Monday, February 25, 2008

Canadian Rockies

The Great Parks North Cycling Tour:
Jasper Park in Alberta, Canada to
Glacier Park in Whitefish, MT

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to spend time in one of those fantastic picture postcards? You know the postcards that show snow-covered mountains, fast-running rivers, and wild animals. My cycling trip through the Canadian Rocky Mountains provided such an experience. However, as you read my narrative and view the photographs you may not fully appreciate the beauty and majesty of being integrated into this environment, unless you too have been there.

My trip started like many others. It took me all day to get ready. I was not sure of how best to pack my gear for the train trip and what I would do with my luggage when I was cycling. Larry picked me up at 3 p.m. and drove me and my bike to Union Station in Washington, DC to catch Amtrak train #29 leaving at 5:20 p.m. for Chicago. Larry had planned to go on this trip but had to cancel because he had not yet fully recovered from pneumonia.

After much anticipation and some anxiety I spent my first night sleeping on the train. Before this my train trips were just hours long. However, this trip involved sleeping 2 nights on the train. I decided to sleep in the coach rather than in a sleeping car because it was significantly cheaper and I figured that it would prepare me for the upcoming nights that I would spend in my tent. In Chicago I met my friends from NY—Joe, Jack, Dick, and Ray—where we boarded another train for the second leg of the trip to Whitefish, MT. These four guys and Hans-Peter, who we would meet in Whitefish, were on my cross-country trip in 2002. We arrived in Whitefish on time (9 p.m.). Despite the late hour and long trip we all had plenty of energy to move our bikes, boxes, and bodies to the Downtowner Motel. After being on the train for 3 days and 2 nights I relished the idea of a hot shower and a real bed.

The town of Whitefish is a great tourist town for those who love the outdoors. It is located near Big Mountain (a sky resort) and Whitefish Lake. While the town was originally nicknamed “Stumptown” because of its logging heritage, this name does not reflect its exciting character and many interesting shops, restaurants, and activities. Whitefish has a population of 9,500 and is at 3,040 feet of altitude.

Our first morning in Whitefish started with a great breakfast at the Buffalo Café with its nontraditional menu and large portions. