Rockin’ the Rockies 2019 Style (2019 AR700)

My bikepacking experiences in Canmore have a clear pattern. In 2016, at the inaugural Summit in October – snow; In 2017 during the Overnighter ride at that year’s Summit in September – snow. Now in 2019, at the start of the Alberta Rockies 700 Bikepacking race on August 17th – snow!

Day 1

Riders awaiting the start of the 2019 AR700 in misty Canmore, 6:45 AM, Saturday, August 17th.
Rider Greg Van Tighem climbing through the snow on Skogan Pass.

After riding through the Three Sisters Village and past a herd of elk, it was up the Skogan Pass powerline trail cresting at the Fortress Mtn ski area. Then it was down the muddy Terrace trail and a short stint along Highway 40. The first resupply opportunity was reached at the service station at Fortress Junction; a welcome chance to grab a bite before carrying on. Back on Highway 40 (Kananaskis Trail), through the Boulton Creek and Kananaskis Lakes trails, and eventually connecting with the Elk Pass trail, the pattern of connecting passes was underway! A stint on the Elk River FSR led to the “Mountain Walk Trail”, whose name should indicate the quality of the ride, which dropped us into the community of Elkford at 155 kms.

I had originally hoped to reach Sparwood at kilometre 197 that first day, but the amount of challenging and slower singletrack came as a bit of a surprise despite my prior research. With a pizza supper and a visit with some other riders, I realized my legs didn’t have another 40+ kms of singletrack in them and decided I’d better adjust my expectations. If this pace was to continue, I would need five, and not four, days to complete this route. Regardless, that was it for me for Day 1. I found the picnic shelter in the Municipal campground set out my bivy sleep system and kept a lookout for the riders I’d ridden with most of the day. They soon showed up and we shared the space, the bear caches and the warm washrooms. My legs were soon gratefully horizontal.

Day One stats.

Day 2

A decent night’s sleep in my bivy allowed me to awake keen to continue. A quick re-pack and a visit to the nearby gas station convenience store for some coffee and a sausage and egger, and it was back on the trail at first light with Andy Brinton. It was good to have fresh legs as it was straight onto singletrack and although they were in good MTB shape, the route demanded attention to keep on the right trails. I marvelled at those who had tackled this in the dark the night before.

One of several crossings of the Elk River.

It didn’t take long to arrive at the Sparwood Tim Horton’s to once again mingle with other riders and to get a 2nd breakfast.

Compulsory photos of Andy and I at the Sparwood Icon.

Back to the singletrack route to Fernie, pretty much entirely the Elk Valley Trail with a brief section of Hwy #3 into town.

A fairly typical view from the Elk Valley Trail. Nice riding!

A quick lunch and some resupply in Fernie and it was off into the wilderness for the next few days. The trail commenced right away, this time mainly the Coal Discovery Trail which meandered its way paralleling Hwy #3 until Elko. The route then bypasses Elko and stays East of the Elk River. This one section follows a piece of the final stretch of the BC Epic 1000. It climbs up onto a bench via a very rough and rock strewn road in an ecological reserve. It’s very beautiful, but hard work involving some hike-a-bikes. It then follows the Wigwam Rim above the Wigwam River. By this time I had lost touch with Andy and met up with Guy Stuart. We briefly discussed this night’s camping options and possible plans. I needed to filter water for the night and next day, and carried on to the next bridge before looking for a camp spot and lost touch with Guy as well. I found a gated road that led down to the Wigwam that had a small flat camp/parking spot that looked suitable. My scouting also found a small table stashed in the bush that cinched the deal. It’s always nice to have something on which to put your stove or belongings. I set up my bivy, cooked up a serving of Pad Thai, cached my food in a tree, and fell asleep under the stars and full moon.

Home for 3 of the 4 nights. Seen here before breaking camp in the morning.
Day Two stats.

Day 3

The third day started with some camp oatmeal as I packed up and headed back along the Wigwam to the steeper climb up the Bighorn Creek via the Cabin FSR. This was headed to the Flathead valley and past “Butts Cabin”, known to those familiar with the Tour Divide route and history.

The Flathead has been an historical hotspot of development proposals and protests. I remember years ago when there was a proposal to flood the valley as a hydro-electric reservoir. Glad that didn’t happen. I also remember that the valley is equally famous for its abundance of grizzly bears. Also glad I didn’t see any.

Regrettably, these pictures fail to capture the grandeur of this vast valley.

