Teagan Hayes- Yukon to Yellowstone

Teagan graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison with degrees in Zoology and Geography. She is currently doing research in forest ecology in northern hardwood-hemlock forest and spending as much time in the field as possible, observing the wonders of the woods and its seasonal changes.

Food. Sleep. Aching muscles. Cold fingers and toes. These were the thoughts foremost in my mind after biking 50 miles through gale-force winds and rain in Canada’s Yukon Territory. What have I gotten myself into?

In August 2008, a group of six cyclists set out on a journey from the Yukon to Yellowstone National Park– 2,300 miles all on bicycles. Our route was to follow the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) ecological corridor, winding south along the continent’s spine, the Rocky Mountains. There, at the beginning, our entire journey lay out before us waiting to show us its wonders if we only let them come.

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The first leg of our Ride for the Wild brought us through northern taiga, and our first reprieve from the rigors of the road, Liard Hot Springs. Here we meet Richard, a First Nations man who led us to the hottest part of the spring to share stories. We followed single file in a convection line, circling our arms from our knees to our hips to bring up cooler water from the bottom as we moved. We learned how aboriginal people used to boil moose heads in the very place we stood, still  moving our arms like dancers; of people that live on these lands today hunting and trapping, preserving the old ways; and how people have begun to use and change this land in recent times. It was after midnight when we finally left the spring, delirious with warmth and an understanding of the great wild north taking root.

image_hayes_2.jpgAs the road brought us to more and more people, we began to truly appreciate the Canadian sense of adventure. A campground caretaker recommended that we make a trip along the Old Alaska Highway, the current highway’s unpaved counterpart. We were told of its unequalled beauty and forewarned that we might have to walk our bikes in a few parts. We were not expecting the multiple stream crossings and areas where the road had been completely washed out by spring glacial melt. But there was indeed much beauty to be found as we forded cold waters and picked our way between rocks much larger than we. Another adventure was recommended to us: an easy hike up the mountains around Azouzetta Lake for views of alpine flora in full bloom. A strenuous climb straight up the steepest part brought us near the ridgeline, so we forged on despite dark clouds gathering in the northwest. Our view from the “top” yielded only a view of more climbing to other ridges so we began our descent as the rain began in earnest, turning our narrow path into a chute slick with mud. We made it back to camp with a combination of luge-ing, vine-swinging, and surfing, just in time for a rainbow in the clearing skies.

We crossed countless mountain streams and rivers, encountered breathtaking alpine lakes, and after each one, I would exclaim, “This is the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen!” There were few that we let pass by without testing their bone-chilling waters with a quick swim or a float downriver on inflatable sleeping pads which handily double as rafts. The team explored an ancient rainforest, just south of Prince George, British Columbia. Here we met trees–some up to 2000 years old–as well as people, both deeply connected to the land and the ways people are using it.

In Canmore, Alberta, we spent time with Karsten Heuer, who had hiked from Yellowstone to Yukon ten years ago, the inspiration for our own journey. On our trip, we wanted to experience for ourselves how the ideas of Y2Y and migration corridors have expanded during that decade. One of our main priorities was meeting people and creating a medium for them to engage in a discussion about their communities. Each community we visited showed incredible passion about preserving the places nearest and dearest to them and worked to fight their own fights: stopping a new dam from being built, keeping human communities from swallowing the last wild places for animal migration, preserving 2000-year-old giant cedars.  Along our route we learned so much about these issues and, as we continued, gave them a voice. Each part of this Y2Y region (in all its diversity of creatures and landscapes) is connected, from the remote road-less reaches of the northern Yukon to Yellowstone’s famous park. Day 50 brought our triumphant arrival at Yellowstone. And then we could look back, our entire journey stretched out behind us, and try to understand this journey.

image_hayes_3.JPGBiking was an intimate way to experience a small fraction of the vast Y2Y area. Our team couldn’t just speed through the landscape, present but not really part of it. We were a herd on this land ourselves: eating together on a grassy knoll; sometimes bunched together on the road to fight off fierce wind and rain; at times separated from the group, lost in reverie or wonder; other times pumping water or cleaning up for the common good. And this landscape, this journey, this place made so many things clear: the human body is capable of amazing physical feats; human communities are capable of amazing things–the destruction of their environment, yes but also its protection; and despite different geographies, the big picture is the same: we are all connected.

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