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Birding by bicycle yields amazing results

CLINTON, BCIt was hot and muggy in Clinton, BC, and we were trying to call home to Whitehorse.Our bikes were across the street, propped up…


It was hot and muggy in Clinton, BC, and we were trying to call home to Whitehorse.

Our bikes were across the street, propped up against the wall of Budget Discount Foods.

An old man scrutinized our bikes. He squeezed my seat as if it was an avocado and he wasn’t sure if it was ripe. He stared intently at my “Bob” trailer as if he couldn‘t believe anyone could be stupid enough to drag that much gear.

Then he grabbed my son Malkolm’s bike, lifted it up and winced.

“I’m going to see what he wants,” said my wife Wendy. She crossed the street.

He had lots to say. He said he was 72 and was two months into a cycle tour of his own.

The only flat tire he had was in Chicken, Alaska. It was raining so he switched to a new tube and repaired the hole later.

He didn’t mean to brag, but his average daily distance was about 30 per cent more than ours. He had a sore butt, so he was resting that day.

He asked why Malkolm’s bike was so heavy, and why should a kid carry such a load? How old is he anyway?

I didn’t think fast enough to tell him that this Bird Year journey was Malkolm’s idea and why shouldn’t we have loaded him down?

We started cycling on the summer solstice at the Alaska Highway junction with the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. There were lots of things we weren’t sure about.

We weren’t sure if all of our gear would fit in our panniers and our bike trailer. We weren’t sure if our gear would survive the potholes and gravel stretches.

Wendy and I weren’t sure if our bodies would hold up. Malkolm had no such doubts.

There was not much traffic on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. It felt like our own personal bike path and we were resentful when a vehicle intruded on our peaceful journey south.

We spent the first night by Blue Lakes. A woman from an RV parked nearby walked by as we put up our tents. When we told her we were headed for Florida she spluttered, “but there are mountains between here and there!”

We all can identify some birds by their songs, particularly the ones that sing near our home in Whitehorse. We hadn’t pedaled far south, however, before we entered the range of unfamiliar birds such as Tennessee and MacGillivray’s warblers.

It was like travelling to a foreign country, knowing a few of the words but not enough to be completely comfortable.

Malkolm picked up the new songs quickly while Wendy and I struggled.

One more thing about bird songs. On bicycles, it was obvious when we’d changed habitats. There were no border guards when we entered a new bird’s country, but suddenly the air would be full of the long, shrill trills of Varied Thrushes or the harsh calls of Stellar’s Jays.

The last bird Malkolm identified before we reached the Yellowhead Highway was a Brown-headed Cowbird, species #96.

These cowbirds however, were riding on horses, snapping up flies. We could have used some birds on our backs. Malkolm had so many black fly bites from the Stewart-Cassiar he looked as if he had smallpox.

As we cycled east towards Prince George, we entered the range of new birds like white-throated sparrows and cedar waxwings (smaller cousins of the Bohemian waxwings that brighten the Whitehorse winter).

We also entered the range of mountain pine beetle. Entire mountainsides were the colour of dried blood, covered by dead forests of lodgepole pines.

Climate change isn’t the only reason for the devastation — but the cold winters that used to kill the beetles haven’t happened in recent years.

Burning no fossil fuels is one advantage of travelling by bicycle, but there are many others. It’s great exercise, it’s cheap, it’s fun — and the slower pace means you see more.

I don’t know how many times I’ve zoomed past William’s Lake in a car, thinking that the town didn’t have much going for it.

Upon closer inspection at bike-speed however, we discovered the Scout Island Nature Centre, a fabulous wetland at the town end of the lake.

Instead of paving over the wetland and building a big box mall, someone had the foresight to protect the area for wildlife (and for people) to enjoy.

We all appreciated the diverse birdlife including American white pelicans, Bullock’s orioles and red-winged blackbirds.

One month and two days after setting out, we rolled into Vancouver. For you statistics junkies, Malkolm has identified 152 bird species and we’ve cycled 2,100 kilometres.

That’s one new species every 13.8 kilometres or 4.75 per day. I don’t think he’ll keep up those amazing averages, even if he continues to give 110 per cent.

In a few days we’ll cycle south into the United States, unless the border guards think that our message of bird conservation and reducing fossil-fuel use is a threat to national security.

Ken Madsen is a Whitehorse-based writer and photographer.