A VIRGIN ON A BIKE
This must be one of the most beautiful and impressive stretches of paved road in the world. I found it hard to concentrate, passing huge mountains, their curved profiles shaved to sheer vertical faces, 100’s of feet high, by the imperceptible flow of long extinct ice-monsters. Strips of snow clung to ledges and gullies where the sun had not yet penetrated. Small, snaking streams flow through valleys they can only dream of having eroded. Tree-less scars hang on the mountain where avalanches have ended colonisation, forcing the cycle to begin again.
I had arrived in Vancouver a relative virgin to cycle touring. A week spent cycling around southern Ireland and a week around Islay and Arran Islands in Western Scotland was the sum of my experience. Both times it was with a partner and our longest day was 50km, covering a total of 300km and 250km respectively. This time I was planning to ride solo from Vancouver on Canada’s west coast to Jasper in the Rocky Mountains and back again. In theory this was to be a 1200 km trip in practice it turned out to be 2500km and five weeks on the road. Having sat on a bike only four times in the previous two years to say I did minimal training for this adventure would be an understatement.
I already had camping equipment but my first task was to purchase essentials such as a bike and panniers. Not being one to take the easy option I chose a mountain bike with front suspension for the trip. A touring bike would have been cheaper and would have made the trip a lot easier. However, one of my prime objectives was to experience the off-road trails for which British Columbia is rapidly becoming renowned.
Three days after purchasing the bike, and the day before I was due to set off, some kindly soul pinched it. To make matters worse it wasn’t insured; I was gutted. A friend pointed out that if this had been an expedition to the North Pole and my huskies had died I would buy some more rather than pack up and go home, an appealing option at the time. So, the next day I threw caution to the wind and dwindled my meagre funds some more, buying a replica bike as if the theft had never occurred.
Finally prepared, I set off on the 6th June. The first day's mission was to get out of Vancouver which involved a 105km cycle ride; nothing like a gentle break-in for the legs. Trying to walk the next morning was fun, to say nothing of the anal agony caused by sitting on a razor-blade thinly disguised as a saddle. It took a week of abject misery before my bottom started to recover. My leg muscles never did.
On day four I hit the first major obstacle, the 1340m Allisons Pass. This was a long, slow climb on a hot, sweaty day. The next day the map showed that the road followed a river to Princeton that meant an easy day downhill, because that’s the way water flows isn’t it? (naive or what)!. Under this misapprehension I spent the morning cycling 20km of off-road trails through Manning Park. This finished on a singletrack winding around a beaver lodge and through clearings of gnawed stumps, culminating with a paddle through knee deep, icy-cold water where the river had flooded the track; bloody beavers! The easy downhill which followed turned into a gruelling assent of Sunday Pass (1280m) in the pouring rain.
A similar thing occurred 2 days later. Still innocently trusting my map I expected an easy, level ride along a lake shore up to Kelowna. In reality, it was a climb of over 1000m along a corrugated dirt road with frequent sand patches for 15km. To make matters worse, every pause for rest was greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes that then had a meal on wheels as they lazily flew along with me. The one good thing about this route was that it took me to Chute Lake in Okanagan mountain park. From there I cycled along part of the Kettle Valley, an old railway line converted from rails to trails, crossing two of the many trestle bridges; 100’s of feet above the valley floor. The route down was along a similar road to my ascent and here I had my first puncture.
At Sicamouse I headed east. The scenery changed from low farm land to a more mountainous landscape becoming increasingly dramatic as the valley narrowed to a point just wide enough to accommodate a road, railway and narrow lake. I took a rest day at Revelstoke to avoid the predicted thunderstorms and to rest tired limbs before the purportedly gruelling climbs up Rogers and Kicking horse passes.
East of Revelstoke the route began to climb gradually. Although the passes here are high (some twice the height of England’s highest mountain) the distances are great enough to allow a long lead-in. This was the beginning of the Rocky Mountain National Parks; the main reason for starting this trip. Although it was uphill all day the awesome nature of the landscape took away both my breath and thoughts of the pain.
The road still followed the railway line and occasionally a locomotive would crawl past; its hotchpotch of carriages snaking through the valley behind it. I got a thrill of child-like excitement as I waved to the engine driver and he waved back and, grinning, tooted his whistle to me.
Along those parts of the road prone to avalanche, tunnels have been built over the road to deflect the flow of debris away from road users. It was while cycling through one of these that I startled a shaggy-haired mountain goat and her kid. They ran alongside me for about 50m, no more than 3m away, until I emerged from the tunnel. She cut behind me and ran across the road in front of a taxi, scrambling up the embankment on the other side, her offspring faithfully in tow. I was to have a similar experience with a white-tailed deer that I startled as I flew downhill. It sprang along with me, almost close enough to touch, before veering off to lose itself in the forest undergrowth.
