What an incredible and challenging biking journey it has been through Alaska and Canada. When I was still chewing on this idea I had to endure quite a bit of critical responses, mostly saying that I was crazy for wanting to do such a thing so far north for so long in the middle of winter. I didn’t know myself either if I could endure it, what I would experience and how my body and mind would cope to such extreme circumstances.
Now spring is unfolding I can proudly say that it worked out and that I enjoyed it immensely. All my fingers are still in place, only in some places the feeling in my fingertips has to heal back a bit. I’m a lot richer in life experiences, although I don’t know if I would do it again, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss these experiences. I have learned to deal with extremely difficult situations especially with the vast distance and while camping in extreme cold weather. Days were long and hard and I was really exhausted more than once. I’ve been able to feel what it’s like to keep going even though it’s tough. To keep observing myself without getting caught up in the swirling emotions. I definitely think this challenging part of the journey has helped me cope better with setbacks and all kind of difficulties.
On December 20, I left Alaska from Coldfoot Camp on the Dalton Highway north of the town of Fairbanks. On December 21, I was on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice day, at the Arctic Circle point. In the months that followed I cycled the Alaska Highway that goes from Alaska all the way deep into Canada.
I arrived in Fort St. John in late February and then headed south across Grande Prairie on Highway 40 to the Icefields Parkway. After the Icefields Parkway I was able to take a comfortable break in Banff to continue cycling through Calgary over the prairies to Taber with the goal of visiting people I’m related to.
Taber is a town known in Canada for corn, potatoes and sugar beets. It’s located in the prairies east of the Rocky Mountains that stretch from Canada south to the United States. I’ve been cycling to Taber to find out how I was related to people living in Taber and how it happened that they came to live here. I spend a week in the town discovering a lot about family history and how the Netherlands is so much related to Canada for what happened specially around here.
Nowadays the Netherlands is a popular country for emigration. Everywhere in the world there are families to be found who would love to leave their home for a developed and free country like the Netherlands. To be able to leave poverty or to get away from oppression. In the post-World War II reconstruction, things were quite different. According to a survey (a NIPO enquête) in 1948, 32% of the Dutch people thought about emigrating from the Netherlands for, among other things, a better future for their kids. There was a lot of poverty and not to mention the post-war baby boom creating a rise of people in the country.
In the so called throne speech in 1950, Queen Juliana said:
“The rapid population growth and the limited space of available land require vigorous promotion of emigration”.
People that made the decision to emigrate (and got successfully through the emigration process) were reimbursed for the crossing and often got some money for the purpose to settle down. In this way there was a post-war emigration flow and for over half a million people left the Netherlands for a new home in countries like Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
Canada had already a long history of colonization by Europeans. In the 1950s, Canada had already been completely taken over from the indigenous peoples. Who settled again thousands of years ago overland from Asia. The culture and influence of the indigenous peoples have been virtually erased by the Europeans over the last hundred years. They were relocated or driven away to more remote places, exterminated in the event of resistance or re-educated in re-education camps in where European norms and values were imposed. After that long time of colonization and freeing up land and space, the established Canadian government created several plans for the development of the country. In the 1950s, quite a bit of infrastructure had already been established. For the further development of Canada, more hardworking people were needed who also were skilled in building on the agricultural infrastructure.
My grandfather’s half-sister moved in this way in 1952 from Rotterdam with the Holland-America line to Canada. They then boarded a train that took them from eastern Canada to western Canada. They arrived in southern Alberta in an area of vast prairies, lots of land and space, but there was nothing more then that land and space then some already settled Mennonites. They started to work on irrigation to water the lands in Alberta at the foot east of the Rocky Mountains. The prairies are dry and agriculture is only possible by efficiently storing and using the glacier water from the mountains.
“When we came here, there weren’t even toilets,” Vena told me. Vena welcomed me with open arms in Taber and it also happened to be her birthday.
It was interesting to see how she still had the Dutch customs at home. The traditional Dutch crockery in the main room, dolls in traditional costumes and Dutch snacks. She remarried Gerrit, who moved to Canada more than 10 years ago, which has helped to maintain the Dutch customs.
The Netherlands has always been successful in the agricultural sector but there is and always was not enough land. In Canada there was land and they only needed the hardworking people with sufficient knowledge to grow crops. My family started with other settlers growing sugar beets. They worked from generation to generation to develop agriculture here in Alberta. First on the land of the already established farmers and then rented their own land in order to save up the money to eventually buy land themselves. In more than 60 years they were able to set up a farm with over 8000 beef cows. With the successful cultivation of first sugar beets and later other crops as feed for the cows.
A town like Taber and the precious and modern resources that are now in place are making Taber a highly developed agricultural area. If you want to settle here as a farmer, you must come up with an extremely amazing starting budget. Taber and the surrounding area has become one of the most developed agricultural areas in Canada and arguably in the world.
