Canada Bicycle Touring. Part 1 (2019)

In August of 2019, My girlfriend Candace and I decided to ride bicycles from her hometown of Calgary, Alberta, Canada with no particular end goal in site, just to enjoy riding everyday, and to see the ever changing landscape from a bicycle saddle.

Contrary to the stereotype of Canadian weather, the sun was beating down on us with temperatures hovering around 30c as we wobbled our heavy bikes through mid-morning traffic onto highway 1A heading west. The hustle and bustle of big city Calgary lay behind us. As we looked west we could make out the faint peaks and ridges of the rocky mountains on the horizon, their details and outlines somewhat obscured by the 100km of distance coupled with the haze and heat shimmer from the arid landscape.

The previous day we had negotiated our way through the 6 lane divided highways that crisscross Calgary which clearly had been designed without bicycles in mind and we had stayed the night with Candace’s sister and her family. Being the finely tuned athlete that I am, I had prepared for today’s ride by drinking a bottle of high-end single malt whiskey with Martin, Candace’s brother in law, and now with a head that spun every time I turned it too quickly or bent down, the trip had begun.

We had only planned 40km for the day as we were both out of shape and not used to heavily loaded bicycles as well as Candace having a history of knee problems. We wanted to start our trip easily and build up slowly over time. What with Alberta having well-maintained roads, wide shoulders and considerate drivers all made for a great day riding, and we even allowed ourselves a little music through headphones, a luxury we wouldn’t have again until Mexico.

Time passed quickly cycling along, looking at the massive houses set on vast acreages. Complete with horses, landscaped gardens, floor to ceiling windows to view the surrounding landscape, and naturally, all of them had a brand new American-built truck in their driveways. Alberta has a vast amount of natural resources and as one observer comments; – “we die by oil and gas”. It seems everyone here is connected to the fossil fuel industry and the city grew as a result of its status as an oil boomtown, attracting talent from across Canada and worldwide making their fortunes here. The houses dotting the landscape around the city stand as a testament to the wealth created here in previous years.

There are some however who believe that with dropping oil prices as well as the general worldwide movement towards sustainability, along with frosty relations with other provinces, has effectively signed Calgary’s death warrant. There is even a #WEXIT (Western Exit) movement styled after BREXIT where Alberta and other so-called prairie provinces such as Saskatchewan and Manitoba are considering separating from the rest of Canada as a result of un-favourable treatment from the rest of the country. The culture out west is more conservative, and there are many contentious issues between them and the more liberal eastern Canadians. Let’s just say as we were riding in the lead up to the 2019 election it was easy to tell from roadside propaganda and bumper stickers that Mr Trudeau; the current Prime-Minister, is not a popular figure in these parts.

We arrived in Ghost Lake by mid-afternoon and enjoyed sunning ourselves on the dock and numbing our sore legs in the glacial water. We each had a go at jumping in, but neither of us could tolerate more than a few seconds before scrabbling back out to bask like a sea lion on the warm dock once again. It wasn’t long before we saw some guy swimming over to us very casually and without a trace of discomfort on his face. He was an Eastern-European manly man, and he claimed that if you could force yourself to tolerate two minutes in the water then your body would get used to it and you would be able to stay indefinitely. It absolutely sounded convincing said with his Slavic accent, and so I gave it a go, and I have to say he was right, though I put this down more to my nerve-endings merely dying rather than ‘getting used to it’. He waxed lyrical about the health benefits of doing this weekly for at least half an hour, a ‘luxury’ reserved for those folks lucky enough to have a glacial mountain lake on hand I guess. I decided to call it a day after 10 minutes, and we retired to our camp to cook dinner and enjoy a beer before turning in for the night.

The next dawned cloudy and ominous, and we continued west through the First Nations town of Morley before joining the famous Trans-Canada, Highway 1. Morley was a little run-down, and the vibe was a bit desperate. I don’t really know as much as I should about the First Nations peoples of Canada, but even I can see that it seems many social problems affect them disproportionately and this is a topic I will be researching more in future to have a better understanding. However, It was a blast looking at street signs in the Nakoda language and all the wooden carvings of bears, wolves and eagles. A trend that would continue on and off throughout our entire journey through Canada and the various native lands.

