Life behind bars – Part 1: Solo in the Canadian Rockies.

This dream began in January of 2015: that is, to travel western Canada by bicycle.  I didn’t know where it came from; I had always been into cycling, but never like this.  The ultimate destination was one that has been on my radar for a while: the remote island of the Haida Gwaii (previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands).  Travelling this way however is so much more than a destination – it is a serious journey, and filling in the route there and back makes the trip so much more.  And so I began Bike Tour Preparations, and on July 27th, 2015, I finally rolled out the door with everything I would need for the next two months.

On the road, I regularly checked in via Instagram and the #pedalpoweredtothewest hashtag – if you missed it and find this post interesting, please check it out for a glimpse into the mind of a cycling tourist on the road.  Thanks to all of you who followed along, met me along the way, and offered your hospitality in so many ways.  Even the smallest gesture meant so much to me on this challenging trip.

I’ve written quite a bit about this journey, but I’m planning to publish those articles with other publications down the road (pun intended).  Here on my own website, I’ll share my story with visuals and captions following my usual photoessay style.

This is part one (of three) of the journey: Solo in the Canadian Rockies.

The pile of touring gear before it's packed onto bicycle

This is what the pile of touring gear looks like before it is packed onto the bicycle.  Everything is chosen very carefully since there is no room for extra weight or volume, so almost everything is multipurpose to fulfill necessary roles.  Given that this trip was going to cover terrain all the way from the cool alpine of the mountains to the moist temperate rainforest of the west coast, there was a lot to anticipate and prep for.  Some of the longer stints between services (groceries, restaurants, and cell service) were going to be up to ten days, so anything forgotten would be sorely missed.

Bike loaded up - tour beginning portrait

Loaded up and about to leave home for a while: so long Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Next stop: the train station!  I love adventure and challenging myself, but the idea of spending a month riding across the prairies…well let’s just say I’d rather choose my path based on where I’d like to spend my energy, so traversing the flat section of Canada via rail made more sense to me.

Prairie canola fields - the view from the train

Quintessential prairie scenes outside the train window: bright canola, billowy clouds, and blue sky.

Prairie sky over farm fields

There’s nothing quite like big and open prairie skies.

VIA Rail - Remote train station stop

Not many people take the train anymore.  One of the reasons I chose it over flying was that I could transport my bike without taking it apart and boxing it up, but otherwise it’s mostly used by people living in rural communities where there isn’t an airport nearby.  We stopped in the middle of nowhere more than once.

Motion blur looking down at the train tracks

The train takes 14 hours to get from Winnipeg to Jasper, where the “pedal powered to the west” adventure truly began…

Onlooker at remote mountain train station

…at least that’s what the VIA Rail schedule says.  In Canada, with so few people riding the train as passengers, the rails are dominated by cargo trains.  Passenger trains like this one need to yield the tracks to these big trains, and often.  This lost time adds up quickly and, in my experience, means that the train is never on time.  A word of advice: plan accordingly.  It’s no fun to show up at your destination 8 hours late to find that you missed your ferry or that the entire town’s accommodations are booked up.

Bike tour begins at Jasper train station at sunset

The plan was to arrive in Jasper at 1pm, find a campsite near town, and begin the bike tour in earnest the next day.  Here, I’ve arrived at 9pm.  The sun is already setting behind the mountains and all the campsites within 100km (and probably further) are full.

Wild camping in the woods

In the waning twilight, my first night in the mountains was spent scrambling to find and establish a wild camp in the woods.  The views on my first 20km down the Icefields Parkway to this little stand of trees were spectacular: at one point there was a brilliant rainbow against the already scenic mountain road at sunset, a rushing river to the left, and four elk crossing directly in front of me.  But I didn’t have the luxury to stop and take any pictures, because I needed to find a place to sleep.  This turned out to a bit of a theme on this whole trip: so much energy was spent on survival essentials that there wasn’t much left for photos and writing.  Then again, there never seems to be enough energy and time.

Female elk portrait

The next morning I was awoken by the sound of rustling nearby.  Poking my head out of my hammock, my blurry eyes found this curious elk checking out my camp.  It turns out my hammock was strung up over an animal path, and I was more of a surprise to this frequent traveller than vice versa.

Coffee and breakfast at Coco's Cafe

After the unexpectedly chaotic start, I doubled back to Jasper to fuel up on some warm food and coffee.  It seemed like the right thing to do.

Open road on the Icefields Parkway

After many months of preparation, it felt great to finally be on the open road of the Icefields Parkway.

Moody mountain skies - rain, peaks, and treetops

Summertime in the Canadian Rocky Mountains means moody mountain skies.  Cruising in the open air, afternoons were spent dodging rogue rain clouds and strong winds.

