Insolvency associate Nick Avis embarks on cross-Canada cycling adventure

In the summer of 2023, Nick Avis, Associate in the Insolvency and Restructuring Group at Stikeman Elliott in Toronto, embarked on a record-setting adventure: cycling across Canada from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Beginning in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, he biked south to Victoria, BC, and then east to St. John’s, NL. Over 99 riding days, he bicycled more than 12,600 km, climbed over 89,600 m (greater than 10x the height of Mt. Everest), and passed through all ten provinces, two territories, and twelve capital cities. Nick rode in support of RAVEN Trust, an Indigenous legal defence fund based in Victoria, BC, that is committed to upholding Indigenous rights and protecting traditional territories through the justice system. We spoke to Nick about his ride, the transition back to practice, and more.

1. What inspired you to embark on this adventure?

A number of years ago, before returning to my final year of law school, a close friend suggested that we end our summer by going bikepacking. Bikepacking is a lightweight and more rugged form of bicycle touring. I’d never done any overnight bike trips before, but I enjoyed biking and camping separately so combining the two activities made sense. We biked from Brockville, ON, to Halifax, NS. Along the way, we encountered cyclists who were on even more ambitious trips, including a couple riding from Victoria, BC, to Halifax, NS. Meeting these other cyclists really put our comparatively small trip in perspective.

Since biking to Halifax, NS, I’ve made bikepacking my go-to holiday activity. I love it. Some of my more recent bikepacking trips include cycling from Mexico to Canada atop the Rocky Mountains, tracing Hadrian’s Wall across Britian, and following the Danube River through central Europe.

The idea of bicycling across Canada had been stewing in my mind for years – that seed was planted when I first encountered the couple riding across Canada, and it germinated as I read books about other cyclists and their adventures. I was inspired by these tales, particularly when reading about cyclists who travelled tip-to-tip across the Americas from Alaska to Argentina. I wanted to do a similar trip, but cycling the Americas is logistically complicated. I decided to narrow my focus (while not significantly reducing the mileage) by focusing my attention closer to home. Is there any better way to experience Canada than travelling across it on two wheels, fully exposed to the elements, nature and people? I won’t deny that I was also attracted by the possibility of setting a record. As far as I can tell, there are no recorded instances of someone bicycling across Canada from the Arctic to the Pacific to the Atlantic.

2. What were the highlights of the trip for you?

At the start of my trip, I expected the scenery to be the highlight. And while the scenery was fantastic – my mind is forever seared with memories of biking across Arctic tundra, riding in the shadows of Mt. Robson, and taking in the glow of a sunset on Cape Breton – the real highlight was sharing experiences with other people. This is something that surprised me because I initially feared that this trip would be marked by solitude. But that hardship never materialized: I was surrounded by kind people from start to finish.

In Yukon and British Columbia, there was a steady stream of cyclists heading from Alaska to Argentina that I could ride with (that route is now on many bikepackers’ bucket lists). Once I turned east from Victoria, BC, I encountered lots of fellow Canadians biking cross-country. Family and friends also joined me for many stretches of my ride: my parents were with me from Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, to Whitehorse, YT, and my brothers and friends joined me near major cities. I even entered Toronto with a mini entourage!

Social time didn’t end when I got off my bike. I quickly learned that people have lots of questions when you show up in their town riding a fully loaded touring bike. Campers will invite you to join them for the night, and (in more than a dozen cases!) strangers invited me into their homes for a hot meal, friendly conversation, and a comfy bed. A stranger in British Columbia gave me a personal tour of a local museum, a Québec brewery brought out special beers to celebrate my ride, and a provincial legislature opened its doors for a private after-hours tour.

The experiences I shared with other people are unforgettable. I got to see family and friends that I haven’t visited in years, which meant a lot to me. And I got to know so many strangers and learn about the struggles they face along with their triumphs. I feel as if I know much more about Canada now compared to before, and I have a much deeper appreciation for the incredible people that live here. And, perhaps most incredibly, family, friends and strangers from across Canada donated to my fundraiser for RAVEN Trust. I am still amazed at their generosity – I raised over $17,000 for a great cause.

3. Were there any low points during the trip or difficulties you had to overcome?

Every day had its share of challenges, but those challenges never outweighed the thrill of the adventure. A good chunk of my time was spent thinking about food, water, electricity and shelter. These basics were often in short supply. How can you fit enough calories into a 14 L bag (i.e., an amount of space smaller than the average school backpack) when the next grocery store is at least a week’s ride away? What do you do when your phone and GPS are low on battery and there are no outlets for 600 km? Where do you find fresh water when riding through a drought in the Okanogan Desert or the Albertan prairies? When are you far enough away from a bear to pitch a tent?