One of the things I love about approaching the Rockies from the east is how it seems to be such an abrupt change. The mountains just seem to slowly but surely get bigger as you approach them, and then suddenly, you are surrounded by the majesty of it. From flat prairies to epic mountains with seemingly very little transition time. This effect is undoubtedly less pronounced at the pace of a bicycle, but perceivable nonetheless. The Rockies were formed by a landmass colliding with what was then the western coast of modern North America, which in turned thrusted up the seabed creating these mountains. The name ‘Rocky Mountains’ seems wholly appropriate as the tree line is relatively low in this range meaning the mountains themselves seem so grey, jagged and well…..rocky. The shapes of the mountains are breathtaking and not at all symmetrical with immense cliffs, sharp peaks, knife-edge ridges and deep gullies, creating a dynamic landscape.

Our stop that night was the town of Canmore, at the time my favourite town in Canada (since superseded by the town of Revelstoke) and we indulged in a tradition we have done every time I have been to Canada, The Grizzly Paw Brewery! Great beer and food in a pretty mountain town – perfect. This was our first night of many throughout the trip where we would start having to learn to sleep with the sound of the trains of the Canadian Pacific Railway clattering through the night. Initially, it would be annoying and certainly disrupted sleep, but eventually, we got used to it, and by the end of the trip, I could sleep through anything.

The Canadian Pacific railway is truly something incredible, I am not at all a train buff, but I couldn’t help but be awed by the epic nature of this engineering feat which now is over 140 years old. This section of the railroad was built initially as a concession to British Colombia who had recently joined the confederation in the 1870s and had stated that one of their requests would be a land-based transportation link between their province and the rest of Canada. The existing, arduous sea journey was over 4 months long from the west to east coast around the southern tip of South America. This new rail link allowed BC to import and export goods and people within a much shorter time frame.

The trains themselves can be over a kilometre long. As a result, they need a heck of a lot of power to lug their massive hulks across the second largest country in the world, and so it is not unusual to see at least three locomotives working as a team to move the long line of cars. One engine at the front, one in the middle and one at the back and as many other variations that you can think of. The cars themselves are targets of graffiti artists during their city-based stops, and I spent a lot of time and many kilometres admiring the intricate patterns and images adorning the otherwise dull looking cars.

We awoke early the next morning and headed north to the famous mountain town of Banff, known for its film festival and thronging tourist crowds. There is a beautiful cycle path that runs alongside the main highway, and we loved not having to compete with traffic while also being able to stop and take photos to our heart’s content. The whole journey takes only a couple of hours at a very gentle pace and if you ever find yourself in either Canmore or Banff, renting a bicycle and spending half a day doing this round trip bicycle ride would be a great experience. The gradients are gentle and suitable for all ages. There are many opportunities for photos along the whole route as well as plenty of open spaces with picnic benches to enjoy a scenic meal.

We spent a maximum of an hour in Banff to get some groceries together before heading further along a lovely small and traffic-free road to a small area called Vermilion lakes. We sat and ate a lunch of Pita and Hummus with hot sauce while watching families of tourists and locals alike playing on the docks and getting the money-shot of Mt. Rundle reflected in the calm lakes. Mt Rundle’s unique and gorgeous shape viewed from this angle is something not to be missed, and it was worth the effort of lifting fully loaded touring bikes down the rocks and wheeling them out along the dock for the photo opportunity!

Shortly after Vermilion lakes, the road west once again splits into two highways, the main Trans-Canada (Highway 1) and Highway 1A. The latter also being known as the Bow Valley Parkway. Taking this second highway, we began heading into the remoteness of Banff and Yoho National Parks following this narrow but incredibly high-grade stretch of road through forests of pine and spruce and naturally keeping our heads on a swivel for the possibility of spotting some wildlife. Occasionally we would be passed by a Lycra-clad cyclist on a carbon fibre road bike worth more than a house, their tyres buzzing against the blacktop as they zipped by offering a cheery Canadian greeting; – “Oh hey there guys, pretty nice day eh!”

