Night and day, on the Divide

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The expanses of road up north are a memory.  The rest of the summer will have a distinctly different flavor than the previous months, dominated in the next few weeks by the Great Divide Route and the web of forest service access roads of southern Canada and the lower 48.  Cross the Bow River, turn off Main St. Banff toward the historic Banff Springs Hotel, continue past the statue of a long-ago baron and roll onto dirt.  Your summer is ahead of you and it looks like this.  Leaving Banff behind; leave RV’s and national park concessionaires and ants crawling north and south along paved routes; I’m a spider on a web and for as much as I leave behind, there’s more to gain than to lose.  Leaving Banff at sunset, I pierce darkness and camp along Goat Creek.  By day, I awake to a sniffing, sniffling creature.  A black bear is inches away trying to decide if a snoring green cocoon is worth further investigation.  As I’ve prepared for this, I turn to meet his eyes with my own and speak sternly, reach for my camera and then my bear spray.  Nothing but a scared black bear and my calm fifty-five beats per minute.  Six miles from Banff, this is what day brings.  This is a 7AM wake-up call on the Divide.

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Spray Lakes is exactly how I left it eleven months ago and I am at home.  I meet riders on their first and second day, and smile at the enthusiasm and the coming weeks in their lives.  I depart, knowingly wishing them luck that they don’t need and fun that is already in the cards.  This is likely to be the best part of the year for these riders– it is for me.  Evening is again falling as I encounter a self-contained ACA trip with a dozen riders.  We talk bikes, share experiences and e-mail, and a giant pot of cheesy rice.  The are camped for the night but a full belly and a setting sun beckon me over Elk Pass to the Tobermory Cabin on the other side, and I wish to spend the night.







If you insert Anchorage, AK to Missoula, MT into Google Maps, it routes you through Jasper and south along the Icefields Parkway.  It then follows main highways west of Banff and south to Montana, but I knew a better way.  The Divide route travels directly south from Banff on the Goat Creek Trail, along the Smith-Dorrien Road (Spray Lakes Trail), and over Elk Pass into Elkford, B.C.  From there it’s a straight shot to Fernie, the US border, Whitefish and Missoula.  The Divide is more than just a fun bike ride, it’s real transport!  Welcome home.




A quick ride on the Icefields Parkway


It’s billed as one of the best bike rides in Canada and motorists will remind you of the time their brother rode it in 1988 in a big hurry with lots of stuff and it was really incredible.  It’s also one of the most popular motorable routes in the country, and is an international destination.  You can imagine what I’m going to say, so I won’t, mostly.  Overall, it’s a nice ride with beautiful scenery but there are lots of signs telling you where not to camp and a lot people to say “neat” and tell you that they would never ride their bike anywhere.  What am I supposed to say to that?  Nearby Spray Lakes, Kananaskis Country, the Yellowhead Highway from McBride to Jasper, or the ride on the Divide Route over Elk Pass to Elkford are all equally beautiful with much less traffic, better camping and better swimming opportunities.  There’s a certain magnetism that attracts idiocy to national parks.  I’ve said it.

I left Jasper by night, camped about ten miles out of town and made an early start as joggers jogged by in the morning, whispering about the snoring cyclist.  It’s hard to tell in the dark what daybreak may bring.  High humidity conceals some of the macro-majesty of the area, but there is much more to appreciate.  Some clear skies on the ride to Banff are welcomed.  Rivers run high and the snowpack is unseasonably heavy.  Dozens of cyclists are out riding the parkway.

Finally, I’m far away from Alaska and the Yukon and almost none of the other cyclists know about fatbikes.  How about a “snow bike”?  Surely you have seen them in magazines or on the internet.  Nope.  How much do those big tires slow you down?

I’m a wandering diplomat for fat tires, for the virtues of taking it easy and getting off the beaten path.  Everyone asks about the framebag and the 64 oz Klean Kanteen; the dynamo and the Marge Lite rim (that’s the tube!); the tires and, “where is the rest of your stuff?”.  If possible, I would invest in Ortlieb stock.  Their stranglehold on the market is incredible.

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La Tête Jaune (the Yellowhead)


From the Pacific Ocean at Prince Rupert, also a stop on the Alaska Marine Highway, the Yellowhead Highway traverses the Canadian Rockies at Yellowhead Pass near Jasper, AB.  I intersected the Yellowhead from the Cassiar at Kitwanga, about 60 miles west of Smithers.  Smithers was a welcomed oasis after the desolate Cassiar and my body’s strike against food and sleep and sanity.  Safeway and it’s infinite bounty calmed my symptoms and a half-gallon of orange juice washed it away.  A generous warmshowers host just east of Telkwa was also essential, for a shower and laundry was overdue by about three weeks (since Alaska!).  Leaving the cyclist’s cabin at the Rainbow Trailer Park near Telkwa, I was rested and ready for a full round.  Assorted tailwinds and blue skies made for classic summer road touring, interspersed with swimming and ice cream.  Enter four hundred-mile days in a row to put me a lot closer to Missoula than I was a moment ago.  Having put in some miles, I’ve now got time to ride some of the Divide, and to relax.

