Issue Thirty

FOLLOWING MY FATHER

Canada. From South to North.

WORDS & PHOTOS x Reuben Krabbe

10 January 2018
Part One

Chaperone

An inch of ash hangs off his cigarette and the man lets it drop to the ground, landing close to the gas pump. His faded red plaid shirt strains to hold his belly above the belt line. He looks at me passively in a way that seems to say: “Yeah, I know where I’m smoking, and what are ya gonna do about it, city boy?

It’s 7am; too early for the second near-death experience of the morning. The first was a stare down between a porcupine and my overburdened jalopy of a motorcycle – lucky the porcupine blinked first. It seems funny that I find danger around every corner on the longest motorbike ride of my life, especially when the ride is in the name of safety.

My father passed this gas station roughly 15 days ago, halfway through his quest to ride the length of Canada from south to north. My mother would only let him tackle the second longest cycle tour of his life if someone agreed to ride with him along the Dempster Highway, the most remote dirt road he would travel on between Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory, and the town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

Riding a bike is as natural to my father as breathing or wearing a beard. Cycling is in his blood. At age 12, my grandfather, Kees, rode from his family home in Culemborg, Holland, to Paris on a single speed bike – a distance more than 1,000 kilometers. My father followed this example at age 18 and rode 1,800 miles from his home in Calgary to the Pacific Ocean and back. In 2006, he cycled 7,125 kilometers across Canada from west to east and he thought it might be fun to try turning 90 degrees and going south to north. And that’s why I’m here. For better or worse, I’m playing chaperone on a portion of my father’s trip.

I step past the man in the red plaid shirt and enter the gas station. I order coffee from the owner who also wears plaid, a similar pattern but this one with vertical blue stripes. Naturally we exchange pleasantries about the morning’s rain and he hands me coffee with tired, steely eyes. The conversation turns to my journey through the far north reaches of the Rockies. He questions the motivation for my solo 3,000-kilometer south to north motorbike ride. I mention that my father may have passed by earlier. His eyes transform, and a broad smile awakens his tired expression. Up here on the Alaska highway, I’m starting to learn that my Dad Gerald, is making a bit of a name for himself. His ravenous cinnamon bun appetite, unabashed introductions to strangers and a genuine optimism towards the people he meets mid road trip means that I’m simply a second-rate shadow behind the man I aim to catch.

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Part Two

Catching up with Gerald

Two days later, I stand with Gerald on a wooden boardwalk in Dawson, Canada’s quintessential gold rush town, complete with can-can dancers, gambling halls, and locals complaining about the busy summer season. He’s talking with a group of younger people who are on a road trip of their own. They too are wearing plaid, but none of their shirts appear to have been worn more than 10 days. They gave Gerald a ride through a construction zone four days ago. He reanimates an encounter with a roadside grizzly that happened minutes after they had parted ways. Gerald, with creases at the corner of his eyes and his characteristically deep voice, wishes them luck on their journey. “And good luck to you too!” They say. “Who knows what will happen on our bike trip!?”

He takes his seat, happy but embarrassed for all the attention he’s drawn. He picks up from where we had been interrupted by the young travelers: “The lady at the highways office said there’s no way to continue on the Dempster. There’re 15 washouts, the ferry is out, the first 80 kilometers are in the worst condition she’s ever seen. It could be two weeks before the road is open.”

“That’s not all the same as what I’ve heard, but I think we still could make it,” I reply. I can’t help but challenge the official report from the highway’s information office, saying: “The people up here don’t simply let weather dictate their lives, they make it work and keep moving.” I was looking forward to joining my father on part of his long ride, and didn’t want anything to stand in our way.

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Part Three

Starting the ride

Thirty-six hours later, we felt strong after a day of activities: a whiskey shot garnished with an amputated, frost bitten toe, a mud truck rally in the afternoon, and another round of suds in an anything-but-right-angle bar named The Pit. This first morning’s sky is an unapologetic gunmetal grey, we pedal off the pavement and onto the first kilometer of muddy gravel. Sixty kilometers of potholes, grinding mud, and constant drizzle lay ahead of us. But so did the mountains that I had visited in the winter, four years ago.

In a quest to define and differentiate myself as an action sports photographer, I once convinced three skiers to join me in a weeklong sufferfest winter camping trip in the Tombstone Mountains (that my dad and I passed on the first afternoon together). Since that first trip, I’ve been fortunate enough to continue to work as a mountain bike and ski photographer in remote and arctic locations. It has harmonized the math teacher’s son’s nerdy attributes with an engrained love for the outdoors instilled in me by my family since cross-country skiing into huts as a young child. Eight hours of cold toes, cold hands, and cold knees on the bike remind me of the constant discomfort of the skiing trip’s -25C conditions, and it was weirdly comforting. We made camp within a stone’s throw of a familiar trailhead where my photography journey blossomed.

