DirtColin Keaveney

Ice Road Riders: The James Bay Descent

DirtColin Keaveney
Ice Road Riders: The James Bay Descent

The James Bay Descent

Words by Ted King

Negative 40 degrees and riding in polar bear country, these two things keep me awake at night for weeks leading up to the James Bay Descent. A hot shower, a responsive thermostat, and  1,000 miles removed from polar bear territory, these are the creature comforts of home. I like to push my boundaries but, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m partial to the amenities of home.

JBDMap-1.png

I keep a log of things to do, things to pack, things I need to remember leading into the ride. With everything else crossed off the list, the final two items read “Loctite everything” and “Get warm mittens” underlining warm twice. I’m anxiously scrolling through this list as we’re wrapping up the final leg of journey to our drop off point in Attawapiskat, Ontario, 20 hours north of Toronto.

It’s no wonder the drive takes the better part of three days from home in Vermont. It’s virtually the same as driving half-way across the US.

For just six weeks of the year, after the ground freezes solid, road maintenance crews move in and create a pathway of snow and ice through the world’s third largest swamp, unlocking northern towns to vehicular traffic. Being rudimentary roads, this drive feels like  a trip on a jackhammer more than a plush ride in the car. At least the car’s heat works.

The end of the drive is in sight, at which point the real journey begins; we’re about to turn around and pedal this nearly 650km route back south.

DSC05111.jpg

It’s nearly impossible to map the route using conventional, modern  methods. Google Maps doesn’t recognize roads that exist only temporarily. Fitting, though, that our route that is eventually forecasted is ice cold blue.

Our chilly peloton consists of two Fat CAAD 1s and two Fat CAAD 2s, all decked out in panniers, bags of all types, pogies, further strapped down with tents, sleeping bags, and all the fuel sustenance we can carry for this undetermined amount of time. All said and done, the bikes each tip the scales around 100lbs.

The Team:

DSC05009.jpg

Buck Miller. Born in Smooth Rock Falls, already a lengthy drive north into Ontario, Buck is among the most Northern- born professional cyclists Canada has produced. He now claims to have a “dad bod” with two young kids at home, having traded his UCI license for a hammer as a carpenter a decade ago. Be warned, if he sniffs a town line, Buck is still lighting quick. As soon as he retired from cycling, he moved to Moosonee to take up his new trade. He lived there for five years, the halfway point of this journey, and he frequently was flown to jobs in Attawapiskat. Connecting each of these remote indigenous hamlets by bike has been an idea steeping in his mind for years. He is the elder of the James Bay Descent.

DSC05440.jpg

Ryan Atkins. It’s uncertain which of Ryan’s achievements is most interesting – that he was once the undisputed world champion of unicycle trials or, in his current profession, carries the title of six-time World’s Toughest Mudder. Growing up in Ottawa, Ryan traded one wheel for two, where he moved up the professional mountain bike ranks amid graduating with a degree in engineering. Stumbling into the sport of obstacle course racing at the whimsical suggestion of a friend to win an ATV, Ryan is also an ultrarunner, a beast of an athlete, and just an unequivocally nice guy. Brains, brawn, and deft unicycle dexterity, Ryan has it in spades.

DSC05381.jpg

Eric Batty. You guessed it, another Canadian. Eric raced the World Cup mountain bike circuit early on, although he was always lured to the even wilder outdoors that existed nearby to the race venues. He took to high alpine climbing and a general pursuit towards outdoor adventure which lead to his current profession as an arborist. If the name Batty and mountain bikers from Canada come to mind, yes, Eric’s sister is Emily Batty and he shares at least some of those world class genes. Eric is the photographer for the James Bay Descent.

DSC05018.jpg

Ted King. Your author for this adventure, Ted raced a bike professionally for ten years before retiring from traditional road racing in 2015. Now his daily grind involves gravel and the general promotion of all things two-wheeled and human powered. While he still maintains some semblance of fitness having won Dirty Kanza and Grinduro last year, a respectable VO2 and the ability  to pilot a bike across European cobbles won’t go terribly far in northern Canada. As Buck explained early on, “Riding is the easy part.” (And while you might think Ted is looking a little portly in that photo, batteries don’t fare well at these temperatures so Ted has his phone and a GoPro tucked next to his belly.)

