By Ian Croft
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
For most people a bike ride is either a method of transportation or a leisure activity. However, for Henk Van Dillen, a cyclist from the Netherlands, it is a way for him to experience and push through overwhelming challenges.
“I am an enthusiastic cyclist, and there’s a few cyclists – most of them are from Italy and also from England – who like to go into extreme winter weather,” said Van Dillen, who was a recent visitor to Taber during his North American cycling tour. “I’ve been doing a journey in 2018 where I cycled a short part — just a month in Norway and Russia. I went from St. Petersburg up to Murmansk, that was in the winter just to find out if I would like it, and in 2015 I have been cycling from the Netherlands to Singapore for one year. That was about eight years ago. I work for about four to five years then I quit everything and go out for some months to do this, and for me it’s like a reset. Why did I do that in the winter? Because I just like the winter. It might be sounding strange, and maybe it’s not that nice. (But) up north in Alaska and Yukon it’s remote and it’s not what I’m used to. In the Netherlands it’s also packed and our national parks are a joke compared to what’s up here.”
Following this Van Dillen provided an example of how this is a great experience for him.
“For example, being on the Icefields Parkway it’s one of the (most) beautiful roads in the world, and in the winter, there is no one. The campgrounds are empty — there are cars so people going up and down from Jasper and Banff — I have to shovel the snow away they’re so empty. Staying in the shelters, making a fire, warming up from a day of cycling and then sitting down and just be there in the silence, I really like it. The winter it makes me humble because my day is decided not by how good I do but by the weather. (If) the weather is going to be -30 I’m going to have a very hard day, and I’m going to be very tired, but if the next day the sun is up, the sun is warming and suddenly it’s the best day ever because it was so challenging. I’m the kind of person who likes to struggle.”
Following this Van Dillen briefly went over where his journey started.
“I’m going down (from Alaska). I started at (the winter) solstice day in Coldfoot Camp in Alaska, and it was the hardest condition because it was the shortest day of the year. It was right before Christmas, at the Yukon River it was -45, and by going down it will be more sunlight, the weather would be warmer because it took a long time. I’m a person who likes to be alone, that’s probably important, too. Otherwise you shouldn’t be there alone.”
Following this Van Dillen continued to hammer home how much he enjoys the challenge as well as touching on how every time he goes on one of these marathon cycling endeavours, he learns new things to help him on his next one.
“Although I am looking forward to being in California sitting down with an ice cream, but I think that the challenge is appealing to me. It kind of tests me,” said Van Dillen. “When I started, I was so fearful of the cold, but being there for one or two weeks you get used to it. Normally I am very easy-going peaceful person but I have to have something where I think I have to do that. I have been on the Tibetan plateau in China when it was approaching winter, and there I didn’t have the proper gear. I remember one night that my tent was wet and I took it out, but the wind was chill so it all froze down. Then I started to struggle with all these problems that the cold brings, and I like that. I was like, ‘Ok, how should I deal with it when it’s colder.’ Then after that, I brought a warm sleeping bag. Then the cold was coming from the ground so if I have a warm sleeping bag but don’t have a good sleeping pad or a system that blocks the cold coming in from the ground then I’m cold, too. All these odd things it kind of tracked me to find the more extremes, and in Europe, I’d like to be in the Alps going up, dealing with the altitude. I think I’m the kind of person who likes the adventure.”
Van Dillen also went into a little bit more detail on how this relentless challenge helps him obtain a form of meditation.
“If I’m there, then I’m there because the cold takes away everything for me because that moment I need to deal with that situation,” said Van Dillen. “It’s like an extreme form of meditation. That’s how I see it. My mind is only there in the struggle, in dealing with that circumstance. When I was cycling from the Netherlands to Singapore on the Tibetan plateau I had to deal with those circumstances, but for me it was more like, ‘hey, this is interesting’ in Russia. I started without a thermos so my bottles would freeze up. I should’ve thought about it. I should’ve bought a thermos. That’s how I kind of improved, and for me, that’s a passion. Some people would do wood carving and they would buy a machine and make something more precise. For me, it’s being in the cold where that happens, and it was very uncomfortable, so I can help prepare myself better for next time.”
After this Van Dillen touched on why exactly he stopped in Taber.
“I kind of knew this, but I never gave it much thought when I was far away but when I got closer, especially when I was in Banff, some of my relatives in the Netherlands informed my mother saying, ‘you know you have family in Canada, right?’ I’m a second cousin of the people who had started farming back in the days here. They moved in 1952 so someone from my family told me that there was family in Taber. Then in Banff — I like the mountains, I want to follow the mountains. The reason why I’m in Taber is because I have family. I was in Banff and I first thought let’s rent a car and go up and down because I don’t like to be too much on the prairies with my bike because it’s all the same all the way, so I’d like to be in the mountains. The car rental, and all that stuff is too expensive. The cheaper rentals were just fully booked. I just decided to get out of the Rockies, go here to Taber and then once I leave, I will go back to the Rocky Mountains in Glacier National Park. Just basically here for a family visit.”
Finally, Van Dillen discussed how he doesn’t really plan his long cycling trips as well as how the ending is far more satisfying due to the challenge he faces while on the journey.
“I found the mountains so appealing because it makes me feel so small and one place I really want to visit is the redwoods,” said Van Dillen. “You know there’s big trees and I don’t plan much. I just go to a place. Then I talk with people, and from there I kind of plan. For example, here in Taber, was eating with some people with a map and they said, ‘If you want to stay in the mountains, you should go to this place.’ That’s what I’m doing now to see the big redwood trees and be along the coast, it’s comfortable. Then I can sit there at the beach with a margarita. If I were to go there and then drink a margarita, it would be different than going all the way through three months of this hardship of winter. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment. It feels like I’ve been through all these days and cold, then it got better, then I got into the mountains again and it was hard, that storm came, whatever, but now I’m here on the beach enjoying whatever I have with me. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
If interested you can go to http://www.henkvandillen.net to see the earlier part of Van Dillen’s journey through North America, and receive updates as he continues to cycle south.