A 3,000-kilometer journey from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon over 100 days.
BY HEATHER WATEROUS AND AMAYA CHERIAN-HALL
Editor’s Note: This is the story of two women who set out to complete a 3,000-kilometer human-powered traverse of the Yellowstone to Yukon wildlife corridor. After experiencing such a massive feat together, it was only right to have them tell their story in the same sort of parallel they journeyed in for five months. Their transitions are signaled by their names.
It takes a special kind of friend to say yes to a five-month backcountry trip after a 10-minute phone call. But Heather is that kind of friend. By the end of that 10-minute call in March of 2020, we had committed to a 5,000 kilometer human-powered expedition that would traverse the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) wildlife corridor.
The plan: start in Yellowstone in May and finish in Dawson City, Yukon, by early October. We would begin by hiking the Continental Divide Trail to the Canadian border, then connect to the Great Divide Trail. After four months of hiking, we would switch to bikes and cycle the Alaska Highway to Northern Canada. Our trip would finish with a 700-kilometer canoe. That was the plan. Here’s what happened.
Heather and I are both drawn to expedition- style trips because we understand the relationship that is built when you take time to travel over land. There is an intimacy and understanding that is missed from inside a car or plane. Following in the footsteps of bears and wolverines who rely on the Y2Y wildlife corridor, we would be building a connection to the land that links both of our homes: Heather’s in the mountains of British Columbia and mine in the Yukon.
That out-of-the-blue call changed many things for Amaya and me over the next two years. During that long period of preparation, we each reflected on why this trip was such a special undertaking for us. We’ve both worked in outdoor education and have had many of our own adventures. Through these experiences, we’ve learned the importance of having female role models and communities of women in the outdoors.
An adventurous woman doesn’t simply burst into being. She grows through nurturing, mistakes, hilarity, heartbreak, moments of wonder, physical pain, determination and love. Adventurous women come into being through access, support and community, not in isolation. In pursuing our dream expedition, we were following in the footsteps of many other strong, adventurous women.
Our final weeks of preparation sped by in April of 2022, food and gear purchases made possible in part due to a Women’s Expedition Grant from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. And then, quite suddenly, we were on our way. Just the two of us and Jasper the trail dog at Raynolds Pass, Montana, facing the immense prospect of the next 5,000 kilometers.
At the start of our trek we took stock of our belongings: Regretfully heavy backpacks— check. Hiking poles—check. Jasper the trail dog—check. With butterflies in our stomachs and snowshoes on our feet, it took us about 300 meters of walking to realize we had left one of our bear sprays on the roof of the car. Oops.
Energized by the excitement of finally being en-route, we trudged through forest and cow pastures and settled into a snow-covered camp for our first night. We went to bed content but apprehensive of the distance ahead.
The early days of the trip were a reality check featuring extensive side-hilling, massive snowy wolf prints, hangry tears, teamwork piggy-backs across creeks, and ultimately a difficult decision point in a winter-wonderland meadow.
We made our distance goal easily on day one, but days two and three (which were longer pushes) were another story. While we were using snowshoes, we hadn’t counted on the sheer quantity of snow. That, paired with warm temperatures, meant we were often slogging through knee-deep mush.
That afternoon found us contemplating the reality of meeting our timeline in these conditions. Wanting the expedition to be a success, we channeled our inner flexibility and changed our plans on the fly.
Our decision to reroute was immediately affirmed when Amaya woke up the next morning to swollen and painful Achilles tendons. We headed for the nearest road, stuck out our thumbs and hitched a ride.
And so it was that Heather and I found ourselves in Lima, Montana, three days early.
Lima is a small, quintessential roadstop town. Over the trip, Heather and I passed through Lima three different times and became sentimental toward the place. We booked a motel room and began replanning the first two months of our trip. Re-hashing an expedition of this magnitude—which required booking popular campsites half a year in advance—was no small feat, logistically or emotionally. Thankfully, my flexible nature and Heather’s attention to detail allowed us to come up with a great new plan.
After a brief flirtation with potentially road-walking, we decided to bike. Our new plan involved biking back to Yellowstone, exploring the park, then roughly following the Continental Divide Mountain Bike Route to the U.S.-Canadian border where we hoped to rejoin our hiking itinerary. Heather’s parents very generously drove down and traded us our bikes and panniers for Jasper, and we were off again.
