It wasn’t enough for Rob Bedard to ride his motorcycle all the way from the top of Canada to the southern tip of Argentina.
After 18 1/2 months on the road he turned around for a return trip that’s now taking him back to the Arctic with the added twist of a cross-Canada winter detour.
Haunted by a bike that gave him nothing but grief until it met a fiery fate, robbed by drug cartel gang members who gave him the fright of his life, forced to overcome river crossings on aimless goat trails through the tropics and white-knuckle rides on slippery Canadian highways, and plagued by the restrictions of a pandemic that’s kept a stubborn grip on the world, Bedard is nearing the finish line.
If all goes according to plan, sometime next month Bedard will be dipping his bike tires into the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., to officially end his epic expedition.
After 75,000 kilometres of zig-zagging his way through North, Central and South America, Bedard first saw the Antarctic Ocean when he reached the town of Ushuaia in Argentina, where most continental drifters think they’ve reached the end of the road. But he checked the map and found there’s a naval radio station, Estancia Moat, 85 km further south down a gravel road, which is far as you can drive south in South America, so that’s where he went.
“For me it was just this real sense of accomplishment and elation,” he said. “There was no tourists, no hoopla, no facilities; it’s just you at the end of the world.”
But for Bedard, that was only the halfway mark, and after discussing it with his wife Anna in Vancouver he scrapped his original plan to fly the bike back from Buenos Aires and decided to ride his way home, a return trip that’s taken him nearly 3 ½ years to try to complete.
“In the olden days, people would cross oceans to unknown territories then had to go back the way they came and that’s what I’m doing,” said the 55-year-old former helicopter pilot, who arrived with his winterized bike and sidecar in Prince George on March 11.
Long solo trips are in Bedard’s DNA. The Edmonton native once rode a motorbike from Canada to Guatemala and also drove a Toyota 4Runner to Panama and back. He learned Spanish during the six months he spent in Belize teaching whitewater kayaking.
When he began his Arctic Ocean to Antarctic Ocean trip in August 2017, he wasn’t thinking about a return ride. He thought he’d be coming right back on a flight to Vancouver, where he and his wife operate a movie-industry business that creates digital doubles of actors and movie props.
So how does his marriage survive him being away for 3 ½ years?
“She’s totally supportive,” he said. “She doesn’t feel comfortable with motorbikes so as I’ve been riding she’ll fly down and meet me for two or three weeks. We met up in Mexico City; Bogota; Costa Rica; Lima, Peru; and Mendoza in Argentina and we hang out for three weeks and she flies back. We text message every day and then she’s part of the trip as well.”
Bedard has been staying in cheap motels or hostels along the way and his primary concern about spending the night isn’t clean sheets or hot water, it’s the safety of his bike. He likes staying close to the town centre and if he can get it off the street or store it in a hotel lobby to discourage thieves he’ll do it.
His tour took him 16,700 feet above sea level to the gold-mining town of La Riconada, Peru, the world’s highest village; but the toughest road he encountered was a 149 km stretch in the Copper Canyon in northwestern Mexico. He took some bad advice from a local innkeeper and found a scenic route through switchbacks and steep mountainous terrain. The road went right through boulder-strewn river crossings that got so rough he dumped his bike seven times. He ran out of water and had to drink out of an untreated stream, but made it through without getting sick.
Riding through Mexico was a highlight and a lowlight for Bedard. The desert, jungle and coastline scenery was unforgettable, the food was exceptional and almost all the people were friendly and willing to try to help him. All it took was one group of shady characters to ruin it. While visiting a famous cemetery, Jardine del Humaya, near the city of Culiacan he was swarmed by a group of heavily-armed members of Sinaloa Cartel, an organized crime syndicate of thieves and drug smugglers. They accused him of being a reporter and took the SD digital storage cards from the five GoPro cameras he has mounted on his bike.
“They confiscated all the SD cards but said that since I was a Canadian they’d let me buy my cameras back for all the money I had on me, so basically I got robbed,” he said. “I had about 500 U.S. dollars in pesos and one $20 U.S. bill.”
During an aggressive interrogation, Bedard was asked him where he was from and when he told them Vancouver the man said he had family in nearby Squamish, which creeped out Bedard even more. Fortunately he wasn’t physically harmed and the thieves left one of the two cards in the swivel camera he has mounted on the back of his bike. The card that was left was forward-facing so he has the entire robbery recorded.
Crossing the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia was virtually impossible. The Pan-American Highway ends in Yaviza, Panama, leaving only rough trails through jungle marshland and mountainous forests to connect to Turbo, Colombia. Bedard knew there was no way he’d get his loaded bike through so he parked the bike and hired a couple Kuna Indian guides to take him on an four-hour 100 km canoe/walking journey to Colombia and back again. He then flew with the bike from Panama City to Bogota and drove up to where he walked out a few days earlier to resume his ride.
“The country that surprised me a lot was Colombia,” said Bedard. “I was expecting a third-world country but it has such fantastic infrastructure and the cities are extremely modern and clean. The people are fantastic and the food is fantastic. Back in the ‘90s the cartels had more of a grip but the army has done a good job stepping on them so that they realize bombing people and shooting people is bad for business.”
The Honda Africa Twin 1,000 cc bike Bedard is riding now is the second he’s had on his trip. He started out riding a Ural, a Russian-made adventure bike that came equipped with a sidecar made to resemble the bikes used for military purposes in the Second World War. He bought it new for $20,000 and it suffered the first of many breakdowns when a drive train bolt sheared off three kilometres into his trip heading south from Tuktoyaktuk.
