It was exciting to finally be on the road headed to the first of the bikepacking events I had planned for the 2017 season, the Alberta Rockies 700. Having heard of the race at the Bikepacking Summit in Canmore last Fall, and meeting the developer/organizer, Jonathan Hayward, there too, I had signed up early. http://www.albertarockies700.com; bikepacking.ca
Since then I’d focussed on training and the logistics of getting to the start and home from the end. The route begins in Coleman AB, in the middle of the Crowsnest pass at the Southern edge of the province of Alberta on Highway #3. It ends 738 kms North of that in the center of the province at Hinton on Highway #16. So transportation required some planning.
I was lucky enough to find accommodations for the night before in Pincher Creek, about 60kms from the start. The whole area of small communities was heavily booked, not only by the anticipated 30 or so participants for the AR 700, but also for the longstanding annual Sinister Seven ultramarathon starting at the same time. I was also fortunate enough to get a seat on a shuttle Jonathan arranged to get himself and a few lucky riders from Hinton to the start in Coleman. All I had to do was get myself and my gear to Hinton.
My go to transportation, a rebuilt 1987 VW Westfalia campervan, had been causing me grief and was only roadworthy the night before I left. It was therefore a relief to pull into Jonathan’s driveway where I would sleep that night and leave the van until I got back.
I was up early at 5 AM Friday morning to pick up Jonathan’s father, Perry, at the Blackcat Lodge, as he would be driving the shuttle back home. Then it was back into Hinton to pick up Tracy and Rick; then off to Jasper for Greg and Darren. From there it was down the Icefields highway to Canmore and a quick visit to Rebound Cycle and lunch. By now it was hot and the shuttle had no functioning a/c, which proved to be a good aclimation for the next days’ rides. We stopped along the way to ensure that the Highwood Lodge would be open for our ride as it was to be an important resupply point. That confirmed, we carried on to that night’s rendezvous at the Rum Runner pub in Coleman.
There was lots of discussion on the day’s drive on different experiences, plans, and gear setups. Some of this was reassuring, some of it caused doubts, but all in all, it was too late to make any but minor changes.
Soon enough we arrived at the Grand Depart outside the Rum Runner at 7 AM, Saturday morning. The day was forecast to exceed 30 C, so I was glad we didn’t postpone until 8 to start, as had been pondered.
Day 1: July 8th, 2017, 180kms
There were some last minute semi-panicked preparations by many of us. I saw myself trying to wirelessly share the GPS route with a few riders who were unable to locate the GPS track on their Garmin devices. I was distracted by this and actually missed the word “Go”, but didn’t miss the sudden takeoff all around me. No problem, there were several long days ahead.
Climbing out of Coleman quickly spread us out. In about 5 kms I found myself travelling alone behind a dozen faster riders and ahead of many more. I actually prefer that early in a ride as it allows me to establish my own rhythm.
About 17kms in, descending a badly washboarded hill, I came upon the routes first casualty. A rider sitting with his bike in the middle the road had suffered an obviously bad fall. I was relieved to see a truck stopped beside him. I stopped to check and he told me he was okay. Clearly not the case, as the contents of his backpack and some other gear was strewn about. My quick glance revealed a front wheel jammed with gear in the fork, and a tacoed rear wheel. He said, “I’m fine, but my ride is over.” I asked the other guy if he was prepared to drive him back to Coleman, and he said, “Yes.” With nothing more for me to do, I rode on. The washboard had swiveled a packroll he had attached to his fork around and it caught between the wheel and fork, causing an endo over the handlebars. A lesson learned the hard way.
I did have some company on the long, dusty ride to Highwood Lodge as there was a bit of yo-yo-ing happening with the riders. I had a couple visits from Tom and Nathan as they caught me on several climbs and then waited for others. I also rode with Jonathan for a ways. He told me he was just behind Rabih when he endoed. “I looked up and saw him upside down, 20′ in the air and come down hard.” Jonathan and other riders ensured he was basically okay and flagged down the truck to rescue him.
Highwood Lodge took longer to get to than I had thought or hoped for. A theme that was repeated many times during the trip, and something I had to adjust to stop from feeling constant disappointment. Arriving there meant many things: positively it meant convenience store food, water, and some pavement relief from the dust stirred up from the surprising amount of recreational and even commercial traffic encountered so far. But it also meant a long, gruelling climb up to Highwood Pass during the height of the day’s temperatures.
Eventually, after over 3 hours of steady ascent. The long anticipated pass was reached.
After that, there was a rewarding paved descent to the turnoff to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. At this time it was evening and time to think about the day’s destination. It would have been nice to have pushed through to Canmore at 230kms for the day, but I had barely been able to stave off cramping for most of the afternoon and struggled to adjust my hydration and electrolyte levels. The campgrounds (5 to 8kms offroute) were posted as full, the Info Centre was closed, and I chose to ignore the “Overflow Campsite” sign as I was not yet ready to call it a day anyway.
My plan then became to climb up the Smith-Dorrien Road to the Spray Lakes reservoir where it levels off and find a stealth camp somewhere off a parking lot at a trailhead. There was a tremendous amount of 2 way traffic on this Saturday night, and when the pavement ended the dust was unbelievable. This road is very wide but all traffic seeks the smoothest wheel paths which meant constantly moving aside for traffic.
At this time Jeff caught up to me and we briefly discussed our plans for the night. He planned to push through to Canmore. I rethought it, but was not happy with the dust and growing darkness and restated my plan to shortly call it a day. After Jeff disappeared ahead of me some emergency vehicles came up and passed me. A fire truck, ambulance and two police cars went by, and I worried about a fellow rider being involved. I was somewhat guiltily relieved when I got to the accident scene and saw two cars had collided with no riders involved. No doubt the dust contributed to the accident and that further encouraged me to seek shelter from the dust, darkness, and traffic.
I found an abandoned day use area behind a locked gate that had a broken picnic table and flat spot off the closed road. Perfect for setting up a tarp over a bivy. By the time darkness set in fully around 10 PM, I was stretched out in my sleep kit trying to avoid cramping and fell asleep to the sound of the frequent cars on the nearby road.
The pleasure was short-lived though, as sometime later I awoke to the sound of a vehicle inside the area. A bit startling as I knew there was only one way in through a locked gate. The vehicle stopped in front of my site, spotlights came on, and a voice said, “Conservation Officer! What are you doing?” I think my groggy reply was, “Well, I was sleeping.” To which I was informed there was no “random camping” in a Provincial Park. I believe my go-to sarcasm kicked in and I replied something like, “I’m afraid there is as that is just what I’m doing.” We did then have a brief discussion about the lack of camping available in the park for cyclists.
She told me I would have to leave, noted I had no apparent bear spray, and asked what I’d done with my food. It’s too ironic that I always travel with bear spray, but somehow it had disappeared between my van and the Grand Depart. As to food, I had bits in different bags and the bulk of it in a sealed bag inside my sealed handlebar bag. I had felt it unnecessary to cache it better. I pleaded that camping where I was wasn’t my first choice but campsites were closed and it was too dangerous for me to proceed through to Canmore in my exhausted state.
She took my driver’s license and went to her truck to write me up. I decided to remain lying in my bivy until I was told my fate. She came back with a ticket for “Camping in a park in a non-designated area”, which brought with it a fine of $115. She did point out that she was not fining me for improper food storage which would be another $175, but that I was endangering myself and the bears by doing so. She conceded I should not go on, but I would have to cache my food. She went off in the dark in the bush to find a suitable tree, while I gathered together my food and other odorous goods.
She deemed the cord I had for the purpose was of insufficient length and gave me some old climbing rope to augment it. Off we went to the tree in the bush in the dark, her with flashlight, me with my headlamp. The bush was thick and the branches plentiful which made throwing over one a challenge. After my several failed attempts from the ground, she volunteered, “I can climb this tree.” “Please don’t, I can get this.” But up she went 4 feet, from which she had no better luck and then broke a branch and fell climbing down. That made me feel really guilty and I managed to get the bag over the branch and secured to a neighbouring tree.
