Chris embarked on his cycling journey 11 years ago, in May 2010. For the majority of the last decade, he travelled the world by bicycle and boat – traversing the world not once but twice. On his adventure, Chris visited about 90 countries, finally settling in Denmark. If you would like to read more about Chris’ world travels the first book in his trilogy is ‘No Wrong Turns: Cycling the World, Part One: Paris to Sydney. His next adventures and explorations are documented on his website https://chrispountneyadventures.com/.
I woke up and remembered where I was: in the forests of Canada, far from anyone, living out my dream and cycling across Canada. I climbed out of my tent and looked around at the evergreen trees that surrounded me in this vast wilderness and smiled, before wandering twenty metres down a track to retrieve my food pannier. Of course in bear country, it would be extremely foolhardy to sleep with food inside the tent, lest it tempt in unwanted visitors. When I’d first arrived in Canada I had been advised that the best thing to do would be to hang my food in a tree, and on my first night of wild camping in the country, I’d made a farcical attempt at doing so. I’d found some rope at the side of the road that looked like it might do, which I tried to fling over a branch with no idea of the correct technique. After repeated attempts that I could only honestly describe as pathetic, I eventually resigned myself to just leaving my food bag outside on the ground, a safe distance from my tent. I’d been doing that ever since, and in more than a hundred nights of wild camping in Canada, my food had never been touched.
You can imagine my dismay, then, to reach the location where I had left this pannier of food the previous evening to discover that it was no longer there.
I looked around, confused, thinking at first that perhaps I was in the wrong place. It was then that I noticed my yellow jacket, which I’d wrapped over the top of the pannier as a hopeless extra layer of protection, now hanging from a low branch in the forest beside the trail. As it dawned on me what had happened here I studied the ground again and saw that, in close proximity to where my food pannier once stood, there now resided a steaming great pile of bear poop.
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Now, I’m not a detective. Never have been, probably never will be. But I was nevertheless fairly confident who the chief suspect was in this mystery. And now that I had no food, stranded in the middle of nowhere, eighty kilometres from the next town, I thought it worth my while to try and solve the crime. The jacket was my only clue as to the route by which my food had disappeared, and so I boldly decided to enter the forest in that direction. Perhaps, however, ‘boldly’ is too strong a word, considering I was grasping a frying pan in one hand and my heavy chain lock in the other, clanging them together to make a tremendous din as I stepped tentatively over fallen logs. The undergrowth was thick, and I could hardly believe that a bear could have made its way through. I was certainly struggling, and it wasn’t long before I decided to concede defeat and turn back. There was no sign of the bag, and I didn’t really know what I was hoping to find anyway. It was not as if the bear was going to be sitting there fiddling with the buckles. My pannier was surely in tatters by now, wherever it was. And if I did find the bear, looking up at me with a guilty expression and peanut butter and jam smeared around its chops, was I really going to have the tenacity to bop it over the head with my frying pan for half a bag of cookies? No, no, better to let nature run its course on this one, I decided, and I beat a hasty retreat.
I cycled onwards on the quiet road, still a little in shock about what had happened, thinking excitedly about how I’d had a bear within twenty metres of my sleeping head last night, and wondering, more practically, what I was going to do about getting just one replacement pannier. The lost item was an Ortlieb pannier and so came with a five-year warranty, but no doubt there was some cheeky little thing in the small print about theft by a bear not being covered if the pannier was filled with food and then left unattended in the middle of bear country. But I was also secretly delighted, because Canada had not always been the most exciting of countries, and now at last I had a good story to tell. I had no one to tell it to, of course, being out in the forest on an empty road. But just as I was thinking this another cyclist appeared in my mirror and cycled up beside me.
I was alone in the woods in the presence of a clinically insane lunatic.
The cyclist was a middle-aged French Canadian from Quebec named Jean. I resisted my hungry stomach’s demands to immediately request he give me food, my brain correctly deciding that I should make a little small talk first. In any case, he was on a road bike with almost nothing in the way of bags, so he very likely had no food with him. Jean seemed a little eccentric, and his English was not very good, but I managed to establish that he was on a tour across Canada and that he was on his way from Quebec to Vancouver, the city I had left behind on the west coast some months before.
“You’re going the wrong way,” I told him.
“No, I go zis way.”
“But you are cycling to Vancouver?”
“Yes. I go Vancouver.”
“You’re going the wrong way then.”
“Well, one of us is.”
This was getting us nowhere. I changed the topic and asked how it was that he had no stuff on his bike. Surely he could not really be cycling to Vancouver with so few possessions.
“I ‘ave a support car.”
Ah, that explained it.
“And where is your support car?” I asked, hoping to soon have myself some breakfast.
“Just up ‘ere. In ze trees.”
“Great. And who is driving your support car?”
Now the jaw-dropping explanation as to why Jean was going the wrong way was revealed. He was crossing Canada, with a support car, alone. He would park the car somewhere, cycle thirty kilometres west, then turn around and cycle the same thirty kilometres back east, fetch the car, then drive himself thirty kilometres west, covering the same ground for a third time. I could not believe what I was hearing. I was alone in the woods in the presence of a clinically insane lunatic.
“So you are cycling everything twice?”
“Yes. I would like to cycle ‘ome again.”
“You’re going to cycle back from Vancouver as well?”
“With the car?”
“So really you are going to cycle everything four times?”
“But you are doing it four times because you are doing it twice in each direction.”
“No. I am doing it twice. I would not do it four times! Are you crazy!? It iz too much!”
Thankfully bringing an end to this bizarre conversation, we reached a trail leading into the trees where Jean told me that his car was parked. Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to follow such a madman into the woods, but my stomach was pressing an increasingly convincing case for trying to gain some of the man’s food.
We soon came to an orange car parked in a little clearing. On the roof was a luggage container, the back rack held a spare bicycle, and a third bike was wedged in the back seats amongst a cluster of boxes and cycling paraphernalia. “I don’t know about mechanics,” Jean explained. “So when one bike breaks, I just take another.”
I was naturally pretty stunned by all this, but I was also terribly hungry, so I asked Jean if he could spare me some food. I’d already told him my bear story a couple of times, but he hadn’t seemed to grasp what I was saying, so now I skipped the niceties and just asked straight out for some food. He gave me a couple of peanut butter sandwiches, the cycle tourist staple, which I devoured with something like grateful impoliteness.
As my stomach settled towards contentment and I stood there batting away the flies, Jean revealed more of his story to me. There were originally five of them that were planning to cycle across the country together, with one of them acting as the support driver. Over time each of these other fellows had made their excuses and dropped out until finally there was only Jean left. To his credit, Jean had not been deterred, and he’d decided to continue with the ride anyway. And not wanting to lose out on the support driver, with all the luxury and convenience that would bring, he’d simply adapted to take on the role himself. It certainly gave a new meaning to the term ‘self-supported.
It was almost beginning to make sense, but I did have to wonder if he was really going to keep this routine up all of the way across the mundane prairies, which had been bad enough to do once. But Jean next revealed that the prairies and Vancouver had never even been part of the original plan. He was only supposed to cycle across Quebec, but after successfully doing that, he’d liked the lifestyle so much that he thought he’d carry on all the way across the country. The only slight issue with this, so far as I could tell, was that he hadn’t informed his wife. “She doesn’t know about Vancouver,” Jean confirmed. “She keeps calling and asking where I am.”