He chose the Ural because it was supposedly made for off-road riding, which he had no experience in, and it was built with old-school technology. In case of a breakdown Bedard thought would be easier to fix using simple, more readily-available parts. Unfortunately, the failures of the bike became an almost daily occurrence.
The last straw was in Death Valley, Calif., when he stopped on a gravel road to take a photo of coyote. He put the bike into reverse and it got stuck in that gear and he was unable to fix it, forced to back up three miles to the highway, where the bike had to be towed for the fourth time. Plagued by faulty brakes, clutches, U-joints and drive lines that cost him thousands of dollars to fix, at that point, 1 ½ months and 8,800 km into the trip, Bedard decided to cut his losses. He had the bike towed to a Nevada scrap dealer who used a hydraulic crusher to destroy it and bend it into a cube. He recorded its final fate and watched with his video camera on record as the flattened gas tank burst into flames. Under the name UralGuy he livestreamed the clip on Facebook and it went viral with 37,000 hits. Losing his bike was a big financial hit and he questioned whether it was worth continuing his trip. He flew back to Vancouver and returned to Nevada with the Honda which has since given him 144,000 kilometres of virtually trouble-free riding.
“The Honda has been a fantastic machine where every day it surprises me how much tougher it is than I am, it just keeps going,” said Bedard
Now back in Canada, Bedard battled a snowstorm as he crossed into the Yukon Territory this past weekend and he plans to spend 14 days in quarantine drinking wine and watching Netflix while he waits out his fourth COVID isolation in a year. He was on target to finish his ride last August if not for the pandemic and the delays it has caused. He saw the writing on the wall a year ago in March when he was traveling up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and watched crowds of people not heeding warnings to avoid congregating. So he hurried to cross into Canada at Niagara Falls on March 17, the day before the border closed. He went into quarantine in Toronto and saw how fast the country was shutting down and decided to put the bike in storage and flew back to Vancouver for a three-week isolation.
In May he started riding again through Ontario and Quebec. Getting into the Maritime provinces posed a problem because no outsiders were being allowed during the spring lockdowns but Bedard wrote the health authorities explaining why he wanted to visit all the Canadian provinces on his tour and was granted permission to enter the Atlantic bubble provided he go into isolation for two weeks once he got there. By July, he’d reached Newfoundland.
“COVID wasn’t part of the plan when I started this three years ago,” he said. “Theoretically, you can cross Canada in seven days, but you’re not going to see anything or do anything, you’re just going to be on the Trans-Canada, but that has never been my ride. Everywhere I was, I went to the most scenic part that showcases what a region has to offer, and Canada was no different, but I had it trim it down a bit because of the timing with COVID.”
While he was in northern Quebec, Bedard saw an opportunity to set foot in Nunavut, the only territory not on his original route, when he looked on the map and saw a tiny part of the territory on the eastern shore of James Bay was within walking distance of Chisasibi, Que. So Bedard drove 500 km and had a Welcome to Nunavut sign ready for his camera when he got word the day before he was due to arrive there had been an COVID outbreak of two cases in nearby Radisson and the Cree First Nation had closed the road, so he was forced to turn around and go back. That trip was wet and cold and Bedard learned the hard way his gloves, heated grips and mounted hand cover wind protectors were not doing the job and his hands and feet practically froze. He was still in Ontario in late-September when he realized the worst of winter weather still ahead and he needed to prepare.
It took three weeks to get his sidecar mounted and he had the bike equipped with heaters for the radiator and oil pan and battery blankets and he’s been riding in a waterproof snowmobile suit. He got to Edmonton where he mom lives just before Christmas and decided to park the bike again. With COVID cases climbing everywhere he rented a car and drove back to Vancouver until pandemic restrictions started lifting again in early March. Until he reached the Yukon on Saturday his coldest ride was -20C. But there’s always going to be a wind chill factor riding 100 km per hour and when it’s that cold, -20 C feels like -42 C. That’s even more miserable with no support vehicle, with some stretches of northern B.C. where the next town is 540 km away. His bike has enough fuel to travel 220 km and he carries two 20-litre tanks with him. And so far he’s gone through 15 rear tires and 10 front tires. He has emergency survival equipment and carries heated riding gear but hasn’t used the plug-in attachments in case he becomes too dependent on them and they fail.
“The aspect of being solo has been the most challenging aspect of the entire voyage because it doesn’t matter how isolated the road is, how cold the temperature is or how violent an area may be, there’s nobody to help you out, it’s just me,” he said.
Well not exactly. Bedard picked up his first passenger in Argentina, a stuffed monkey he named Wilson, that’s been strapped to the bike ever since. He’s also got a toy penguin he named Iceman, who rides just behind Wilson and Bedard is going to bring him along as the first penguin in the Arctic.
He’s hoping to get permission from the Northwest Territories government for an exemption that will allow him to get through the Dempster Highway from Whitehorse to Inuvik (133 km south of Tuktoyaktuk) and back before the spring breakup. The road has ferry crossings over the Mackenzie and Peel rivers and he hopes to be past those crossings before the ice chunks start to flow and ferry service is interrupted for three weeks or a month. Right now the road is passable because it is an ice road. If he can’t there and back in time, he’ll leave the bike in Whitehorse and finish off the trip later in the spring.
Bedard carries a laptop on his bike and downloads his camera footage wherever he stops for the night and he plans to eventually piece all the footage of his trip together in a documentary. He’s still looking for someone willing to take on the job.
“It’s just a matter of finding someone who is not daunted by the sheer vastness of the project,” he said. “It’s the same thing as doing this ride. If you are continually dwelling on the fact of how far you have to go, you’ll never do it, because you get overwhelmed by it.”