Our revised route and mode of travel proved successful. Though injuries would continue to accompany us both (Amaya’s Achilles remained stubborn, and I developed a persistently grumpy knee), we cycled onward. Throughout the rest of our trip, we were able to continue supporting each other in difficult physical and emotional moments, and ultimately made our trip work for both of us—because this trip was for both of us. The whole experience is now made up of a tapestry of memories, ones we will always look back upon fondly. And it truly began with us backtracking into Yellowstone National Park.
Our first night in Yellowstone found us quietly sitting by the edge of the Madison River, engrossed in capturing the magic of the evening glow in watercolors. We were surprised by some bison splashing through the river in front of us; a sight that had us both grinning as we gathered up our paints and notebooks.
Bison are ubiquitous in Yellowstone, though this hasn’t always been the case. Exploring Yellowstone by bike was surprisingly intimidating when it came to navigating both tourist traffic and herds of these thousand-pound animals. Throughout the park, the picture beyond our handlebars was painted with the jewel tones of geysers, while our hearts were full of the Tracy Chapman songs I belted out nonstop on a number of long descents while Amaya drafted me and giggled at my ecstatic singing.
At home, I often feel tired in the middle of the day for no reason. When tired on a trip, though, I know I have earned it. One day, outside Yellowstone, we were biking in freezing sideways sleet and there was nothing we could do but ride faster. The power of the storm thrummed in our numb legs. Unable to decide between laughing, crying or screaming as water streamed up our sleeves and down our collars, we scream-laughed our way down the highway. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so cold, and it’s rare that I’ve felt so strong.
Not all days were a battle against the elements. We spent a glorious week exploring the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. Book-ended by idyllic hot springs on one end and a 15-kilometer downhill on-bike dance party on the other, the byway stands out as both a relaxing respite and raucously hilarious time.
Northern Montana in June graced us with cold, clear lakes, freshly blooming flowers on the bones of old forest fires and friendly fellow bikers heading in all directions. Many towns in that area and their residents have embraced cycling culture. Ovando, Montana, offered us a plethora of free accommodation options including a tent, the basement of a church and an old jail. Elsewhere, homeowners shared their guest rooms and dinner tables. The owners of a little Alpaca farm treated us to lunch and we let ourselves be convinced to spend the night. We were often invited to camp, even when campgrounds were full. One campground host shared his fire and showed us the beautiful fairy houses he was carving. Surprising us, this unassuming man also told us of the murder mystery novel he was writing and of his former life as a detective and forensic artist.
While there was comfort in the communities we found along the way, we also enjoyed peaceful quiet. We each did a solo hike to Morrell Falls in the Swan Mountain Range of Montana. Pre-dawn, I sang to myself as I walked, feeling an immense level of gratitude for all the beautiful places we’d been. I rounded a corner to the misty falls and walked right into the spray, basking in the feeling of a million tiny
We also rode separately up the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park; each reveling in our own special moments of mountain solitude. We had left at the crack of dawn and were the first and only ones at the top as the sun rose over the park’s iconic peaks.
Each day was its own experience; occasionally one contrasting completely with the next.
On June 15, we went to bed early, too cold to enjoy sitting outside. The following day, we biked in 90-degree heat while climbing a 600-meter pass as the sun baked into the black asphalt. Somehow, between one short shady stop and Kendrick Lamar’s new album pumping through my headphones, we made it to the top of the pass, one sweat-inducing pedal stroke at a time. Overjoyed by the cool breeze on our way down, we blew right past our campsite.
It seemed juxtapositions were everywhere, from the “wild” of protected park lands butting up against towns, cities and ranch lands, to prairies meeting the Rocky Mountains.
While we passed through the ever-changing landscapes, we fell into a routine made up of the vital constants that marked each passing day.
We began each morning with a session of core work, push- ups and stretching; listening to the birds and our bodies. Even now, we try to keep each other accountable to this routine from afar—though it’s not quite the same feeling in my living room as on a grassy hill under a pink dawn above the Yukon River, having finished our crossing of Lake Laberge the previous evening.
We finished each day curled in our sleeping bags, writing in our daily journals and listening to an audiobook. Our “story time” became a way to unwind, aided by the trade of nightly massages. We helped each other soothe sore muscles as books soothed our tired minds.
The consistency in our routines and our companionship created a sense of a traveling, two-person community that was briefly immersed in many other community bubbles along the way. Upon reaching Canada, this feeling was both amplified and challenged as we left our bikes behind and began the hiking section of our trip.
