Four riders with a range of abilities rode along the coast of James Bay in winter. They learned about the land, the people and just what they were capable of.
by: Buck Miller
In early February 2019, Ted King, Eric Batty, Ryan Atkins and I – all former road and mountain bike racers – took on the James Bay Descent (JBD): an unsupported, 640-km, nine-day winter fat bike expedition from Attawapiskat First Nation to Moosonee along the bay’s coast, and then south to Smooth Rock Falls, Ont.
One goal was to pedal to Akimiski Island, which lies 20 km from the mainland and is part of Nunavut. We’d make the first ride from Ontario to the Nunavut Territory on fat bikes. The overall goal was to raise $5,000 for the Moosonee office of the Timmins Native Friendship Centre.
Within the team, we had a long list of accomplishments in sport and adventure, including mountaineering, world championships, ultrarunning and even the Tour de France. This expedition, however, taught each of us something new.
In hindsight, we should have seen some of these lessons coming, but others were much less obvious. If you are planning an expedition as tough at the James Bay Descent or even something a little less arduous, and I hope you are, take a look at the following bits of wisdom from the trail.
We purposely chose to take on the JBD in the coldest part of winter. The timing came with wild challenges that you encounter in the real north. We’re not talking about cottage country. So many things hinge on weather. It affects every aspect of living for the entire time out. I know this area very well, yet I still managed to miss one key component: I didn’t consult local knowledge deeply enough before pushing off the Ontario coast for Akimiski Island. There was a long sliver of open water close to the shore of the island. Getting to that island was the nucleus of the trip and what I had centred all of my planning on. The open water blocking our way left me crushed. That feeling might seem a bit ridiculous as the whole ride was bloody hard enough. Just to finish it would be remarkable, even without the crossing. For me, Akimiski was the biggest goal of the route. When we made the call to turn around, it was after a brief discussion, partly because of the -35 C degree “conference room” we were chatting in. But the lads were fine with it. Pushing on would have been too dangerous. Ryan’s mantra is “let it go.” There comes a point in races, as well as expeditions, when you can’t really force things.
“We then had to take a day off when a snowstorm rolled in,” Ryan said. “We were way below our mileage goal for the first two days, but we just had to remain positive. We had to do our best and keep doing all the little things right. Control what you can control. Put a smile on and keep moving.”
Strength in numbers
Ted, the retired WorldTour domestique, has wise words for the beginner considering a solo expedition. “Before the trip, to call my experience in either bikepacking or deep-north Canadian winter anything beyond ‘novice’ would be giving me far too much credit,” he said. “I would have likely shivered to death on the first night if I didn’t have a good, cheery team around me during the James Bay Descent. I soon learned the ropes, found my tasks throughout the day – block wind during the ride, collect sticks on arrival to camp, try not to burn the tent down at night – and we each divided and conquered together. If I wanted a horribly boring and dangerous trip, I would have gone solo. If you want a fun time, ride with friends.”
Define your comfort level
We called our expedition “unsupported.” This word in the adventure sports world can lead people to fist fights. The traditionalists say that means no resupply and absolutely no outside help. On this trip, I bought a pair of pants. Well, Ted bought me a pair of super bulky hunting pants for $275 in Attawapiskat’s only store. (No, they weren’t designer threads. They should have run me $75, and we cleared up the price mixup later.)
I hadn’t brought my best camp pants, the ones I’d put on as soon as I got off the bike to set up for the night. We hit the start of the trip in the last few days of a deep freeze, when the region had daytime highs in the -30 C and -40 C range for a few weeks. I knew we would be riding into warmer weather and packed light, but what I had wasn’t enough. When we came to the only store we’d see for another four days, I took advantage of that luxury to keep the risk of hypothermia down. Sir Ernest Shackleton might think I’m soft, but my wife and kids were happy I returned home without having lost anything to frostbite. Use your judgement. Never pack ultralight if it means sacrificing too much comfort, if you have the choice.
Reconsider the North
For Eric, the JBD was more than just an adventure with friends in remote northern Ontario. Like most Canadians, his ideas of culture in the North came second-hand. “The trip was about immersing ourselves in an environment where people have lived for thousands of years and imagining what it was like living and surviving in the harsh northern winters,” Eric said. “The local culture was truly amazing: warm and welcoming. Their living conditions can be poor and tough. Yet, they don’t show that in their smiles and conversations. Their access to what the majority of North Americans take for granted everyday is dismal at best. The winter road is the only connection for the remote communities up north to the rest of the world and supplies that help them get through the winter. While riding the entire road, with hours upon hours to think and chat with friends, this is what I thought about the most.”
