Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The World’s largest zoo

July 15, 2014 – The World’s largest zoo
Banff, Alberta
Day 180 - Distance biked so far: (12,522 km)
I was reminded recently of the fact that some people are new to my journals and may not really understand what this trip is about. I wanted to address a few of those points now.
My bike trip started out as a way to see the world and to share with others the people, culture and food of people and places they may never see. My plan was and remains to bike 50,000 km through approximately 40 countries and to provide a travelogue of the view from a bicycle. The world is a diverse place and I have already written about the people and places in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and now Canada. There are many interesting places to come. I hope to get a visa for Iran when I head back over the ocean, and will have to go through the former Russian countries of Central Asia. Other countries like Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Kyrgyzstan and Japan are ones I am excited to see.
In 2011, I spent 6 months volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Tacloban. I fell in love with the Filipino people and my heart went out to the kids that had a bleak future. In 2013, I flew down to Davao, Oriental and met David Donaldson. In 2009, David established a foundation and created the Angel House Orphanage. He used his own savings to build a home for the kids and then started accepting children who were referred to him by the Department of Social Welfare. During our meeting, I was made aware of how costly it was to operate an orphanage. He hired 5 full time care workers who lived in the home with the children. He also had to hire a full time social worker to deal with the government on the complicated issues of foreign adoption. The entire operation was financed by David and through individual donors. He has to provide food, shelter, medical care, clothing and school supplies for up to 15 children. He then has to pay property taxes, electricity bills, and gas for the vehicle he needs to transport the children etc., etc. It was at this point that I offered to try and support the orphanage in my bicycle trip around the world. The idea was to promote the Angel House Orphanage through my journals and to encourage people to read the Angel House Orphanage website.
In the past few months I have had a few people question why they should support me while I am touring the world. I think there is a perception that by giving to me they are actually financing my travels and nothing could be further from the truth. It is very upsetting to hear that because I provide 100% of my own support. I have never asked for financial assistance and any money raised is simply passed to Angel House. I pay for my own food, accommodation, bike repairs, flights, ferries etc. As a non-resident for tax purposes in Canada, I don’t even have healthcare and pay for my own private coverage. Any money I receive is given to David. If someone provides me something for free I track the value of that meal and provide that as a donation to Angel House. In Malaysia, Jorlyn Tan, someone who didn’t know me, gave me a room in her hotel for free and I donated the value of that to Angel House. That same day on 2 different occasions, people I didn’t know paid for a meal and I also donated the value of those meals. The idea is that I will keep the chain going of any random acts of kindness from complete strangers and donate the value of the gift to help the children. Last week I sent David $500 U.S, representing cash and in-kind assistance provided by people in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and Canada. I have even been picking up coins on the road as I pass through. I enter the coins on a spreadsheet (Accountants love spreadsheets) and after 2 years will donate that as a gift from all the people in the world who have holes in their pockets.
There are some very hard days when you bicycle around the world. In the past few weeks alone I had lightning, hail, 50 km headwinds and high mountains to deal with. What keeps me going are pictures like this one from the Angel House Orphanage.
Angel House Kids
Most people would look at this photo and see 3 happy boys but I see something different. In 2011, when I was volunteering at the orphanage in Tacloban, a young child died from severe malnutrition. Every one of the 32 children there were literally starving to death before the Missionaries of Charity stepped up to bring them back to health. So, when I see that picture above, I see 3 boys abandoned at the hospital with absolutely no chance in life. They would not be able to go to school and life would be a struggle from their first breath to last. I see David and his staff accepting those kids and providing them a home with good food and someone to read the bedtime stories, celebrate birthdays and provide a home when there wasn’t one. The photo also breaks my heart because it is their first day of school, and they will never experience having a parent walking with them on a memorable occasion. They have missed family birthdays, family camping trips, sitting around playing games and all the other things we did with our parents and that we take for granted. David and his staff jumped in to help when no one else did and now these 3 happy boys have a chance at life. That is why I am riding my bike around the world and why I keep going despite feeling lonely and wishing I was back in my comfortable condo watching the World Cup soccer games. It is a choice I made but if anyone suggests that I somehow profit financially from cycling the world, nothing could be further from the truth.