Prologue, Day 1. 12km.

DSC07103.jpg

I live less than an hour from the Canadian border, so I’m impressed that it still takes the nearly three days for me to first drive from home in Vermont to where we’re dropped off in Attawapiskat. It’s already mid-afternoon. Stepping out of the car, the frigid air is so cold it’s impossible to take a deep breath. With blessings (and warnings) from the local first nation chief, we turn the pedals for the first time on the James Bay Descent. With nearly a year of planning behind us, the first 12km tick by with ease as we ride towards the coast.

Our evening campsite in rough draft form.

Our evening campsite in rough draft form.

Day 2, 50km:

Just like the heat from our evening fire, both the warmth and mental capacity to question what on earth I’m doing here have drained from the tent. It’s -40 degrees, it’s 2am – or at least I think it’s 2am, I don’t have it in me to pull my arm out of my sleeping bag to read my watch – and I’m shivering furiously. The terra firma on which we’re camping is where land meets the frozen James Bay, so this is where polar bears have recently made the pilgrimage, out onto the sea, to hunt seals. The two things that kept me up for months leading into the ride aren’t on my mind at this very moment, because I’m trying to convince myself that I don’t actually need to pee. With chainsaw-like snoring buzzing away on either side of me, I’m clearly doing something wrong.  

The convenient part of -40 is that’s where Celsius and Fahrenheit overlap. A convenience I’m choosing to overlook because my mind is elsewhere.

DSC06990.jpg

Three hours later and with a shoebox sized stove now belting out heat and boiling water for the coming day’s adventures, I sheepishly explain to the team that I think we should do something about the draft under the tent. Buck chimes in that he may have slept even less than I did. The captain agrees.

We pack up camp, load it all onto our bikes, and set off east onto the mighty James Bay. To call the landscape expansive is akin to describing water as “wet”. As far as the eye can see is rippling snow atop ice atop snow atop ice.

DSC05143.jpg

The sliver of darkness on the horizon is Akimiski Island. Akimiski is part of Nunavut Territory, the largest of Canada’s three territories composing most of the Arctic Archipelago.

This ride is a series of firsts. It’s the first self supported ride south from Attawapiskat, it’s the first to connect Attawapiskat to Smooth Rock Falls, as well as the first of significant length to connect the territory to the province, Nunavut to Ontario.

DSC05041.jpg

The conditions out on the ice continually ebb between solid ice, where we can link a few pedal strokes together, to deep powder, swallowing our front wheels and screeching us to an immediate stop. Our momentum is slow as we’re crawling east, our hopes of being the first to connect the Canadian mainland to Akimiski is dashed as the chief comes roaring out to meet us on the ice on his skidoo announcing, “There’s open water out there.” Hard to believe since it’s been a frigid winter already, with temperatures regularly below -50. We had done due diligence to learn the conditions surrounding the island and were lead to believe the route was passable. We are in the business of trusting locals so Akimiski will remain beyond our reach.

I keep my thoughts to myself and don’t remind the team that open water is where polar bears have lunch. I’m okay with this report from the chief.

Buck with some, umm, wildlife deterrent.

Buck with some, umm, wildlife deterrent.

Arcing a few arduous turns on the enormous bay, we return to the mainland and set a path south on the winter roads having clocked 50km total on the first full day of our expedition.

Day 3:

Dawn is as beautiful as was my previous night’s sleep. Tent drafts were mitigated so with some quick acclimatization, -35 feels downright comfortable.

DSC05217.jpg

Picking up speed, we naturally separate into two groups. Buck’s fitness plan is to pack all of the previous three month’s training into only the previous week. An interesting take, but I don’t question our Shackleton. He and Eric, who periodically stops to grab photos, ride together while Ryan and I set off up the road.