I can’t say I slept very well after all this, but at least my legs got some rest.
Day 2: July 9, 2017, 191kms
Day 2 started early and I was back on the road at first light which in these mountains was 6 AM. At least it was cool and very little traffic for the first few hours.
At the top of my final descent into Canmore, I had another mishap. I glanced at my GPS to check distance only to see an empty mount! I recalled my last view of this all important instrument was some 3 or 4 kms back where I crossed the bridge at the top of the hill. The chances of finding something so small, dark, and rock shaped were not high and finding it in working order now that the road had narrowed and the heavy traffic resumed was even more remote.
But back up I went, eyes glued to the ground examining every fist sized rock and clump on both the road and ditch. About 50 m from the top on a bad washboard section, there it lay, face down fully in the wheel track. Obviously it had been run over laying where it did, but when I scooped it up the screen was bright and it seemed fully intact. So lucky! I put it back on the mount and pushed it down to its audible click when secure. I believe taking it off at the Grand Depart to share the route, I had inadvertently failed to secure it properly. Another lesson learned, I hope.
As I rode the last few kms into Canmore, I was thinking about the discussion back at Highwood Lodge and the interpretation of Ryan Correy’s (Bikepacking.ca) message about a “24-hour” pit stop at Rebound Cycle with BBQ, beer, snacks, and bike wash. I had interpreted it to mean 24/7 during the event, but others thought it meant only the first 24 hr period. I was now nearly 26 hours in so not really expecting anyone there.
As I approached Rebound Cycle, I heard my name being called and saw Ryan with his wife Sarah in the parking lot. They were indeed offering the support 24/7! I don’t know which was more motivating – the food or moral support, but it was very reinvigorating. I sprayed the dust off my bike, relubed my chain, adjusted my derailleur all while washing the dust down my throat with beer and pop.
I enjoyed visiting with everyone there, and was surprised to find out that many who had arrived throughout the night ahead of me were still there or had just left. I stopped at Subway and packed away a sandwich for lunch and another for supper. It was then off on the paved Highway #1A to Ghost Lake.
After the pavement ended travelling North up the Ghost, it was back to the familiar hot, dusty gravel with traffic equally split towing RVs or horse trailers. Lots of climbing and beautiful vistas and the day culminated by reaching the Red Deer River. The picture below shows part of the High Mountain Lodge flooded out a few years earlier and closed ever since. Oh, well, I still had my bivy.
Day 3: July 10, 2017, 187kms
I almost slept in Monday morning waiting for the sun to rise before I realized it was clouds and not the early hour that was preventing the sun from shining.
As I climbed out of the Red Deer River valley, the rain began to fall. I put on my windbreaker raincoat and looked forward to the cooler temperatures and less dust. The pleasure of that became somewhat muted as the day wore on as the dust slowly transitioned to mud.
At some point while riding through heavy rain and muddy road a few motorists stopped. One told me two more cyclists were holed up a few kilometres ahead. This was good news as I’d been following the same two tire tracks most of yesterday and all of today and was curious as to who they were. Another stopped to offer me a break from the rain. I didn’t want to stop because while riding I was dry under my jacket, although not from my thighs down, but I was warm. If I stopped I’d cool off and have to put more clothes on and risk getting wetter. Throughout the afternoon there was lots of thunder and lightning but again, staying on the bike with rubber tires seemed the right way to go.
Supper time found me at Ram Falls and the rain stopped long enough for me to get some shots of this awe-inspiring scenery. I didn’t really enjoy the hike down and up the hundred or so steps to the viewing stand, but may never get there again.
I never did catch the 2 riders ahead of me that day, and began to hope I’d meet them at the end of the day at Nordegg. Something I was increasingly looking forward to. It was beginning to get dark as I started the climb up from the South Saskatchewan River. I hadn’t realized, but should have, that Nordegg was so far above the river. It was well dark by the time I crested the hill and I was doubting my chance of finding anything for food or shelter still open.
