When Victoria’s Joseph Boutilier decided he wanted to trek across Canada to call for political action on climate change, he knew he needed to make his journey unique.
“A lot of folks do the ‘cross-country for a cause’ thing, and it’s a little hard to stand out from the crowd,” he said.
That’s where the unicycle came in.
On April 5, the 24-year-old set off from his hometown of Victoria, B.C., on a 5,000-kilometre unicycle ride across Canada to call on the Canadian government to take action on climate change.
Now only five weeks away from the end of his challenge, Boutilier plans to arrive on Parliament Hill on Sept. 15, where he will demand Canadian politicians make climate change a top priority heading into the 2015 federal election. Boutilier said he hopes to meet with Leona Aglukkaq, Nunavut’s MP and Canada’s minister of environment, as well as the opposition critics and party leaders.
While the 5,000-plus-kilometre journey on a single-wheeled bike without handlebars might seem nearly impossible, Boutilier said he actually considers the ride “the easy part.”
“Ottawa will be the challenge,” he said. “I don’t want to take all this time and then have nothing to show for it.”
Speaking to Metro by cell phone from the narrow shoulder of a highway about 10 kilometres west of Blind River, Ont., the four-month solo cross-country journey has been challenging for Boutilier.
The first hurdle? Learning to ride the unicycle, which he only attempted to master a few months before setting off from Victoria.
Riding without a support team, Boutilier said the extra weight of carrying his gear and backpack has caused repetitive strain injuries, such as “back pain, blisters, shin splints, the usual stuff.”
He added that many of the highways on which he is riding also have incredibly narrow shoulders that are less than friendly for bikes, let alone a unicycle.
Although the weather has been mostly cooperative during his journey, Boutilier said he encountered massive rain storms in Manitoba that washed away the highway shoulders, forcing him off his unicycle for several days while he continued on foot, all the while being eaten alive by mosquitoes.
“It was pretty miserable,” he said. “But, luckily, that’s behind me now.”
When road conditions are optimal, however, Boutilier said rides his unicycle for six or seven hours a day, spending nights wherever he can find a place to rest, from campgrounds to hotels and motels that have been kind enough to sponsor him during the ride.
On the nights he gets stuck, however, Boutilier said he sets up his tent in the bushes along the side of the highway.
When the journey seems impossible, he said he only has to remember the cause that inspired his adventure and he is motivated to keep going. The encouragement he gets from people he has met along the way also helps, he said.
“People have been very supportive of the cause,” he said.
Slightly ahead of schedule, Boutilier said he plans on adding an extra leg to his route, dipping down into southern Ontario before he makes his way to the nation’s capital early in September. There, he hopes supporters will meet with him on the steps of Parliament Hill to draw attention to the cause.
While he hopes the uniqueness of his unicycle will draw supporters, Boutilier said he also doesn’t want to see it overshadow the climate cause.
“It’s a great icebreaker, and that’s the main thing,” he said. “Even if it is the unicycle that draws attention, at least I get to say why I’m doing this.”