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Part Four

Second day challenges

The next morning was grey yet again as the Tombstone Pass loomed at our doorstep. It’s the highest point on the Dempster, at 1,320 meters. By the time my tires reach the base of the incline, Gerald is already a hundred meters ahead and, more surprisingly, I’m out of gears. I blame my lack of training and speed due to business, but the single guy with no kids and no mortgage really has no excuses. I didn’t ride full-weighted tests with a bob trailer on dirt, so all I can do is a drunken postman zigzag across the road as I try to lessen the grade.

In reckless youthful style, I bomb the hill at top speed. Gerald, on the other hand, methodically descends out of the dreary clouds and out into brilliant sunshine. His extended left arm points out both magnificence and oddities on the either side of the road. I see everything that he points to; an old dirt landing strip, the rainclouds we left behind, a mundane flock of birds. In my teenage years, when hormones force a young man to arbitrarily revolt against his parents, this eye-spy game infuriated me. I would fold my arms and turn in the opposite direction. “I saw what you saw. Yeah, mountains are nice. Of course I saw that bird, it’s just a bird.” But a decade later at the age of 26, I’m leading this search for pleasurable and obscure things. I’m enthusiastically pointing, just like my dad. We’re a duo rejoicing in the platitudes of the constantly changing visual bouquet.

His arm then points forward at two yellow machines and strobing lights. We pass a crew of eight bearded men, rebuilding the road in places where last week’s flooding carved gaps twenty feet deep and thirty feet wide.

Six-Mile Hill gets its name from some witty fellow with an absurdly long measuring tape and a lack of creativity. It leaves the river we’ve followed for nearly two days, and reaches a high plateau from which it steadily descends towards the next mountain range. “The thing is, once I start a hill, I don’t stop. I’ll see you at the top,” my dad reminds me. I start Six-Mile Hill first but a moment later Gerald passes me. He concentrates hard enough that his smile fades. Miles later, his face is briefly lit when I crest the hill, until he reads my expression. I thought I could hold a poker face a bit longer, but a father knows. “Knees?” he enquires.

I nod, and he puts on a jacket knowing we’ll be at the viewpoint for a while. Throughout the day, my historically fickle knees have become more and more aggravated from overuse, under preparedness, poor gearing and a rushed bike fit. Three days earlier in Dawson, we spoke about the possible barriers to our success, which included mud, weather and food delivery – even a bear encounter seemed more likely than knee pain!.

I walk up the remaining hills and coast down until we reach a grassy camp spot on the high plateau. Gerald says: “You’re not riding tomorrow.”

“I’ll determine if I can ride,” I reply, matching his inelegance and ending the conversation.

My bike won’t see another pedal stoke on this trip.

At sunset, we sat shoulder to shoulder. We were the only two souls to see this sunset painted across the sky. In any direction, we’re the only people for miles. Gerald shows me his pictures of the sky’s brilliant colors and asks for photo tips. He wonders how I would shoot it on his camera. It’s a role reversal from when I picked up his dusty film camera a decade earlier.

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Part Five

Gerald rides alone

In the morning, he waits until I get picked up. I hope to pedal tomorrow, but I’ll travel by thumb from here on. I’m picked up by a chain smoking Albertan drug dealer who is drifting along the dirt road at 130 kilometers per hour. My father is once again on his solitary pedaling journey, though my satellite beacon and company each night will fulfill my chaperone obligations. However, it’s become abundantly clear that my attendance would never have been effective assistance. Instead, it was something more valuable to him; company for the experience and shared time with his son.

On the second last day, I’m picked up by a truck that has had five flat tires in the past ten hours. The driver and his wife nurse the greasy remnants of a family bucket of KFC even though the nearest establishment is 1,050 kilometers away. I hear all about their journey back to Inuvik to visit family. We also chat about the way a large journey reveals a person’s values; flat tires are simply an inconvenience when traded for shared time with their family.

 

When we pass my father, he’s on top of the Continental Divide between the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, North of the Arctic Circle. He bares his teeth like a gold mining caricature that just struck rich. He rolls up to the window and says: “For the first time on this trip I’m jealous of you guys in cars. The wind gusts are so strong up here, that I got blown off my bike twice!”

As we roll away I watch my Gerald brace and wobble against the wind. The driver grins at me and I can see the chicken flesh between his teeth. He says: “All of your crazy mountain biking, and those big ski adventures, they make sense now. I see where you get it from.”

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The End
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