PORT HARDY—When he wheeled out of his South Carolina home in March, Tom Von Kaenel planned on a cross-country cycling trip to honour U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
Last week, his trip went international.
Von Kaenel, 59, stopped off in Port Hardy last week following an impromptu appearance in the 2014 Boomer’s Ride from Courtenay to Victoria. Boomer’s Ride is a benefit, drawing hundreds of cyclists each year, begun by the mother of Cpl. Andrew “Boomer” Eykelenboom, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2006.
“I had no idea this was happening when I got to Canada,” said Von Kaenel, whose ride is taking place under the auspices of Sea2Sea. “But every state I go to I contact local veterans’ organizations and civic organizations, to reach out to like-minded groups and share.”
Von Kaenel was put in touch with Maureen Eykelenboom, Boomer’s mother and the founder of Boomer’s Legacy and the ride to help men and women in uniform make a positive difference in the lives of others. He asked permission to take part, and was welcomed with open arms.
Von Kaenel couldn’t have found a better match, particularly since his own ride was inspired by a lifesaving intervention by a serviceman half a world away.
A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Von Kaenel was cycling the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain when he suffered a devastating accident, leaving him with multiple injuries including a broken hip and pelvis, and a potentially life-threatening blood clot.
“The local doctor said I needed to find a high-impact trauma centre,” he said. “An Air Force major helped arrange a medevac flight for me to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. If I hadn’t, they said I’d probably never walk again.”
Instead, Von Kaenel arrived in Port Hardy last week having cycled 5,783 miles — or about 9,600 kilometres from South Carolina on the way to his ultimate destination in Juneau, Alaska.
His trip actually started in the opposite direction, with a jaunt to Key West, Florida — “I wanted to start from the farthest state from Alaska,” he said — before turning West across the southern U.S. and north once he reached the coast in California.
In each state, he made one stop to construct a temporary memorial for the fallen service members of that state.
His lone Canadian memorial was assembled in Port Hardy Friday, on the floor of the Visitors’ Information Centre. It was made up of a Boomer’s Ride jersey covered with and surrounded by small cards bearing the names, rank and hometowns of the 165 Canadians killed in Afghanistan.
“This isn’t political,” Von Kaenel said. “It’s just to honour the service members and raise awareness of the homelessness, the brain trauma and the life-altering impacts of serving in combat.”
Von Kaenel said he never saw a shot fired in anger in his own years of peacetime service, and was left humbled and awed by the work of Maureen Eykelenboom in response to her own son’s death.
“I marvel at Maureen’s strength and ability to turn a personal tragedy into a public triumph,” he said.
Clearly moved by his Boomer’s Ride experience, Von Kaenel said he would continue to wear his Boomer’s jersey until arriving in Juneau this week. At that time he will finally doff the jersey, along with the beard he has been growing — like a Stanley Cup playoff participant — since his departure from South Carolina in March.
From Port Hardy, Von Kaenel hopped the ferry to Prince Rupert. Another ferry trip was to deliver him to Juneau, where today he will close out his 6,800-mile Sea2Sea journey with one last memorial at the Alaska state capital.
His first visit to Vancouver Island did not allow much time for sightseeing — “The whole point was to get to the cause,” said Von Kaenel. “But I’m definitely coming back to do the tourist thing.”