by Milo Pierwola
Ryan Clarkson was told he would never walk again.
But they didn’t say he’d never hike.
At 22, Ryan suffered a lower spinal injury resulting in a prognosis that he would never use his legs again. Bedridden and pushing through unimaginable pain he refused this reality and denied fate, camping and hiking on his own over 15,000 km / 9,320 miles in one go through Canada and the United States’ great northern territories.
Disaster struck when Ryan was saving up for a solo trip to backpack across Asia. He took an opportunity to earn money by repairing cracks in Canada’s great highways. He always had ambition that outpaced his friends and, although on his own, this job also afforded him the opportunity to travel through the northern provinces. Ryan made it to the town of Steward on the border of Alaska where he was hit in a motor vehicle accident. His lower spine mutilated, every doctor he spoke to told him one thing; that he would never walk again.
Ryan refused this diagnosis and literally taught himself to walk over the next two excruciating years. This, he says, is when he learned his number one rule: “No bitching. No complaining.”
The next step was getting back on track outdoors and, with blunt deliberation in his voice, Ryan expressed, “I didn’t know anyone else that had done this. So, I researched it and went for it.” And with that, he embarked on a 5 week trip through Canada’s British Columbia into the Yukon Territory, alone. He admits that for the first few nights he regretted his decision as he found himself in rain with soaking wet terrain and plagues of bugs. However, he endured the intense learning curve and soon discovered a new-found freedom.
With methodical effort, every day on the trail dissolves the boundaries of his disability further. Although he is still confined to his wheelchair for the most part, he is now able to hike 1 km on his canes and improves every day. He has outfitted this wheelchair with a freewheel; a device that allows him to upturn the chair into a tricycle and carry heavy loads on his lap. In addition, he has added racing wheels that are lighter and don’t track mud, and has a honeycomb seat that he can remove when it starts raining at night. With a pop-up tent, he is now able to set up his camp and be sitting in his anti-gravity chair within ten minutes to enjoy a sunset with a glass of wine in his hand.
Unforgiving conditions with no recourse have made Ryan so efficient that he would put most anyone else to shame. He has invented accessories such as a tarp attached to his chair serving as an emergency weather shelter, mastered what he calls the “ninja chop” that splits off kindling in just a handful of swings with a half-hatchet, and built up an attitude towards bugs that rivals the tenacity of the greatest men. “The more you worry, the more they’ll get at you;” he says and refuses pests that pleasure.
His resolve is unyielding even to debilitating catastrophes. He recalls a time that, within 48 hours, three of his tires and two donuts blew out on him on the Dempster Highway. He admits in retrospect that it would cost much less and be less worrisome to purchase an emergency communication device. However, Ryan calmly described that the point at which he was sitting on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere waiting for what could be days, he felt confident and was prepared for the worst. Within hours, a passerby with a satellite phone was able to help a tow truck repair his vehicle.
Today, Ryan believes that the only thing that has changed is the locations of his visits and times to reach them but admits that it also takes meticulous planning. The only things he needs are a flat, hard-packed campground, plenty of firewood, and water. He collects the water and firewood diligently along the way and carries spare fire logs and water purification tablets. As for the campgrounds, while he often gambles on the advice of locals and old logging roads, his method of finding spots involves plenty of research. He spends hours zooming in on the often out-of-date Google Maps Satellite View to identify clearings, vistas, and accessible points of interest.
Ryan describes this passion steadfastly and with resolve, his voice does not reveal any greater challenge than common concerns of weather and a nice view. Generally, rain dictates motion and in the worst cases he just knocks back his car seat and doses off. But for the most part, there is never a moment that he feels it takes too much effort or that he is limited. He has now done multiple trips that spanned over 10,000 km / 6,200 miles and is planning his next visit over the US Rockies. It is accomplishing each whole journey that gives him satisfaction;
“I feel like I grew an inch when I come back – I feel fulfilled.”
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