When I first saw the route for the 2021 AR 700, I was a little puzzled and disappointed. Having done two previous versions of this route, I had thought the organizer, Jonathan Hayward, had developed the ultimate route. The 2019 route had everything I could want: it was a loop which made logistics much easier than the previous point to point versions; it had a good mix of singletrack, double track, FSR, and pavement; and it had quite a few resupply and accommodation options. It also was a challenging route – doable, but with enough of an edge to it to still get you cursing and questioning your committment.
This new route appeared to be just a reverse of that year’s loop. From what I could deduce, this would have the effect of increasing the difficulty of some of the major climbs and added a more demanding section of single-track at the beginning.
The last two years had proven harder for me to stay prepared for these long endurance rides. Although my off-season cross-training hadn’t suffered, because of the Pandemic restrictions, I had a dearth of longer rides to build up my multi-day endurance. In 2020 I had only done one 3 day 400 km ride, and so far in 2021 only one 3-day and one 2-day routes. I was fairly confident that although I would struggle more, I could complete the route from 2019, but had doubts about my ability to accomplish anything more demanding.
I had originally planned on doing the BC Epic 1000 again this year, which would have been a fourth time. I even had hopes of cutting down my PR on it by a good part of a day. I had all the logisitics worked out (not easy on a 1040 km route that begins and ends far from home). But the forcasted “heat dome” was to coincide almost exactly with the timing of that route. I can barely handle temperatures into the mid-30s, but the forcasted 40’s hitting on some of those major exposed climbs just seemed too daunting. I would struggle to finish, and certainly wouldn’t improve my time. I really had little to prove, and the fun-factor would be pretty much erased. So I had bailed before the start.
With that kind of a doubful outlook, I headed off to Canmore with my wife, Shealagh, who would drop me off there. My daughter, returning from Regina had been scheduled to pick me up back in Canmore in 5 days with a 6th for a cushion.
In contrast to previous rides from Canmore, the Grand Depart was in decent weather, albeit a bit smoky.
It was nice to have a quick reconnect with several of the riders from my previous races, to meet a few strangers, and to admire the many iterations of bikepacking rigs. But before long, Jonathan gave us our send-off and it was up past the Nordic Centre and onto the 13km climb up the Smith-Dorrien road.
By the time we reached the top of that climb, the 75 or so riders were already getting spread out. The route took us along the West side of the Goat Pond on the High Rockies Trail. This part was mostly double-track, fast and flowy. After crossing the dam at the head of the Spray Lakes Reservoir, the trail became single track wedged between the reservoir and the Smith-Dorrien, followed by about 20 kms on the Smith Dorrien itself. It was nice to be heading off the road after that, for although early Saturday, there was traffic with the accompanying dust.
Along the way, I enjoyed some reconnects with old friends and making new friends. I met Neil Sheppard from Canmore with whom I had ridden parts of other routes in the past. That was a pleasant surprise as his was a last minute decision and he wasn’t on the list. I met a Dave from Victoria who was friends with Andy Brinton. Andy and I had ridden together for days in a couple of events in previous years. Although he had wanted to, he was unable to make this one this year.
Starting up the main part of the High Rockies Trail at that point was good and bad. Good to be off the road, but it is quite a climb intially and the entire trail is full of punchy climbs and descents and fairly, to even very, rough in spots. By the time I reached the Boulton Creek Trading Post in Kananaskis, I was ready for a few cold beer, a BBQ, and a nice air-conditioned shuttle back to Canmore. That would have been a very good, complete, and strenuous day out. But with only 80 kms over a slow 7 hours, it was just the start of my day.
After a longer than needed break at the Trading Post that was still too short, it was off up the Whiskey Jack Trail to Highway 40 and the famous Highwood Pass. Although a good grind up the Pass, it was eased somewhat by being paved and the summit was reached without too much pain.
There had been a few groups of about a dozen riders total, who had been leapfrogging me all morning. Some of them were at the summit when I reached it. One of them offered to take my picture.
It was past 5 o’clock at this point, and I was counting on getting some food for supper at the convenience store at Highwood House where the route leaves the highway for the Forest Trunk Road. I didn’t linger as I wasn’t sure of the store hours and had been burned there on both previous occasions.
Although downhill and some of it fast, it was still over 30 kms or so to the store. I had heard it closed at 8 pm tonight, so I didn’t dawdle. I pulled into the parking lot at 7:15 only to be met by another morose rider, Dan from Canmore, who had arrived before 7 only to find the store had closed at 6 pm. Okay, that makes it an even 0 for 3! I don’t think I will ever stop there again. Without the store I was limited to my collection of gels, bars, and waffles for dinner. Too bad, as I needed a boost to continue on what had already proved to be a hard day. I did top up my water at the potable spigot at the sani-station behind the store. I ate a bar and a gel and then Tim Johnson, a friend from Canmore, arrived.