The ascent of Rogers pass was so gradual that I was at the top before I realised it and was soon enjoying an easy descent into Yoho national park. Here they have converted 6 former firebreak roads into mountain bike trails, ranging between 3 and 24km in length. I spent the afternoon riding the Ice River trail; a 17.5km (one way) ride to Lower Ice River warden cabin. My biggest worry about off-roading in Canada was the fear of encountering a bear. At nearly two metres in height and weighing over 90kg, Black bears can run as fast as I can cycle, and climb trees with more ability. In order to give any bears in the vicinity warning of my approach I sang loudly as I rode through the fairly dense bush. The fact that I did not encounter a single bear on any of my off road jaunts may be a reflection of my singing. Wherever I camped I had to hang my food from a tree away from the tent at night. It is essential in Canada never to camp with food (or toothpaste) in the tent or you may be awakened by more than a curious Chipmunk. The following day I visited Takakkaw Falls, a 15km ride along a quiet and hilly lane to the beautiful Whisky Jack youth hostel. Just across the valley are the falls which cascade over the valley wall into a plunge pool and explodes into a spray of fine mist, soaking everyone in the vicinity.
Next came the day I had not been looking forward to, the climb over Kicking Horse pass. Again, the gain in altitude was so gradual that I was over the pass without realising it. Here, the Great Divide, a small stream splits into two. The eastern fork flows across Canada to the Atlantic Ocean while the west arm descends to the Pacific Ocean. A few kilometres further on and I was looking out over Lake Louise; a large turquoise lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains, quite serene except for the hoards of tourists jostling for camera angles. Lake Louise the village was a disappointment, consisting of just two rows of shops bordering a large car park, a couple of petrol stations and motels. For me its significance was much more symbolic, representing the midst of the Rockies and the point where I joined the famous Icefields Parkway. This is a 230km stretch of road flanked on both sides by 3000m+ peaks that themselves are separated by glaciers. These glaciers are fingers of the Columbia Icefield; a 325km accumulation of ice feeding six major glaciers, three of which (Athabasca, Dome and Stutfield) can be seen from the road. There are two passes on the parkway, Sunwapta and Bow, the latter being the highest point of my journey at 2088m. At these altitudes it can become quite chilly and as usual in mountain environs the weather can be unpredictable.
Cycling the parkway south to north has the disadvantage of going against the prevailing winds and having the very steep ascent of Sunwapta pass. One advantage is the gentle climb up Bow pass. The road crosses alpine meadows vibrant with the early blooms of Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Western Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum) and Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.). At Bow Pass I took the masochist’s route up to Peyto Lake lookout. At the summit coach park, panting and sweaty, I was mobbed by Japanese tourists wanting their photograph taken with the bike and me. Having caught my breath I jostled my way onto the platform for a view and mandatory photo of the lake and valley which is certainly one of the most picturesque I have ever seen. I returned to my bike to find it surrounded by French tourists watching a Raven shred my maps and empty the contents of my bar-bag having opened the zips with its beak. I was furious that these people had not scared the bird away. One had even captured the whole debacle on video.
Just past Rampart Creek youth hostel I turned off the Parkway and spent a morning cycling along the Alexandra trail which followed the river westwards. This took me closer to the mountains without any appreciable gain in altitude or any tricky technical sections. The only unfortunate thing being that the trail is through fairly dense bush so views are restricted.
Back on the Parkway I ambled past the Weeping Wall; a massive, vertical wall of rock with a single scar on it down which water is channelled. Fifteen kilometres further on began the ascent of Sunwapta Pass. Not such a long lead in to this one so the gradient had been reduced using switchbacks. Still, I found it hard work, and had to have a rest, thinly disguised as a photo. stop, half way up. At the top was the beautiful and rustic Hilda Creek Youth Hostel. This was a great base for exploring the heart of the Parkway as the trail heads of several walks are close. A popular and easy but quite spectacular walk is up to Parker Ridge. It is only 1.5km up to the ridge through clumps of colourful alpine flowers to a breathtaking view of the Saskatchewan Glacier and Mt. Athabasca. All along the Parkway there are rustic youth hostels where water is still drawn by handpumps or collected in pails from a cold mountain stream. Gas lamps replace the flick of a switch and chopping wood is a necessary precursor to warmth.
