Saskatoon cyclist riding to Vancouver to shine spotlight on drug overdose crisis

Saskatoon’s Iliajah Pidskalny is riding his bicycle to Vancouver to raise awareness of the drug overdose crisis in Canada. His journey is largely self-supported: Because of the pandemic, the 25-year-old — who attended Mother Teresa elementary school and St. Joseph High School — is camping along the way. We connected with Iliajah last week to find out more about his ride and how things are going so far.

When did you leave Saskatoon?

January 1st.

How many kms are you averaging each day?

70 to 80 km so far, but lowest was 50 and highest was 96.

Why did you choose Vancouver as your destination?

West is best haha. I wasn’t going to bike east (I was just over there cycling from Quebec City heading west until Lake Huron). As for the route, Calgary and Banff is a shorter route than Edmonton-Jasper, starting from Saskatoon. I also know people along this way, which can serve as emergency contacts.

After Banff I’ll go Golden, Revelstoke, then south to Kelowna and cross way down at Crowsnest Pass instead of Coquihalla. This is because there are a few more towns in crows nest. The Coquihalla is a long stretch without civilization, with quickly changing, high mountain weather. Due to the limited daylight and all my heavy winter gear, my mileage is very limited right now and I didn’t want to risk getting caught up there for a few days with no town or service.

What prompted you to take this on? Do you have a personal connection to the issue?

A big reason I wanted to do this was because I’ve always loved living on the road like this but couldn’t help but think about all the homeless people who don’t do this for fun. As well, even my version (my travelling dirtbag version) is often illegal. It made me realize that it’s often illegal to be homeless. For example, where one sleeps, pees, or even where one sits down or where one walks (if you look homeless, it’s considered loitering).

I think that the overdose crisis is only the tip of the iceberg. I think shedding light on overdoses and taking new empathic approaches to drug policies will help expose many socioeconomic challenges which force people into a life of drug abuse or homelessness. I also think the new empathic policies MUST and will emphasize mental health, which will help lower stigma about mental health and increase research and understanding about it, which will not only help those who live through trauma in crime-ridden neighbourhoods but also those who live a safe “privileged” life but still fall into the grips of depression, anxiety, drug abuse (potentially overdose) or suicide. So no, there isn’t necessarily a personal connection other than I’m a person and so is everyone else.

Where are you sleeping?

Camping. Because of the pandemic, I have to limit visits with people to every two weeks or something close to that. Besides, I want people to be scared about me freezing to death because that is a reality to tens of thousands of homeless people.

It’s always blown my mind with how much help I get from people when I’m travelling, living like a dirtbag, but when I go through Toronto or Vancouver, people are lying in the streets ASKING for help, and nobody looks at them. These poor peoples, regardless of how they got there, are not having a good time (I’ve talked to many of them and that’s what they’ve indicated on all occasions, although many of them have hope and seem more human than the humans who walk right past them and ignore them). Sorry, I’m ranting a bit.

I’ll stop somewhere in Canmore and Kelowna and other than that, I’m in my tent.

What has been the highlight of the trip so far?

The highlight of the trip is each day haha. I suppose there are a lot of things I could say but I just try to focus on each day. If I think about cycling to Vancouver, it seems outrageously challenging. But I know that I’ve planned each day such that, I can do each day. So every day I think “just get to __ today, that’s all”. If I can do that every day, then BOOM! I suppose the most recent highlight was hitting the Alberta border, where after 5 days of the same windy prairies, I hit a landmark that reminded me that I was indeed making progress.

Any low points or particularly challenging aspects of this adventure?

The toughest is the wind. I’ve ridden bicycle tours like this in Indonesia, Spain and all over Canada. It hasn’t changed… the wind is the worst part. My number 1 enemy. I often taken winding and steep mountains just to avoid the wind. But riding through the prairies has it’s own challenges beyond the wind. The scenery doesn’t change so you get this weird hypnotic sensation — like Groundhog Day (the movie) — where you just wake up and bike against that prairie wind hahah ugh…

When do you think you’ll get to Vancouver?

I told people January 31, but I know that won’t happen. I guess I just told them it’d take me 30 days because they wanted a number. But realistically, because of weather and limited daylight and general exhaustion of living in the winter (not to mention all the cycling), it could take me up to 50 days. But I keep telling myself 30, because it’s more motivating to do this 30 times than 50 haha. I’ve actually planned 26 days of riding, but I’ve already used 2 rest days so I’m already at 28 and I haven’t gotten very far yet.

How is the GoFundMe campaign going?

Fundraising progress has been awesome! I’m so happy for it. Thanks to some news articles about it, it spread like wildfire in Saskatchewan and everyone knew about it at every town I stopped in. Now I just need to get some coverage in AB and BC!

Describe your rig. What kind of bike are you riding? Did you add any special accessories to make the trip more comfortable?

It’s a Trek hybrid of some sort. Pretty good bike, it’s a huge frame for a big guy like me and it makes a huge difference. I’ve done some very hard, long haul bike trips in Indonesia and a recent one in Quebec/Ontario without a big bike and it was always messing up my knees. I added some aero bars because the bike only has a regular, flat bars. I wouldn’t do a bike trip without them. Although it can hurt my back and groin, it’s so much faster and you can get into a great zone when you’re down on the aero bars and just paying attention to your body. Everything else fades away… including the miles that you bike.

How much does your loaded bike weigh?

Too much haha I’ve got 4L of water, all packed in thermoses. I’ve got a heavy but good sleeping pad and sleeping bag and a lot of other gear to survive winter weather, from rainy wet winters in BC to -40 in the prairies. It might be 70 lb…maybe up to 80 lb.

How did you train or prepare for this ride?

I’m always training. I take that pretty seriously, for rock climbing and life in general so physically it wasn’t in issue. However, to prepare for the cold, I did a 1,300 km bike ride from Quebec City to Grey Bruce area, from October 17th to December 3. I did 1,100 km of it in the first 10 days, and the rest was spent meditating on the cold.

At the time my conclusion was, “this sucks. I don’t want to bike in the winter even if it’s for a charity” but then I realized that all I had to do was stop being out there in the cold…that’s all it took! Yet thousands of people can’t just decide to stop being cold. At that moment it hit me, that I had to go back out there. Thankfully after the test run in eastern Canada, I realized it sucked but I also realized that it was possible.

Have you always been a year-round cyclist?

I’ve been riding year round for many years. For that reason, when I was in Quebec City I thought I should try cycle touring. I figured, “I can bicycle in the winter, and I can camp in the winter, why not combine the two?” It wasn’t that simple, but at the same time, it WAS that simple.

How old are you? What elementary and high school did you attend?

What were you doing prior to this ride?

I was riding out east (see above). Prior to that, I was travelling Canada by motorcycle (because Canada is too big to go everywhere on a bicycle (although I concluded that motorcycles suck and bicycles are the best)).

I graduated from the U of S in geology in April 2020, but I was working very hard (many jobs) during the school year saving for travelling and living “on the road” for when I graduated, and also got some scholarships which helped me elongate it such that I am here now, still on the road, living on the fringes of what is socially acceptable.

Donate to Iliajah’s GoFundMe campaign

Follow his winter cycling journey here…

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