Fully loaded touring bicycle on mountain bike trail

Venturing away from the road and into the backcountry.  This section of path was scenic and fun, but it quickly turned gnarly for a fully loaded touring bike. Access to the camp destination is listed as an easy 14km return mountain bike trail that “follows a well packed fire road that is easily traversed.”  Well let me tell you, if this was a fire road it must’ve been so a very long time ago because there were narrow bridges, washed out swampy sections, overgrown parts, and some really steep hills riddled with a lot of sharp rocks and roots.  It was a technical mountain bike ride made even more technical by being fully loaded (at the train station my gear weigh in was about 70 pounds – 25 pounds of food for this leg of the journey).  But where there’s a will, there’s a way – I took it slowly and carefully, and made it to a beautiful campsite at the meeting of the Athabasca and Sunwapta rivers.  I only almost died twice (exaggerating a little…but only a little).

Big Bend camp - bonfire in Jasper's backcountry under a full moon

New friends around the fire under the light of a full moon.  Camp at Big Bend in Jasper’s backcountry was a nice reward after a hard day’s ride.

Camp alongside the Athabasca River at Big Bend

Waking up alongside the north fork of the Athabasca River.

Rock flour gives the glacial runoff a beautiful cloudy look

Rock flour gives the glacial runoff a beautiful cloudy look.

Following the pavement between the Athabasca River and the Endless Chain Ridge

Back in the frontcountry, the paved path winds south between the Athabasca River and the Endless Chain Ridge.

Bicycle on the Icefields Parkway

With a loaded bicycle it’s a little more difficult to park and dismount than it is on an unloaded bike.  Almost every day, I laid my heavy bike down on the side of the road to clear dangerous debris; it’s amazing how many spare tires bounce out of motor vehicles.

Moody skies over the Athabasca River

Moody skies over the Athabasca River.

Jonas Creek walk-in campsite

This particular campsite was the first real point of familiar territory for me on this tour.  One year prior I had spent time here with my lady love on our way to Alaska.  Amidst these trees, memories came flooding back and homesickness hit me hard.  Here I was, alone this time, and desperately missing those whom I love.

Labrador leaves in palm

Finding enough space to step out of my dismal state of mind, I looked around with open eyes rather than the memories of the past and noticed a plant that I had come to love since first discovering it in the Yukon: labrador!  It’s an absolute treat to make tea out of its leaves and it would end up becoming a nightly ritual on tour to brew up a pot before bed.

"Have faith in yourself" - picnic table etching

Have faith in yourself.

Standing in a mountain stream - first person view

Crisp mountain streams: a blessed source of drinking water, quick baptismal baths, and cleaning grimy clothing.

Doing laundry in Jonas Creek

A behind-the-scenes glimpse into the glamorous daily camp chores.

Wilcox Peak above the Icefields Parkway

Approaching the highest road elevation on this route at just over 2000 meters above sea level.  Note distant Wilcox Peak looming over the road.

Altostratus clouds outline Nigel Peak

Altostratus clouds outline barren Nigel Peak.

The glacial toe of the Athabasca Icefield

As I continue to head south, I get my first view of the Columbia Icefields: a glacial toe of the Athabasca Glacier reaches down Mount Andromeda.

Basecamp at the Columbia Icefields campground

Basecamp at the Columbia Icefields campground.  To avoid the long weekend crowds, I parked the bike here for a couple of days while I switched gears and hiked some mountain passes.

Moonrise over mountains on a warm summer evening

The moon rises above mountains and clouds on a warm summer evening.

A lone hiker silhouettes the ridge marking the beginning of Wilcox Pass

A lone hiker is silhouetted against a hazy mountain ridge as he climbs above the tree line.

Gazing upon the Athabasca Glacier from above

Gazing down on the Athabasca Glacier.  The higher you get, the more the view opens up.

Looking down on the Icefields Parkway from Mount Wilcox

Down at the left of this image is the Athabasca River and Icefields Parkway.  Way down there (~1000 meters vertically) is where I took the highway photo the day before and told you to note the peak behind it.  Now, I’m on it.  Perspective.

Happy hiker self-portrait

A happy hiker.

Sitting on Wilcox Peak after a tough scramble

Sitting on the peak of Mount Wilcox after a tough scramble.  Beyond Wilcox Pass the path disappears and you have to pick your route to the peak.  The way that I chose was relatively easy towards the beginning, but got staggeringly difficult towards the peak.  Struggling up sharp, loose rock and steep gorges I bouldered my way to the peak.  This is the highest point (literally) of the entire tour at 2884 meters above sea level.

Climbing couple sits atop Mount Wilcox's peak

A kind couple from Calgary welcomed me to the summit and we all enjoyed the 360 degree views together.

Climbers descending Mount Wilcox against the Athabasca Glacier

Descending from the alpine.

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep (pictured) and marmots outnumber hikers at these elevations.

Athabasca Glacier - view from Wilcox Pass

Beautiful afternoon light catches the Athabasca Glacier.

