Bikepacking Across Canada: A Journey Eastward And Inward

Words and photos by Rajiv Dhaliwal

This idea that one day you’re going to have enough money, the right gear, the right amount of preparation, the wonderfully-crafted group of friends to accompany you, the time, or the perfect route or destination—is a far cry from what it means to explore, to adventure. It is a lie we tell ourselves to prevent us from doing what we want to be doing.

I know this because I’ve been that person; I am that person; and because I have those friends. Sounds epic, count me in!” they’ll say. And then summer rolls around and it’s always something: their boss, their spouse, their dog, or that old nagging injury. We are, it seems, just infatuated with the idea of adventure. Indeed, it is almost comical the number of times strangers—from convenience store clerks to bartenders serving me a much-needed drink—have told me, I’ve always wanted to do something like that.” It is comical, and it is disheartening. 

But I cannot blame them, because in today’s society we frequently slave away doing things we may not particularly enjoy on the bet we can buy ourselves greater levels of freedom to do it later. But freedom, as Hunter Thompson said, is something that dies unless it’s used.

Rajiv rides his Salsa Fargo bike through a patch of sunlight on an otherwise shaded hill top, a green valley below.

This is why I quit my day job, hopped on my trusty (and not yet rusty) Salsa Fargo, and pedaled 6,800 kilometres across Canada, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. To slay that five-toed sloth within! To quit banking on later

To my knowledge (note: limited!) no one had ever bikepacked across Canada. Others have pedaled loaded bikes across Canada of course, along the Trans-Canada Highway and on other, homemade routes. Some have even run across the country! But no one has pedaled across Canada on dirt (i.e., bikepacking).

Rajiv’s Fargo bicycle rests against a cattle fence with the Canadian Rockies in the distance.

This is in part because an official dirt route across Canada does not exist. There’s not even an official paved route, except in name. Sure, there’s the Great Trail, but much of that is along waterways or atop narrow, hectic highways, despite its portrayal as a safe, unbroken coast-to-coast cycling link. But this isn’t unusual. Many trails—the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Western Wildlands Route, (the list goes on)—don’t exist.  They’re not real and in some cases only marginally tangible. They are theoretical at best. Ideals. It’s people who give these trails their existence, their meaning. And so, with this bouncing around in my restless twenty-five year-old skull, I decided to create my own route. To define the undefinable! To come to know the unknowable!

After poring through outdated paper maps and then through more reliable, contemporary online maps, I decided to follow the Great Trail through British Columbia (frequently referred to as the “BC Epic”). From there into the prairies of East Alberta, and through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, I mapped safe routes composed almost entirely of gravel, on seldom used farm roads. I’d then pedal the less-lonely pavement through Ontario, which as far as I could tell, was the only way I could navigate the populous province. From there through Quebec I would loosely parallel La Route Verte, a network of bicycling and multi-use trails. I love my country, but there just aren’t enough dirt roads!

The Fargo bicycle leans against a large boulder in a boulder field in a green valley at the base of a large mountain.

No one asked why the journey, and for the most part, neither did I. But as I spun away from my driveway, I knew in part it was to better know my country and its citizens. And, if I got lucky, to better understand myself. I laughed at the simplicity of the grand departure: open the front door and so it begins! 

Or so I thought.

I’d never had a panic attack before. I had endured moments of anxiety, fear, depression—but never a full-blown panic attack. That is, until the morning I was set to ride across Canada. 

My family and close relatives and a few friends awaited my arrival at Crescent Beach on the Pacific Ocean. I was to meet them at a prearranged time for the usual celebratory launch—dip my tires in the Pacific, pose for a few photos, embrace loved ones, and ride off into the unknown.

But I was late. I was kneeling in the shower, hyperventilating in colder and colder water. My thoughts raced as quickly as my breathing—from fears of encounters with apex predators (and apex vehicles) to big existential questions such as “what is the point of this journey? What am I running from? What is it that haunts me? What am I doing with my life? Will this help put me where Id like to be in five years? In ten years? Does this ride have anything to do with longer-term dreams and goals? What are my long-term dreams and goals?!” 

Two years ago I was rejected by every law school I applied to, four or five in all (I’m trying hard to forget!). At the time it felt as though my life had been pulled out from under me. Everything I’d worked for was little more than a colossal waste of time. It was a naïve mindset, but I was devastated. I soon found myself pedaling down the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, for reasons I couldn’t explain. But what started as a form of flight soon became in part pursuit.

The Fargo lays on a gravel road next to a massive field of golden grain that reaches out to the horizon.

Halfway through that trip I met another touring cyclist at a campground in Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. Nils was a little older than me and riding a different route across the US. We were strangers then, but we’re good friends now—a common occurrence for bike travelers. Anyway, Nils asked, “why the Great Divide?” I’m still looking for answers to that,” I replied. 

I’ll never forget what he said next: The answers don’t exist. There’s no moment of smug clarity you’ll come to. There are no epiphanies! But maybe, just maybe, this is the answer,” he said, pointing around us. The THIS was the bike tour, the journey. The surroundings, the company, the solitude. Life on our terms!