It made me proud to connect here with family who have played an important role in this development.
“I can’t get the thing going,” said Dick. Dick is 86 years old and is the husband of Joanne, the daughter of my grandfather’s half-sister, who has passed away already some time ago. He had pulled out a video tape that said, visit to Holland in 1992. I helped him and putted some cables in the right places in the device and, sure enough, with two large cameras I saw them visiting the Netherlands in 1992. They drove around in a rented car and went to visit my parents, aunts, uncles, grandpa and grandma. It was very funny to see, they were very amused about the narrow streets and busy traffic in the Netherlands.
I not only met Vena, Gerrit and Dick, but also other family members. On different days I got to know them, they came to visit from the area and we drank coffee and shared stories about our lives.
We also went on a road trip to the beautiful Waterton Park in the Rocky Mountains, an hour and a half drive from Taber.
After quite a few get togethers and some interesting Canadian family history lessons, I cycled out of Taber after a week to go across the prairies to the border with the United States.
The prairies are so open that out of sight camping is an impossible skill. On the first night near Magreth, some curious Hutterites came to take an interest in me. They funny enough were thinking that my tent was a bear that just woke up from hybernation.
The Huderrrites are Anabaptists who still live in colonies.
“We are against war,” Mike explained me, who, like his brother, was wearing a big black hat. They offered me a beer and continued to chat with me just outside my campsite.
The fact that they are against war is one of the reasons that the Huderrites have a very oppressed past. They were forced to participate in wars, first in Europe and then in the Soviet Union. They moved regularly because of this oppression and some of them ended up here in Alberta after they got in trouble in the United States as well.
The next morning I was invited for breakfast. The family I met was very friendly even though they didn’t want me to take pictures.
“You can take pictures of the food and the decor of our house,” she added.
I had to get used to the visible separation between men and women. I sat at the table with the brothers and three women of the family sat around the table on chairs to the walls. This made me a little uncomfortable, especially when the mother angrily signaled to the other women to be quiet and listen to our conversation instead of chatting along themselves. The tour Mike gave me after breakfast was impressive. The colony is almost entirely self-sufficient. Mike showed me the farms, a slaughterhouse, a laundry room and a place where leather shoes and clothes are made. Even Mike his blouse was handmade by his wife.
The language in the colony is German and every day all colony members eat according to a fixed schedule three times a day, together, having the men and women separated. When the colony has reached the maximum of around 150 people, a new settlement is sought.
“When people leave the colony, they often come back very quick,” said the mother of the family with a proud tone.
I imagine growing up in the colony and then in my rebellious search for entertainment on the internet become interested in a cycling journey. Then I would have to ask permission from the priest and the advisory board. They probably wouldn’t let me go and certainly wouldn’t give me a travel budget. I would then temporarily not contribute to the colony and therefore would’t be entitled to the privileges of the colony. Then I would get even more rebellious and probably decide to leave the colony. I’d have to look for work and save enough money for a bike, gear and a travel budget. That would be very difficult with a colony background. I would still miss my family and have trouble really connecting with the outside world and perhaps come back to the colony to resume the job assigned by the priest and his advisory board. Would I ever become content without tasting the outside world a little bit? Although I can imagine that the freedom people give up to love in a colony brings a powerful connection to family and colony members, which I can hardly understand as a living being from a large individualistic city.
The Hutterites sent me om my way with a bag of delicious homemade dried meat and about three months’ worth of chewing gum. They also wanted to give me a box with fresh eggs, but I turned that down, the eggs wouldn’t even survive the dirt road from the colony to the main road.
As I left the colony I had even more to think about. At least the long days on the bike give a lot of time to think and to digest all information that is coming at me when passing through. That often depends on the weather conditions as well. On the vast prairies there is often not much time to think, even if it would be logic to think that the vast plains would turn my attention inwards, nothing could be further from the truth. There is almost always the wind gusting and there is not a single tree that would stop the wind from making my bike-life miserable.
This particular day the wind came strong from the mountains I was cycling towards. In the distance I saw the famous Chief Mountain, which is easily recognizable with that interesting flat top. I barely made progress. It was well into the afternoon and I would have cycled at most 25 kilometers with great effort. The pedaling was definitely hard and I pushed a little extra until, snap! A weird sound that suggested something was very wrong and I immediately lost tension on my pedals.
I looked behind me and got to understand what went wrong, there was my broken chain laying on the road! Without a spare chain my worry-meter came in deep red wondering if this would be the end of biking for today.
Read here an interview in the Taber Times.
Sources used in this article
Emigration to Canada (in Dutch) – https://anderetijden.nl/aflevering/542/Emigratie-naar-Canada
Hutterites – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutterites
The book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari