Canadian Rockies Bike Tour

The clear-headed, insight-inducing, almost clairvoyant properties of beer are hard to dispute, especially considering that it was while drinking an IPA at Boone’s Ale House in Salem, Oregon, that a proposition by my friend Darren Stauffer was made to bike from Edmonton, Alberta to Kellogg, Idaho to meet our wives for a supported tour. When it comes to anything biking, I will always say yes, so of course I assured Darren that if he was in fact serious about doing this ride, I would gladly take part, even if it meant crashing his family reunion for a day or two.

Thus, the immaculate conception of an epic Canadian Rockies bike tour was born.

Between the 25th of July and the 1st of August, Darren Stauffer and I took part in a 630 mile bikepacking trip from Jasper, Alberta, Canada to Kellogg, Idaho. Summarizing eight days of riding in a blog is impossible. Unlike my last number of posts where I wrote down scrupulous notes for each day’s ride and then wrote an entire entry on each said day, I’m not going to be as meticulous with my musings for this ride; it’s just too much. I will, however, share a few joys from the ride, a disappointment or two, and some general reflections on the ride as a whole, and then plaster all sorts of pictures on this blog to catalog Darren and my time riding through this diverse landscape.

On the 23rd of July I flew to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with my bike stowed safely away in a cardboard box in the cargo hold. Meeting Darren outside of customs was a surreal experience to say the least. It’s always a bit odd to see someone you associate with one setting in a completely different and foreign setting; things just feel out of place. But it was a great reunion and as Darren originates from a little town just outside of Edmonton, he knew the area well and was a good tour guide for the few days we had to kill before traveling to Jasper.

The reason we met in Edmonton (Tofield to be exact) was because Darren’s family reunion was just finishing and his parents were traveling to Radium Hot Springs to meet up with their extended family for a few days. Lucky for us, Jasper is on the way to Radium Hot Springs, so at 6am on July 25th, Darren and I loaded our bikes on the back of his parents’ Pontiac Vibe and set off for Jasper.

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Our first day, and the only day that threatened rain.

We wanted to start in Jasper because it is a biker’s paradise. The terrain is challenging. You are either ascending or descending through the well-known Icefields Parkway with virtually zero flat sections longer than a few miles. To put it in perspective, in eight days of riding, Darren and I ascended a total of 30,039 feet and descended 31,323 feet.

Often challenging terrain correlates with stunning landscapes, and this tour was no exception. The roads are surrounded by the breathtaking Canadian Rockies, and wildlife abounds. Throughout our trip, we saw a number of critters, most notably a scruffy-looking wolf that looked like it was going to trot over to us and shake our hand, a bear that busted out of a bush and ran for cover like it was running the 40-yard dash (Darren and I may or may not have released some unintended expletives at its retreating rump), and a number of moose once we got to Idaho.

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He looked kind of friendly in a Little Red Riding Hood sort of way.

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These little guys were everywhere on our last day.

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This one was just a little disconcerting.

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Not wild, at least… I don’t think they were. It was strange, though, that the cows were out on the road when there was a fence all along the highway.

Although the landscape and wildlife in the area are stunning, they are only part of the allure of a trip like this. One of the greatest aspects of this ride was the camaraderie with my riding partner, Darren. Sharing an experience like this exposes vulnerabilities that you don’t see in normal interactions. Darren and I had a plethora of opportunities to learn about each other through unforgettable stories, shared experiences, memorable moments (like almost pissing ourselves when we saw the bear), and all sorts of other memories that will last a lifetime. Many of these will go unmentioned, but are a highlight of any bikepacking experience.

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Our first day.
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Beauty Creek Hostel; it was a cold morning.
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Athabasca Falls

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Symbolism.

The only notable disappointment I experienced on this trip was an increasing pain in my right knee that ended up being rather debilitating towards the middle of our ride. While I was able to contribute to our daily drafting patterns (ride ten miles in front, rest ten miles drafting), I was unable to tackle some of the monster passes we traversed with my normal gusto. While not ideal, having to slow it down a bit on climbs was probably good for me. It reminded that my own athletic aspirations can sometimes get in the way of appreciating the beauty, solitude, and introspect of the present moment. My slower cadence helped me better appreciate the setting’s ambiance and the opportunities for camaraderie with Darren, so in some ways, the injury was perhaps more of a blessing than a disappointment in the end; minus the fact that I’m still dealing with its effects.

I also found that on this ride there were many moments where I experienced a clear-headed calm unparalleled in any other activity. I sometimes experience this calm when running, but it was amplified during the long pedal-pushing sessions Darren and I pumped out before taking breaks. This calm affirmed for me that the simplicity of bike touring is perhaps one of its greatest assets. After the second or third day, Darren and I were both used to our general cadence of the day: we’d get up around 6am, eat our usual breakfast of oatmeal, peanut butter, and coffee, and then head off for our next destination. During the day we’d ride as far as we felt comfortable with, stop at a campsite around 4 or 5pm, discuss our route the next day, and then go about the pleasantly monotonous evening patterns of bike maintenance, dinner preparation, showers (if our campsites had them), and general relaxation.

