The James Bay Descent

In early February, four friends teamed up and rode fat bikes weighing nearly 100 pounds each, out onto the frozen James Bay in northern Canada, then back to the mainland and south along the Bay, totaling nearly 650km. This was a first of its kind, self-supported expedition along winter roads, the crew had to prepare for polar bears and arctic temperatures. UnTapped co-founder Ted King anxiously joined this trio of hearty Canadians and helped compile the story.

The team:

Buck Miller is a former professional cyclist who retired from a decade long career to return home to northern Canada and learn the trade of carpentry. The entire trip is Buck’s creation; he was born in Smooth Rock Falls, which is the end point. He lived in Moosonee for five years, the half way point of the trek, where he learned carpentry, and was frequently flown into jobs in Attawapiskat, the send-off point of the James Bay Descent.

Eric Batty is an arborist, photographer, and educator. A former professional mountain biker, Batty would often wrap up a race or training session and go rock climbing, explore a mountain, or backcountry ski. A high alpine adventurer, Batty loves his time in high exposure environments.

Ryan Atkins is a full-time athlete, competing mostly in obstacle course races (OCR) as well as trail running races and ultramarathons. While many OCR athletes train in the gym, Ryan opts for adventures like the James Bay Descent to keep his training dynamic and always fresh.

Ted King still pedals a bike pretty quickly, although he retired from World Tour racing in 2015. UnTapped’s Chief Maple Syrup Proselytizer, Ted and his wife recently moved back home to New England where they’ve taken fondly to the fat bike.

As the start of the expedition approached, the reality of what it meant to sleep outside, to experience -40 degree temperatures, and literally be riding through polar bear territory started to creep up on Ted. “It kept me up at night for weeks! Big, all day adventures are up my alley; sleeping outdoors on snow and linking a bunch of days together hundreds of miles from civilization is new to my repertoire.”

All said and done, the trip unfolded over ten days and covered 638km/396miles. For Ted, fitness wasn’t going to be his Achilles heel, but his backcountry experience is not lengthy. Let’s explore how crazy it was for the rest of the group.

“This trip was definitely out there for me!” Ryan explains. “I spend a lot of time in the mountains, winter camping, or in extremely cold temperatures. Multi-day bike-packing was completely new to me, plus the landscape that we travelled was totally foreign, so to put it all together was something altogether new.”

Buck echoes in. “I’ve ridden a bike in the winter, a lot. I’ve camped in the winter, a lot. I’ve been in very cold, remote places, a lot. I’ve packed for 2 weeks and been self-sufficient a lot. But I’ve never done it all at once, on a mountain bike with only 70 liters of storage and had to travel nearly 400 miles. To fit it all on my bike, I left tons of things I would normally never travel to the James Bay Coast without. I was uneasy about this at first. I even told my wife when she asked “so, you ready?” I said “I’m packing so light I’m almost uncomfortable, there’s zero margin for error”.

Eric, who has the most high-exposure experience of the group, shares a slightly different perspective, explaining, “This trip was one of a few trips that I do similarly to this every year. I try to set blocks of time out of the business of life and connect with nature and the elements surrounding adventure and being outside, way outside.

The road conditions on which the group traveled is a fascinating story unto itself. After the ground has frozen solid and for only five or six weeks per year, public works crews take heavy equipment, excavators, road graters, and even heated water tankers to clear the snow and lay down a sheet of ice, literally creating temporary roads.

This “winter road” spans the third largest bog in the world, which is impassable by vehicles the other many months of the year. As a result, these northern towns of Attawapiskat and Moosonee are in effect islands, isolated from the rest of the world except for a small landing strip and an industrial trainline. The landscape is incredibly vast, spanning often as far as the eye can see with only low lying shrubs that can sustain a harsh winter. “A map does no justice to the mammoth space out there” Buck says.

The day’s to-do list was a simple one: ride, make camp, eat, sleep, eat, pack up camp, repeat. As a result, consuming fuel was of chief importance to sustained energy. “A nonstop trickle of food” is how Ted describes it. “We don’t stop to eat lunch. Every 40 minutes or so we’d make a really brief stop, grab a quick drink and something to snack on before moving again. It’s just too cold to stop for an extended period.”

The group throws out the foods they ate in rapid fire: oatmeal for breakfast, freeze dried camp meals for dinner, trail mix, homemade cookies, granola, Reese’s Pieces, more trail mix, a peanut butter, Nutella, honey, and bacon sandwich, and UnTapped. Lots of UnTapped. It’s clear this was the unanimously preferred snack of the group.

Ryan, who already races and trains with UnTapped in his professional OCR career is accustomed to UnTapped already. “I can’t remember the last time I ate a ‘conventional gel’, and even thinking of it makes me queasy. On this ride, I found myself hoarding them for the last few hours of the day, so that I had something to look forward to! The Coffee UnTapped in particular are amazing at getting me fired up at any point in the day.”

Buck is unequivocal: “UnTapped is my favorite sports nutrition brand, period. The packets and waffles are ridiculously good. New to me, the Lemon Mapleaid served hot was choice! I enjoyed breaking off a chunk of a Maple Waffle and chasing it with hot Lemon Tea Mapleaid. That’s a little bit of heaven to my taste-buds and energy.” The group would sometimes trade snacks like a group of elementary kids during recess. “Ryan lent me a few Ginger Mapleaids that I still haven’t returned, nor ever will.”

Eric prefers the simplicity of UnTapped’s brief ingredient list. “UnTapped is my favorite energy fuel source. The awesome taste and fact that even in the harshest environment, my pallet still craves maple syrup products speaks for itself. The Mapleaid served hot throughout the day in a thermos was welcoming in such a cold hostile climate.”

Also welcomed on the trip was that the group wasn’t just riding the James Bay Descent for the wilderness adventure, and for a benevolent cause. The Timmins Native Friendship Center is the largest service provider for the area, dedicated to improving the lives of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in this northern community. The cyclists created a GoFundMe page to support this organization which has far surpassed their goal.

At the half way point in Moosonee and in the arrival town of Smooth Rock Falls, the group had the chance to speak to elementary schools and share about their trip. “Visiting the local schools was definitely a highlight for me” Ryan explains. “Seeing the children get excited about the trip and seeing people who are able to recognize certain similarities from their lives to our trip was also fascinating. For example, the northern communities know the value of furs and insulated clothing, which we had in spades. The most profound was just how similar children are across wherever we went. Their inquisitory nature and excitement really transcends cultural and geographical barriers.

Buck, who lived in this area for years goes a bit further explaining how the group was received from start to finish. “I was surprised how well received we were. Not because the Swampy Cree people of this are aren’t friendly, but their culture isn’t one of flamboyance. They’re quiet, modest people. I’ve never experienced the positive outreach as we had the entire way. I think that us being a bunch of white guys who are actually trying to make a difference to help some members of their community played a role in this. We came, traveled through their homeland as visitors, grateful for the use of it, and wanting nothing in return but to help, in a tiny way, reconcile the burden we’ve placed on them for so long and I think they were happy about it.”

Eric agrees, “It was refreshing to see a community where everyone takes time to talk to each other.” In this modern day, fast paced life, it’s nice to slow down and have those conversations. To be real with each other. 

To hear the group decompress immediately after the trip, be sure to check out Ted’s podcast here.

A post-facto CBC video can be found here.