We still had a great shoulder to ride on which was just as well as what little traffic we had was not exactly the kind of traffic one would like to contend with as a cyclist – rental RV’s. These white monsters were a menace on the road. Piloted by folks with no idea on how to drive them safely and with absolutely no experience in such a large vehicle. This, coupled with a complete lack of spatial awareness and with their attention focused firmly on the scenery and everywhere but the road ahead meant that these were the greatest danger we faced the entire journey. Although I did enjoy reading the brand names of these such seemingly benign vehicles. If I was to name my own motor home brand, I would perhaps call it something like Comfort-wagon, Port-a-Home or Wheel-House 3000. These ones, however, all carried names such as Arctic Fox, Excalibur and Wolf’s Blade, perhaps betraying their lethality when piloted by these hapless and downright dangerous adventurers.

The next morning after a night camped in the shadow of Castle Mountain, we rejoined the main Trans-Canada highway. After a breakfast of baked goods, while sitting in the sun in Lake Louise, we began to tackle the infamous Kicking-Horse pass straddling the border between Alberta and British Columbia. This was to prove one of the most intense bike rides I have ever completed, and it will be forever etched into my memory. The pass was named after the Kicking Horse River, which in turn was named after a Geologist and explorer of the region, James Hector, who was kicked by his horse here!

At the time the railway was initially built, the trains passing through had to deal with an incline of 4.5 degrees which was incredibly steep by train standards – even most modern trains only have to contend with 2 degrees or so. Back in those days, a few runaway train incidents led engineers to rethink things, and they came up with the idea of the spiral tunnels. These are exactly as the name implies, where the railway track spirals down the mountainsides, over canyons and through long tunnels in wide, expanding spirals to minimise the gradient that the train has to endure at any one time.

The road highway also traverses this vast pass, utilising bridges and narrow ledges on the mountainside. So, not only did we have a blistering, steep descent to navigate, it was against the backdrop of steep cliffs and the vast canyons with a criss-cross of bridges and tunnels passing over the top of us as well as beneath. It was an assault on all of our senses as the wind battered our eardrums, the whooshing sound being pierced by screeches of train brakes and whistles. The unmistakable smell of diesel fumes and the chemical reek of burning brake pads scorched our nostrils, and our eyes streamed down our cheeks as the cold air dried our eyeballs. Meanwhile, our hands went numb from gripping our handlebars so tight as we threaded the needle at high speed. We had to dodge the large patches of gravel which threatened to swipe our wheels from under us while simultaneously trying not to veer so far away from the gravel that we got in the way of the enormous trucks barrelling down the pass. These behemoths also themselves added to the cacophony, their engine-retarder brakes sounding like machine-gun fire echoing off the valley walls.

As the road levelled out, we stopped to regain some sense of normality, and Candace shows me the palms of her hands which have the brand name of her handlebar grips imprinted in the skin from the death-grip with which she had held on for dear life. I checked out our brake pads and satisfied that they were a little thinner but still safe, we carried on.

We camped in the valley basin just outside of a town called Field, the river rushing past broiling and rolling, stained white with sediment complete with broken branches and other detritus being carried along by the torrent. The cliffs stretched high above us, the trees seemingly defying gravity sticking out of the screen slopes at angles that makes one question their understanding of physics. This natural amphitheatre served to amplify the train horns which continuously sounded without a break throughout the night, we were to later find out that in this area the drivers need to use their horns excessively to scare off wildlife that may be hanging out in the tunnels. A moose would prove a worth adversary against even the largest of trains in the narrow confines of such a long tunnel.

Not long before sunset, we noticed dark clouds gathering in the narrow band of sky above us and it wasn’t long after climbing into the tent that we heard the first pitter-patters of raindrops against our canvas home. We were in the middle of playing a game of ‘Guess which animal I am thinking of’ when the storm truly hit, and it was a storm of biblical proportions. The tent flapped and shook but held firm as the deluge of water assaulted us, the wind sending the drops sideways through the trees to arrive against our flimsy home with the force of a bullet. Our faces were illuminated by lightning strikes that went on for up to 10 seconds at a time, the physical branches of lighting streaking across the sky from one horizon to the other. The shadows of the surrounding trees casting broad shadows onto us for seconds at a time. It wasn’t long until my fears began to materialise and I began to feel the floor of the tent begin to lift off of the ground as the water pooling on the sunbaked ground below us had started to turn us into a nylon raft.

