Caitlin DuBiel holds the rear wheel of her bike. DuBiel waited two days for a replacement wheel to be delivered to the Canol Outfitters hunting camp. (Submitted photo)

Part 3: Chasing the Canol Trail

Caitlin DuBiel, with four women from Canada and the United States, went to find the Canol Trail.

In part 2: The five riders made good progress over the first five days of riding and covered more than 200 kilometres. Their progress would be slowed by rough terrain, injuries and mechanical issues that rendered Caitlin DuBiel’s bike unrideable. They eventually made it to the Canol Outfitters hunting camp where they waited for the arrival of DuBiel’s replacement wheel.

The morning of July 25 was emotional at the Canol Outfitters hunting camp. The team’s plan to wait for Caitlin’s DuBiel’s replacement wheel fell apart when they received news that the plane delivering it would not be arriving that day.

This turn of event left the group with difficult choices to make, and after discussing their options, they decided that continuing without five functioning bikes was not an option. It was decided that Sinead Earley, Rohanna Gibson and Gabriela Stephens would forge ahead while DuBiel and Hannah Johnston would stay behind at camp to wait for her new wheel.

“Me and Hannah were the strongest riders,” DuBiel said. “We were going to be able to catch them we figured.”

In her journal, Gibson wrote that the group was apprehensive about the gamble as there were no guarantees that a reunion would happen as planned. Nevertheless, Earley, Gibson and Stephens set out that morning, riding through terrain that was relatively easy despite being muddy and overgrown in some sections. They set up camp slightly short of their goal of the Twitya River, and enjoyed dinner capped off with some Mexican pan brownies. While she describes their camp as cozy, Gibson wrote that in the west there were ominous thunderclouds forming.

Back at the hunting camp, DuBiel and Johnston spent the night in their wall tent worried about their friends as a “really nasty storm” had developed and water levels were rising.

“This was probably the hardest part of the trip for us,” DuBiel said. “Knowing they were out there, and there was nothing we could do about it, and time was ticking.”

The spirit at camp was low, but still hopeful. DuBiel and Johnston could do nothing, but play cards, drink a little whisky and cross their fingers in hope for better weather and the anticipated delivery in the morning.

The next day, DuBiel and Johnston learned that low clouds had prevented any air travel that day, delaying the arrival of the new wheel.

“All we kept hearing is ‘there’s no flight today’ or ‘we’ll check in later’,” DuBiel said.

Once again, the two riders could do nothing but wait for updates from the plane and messages from their friends who were battling their way through worsening conditions.

The storm that had begun the previous night had not subsided, and while the day’s riding started out reasonably well, Earley, Gibson and Stephens were beginning to feel the effects of the rain and cold.

“No dry layers, hit a low morale,” Gibson wrote in her journal. “Fear of hypothermia became very real without dry layers to change into.”

The group eventually made it to the Twitya river and set up camp after finding a place that would be suitable to cross the next day. The group set up camp in the cold.

“No break in rain,” said Gibson in her journal.

The rain was still falling in the morning as the three riders woke up, put on their wet clothes and began the task of rafting across the river. Stephens and Earley went across together first before Stephens went back to pick up Gibson. Safely over the river, they pushed on to the road through the ‘worst bushwacking ever’ on their way to Trout Creek.

“Noticed that the creek looked and sounded a bit large,” Gibson wrote. “Realized we had 15 kilometres to go to goal of Mile 108, and opted to camp due to our cold and exhaustion.”

If the travel had pushed Gibson, Earley and Stephens to their physical limits, the waiting was testing the limits of both DuBiel’s and Johnston’s patience. They were still waiting at the hunting camp, the clock was ticking and they were realizing that if her wheel did not arrive soon, DuBiel would have to go home.

“It was so heart-breaking and so emotional, we sat and cried all day long, it was ridiculous,” she said. “We were all so upset because we’d been working so hard and those first four days had been brutal, but we’d worked so hard to get where we were and the thought of having to throw it all away and go home was awful.”

DuBiel said she packed her bag in anticipation of leaving the expedition, but word arrived that the plane would be attempting to make the trip that night. Not sure what to expect, she brought her old wheel down to the lake where the plane would be landing to make sure that the delivered wheel was the one she needed to continue the journey.

In her journal, DuBiel outlines what happened when the plane arrived.

“High anticipation and crushing disappointment when the wheel was passed off the flight, packaging torn open and discovery that the disk was 20 milimetres too large and therefore would not fit the existing frame set up,” she wrote.

The disk brakes on the delivered wheel were too big for the frame of the bike, and it seemed as if there were no way to make it fit. After all the waiting, anticipating and worrying, DuBiel once again thought that her journey was over, and that she would have to get on the plane to leave.

Just as she was contemplating this reality, DuBiel said that one of the hunters at the camp — who happened to be an avid mountain biker — made a suggestion that kept her trip alive.

“He goes, ‘why don’t you try to shim it away from the frame,” she said.

Essentially, he proposed that they lift the bike away from the frame in a way that would create more space for the disk brakes to fit. The camp’s helicopter pilot was able to engineer this fix, and DuBiel, who hours before had lost all hope of continuing on the journey, had a working, rideable bike once more.

After nearly three days of being stuck at the hunting camp, DuBiel and Johnston were ready to join their friends. They made plans to set off early the next morning and be heli-dropped at Trout Creek where Earley, Gibson and Stephens, who had been pushing through the cold, wet Canadian north for three days, would be waiting for them. The reunion would lift the entire group’s spirits and energize them for the last leg of their journey.

The final push would begin the next day.

Stay tuned for the story’s conclusion in Part 4 next week.