Ride for the Wild
Today's post is from Ryan Applegate, assistant manager of our Dillon, Montana, store. Last summer Ryan took two months off work to pedal his bike 2,300 miles from Yukon’s Watson Lake to Yellowstone National Park. But Ryan’s trip was more than a summer bike tour. Working with the Freedom to Roam Coalition, he and six others rode on behalf of wildlife, which is losing more and more habitat to development and finding itself increasingly challenged by climate change. Funded with an environmental internship grant from Patagonia, Ryan received both salary and benefits during his hiatus.
Karsten Heuer – a wildlife biologist, park warden and author of Walking the Big Wild: From Yellowstone to the Yukon – jumpstarted The Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative in 1998, when he embarked on a 1½-year, 2,200-mile journey on foot, skis and canoe from Yellowstone National Park to Watson Lake on the British Columbia/Yukon border. Along the way, he organized public speaking engagements in hundreds of communities to introduce the new concept of landscape-scale conservation.
Inspired by Heuer’s experiences, 10 years later, my partner Isan Brant and I decided to travel with a small group of dedicated friends and family through communities in the Y2Y region and learn from residents about the opportunities and challenges to the Y2Y wildlife corridor concept. We chose to pedal what Karsten had hiked in reverse, meeting with locals and giving presentations about the Freedom to Roam Coalition and our adventures through the Y2Y region. On August 12, after three months of planning, seven of us journeyed to the Yukon to begin our adventure.
The yellow line shows our route from Watson Lake to Yellowstone, and describes the 12 priority regions within the ride portion of the Y2Y region. Click here for a larger map of the Y2Y priority areas.
Isan, Alex, Teagan and I left Montana, in my fully loaded Honda Odyssey after making contacts and setting up presentations in communities through which we would pass. We hitched four bikes to the top of my van and three off the back, gear for seven stowed inside. We’d boxed food for the first four weeks and dropped them along the way. Mark and Cedar braved a three-day Greyhound adventure. We picked up Anna at the airport in Fort Saint John and all converged at the Downtown Trailer Park in Watson Lake, Yukon, the night of August 16.
The TEAM!: From left to right: Anna Mumford, Teagan Hayes, Alex Applegate, Ryan Applegate, Isan Brant, Mark Sundeen and Cedar Brant.
In Watson Lake we met with Tom Cove, who still sets trap lines that have been in use for generations. Tom hosted Karsten at the end of his trip 10 years ago. He told wonderful stories and helped us to understand the fragility of the expansive landscape we would be traveling through. Tom spoke of the need to create a definition of wealth that includes more than monetary gain, and warned of the fast, large-scale ecological damage that mass industrialization brings, citing as example the Alberta tar sands. He sent us off with gifts of salmon steaks and moose for our first few nights on the road.
In the first 10 days we traveled around 375 miles through the Liard River Basin and over the Rockies, cutting a transect through the northern tip of the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area and into Fort Nelson, BC. Passing rainstorms hit us every day. We battled headwinds, dense fog, aches and pains, and experienced the vast beauty and supreme generosity of the landscape and people of the Northern Rockies.
Biking into the Northern Rockies, we entered the northern tip of the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area – a network of preserves and highly regulated industrial areas that are seven times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
Following a tip from a park attendant, we followed the old, unpaved Alaska Highway for six miles. This side trip led to multiple stream crossings and cross-country hikes, where the road had been demolished by flash floods.
Isan and Cedar climb Steamboat Pass along the Alaska Highway.
Our first presentation was in Fort Saint John, where the Peace River Valley Environmental Association hosted us. We spent two days there hearing the concerns of the small but hearty conservation community. The most pressing among them was BC Hydro’s proposed Site C dam on the Peace River. The only river to transect the Rockies west to east, the Peace creates a temperate microclimate for the region’s best farming and provides critical late-winter browse for wildlife. Site C would create a reservoir on the last free-flowing part of the Peace through the Y2Y corridor, drowning farms, critical wildlife habitat and blocking the movement of wildlife.
The entrance to Ken and Arlene Boone’s farm in the Peace River Valley. Much of their land would be drowned in the reservoir behind Site C dam. Here's what they have to say about the impacts Site C would have:
The Peace River. To learn more about the Peace River Valley visit http://www.peacevalley.ca/.
