Cycling to stop the harm. A journey across Canada in support of progressive drug policy

By Iliajah Pidskalny

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On January 1, 2021, I hopped on my bicycle and rode from Saskatoon to Vancouver on a project called Cycle to Stop the Harm, to raise awareness around the drug poisoning crisis, drug policy reform, and mental health. Along with awareness and outreach, I raised money for Moms Stop The Harm and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition—two amazing groups among many working at the leading edge of drug policy reform, outreach, and education. Full of determination, I left with a fundraising goal of $20,000 and a bicycle packed with everything I needed to survive winter camping and cycling from the prairies, through the mountains, and to the west coast. After 29 days and roughly 1670 kilometres, I successfully arrived in Vancouver with all my toes and fingers on January 29, 2021 with a total of $25,450 raised. Above all, this meant a voice for tens of thousands of people who are otherwise unheard and a chance to raise awareness around the current drug poisoning epidemic.

Iliajah Pidskalny; 2021

During that month, I received many questions: Why bicycle? Why winter? Why during a pandemic? What did you eat? Why peanut butter? What motivated you when it was most challenging? What was your training like? What will you do afterwards? Is there a personal connection to this issue? And the most common and most important question: what harm are you referring to?

The simple response to the latter is the harm done by our current drug policies, which have been a failed model for decades. The “war on drugs” is a useful term as it emphasizes the aggression of our current approach which, like war, costs a lot of money and many lives. After decades of failure, this model contradicts evidence, logic and human rights. The drug poisoning crisis is a manifestation of the harm caused by the war on drugs and is a serious epidemic taking the lives of thousands of people.

Is there a personal connection?

No, I do not have a personal connection to overdose nor fentanyl poisoning. However, I am a human, and so I have a personal connection to other humans. I am embarrassed about this pitiful and devastating “war on drugs,” the policies of which are illogical and unjust. The policies have been justified by miseducation around drugs, drug use, and mental health, which has created a culture of stigma and accepted marginalization. Canada should take this issue more seriously before every Canadian has lost a loved one to fentanyl poisoning or overdose. There is no “us and them.” Taking a more empathetic and human rights approach to drug policies will not only expose systemic inequalities—whether socioeconomical, cultural, racial, or gender-based—it will also help us better understand mental health.

So when asked, “What harm are you referring to?”

I was ultimately referring to the harm caused by our own mind. Whether we’ve lost a loved one or are genetically prone to depression, our mind is at the root of so much suffering. Cycle to Stop the Harm was about mental health. Drug policy reform is the perfect place to increase research, understanding, and compassion regarding mental health and to decrease stigma (not to mention save tens of thousands of lives). Whether it’s depression, loneliness, anxiety, addiction, greed, hatred, or jealousy, we are all susceptible to mental and emotional ailments. That is the essence of why I began Cycle to Stop the Harm. That is why I was so motivated to bring awareness to this issue even if it meant the constant threat of hypothermia and frostbite for 29 days. I was riding for every boy and girl lost to fentanyl poisoning and for every mother and father who now suffers from their loss. I was riding for impoverished communities in Canada, Ghana, Mexico and every other country. I was riding for the rich and the poor, the religious and the atheist, the young and the old. Each day on that bicycle, I rode for every individual human.

Why bicycle?

I knew that I could bicycle and camp in the winter. I knew that a crazy journey like this could get some attention. I knew that I could give a voice to so many people who don’t have the opportunity/resources to speak up (or be heard).

Saskatchewan highway; 2021

Why winter?

I got the idea mid-December and I was not willing to wait. People say I’m impatient, but I call it enthusiastic. I also knew my journey would gain much more attention in winter than in summer. Furthermore, riding and camping in the winter highlights some (and only some) of the challenges experienced by Canadians who are homeless. After witnessing homelessness during another six-week winter bicycle journey in eastern Canada (October 23 – December 3, 2020), I wanted people to rethink the challenges of homelessness. I often wondered why people would call me adventurous or brave, yet rarely said anything like that (or anything at all) to people who live on the streets. Living outside in the winter sucks, even if you have good gear and do it by choice. I can’t imagine what it’s like involuntarily living without shelter and struggling with other barriers, including severe mental illness and stigma.

Why during a pandemic?

Although the world’s in the grips of a tragic pandemic, homelessness, addiction, depression, suicide, mental illnesses, and social inequalities don’t stop. In fact, overdose and suicide have only gone up in many communities during this time. For me personally, I wasn’t going to wait until the pandemic was “over” until I cared about these issues. I followed all pandemic protocols and was willing to take the extra challenges involved, which meant living/cycling for two weeks in a tent by myself until I could be hosted in a home. That totalled two warm homes in the month of January, and not nearly enough showering…

As for the journey itself, I’ll try to summarize some of the challenges.

Thanks to good gear, I was never cold during the night. However, every morning I had to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag and put on frozen socks, frozen boots, and frozen mitts. Overnight, my breath would precipitate as snow on the inside walls of my tent. This meant that any sudden movement, it would be snowing in my tent. I had spare dry socks, but my boots were wet (frozen), so I saved them for emergency (which was never, thankfully). Day after day, everything got more wet and more frozen.