Just past here the route leaves this piece it shared with both the Great Divide MTB Route and the Tour Divide variation and crossed the North Fork Flathead River and begins climbing up some other creeks, mainly the Middlepass. Just before this point, when I was packing up after a quick lunch, Andy arrived up the hill. It was good to see him and also get an update on Guy and Corrine, who were also nearby. Days without any cell service or company makes one very curious about the status and whereabouts of other riders.

At this point, my GPS computer decided to reboot. I don’t know why or how this happened, but it meant that I was back to 0 kms and had to do even more math to figure my distances. My habit has been to turn it off at night, start with 0 mileage each morning, and record each day as a separate activity. This requires adding the previous mileage to what is recorded each day. I have now learned, through this experience, that if I leave the Hammerhead Karoo on at night, it will auto-pause, not use battery, and I’m able to resume the ride in the morning. That makes the math easier. I would still like the option though, after shutting it off, or inadvertant reboots, to be able to resume the last recorded activity instead of having to start a new one.

Day Three Pt 1 stats.

This is where the route got even more interesting. My research and the rumours indicated that somewhere today I was going to hit some sizeable stretches of hike-a-bike and bushwhacking. The bushwhacking was more widespread than I had anticipated. Basically it occurred as what trail there was became overgrown and rife with washed out creek crossings.

No real pictures of the bushwhacking overgrown trail, but it went through here.

Wishing for relief from the bushwhacking was an error, as when it ended it opened up to a trail above the treeline and traversed a scree field at a very steep angle. The hike-a-bike then became a series of scrambles 20m at a time, and even some push the bike, apply the brakes, scramble up, repeat, repeat. To make matters even more exasperating, the view provided several false summits. I gazed up at what surely must be the summit pass, only to reach it and see another above it several times.

Okay now, where is the trail going?

I was very surprised to hear someone pushing up behind me, and even more surprised when the woman who appeared was someone I’d not met before. It turned out to be Amy from South Carolina who had flown up to Calgary to “tour” these remote areas, and not a participant in the AR700 at all. We chatted a bit while catching our breath, exchanged phone cameras and captured each other on this ascent.

I’m pretty sure I look happier here than I actually felt. Although I was appreciative of the accomplishment of getting a loaded bike up here.

As Amy and I reached the top, she stopped for a snack, but I was anxious to get back on the bike and down this thing.

The route down proved somewhat disappointing as it was a slow-go, picking a track through the loose rock. Amy passed me going down here. She’s a beast!

Eventually the trail led down to the parking area of the Castle Mountain ski area and through the cabins and condos of the “village”. I knew that the resupply opportunity here at the T-Bar Pub was only available on the weekends, but it was still disappointing to not even find an operational Coke machine. I was now anxious to get to Blairmore in time to get some real food and hopefully a motel room. I caught Amy after an all too short few kilometres of highway and where the route ascended up a rather rough quad trail. The area was full of livestock, so we were both glad to find a small stream of running water that we could filter and/or treat.

As the light faded and the route headed down towards Blairmore, I was able to test out my electrical system. I use a Synewave Beacon combo light and USB charger from a dynamo-hub to supply my main riding light, but also charge my GPS, phone, Inreach and taillight through a cache battery. Today, although my safety and navigation devices were maintained with sufficient charge, my cache battery was approaching dead as the dynamo won’t really charge much below 8 kph and trail riding and hike-a-biking are often below that speed. Fortunately I’m able to through charge, and as I started to descend, I not only had full brightness on my light while riding but enough charge built to keep it bright when stopped or slowed. Very happy with that!

Although the Trackleaders icon shows a tent, I was happy to find one of the very few vacant rooms in Crowsnest Pass. Although it was my shortest sleep, it was after a shower and accessing the internet.
Day Three Pt 2 stats.

Day 4

Hitting the 7/11 in Coleman reminded me of my bikepacking trip to Taiwan last year, where the 7/11s or Family Marts were the go-to sources of on the road resupply and internet access. A microwaved breakfast bagel to start the day, then off up the Allison Creek and Dutch Creek FSRs to the main North/South Forestry Trunk Road that leads up to the start of the Highwood pass.

Much better grades and surfaces were the order of the day, allowing a much faster pace than the previous days.
You just don’t get tired of these views.

