BY GEORGE MARATOS
“Whenever I saw an exploded piece of tire on the road, it reminded me of the 10 to 20 million polio survivors that are currently living around the world and are relying on these pieces of tire to pad their knees while they crawl around.”
Four years ago, Ramesh Ferris sat on a log stump overlooking the water at Wolf Creek Campground, just him and his dog, and made the decision that he was going to hand cycle across Canada.
Twenty-four at the time, the long-time Whitehorse resident, a polio survivor, kept recalling a trip in 2002 he had made to his birth country, India.
It was a trip that not only first introduced him to the hand cycle but also reiterated his passion to find a cure for polio.
“The feelings that I had, what I saw, seeing so many polio survivors crawling on the ground,” explains Ferris. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Gosh, I really love that feeling of hand cycling and how great it would be to not only do that as a recreational activity but to also be able to do that and help polio survivors around the world so they wouldn’t have to continue to live this way’.”
Ferris had not even hand cycled a kilometre, but was adamant hand cycling across the country was something he had to do.
“I looked at my heroes Rick Hansen and Terry Fox and it just clicked … I’m going to do that, I need to do that,” smiles Ferris as he recalls that day in 2004. “It then quickly went from that single vision idea at Wolf Creek to this massive community project.
“The support has been amazing.”
And with that, Cycle to Walk was born.
Flash forward four years and today Ferris sits proudly in a downtown Whitehorse café as he speaks about his recent 7,200-kilometre journey and his next goals for Cycle to Walk.
Like a celebrity, he is approached by friends and complete strangers for handshakes, pats on the back and well wishes.
On Oct. 1 of this year, Ferris completed his cross-Canada mission by dipping his leg into the Atlantic Ocean in Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador.
His six-month tenure was both gruelling and monotonous.
Rising at 5:30 a.m. each day, Ferris would update his blog and then walk to the back of the motor home and stare at a large map of Canada.
He would then highlight the day’s planned route and visualize the 75 kilometres ahead.¬
The modest, soft-spoken Ferris says he felt little pain throughout his six months on the road and he attributes that to the fact that he ate well (5,000 calories a day), was well-hydrated (minimum nine litres of water) and was stretching regularly.
And Ferris says it was easy to be reminded of why he was out there hand cycling each day.
Ferris says amidst the hundreds of memories he incurred during his journey it was two separate encounters that stay with him the most and emphasize why he put forth the effort.
The first came after one of his public presentations.
An elderly man approached him, tears in his eyes, and spoke of when he was 13 years old living in Holland during the Second World War and how guns being shot outside his window were a regular occurrence in his life.
Yet despite all this, the scariest time in his life was when he moved to Canada in the 1950s and saw the damage polio was doing to so many people.
The other memory came near the end of Ferris’ Cycle to Walk journey as he hand cycled through the small community of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador.
An 11-year-old boy began cycling next to Ferris and as they did so, the two were silent for several minutes.
“So you’re going to finish Terry Fox’s journey right?” asked the boy, finally breaking the silence, as Ferris quietly took in what was said. “You can make it don’t give up I’ll be there with you.”
Ferris pauses as he recalls that moment in Newfoundland.
“I’m still living in a very surreal life. I’m still processing it all and truly understanding the magnitude of what just happened,” explains Ferris. “The Cycle to Walk journey has ended but the reality is we need to continue to work to a polio-free world.”
Ferris says although they came short in their goal of raising one million dollars toward the eradication of polio, they far exceeded their goals in terms of raising awareness, with more than 230 media interviews and over 250 public presentations conducted.
And with his journey across Canada now complete, his focus now is taking his message of polio eradication to schools throughout the Yukon.
“The kids are our leaders and if they get it we’re all going to get it,” reiterates Ferris. “Eleven per cent of Canadians still have not received their polio vaccination including many Yukoners.”¬
In addition to his school tours, including a trip to Old Crow in December, Ferris has also been asked to travel to India to participate in National Immunization Day.
He also hopes to have an annual Cycle to Walk run and is working to launch the Ramesh Ferris Foundation.
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to eradicate a disease and it will be only the second time in human history that we can do that, with the elimination of Small Pox in 1979 being the other,” says Ferris.
“I don’t want see any child live with a disease that is completely preventable through vaccinations and I want to continue to share my experience with polio in hopes of achieving this.”
PHOTO: CYCLE TO WALK