I won’t deny that I thought about giving up on many occasions. Wildfires (and their smoke) were a big cause for concern. They impacted me from Yukon to Saskatchewan, and it felt like the whole of British Columbia was on fire as I biked through it. Nothing encourages you to pedal faster than a massive fire only a few hundred metres away. I had an emergency satellite device with me, and I sometimes toyed with the SOS button as I debated whether my situation warranted hailing a rescue helicopter. I spent many days and nights in British Columbia wearing an N95 mask (even when climbing mountains) to mitigate the risk of wildfire smoke.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba were also challenging. I travelled from Regina, SK, to Winnipeg, MB, at the same time that the remnants of Hurricane Hillary were hitting the Prairies. It rained every day during this period, and the temperature dropped to a little above zero. But the headwind was the worst, exceeding 45 kmph at times. My speed dropped precariously and for two days in a row I missed my food and water resupply points. I crossed the border into Manitoba hungry, thirsty, and ready to give up. A kind couple in rural Manitoba offered me shelter from the storm and, thanks to their generosity, I found the energy to continue the next day. I would have given up without them. I also want to dispel the myth that the Prairies are flat. They aren’t – I gained more elevation in Saskatchewan than in many parts of Ontario and Québec.

Just when I thought I was in the homestretch, I was hit by my biggest challenge. In Halifax, NS, I learned that the ferry I had planned to take to Newfoundland was not operational. Suddenly, the distance from Halifax, NS, to St. John’s, NL, ballooned from 550 km to 1,330 km. I’d already booked accommodations and flights on the assumption that St. John’s was only 550 km away. I even had family flying into St. John’s to greet me at the finish line. To stay on time, I had to cram 1,330 km of distance into a compressed timeframe along with more than 12,037 m of ascent (the Appalachian Mountains extend through Nova Scotia and Newfoundland). For context, my ride from Victoria, BC, to Edmonton, AB, was a similar distance and went through the Coast, Cariboo and Rocky mountain ranges but only involved 9,430 m of ascent. Yes, eastern Canada was hillier than western Canada.

4. What did you learn about yourself during your journey?

I don’t think it’s a surprise to say that I learned just how far I can push myself. I mean that in both the physical and mental sense – endurance athletics is very much a mind game that involves pushing aside that inner voice that says “stop”. But a more surprising takeaway is that I realized just how much more there is for me to learn about Canada. There are so many things about this country, both historical and present, that I did not fully appreciate until I biked across it. I saw jars of peanut butter and breakfast cereal on sale for $19.99 each in the territories (a symptom of food insecurity in the North), learned more about the legacy of residential schools as I visited memorial sites and interacted with survivors, and witnessed the here-and-now impact that climate change is already having on communities across this country. I was humbled by my experience and am now much more motivated to learn more about this country, along with being more committed to improving it.

5. How has the transition back to full time work been?

It’s been a smooth transition back to working full-time. By the time I finished my ride, I was ready to return to work. I had achieved my goal (and then some) and biking was out of my system. I’m grateful to be at a law firm and in a profession that supports pursuing personal ambitions. I’ve also noticed that I now approach my work with a different mindset. After dealing with the challenges of living on a bike for months, battling wildfires and bears nipping at my heels, an all-hands-on-deck insolvency problem no longer seems so tough!

6. What would you say to other young insolvency professionals with aspirations of adventure? Or those considering a pause on their career to pursue other interests or passions?

I think it’s important to balance professional ambitions and achievements with personal ambitions and achievements. Focusing on one and neglecting the other won’t lead to fulfillment. I appreciate that my example – completing a record-setting multi-month bike journey – is an extreme shift to focusing on personal ambition. But sometimes that’s necessary. The idea of this journey pre-occupied my mind for years, and I knew I’d have a lifetime of regret if I didn’t do it. I felt like the window of opportunity to embark on this trip was shrinking. I knew that my health, physical stamina, personal and work obligations, and financial circumstances could change suddenly and make this type of trip impossible later in life. This isn’t the type of activity that I could safely push off until retirement.

I also want to recognize that pursing adventure doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of professional development. I got to travel through areas and meet people impacted by some of Canada’s largest insolvency proceedings, which put a face to what can sometimes be abstract work. It almost felt too coincidental to be true when I stumbled upon the respondent in a leading CCAA appeal case and we got to spend an afternoon chatting. I often joked with friends about how I was putting in more hours of work each day on this cycling trip than I did as a lawyer. Between time spent in the saddle, generating donations for RAVEN Trust, and dealing with basic needs like where to find food, water, and shelter, there simply weren’t enough hours in a day. I have no doubt that my work ethic and sense of perseverance and commitment improved during the course of this trip.