As a teacher, life’s simplicities are often lost in the stressful bustle of unit planning, grading, state testing, administrative expectations, etc. But biking is different. Other than basic bodily needs, it’s about keeping a relatively constant cadence with the pedals. That’s it. The cloudy thinking that is so common with teaching melts away when following the simplistic and rhythmic pattern of life on a bicycle. Life on a bicycle is like experiencing life within the eye of a hurricane: all your normal stressors and anxieties circle around you but are unable to penetrate the calm, serene, and rhythmic cadence of the daily pedal.

But enough musings on the power of the pedal. What follows is a visual summary of Darren and my time riding south from Jasper, Alberta, Canada, into the U.S. via the border crossing at Roosville, Montana, into Idaho, and eventually making our way down some gravelly forest roads into Kellogg, our final destination.

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The first of many more hills to come on our ride south to Kellogg.

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In some ways, Darren is going to be this blog entry’s feature presentation, since I was the photographer, so get used to seeing a lot of shots like this one.
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Although beautiful, the cracks in the road along Icefields Parkway are maddening. I think my wrists got the best workout through this area, bracing for all the bumps they encountered.
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Athabasca Falls.

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Our first night we stayed at a hostel called Beauty Creek. While there, we met a number of great people, most notably a Dutch couple, Brahm and Carolina, who at 27 are a family practice doctor and a professor getting her PhD. Impressive resumes.
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The second day started out foggy, which added to the already enchanting landscape.
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The fog finally cleared just as we got to our first pass.
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This is Sunwapta pass. My knee started to ache just a bit this day, but it subsided by the afternoon.

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Almost to the top.
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After Sunwapta pass, the road snakes its way back down to a valley that was perhaps the most visually stunning section of the trip. The wide valley had a network of creeks running through it, and nestled in to the towering hills on each side of the valley sat solitary snow capped peaks, which grew increasingly more impressive the farther I rode.
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Even the incessant cracks in the road couldn’t distract me from these stunning vistas.

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Behind me is the famous Columbia Ice field.
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After the Ice Field was a rather exhilarating section of downhill, of which this is the only successful picture I took.
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This is a shot of where one of the recent fires came right up close to the road. You can see the fire made it all the way to the top of the treeline on this peak.
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Our second pass of the day was called Bow Pass. It was another long monotonous uphill that was fortunately made bearable whenever you decided to look up.
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The top of Bow Pass.
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Darren making it to the top of the pass.

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Our final destination was Lake Louise. We initially planned on riding to Waterfowl Lakes Campground, which was just over the first pass and about 55 miles from Beauty Creek Hostel. We were feeling good so decided to head to Mosquito Creek Campground, which was about 75 miles from Beauty Creek Hostel. We got there, and really wanted burgers, so decided to head to a town that had some: Lake Louise. We ended up riding 92 miles our second day, with over 5,600 feet of elevation gain. Not bad.
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Our friend, Megan Roth, drove an hour to meet us for breakfast in Lake Louise.  Headed for Radium Hot Springs.

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First of two passes for the day.
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Our third day we crossed over the border from Alberta to British Columbia.
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I think they must chlorinate the water in British Columbia; it was unnaturally blue.

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I didn’t take any pictures of the pass right before Radium Hot Springs because it was steep and had almost no shoulder the entire way. I needed to concentrate. Here we are on the downhill, though, where things started to get fun.

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The sign I was incapable of taking a picture of (because we were going over 35 miles per hour) was the 11% grade sign heading into Radium Hot Springs. From there we just took up a lane of traffic.  Once in Radium, we spend the night in Invermeer, where Darren’s extended family was having a reunion.  This meant we got to sleep at their rental house, take showers, and wash our clothes.  What a luxury.
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Riding out of Radium Hot Springs on our fourth day.

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The remnants of the Canadian Rockies.
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On our fourth day, the road was covered with a plague of grasshoppers, and not just any grasshoppers… suicide grasshoppers. They would jump directly into our tires, make ‘pinging’ noises as they guillotined themselves in our spokes, and here was one just hitchhiking his way down the road, until he too decided that life wasn’t worth living and jumped into the spinning death trap. Don’t go towards the light little guy.
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Our fourth day also brought with it the most pristine tarmac we’d ridden on the entire trip. Smooth with huge bike lanes, from Radium Hot Springs all the way to Forte Steel Campground.

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Final hill before Forte Steel.
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Forte Steel was a great campground, even if they did falsely advertise running water in the campsites. Other than having to sneak our water from RV site, the amenities at Forte Steel were awesome: private showers, a pool, and a nice general store where we got ice cream, chips, and pop. These three hallowed commodities became our staple purchases at any general store.
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Fifth day. Other than our first day, where we didn’t start riding until 11am or noon, this was the first day where we didn’t go over 80 miles. My knee was in a dark, painful place, and although we made it to our desired destination, we only went 75 miles and I was hurting by the end. Oh yeah, and here is an accurate depiction of a car on deer collision.

