Facing Their Own Divide

When Wellspring Calgary volunteer Heather Charbonneau and her partner Ken Cook decided to turn their 2021 ‘Conquer the Divide’ bikepacking adventure into a fundraiser for Wellspring Calgary, they had no idea their plans would be radically altered, or that they would be challenged like never before.

Adventures are frequent goals for Heather and Ken, who have tackled marathons, summited mountains, embarked on multi-day backpacking and bikepacking trips, and more. In most instances they found that with preparation and training, they were able to pull off physical feats without too many hitches.

“I won’t say it was easy, but I will say that for the most part, past physical challenges came together with a certain amount of ease and predictability,” said Heather. “Which suits me, because I like to feel in control.”

But on this trip, few things seemed within their control.

The pair faced numerous COVID-related challenges leading up to their departure, forcing them to abandon their plan of a 43-day, 5,000 km ride from Jasper to New Mexico. They scaled back the route and duration not once but twice and finally settled on a 10-day, 1,000 km ride from Jasper to the U.S. border.

The sun finally made an appearance at the end of Day 2 of our ride and we were unexpected treated to a heart shaped rock pool created by previous campers.

Setting out with tempered optimism and high hopes in August, they faced a myriad of obstacles, including thick forest fire smoke, excessive winds and rain, bear encounters, and gravel roads with thickness of up to 30 cm in places. The biggest challenge however came on day five, when, Ken took a spill and broke two ribs.

“We were struggling with the gravel, having to constantly ride from the center to the edges of the road to find a decent or clear path. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, I was down on my back with the wind knocked out of me,” said Ken.

They had a GPS satellite communication device with an SOS button that would summon help if needed, but it wasn’t in their nature to wave the white flag if Ken could still be upright and able to peddle, so they carried on another 110 km to Canmore. Ken then took a taxi to Banff and Heather cycled the remainder of the route to preserve the integrity of the ride. But the next day, after a painful and smoky sleepless night, they returned home to Calgary for a brief reprieve. 

After one week of mending and a round of tests at the hospital, Ken and Heather successfully complete the last four days of their journey.

The takeaway they said, was learning patience, perseverance and flexibility. “Every time you thought things were going well, the weather or the road would deteriorate making things very difficult and the hills just never ended,” said Ken. Heather agreed, adding, “Very few times in my life, have I not known how to make it through the next minute, hour or day.”

Neither Heather nor Ken has had cancer or a life altering illness, and they were careful not to draw a parallel between their experience and those living with cancer, but they said it occurred to them that some of their challenges were a fraction of what cancer patients might face every day.

“Managing expectations, having no control, wanting to quit, not imagining how you will get through, not knowing what tomorrow will bring … that seems like a day in the life of someone living with a serious health condition like cancer,” said both – finishing each other’s sentences.

For Heather and Ken, the reward of raising $23,915 (and counting) for Wellspring Calgary made all their efforts worthwhile, but perhaps the greatest gift was gaining greater compassion for those they were aiming to help with this ride.

Quick Summary of Heather and Ken’s cycling fundraiser:

  • 9 to 12 months of training
  • 10 days of bikepacking – 1,000 km
  • Revised routes, inclement weather, broken ribs and trip interruption
  • Unexpected gifts of patience, perseverance and flexibility
  • A better understanding of people living with cancer
  • $23,915 raised for Wellspring Calgary

*Watch Heather and Ken’s Q&A

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1 Comment

  1. Love your tenacity and resilience, Heather and Ken. I’ve shared your story with cyclists in my network!


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