The town of Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon territories and where I spent a few days recovering from the difficult ride down the Dempster and Klondike Highways. I loved the town, it has all the conveniences you could want and I stayed in a youth hostel with comfortable beds and showers, a few of the simple things I’ve have been missing. Whitehorse has a population of about 28,000 but has the facilities of a far larger city. There is even a Starbucks, which of course I was quick to notice, I seem to have a gift for finding coffee shops. The entire territory of the Yukon only has 37,000 people so if you exclude the capital city; there are about 9,000 people in the rest of the Territory. In the same area there are 150,000 caribou, 50,000 moose, 22,000 mountain sheep, 10,000 black bears, 7,000 grizzly bears and 5,000 wolves. I was biking through the world’s largest zoo without a fence to keep the animals away.
The Alaska Highway was constructed during World War 2 for the purpose of connecting the contiguous U.S with Alaska. It starts in Dawson Creek, British Columbia (as opposed to Dawson City, Yukon) and ends in Delta Junction, Alaska crossing the southern Yukon. I will follow the highway for over 1,000 km.
The highway was built by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers as a supply route during World War 2. Canada agreed to allow construction through British Columbia and the Yukon as long as the U.S bore the full cost and that the road and other facilities would be turned over to Canada after the war ended. Not a bad deal for Canada and the U.S agreed. More than 10,000 soldiers came north with 250,000 tons of materials. Rather than proceeding from one point in one direction, one group started in the north and the other the south and they met up in the middle. The method was simple. Surveyors worked roughly 10 miles ahead of the bulldozers and the men who cleared the path. The surveyors would map the route and the men behind would catch up and blaze a path. A battalion of bulldozers cleared the way by knocking down trees in a path roughly 50 to 90 feet across. Once the path was cleared, a second battalion brought up the rear, flattening the road surface. It wouldn’t pass the environmental tests required today but the job was done in less than 8 months. It would take far longer just to get all the permits to build today.
Alaska Highway
I headed off early and continued south along the Alaska Highway.
Snow capped mountains
It didn’t take long to realize that there really are more bears than people in the Yukon. The forests on the sides of the road were cut well back leaving a wide swathe of grass between the road and the trees, the perfect feeding ground for bears. It became a daily occurrence to spot them feeding on the side of the road and that presented a problem for me. The grass is high so I can see the top of a large adult bear but could not see if there were cubs nearby. There are a few things that will make a bear attack a human. The first is if you suddenly come upon them without them hearing you, you scare them and they can react aggressively. You also want to avoid them if they are eating and since they are fiercely protective of their young, you have to keep your distance when cubs are in the area. Bears are like people, they like to eat and they protect their young so if you accept that you are in their area and give them lots of space you will be fine. However, with them feeding on the side of the road, I had to get past.
My usual routine when I spotted a bear would be to stop and make sure they knew I was there. I carried 2 pot lids in my front handlebar bag and would clang them together when I spotted one or more feeding. I would then yell out and make sure they saw me. In a few cases they would run but most of the time they just kept on eating. Since I was not sure if the cubs were around and they were so close to the road, I would wait for a car, wave it down and then ask for them to drive slowly so I can use the car as a shield. One day I stopped cycling 5 times in a single day to wait for a car to provide cover. The local people said they have never seen so many bears. One man said that because of the late winter, the berries were not ready so the bears came down from the mountains to find food.
One morning, just as I headed off, I spotted a small grizzly bear on the side of the road. They are distinctive because of their large hump and brown colour to go along with their massive size.  The cub was less than a year old and grizzly bears can rear their young for up to 5 years so I was concerned about the presence of his mother. I waited for a car to wave down to escort me and kept my distance. On the other side of the road a transport truck was coming my way and suddenly, the small grizzly ran out and across the road and was struck by the truck. Another beautiful animal killed on the highway. It is devastating for the grizzly bears because they don’t have a lot of cubs in their lifetime so the population is struggling to maintain itself. It also presented a problem for me as I was alone on the road about 100 meters from a dead grizzly cub and if the mother was around it would see me as the one responsible. I backed away and spent a nervous 15 minutes waiting for a car. Eventually one came and I explained there was a young grizzly ahead that was just hit by a truck and I needed to have a car beside me to get past. The man drove slowly with me on the side and when he came to the bear, I didn’t realize that he stopped to take photos of the dead cub. I kept going thinking he was beside me but I was on my own in the middle of the road near a dead grizzly cub. I waited for the man for about 5 minutes and then cycled back to him and stayed near the car. I don’t think he really understood what I was trying to do because he then drove forward and accelerated so I was again left on my own until another car came by and escorted me.