DSC05192.jpg

There are just three towns over the course of this 638km journey and Ryan and I decide to venture on a small detour inland to visit Fort Albany. The two of us may as well be Kim and Kanye leading a celebrity tour through Los Angeles as we’re overwhelmed with our reception. Sure, it’s a town of just 1500 or so people, but it seems that every single person drives up to us to say hello, grab a photo, asks to touch our bikes, and to wish us safe travels.

DSC05254.jpg

Our quartet reunites to set up camp just as the sun sets. Realizing that something small could have gone awry and quickly snowballed, and knowing the strength of a group is far stronger than splintered into ones and twos, we unanimously decide to stay together moving forward. We’ll make better headway this way plus the banter is that much better when you can crack a joke to three times the audience than riding just in pairs.

Days 4-5, 120k + 100km:

DSC05237.jpg

Each bike has a slightly different configuration of racks, clothes, food, and equipment. Eric is the only one to outfit double panniers, front and rear, as his bike is also the heaviest with loads of camera gear.

Divide and conquer is how we fit it all in. Ryan is carrying the stove atop his rear rack, Buck carries the 12-gauge, and I carry both the tent and poles. We each carry our own food, clothes, and small details like a toothbrush and “poop tickets”. If we operate on the assumption that every WorldTour rider’s bike weighs the UCI minimum 15lbs, then a team of eight collectively has 120lbs of carbon, rubber, and componentry. There’s a good chance that Eric’s bike alone is heavier than that total. Weight weenies, we are not.

A tailwind plus roads so slick they could literally be traversed on ice skates makes covering 220k over these two days not too difficult. Ticking off the K’s happens quickly.

DSC05364.jpg

That is, right up until we stop to refuel. We work ourselves in the routine of riding for between 30 and 45 minutes, then a mandatory rest to eat, drink, and take inventory to ensure no one has excruciating extremities - frostbite can happen quickly out here.

DSC05381 (1).jpg

Temperature and moisture regulation are constantly being monitored. The Antarctic warning, You sweat, you die isn’t plastered on our top tubes, but the rule is on our minds. Your body is a miraculous furnace; start pedaling and it’s surprising how quickly you’re warm. Get too warm and you sweat, get too sweaty and as soon as you stop your jacket and face become plastered in ice.

So it’s a constant balance of riding hard enough to stay warm and easy enough to not sweat. Your down jacket lives at the top of your bag, within arm’s reach all the time. You stop, you put on your down, it’s that simple.

DSC05096.jpg

These northern towns are effectively islands 46 weeks of the year. Surrounded by an impossibly thick bog, a slow moving train or small airplane are typically the only ways in and out. So when the winter road finally does open, it results in a steady… trickle of traffic. A pickup truck is the unofficial vehicle of the Attawapiskat-Smooth Rock Falls corridor, and they pass us at a rate of perhaps once per hour or two. Rather, they “slow to a stop and talk to us once per hour”. The occupants of the first trucks on day five warn us of 10cm of snow in the forecast. Over the course of the day the amount ticks up to 20, then 30, and by the evening with the snow flurries beginning to fall as we make camp and the final truck of the day drives by, we’re warned of 50cm/20 inches of snow accumulation.

DSC05455.jpg

Day 6:

“Guys. Wake up. The tent is about to collapse.” Despite the darkness, Eric’s 2am observation is spot on. I need to pee, so this seems like a good time to take the dreaded step out of my sleeping bag and do some shoveling. Twenty minutes later and crawling into the warmth of my sleeping bag never felt so cozy.

DSC05431.jpg

The tent is so covered in snow, our square living quarters have been cut from small to minuscule. The center pole that gives height to the entire structure is painfully bowed.

We’re devoid of all cellular and wifi reception here in the middle of nowhere, but thanks to our courteous passing weather forecast crew, we’ve anticipated this snow and therefore camped only 4km outside of our halfway point of Moosonee in anticipation of a short day 6.