Crossing west over the Rockies for the second time at Pine River Pass and into Prince George, we were hosted by members of the Backcountry Recreation Society. Concerns here focused on efforts to conserve the temperate inland rainforest. Ecologically unique, this forest extends in patches from central Idaho to northern BC, along the western toe slope of the Rocky Mountains. It is under continuous threat from logging interests. Biodiversity in this inland rainforest exceeds that of tropical rainforests. It’s also critical habitat for the globally threatened mountain caribou, which eat the moss and lichen assemblages growing on the trees. Hugh and Kathy Peterson gave us a tour of the newly finished, community created Ancient Forest trail. To learn more about the Ancient Forest trail visit. http://ancientcedar.ca/html/trail_news.htm
Inside the rotted out innards of an ancient cedar tree. The same fungus that rots out the insides of old-growth cedars penetrates every cell of the tree and gives the wood its rot-resistant property. It’s nearly impossible to tell the age of rotted out trees. Estimates range from 1,000 to more than 5,000 years old.
Climbing east, up the Mackenzie River, we headed into the largest protected complex of land in the whole Y2Y region, the Canadian National Park complex, which includes Jasper and Banff. The economy in this area has shifted from one based on resource extraction to a leisure economy in which the aesthetic of the landscape is now the economic engine. Writer and biologist Doug Chadwick (who penned "The Wolverine Way,” a wonderful environmental essay on one particularly capable wolverine, for the Patagonia Spring 2008 catalog) spoke to the fact that the valley bottoms of Banff and Jasper provide critical habitat for wildlife, but also are where human activity is most concentrated. “We’re sort of doing reconstruction biology,” Doug said, regarding efforts to connect and protect land in the Y2Y region. Click here to listen to more of our conversation with Doug.
We invented a new sport: Therma-rafting the ice-cold Athabasca River as it flows under the peaks of Jasper National Park. The week before we arrived a snowstorm swept through the park. We were greeted with 10 days of the crispest blue we could have dreamed of!
Climbing over Bow Pass and dropping into the Bow Valley, we connected with Karsten Heuer, Leanne Allison and their 3 year-old son, Zev to talk about the challenges and successes of wildlife corridors in the area. We visited the narrow wildlife corridor sandwiched between the town of Canmore, and the golf course community on the fringe of the valley. Karsten described the removal of manmade structures and human activities near the town of Banff, which allowed wolf traffic in the area to grow by 700% in one year. Leaving Canmore, Cedar and Alex spotted a wolf off the highway making its way around a cement plant. Hear more from our conversation with Karsten.
Isan walks with Karsten and Zev toward the wildlife overpass in Banff National Park. About 150 feet-wide, this linkage enables ungulates and grizzlies to safely cross the Trans Canadian Highway.
From Banff we traveled through Kananaskis country and over the highest pass in Canada, which is closed during the fall and winter to allow wildlife undisturbed wintering grounds. Trailheads and rivers heavily loved by recreationists presaged nearby Calgary.
Out of the mountains and onto the eastside plains following the Cowboy Trail in Alberta.
Cumulative exhaustion began to set in as we pushed through head colds and a wicked headwind over Crowsnest Pass. Crowsnest wears a necklace of old mining towns; a railroad and major highway present obstacles to wildlife. The pass is one of two critical corridors for grizzly bears to move from Glacier/Waterton to Banff National Park.
Back in the states, our first stop and presentation was in Whitefish, Montana, where we met with Crown of the Continent coordinator Steve Thompson. A passionate urban revivalist, Steve used the term “weed-ettes” to describe the five-acre ranchettes that have sprung up all over the West. Steve has worked with National Geographic to create a geo-tourism map for the Crown of the Continent area. The map celebrates the cultural and physical attributes of the region, helping tourists to experience the unique flavor of the place. Some video of our visit with Steve is here.
We pedaled, tired and fulfilled, into Gardiner, Montana, on Oct. 4. Renowned tracker Jim Halfpenny hosted us and described the political challenges and complexities of managing the growing wolf and bear populations in the West. In his view, politics decides animal population levels; a recognition that underlines the importance of Y2Y and The Freedom to Roam Coalition. Only by building public awareness about the vital importance of habitat for North America’s last large mammals, will historic corridors be preserved and new ones built.