When I was in the small town of Nuggett City, I was checking into a campsite when a message came over the owner’s phone. I was told that a black bear had just jumped through the screen window of the staff building about 50 meters from where we were standing. Once a bear gets that close to people there is no choice but to shoot it and minutes later, a series of shots rang out. The bear was shot and got away but the men with guns followed it to ensure it was dead. We were initially told that all people in tents would have to sleep in the lodge but later we were told we could go back outside.
I had bear escorts from motorcyclists, trucks and cars. One day I tried to wave down a car because of a large black bear right on the side of the road. A car approached and I stopped cycling to wave them down. For some reason, they thought I was stopping my bike on the middle of the highway, in the middle of nowhere, just to turn around and wave to complete strangers. They both smiled and waved back enthusiastically and promptly drove on. I still wonder if they ever think that maybe I needed help. A truck drove by and noticed that I was trying to wave down a car and he understood because he too saw the bear ahead. He stopped and set off a bear banger, a pen-like instrument that shoots off a flare and large bang. He aimed it near the bear and after he fled, the truck driver beeped his horn giving me the all-clear signal.
On another day I was biking along and a black bear darted out beside me, no more than a few meters to my side. He ran away from me but I wanted to give him some space so I crossed the road to cycle on the other side. Just as I reached the other side, a black bear lifted his head no more than a few arms lengths away. I turned and he just stared at me as he continued to eat. They are incredibly beautiful animals but when you are that close it really gets your heart racing.
Black bear
The southern Yukon is beautiful with blue lakes; mountains, rivers and I enjoyed mostly clear skies.
Clean fresh air in the Yukon
The Alaska Highway roughly follows the boundary between the southern Yukon Territory and the northern province of British Columbia, and it goes between the two borders a number of times as you head east. In Northern British Columbia I arrived at the beautiful Muncho Lake. It is a small lake about 12 km long and surrounded by small mountains. The jade green color is attributed to the presence of copper oxide in the bedrock under the water.
Muncho Lake
Bears weren’t the only wildlife that I had the privilege of observing. One day I was cycling along and a female moose was on the side of the road. She was startled and as I approached she started running along the road ahead of me. They are very fast and she easily increased the distance from me but did not get off the road so eventually I was close behind again. At one point she turned off and I thought that was the end but soon after rounding a corner, there she was again standing there looking back at me. Instead of simply getting off the road, she kept running. This continued for about 3 km and eventually she got tired and decided to get off the highway.
I also saw a number of Bison and one day came across a small herd. The American bison can stand up to 6 feet at the shoulders and weigh up to 1,000 kg or 2,200 lbs. The males in particular can be very aggressive and as I did with the bears, waited for a car to provide an escort. This bison noticed me on the bike and kept watching as I took a photo while beside a car. He didn’t look happy and he kept staring at me. I had a car beside me so boldly asked him what he was staring at but he wasn’t amused. Some bison just don’t have a sense of humour.
Bison keeping his eye on me
It is a long stretch between Whitehorse and Dawson Creek and I kept heading in a southeasterly direction. I always tried to make it to a campsite at night because of the large number of bears in the area, I wouldn’t feel comfortable cooking dinner and camping. I would filter drinking water directly from the rivers, sleep in the fresh air and really enjoyed being outside 24 hours a day. One day a few wild horses passed on my side, exactly the same thing that happened in the Outback of Australia.
Wild horses
The terrain was hilly but I slowly crossed the northern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
I soon came to Liard Hot Springs, the second largest hot spring in Canada. There are 2 hot springs with water temperatures ranging from 42C to 52C (108F to 126F). They were too hot for me so I just sat with my tired legs dangling in the water and enjoyed the spectacular scenery. One of the pools was permanently closed because of the large number of bears in the area. In 1997, a much publicized black bear attack that killed 2 tourists eventually resulted in the closure of a few of the pools. In 1998, at least 50 bears were killed to ease the concern of the public. It seems tragic and unbelievable to me that they would kill so many bears just so tourists can sit in water. Surely that was an excessive response to the problem. I wonder why they couldn’t just built an enclosed walkway to prevent future attacks.
Liard Hot Springs
I saw a number of mountain sheep as I headed east. This small group was on the side of the road and it was the young ones that seemed to be more concerned with my presence. The little sheep furthest from me made me laugh. He or she first noticed me and ran off up the hill in sheer terror. At one point it realized that no one else was following so turned around and sprinted back down the hill to stand by it’s mother. All the while, the mother calmly sat grazing on the side of the road, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
Young sheep on guard
Another mountain sheep watched me pass. It is a real treat to watch them effortlessly run up the mountains. They could even give the Sherpas in Nepal a lesson on how to climb up hills.
