It’s a route I just can’t seem to stay away from. In June of 2016 I started with the small inaugural Grand Depart group of 14 on what turned out for me to be the wrong bike. After bailing at 400kms with multiple flats and pushing my bike, I was determined to have a better showing. I replaced my aging Specialized Epic mtb, with a new Rocky Mountain Sherpa. I scrounged the internet for some suitable bikepacking bags and found them at PhantomPack.com. Now more appropriately equipped for the rough surfaces encountered, I set off on an ITT (Individual Time Trial) in August of the same year. I managed to complete the route in 7 days only suffering numb hands and riding with saddle sores for the last four days.
I skipped the Epic in 2017 as I wanted to do the Alberta Rockies 700 in July instead. I apparently missed the Epic so much I developed and rode a 500km route around the Western section at the end of September.
In 2018 I signed up again and managed to complete it in 6 days, but suffered knee pain for at least one, and my legs swoll up when I finished. You think that would be enough, but no.
In 2019 I signed up again, determined to make better time and more importantly, without pain. By now I had the experience of several multi-day bikepacking trips, of both the “racing” and “touring” varieties to rely on. I was much better prepared both physically and mentally to enjoy the ride.
At the start, it felt quite a bit different. I was expecting to see plenty of familiar faces as had been the case in 2018, but I hardly new anyone of the 75 gathered there.
Everything started as planned, The group spread out quickly with the competitive types vying for the front at hugh speed while the rest of us rode at our own desired paces. When the paved sections ended and the trail began in earnest at the Coquihalla underpass, we were well spread out. I passed a group of younger guys about half way to Brookmere who had stopped to smoke a joint. Legalization had come to the Epic!
The trail surface through here is some of the roughest on the whole route and lasts really through most of the first 300kms. I knew this and was mentally ready for it. I also didn’t need to stop to take pics as I had plenty from my previous trips. Basically, I just had to enjoy the ride and mentally tick off the milestones as they came; The underpass, the 180 degree turn at the Coq, Brookmere, crossing the Otter Valley Rd, Otter Lake and Tulameen, Coalmont, and the lovely ride down the Tulameen River to Princeton. As usual, I arrived in Princeton later than I’d prefer, but had a more efficient stop, and got back on the trail again without fuss.
This pattern of familiarity and acceptance continued through the rest of the day. Up over the Jura plateau, past Chain Lake and Osprey Lake and down towards Summerland and Penticton. One note here was I was wondering if the trail down Trout Creek that had been washed out and eroded in the Spring of 2017 had received attention. I was a little disappointed to see that it had not now two years later.
Arriving in Penticton as darkness fell on a Saturday night was no longer an experience. A stop at Tims and the convenience store next door and back through the lingering beach crowds to the trail again. The goal for tonight was to get through Naramata and find a place to camp trailside. I half toyed with the idea of pushing on to Chute Lake, but decided to be happy with 233 kms for the first day. The trick would be to maintain this pace.
16.5 hours, 233 kms, 1340 m climbing. Good enough.
As usual with trailside bivouacing in the dark, it’s always surprising to wake up and see your surroundings. In this case only 50′ across the trail from a farm house. But at six on Sunday morning no one to see. As I was packing up to head out, a lady on an e-bike came cruising by. Okay, it’s a new era. I stopped at a gazebo that had been converted from a water tank foundation to enjoy a scenic breakfast.
Today’s ride started with the long climb up to Chute Lake. The KVR switchbacks several times always with Okanagan Lake somewhere beneath.
As the trail levels off by Chute Lake, it becomes a multi-use motorized trail with traffic both from the Chute Lake Road and access points from Kelowna. The resulting surface is pretty bad. As I rode along here I was expecting two things. Last time, my brother had been following my dot on Trackleaders.com and had ridden down from Myra to ride back with me. Would I meet him somewhere here today? The other expectation was if there would be a repeat of last year’s bike tour from Myra down to Penticton that had me meeting and ducking lots of variously skilled riders coming the other way.
As I rode up through the Rock Ovens Park, I began to hit the Sunday morning traffic. A few cars, a growing number of cyclists, and some hikers. These numbers grew expotentially as I drew closer to the Bellevue-Myra Park section. There became virtual herds of walkers and bikers. As I came to the two major parking lots, they were full and each one had a sizeable bike rental operation. I almost preferred the tour from last yeat to these meandering herds.
I did stop at a concession here drawn by the promise of a coffee roaster. I was quite disappointed when I was told the roaster was out of order and I had to settle for a Pepsi. Such travesty!
