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Volcano hoppers share stories

Millennium Place show to chronicle story of 60,000-kilometre trip around THE pacific rIM Of FIRE



Janick Lemieux and her partner Pierre Bouchard create a scene when they peddle into a town with all their worldly possessions strapped to their bicycles. It's not just the unusual mode of long distance travel, weighed down and bulging with bags, but their disarming appearance that invites attention.

"The bicycle is really our passport, our entry card," Lemieux says over the phone from Vancouver where the pair has put their nomadic lifestyle on pause for the first time in their adult lives. "People see us and they're not afraid of us. The curiosity is there, for sure. The bikes are a topic on their own. Often that leads to invitations to go back home (with them). People realize you must be tired and want a shower or a meal. They want to comfort us. They think we've come a long way and we're far from home."

And they have been. Over the last decade, the couple — who lived and met in Whistler back in 1992 — have circled the Pacific Ring of Fire by bike. That's 60,000 kilometres through the volcanic isles of Asia, Far East Russia, Alaska and Western Canada. They will be presenting a multimedia show of photos, maps and stories of the third and final leg of their adventure, travelling 25,000 kilometres in 27 months, at Millennium Place Nov. 17.

They wrapped up their journey in February 2009 and have hunkered down to work on the presentation and pen a book about their experience, made up mostly of a selection of the tens of thousands of photos they took over the course of the trip, paired with an original score by Montreal composer Martin Tremblay.

"It's the first time as adults we've come back to Canada without a deadline," says Lemieux, who's 40. (Bouchard, who has been travelling by bike a few years longer, is 46.)

The idea to explore the world's volcanoes was born, largely, from a desire to be warm. In the late 1990s, the couple was crossing the chilly Tibetan Plateau headed to India. Lemieux had fallen ill with beaver fever and lost 25 pounds. Neither of them could sleep due to the altitude. They were miserable and began to dream of what they would do next if they lived through the ordeal.

"We hadn't planned to cross in winter, but we became late on schedule," Lemieux says. "It was very cold. We were underequipped. What we wanted to do was keep going, see the world on our bikes. We (talked about) heat and mountains and said, 'Oh we could see some volcanoes.' Three quarters of the active volcanoes on the planet are in the Pacific Ring of Fire."

In 1999, after overcoming the turbulent trip, they regrouped and set off volcano hopping. Over the years they've come to understand the foreign landscape and its importance to the communities that call it home.

"Volcanoes play an important part in people's lives enriching the soil with ash or creating a dam in the river, all kinds of things," Lemieux says. "We even saw places where people will cook with heat coming from the ground. Volcanic rock is also used to build churches or homes."

On a more personal level, the volcanoes have come to symbolize the changing earth. "Every time we meet a new volcano it's always a reminder of how dynamic our planet is," she adds. "Everything is evolving and changing. It's good not to forget that. Everything is always evolving right underneath our feet. It's moving and fluid."

They've also learned a great deal about bike mechanics — and dealing with adversity — along the way. Lemieux makes traversing the world on bike sound less taxing than you might imagine. They load up on bike parts when they're travelling to remote areas and rely on mechanics when they're in major cities, for example.

"You get all these tricks over the years so you don't have a problem being stuck on the side of the road in Siberia with your bike not moving," she explains. "It still happens sometimes that we need to put the bikes in a pick-up and get to the next town. But if (the bike) doesn't carry you, you carry it."

As for powering the bikes? "Our bodies have served us well so far," Lemieux says. "In the beginning it can be a shock to the system. If we stop for more than a month, when you get back on, things will hurt a bit, but we have good muscle memory. You're so involved with your surroundings, you don't realize how strong you get."

For more information about the event and to purchase tickets, visit www.artswhistler.com.