Mountain sheep
The route I chose followed the Alaska Highway to Dawson Creek and then south towards Jasper. That means that I would end up on the east side of the Rocky Mountains and then back track west again as I approached the resort town. After climbing some reasonable mountains I was clear of the hills for a short time.
Leaving the mountains behind
Despite all the wildlife, the biggest danger to me on the roads is a modern man made invention, the motorhome. Since the 1950’s, homes have become larger and larger despite smaller families and the average motorhome has followed a similar path. I would see a steady stream of these behemoths on a daily basis with most towing a car behind. They were massive and almost always only had 2 people in them. In one campsite I was invited in and couldn’t believe the luxurious interiors, resembling a 5-star hotel. I was sitting in a lush swivel chair staring at the leather couch, large flat screen TV with satellite, shower, large bed and every imaginable convenience. It was a slight step down as I left the home to return to my small tent with a mat and sleeping bag.
Home on wheels
I passed the 12,000 km mark on my way past Fort Nelson and would soon go over 12,500 meaning I was now 25% of my way around the world. It is a long way since I left Bangkok and it seems almost inconceivable that I still have over 37,000 km to go. Whoever said the world is small did not try to get around it on a bicycle.
12,000 km since Bangkok
I was heading east one day and stopped at a small store for a drink. As I was leaving I noticed some dark clouds ahead. I was debating whether to stop and go back to the store until the storm passed or keep moving forward and ended up making the right decision in stopping. A short while later winds of up to 70kmh raced through with large hail and lightning. I ended up waiting for 4 hours before continuing on my way.
Time to turn around
I was suddenly in a very different looking country with no mountains in sight.
Where did the mountains go?
That did not last long however as I turned west and headed towards Jasper. One of the great things about riding a bike is you can slowly see changes in the geography. I could see the Rocky Mountains coming into view and they were getting closer with each pedal stroke.
Slowly approaching the Rockies
Approaching the Rocky Mountains
Soon I was at the eastern border of Jasper National Park.
Jasper National Park
The park is home to thousands of elk and I had a close view of these magnificent animals. The elk is one of the largest species of the deer family and the antlers on a male can grow up to 4 feet in height.
A bull elk
Elk relaxing near Jasper
I had a few days rest in Jasper and enjoyed the small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains. The town isn’t as commercial as the ones further south but it has more than it’s share of beautiful scenery.
Quiet River in Jasper, Alberta
The road between Jasper and Banff, Alberta is the Icefields Parkway. It stretches about 250 km through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and provides a panoramic view of mountain lakes, ancient glaciers and broad sweeping valleys. On my first morning after riding for a day on the Parkway I opened my tent to see this guy. She was completely disinterested in me so I simply continued with my normal morning routine of taking down my tent and cooking breakfast while she stared out in the distance.
Elk in front of my tent
The views on the Parkway were incredible and it was hard to make forward progress with wanting to simply take in the scenery. I would regularly take breaks to sit and just soak in the scenery.
Rivers and mountains
Peaks and valleys
There would be rivers and lakes on one side, snow capped mountains all around and often waterfalls with glacial rivers carrying the melted ice and snow from above. This is the Athabasca waterfall in Jasper Park.
Athabasca Falls
The Columbia Icefield is a massive glacier up to 300 meters thick in some areas. The most visible part of the Icefield is the Athabasca Glacier.
Athabasca Glacier
Since 1870, the Athabasca Glacier has lost more than tow-thirds of its volume and more than half of its surface area. On the day I was there, it was 34C and it is hard to believe that in those temperatures I was so close to ice. Since the Glacier has become so famous, what is a tourist site without the obligatory viewing platform?
Viewing platform
You have to get tickets at the information center and I was planning on doing it but was turned off by the hundreds of tourist groups already in line. Not that it wouldn’t have been fun standing in line with 300 Chinese tourists but I thought I could get better views from my bike.
Part of the Icefields
Year round snow
There are 2 mountain passes over 2,000 meters high on the Parkway and here is a view from Sunwapta Pass looking north. I had climbed up and now looked forward to a long descent.