In good weather a week on the Yellowhead is a treat.  Ample shoulders with towns every 60 miles make for a nice time; lots of coffee and pedaling until sunset made sure that some ground was covered.













Just married, this young couple from nearby B.C. was out to see some country in their refurbished VW bus.  In the final light of day, they paused to cool the engine following a steep ascent– such is the manner of an old, underpowered, air-cooled vehicle on a hot day.






The Robson Valley near McBride might have been Montana or Wyoming, and was a perfect showcase for this country.  The land was in heat, throbbing with wildlife and greenery and mosquitoes.  The mountains cooled the views with lingering snow from a mighty winter.  This stream provided a cooling, if only a slightly cleansing bath.  My camp alongside was properly air-conditioned by it’s waters.


Furher up the Robson Valley, Mt. Robson comes into view as a remarkable introduction to the Canadian Rockies.  It is the tallest peak in the range at over 12,000 ft, although Canada’s tallest peak is just across the border from Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Rising up to Yellowhead Pass past milky glacier waters, I swam before and after almost every climb.  On a hot day, there is no better way.  A quick descent into Jasper ends at the grocery straightaway.  I’ve become accustomed to planning exactly as much food as I may need for each section of riding.  It’s not as tortuous as it may sound, but allows me to avoid hefting excess baggage over mountains.  I almost always end with a day or two of basic supplies such as nuts and grains, so there’s no hazard.  I have also begun to buy meat at the grocery when I reach town, as I;m finding it helps balance digestion and is a good way to put some figurative meat back on some weathered muscles.  The challenge is to find something fresh and cheap and easy to cook.  One night it was a rosemary seasoned pork cutlet, while another it was fresh, local sausage.  On this occasion, three chicken legs are seasoned and stewed to perfection.  I was unsure how the experiment would fare, but with time the fats dripped from the meat into the water, garlic and spices.  A delicious broth cooked through the meat and made for some savory dipping with fresh bread on hand.  It’s amazing what can be done in a 0.8L cookpot over a beer can stove with a liter of methyl-hydrate (alcohol, fuel).  A nineteen year old at the Canadian Tire superstore was required by law to warn me of the flame hazard of my purchase.  I told him I was quite aware of it’s capacities; next time I will tell him it makes a nice chicken dish.







John Neff is the warm showers host east of Telkwa; there is free camping at the municipal grounds on the shores of Burns Lake, in the town of Burns Lake; and free camping is a real cakewalk all the way to Jasper.  The mosquitoes were especially bad between Prince George and Jasper, although it may simply be due to a period of rain followed by hot summer weather.  I’ll share some from Icefields Parkway soon, but for tonight I say goodbye to Banff and head south on the Great Divide Route.  While the Divide is something different for everyone, it has been, or will be my cycle-touring sanctuary now for two summers.  Riding to get here is half the battle, while riding the Divide is much more that half the fun.  There is something special about turning off the pavement, off of Banff’s bustling streets and onto a dirt route to Mexico.  It all might be too good to be true, so don’t wake me.

Bulking up


Banff is the apex of my trajectory, at which point I have travelled about two months and expect a few months ahead. I turn, southward, in coincidence with my birthday. An occasion for a visit from my mother; we toured the Icefields Parkway and Kananaskis Country, stayed at the finest mountain chateau(s?), walked along the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, bathed in thermal springs, and dined atop rooftops and mountainsides. And finally, we spent a night outdoors at about 6000 ft, her first time since pregnant with my older sister.

The Icefields Parkway extends north from Banff to Jasper National Park. About 150 miles of magificent scenery, this is a classic motorist destination like Skyline Drive atop Shenandoah Ridge. Cyclists were out in greater numbers than I have seen since the C&O canal; loaded, supported, and day riders. It’s a “must do” kind of ride, yet I managed to shrug my shoulders at it. We drove the length of the Parkway, so I have experienced some of the scenery, but the “must do” pressure is always a bit of a turn-off. Show me a dotted line on a map that “can’t be cycled”, and I’ll be off with a smile. The Divide is accessible thanks to the hard work of the ACA, but it maintains some of the same attraction to me.

Wish you could eat, carefree? Two months in and a few months left– that’ll do it. Cassoulet birthday dinner, a breakfast buffet at the Chateau Lake Louise, and a rooftop pizza and beer at the Banff Springs Hotel. A fantasy in relation to a mosquito-infested pot of mashed red lentils and rice that I will enjoy this evening (I call it vegan mac n cheese).