Clouds cast shadows on the mountain peaks reaching for them

Clouds cast shadows on the mountain peaks reaching for them.

Valley view from Parker Ridge in Banff National Park

Glacial runoff continues to carve the deep mountain valleys – this one is just inside Banff National Park on another side of the Columbia Icefields.  While the rivers up to this point on the trip drain north, this is the first that drains south.  These are the headwaters of the mighty Saskatchewan River which drains off the Saskatchewan Glacier.

Fireweed - a colorful wildflower in bloom

Fireweed: a colorful Rocky Mountain wildflower in bloom.

Jasper or Lake Louise sign at Icefields Centre

Seemingly all too soon, it’s time to double back north to Jasper to catch another train.  Passenger trains pass only through there, so that means doing a loop to get back to the train station if I’m going stick to my plan and skip cycling the Yellowhead Highway, also known as the Highway of Tears.

Caution sign: dangerous cliffs

Talking with folks along the way, I caught wind of a forgotten little trail that follows a rushing creek along a canyon that it has carved for itself.  There is no signage to get here and the instructions are too complicated to quickly post here (contact me if interested in the details), but park management was thoughtful enough to put up warning signs just in case.

Beautiful canyon waterfall

Alongside the overgrown trail there were ten beautiful waterfalls over just a few kilometers.

Cave behind waterfall in Rocky Mountain canyon

Water carves its way through rock with persistent force.

Hammock tent camping

With an aching knee, I set up camp early one day on the return route north.  My hammock and bike setup was a curiosity in the campgrounds and a great conversation starter.  I met a lot of great people on this leg of the trip: families, RV-ers, fellow cyclists (current or past)…there are some really great people on this planet…

Husky dog with begging eyes

…and dogs!  At this particular campground, this fellow named Amigo came over and introduced himself.  Him and his family were my neighbours.  We made pizzas over the fire together.  No big deal.  Okay, after about a week in the woods eating nothing but basic foods at this point…big deal!

Rolling mountain road - Icefields Parkway

The rolling mountain road is a thing to love and hate when travelling by pedal power, but it sure is beautiful.

Impending rain clouds in the Rocky Mountains

H2-Oh no…the weather took a cold and wet turn for my last few days in the mountains.  Once you get over the cold and wet feeling though, it’s kind of beautiful.

Well earned steak dinner

When I finally made it back to Jasper, I asked three different locals where I could find a good dinner and all of them recommended the same place: Karouzo’s.  It was quite possibly the best meal I’ve ever had, and I don’t even think that this judgement was entirely circumstantial.  Yes, it was hard earned, but the chef really did know what he was doing and I would recommend it to anyone.  It was expensive, but I was so happy to have options beyond the usual camp fare that I sat my dirty biker bum in that fancy restaurant with the rest of ’em.

Eating on the ground of camp

Waiting a day for the train I restocked on provisions in town, even treating myself to some wet food and drink back at the campground.

Mother and son watching the train come in

Watching the train come in.

Child in aisle through train window

All aboard!

Rail view opens up to the mountains

Just like before, it was a common reoccurrence to wait on the side of the tracks for another train to pass.  This is about as much as the view opens up out the window.  Everyone talks about how scenic it can be to take a train through the mountains, and it is, but the reality is that your view is usually block by dense forest that has grown right up to the edge of the tracks.  Going west, I really enjoyed watching the trees get larger as we neared the coasts…but the forests reached for us nonetheless.

Train engineer leaning out door

This lovely lady, Diane, was our entire train crew for this ride on the northern tracks.  This line is her life, and has been for the last 35 years.  She was full of stories and history, and I really enjoyed the two days we spent together.  Here, she was leaning out the door to quickly hop off and drop off the forgotten walking stick of a recluse trapper that rides the rails from time to time.
All sorts of characters live off the grid in the woods along the train line here: prospectors, trappers, farmers, and folks whom no one knows what they do.  The train is their only transportation option in this remote region and they can be seen hopping on and off with a bundle of pelts or a handful of gold.

Fast moving train on railroad tracks - blurry trees

After relying on pedal power in the mountains, the train feels very fast and I feel like I took it for granted before.

Happy mother and son lean out train window enjoying the ride

A happy mother and son lean out train window enjoying the ride.  Our train was only four cars long: an engine car, luggage car, passenger car, and dining car.  For the bulk of our two day journey from Jasper to Prince Rupert, there were only half a dozen of us as passengers.  With Diane’s encouragement, it was nice to relax and enjoy the ride in ways that you certainly couldn’t on the main line.

West coast mist over train tracks

Nearing the coast, the mist of the temperate rainforest rose up over the train tracks as the sun set.  At sunrise I would be boarding a ferry to cross the Hecate Straight to begin the next leg of my journey on the Haida Gwaii.

(continued as Part 2: Four corners of the Haida Gwaii by bicycle)