The further I rode East through the tunnels and over the trestles the thinner the crowds got, down to dribbles of ones or twos. One of those proved to be my brother. So he had been watching afterall! This time he had parked at Hydraulic (McCulloch) Lake and come this way to meet me. We had a visit and a catch-up as we rode. I rode into the parking lot with him and had my snack beside his car. When I went to say good-bye he said his intention was to ride further East with me as he hadn’t ridden that section of the trail. Fine with me. I had been alone for most of the route and was glad of company.
As we started down towards Beaverdell we encountered several mudholes with bushwacked routes around. At one of these, we missed the bushwacked trail and mistakenly followed a skid trail for a ways down until we realized our mistake. As we retraced our steps back up and found the correct route, my brother was blaming himself for taking me off-trail. He obviously doesn’t understand the whole “be self-sufficient and responsible” part of these events. We had also misled a heavily laden tourer we had encountered down the wrong way. It meant an unwanted hard push for him to get back up. Before too long, it was time for Brendan to head back home so we said our goodbyes and I carried on.
Not long after parting, I looked down at my fork where I carry two water bottles. One was gone. As I stared, I noticed that another bottle under my down tube was also gone, but so was it’s cage! There was only the bolts and thin tabs of metal where the cage had been. I guess on some of the encounters with the underbrush while skirting the many puddles had ejected the fork bottle. But what had ripped off the entire cage? I recall hitting nothing with that kind of force. Now I had only 1 1/2 bottles of water to get to Beaverdell. Oh,well there was plenty of places to filter water if needed on the way. But still!
On arriving at Beaverdell, there were a few Epic riders at the general store. They were a group of four I had encountered before who had leapfrogged me. We said hello, but they didn’t seem very chatty. I was preoccupied with getting more water carrying capacity. I found that the Dasani bottles fit fairly snuggly in my fork cages, but unsatisfied with that I sought some greater security. I bought a pack of hair elastics which I looped through the cage tops and around the bottle tops. That did it. I had a bottle on my stem mounted feed bag that I used while riding. The fork mounts were prone to gathering mud, so I only refilled from them. A Pizza from the place down the street and I was off.
The day’s goal became to get to Greenwood. Through my wife’s texting, I had an invitation from my niece, Shannon, to crash at her holiday place in Greenwood. Such an arrangement is against the rules inherent in such an event. (Probably being accompanied by my brother was also.) I haven’t seen much of this niece for several years and would feel bad to just ignore her offer. I wanted to hit the Copper Eagle in Greenwood for breakfast, so I would try to locate my niece’s place, or motel or camp nearby. I rationalized that sleeping at her place or a motel made little difference.
The only problem was I only had a sketchy description of the location and not an actual address. It was getting dark as I pulled off-route and into Greenwood. There were few lights or visible addresses as I searched for the house. At one point, as I was shining my light on a house, a neighbour came out to ask what I was up to. I told him what I was doing and who I was looking for. He didn’t know the name but recognized the house as I described it and showed me a picture of it from Google’s street view. He informed me that I was searching on the wrong side of the highway. I guess “turn Left off the highway” depends on which direction you come from. I found what I determined to be the right place, but couldn’t rouse anyone at the front door. It was now after 10 and I was hesitant to keep prowling. Fortunately someone answered the back door. Everyone was watching movies or playing Nintendo at the back of the house. Okay, I further broke the rules by accepting a beer and enjoying a big plate of potato salad while having a quick visit and catch-up. But if I was at the motel across the street, wouldn’t I do the same?
Pretty much a match of day one: 16 hrs; 225 kms; and 1132 m of climbing. Another good day!
I was informed as I was shown a comfy bed, that no one would be up at the time I intended to leave. Very understandable. I was out the door shortly after six and was grateful to find the Copper Eagle open when I got there. A good coffee and a large breakfast was in order and I thoroughly enjoyed both.
Now it was up to Eholt (an interesting non-existant ghost town) and then down above the Granby River to Grand Forks. This is a section of the route I quite enjoy. Except for the ubiquitous gates through the farm land its a most pleasurable ride. The climb not too bad, and the long descent a lot of fun with terrific views.
As I arrived in Grand Forks, I was quickly reminded that it was July 1st! Canadian flags were abundant, but the funniest part was having to ride through the parade route! The spectators were lined up with their chairs on both sides, claiming their spots early for the community’s big event. I got lots of waves and a few cheers as I rode past. I got trapped when I stopped at a bistro patio for lunch, The parade came past making leaving through it difficult, so I lingered and enjoyed the festivities.
