Fire chief to bike Dempster Highway for MS
It may not be his longest cycle trip, but it will likely be his most challenging.
With two end-to-end highway cycle trips – Highway 93 and Highway 16 – under his belt, Jasper fire chief and provincial Multiple Sclerosis (MS) ambassador Greg Van Tighem sets out to tackle the Dempster Highway this week. Van Tighem will peddle his way, solo and unsupported, on a Kona Wo fat bike from Dawson City, Yukon to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT to raise awareness and funds for MS – the majority of which will remain in the Yellowhead area. The excursion will take place over an estimated 16 days – but it’s hard to tell for sure.
While the Dempster Highway spans just under 1,000 kilometres near the arctic circle (Van Tighem’s previous rides were 2,700 kilometres and 3,000 kilometres respectively), the speed at which he progresses from one isolated town to the next will largely depend on weather conditions.
“The weather is going to be the biggest factor. The colder it is, the slower I go. The colder it is, the longer it takes to get going every day because I have to melt snow for my water and to cook my food. That all takes time,” said Van Tighem.
“I’m leaving from Dawson and going right to Tuk. It’s just under 1,000 kilometres, so it is shorter, but in reality its probably going to be quite a bit more difficult than my other two rides, obviously because of the weather situation. There are extreme high winds – wind is probably the biggest enemy.”
While weather is the largest concern for Van Tighem, the isolation of the trip is the last thing on his mind.
“Isolation is almost like therapy. You just get on the bike and cruise. It’s relaxing for me. You just get yourself into a mindset where you’re thinking about things or just enjoying the beautiful scenery,” he said.
There are only three populated stops on the route between Dawson City and Tuktoyaktuk where Van Tighem can rest indoors. A few truckers who frequent the highway that are aware Van Tighem will be in the area, and may stop to offer him water or food, but the rest of the time, it will just be Van Tighem, his bike, his gear and the road. He’ll cook his food on a camp stove (he’s packing two, just in case), and spend the evenings in a tent on the side of the road. The average temperature for the area during this time of year is -25.
The inspiration for the trip came from a stranger. Van Tighem still doesn’t know their identity. After inviting the audience to come up with a location for his next ride at a conference last year, a man approached Van Tighem, slid a piece of paper across the table to him and walked away. When Van Tighem read the message at the end of the day, it said “Ride the Dempster Highway on your fat bike.”
“I started researching it, and decided that’s the perfect highway to do on a fat bike in the winter,” said Van Tighem.
“I’m trying to increase the severity of the ride to hopefully raise more awareness [for MS]. The Dempster Highway is quite secluded, but it’s also very beautiful, It has a ton of history.”
That history isn’t necessarily pleasant. The Dempster Highway was named after an RCMP inspector who was sent out on a rescue mission, and found the subjects of the mission dead from exposure and starvation. In recent years, several of those who have tried to cycle the highway during winter months have had to quit part way through, due to severe frostbite or damage to their bikes from road conditions. Still, Van Tighem, armed with a satellite tracking device so he can call for help if need be, is committed to ride the highway end to end.
“I’m pretty much determined I’m going to complete it no matter what happens,” he said.
“The way I look at it is I can’t change my surroundings or my environment … I can’t change what’s happening, so if the weather gets to 35 below or if I get three flat tires in an hour, if my hand freezes, if I get frostbite, I can’t change that. But what I can change is the way I react to [those challenges] … It’s like a mindset – when the going gets tough, I try to concentrate on my frame of mind to get the job done, and I just look at what I have to do to get over this next hurdle.”
The other thought that keeps Van Tighem going is that many of the symptoms he’ll face on the ride – numb hands, aching joints, fatigue – are similar to those that people living with MS face.
“That also kind of gives me a bit of power to keep going, because I think about the people who are dealing with it day to day for the rest of their life, whereas I’m doing this for two weeks because I want to. When I’m done, I go home and I can live my comfortable life again. People with MS don’t really see the future being that positive for them because their is no cure.”
Van Tighem, who has raised $146,000 for the MS Society over the last two years, hopes to raise another $93,000 for the society this year.
“That’s one of the things I’m particularly proud of,” said Van Tighem.
“The majority of the money I raise goes to the local services and to the Yellowhead chapter [of the MS Society]. The people that are served in our local area, a lot of the funding comes from my fundraising. That’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to doing it – I can actually see the results.”
Van Tighem launches his trip on Mar. 25. To keep up to date with his travels or to pledge him, visit http://www.endms93.com, or find him on Facebook under Endms93.