Joseph Boutilier rolled into Grand Forks this week, not in a car, truck or bus, nor a bicycle, motorcycle or scooter. His mode of transportation is a unicycle and he is taking that unicycle straight to Ottawa to raise awareness on global climate issues.
“Basically, I’m going to raise a big stink. That’s the long and short of it,” he said, laughing.
Boutilier plans on being in Ottawa by mid-September, in time for the fall opening of the parliament. He’s hoping that he will catch politicians when they are feeling fresh and not too inundated with politics.
One of the things he’d like to see is political parties working together across party lines regardless of if the next government is a minority government. He’d also to see a “willingness to think outside the box” and a strong plan for the future.
“We really need to develop a real national energy plan,” he said.
When he gets to Ottawa, he’d like many people to join him as he approaches parliament. He’s a member of the group Climate Fast and has also been talking with Citizens Climate Lobby. If he can raise awareness as he crosses Canada, he will hopefully have a large enough gathering to make an impression in the nation’s capital.
Boutilier has been interested in climate change since he went to a United Nations children’s conference in Victoria in 2000.
“It was like a bubble burst,” he said, adding that the lack of progress has been frustrating at times.
Since then, he’s studied as much as he can about the issue.
“It’s a passion,” he said. “I don’t pretend to be an expert but I do believe the scientific consensus that exists. I have faith in scientists over politicians.”
He’s known for years that he wanted to do something to raise awareness. Even though he didn’t know exactly what his plans were, he started setting aside money for this “something” that he would do.
Eventually he decided it would be riding a unicycle across Canada. This, he admits, surprised everyone.
“At first they didn’t believe me,” he said, of his family and friends. “They were supportive but as they realized this was going to happen … they were still supportive but more anxious and supportive.”
Boutilier had ridden a unicycle occasionally as a child but never mastered it because he didn’t have his own. Over Christmas he picked it up again, and eventually bought his own unicycle. He opted for a 29-inch wheel over the 36-inch touring wheel because the 29-inch wheel is easier and he’s still mastering getting on – a skill that can take up to a year to nail down.
“The 29-inch wheel is booming. It’s getting popular in the new unicycle scene,” he said laughing. It’s not surprising that the scene isn’t that large. According to Boutilier, there is a bicycle shop in Victoria that sells some unicycles, a store in Vancouver that is more specialized and in Toronto there is store that is dedicated to the unicycle world.
His uncle, a machinist, created a frame for the unicycle that lets him pack his gear: a tent, sleeping bag, water, food, clothes and other supplies.
He’s already had to tent during parts of his trip, as he doesn’t always make it across a mountain pass before it’s time stop. He credits good gear for making the trip easier.
Boutilier left Victoria on April 5 and has been covering 35 to 40 km a day. It’s slow-going, he said, adding the most he can really do is 60 km. The unicycle has many challenges, some due to him being a new rider.
“It’s like riding in a very low gear all the time,” he said. “There’s no coasting. As long as the wheel is turning, the pedals are turning.”
Everything is exaggerated on a unicycle from the slightest inclines and declines, to potholes and the banking of the road. Boutilier said that it’s actually harder to go downhill because he has to use the handbrake to slow him down, which throws off his balance. He admits he’s taken a few tumbles.
Grand Forks was a bit of a break for him. He came through the Boundary slowly, stopping first in Rock Creek and then in Greenwood. His family and friends met up with him and the Imperial Motel in Grand Forks gave him a deal, which let him rest for a few days.
He had planned on staying a week, but was rethinking his plans on Wednesday, saying an earlier start would put him ahead of schedule.
Most of his route is mapped out, but he’s ready to change it depending on weather, fatigue and advice from locals. After leaving Grand Forks, he planned on stopping in Christina Lake so he could rest overnight before tackling the Paulson Pass. There, he expected to sleep at the Nancy Greene campsite before cruising into Castlegar.
He has some accommodations in place along the way, but is always happy when people or businesses offer a bed for him to sleep. The major cities are covered, but it’s harder for him to find accommodations in the smaller towns. He’s not only looking for accommodations, but for conversation both with local politicians and other like-minded people.
This is not usually a problem as his unicycle stands out. He says it’s a great conversation starter.
“It’s novel, and noteworthy,” he said. “It’s a great icebreaker.”
He’s had all kinds of reaction along the way. Some people don’t pay him any mind, others laugh uncontrollably and many people approach him to share their own local efforts to create a carbon neutral community or, occasionally, a unicycle story.
Boutilier says he’s really happy that he made the decision to ride the unicycle across Canada, although he doubts he will ever do it again.
“I think a five-month trip is enough.”