99 Bottles of Beer on a Wall and Mary Had a Little Lamb were just some of the songs that Bill Brooks, a 72-year-old Sidney resident, whistled or sang to himself as he cycled the Dempster Highway as part of his six-week-long cycling journey that started in Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories and finished in Victoria.
Brooks used them to break the silence and sense of isolation that accompanied him on the Dempster Highway.
“I had no idea how quiet the north was,” he said. “It is unlike anything around here. There was absolutely no noise. It was almost to the point of being eerie. You’d hear something, and right away your ears would prick up, and you’d wonder if it was some kind of an animal or something like that.”
Brooks, who blogged extensively about his experiences , did not have to worry about animals. Despite warnings about grizzlies, he only encountered a handful of bunnies and squirrels among other rodents. But they were almost as rare as other human travellers.
Brooks said dealing with the isolation was a lot more difficult than he had anticipated. “I wasn’t prepared to go two days, two-and-a-half days, basically without seeing anybody,” he said. “There would be the odd car that would come by. There was one time where I was may be seeing two or three cars a day.”
Brooks said dealing with the isolation was a lot more difficult than he had anticipated, even as he describes himself as a quiet, reserved person, who likes being by himself in public. So you can only imagine his appreciation when other travellers or locals reached out to him with offerings of food and water after he had set up camp near the side of the road.
“Boy, I tell you, the food and water was appreciated, but it was just their company for five or 10 minutes that really made a difference,” he said.
One couple stood especially out — Annie and Johnnie Kaye, a First Nations couple from Fort McPherson. After a difficult day of riding in the rain less than a week into the journey, Brooks found himself in their company, when he pulled into Midway Lake, a collection of several hundred abandoned cabins.
“They invited me in,” he said. “They fed me for a couple of days. When they went into town, they basically threw me the key to their house out there, and said ‘lock it up when you are going.’ The trust and the sharing of that couple, I will never forget that for sure.”
It is encounter like those that made the trip along the Dempster Highway memorable. Equally memorable, but for different, more painful reason, was the highway itself. Canada’s first all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle opened in April 1979 at Flat Creek, Yukon and now connects to Canada’s Arctic Coast by way of an extension from its original terminus at Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.
Brooks said the first 100 kilometres out of Tuktoyaktukmade made him re-think his decision. “The gravel was probably four to six inches thick right across the whole road,” he said. So cycling, despite 45 millimetre-wide Schwalbe marathon tires, soon turned into an occasionally torturous experience.
Depending on the stretch of the road, his arms and back would feel every stone, and some sections consisted just of stone. Ignoring traffic rules in exchange for relative comfort, Brooks chose the smoothest possible section of the highway whenever he could, weaving across the road in search of relief from the gravel, which often led him spinning his wheels.
“I was just like a drunken sailor,” he said.
On some days, he would complete 80 kilometres a day, but on other days, he would complete half of that.
“After four hours in the morning, I’d maybe gone 15 kilometres, the roads were just that bad,” he said.
But with the help of self-made music and strangers who soon became friends, Brooks persevered. So what motivated Brooks?
“Firstly, I have done Canada sea-to-sea twice, and when they opened up the Dempster [Highway], I really wanted to say, that I have dipped my wheel in all three oceans, and had ridden sea-to-sea-to-see,” he said. “That was my first motivation. But secondly, I had two very good friends pass within the last year, and you just can’t put things off. You got to do it now because you might not have another chance.”
Brooks will be sharing that message with Sidney audience Thursday, Sept. 26 at Sidney All Care Residence 7 to 9 p.m.
Cycling Without Age Society is staging the event. Advance tickets are $10 per person. Admission at the door is $15.
All of the money from the evening goes towards the society, which helps older people experience the joys of cycling again. Brooks knows it well and often expresses it even when he is riding in Sidney. “You just start singing and away you go,” he said. “Riding a bicycle is my happy place, there is no doubt about it.”