There are adventurers who set out to travel around the world, and then there are adventurers like me, Éric Lobo, the most extreme Frenchman of all. My story began after I lost everything. I needed to reinvent myself, on the road, just me and my Harley. I recently returned from travelling around the world for the second time, once again on a Harley. A 50,000-kilometre journey, at times off the beaten path, through the arctic winter and extreme weather.
A former businessman, I lost everything in the financial crisis of 2010. However, a taste for adventure and a promise made to my father before he died got me back in the saddle for another longer, and more extreme, trip. The pinnacle being crossing the American continent’s extreme north, in the heart of winter. Fourteen months and 50,000 kilometres later, I came full circle, returning with an amazing photo album: Arctic Dream.
I am a very seasoned globe rider with lots of experience when it comes to impossible journeys. In 2011, I went around the world on a Harley-Davidson Road King. My father died in 2014, after open heart surgery. He made me promise to follow my dreams, even though he didn’t really understand them. He was talking about my dream of riding my Harley-Davidson on the Arctic Ocean. It was important for me to take a part of him with me. Even if I wasn’t sure I would return from this journey, because riding in the Arctic seemed impossible.
My departure point was Palos de la Frontera, Spain, where Christopher Columbus set off to discover America, but my departure was on a Harley-Davidson Dyna. I travelled through Russia to Kamtchatka, where I wanted to cross the Bering Strait. But it was impassable. I restarted the adventure from the other side. I went to Vancouver, then Hope where the first Rambo movie was made. There I met an amazing guy who made Rat Rods – vehicles with super-boosted motors. My project would take me 4,500 km to the north, so I needed to equip my motorcycle. I was told that riding a motorcycle in winter is illegal in Canada, so I created a system of skis for the bike. He helped me, supported me and encouraged me the entire time. As I cut and welded, the journey took on an entirely new aspect. I continued on, riding the Dempster Highway from Whitehorse to Dawson City. Over 800 kilometres in two 12-hour segments. All alone. One thousand kilometres from East to West, with very few villages. No one else in sight.
February 2016. I checked the weather on the Environment Canada website. Poised on the edge of the Arctic Circle. A weather warning was still in effect for the Dempster Highway. The website forecasted a blizzard, extreme cold, poor visibility and, most of all, high winds. But the sun was shining and the sky was blue. The previous night I spoke with a woman at the Eagle Plains Lodge. She asked me, “You the guy who just arrived on a Harley?” I nodded. “Do you know what the maximum resistance to cross-wind is?” “Here?” I asked. “Not a clue. It depends on the ground! At home, 100 km/h, is no problem.” “You have a good head! I’d rather not have to bring your body back tomorrow. Some gusts are over 120 km/h during the day. Find a truck and take cover behind it! You don’t mess around when it’s –50°C,” she said. “Thanks for the tip!” But, despite the advice, my mind was made up. The weather is always like this and I had a sore arm that was getting worse by the hour. If the Northern Gateway reopens, it will be the time to go through.
In the canteen, the truckers told me that the road to paradise has just reopened. After a two-day stop, it was time to leave. A lighted sign warns truckers to use extreme caution because of the wind. I make sure my clothes are carefully adjusted and electrical wires are exposed as little as possible to the unforgiving wind and cold – wires break like crystal at –50°C. In this high-risk situation, I am more focused than I ever imagined possible. Everything is topped up and octane additive is in my gas tank. The tarp is pulled up over my legs. And we’re off!
About thirty kilometres down the road, near the Arctic Circle sign, at 66° 33’ 46” latitude north, I see a guy in a pickup truck – an oil company employee from Quebec. He drives over and rolls down the window: “Where are you headed?” “Inuvik. I’d like to push on to Tuktoyaktuk,” I replied. “You’re nuts! he said laughing. He thinks I am joking. “What’s it like up there?” I ask him. “Hell! Wait until it calms down! The wind just picked up a 28-wheeler hauling gas and threw it off the road. It pushed me over three metres,” he said. The guy grew more worried as we continued to talk. He could see in my face that there was no way I was turning back. So, before I got back on the road, he gave me a final piece of advice, showing me pictures on his smartphone: “Look! When you see this giant white doughnut on the snow, grab hold of it, buddy! That’s where it happens. You’re going to get shaken as if you are in a washing machine. Hold on tight and good luck!”
I tuck my head down and try to conserve heat. My eyes can barely take in the immense beauty of these landscapes, but I remain focused, concentrating on the imperfections in the ice. To relax, I sing La Marseillaise and, when things get really bad, the Russian national anthem. It’s bitterly cold, I know I can stand up to –50°C. After that, things will start to go downhill.
