Eat. Sleep. Bike. Film.
Producer: Steve Langston
Director/Editor: Chris & Ryan Mitchell
The concept for Riding North has been in the works for quite some time. A few years back an old friend of ours named Steve Langston, hopped on his bike and never looked back. Since then he has cycled thousands of kilometers in many countries, written two successful guidebooks (Canada by Bicycle, Manitoba by Bicycle) and most recently started producing bike touring videos. Langston kept in touch with us while he was on the road and we spoke about coming along to document his travels. It seemed every time Steve was planning a trip, we had prior engagements and could never join him. The concept never materialized. In the fall of 2009 we received a call from Langston and he told us about the latest installment to his cycling monopoly. He would bike from Whitehorse, Yukon to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in June, 2010 and experience the summer solstice in Northern Canada. We immediately jumped on board and began developing our concept .
The biggest challenge we would face shooting this film, would be pulling our gear in a trailer behind our bike. It may not sound that bad but in addition to our clothing, our tent and other camping gear, we had to carry camera and sound equipment and computer gear. There would also be hundreds of kilometers between grocery stores and services so we were carrying food, extra batteries and spare bike parts. This was a big concern due to the fact that space was very limited on our small trailers, eliminating the luxury of traditional documentary film gear. We tried a few different prosumer cameras during tests but the weight and size eliminated them from our list of potential choices. Finally we looked into the Canon EOS 7D DSLR. We had both worked with it a little bit on music videos and short films and new its capabilities, but as a documentary film camera we weren’t sure how it would perform. The 7D didn’t have any XLR inputs to connect decent microphones, so we would also have to find an audio recording device that would potentially take up even more room. In the end we decided to go with the Canon 7D. Our audio concerns were solved by the Zoom H4 recorder and we also picked up a small GoPro Hero to get footage the 7D wouldn’t be able to achieve.
Now that our gear had been selected, all we had to do was start training. If only it could have been that easy. Finding enough money to shoot the film and right gear to make it with, took pretty much all of our time. We were about to leave on what would turn out to be one of the most challenging bike tours on the planet, and we hadn’t biked more than 30 kms to train for it. But, we were excited to go shoot a movie and figured that our endurance would come with time. And it did, except it took a little longer than anticipated. We knew that making films was a very challenging and exhausting task. When you are making a film you don’t have time for anything else. You have to stay fresh at all times. So many problems can happen at anytime and if you can’t solve them, the film can crumble. But, what we didn’t plan for was shooting a film while bike touring. We were riding between 60 and 110 kms a day on some the most unforgiving terrain. Our carts were so over loaded with food and camera gear causing a number of major bike problems each day. On top of meeting our daily footage goals we were dealing with cooking meals, finding a place to camp, setting up camp, rounding up all of our food and hanging it in a tree so bears wouldn’t come and eat us, dumping footage, screening dailies, cleaning cameras and planning for the next day of filming. It was impossible to get any sleep at first because we were dealing with close to 24 hours of sunlight. In those first 10 days it was hard enough to get out of bed, nevermind get up and pull an 18 hour day of filming and biking. About midway through week two, we started to feel a bit better on our bike and finally found our groove. We could go longer without stopping, eat less food, and drink less water. A skill that would soon come in very handy.
The first half of our trip was from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fort Nelson, BC. It had its challenges! We went over mountain ranges and dealt with some terrible head winds. Our bikes wouldn’t stop breaking down. Each of us at one point thought our bike could no longer be fixed and the trip was over. We got by with Steve’s experience and one giant roll of duct tape. At the very least we knew that if something terrible had happened, the Alaska Highway is full of people traveling in their giant RV’s and we could flag them down. Once we got to Fort Nelson, that comfort would be gone.
The last half of our journey would be from Fort Nelson, BC to Yellowknife, NWT. We were headed straight north on what would be some of the most challenging days of our lives. Over half of the remaining 1000 kilometers would be on loose gravel roads with very little services. The Liard highway is one of the most lonely and unforgiving stretches of road you will ever come across. We went days with no services, drinking out of rivers and creeks. The only food we had was hauled from Fort Nelson and our supply started to run low quickly. It was not uncommon to come across a herd of wild bison, a bear or a cat of prey. Shortly after reaching the Liard, we came across a giant sign that read “You are now leaving the 9-1-1 coverage area . We were on our own. That long gravel road was our home 24/7. We slept on it, ate on it, filmed on it and would only come across a car 2 or 3 times a day if we were lucky. Their first reaction was to always ask us if we were ok? Their second was wondering what the hell we were doing? The bugs were so bad! Up until that point none of us had experienced mosquitoes that intense and all three of us are from Southwestern Manitoba, so that says a lot. There was also swarms of wasps, hornets and black flies that followed us all day every day, biting giant bleeding chunks from our flesh. Our health began to deteriorate from lack of nutrition and bug bites. We were burning more than 5000 calories per day but only consuming about 1000. When we weren’t getting pelted with rain and mud, the sun would beam down on us for more than 14 hours. At moments the heat was so unbearable but we couldn’t shed any clothing in fear of the bugs eating us alive. But our moral stayed high. We had to keep a positive attitude. One breakdown from any of us could have been catastrophic. Our goal was to get from Whitehorse to Yellowknife in one month and at that point there was nothing that could stop us. We had to keep making kilometers no matter what. All we could do was eat, sleep, bike and film. So that’s what we did.
Chris & Ryan Mitchell