We were already on the highest spot possible, and so there was not a lot to be done, and we tried to sleep. We lay awake hoping that our MSR tent would live up to its reputation as a true adventurers tent!

Dawn came on slowly and wet. We stuck our heads outside the zippered door and noticed that the storm itself had passed, but the rain continued, substantial drops of water running down every surface and soaking the world around us. We rolled up the tent, wringing out the water as best we could as we did so and slid it with a squelch into its bag.

To lighten the mood somewhat, we did meet a guy dressed as a cowboy (complete with hat) who was frantically trying to light a fire in the wood-burning stove in the camp’s cookhouse. He was hitch-hiking across the Rockies with his cat (cat!) and the poor thing was very cold. Apparently his cat didn’t even like him and so he couldn’t even snuggle with her to keep her warm, so lighting a fire was the next best thing!

The visibility was terrible and turning on both our rear lights we carefully negotiated a few kilometres into the town of Field itself where we treated ourselves to a warm coffee and breakfast at a cute hotel and lodge. Logging onto WIFI for the first time in days we decided to search for hotels locally, the next day would be my birthday we wanted our first rest day to coincide with that. Plus we wanted to dry the tent and ourselves. Unfortunately, our searches came up nil as it seemed the town had closed down for the season and so faced with no other choice we made a reservation in the next town 60km away and begrudgingly wheeled our bikes back out into the rain.

As it happened, it actually turned into a beautiful day of riding. Once you are wet through to your skin, I believe your mind effectively comes to terms with the discomfort, and you can actually only get so wet after-all, eventually just reaching a base level of saturation. We were headed to Golden, a large town known for its connection to the railroad and a popular mountain sports base. The ride took us through dense forests and past tiny lakes, one of the latter being so picturesque that we stopped to take photos and admire the low clouds hanging at treetop level above us and all of this was reflected in the glass-like surface of the gin-clear lake.

The enjoyment was tempered somewhat by the deep-down knowledge that in the approach to the town itself, we would be faced with a challenging descent down the side of the mountain. The road is so narrow that we would lose the shoulder and we would have to compete for real estate with the ever-present trucks who themselves would be working to the bone to maintain control down the steep switchbacks.

As we crossed the 45 km mark for the day, we saw the first roadside sign that would be a foreboding indicator of things to come.

We used the opportunity to actually pull over and approach a truck driver on his way to the toilet and asked him what he would do in our position. It would be interesting to hear what a truck drivers point of view would be. We figured he would be able to offer the best advice as to what we needed to do to stay as safe as possible and he certainly had lots of thoughts on the matter.

It basically boiled down to this;

Trucks here are limited to 40kph legally and physically. The switchbacks are so steep that any faster would lead to potential rollovers or not making the corners. If we could maintain 40kph, then we could stay between two trucks any avoid any problems with one bearing down on us from behind.

Now, 40kph is usually an acceptable downhill speed for a bicycle, however, bear in mind that Candace had been riding a large and unstable bike for less than a week by this point. The thought of doing 40kph down a mountain was out of the question – especially with kicking horse pass so fresh in her mind, and the vibration still in her hands.

Plan B it was. Wait for a break in the traffic and wing it!

A long story short – it all worked out well. The descent was beautiful, and the shoulders were indeed narrow, and the right tip of my handlebar was often only inches from the rock wall to my side. Luckily, the traffic was light, and I loved carving down the mountain as the view of the Rocky Mountain Trench opened up in front of us. Known colloquially as The Valley of a Thousand Peaks, this broad valley separates the Rocky Mountains which now lay behind us, from the Selkirk and Purcell mountains which loomed in the distance ahead of us.

These new mountain ranges would be a challenge for another day.

For now, all we had left to do was to roll into the town of Golden and settle into a cheap motel, soaked wet through but exhilarated at having crossed an enormous mountain range. The shower was hot, the in-room coffee was awful, and we had a beer and burger joint just a short walk away.

Happy 31st birthday!

Thanks for reading part one.

Now read Part Two!

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