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Brek Boughton vs. The Arctic Circle: Pedaling Across One Of Earth’s Coldest Climates

This is the man attempting to ride a bicycle to the Arctic. This is the man attempting to ride a bicycle to the Arctic.

To be a grower, you have to have a sense of adventure and an appetite for taking risks. But how would you like to ride your bicycle to the Arctic, in the dead of winter, alone? There are reasons nobody has ever done that before – the subzero temperatures, the constant darkness, the unpopulated expanses of tundra, the hungry polar bears – but none seems like a good enough excuse for BrekBoughton.

In the winter of 2011, Boughton set out from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, and headed for Tuktoyaktuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories, about 2,730 miles (4,400 km) north, in the Arctic Circle. Go ahead and try to map that. Google will tell you it can’t calculate directions or distance for the trip. That’s because, for most of the year, the only way to travel to Tuktoyaktuk is by air. Only in the depths of winter is the Mackenzie River, the largest river system in Canada, frozen enough to allow land vehicles to travel to Tuktoyaktuk.

Riding eight hours a day, sleeping on couches or camping in the snow, and usually eating only what he could carry, Boughton rode more than 1,860 miles (3,000 km) before frostbite threatened to leave him without feet. He cut the trip short, vowing to return the next year. This winter, the 42-year-old picks up where he left off, aiming to ride his bike from just outside Whitehorse in the Yukon all the way to his final destination of Tuktoyaktuk. That’s 870 miles (1,400 km) covering an even harsher expanse of a hostile planet than he’s already faced. And in greater cold, longer darkness and deeper solitude.

Day after day in the cold weather, you can’t stop for more than five minutes unless you’re getting into your sleeping bag or getting bundled up.

Boughton stands well over six feet tall, Bic bald, with a thick build that renders him reminiscent of a circus strong man. When asked why he would undertake such a grueling excursion, his soft-spoken humility contrasts his intimidating stature and taste for the extreme.

“The sense of adventure, doing something that nobody has done before,” answers Boughton. “Riding alone to Tuktoyaktuk in the winter, unsupported. Trying to do something different.”

The most challenging aspect of the trip, Boughton says, is motivating himself to contend with the extreme climate.

“Day after day in the cold weather, you can’t stop for more than five minutes unless you’re getting into your sleeping bag or getting bundled up,” he says. “When you’re in a warm sleeping bag and it’s -30°F out, it’s hard to get up in the morning, especially when it’s every day for months on end.”

His mild complaint is quickly mitigated by his stoicism.

“It never got as cold as it could get, which is -40°F,” he says. “It only got to -30°F.”

He says “only” nonchalantly, even though he’s describing conditions that most of us would find utterly miserable, not to mention extremely dangerous. But that’s Boughton’s humble disposition. He consistently downplays the danger and uniqueness of his trip.

For the aforementioned sleeping, Boughton managed to find some hospitable conditions for catching some shut-eye. Thanks to the websites CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.org) and Warm Showers (www.warmshowers.org), the solo traveler was able to crash with strangers through most of the trip, while pitching a tent outdoors roughly a third of the time. However, that will change on the next leg of his journey.

There’s a stretch between Dawson City in the central Yukon and Eagle Plains in the northern Yukon of about 270 miles (440 km) that is completely unpopulated. Normally, Boughton carries around seven days’ worth of food, but he needs to consider all the possibilities as he heads further into the Arctic.

“Between Dawson City and Eagle Plains, I plan to have 11 days of food,” he explains. “I could probably do that distance in five or six days, but if I get snowed in I want to make sure I have enough extra food. I need about 6,000 calories a day, so that’s 66,000 calories I’ll have to find.”

The bike and the gear with about seven days of food is around 250 pounds.

As for exactly what Boughton eats, “a typical meal is, in the morning, oatmeal porridge with jam and peanut butter,” he says. “And then in the evening, pasta [cooked on a portable stove] with a little package of flavoring and lots of extra pasta. During the day, I’ll have [energy] bars and chocolate.”

For the foodies among us, that sounds like a pretty limited daily menu for several consecutive weeks, but it’s not as bad as it could be.

