From pedal to paddle: 2 men hauling canoe 1,200 km by bike to Mackenzie River

Jason Rowland and Chad Robertson are hauling their canoe 1,200 kilometres by bicycle before hitting the river.

'Towing a canoe, you get quite a few shocked people and it strikes up some interesting conversations'

Jason Rowland, right, and Chad Robertson, left, take turns pulling the canoe filled with gear. Once they put their canoe in the water in Hay River, N.W.T., they expect to be in Inuvik, N.W.T., in late July. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

People canoe the Northwest Territories' Mackenzie River all the time —  but two men are taking it to the extreme this summer.

Jason Rowland, 32, and Chad Robertson, 27, are hauling their canoe 1,200 kilometres by bicycle before hitting the river.

"I'm an adventurer," said Rowland, laughing. He's an accountant turned minimalist from Australia who is nearing the end of a two-year work-travel visa.

"This is about following my happiness. If I've got a dream to do a canoe trip, then I just follow it through."

Jason Rowland, left, and Chad Robertson, entertaining themselves while waiting for supplies at the Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Campground near Enterprise, N.W.T. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Robertson, who is from Belmont, Ont., is biking to raise awareness about mental health after his older brother died by suicide in 2016.

Rowland and Robertson met by chance last summer. Both were cycling across Canada and they stayed in touch.

When Rowland asked Robertson about a Mackenzie River trip, it was a no-brainer.

Rough start

Their journey began in Jasper, Alta., three weeks ago. They packed their bikes in the centre of the canoe when they weren't "portaging" the canoe by bike on the highway. 

They didn't originally plan to spend so much time hauling the canoe, but they had to change their route early on after the boat tipped in fast, rough water. The men lost precious maps, guidebooks, footwear and dry goods.

"We got sucked under a log," Rowland said.

"It was nerve-racking. After that, it was like 'this is real; accidents can occur at any second.' So we just rerouted to safer waters and now we are paddling on, and peddling on."

Calmer rivers leading up to the Mackenzie River has meant more time on the pavement pulling their 90 kilogram haul — and curious drivers who want to talk to the young, some might say, modestly experienced paddlers for the three-month trip.

A look at the men's route. They're now paddling from Hay River to Fort Providence — about a three or four day trip. (CBC)

"Towing a canoe, you get quite a few shocked people and it strikes up some interesting conversations," Robertson said.

Now they'll paddle from N.W.T.'s Hay River to Fort Providence — about a three or four day trip. 

Both men admit it is an ambitious venture.

They insist, though, that they have years of canoeing experience between them, some in whitewater.

They have also studied the rivers and are taking necessary precautions by maintaining regular contact with family and friends through satellite messages, texts and Rowland's Facebook blog. They also have an SOS safety beacon, flares and bear spray.

Maps, clothing and jerky

Robertson said this trip is a continuation of his fundraiser last year called Ride for Hope, in his brother's memory.

"I brought some of his ashes along with me and whenever we find a cool amazing place, I have a little moment with him, and a little sprinkle … I think he'd be happy," Robertson said.

If I've got a dream to do a canoe trip, then I just follow it through.- Jason Rowland

This week the two men were at the Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Campground near Enterprise, N.W.T., awaiting a package of resupplies — maps, clothing and another nine kilogram bag of homemade jerky from Robertson's mother, Roxanne Esseltine.

A simple aluminium hitch in the front of the canoe, and wheels in the back, keep the five-metre canoe rolling. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

The protective but proud mother supports her son's northern adventure.

"It terrifies me, but he's a grown man and I'm happy to see he has a purpose," Esseltine said in a phone interview.

Once the package arrives, the two men will set off. They expect to reach their final destination in late July.

After that, Robertson is flying home to Ontario from Inuvik, while Rowland — a self-proclaimed nomad — is biking to Mexico via the Dempster Highway.


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the mouth of the Mackenzie River is located near Fort Providence. In fact the mouth of the Mackenzie River is the Arctic Ocean.
    Jun 23, 2018 8:19 AM CT


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