20 years, my curiosity and borders were pushed as my neighbourhood my loop grew and eventually included the Sea to Sky, Québec, and points as far away as Switzerland.
*Lynn Valley is a neighbourhood in North Vancouver, at the base of Mt. Fromme.
The last 3 or 4 years, I've been in a bit of a cycling rut. When I'm in town, I'm still riding 8 hours a week and loving it, but it's felt very stagnant and routine. A big part of my rut is my low risk tolerance - I’m a pretty average mountain biker and very comfortable in that space. I have had enough injuries that I prefer to avoid the psychological torture of benching myself. The second part of my rut is my distaste for driving and love of “person-powered" trips. As much as I love to go and ride new trails, driving sucks a lot of the joy out of cycling for me. I'm spoiled with time and proximity, I know, but I really do enjoy riding to the trails. Between these two personality traits and my own lack of creativity, none of the cycling trips I could think of lit my fire. They all placed too much focus on accomplishment based on speed, distance, and difficulty which just doesn't inspire me.
In 2021, my friend Nathan had the idea that we should kayak from Victoria, BC, to Alaska; as far as you can go in a kayaking season from mid-April to mid-September. 1,800 nautical miles, or about 3,200 km, was the plan. After thinking it through, I decided to commit. Kayaking and camping at this level was way outside my comfort zone. My fire was lit.
Paddling up the BC coast is not necessarily a feat of any sort. The Pacific coast of the Americas has been paddled under human power since time immemorial, from the Aleut in Alaska in the North to the Kawésqar in Patagonia. The thing that makes paddling up the coast special is that there's no trail to follow. These days, dozens of people do it a year. Some people, like those paddling the R2AK do it in as few as 3 weeks. Others, like the mythical "Kayaker Kev," take years, as they stop to enjoy communities and work along the way. Nathan and I, both 27, were the youngest to do the trip that we met. Most are retirees, and we even met some people in their 80s doing it. You just get to make it up as you go, based on what mother nature will allow you to do, of course. Add to that the beauty of doing it under human power, and being able to tuck into coves and on to beaches that motor vehicles can't land.
After 18 months of planning that included getting my kayak guide certification, renewing my 40-hr Wilderness First Aid, cooking and dehydrating 5 months worth of food, and practicing my knots at the local brewery, we set off on April 16th from Victoria, BC.
I started the trip with both confidence in my skills and some degree of humility. I was nervous about my kayaking abilities being insufficient but confident that my 20 years of cycling had made me "outdoorsy" and given me the skills I needed to survive outside. Being outdoorsy has been central to my identity for as long as I can remember. It's how I made friends at school, something I tried to emote on dating apps. Something that nothing and no one could tell me I wasn't.
Except for the BC & Alaskan coast.
The humble pie was served slowly. There were thoughts that were subtle and slow to develop, like realizing how dependent I was on my drysuit to keep me warm and safe - a technological crutch not afforded to kayakers in prior generations. There were others, like struggling to start a fire despite days of fine weather and ample dry cedar, that were flat out embarrassing. By about 20 days in when we reached Alert Bay, BC, and despite having endured some horrid weather and rough seas, I realized that with my drysuit, fiberglass kayak, GPS, and youth, I'm one of the softest humans to have ever paddled this coast. My sense of outdoorsiness began to erode.
It was also in and around Alert Bay that this sub-plot of the trip started to nucleate. We were invited by chance to attend a celebration for the removal of the fish farms from the Broughton Archipelago which was a big win for indigenous sovereignty and mother nature. It was the first time I was surrounded by people from many walks of life who were truly outdoorsy. Some lived in suburban houses, others in forest cabins, and others on sailboats. They knew how to fish, what plants they could forage, and had stories of spending days exposed to the elements for a variety of unglamourous reasons. What really struck me is that some of these were people "like me." They were desk jockeys with careers and other hobbies.