Something interesting happened as I rode through the dark that evening. I heard an animal huffing right beside the trail. I didn’t recognize the sound but was sure it wasn’t a bear. Then a dark shape ran across the road ahead of me followed by another then another. They were too dark for elk but didn’t move like moose. Then I realized they must be some of the many feral horses I had encountered over the last two days.
As I rolled into the very quiet hamlet my fears were realized. 10:15 and the convenience store and cafe were closed. I could not rouse anyone at the motel office either. I circled the motel and saw two bikes outside a room. I knew they belonged to fellow riders though I didn’t know who they were. I let my headlight shine in their window and as I thought I heard voices, knocked quietly on their door. As I didn’t know who they were, I wasn’t sure how they’d react. I decided to camp somewhere and try to get some food in the morning.
I set about crashing in a breezeway space of the motel complex and was setting out my sleep kit when a light shone my way. Deja vu from the other night? But this time the light was accompanied by a voice saying, “Brian, is that you? It’s Jeff. How’d you like some pizza? A beer? You can crash on our floor.” Needless to say I was overjoyed! Jeff had used the motel Wi-Fi to check Trackleaders and saw I’d reached Nordegg and was somewhere outside. Luckily for me he’d come out to rescue the homeless guy. Wow, a shower, slice of pizza, beer, a warm, dry space for my bed, and some company was pretty much a dream come true.
Day 4: July 11, 2017, 187kms
In the morning, after a hearty breakfast with Jeff and Greg, it was off on the final day. After such a restorative rest, I was determined to reach Hinton. Even the rain was not going to dampen my spirits. It was a long day but made better by riding a lot of it with Jeff. He and I had carelessly missed our first turnoff causing us to fall behind Greg, who I didn’t see again, even though I followed his track for the whole day.
We hit a little pavement and I realized my drivetrain was howling from the days rain and mud, so I lubed my chain and made it happy. I caught Jeff on a downhill stretch and heard his drivetrain making the same complaint. I also noticed his rear tire looked a little too soft. I suggested stopping to address these and said I was pulling into Robb at the “Bryan Hotel” for a picture and a bite to eat which I did. Apparently Jeff decided to try to catch Greg and carried on.
My phone was too dead to even snap a picture so I went in the pub to eat and let it charge. The hotel offers a pub/dining room, a convenience store, and a liquor store all in different rooms with one lady covering them all. It was suppertime but the pub was empty. I presume this one lady also cooked my delicious burger. It took more time to eat, wash and fill my bottles, than I probably should have spent, but it was all worth it. The same lady came outside with me when I left to take the picture for me.
I still had about 60kms of Forest Service roads to cover to get to Hinton, and the going wasn’t a lot easier. I couldn’t really make great time, and settled in to grinding it out and looking like I’d be hard pressed to finish in daylight. Eventually I came to the last paved downhill and the final main intersection at the bottom when my Garmin decided to freeze. I knew I was within blocks of the checkered flag showing at the end of the route but for some mysterious reason I couldn’t zoom in to verify the way to it. I frustratingly proceeded to head on different paths from the intersection only to be shown the dreaded “off-course” pale blue line.
After some interminable minutes, I found the route through to Highway #16, and the Info Centre! Jonathan and his wife Jaimie were waiting there in the Yukon shuttle. I enjoyed the compulsory victory beer right there on the sidewalk, despite thinking that with my luck I was likely to get busted for drinking in public!
Thanks especially to Jonathan for organization above and beyond and to Jaimie and Perry for their support and hospitality. Thanks also to Jeff and Greg for their most timely hospitality and certainly to Ryan Correy, Sarah, and Rebound Cycle for the much appreciated support in Canmore. It was a great adventure, a great ride, with some great company. That one is definitely worth repeating.
Total distance: 745 kms
Relive Day 1: https://www.relive.cc/view/1083251791
Relive Day 2: https://www.relive.cc/view/1083250901
Relive Day 3: https://www.relive.cc/view/1083250014
Relive Day 4: https://www.relive.cc/view/1083249440