Amid a blizzard, we ride the short distance to Buck’s former hometown and visit the local elementary school. Talking to grades one through six, we chat about our equipment, explain the expedition, and teach lessons in nutrition and exercise. The questions are insightful and inquisitive, and last nearly an extra hour.

The indigenous population here has been marginalized over time, pushed further and further to the periphery. Buck explains to us that this blanket of fresh white snow offers a temporary blissful cover to the isolation, neglect, and estrangement that this aboriginal population has suffered.

As a result, our ride has a bigger purpose. The Timmins Native Friendship Centre is an organization that helps provide a healthy, safe environment to those in need in this precarious environment. With a goal of raising $5,000 during our ride, by ride’s end we’ve eclipsed $7,000 and that number continues to grow.

Day 7-8:

The speedy, icy tailwinds that shuttled us across large distances before the storm has slowed us to a screeching halt. Riding 4.6 inch studded tires, we were able to cut a quick trail across the ice, but now we’re stuck in mashed potato snow.

DSC05610.jpg

Insult to injury, the storm changed the wind direction 180 degrees. The accommodating tailwind has turned into a bitter cold headwind.

DSC07066-Pano.jpg

We’re now at the mercy of slow moving, 300 horsepower diesel engines. That is, the excavators, snow-cats, road graters, and snow moving machines that are clearing the snow that’s paralyzed progress.

Our expedition is such a novelty on the route, though, that the excavator drivers come pay us a visit and effortless dig a snow cave. Creating a wall from the wind, we’re able to huddle up for a quick hour, boil water, and make hot drinks, while they clear the next 20 miles of road. Teams work from both the north and south to clear the route during such storms.

Day 9

The James Bay Descent is something of a misnomer since the entire route is a net elevation gain over the course of a 600+km ride with nary a pitch steeper than 1% gradient. That is, until day 8 and 9 when the rollers rear their ugly heads in ferocious, nonstop repetition. “Descent” refers to the latitudinal descent away from the North Pole, something we feel like we’re rarely doing as we plow the bikes uphill time and time again.

As we’re migrating south we also notice a gradual growth in height of the roadside vegetation. Early in the trip, the shrubs were often only knee high, whereas now hundreds of miles south, there are substantial trees offering depth perception up the hills.

Standing and pushing with all our might literally to just push the pedals over, the bikes feel every one of their hundred or so pounds.

The wind has graciously disappeared away but not before it helped clear a smooth track of road. Even though we’ve never been in a hurry, for the sake of progress, this is good news.

DSC05702.jpg

Day 10:

DSC07264.jpg

Knowing the end is in sight tugs at each of us differently. Eric heads out early, riding up the road to snap pictures while the rest of us require a few more coffees to get momentum going. With a big push, we can finish today. Themid-west ski hill sized rollers slowly reduce in size and our trio settles into a silent rhythm. Through and off, through and off. With a constant crosswind, it’s no different than the paceline in a breakaway. Each of us lasting a few minutes at the front of the group before settling into the back to recover, our pace creeps up to 25kph, far and away the fastest of the week.

DSC05780.jpg

Expecting zero fanfare as we roll into our final destination, Smooth Rock Falls, we’re surprised to meet the town’s mayor, the first lady, the director of business development, a local business owner with the promise of cold beers, and even a few fans who have been following the entire route online.

A hot coffee, a steamy shower, clean clothes, and meal that doesn’t require boiling water are the first things on my mind.

The James Bay Descent expands my horizons in every direction. First and foremost, it was a way to see a part of the world I’ll otherwise never witness. The kindness, genuine curiosity, and outgoing nature of the indigenous  population really struck me. In our modern society, to not talk, to not engage, to not reach out is being normalized. Social media has taught us to stare at our phones, not to experience and engage. This population’s interest to reach out and ask questions about the trip at every opportunity was truly unique and something we all embraced.

To not have those aforementioned creature comforts within inches at every moment of life are also helpful to my general living. I like those creature comforts, but the James Bay Descent taught me that I really like to push my boundaries.

Plus I’m really happy with my decision to Loctite everything and bring those extra warm mittens.

DSC04907.jpg