Hilda Creek hostel is only 7km from the Columbia Icefields Centre, built in 1996 specifically as a tourist trap; a partnership between Brewster Transportation and Parks Canada to provide information, interpretative displays and snowcoach rides on the Athabasca glacier. It reminded me of an airport terminal and I spent as little time there as possible. The ride into Jasper was fairly easy but for the constant headwind. Jasper is a small, as yet unspoilt, mountain town with a welcoming feel to it. I called into Freewheeling Cycles for some trail info. and to try to hire some knobblie tires for Jaspers famous trails. Unfortunately I found them unhelpful on both counts,” we don’t hire tyres and all our used knobblies are in a box out back for recycling,.... but we can hire you a mountain bike with knobblies on it”. No, thank you.
I wandered into a local bar and spent the afternoon watching Argentina knock England out of the World Cup. Here I met David Harrap and his son Liam who kindly invited me to tea. David is a local writer and Liam is the subject of one of his books “The Littlest Hiker In The Canadian Rockies”. They gave me some useful advice on local trails and the next morning I set out on the Wabasco Lake and Valley of the Five Lakes trails. These consisted of a variety of habitats ranging from alpine meadows to dense bush to lake and marsh. Loons cried over the water and a myriad of small, colourful birds chirped their way to safety as I rode through. The alpine meadows reminded me of the High Peak Trail in the Derbyshire Peak District, even some of the flowers were the same species.
I spent the next day watching the Canada Day parade with David and Liam. Liam spent most of the time rushing around trying to collect the candy being thrown from the floats. The floats themselves provided an interesting window on the Canadian way of life. Indians with full head-dress appeared as a token reminder of the original inhabitants. Then there were cheerleaders, mounted police in their traditional red uniforms, cowboys on horseback, four-wheel drive super trucks, marching bands and the Miss Canada Day winners.
It was with reluctance that I left Jasper, continuing my journey back to Vancouver. But cycling past Whistler mountain, with the upper terminal of the skytram looking like the starship enterprise guarding the mountain, a memorable thing happened. Sitting a few metres from the road edge eating the blossoms of the wild flowers was a Black Bear. I did not notice it until the last minute and all I could do was hold my breath and cycle past. After all my worry and thoughts of what I’d do if I encountered a bear, it never batted an eyelid. I stopped a short distance away and watched it for a while. It appeared more beautiful than those in a zoo. The other memorable part of this day’s journey was the overpowering scent of Yellow Ladies Slipper Orchid, growing in profusion in the damp ditches by the side of the road.
I camped that night in Mt. Robson Provincial Park and World Heritage Site. Mt. Robson is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies at 3954m. Unfortunately it is also a very shy mountain, hiding behind a vale of cloud much of the time, and all the time I was there. The next two days were the longest of the trip, 147km and 187km respectively. When one spends 7 or 8 hours in the saddle ones thoughts go off at some strange tangents.
It would be unfair of me to mention only the good parts of my journey although on the whole the bad parts were relatively few. However there were occasions when I reached a level of exhaustion such that I was close to breaking down in despair and sobbing. This most often occurred whilst fighting a head wind when climbing uphill. I would be going flat out yet hardly moving forward: so frustrating. Screaming obscenities at the wind certainly had no affect but it made me feel a little better.
In Kamloops I had a rest day and spent two nights in the friendly youth hostel - a converted courthouse which has retained many of its original furnishings, including the judges podium. After replacing a split tyre at Java Cycles; a friendly and helpful shop, I checked out some of the local trails. Strangely, Kamloops seems to be located on a desert or huge inland dune system and many of the trails were on sand, which made for hard cycling. Eventually I gave up and rode along the river bank to McArthur Island; a beautiful spot popular with sporty-types.
After the relatively easy descent from the Rockies I started to climb again over the coastal range. I followed long winding valleys cloaked in trees. My task was not helped by the heat from which there was no escape. When I hit Penticton the temperature was up to 102º F. Whistler proved to be a little cooler but a lot more expensive. Despite being fairly new it had a traditional alpine feel to it and was full of snow boarders, skiers and mountain bikers.
The next day I cycled down to Squamish where I found a hostel full of rock climbers. I ended up staying here 8 nights instead of my intended one. The magnet for rock jocks is the Chief; the second largest piece of granite in the world. The rock is as sticky as English gritstone but with 2000feet sheer cliffs it leaves Stannage standing.
The ride back into and through Vancouver was along busy highways and an unfortunate way to end my journey. By the time I reached the youth hostel I had covered a grand total of 2476km; a feat I still find hard to comprehend. If I had to offer one piece of advice this would be it: don’t be phased by the whole, just take one day at a time and enjoy it!