Camping along Cycle to Stop the Harm route; 2021

After I put my frozen socks and mitts on, I would then pack up camp in the dark so that I could ride at dawn. Since I had limited daylight (especially in the beginning), I would cycle from dawn to dusk. It took a lot of time and energy to make and pack up a good winter camp everyday. I had to bicycle at least 80 km a day for it to be worthwhile. Riding 80 km was tough against prairie headwinds (consistently 50 km/hr and sometimes gusting up to 90 km/hr), but in the mountains I started averaging 120 km a day.

Once camp was packed up and the bike was ready to go, one of the hardest parts was next: shedding some layers before cycling. That always sucked. Singing and talking hysterically seemed to help. It was just a matter of cycling hard until my body would generate enough heat such that the involuntary and lifesaving shivers would stop. But, before that moment, the bitter cold seemed to desperately draw physical and mental energy out of me… day after day. Once I was fully warmed up, I cycled with only a long sleeve shirt, thin polyester leggings, and swimming trunks. Then to the next hardest part: stopping for a break. If I stopped, I would get extremely cold, shivering and teeth chattering within a few minutes (or sometimes seconds). Standing in middle-of-nowhere Canada with a shiver like that is a quick trip to severe hypothermia. My only source of heat was my body via exercise. So, I would rarely stop and only briefly. A quick sip of water (which had to be stored in a thermos) and a quick handful of as many calories as possible before cycling again. I noticed that bicycling with a mouthful of food, trying not to choke and wearing a face mask all at once was a quick way to warm up after a break.

What did I eat?

Each morning and evening I ate rice noodles with peanut butter. But to sustain me for the rest of the day, I would make energy bars from dates, chocolate, peanut butter and tortilla chips. After cycling all day, I would always get a nasty chill when I finally stopped riding in the evening. The only way to shake the chill was to set up camp as fast as I could (which worked surprisingly well every time). Then I would cook my rice noodles for dinner, often with vegetable juice or canned tomatoes and of course, peanut butter. I ate other things along the journey, especially candy in Saskatchewan and potato chips in Alberta. But, once I learned that the combination of dates, chocolate, peanut butter, and tortilla chips made me feel invincible, I never looked back. And so it was, for 29 days.

Eating a meal during Cycle to Stop the Harm; 2021

Why peanut butter?

For those who had followed the journey on social media, they noticed a consistent theme of peanut butter. It was in part a joke, but also the majority of my caloric intake. This is because it is cheap, but also because I have some serious gut health issues (IBS). My health issues have almost convinced me to stop travelling and doing adventures like this, but I’ve decided instead to adjust my lifestyle (diet) in a way that allows me to do the things that I love most. Of course, I’ve had to redefine what it is that I love most; but that, combined with peanut butter allows me to push on. (I share this to help remind people that I’m human, and to not over-romanticize my character qualities).

What motivated me when it was most challenging?

I met many people along the journey and everyone had a story—whether it was losing a friend to fentanyl poisoning or their own story about alcoholism, using heroin, or addictive shopping. Everyday, I would be reminded about who and what I was riding for: everyone and their mental health. When my toes were numb or the headwinds were gusting 90 km/hr, I just had to remind myself, “This isn’t about you, Iliajah. This is about everyone, including you.” I would look up at the mountains and think, “Be patient like the mountains, strong like the wind, and humble like the dust.”

During the month, I rarely thought about my final destination. Instead, I focused on one day at a time. Cycling and camping in the cold requires a lot of focus, and there was little time for me to celebrate or relax. Every minute was highly calculated, as I constantly danced with the threat of hypothermia and frostbite. However, when I left Manning Park at -20C one morning and arrived in Agassiz at +8C the same afternoon, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. At that moment, I knew that I had successfully completed the journey and that I would safely arrive to Vancouver in only a few more days. By the time I arrived at my official final destination, Jack Poole Plaza (at the Olympic Flame) in Vancouver, I only felt an inexplicable exhaustion from my journey and an excitement for what lay next.

Jack Poole Plaza; Vancouver; 2021

What was my training like?

I spent the last six years without a vehicle, which meant many winters and many long distance bicycle rides. My first journey was from Saskatoon to Vancouver (in the summertime when I was 18 and with a buddy), and I fell in love with long distance cycling. Since then, I’ve done long hauls in Indonesia, Cambodia, Spain, and others in Canada. My legs were ready for Cycle to Stop the Harm. However, winter is a different beast and so this time my training was focused on my mind. I’ve been lucky enough to have the time, energy, and resources (books, wifi, people) to have stumbled upon and practiced meditation. This was the key to the empathy and compassion that motivated me to embark on a bicycle journey in the dead of winter for no one in particular, yet every particular person.

What did I do afterwards?

I went to Vancouver Island and continued to bicycle for Cycle to Stop the Harm. I had closed the fundraiser and decided to focus on conversation and reducing stigma. I thought it would be a more relaxed version of my month in January, but I was very wrong. It was another month full of numb hands and feet, with wet shivering and teeth chattering battles against hypothermia. It was far more challenging than the first month because there was no endpoint. Less people were paying attention, and so my life threatening efforts felt pointless. Alas, I rode another ~500 km from Nanaimo to Campbell River, then south to Victoria, and then finally back to Nanaimo. The project ‘Cycle to Stop the Harm’ has since been put to rest, while I take some time to heal and stop harming my aching body. But, as the days get warmer and the sun shines longer, I can smell ideas blooming in my mind. The next project awaits, and will blossom when the time is right.

With love and enthusiasm
Iliajah Pidskalny

About Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

Advocating for public health- and human rights-based drug policy grounded in evidence, compassion, and social justice