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It looked scarier than it was. Steepness bad. Brevity good.
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About to cross the border into Montana.
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Customs.

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The final destination on our fifth day was Roxford Campground. We set up camp, took a dip in the Lake Koocanusa, and then went to dinner at Frontier pub & grill, a nice restaurant with great burgers. Darren and I both felt ill afterwards, not because the food was poorly cooked, but because we ordered two appetizers, beer, and their burger baskets; way to much deep fried food for one night, and I am known for having an iron stomach.
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Breakfast of champions. You’ll notice that to the right is a bike tube. Darren didn’t believe me when I said you could pump up a bike tube and then use it as a flotation device. I set out to prove him wrong but blew the tire before even getting it to the lake. I guess we’ll never know.
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Our morning ride in Montana was one of the nicest sections of riding we had. Decent shoulders, but the undulating terrain was a joy to ride, and the road bordered Lake Koocanusa for about 40 miles, which gave us something to look at as well.

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These signs only gave us momentary mental pause; then we’d strap back into our silent cerebral carnival rides, whose topics undulated as much as the Montanan terrain.
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This road read ‘Old Haul Road’ on our Adventure Cycling map, but read ‘Champion Haul Road’ on my GPS. Either way, it was a beautiful road that followed Lake Koocanusa and a railroad track almost the entire way to Libby. We didn’t see one car on the road the entire way (over 10 miles).

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After exiting Old/Champion Haul road, we realized how hot it was. In Libby, most of the temperature posts in town read between 97-100 degrees. Once we were exposed to the sun again, we immediately felt the heat. It probably didn’t help that we rode 93 miles.
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Dorr Skeels Campground was perhaps the most beautiful campground we stayed at on the trip. We got the last campsite, which was right next to the lake.
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Morning on the lake.
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Morning riding was always the best.

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Once we crossed the border from Montana to Idaho, the road changed from tarmac to compacted gravel. This section of the ride was the climactic moment in my knee pain. The pain got so sharp and severe that I had to get off my bike a few times and wait for the throbbing to subside. Needless to say, there aren’t many pictures chronicling this section of the ride.

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There was also construction on the day of my knee collapse. After waiting five minutes in line to continue on in the compacted gravel, I realized I’d gotten a flat. Knee collapse, flat tire, if there was a low-point in the trip for me, this was probably it.
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We eventually got off the gravel road and into more construction on our way to Sandpoint, Idaho. However, because it was a busy highway, the construction worked out in our favor. One our line of traffic went through the construction, we had the road to ourselves, and the traffic coming the opposite direction had to wait for us before going, so the road was pretty empty most of the way into Sandpoint. Once in Sandpoint, we couldn’t find in campsite in the area, so we splurged and got a room at the K2 Inn, a nice little hotel with a very friendly manager. We both felt that a burger and beer were needed after a rather stressful day on the road, so we walked over to Mick Duffs, a local brewery, and all the day’s stressors washed away in the murky brown depths of a fine craft brew.
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Our eighth and final day: There were some nice little bike trails heading out of Sandpoint and towards Coeur D’Alene. Since riding to Sandpoint was the final destination on our Adventure Cycling maps, we just googled the quickest bike route to Kellogg. The first option that popped up was over 20 miles shorter than everything else. We saw that it only had one pass, but the pass was 5,000 feet in elevation… meh. We’d done more than 5,000 feet of elevation in one day on this trip. The collective response from both of us was that it would be nice to get all the elevation done in one go so that we could coast our way into Kellogg.

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On our way towards the pass, we ran into a group of kids riding on the deserted farm roads. They ended up turning a different direction, but it was fun seeing a bunch of kids getting into cycling early.
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Our original route turned into gravel and then it closed completely. No problem. We took a few mile detour to get back on track.  We found East Bunco Road which would take us up the pass.
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That’s when the road turned to gravel, got steep, and then stayed gravel for the next 40 miles. Didn’t see that coming.
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East Bunco Road is also Forest Road 209. We should have known google would con is into thinking it was going to be a simple 5,000 foot climb.
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We had seen power-lines that went straight up one of the mountains on our way towards East Bunco Road and I had jokingly said to Darren, “I wonder if the road takes us up that high.” Here were the power-lines again after an hour of climbing. Bad joke.
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We eventually made it to the top on our own accord, despite salivating at an offer from a passing truck to take us to the top. Here we are making our way down after a couple hours of climbing.

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Darren wanted to cool off in a creek before continuing on down the washboard and pot-hole infested gravel road.
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Dusty.
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Sometimes the road looked nice.
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But it usually didn’t. Once we got off the gravel, we were able to take the rails to trails bike routes that Coeur D’Alene is famous for. We limped out way into Kellogg, decided to splurge on another hotel, and spent two days resting and eating, waiting for our wives and another couple to arrive so we could start riding all over again.

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