Perhaps just being out there, at that moment, in that corner of the earth, doing what we were doing, was the answer. Or perhaps it wasn’t. But Nils and I agreed: it was a pretty nice attempt at an answer. Bike touring is a good substitute for answers (and for happiness!). 

Rajiv’s Fargo leans against one of many large logs on a narrow dirt road climbing out of a mountain valley.

I pulled myself from the shower, prompted by the cold water, and threw my kit on. I opened the door, pulled my bike from the garage, and hopped on. It’s only a bike ride,” I told myself. Don’t overthink it.” I knew I was apt to do just that, but the bike helps direct those thoughts in a way I can handle.

I’m at an age where most of my friends and peers are establishing themselves in their respective careers, saving to buy apartments or houses, and setting aside monthly income into their retirement accounts. I spent last year saving money so I could backpack the 4,200-kilometer Pacific Crest Trail. (The trip didn’t happen, no thanks to COVID and subsequent border closures). While they think ahead; I think outside. I’m passionate about low-impact adventure travel and human powered exploration, and I perpetually ask myself if the desire to see the world from the seat of a bicycle, or with my two boney feet, overrides my fear (or desire) for stability, security, and comfort. The answer is difficult, and it eats at me.

Rajiv’s sleeping bag lies in the darkness on a cobbled beach, his bike against a boulder closer to the water’s edge.

There’s a clear demarcation between freedom on the one hand, and comfort on the other; between waking up in a bed of your own making and sleeping on the side of a road; between cuddling up with your dog and not seeing him for months; between having money accumulate in a bank account and watching it rapidly dwindle; between having a place to call home and not knowing where your claustrophobia-inducing tent will be placed each night. I haven’t found that balance—the one situated just right, between freedom and comfort.

As I began to pedal, I knew I was smack-dab in the middle of any sort of satisfactory answer, dealing with traffic, wavering while weaving. I desperately wanted to spend time alone in nature, or as much nature as I’d find on roads. I find peace with the world and within myself when I load the bike and go. I become the person I enjoy most. I become optimistic about my future. I become happy

It’s not a constant state of happiness—a single flat tire teaches any cyclist that. It’s more a feeling of contentment I’ve worked for with each turn of the pedals; it has to be earned. As long as the trip lasts, it is earned. 

The Fargo is turned upside down on a single lane dirt road with a flat tire, Rajiv’s gear spread around it.

For the first few days, part of me hoped my bike would be stolen so I wouldn’t have to continue, so I’d have an out. But I love my bike (thieves would, too)! I think I was just wishing for a clear, easy answer. I knew doubts are always at their strongest during a trip’s initial stages; I did my best to pedal them into oblivion so they’d be left behind, sucking wind.

But there were days—weeks, even—when I wanted nothing more than to quit. Headwinds and bad weather always seemed to conspire with these wishes. I knew there would be times like this; every trip has them. I just didn’t expect them to happen so soon and so frequently. 

It wasn’t until I hit the midpoint, somewhere around Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I finally felt confident I was going to complete my journey. It had somehow become a fact, albeit a slowly developing one. But knowing this still didn’t make it any easier! There remained moments, however fleeting, where it all made sense, when I knew why I was out there, when it just felt right. 

Rajiv’s one-man tent sits in green grass on the edge of a field, shaded by trees, at sunset.

One such moment sticks out. After a long day in Alberta, where I passed nothing but endless waves of grain, I knocked on a rancher’s door and asked if I could pitch my tent on the fringes of their farm. Sure,” he replied, have at it.” As evening approached, I was sitting and staring at nothing in particular, enjoying a terrible cup of instant coffee. I started reading one of my favourite books, Freedom from the Known, by Krishnamurti. Just as the sun started to sneak behind the horizon, the farm dog, an old, blind, three-legged blue heeler, came and lay down beside me. I don’t know if it had something to do with the particular passage I was reading, or the dog, or the setting sun, but in that moment I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. I was at peace. These were simple, ordinary moments, but the circumstance—the set” and the setting,” as Timothy Leary coined it—was just right.

It may have been the companionship that made the moment so special. There’s little doubt companionship tends to make the memorable just that—unforgettable.

Ontario ended up being some of the most challenging riding I had ever done, but it was also some of the most enjoyable. This was because I had someone to share it with. I met Ben, a twenty-something who had finished school in Vancouver, and was cycling back home to Ontario. We rode the hardest sections of the province, from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie, as a team. What I remember most wasn’t cussing over the ceaseless hills, or the 140-kilometer day we rode against the strongest headwinds either of us had ever encountered. It was the moment when we’d look at each other and say, "F--- this!” before bushwhacking twenty meters off the highway and setting up camp on untouched lakefront real estate. There, we’d rotate around a fire and laugh at the odds of finding such a serene setting.

The loaded Fargo leans against the wooden railing of a narrow, wooden foot bridge in dense brush.