The three of us discussed our plans for carrying on. I had hoped to reach Livingstone Falls at 175 kms or even Dutch Creek at 191 for the night, but my legs told me that was not a good idea, especially with the lack of any satisfying food. We discussed earlier options and off we rode. Tim quickly gapped Dan and I and I knew I was already struggling. Interestingly enough, on the long climbs that took us up from Highwood House, I was down in my lowest 2 gears and grinding out at about 6 kph, but Dan, who walked these hills, stayed right beside me. Good walker!
When I finally reached Cataract Creek Campground, I knew that was it for my day. Only 140 route kms behind me, and not yet dark, but that was enough. Dan and Tim had occupied a site, so I chose one nearby and went to pay my $31 self-serve fee. It’s really a sign of my fatigue that I chose to pay that for really only a pit toilet and a table, rather than stealth camping somewhere along the road. About this point another young rider, Colton, from St. Albert, pulled in looking for a site. He asked if he could share mine and of course I said yes. We both set about getting our last meal before crashing. He was packing stove and pot and cooked something up, while I washed down another waffle or two and a bar. We set out our bivies and went to sleep. Not long into the night, there was yelling nearby, I couldn’t make out exactly the cause of the uproar, but I believe it may have been a nuisance bear or some other creature. At about 2 AM and lasting well over an hour, the park operator drove though the campground several times in his very loud diesel with spotlights blaring. Again, a bear? No warnings or conversation, so I slept on. ..and I slept in.
It was 6:30 or so when I awoke. Usually I awake with first light which would have been closer to 5 AM and don’t bother with an alarm. No matter, I had already resolved that today would be a shorter one, about 120 kms of FSR to Coleman. I had decided I would take a motel at Coleman for the night and reassess my plans rather than journeying on to Castle Mtn.
Coleman was the point where, I thought, the 700 km and the 500 km routes diverged. I had researched the 700 route fairly well, and as I had basically done it in reverse 2 years previous, I was pretty familiar with what was to come on it. I was completely unfamiliar with the 500 route until it rejoined the 700 route at what I assumed was Sparwood. I had been informed by Jonathan earlier that the 500 route, instead of proceeding to Sparwood on Hwy #3 as in the past, was rerouted off-highway. And Tim had informed me that the 500 did not pass through Sparwood but rejoined the 700 further North at Elkford. I would have to do some research and decision-making when I reached Coleman.
The ride that day was pretty much what I had expected. I continued South on the Forestry Trunk Road with a bit of Sunday recreation traffic and some dust until it turned off on the more rugged and less used Dutch Creek Road.
When I made the turn at Dutch Creek I was a little surprised by the road being rougher than I remembered and with a lot more climbing than when I had travelled it in the opposite direction. I guess my research had made some assumptions as I was surprised when during the later afternoon the route veared off Dutch Creek Road onto what my GPS labelled as Seven Sisters Trail. This OHV-use trail appeared to be a combination of power line and gas pipeline, a wide and ugly, chewed up scar across the rolling terrain. This was new to me.
Part way along this slash, I came to this big dip.
As I stopped at the top, I saw Tim and another rider coming down on either edge of the other side. I said hello and then something like “WTF is this?” and we laughed. Tim said this was the way the 500 route left Coleman, which puzzled me. After a brief chat we carried on, but when I climbed to the top of the other side, I pulled my phone to have a look at the 500 route. I was a little surprised to see the 500 route had already diverged from the 700 back at the Dutch Creek turn where it had continued down the Forestry Trunk Road to Coleman and not the way I had come. This was to have some impact on my upcoming decision. The rest of the ride to Coleman went quickly. I rode through the older part of town nestled below the highway before returning to Hwy 3 and the newer, more commercial section.
I stopped to regroup at the Rum Runner’s Restaurant and Pub, which had been a terminal for previous iterations of the AR 700. Across the street at a service station there were a number of riders I had met on Saturday. We exchanged plans and I revealed I was going to get a room for the night and decide my next move. All of them were on the 500 and said they too were going to stay the night. I told them of a couple of motels only a block or so away so off we all went to claim a room. One rider, Shaun, said it was his birthday and he was going to celebrate with a beer. That sounded good to me and the others, so we had a plan. We agreed to meet at the pub that was between the two motels.
I was surprised and a little saddened that of the eight of us around the large table (Dave, Shaun, Zeke, Jackson, ?,?,?), four of the 500 riders were bailing there and had arranged to be picked up in Coleman. Already a high attrition rate. After a nice visit and a decent meal, it was up to my room to figure out what I was going to do. After researching the 500 route, I was surprised to see it go from here to Elkford on a route I was not at all familiar with. The weather report was not good either. There was a major change over the next 2+ days with temperatures in the single digits and heavy precipitation. I was looking at 2 days for me to reach Fernie if I proceeded with the 700 at this pace, but only the next day to reach Elkford on the 500. However as the routes had already diverged, I had missed a section of the 500 and would be “relegated”.
