A small crowd gathered in Riverdale Thursday morning to watch Ramesh Ferris take the first steps of his cross-Canada journey — from the house at 41 Firth Road, where he grew up, to his hand cycle parked about 50 metres down the street, beside a fire hydrant.
He quickly closed the distance to his cycle, a throng of photographers and well-wishers following behind.
“The first time I walked to this fire hydrant, it took 45 minutes,” said Ferris, holding the tiny leg brace he used as a child in his hands. “This time, it took two minutes.”
With that, he put the full-size braces and crutches he now uses aside, climbed into his cycle, donned his gloves and set off on a trek that he’s been building towards for most of his adult life.
The Cycle to Walk campaign, Ferris’ 7,200-kilometre journey across Canada to help eradicate poliomyelitis, started in earnest after a 2002 trip to his homeland of India opened his eyes to the fate of people with polio there.
Ferris was born in India, contracted polio at six months, and was adopted by a Whitehorse couple when he was two.
Growing up in Canada gave Ferris advantages in living with his disability that wouldn’t be found in India.
“When I met polio survivors in India, I was looking down on them, because they didn’t have these,” he said, pointing to his braces, at a ceremony at the Yukon government building later that morning. “There is a culture of crawlers out there … we will help people around the world with braces and crutches.”
Ferris’ roll through Whitehorse on Thursday was a ceremonial start, and a chance to thank all the volunteers and supporters before he flies to Victoria for the official start on Saturday.
That day, April 12, is not a random choice — it’s the 53rd anniversary of Jonas Salk’s discovery of a polio vaccine.
Ferris told the gathered crowd at the government building that there had already been a vaccine for 25 years when he contracted the disease, and that it’s unacceptable that at current vaccination rates, another 10 million people will get polio over the next 40 years.
“We have to work as a global community to eradicate polio for good,” he said.
All the money raised by the Cycle to Walk campaign will support immunization programs, rehabilitation projects, and education about Polio.
Doug Phillips, speaking on behalf of Commissioner Geraldine Van Bibber, announced that Thursday was to be known as Ramesh Ferris Cycle to Walk Day in the Yukon, and reminisced about Polio’s impact on Whitehorse in the 1950s, when his brother contracted the disease.
“We thought we were safe, but it hit us hard,” said Phillips. “So there’s a personal touch for me, and I’m delighted to be here.”
Health Minister Brad Cathers praised Ferris’ efforts, and stressed the importance of immunization.
He called the campaign “part of a Canadian tradition,” citing Terry Fox and Rick Hansen’s similar journeys.
When asked about the distance ahead, Ferris said, “I’ll take it one hand-crank, one kilometre and one community at a time.”
He got back on his hand cycle, and was joined by dozens of students from Vanier and Wood Street schools for the ride up Robert Service Way to the airport — his parting words came from Dr. Jonas Salk: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”
Follow Ramesh Ferris’ journey at www.cycletowalk.com