“At one point on the previous trip, I ran out of snacks, so all I ate during the day was dry pasta,”Boughton recalls with a chuckle, acting as if subsisting on dry pasta while completing a marathon cycling trek in hostile terrain were a minor irritation. Remember, it’s not like Boughton can head to the pantry to grab what he needs. He’s got to ride around carrying everything required to survive in extreme subzero conditions. Moreover, he needs a bike that can handle that kind of load.

“I ride a cargo bike, which is extra long with a big rack on the back,”Boughton says. “The bike and the gear with about seven days of food is around 250 pounds.”

In other words, this is a far cry from some hipster pedaling around town on a fixed-gear bike.

But as important as food is on a trip like this, there’s something even more critical: water.

“The hardest, most time-consuming thing is preparing your water for the day because you’ve got to melt all your water,” Boughton says. “To get three or four liters, which is what I needed for the day, you have to melt a lot of snow. A lot of times when people in cars would pull over to ask me if I needed anything, I’d say water.”

Speaking of motorists, imagine the surprise of the few people driving this road in the Far North in the dead of winter when they suddenly spot some guy riding his bicycle. “A lot of people thought it was very strange,” Boughton says. “A lot of people thought it was dangerous. But I think it’s less dangerous than riding in the city.”

Granted, riding in the city has its hazards, but there was a stretch of Boughton’s 2011 journey where the road was covered with bison for about 125 miles (200 km). The territorial 2,200-pound beasts come to lick the salt on the side of the roads. They won’t move for cars or even semi trucks, but luckily for Broughton, they will move for a bicycle. Nevertheless, cycling amid giant animals that could crush you in an instant is unnerving, to say the least, especially when they take off running alongside your bike.

Once he’s north of Whitehorse, it’s going to be a different story. He expects that he may not see anyone for a week at a stretch.

Wildlife encounters are fairly rare. Most species of bears hibernate in the winter, but there is a possibility of encountering polar bears in the Arctic. However, at the time of Boughton’s ride, the world’s largest land predators are supposed to have moved out onto the ice sheets farther north. Boughton is keeping his fingers crossed that no polar bears will have decided to linger in the areas where he makes camp.

And then there’s the darkness. On his last trip, Boughton was still able to enjoy six hours of sunlight a day, and even then he struggled with the tedium of cycling for hours in the dark when the only thing he could see was the end of his headlight. The next leg of the trip is even more daunting.

“The sun isn’t going to rise,” he says of the final stretch. “There’ll be a little bit of twilight, but that’s it.”

With the darkness and desolation comes solitude. Boughton says he probably didn’t go a day without talking to someone on the 2011 trip. Either someone would pull over on the road, or he’d pass through a town. But this year, once he’s north of Whitehorse, it’s going to be a different story. He expects that he may not see anyone for a week at a stretch.

“It’ll be interesting to see how I react to that,” he muses.

However he reacts, it will be with fortitude. Five hundred miles (800 km) into his last trip, Boughton was waylaid in Jasper, Alberta, for eight days due to a knee injury. Following that period of rest, he carried on another 1,550 miles (2,500 km) before eventually succumbing to the threat of amputation posed by his frostbitten toes.

“I took off my boot and my toes were purple,” Boughton says. “My feet went numb and I didn’t notice. I had warmer boots, but I didn’t know there was a problem.”

Even frostbitten toes weren’t enough to stop Boughton at first. He carried on for several more days in his warmer boots. But as his toes started to turn black, he became concerned he might lose them. Finally, it was the combination of frostbite, the knee injury and the desire for a warmer sleeping bag that convinced him to conclude his trek at another time. That time is now.

Boughton’s trip will raise money to send bicycles to South Africa, where they will act as ambulances and help workers travel. For more information, you can follow Boughton at www.cyclingintothedark.com, or visit him in person (when he’s not in the Arctic) at Cap’s Bikes in New Westminster, British Columbia (www.capsbicycleshop.com).

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Last modified on Monday, 21 January 2013 17:56

Happy is a regular contributor to RosebudMag.com and has written for various other publications, including Black Belt, Inside Hockey, and FoxSports.com. He transitioned to life as a writer following a decade-long career as a touring musician. He lives with his son in Vancouver, British Columbia

Website: www.rosebudmag.com/hkreter

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