If I had been riding strong the 700 would remain my goal, but that was not the case. I did not want to spend wet nights and two days on the Mid-Kootenay Pass and the long passage through the Flathead and over to the Wigwam FSR where there was little chance to find resupply, shelter or warmth. I thus decided to basically bail and take the 500 route back to Canmore. Another piece of the puzzle also changed as Jonathan had emailed that due to the fire at Deadman Creek Skogan Pass had been replaced with 75 kms of the Smith-Dorrien, which was also disappointing. As I was not due to be back in Canmore until Wednesday or Thursday to catch a ride home with my daughter, it meant, if I had to, I could layover for a day or so in Elkford and continue on with drier and warmer weather. A brief consult with Shealagh by cell and that became the official plan.
The 7-11 across the street opened at 7 am. I was there waiting Monday morning. Unfortunately, the lone employee had just arrived and was still setting up and firing up the ovens. It seemed a long 1/2 hour before I rolled out at 7:30 headed for Elkford. It was a very nice morning, sunny with less smoke than the last 2 days. A good start.
I was still somewhat preoccupied with what lay ahead both with the route and the weather. It wasn’t long before I was back at the big dip I’d encountered the day before. Oh, goody, because I’d bailed to the 500, I got to do this in both directions.
For some reason, one I can’t fathom to this day, I decided that I could ride down the right edge of the bank in the picture above. I didn’t unclip, or lower my seat the 50mm available in my setup. I just kept rolling and headed down. The surface was much too loose and steep. I tried to modulate my brakes but one tire then the other broke loose while my speed accelerated. As was inevitable, halfway down my skidding rear tire hit something and I flipped over the downhill side and landed hard on my side. A few curses accompanied my quick assessment as I lay 15 feet below my bike. My right elbow had been scraped through my sunsleeve but was not too serious. Still cursing, I tried to stand up, but pain shot through my right hip upon which me, and my fully loaded bike, had landed. Dreading what I already suspected, I tried one more time to stand, but that hip would not allow it. I lay on my left side and straightened my legs. When I was a kid I had suffered a dislocated hip in a car accident. This was immediately familiar. It was either that or something else serious. “You stupid &^$%# !”
I used my left leg to skid myself up the hill to my fallen bike and my Inreach satellite communicator. My phone was in my right pocket so I checked it for function and service. It was fine and had nearly full bars. I dialed 911 for the first time in my life and started in with dispatch. Had I used my Inreach SOS it would have provided an exact location. As I was near Coleman that had an active Fire/Rescue, the dispatcher alerted them quickly while she gathered more info. She was in Calgary and unfamiliar with the area, but I was able to describe the roads and trails and where I was in relation. At one point she actually got on the AR700 website and pulled up the map which helped her quite a bit. In hindsight I should have got her to go on Trackleaders and click on the BK dot! Rescue was on the way. They would have to go up Allison Creek Road to where this trail crossed then use ATVs to reach me 1.7 kms from there.
Sometime around this time, Shaun and Jackson appeared at the edge of the hill above me. I yelled and cautioned them not to ride it! They pushed their bikes down to me and offered what help they could. It wasn’t long before we could hear the ATVs and then see them at the top of the other side. They drove them to the bottom then 2 paramedics and 6 other rescue personnel walked up the hill to where I lay. Shaun and Jackson said their goodbyes and we wished one another well as the paramedics took over. They started an IV, stabilized me on a backboard and carried me carefully down to the ATVs. Initial assessment was like mine, dislocation or more likely, a fracture. My bike went in the back of one ATV, and my stretcher and a paramedic were stabilized in the back of the other for the rough ride to the awaiting ambulance.
I arrived at the Crowsnest Medical Centre in Blairmore and was seen immediately by a Dr. Iyers and her Resident, Jannh. Xray revealed I had fractured the top of my femur at the neck where the ball is formed. She suggested it would at least require pinning or something more. She started seeking an Orthepedic surgeon and hospital to send me to.
They started to advocate strongly for me to get a surgeon and a bed in Lethbridge Chinook Regional Hospital. There was no bed currently but they expected some discharges and Dr. Iyers pushed hard to get one for me. At one point it was suggested I go to Cranbrook as I was a BC resident. That was problematic as the Alberta ambulance would not transfer inter-provincially. Eventually it all came together and I was on my way to Lethbridge.
I saw the surgeon, Dr. Page, that afternoon and she told me she was hopeful she could get me in to an OR later in the day. She told me the procedure was more involved than suggested by Dr. Iyers, and would require a partial hip replacement or Hemiarthroplasty, where a titanium alloy ball would be cemented into the top of the femur and inserted into the intact socket.