View from Sunwapta Pass
The Jasper National Park is continuous with the Banff National Park. I reached Saskatchewan crossing between Jasper and Banff and noticed a lot of police cars on the road. I was told that the highway was going to be closed in an hour because of a forest fire nearby. I decided to keep going before they closed the road. Here is a view as I cycled up in the smoke.
Fire alert
Most of the traffic stopped so it was eerie cycling through what looked like mist-covered mountains. The smoke only lasted about 20 km but it was starting to irritate my throat. I found a campsite and the next day, the skies cleared and I was back to some beautiful scenery as I headed towards Banff.
Crystal clear lake
View near Banff
One of the things I really like about the Banff National Park is the care they take to try and prevent collisions between cars and animals. They have a large fence built along the entire length of the highway and to allow the animals to cross they have constructed a number of animal bridges. I wonder how many places in the world have bridges across highways, just for animals?
Animal bridge
The stretch from Lake Louise to Banff follows the old highway and it was one of the best roads for cycling of my entire trip. It is a quiet narrow tree lined road with spectacular views.
Off the main road
I finally made it to Banff.
Another milestone
It has been almost 3,800 km since I left Inuvik above the Arctic Circle. I cycled the entire length of the Yukon territories, east along most of the northern boundary of British Columbia and south through a good portion of Alberta. I am tired from the constant hills but feel incredibly grateful to have seen so much wildlife and scenery that photos just can’t do justice to. I store all of my photos on Flickr and you can see a lot more of this beautiful country here,
I have decided to change my route as I slowly head south towards Mexico. I will be cycling home to southern Ontario to visit with my family and then south down the Atlantic coast of the U.S to visit friends in North Carolina. My friends Brian and Jennifer had a health scare last week and even though the results of the tests were negative, it was a timely reminder of the fragility of life and I want to take the time now to visit family and friends. I will be going to Calgary in 2 days and then south to Glacier National Park in the U.S and then east through Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and then back into Canada. I will continue south after going east and will eventually end up in Mexico but it will take a little more time.
At the end of each journal entry I have been providing a brief summary of what is going on at the Angel House Orphanage. I only provide a synopsis and a picture or two because I would prefer to have people go to the website themselves to read more about what David and his staff are doing. The website has photos of all the kids along with regular updates on what is happening and I don’t want to repeat that here. My purpose is to get readers to follow that website which can be found here,
I spent 6 weeks in Tacloban after typhoon Yolanda last November, I was able to witness first hand how foreign aid operates and had a good education on the pros and cons of providing relief. I will give an example of some of the negative aspects. When I was there, various organizations set up locations where people would line up daily for food, clothing or even cash. I was at one of the stations and watched bags of clothing being distributed to the locals. In one bag that was a donation from South Korea, they pulled out a nice winter coat. The local family ended up cutting the coat to make rags that they could use to clean their home that was full of mud. The point is that despite the good intention of that gift, it wasn’t really practical for life in the tropical climate of the Philippines. Another negative aspect of donating clothing is that you put the local clothes sellers out of business because people are getting things for free. Again, well-intentioned gifts end up creating unemployment in the local community exactly when the people should be going back to work. I mention these few examples because David at the Angel House has figured out a perfect solution to this problem. It is difficult for someone on the other side of the world to know what is most needed so David set up a virtual store on his website (see the section called Virtual Store). He lists items that the orphanage needs and people can set up a donation accordingly. This accomplishes a few things. First, the children get exactly what they need because the staff know what is required and second, you don’t have to spend the money to send things via mail. In many cases, the cost of the package is more than the amount of the goods you can buy in the Philippines.
There are a number of other ways to help the orphanage. You can donate cash that David can use to finance the operating costs. People often overlook the costs of electricity, gas, cooking fuel and even the personal hygiene costs to manage 15 children and the staff. There are also the daily costs of food, medicine and school supplies.
Another way to help would be to sponsor a child. You can contact David on his website and arrange to donate on a monthly basis or with a single payment. He can provide you with information on all of the children and keep you up to date on their progress in school or the likelihood of being adopted.
A final way to help would be to spread the word of Angel House. If you are on Facebook, please share the link to the orphanage and ask your friends to share also. Someone out there is thinking of adopting a child and if you can spread the word, you increase the chance that it will be a Filipino child that finds a home. There is a sense of urgency because the risk the child is not adopted increases, as they get older, most people want a young child. This is a particular problem with boys like the ones in the photo above. Please don’t let that happen to these kids. They have had a difficult start to life without parents and without a family. You can make a real difference in their lives; take a few moments to really think about it.