At this point Amaya took a two-week break to rest her Achilles tendons, and I began hiking the Great Divide Trail without her; a foreign feeling after her constant presence the previous two months.
I reveled in the utter solitude of my hiking days, grateful to have so many special moments for just myself and simultaneously desperately wishing I could be sharing other moments with Amaya.
One particular night, the wildest storm I’ve ever experienced thrashed around me in my tent. I cried and wished to share the sleeplessness of the night with a friend before eventually drifting off. The following morning, I woke to an eerie sunrise. The storm, refusing to move on, was whipping the tent around. I knew I would soon be racing the same storm along the castle-like ridge. Despite the absurdity of the night before, and knowing that the coming day would be challenging, I laughed at the sun-painted sky and sealed the memory of the moment away.
The next day, my knee became a serious problem and I was once again thrown into the turmoil of the unknown and the necessity to re-plan a section of our trip. This involved Amaya taking on some solo hiking time while I sought medical attention and let my body heal as best I could.
Heather and I met up before I began hiking. She passed off some gear and we talked about what our trip could look like going forward. At different points we had both come to terms with one of us carrying on and finishing the trip alone. We were one another’s cheerleaders, and I felt Heather rooting for me as I set off.
I always thought the world-famous parks of the Rockies were overrated. Now, having spent a few weeks linking one spectacular trail to another, running into bears, moose, marmots and more, I understand why Heather had chosen to build herself a life in this part of the world.
I wasn’t sure how my Achilles were going to hold up so I started slow, progressing from traveling 10 kilometers in a day to 30. Each day brought new mountain ridges, Jasper’s constantly wagging tail, and a feeling of euphoria. The peaceful walking also allowed plenty of time for reflection and I realized that the best way to finish this trip would be with my friend. Heather picked me up from Yoho National Park and we road- tripped through Northern British Columbia up to the Yukon.
Arriving in Whitehorse, surrounded by Amaya’s welcoming family, was a milestone. For so long, the Yukon had felt out of reach.
The rawness of the late summer Yukon landscape followed us into our canoes onto the Yukon River, across Lake Laberge, and onward downstream. Our pebble-beach camps, the late summer mosquitoes, a hint of fall in the air and unexpected wildlife around each bend all breathed a sense of aliveness back into me that had been missing after my three-week hiatus from the expedition. Falling asleep to the sounds of the river calmed my ever-busy mind.
We woke early on our final morning, poised to make it to Dawson City and off the river in time for the Annual Outhouse Race. This weird and wonderful race, with teams of absurdly dressed participants pulling outhouses on wheels, embodies the eclectic northern town. Dawson is a melting pot of gold-rush history, defined by its quirky traditions and equally quirky people. The day unfolded to include a reunion with Amaya’s mum, a failed attempt at the Sour-Toe cocktail (they were closed!), and a David Bowie tribute band. It was a night of dancing past when our feet hurt; the grins never leaving our faces and the laughter pouring from our lips. As a last, surreal way to say goodbye to a wild, challenging and wonderful expedition, we made the paddle back to our camp across the river in the dark at 3 a.m., just as we had started: as a team.
Late August found us parting ways, the expedition at a close, after exactly 100 days of moving our bodies across expanses of landscape.
Eight months post-trip, we reflect on the more than 3,000 kilometers we traveled by bike, foot, and boat, and why this experience had such an impact on us. I will leave you with this:
There is something about the mountains, specifically soaring rock-and-snow peaks at dawn, that cracks open our hearts and fills them with a glowing giddiness and simultaneous feeling of timelessness and insignificance. There is something about the endless plains and the constant movement of rivers that embodies the infinite and makes it tangible. And there is something about the love and companionship of a friend who truly sees all sides of you, day-in and day-out, that holds space for the wildness, tenderness and vulnerability that lives inside of each of us. I have rarely felt all this at any other point, in any other place.
Heather Waterous lives and works in Invermere, BC. In her free time, she can be found mountain biking, skiing, playing crib, dancing in the kitchen, or cuddling her two cats (Miro & Nebs) or her partner’s pup (Otto). Actually, your best bet for finding her is cuddling with one or more of the animals.
Amaya Cherian-Hall lives in a cabin with her dog in the woods of northern Canada. She loves spending time outside, playing board games, and eating. “I have never seen Amaya not eating” – quote from a friend