I had been unable to eat or drink since I was placed on an IV at the scene in anticipation of an operation. Later that evening, Dr. Page returned to say there was not going to be any OR time available tonight and would try for tomorrow. I was able to have some water, peanut butter toast and a cup of chicken noodle soup before going back on no food/drink at midnight. Best peanut butter toast I’ve had in a long time.
The next day was a long one. Unable to eat or drink, of course I had to turn away 3 fully loaded trays of food at all 3 meal times. Finally, about 8 PM, the nurse came to tell me I was to be prepped and transferred to the OR. Another long wait in the recovery room while the team and OR was readied. Sometime after 9 PM, I was rolled into the OR and introduced to the all-female team. I don’t remember much after that.
I only vaguely recall being rolled back to my room on my own bed and the night nurse checking on me. Next I knew, breakfast was being served. I ate everything on the tray then and for the next 2 meals. I was visited by the physio-therapists and even the occupational therapist. I was helped out of bed and stood and moved around the room with a walker. I was somewhat surprised that I had no precautions for either movement or weight-bearing, which was not what I had understood about the full hip-replacements. I was limited by pain and muscle stiffness which would be the focus of my recovery. No more morphine, I was put on Tramadol tabs for pain management.
During this time my phone was my lifeline. As I had no visitors, it was my communicator as well as my entertainer. The trouble was my wall charger and cables were left in my top tube bag back with my bike in Blairmore. I needed to keep it charged, so when asked by nurses if there was anything else they could do, I had responded to no avail, “I could use a cord and wall-charger for my phone” As that failed to produce, I began to try to contact the gift shop in the hospital to purchase one there. I was frustrated by the inability to find any contact info, when out of the blue, Shealagh emailed me, “The gift shop has chargers, do you want me to order one for you?” Totally psychic. “Yes, please!” I responded. About an hour later a masked woman appeared in my room with a handful of cords and chargers. She said, “Hi, Brian, I bet you don’t recognize me.” She lowered her mask and said, “It’s me, Ruby, Ruby Lettinger, from Ronald McDonald House!” Now let me explain. Thirty or so years ago, in another life, Ruby was staying at Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver while her son, Jesse was being treated for cancer at Childrens’ Hospital. Shealagh was doing the same for our daughter, Meghan, and our families bonded over our common plight and situation. I hadn’t seen her for those 30 years. I remembered that they lived in Lethbridge only when I saw her again. Small world or what? Later she popped in to bring me some goodies, and she and the staff at the Gift Shop sent my daughter and me off with a goodie bag when we left.
My focus was now on getting mobile enough to get released before the weekend. It was Wednesday and my goal was to get released by Friday. My daughter, who was scheduled to meet me in Canmore on Wednesday or Thursday, was rerouted to Lethbridge. I booked a hotel for us for Thursday and Friday.
I have to comment on the care I received. Carrying on from the caring reception I had in Blairmore, everyone at the Lethbridge Hospital I encountered was amazing. Everyone became aware of my release goal and helped me get ready. The OPTs had the lead role in that clearance. They got me to use a cane on stairs, transfer to the toilet, and even step into the bath/shower like we had in our home. She taught me the correct way to get in and out of a car and truck, and I wandered the hallway with the walker. On Thursday they told me there was no reason not to be released on Friday.
My daughter, Bevin, arrived on Thursday. It was so good to see her smiling face and know she would get me home. I booked another hotel room in McBride for Saturday night so we could break the trip up into 2 days.
On Friday, the morning was taken up with arranging prescriptions both from there in Alberta, and for more from my home pharmacy in B.C. More complex than one would think with inter-provincial considerations. 10 days after my surgery, I still have not heard anything in terms of invoices for any of the emergency or in-hospital care, I did contact my travel insurance provider to let them know there may be a claim.
Friday afternoon I was released and Bevin and I set off in the truck. We had thanked those at the hospital that had treated me so well and headed out to Blairmore to do the same. We went to the Crowsnest Fire and Rescue to retrieve my bike that they had kindly kept safe for me, and then we went to the Crowsnest Medical Centre to thank the staff there. I am so grateful and impressed by everyone I have encountered in my treatment.
Saturday morning Bevin drove us up through Calgary, Canmore, Jasper, and into BC with an overnight in McBride. Fortuately, the truck was very comfortable, We completed the trip home on Sunday, only two days later than I had planned when I left fot the start of the race at Canmore. I feel very fortunate with that.
At the time of finishing up this blog, 10 days post-surgery, I am doing well at home. I’ve been off the Tramodol for a few days, been for 4 walks around the block and getting more mobile. I hope to have a PT plan soon and get on a bike-trainer then back to my regular active life.
Thank you, all for your well wishes.