Photos: Eric Batty
Buck Miller may be the only person in Huntsville who welcomed the frigid temperatures earlier this week. He’s anticipating worse when he and three friends—Ryan Atkins from Ottawa, Eric Batty from Brooklyn, Ontario, and Ted King from Richmond, Vermont—head to Ontario’s remote north for a 600-kilometre fatbike expedition. The cold temperature and high wind chills provided a good opportunity for some outdoor preparation.
They are calling the expedition the James Bay Descent. They’ll start from Attawapiskat First Nation, cross a section of James Bay to Akimiski Island, which is part of Nunavut despite its ‘southerly’ location, and then pedal down the bay to Moosonee. If their tires break through the upper crust of snow atop James Bay—a possibility on bikes but one they likely wouldn’t encounter if they were on skis—they’ll backtrack to Attawapiskat and take the ice road down to Moosonee instead. However they get to that point, they’ll continue on via an ice road to Smooth Rock Falls, which is about 100 km north of Timmins. All told it will be a 10-day, 600-kilometre cycle through harsh, wind-whipped terrain. And there’s the possibility that they’ll encounter the north’s fiercest predators—polar bears, while uncommon in the area they’ll be travelling, have been spotted in Moosonee and southern James Bay in recent years.
Miller knows what he’s in for. He grew up in Smooth Rock Falls and lived in Moosonee for awhile; his daughter was born in Moose Factory.
“I would ride my bicycle year-round, and it’s much colder than it is here in Muskoka and the winters are much longer,” recalls Miller. He rode to the grocery store, to work, and anywhere else he needed to go rather than taking his car. “I loved it. The roads are super hard-packed ice because it’s so cold any traffic on it really makes it like you could skate on it.” And now that he’s got a fatbike, he’s confident it will do the job on the windblown snow of James Bay.
The James Bay Descent team will require physical stamina for the expedition, of course, but all four are well-versed in pushing their bodies to extremes. Miller, a former professional cyclist, Atkins, a professional obstacle course racer with multiple championships to his name, and Batty, an athlete and adventurer, did a mid-winter ski and snowshoe expedition across the Algonquin Park interior last year. And King, who is joining the trio for their new adventure, is a former pro cyclist who competed in the Tour de France.
It’s the cold that will make it challenging.
“It’s less about fitness than it is about being able to suffer in the cold,” says Miller. “A warm day will be minus 20, and there’s no hills up there—it’s dead flat, we’re at sea level. So we’re going to be exposed to really high winds and a really high wind chill. We’ll definitely see 30 and 40 below, so we need to prepare by getting outside, sleeping outside, and being outside in the cold as long as possible…We need to be fit, but more than fitness is the ability to just be able to function outside in the cold.”
They plan to ride 50 to 100 kilometres per day, and their trip is unsupported—they’ll be carrying everything they need with them, although they haven’t ruled out leaving a cache of food and supplies at the half-way point that they can pick up on the way by. Local retailer, Algonquin Outfitters, is supplying their food for the expedition. “They have a gigantic selection of food even in the winter when they don’t have canoe trippers. We can have a different meal every day for 10 days for the four of us,” says Miller.
Each member of the team is carrying their own gear, plus they have camera and film equipment to record the trip—Batty is the group’s official photographer—and they have a shared tepee-style tent with a small titanium woodstove for cooking and a little bit of heat that they’ll need to build and collapse each day. The gear will double the weight of the bike, so each will be pedalling 65 to 70 pounds plus their own body weight.
And if one of the bikes, their only mode of transportation, breaks? They’ll have a repair kit for the most common issues, but they can’t take a spare bike. “If we do have a major malfunction, it’s pretty well going to be game over for that person and we’ll have to get them to the closest services or put out a call for some support to get them picked up,” says Miller. “If someone has a major breakdown, they’re going home.” But the rest of the team will continue on.
To ensure they are prepared for the challenges the cold will bring, the team recently met up at Whiteface Mountain, a 1,483-metre (4,867-foot) peak in New York State’s Adirondack range, to test out their equipment.
They’ll be as ready as they can be.
Along the way they’ll be raising funds for the Timmins Native Friendship Centre, which also has an office in Moosonee, and have set up a GoFundMe page for the cause. (If you’d like to contribute, you can make a donation here.) As of January 24, they had raised $1,600 of their $5,000 goal.
“There are remote Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario who are living in third world conditions,” says Miller. “They don’t have clean drinking water, they don’t have adequate, clean housing, they don’t have the same benefits we have down here…the money will be put into programming that directly affects the people who use their services. You can’t go to remote Canada and raise money for a charity in Toronto when there’s people right there that need it.”
The team will head to Attawapiskat on February 3 and will begin the expedition the next day. You can follow their progress on the James Bay Descent Facebook page, where they’ll post daily GPS locations and perhaps some photos at the half-way point when they get within range of a cell tower. They’ll also produce a short film about the experience and will share photos online. “Eric is an incredible photographer and videographer,” notes Miller. “He’s going to have some amazing photos of an area that most people don’t even know about, or have no idea what it looks like. It’s a desolate place but it’s beautiful and he’ll definitely showcase that.”
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