Friends sometimes think a bike trip of this magnitude is one big challenge, but it’s actually thousands of small challenges each day; from straightforward considerations like a noticeable knee, to larger ones like running out of food between resupply points. But in time you grow stronger and more adaptive, and learn to accept these challenges. You learn that nothing is going to go according to plan! Plans only ever seem to appeal to bike wrenches!

Before I began my journey, I’d read that Canada’s trade winds blow west to east, which was why I chose to ride in that direction. Cyclists cherish tailwinds even more than sailors do! To my amusement (and to a lot of cuss words), I encountered headwinds at some point every day. Some days they were so horrific I’d set up camp and wait to ride the following day.

The wind and other daily struggles made other moments that much more enjoyable. Most afternoons I was too tired to care about what I might’ve accomplished during the day, or whether I’d even accomplished anything. I gave up caring about what awaited me on subsequent days. The journey took over; the fatigue took over. I slept on a thin, hole-ridden piece of foam and it was the best sleep I’ve had in my life. There’s something so natural—yet so foreign in today's busy, artificially-lit world—about patterning your sleep cycle with the rising and setting of the sun. For three months I watched in awe as the sun did its magical dance.

Rajiv sits on his camping pad, shirtless in the sun, on the rocky shore of a large alpine lake.

Time moved quickly when I was in the saddle and even more so at camp. Maybe this was because I had no perception of time to begin with. For nearly my entire adolescent and adult life I’ve been told what to do and when to do it. In school and at work, we’re told when to show up, when to eat, when to take a break, and what time we can finally leave. It’s crazy to think it took a global pandemic to change this—only now are we seeing we can work from home, on our own time, and be equally productive, if not more so. Without a perception of time, I was never bored. There was always something to do, even if it was a trivial matter like counting hay bales (to guess a rancher’s profit margins) or cleaning the chain on my steed.

The most memorable aspect of my journey, and every other journey I’ve taken, was the people. It’s always the people! As I continued pedaling day after day, I learned I could always count on meeting another wonderful Canadian. Many of these encounters were unexpected and organic—people I’d strike up a conversation with at a campground or a convenience store. Sometimes it might be a driver who’d pull his truck over to offer a soft drink, or perhaps nothing more than a smile and a chat. There were times I met others through Warmshowers.org, a platform for touring cyclists to meet those offering accommodations, but most of what I found, I found unexpectedly. I was frequently offered a place to stay before I even began searching for one! It felt like a journey of repeated homecomings.

In an increasingly digital age, it can be difficult to find or make meaningful connections. I didn’t always share commonalities with those I met. Our political stances or religious views might have differed greatly, but we’d still find a way to connect in a meaningful, heartfelt way. I’d consistently find I had more in common with others than I had thought. The world is full of friends.

The Fargo bicycle leans on a small white cabin with weathered red roof, above the shoreline of one of the Great Lakes.

As I write and reminisce, I ponder whether my trip changed me, and the nature of that change. In most respects, I’m the same person I was when I exited that cold shower in July. As much as I was in search of answers, for some sort of paradigm shift or epiphany, I knew all too well that they were never going to come. I was often brought back to that conversation with Nils, about how the answers don’t exist. But as Anthony Bourdain once said, maybe that is enlightenment enough, the knowledge that there is no final resting place of the mind; that perhaps wisdom is realizing how small I am, and how unwise, and how much I have yet to learn. I like that answer!

Lastly, I would like to dedicate this ride to Daphne Toumbanakis. I had never met Daphne, but I wonder whether our paths would have crossed. Daphne was an experienced bicycle tourist, and only a year younger than I. She left to ride across Canada on July 20th, only four days after I did. She was killed that same day, by a careless driver, just outside of Vancouver. Sadly, predictably, nothing ever came of the situation—no one was held accountable. How can change ever happen when one of the leading newspapers in BC—the Vancouver Sun—described the incident by saying, a cyclist was travelling eastbound when she collided with a grey Ford pickup in the 26000-block of Lougheed Highway”? She did not collide with a pickup! Someone was driving that pickup. That someone hit her, killing her in broad daylight, on a nationally recognized bike route.

A photo of Daphne Toumbanakis; a young woman struck by a vehicle and killed while starting her bike ride across Canada.

Cyclists are constantly portrayed in this manner by the media—blamed in situations like Daphne’s—and as long as this keeps happening, nothing will ever change. It is infuriating. I can only assume Daphne was undertaking this journey for the same reasons I had—a love for bike touring, to see the world, and to spend some quality time alone. I remember hearing the news when I was in Midway, BC, from a motorist camping beside me. Daphne was in my thoughts thereafter, as were her parents; I thought of their devastation. I felt guilty I was out there, and she couldn’t be.

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ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: RAJIV DHALIWAL

Rajiv Dhaliwal is a writer, photographer, and adrenaline junkie based out of BC.  

In his free time, you can find him and his Rhodesian Ridgeback, Shaq, in places that don’t have cell service. When he’s not off the grid, he enjoys the simpler things in life, good music, watching films, and spending time with good people. You can find him on instagram @jeevsalive.

Wearing shorts and a t-shirt, Rajiv stands with his loaded Salsa Fargo bikepacking bike high above a large lake.

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