With that uplifting experience I was off and riding again. Over to Christina Lake and then up over the Paulsen Pass to Farron and down the long descent to Castlegar. In the past I’ve found this climb a grind, and I’ve also hit snow/hail squalls at the top, or been baked by the over 30 degree heat. Today was warm but not too bad, The only negative thing is what has happened to the Eastern half of this trail. Its been converted from a rail trail, to a full fledged road in most parts, perhaps with the exception of when it passes through tunnels. I only encountered some scattered traffic, but the future doesn’t look bright for this section. I thought the turning over of the rail bed to the Trans Canada, now the “Great” Trail would not allow such a travesty, but I guess that’s the priority our current society supports.
This had been a good day. I’d reached Castlegar (600 route kms) at dinner time and wanted some food, resupply and water. The route bypasses the business section by going on the other side of the Columbia River. I stopped at the bridge to choose an option. My Google search showed me that the nearest food option, Tims, was 5 kms off course requiring an extra 10 km diversion. I wanted to get to Salmo today, if I could, so I would be in a good position to get over Gray’s Pass tomorrow. I opted to stay on-route and get food in Trail. I should have known better.
The 50kms from Castlegar to Trail is an interesting mix. Basically, it’s following the Columbia River downstream so should be easy, right? Not for me. There is some great single track to start, which quickly becomes a technical network that makes navigating and speed a challenge. Other parts of it are heavily overgrown and others soft and sandy. It’s frustrating at how long it takes to get through it. I was now low on water, and instead of stopping to filter some when near the river, I kept pretending to myself that I would find a faucet when it passed through one of the residential areas. The result was that I stopped hydrating enough rationing my water.
About half way through I came upon the four guys from Beaverdell who were camped by the river. One called out for me to join them. I was still hoping to get to Salmo so I passed. I also didn’t stop to get water. When I finally rolled down to Trail I was fatiqued and dehydrated. I crossed over downtown to a Tims for food and consider my options.
Carrying on to Salmo would mean riding Highway #3 in the dark. I had good lights and tail lights so it should be okay. But I was tired and the section started with the long climb out of the Columbia valley to Fruitvale. What were my options? I was having trouble eating and lack of appetite for me is a sure sign of fatique. I wondered if there was any accommodation here in Trail. It was Monday, July 1st, and a long weekend. I did a search and did find one motel with a vacancy, but it was about 8 kms from here and off-route. I decided to take it. That proved to be another mistake. Not the motel itself, but where it was.
I loaded up the food I’d ordered hoping my appetite would be better once I got there. The 8 kms proved to be all uphill and almost to Rossland. That climb was at least as hard as the one to Fruitvale and in the opposite direction. Oh, well, the rest was good.
191 kms this time. 16 hrs again, and 1772 m of climbing. That was still okay.
Back down the hill, refreshed and ready for breakfast, I stopped at Tims, chosen for its location and not because I would normally choose it.
The ride up to Fruitvale was not too bad and the highway was okay although relatively busy. I was happy to get back to rail trail at Salmo, even though for the first half it is gnarly with ATVs roughing it up and causing it to heave. The plan became to make up for the 40 kms I didn’t do yesterday. If I could get across the Balfour ferry by noonish, I would be fine to tackle the long climb up Gray’s and on over to Kimberley. Any later and I risked bad weather through the alpine crossing or bivying up in the cold. All together the Balfour ferry was 115 kms from Trail, and Kimberley another 115 kms from there. It would be a challenging day.
Things started to go South for me and my plans about here. As I started down toward Nelson, it began to rain, Showers at first, but by the time I hit the bike trails above Nelson it was full on pouring. The trail became a creek bed and I was wetted from above and below. I was making good speed and that made it cold. When I reached Highway #3A as it passes through Nelson, I needed a reprieve. I went inside the convenience store and sat down to eat a deli sandwich. I decided to go up to Baker Street to get some replacements for my water bottles and some more food. The downpour continued.
At the bike shop, I ran into 3 of the 4 guys I had been leapfrogging. They were also wet and bedraggled and one of them was shivering alot.
I didn’t want to start up Gray’s pass in the rain. The pass only opens on July 1st and this rain would likely be snow up there 5000′ above Nelson. What to do?
As I ate, I hatched a plan to cross the ferry and find a place to stay on the other side. That would put me in a good spot to get over it early tomorrow. It would mean I would be 100 kms and about 7 hours off my goal. The rain continued.
I phoned a motel in Crawford Bay. It had a vacancy and the price was not unreasonable. Okay that’s a go. Could I bring my bike with my gear out of the rain and into the room? This is my normal habit, and usually okay. “Not a chance,” I was told. That proved to be a deal breaker for me, and probably another mistake. I cancelled and in my frustration tried to find another vacancy. The only one I found was in Nelson. That would mean getting up early to catch the first ferry and another 40kms to ride tomorrow. The rain continued. I took the room.