With a topping of steamed beets and green beans.

My winter kit has bulged my sack a bit, but not as much as the following stash of food I accumulated before leaving town:

5 apples
5 plums
4 bananas
3 beets
1 lb green beans
1 garlic bulb
…and the usual mix of oats, raisins, nuts and pumpkin and sunflower seeds; rice, lentils, coffee, and jar of honey

There’s more, I can’t even remember it all.

I did settle on a small water filter, in addition to a can of bear spray (pepper sauce, sort of). Some pants, a down jacket, a wool hat and gloves, and a vapor barrier liner ( we’ll see) bulk up my bike.

I am still carrying an extra tire because the Marathon won’t die, and two tubes. Why two tubes? I don’t get flats, I can patch tubes like a pro, and my valve holes are well covered by rim strips to prevent abrasion at the base of the valve. Seemed like the right thing to do, I guess. Except that my front tube– an inspiring Schwalbe tube of very-high quality– was purchased 15 months and 10,000 miles ago. Better safe…

…than have a good reason to hitch a ride. I guess.









Wisdom in words and images


Some thoughts; not mine by origin, but belonging to my last few days. A few days away from routine; for that, I am wiser.

Thanks to warmshowers hosts in Calgary– available on short notice– who quickly acquired both pizza and beer and helped clarify the nuances of Canadian “culture”. Top notch.

An old Marathon tire on a German step-through trekking bike with a sidewall generator, and a rear basket filled with firewood and a wool blanket.

Women are persons…

The Kuwahara step-through mountain bike: Cro-Mo and well-equipped. My next touring bike.

Melting ice.

Finally, a rare sighting of the lone wolf in the wild. An accidental self-portait.















Calgary gives; gearing up, again


I have ridden a bit over 3000 miles since Maryland; maybe more, but my method of calculation is a bit vague and misunderstood (by me). The last push to Calgary included an evening scramble for a campsite and an early morning start to get to town before noon. From the outside looking in, Calgary is sprawling uncontrollably, reflecting a booming oil industry despite general recession. From the inside, the city feels properly dense, and centralized; people seem happy and healthy, although my bias includes spending the day outdoors of the Bow Valley cycle path, swimming in the milky-green glacial Bow River, and some shopping at MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op, think REI). With sunny summer weather, bronzed bodies, and plentiful cottonwoods, this could Denver. Early August seems a nice time to visit Calgary. A very livable city with exceptional cycle facilities in town, and a real river. Floating the river seems a popular pastime.

Coming into town I happened upon a farm of Saskatoonberries; much
like a serviceberry, I asked for permission to load a handful into my oats and cottage cheese. Once I beat my way through the outer layer of construction, housing, and industry, an inner zone of urban bliss unfolded, beginning with a generous farmer’s market boasting BC’s plenty. Everything looked amazing, and everything was from BC. I spent twenty dollars and loaded food I didn’t know how to prepare into a bag already full with gear. I thank Carradice for the development of the Longflap models. And I ate.

MEC is well stocked and should have made life simple. Rather, I shopped for hours, mostly exercising my ability not to purchase. I tested well and only bought essential items such as a chain, lube, and some dry bags. I tried on some slick outdoorsy duds that are supposed to be for climbers, but opted for tattered used goods that are molded to the shape and stench of my body (like a Brooks, of course). A few weeks away from these temptations makes you think you’ve earned it. I didn’t, and it doesn’t work that way. Mostly, I don’t have room for more stuff, and that’s a blessing.

Warmshowers granted a roof and a meal; it keeps on giving. My host works nearby at Canada’s largest bike shop– Bow Cycle– and was able to hook-up some employee pricing on a basic cyclocomputer, some bottle cages, sunglasses, and a very sub-par lock– exactly the kind I like.

Finally, the hardware store netted some teflon tape to repair my stove’s seal; the cheapest liter of stove fuel I have seen in North America ($3.80), and some hose clamps to mount bottle cages to my fork blades. I went there. I have decided that I will most likely not carry a water pump or dedicated purification system, but by adding a few ounces to the bike I have nearly doubled my capacity. I may cook with untreated water and will carry a back-up chemical treatment such as iodine, bleach, or some commercial product. None of this is absolutely final. Free popcorn fueled my parking lot repairs.

So, I spent a bunch of money; have too
much– thankfully– good food; and nothing feels different. It shouldn’t, but what did I benefit from the offerings of the big city? Not much. The city, more likely, benefit from me.

The score: I spent $120+/-, added two liters water capacity, improved my stove and refueled; acquired new chain and lube, lots of fruits and vegetables, and a few other items which I can’t recall and can’t be that important. Finally, with no more to “do” in town and nowhere to stay, I reluctantly leave late in the afternoon toward Banff.