Eric’s outlook is refreshing. If more people took the time to go north and experience the Cree and Oji-Cree culture, the word reconciliation would come with much more value. Do it on a bike, do it in a canoe or drive a winter road. What you’ll experience, you will never forget.
Remember your weakness
You know the old saying from your Grade 9 gym class: “Your team is only as strong as your weakest member?” I don’t either, but it’s true. We forgot about that a time or two on this trip. Ryan, Eric and I have each spent thousands of hours in the bitter cold of winter doing ridiculous things. Ted has not. Before relocating to Vermont in his retirement, he was living in Girona, Spain and California for a good 10 years. On Day 2, we were somewhere on the border of Ontario and Nunavut. Sunny, blue sky, -35 C at 10:30 a.m. We looked at Ted and his nose was white, like, fishbelly white. His beak was exposed for no more than 15 minutes and took a serious lick of frostbite. You can’t feel the bite coming on, so really, it was our fault, not Ted’s. We all knew his lack of deep-cold exposure. His nose turned a tad brown in the following days, but he was lucky.
From this point on, we checked in on each other often in light of the temperature. Then, on Day 3, we divided into two teams based on fitness for our riding formation: Eric and I chillin’ at the back, Ted and Ryan in the wind. Their speed as they pulled at the front was still a bit too fast for Eric and I. We decided to let Ted and Ryan go up the road so we wouldn’t get soaked in sweat. There’s only one intersection where the road goes straight south, or you can turn toward the towns of Kashechewan and Fort Albany. The lads thought they could roll into the towns to experience some local culture and be back out before we came through the intersection. Eric and I got to the turn and had no idea if Ted and Ryan were ahead of us or in the towns. They had the tent and stove. We had our sleeping gear and riding food. We kept going very slowly as it was the end of the day. We needed to set up camp. We decided to stop. Twenty minutes later, Ted and Ryan rolled in. The team was back together just in time for nightfall. We all realized the potential risks of a night spent apart. After that, we always kept each other in sight. So, put your fitness differences aside in the name of safety. Also, when you’re cold and your buddy is sweating, yo-yo off the front for a while, using interval-like efforts to keep warm.
Find out if tubeless works in -40 C
Before this trip, I had had many rides in the deep cold, but they were on a mid-’90s rigid Kona. For the JBD, we weren’t sure what setup to run – tubes or tubeless? A quick search online of “does tubeless sealant work at -40 C?” was no help. There’s lots out there about sealant in cyclocross season where the temperatures are rarely as low as a balmy -5 C and where wheels are exposed for an hour or two at most. We were riding the newest 26″ x 85-mm Woven Precision Handbuilts carbon wheels with 45Nrth Dillinger 5 studded tires. We tested our gear in the -15 C range a few weeks prior to the trek and all agreed to stick with it. The idea of having to change a flat in 30 below is enough to make one ill. We brought a few ultralight tubes for backup, but we had zero issues. No burps or flats. The rims and tires were a tight match. We took air out as the days passed and the sealant stayed fluid. Every one of us started with too much pressure and the crash counter went up and up. Ted had the fewest, but one real beauty.
Each day of this expedition really was a lesson in its own way. There were so many factors at play, so many things to consider and weigh that, in the end, we just had to have trust that we could address the unknowns. With experience, those unknowns become less and less, but we’d always be at nature’s mercy. On our next expedition, we’ll forgo the four-person tipi tent and stove for two ultralight winter tents. We’ll use down overalls and jackets to keep warm around camp and cook entirely on multi-fuel stoves instead of a wood-burning stove. We’re planning another trip in late winter on the coast of Hudson Bay. The James Bay Descent left us wanting more and to travel farther.
Winter bikepacking trips are tough. In the midst of them, you ask, “Why am I doing this?” Ted, Ryan, Eric and I are so fortunate to have the time and resources to attempt such a trip. While we weren’t able to make our goal of pedalling to Akimiski Island, we did achieve more important aims. Giving back, even in a tiny way, to help reconcile the burden our society has placed on our Indigenous Canadian friends while still doing something we love was worth every minute of the trek. The generosity of folks who followed our trip and donated to our cause helped us to raise nearly $8,000 for the Moosonee office of the Timmins Native Friendship Centre. That figure was almost $3,000 beyond our target. The unexpected lesson from our trip is that we realized there are so many amazing people out there that just want to help.
In March 2020, Ryan Atkins, Buck Miller and Eric Batty are headed on another northern adventure. They plan to leave from Peawanuck Ont., just inland from Husdon Bay, and follow the Wapusk Trail. They’ll ride through Polar Bear Provincial Park and continue through Fort Severn and Shamattawa First Nations. It’s a 752-km journey that ends in Gillam, Man. Help the team with its fundraising efforts for True North Aid by donating. Also, follow the Expeditions Ontario Instagram and Facebook accounts.