“The gusts changed after seeing the truck on its side. The snow doesn’t stay on the ground when the wind is this strong. Great, here I am, in front of an enormous cloud. But the sky was so blue! And suddenly, everything is dark. The wind hits me from the right side so violently that I fear it will lift me off the ground. The motorcycle is moving forward at 40% of its power. I can barely see a thing. Gripping the handlebars as tightly as I can, my right foot pushes the ski into the icy gravel. I have never faced such fury. My neck can’t take it anymore. Wracked with pain, I use my left hand to protect it. For several long minutes, I pray for it to stop, when suddenly, the calm returns. It feels as though I’ve entered the eye of a cyclone. Even so, the calm is relative and swirling clouds of snow continue to rise under the blue sky. What an amazing show! Unfortunately, the highway is heading straight for another grey wall. This time, to my surprise, the gusting wind hits from the left, with the same violence. The same struggle resumes through the fog, for several minutes that feel like an eternity. My neck is paralysed. My vertebrae crack when I move my head. My neck muscles painfully resist the immense pressure. The wind finally subsides, weakened apparently by the white mountains in the dreamlike landscape. I never imagined I would experience anything like this. A sun dog joins the show. The angels who opened the door have shut it right behind me: the road is closed again.” In these brutal conditions, I imagine the worst. Clinging to my machine, leaning into the wind, there is a moment when I think I won’t make it.
Inuvik. Tears of joy freeze instantly on my face. I howl in victory with child-like glee. My logbook entry will read: “On this epic crossing riding a Harley-Davidson, I conquered the Dempster Highway, at the height of the northern winter.” But it isn’t over yet.
I have finally reached the threshold of the road that has called to me for months: 200 amazing kilometres over sheer ice to reach paradise and bring me closer to my father. My enthusiasm is tremendous; I am going to enjoy every second. The itinerary starts in Inuvik, on a branch of the Mackenzie. This route will take me to the Glacial Arctic Ocean, riding over the river to Tuktoyaktuk. Just being here is amazing, living this dream. I am engulfed by mixed feelings, joy and sadness. I wish I could share this moment. In 2018, a land road, under construction, will forever eliminate this section over the ocean. The changing weather brings me back to the job at hand: I focus on the road in front of me. The wind picks up once again as a thick cloud of fog rolls in. Immersed in a total whiteout, I carefully watch the ground, observing the fissures and cracks in the ice. I keep my front wheel in line avoiding the cracks running parallel to the track. Otherwise it could get caught or hit the mounds of snow made by the maintenance machines.
My feet are ready to hit the skis immediately to push them into the ice, creating an additional support to prevent a fall. My adrenaline rose several times during the hundred kilometres or so that I had just travelled. I stand straight up on the skis. My breathing quickens, my heart beats faster. Pupils dilated, forehead creased in concentration, I know that I could lose control of my front wheel at any moment. Through the thick fog, a pickup truck arrives from Tuktoyaktuk; inside an Inuit signals for me to stop: “Be careful, big cracks on the ocean,” he says, before disappearing in the fog. As if things could get any worse! The Dyna is holding up, and so am I, even though my front wheel has caught several times in the crevasses. The snow coats the ice and hides them. But, as if in a dream, a fishing village appears on the horizon. I am riding on the Beaufort Sea. Finally, I can see Tuktoyaktuk.
Early the next morning I prepare, following my usual protocol. A sealskin and piece of muskox fur – that a villager just gave me – provide added protection against the cold. A fine carpet of snow has fallen during the night, reducing tire adherence, it doesn’t matter. I have decided that the return journey will be different, I will use this fabulous invention: the skis. I am travelling faster, much faster than the day before. In front of the cabin, my bike thermometer reads –43°C; the speedometer needle pushes past 100 km/h mark, the thermometer, with the wind chill, is locked at its maximum: –70°C. I draw wide curves over the ice, bouncing over the immense, frozen waves on the ocean. “I accelerate, flying over the ocean’s cracks and crevasses. The faster I go, the more it feels like skiing, but at an astonishing speed. I create ephemeral curves on the ice of the Mackenzie. Turning the machine to the right and the left, leaning on my skis, it works! I enter into a dimension where nothing matters except pleasure, not even life. I could die here, free! What a feeling! I am the first person to ski, on the Arctic Ocean, with a Harley between his legs! WOW! What a thrill! The speedometer reads 120 km/h as I glide over the blue and green ice of the Mackenzie.” The flashing lights of a police cruiser greet me and escort me to town. I’m not in trouble; they simply want to congratulate me! I love this life.
People say social media is destroying real communication. But I have escaped through the escapades of a hyperconnected adventurer, experiencing adventures of another time. The man and his machine, a customized Harley (lateral skis and studded tires) to ride far and long, sharing his arctic struggles, along with unbelievable photos. One of them, in which I am harnessed like a Tartar warrior, face hidden by duct tape because of frostbite, caught my attention. Its caption: “Why is hell so beautiful?” I’m afraid the bike won’t make it to Grand Prairie. The words hit me like the imagined cold. I have travelled through the worst that winter has to offer, after driving back up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, headed toward the Arctic Ocean. I should have stopped 180 kilometres before Fort Nelson. A five-hour snowstorm, two and a half of them during the night, interminable, no trace of the ground, no reference point on the road. Only snow and cold. I almost hit two buffaloes on the road. I lean into the winds to keep going straight. The driver of the 28-wheeler that was blown over by the wind during the blizzard was a woman, she didn’t make it.
My experiences can be told in simple terms – with violence everywhere. I bemoan “a third broken drone,” the lack of connection to share insane photos. I don’t worry about my bike anymore. The wires in my heated gloves are broken in several places (because of the below -60°C/-70°C temperature with the wind chill). I only have one ski left, only one good shoulder, but my spirits couldn’t be higher. I’ll keep riding until the end. I have arrived. Now I can die!