Weaving our way up the coast, we got to enjoy communities where roads are rare and the ocean is the highway. After leaving Port McNeil and working our way up to Yakutat, Alaska, the only community connected to mainline roads was Prince Rupert. From communities like Bella Bella, BC, to Metlakatla, AK, and even Juneau - the Alaskan state capital - the length of roads is measured in tens of miles. In these communities a more useful measurement is "barge days" - when the barge arrives to deliver fresh goods, including groceries. Sometimes barges come daily, sometimes weekly, and sometimes once a month, "if it's not broken down again."
From the outside looking in, there appeared to be a direct correlation between the tenuousness - and cost - of connection with the rest of the world and people's knowledge and engagement with the land they were in. As I sat there and cooked my dehydrated daal -and gosh was I proud to have dehydrated a meal that I cooked with food from a grocery store, as opposed to buying a prepackaged one- I watched others eat food they'd harvested themselves. Not only that, they were so successful at it that they even had excess to share with others in their community, and even to gift to strangers kayaking through. Some of these people were also cyclists who'd done big rides like the Great Divide or spent years mountain biking in Colorado. Others were white water rafters, kayakers, mountaineers,or all of the above. There were mental health workers, teachers, engineers, biologists, and politicians. The fact that they knew about the land around them was certainly part of their identity, but only a part of it.
I got my first full time bike shop job because I was a voracious reader of the internet. I knew all the current cycling events, and the owner of the shop was impressed. I dedicated years of mental power to figuring out chainring compatibilities, the intricacies of shift cable selection, and the like. I was curious, and wouldn't stop until I had an answer. I even have a favourite spoke nipple. Favourite is perhaps too light a word; there is only one spoke nipple I will build wheels with. Over the years I refocused that energy into other, career related, minutiae. If you're ever having trouble sleeping, ask me my opinions on global chemical registration legislation.
It was after more than 100 days and 1,000 miles of paddling, when we were in Glacier Bay National Park, that the first brick hit me. Even I, a self-declared lover of slow, people-powered travel, had been moving too fast. Sure, I could land on any beach, but what did that mean? I totally lack the knowledge to differentiate one beach from another other than "pretty" or, at best, "has good water source." Shortly after, the second brick hit me: I've spent the past 20 years moving through my backyard forests and really did not know anything about them. I can't tell you how much I loved riding through the Lavaux vineyards in Switzerland, and yet I don't know the names of any of the wines or the faces of any of the people. At this point, I was beginning to be appalled at myself. Shortly after, the whole wall collapsed. I'd stopped applying that curiosity to cycling -and to my personal endeavors- entirely. And that's what I've enjoyed most about this kayak trip: the two years of self-driven learning before the first paddle stroke. Learning about meteorology, kayak safety, and, unsurprisingly, gear.
Curiosity and freedom are what got me into bikes in the first place. Wondering where the road would take you. Those same things got me in to this boondoggle of a summer in a kayak. But over the years I've found myself so fixated on distances and speeds as performance metrics- despite not caring if I improve them- that I've neglected to nurture the parts of cycling that inspire me to get out there. Being in nature, connecting with people, and a sense of play. You have a lot of time to think in a kayak, 8 hours a day for 140 days for me. And other than bad jokes, I've been dreaming up my next adventures. I'm really excited to strengthen my connections with food and family. This means my next bike adventures are likely going to involve some fishing and foraging, and hopefully some hunting. I'm also excited to use a bike to learn more about my roots- my family in Europe & South Africa, and my distant relatives in India. Perhaps most importantly, I've got some playful objectives brewing that add a layer of novelty to the terrain in my back yard.
All that to say,. If you're anything like me, whose fire isn’t lit by distance, speed, and difficulty. If you only kind of care how you pump your tires, or oil your chain. If performance is not the name of your game, and you find yourself in a rut, you don't need to quit your job, end your lease, and run away in a kayak for 5 months. Try curiosity as a motivator. There are a lot of ways to experience new things while building off of your love for bikes. A bike lets you travel to the end of any road, but it also lets you stop and learn about all points in between. I'll be doing a lot more of that in the future, but it took a summer of not mountain biking to get here.
Learn more about Sanesh and Nathan's adventures at https://www.alittlepaddle.ca.