There was a fair bit of traffic on the Forestry Trunk Road which I expected having done this as part of the original AR700 route in 2017. The wide open road offered little respite from the mid-day sun, so I started dreaming of the taste of an ice-cold Coke and maybe an ice-cream treat at the Highwood House convenience store before hitting the pavement on Highway 40. I’d set myself up for a fairly large disappointment then, as I turned into the empty parking lot to discover Highwood House was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Fortunately, I was able to at least refill my water bottles at the sani-station behind the store.

The last time I climbed up to Highwood Pass in 2017, I started at 3:00 PM in +30 temperatures. Today it was at least a bit cooler, but still full sun. I appreciated the shadows when the road finally turned away from the Northern direction.

These photos are actually from my 2017 trip, but the only changes are to my handlebars.
And can you beat that view?

This year the route went back to trails after summitting the pass and came into Boulton Creek through the Kananaskis nordic ski trail system. I arrived at the Boulton Creek Trading Post at dusk with the convenience store open, but the snack bar closed. I purchased the 2nd to last campsite situated at the far end of the system, some Mr. Noodles, and pedaled to the site. I hate to be so critical, but the Kananaskis Provincial Campsite, like most such areas in BC and Alberta, plays up the importance of bear-proofing your campsite. Rightfully so, but the loop I was in, although full of helpful signs, lacked any bear caches, had only one garbage container about 1km from my site, and only one water spigot for the entire loop. I reluctantly took the written advice and stored my food “in my vehicle” – in my case, in my handlebar bag. One would think with the high number of cyclists and thru-hikers that come through here, they could do better than that. It’s very tempting to stealth camp, but that’s a whole ‘nother story!

After my noodle dinner, I went to sleep as usual, with bear spray at arm’s reach. Tomorrow would be a shorter day – over the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Lakes Road and the High Rockies Trail.

Day 5

I had been looking forward to travelling over the High Rockies Trail to Canmore for some time. I’d done a small piece of it when on an overnighter in September of 2017 while attending the Summit in Canmore. Today the route to Canmore was about a 50/50 split of the HRT and the Smith-Dorrien Road. My memories of the road were not very pleasant. It is a very wide gravel surfaced road with much traffic during this season. In 2017, I was forced off it early due to the high traffic and dust levels in the evening darkness. This morning, I was glad that the route turned quickly to the High Rockies singletrack.

The increasingly famous HRT suspension bridge. Tremendous infastructure.

The trail is a fun one, but it has many very punchy climbs that prevents much flow. Tired legs made it less enjoyable than it should have been. It was with mixed feelings when the route returned to the dusty road. I was happy to get on it for its fast pace, but equally glad to get off it again after enduring so much dust.

A spot very near to where I got ticketed in 2017 for “random camping in a provincial park”. Mixed feelings, therefore, about this beautiful spot.

Mixed feelings were a theme for this day – excitement and relief to be finishing the route, but sadness too that this fantastic journey was coming to an end.

The final vista overlooking Canmore before starting down the last dusty descent.

The route ends at the memorial arch commemorating the original Mounted Police barracks in central Canmore. After navigating the Canmore traffic, I was surprised and pleased to find a faster rider, Alex Cohen, standing there to greet me at the finish. Thanks, Alex. That alleviated some of the anti-climax of arriving at the end.

Days Four and Five stats.
Computer screen shot of historical elevation on Days 4 & 5.
Okay. I’m pleased with that.
If this was a video, you’d see my blue BK dot bouncing to indicate a finish.

Thanks so much, Jonathan Hayward, for creating the route and organizing a Grand Depart. It was a very tough, challenging route and I enjoyed it a great deal. I wouldn’t change a thing!

Thanks, Guy and Liz, for your hospitality; it made my logistics so much easier. Thanks also to the whole bikepacking community, for without them no one would be making such adventures possible.

7 thoughts on “Rockin’ the Rockies 2019 Style (2019 AR700)

  1. great report Brian. Entirely not helpful -but I was able to get a coke from machine castle mtn resort – had to scrouge pockets to find change but luckily had just
    enough to force some nectar from the machine


  2. Great write-up, Tim. Very detailed and conversational. Which raises a point to me – that really only bikepackers appreciate these accounts. Most of my acquaintances are not bikepackers so I’ve kept my accounts more brief than I would like. Many ask questions like, “So, have you done any long bike adventures lately?” But after a few sentences in reply, their eyes glaze over and I change the topic. Guess you gotta experience it to appreciate what others do.

    Liked by 1 person

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