At least I could take my bike in my room, even though it was up two flights of stairs. Of course as I entered the room still in the afternoon, it stopped raining. Oh, well. I had a really good dinner of Chinese food and dried everything out, but I still wasn’t happy with my decision. The other 3 guys had told me they had made reservations earlier at another lodge over in Crawford Bay. Of course they did.
Only 80 kms today. Not good.
Up early to make the 35 kms to Balfour before the 6:30 AM ferry sailed. Miss it and it’s another 1hr 40mins of wasted time. It rained again, but I made it before sailing. Grabbing a coffee, muffin and some treats for later, I met a fellow rider I hadn’t seen before. Lorrie Lech was also doing the Epic, but was not on Trackleaders and without a tracker. We chatted on the ferry and I imparted some of the knowledge I had gained about the route from previous times. Nothing was open when we landed in Crawford Bay shortly after 7. So there was nothing else but to head up the pass. I was prepared to ride as much of the climb as I could. Lorriei proved a good motivator as we spurred each other on and managed to ride the majority of it. Not an easy task as it climbs 5000′ in only 17 kms and none of them flat.
The trip down can be as hard as the ride up for some as the first 10 kms of the road has been chewed by vehicles spinning their way up. My full-suspension and 2.6″ plus tires enabled me to ride it fast and enjoy it. Lorrie didn’t find it that enjoyable.
The section down along St. Mary’s River and Lake is a bit of a respite from the previous tracks as the FSR is in pretty good shape and pavement appears well above Kimberley.
The changes to the route this year included a new bypass of downtown Kimberley and Marysville joining the paved Northstar Rails to Trails down to Cranbrook. That require a slight off-route stop for food in Cranbrook and then off towards Wardner on the Isadore Canyon Trail. This year there was an added bonus – a 17 km stretch of new single track replacing the former stretch on Highway #3. Very well built trail that was fun to ride and would have been more fun had it not been ridden at the end of a long day and nearing dark. I enjoyed it nevertheless and at the end of it looked for a suitable trailside camp. I found a spot in the trees with a view of the stars as well as the farms in the valley below. A well earned rest.
200 kms; 17.5 hrs; 2600 m climbing. Good day, but nothing to make up for yesterday.
Today starts with the focus on finishing the route. About 110 kms to go. The still sleeping town of Wardner is passed and the next stop is at the Kocanusa Campsite and Marina at the bridge crossing the Kootenay River. (or Lake Kocanusa or reservoir). I have stopped at this little diner before and appreciate its existance. I’m there before opening, but decide to wait as I know she cooks great breakfast sandwiches. Coffee and 2 sandwiches later and I’m good to go. I run into Lorrie again as I approach the bridge and recommend the diner to her.
The route passes through the Kikomun Creek Provincial Park and Surveyor’s Campsite which was just waking up. Always fun to see the campers enjoying their stay. The route then takes a rather convoluted route avoiding Highway #93 over to Elko. From there it goes across the Elk River and then briefly passes the Wigwam river before swinging up and North towards Fernie.
Dropping down to the valley and along the pavement for the last few kilometres into Fernie was both a relief and yet also a bit of a letdown. Former times it was much more of a relief, but this time I’m really not ready for it to be over. No saddle sores, no leg pains, and no mechanical issues, why stop? A good way to end though, wanting more.
7 hrs; 107 kms, 1500 m climbing. I’ll take it!
I was pleased to find some welcoming riders hanging about when I reached the Fernie Courthouse steps, including the organizer and 3rd place finisher, Lennard Pretorius, who stayed behind to greet the rest of the finishers. Nice touch.
These guys were the ones that kept leap-frogging me along the route. It was so nice for these four to wait and greet me at the finish. Thanks, guys!
We were all there to greet Lorrie with whom I’d ridden much of the way from the ferry. As she didn’t have a tracker, no one was expecting her until I told them she was coming.
As I neared the end, perhaps I dwelled too much on the decisions I had made on my ride as negatively affecting my progress. Getting to Salmo on Day Three would have helped, but it probably would have had me climbing Gray Pass during the same downpour I ducked in Nelson. Getting over the ferry on Day Four would really only have gained me an hour overall. The only real way of cutting down the running clock time in this event, for me, would be to continue riding even more hours in each day. But really, I was fairly spent each day when I quit, so that might be a bit unrealistic. And, apparently, I’m only a fair weather rider.
Reflecting back, I’m quite satisfied with the fact that I finished without any real physical issues arising during the entire route, and ended with more in the tank. It’s been the best Epic yet.