To The Top Canada!

To The Top Canada!

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

To The Top Canada!

I have one love—Canada; One purpose— Canada’s greatness; One aim—Canadian unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Former Prime Minister John G. Diefenbacker

I could not sleep. I quietly stared at the ceiling. Ten hours left before the media conference that would begin the To The Top Canada! expedition. Like a racehorse in the starting gate, I was ready to go. I knew I was about to start the most challenging year of my life.

A short time later, in the cold morning air, I pushed my heavily loaded mountain bike from the beach up to the road. Accompanied by an army of local cyclists, I pulled out of Point Pelee. It was March 1, 1997, and the To The Top Canada! expedition had begun! A large contingent of media was there to see me off, and I pulled out the big Canadian flag that I’d bought for the Montreal Rally back in 1995. People cheered and waved as I went by, and cars honked their horns. As they followed my progress across Canada, the media quickly dubbed me “The Unity Guy.”

The emotional rally in Montreal before the Québec Referendum in October 1995 had changed my life. My eleven-year-old son, James, was at my side. Like so many Canadians, we were filled with anxiety about the referendum’s outcome. That day, tens of thousands of Canadians made a difference by coming to Montreal and standing tall for Canada. I knew then that I had do something myself. Something personal, something to help make Canada a better country.

And so it was that the To The Top Canada! expedition was born. By cycling, alone, the 6,520 kilometres from Point Pelee to Tuktoyaktuk, I’d be the first person in history to travel from the bottom of Canada to the very top—under his own power. The second and more important goal of the expedition was to get Canadians’ attention and ask them one question: “What will you do to make Canada a better country than when you found it?” The expedition wasn’t so much about being the first to travel to the top of Canada, as it was a dream to take Canada to the top of its potential.

As a professional speaker I’d travelled to many countries, and I knew Canada was the best of them all. I knew the greatest legacy I could leave my son was a strong, united Canada. Even at his age, he realized the growing pains we faced as a nation. That rally in Montreal changed his life, too, and when I announced I was leaving home for almost a year to fight for Canada, he understood. My wife, Carol, also understood my passion, and as a family we decided to cash in our life savings to allow the To The Top Canada! expedition to go forward. I believed if thirty million Canadians each did one personal project to make Canada better, the result would be a synergy that would empower our country and exceed everyone’s expectations.

I didn’t look like a cyclist; at 272 pounds I looked more like a retired linebacker for the Hamilton Ti-Cats. And at age forty-one I was about to start a near-impossible journey. Roads in Canada go only as far north as Inuvik in Canada’s Arctic, and then they stop. Once in Inuvik, I would have to wait for the middle of the Arctic winter when the mighty Mackenzie River froze. Then, in total darkness and temperatures of -50°C, I would ride my mountain bike on an ice trail down the centre of the river, then out onto the Arctic Ocean to reach Tuktoyaktuk. Many cynics and critics thought I could never pull it off, but I was determined to prove them wrong.

As the days passed, and I rode in and out of communities, people would recognize “the unity guy” they had seen on TV. The month of May found me along the shores of Lake Superior, and by early June, I was approaching Thunder Bay. As I passed the Terry Fox Memorial, I remembered the emotional day when I’d seen Canada’s greatest hero sprint to Toronto City Hall, and it inspired me on. After that, when things got very rough and discouragement set in, I’d think of Terry—he never gave up, and neither would I.

On July 1, I reached Yorkton, Saskatchewan, did a radio interview and participated in Canada Day celebrations. The local high school band played “O Canada,” and I spoke passionately to the crowd about my love for Canada. They came alive when I had them cheer, “I Am Canadian!”

After the blistering hot days of the prairie summer, I rode through the Rockies and into the beautiful fall days of British Columbia. After that I faced weather that got progressively colder. On September 17, I rode into Dawson City, Yukon. It was eighty-two kilometres off my route, but its history seemed too important to miss. The city still had the spirit of the Klondike—all the buildings, the dirt roads and the wooden walkways looked like they were fresh from 1898.

I had now cycled over 6,000 kilometres. The gears on my mountain bike were stripped, and I was exhausted after fighting hundreds of kilometres of mountains and mud on the dirt trail called the Dempster Highway. I was tired, wet, hungry and cold, and very glad to arrive in Fort McPherson, a Gwich’in First Nation community just north of the Arctic Circle. So far I’d spoken from my heart in forty-seven cities, to over five million Canadians. Now, during a radio interview with Bertha Francis, radio host for Gwich’in station CBQM, I spoke enthusiastically about the U.N. Report that had ranked Canada “number one”—the best country in the world in terms of education, health care and income—not just once, but three years in a row!

That’s when Bertha jumped in with excitement and exclaimed: “Canada is the best country in the world, and we should all be thankful we have been blessed with an abundance of caribou and berries!”

It took a moment, but then the significance of her words struck me like a bolt of lightning. For people who lived off the land, caribou and berries meant the difference between life and death. Bertha hadn’t said to be thankful for nice clothes, or a new car, or a big house. What she had really said was to be thankful you are alive, and living in this great country!

On September 29, I awoke to a heavy blanket of snow, and once back on the road, the mud was even worse than before. With all my dry winter clothes gone and almost no food left, I decided to ride straight on to Inuvik, still 112 kilometres away. Around 8:00 P.M., hungry and thirsty, I met a family who called out, “You’ve made it! You’ve made it to the top!” And the whole family clapped and cheered from their truck.

Now I had to rest my expedition until the Mackenzie River froze. Finally, on January 5, in the midst of the total darkness of the Arctic winter, I began the last leg of my journey. With special protective clothing, goggles and a face mask, I battled Arctic winds and ploughed through snow in temperatures colder than -50°C. I was startled to discover that rather than hugging the coast, the ice trail actually went five to ten kilometres out into the Arctic Ocean. There were cracks in the ice with seawater gushing out, and as I rode on alone, the cracking sounds made me shiver. Even so, I marvelled at the incredible beauty of the northern lights as they glowed fluorescent green and looked like shimmering curtains that danced in the sky. I was exhilarated and thankful to be alive.

On Wednesday January 7, 1998, I proudly carried my Canadian flag over the last few metres, and was welcomed by a mass of media and community elders when I arrived at a school in Tuktoyaktuk. It was packed with young and old, and as I wheeled my bike into the gym, they made a tunnel for me through the crowd. It was lined with Tuktoyaktuk drummers, and everyone was clapping and cheering. A giant multicoloured “CONGRATULATIONS!” sign ran the length of the gym. Tears came to my eyes from the warmth that poured from the entire community. After the formalities, the mayor of “Tuk” introduced the drummers, and then the dancers performed in my honour.

As I left the gym, a crowd surrounded me—people shook my hand and patted my back. It was a moment that money could never buy. I let the feeling sink in, knowing I’d treasure the memory for the rest of my life. Later I called my wife; she had already heard me on the CBC, and friends were calling to say they had as well. I was thrilled to know my Canadian unity message was spreading across Canada like wildfire. I’m proud to say my journey was a success—it sent a message to all Canadians that any dream is possible to make Canada the best country in the world during the twenty-first century!

Chris Robertson
Hamilton, Ontario

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners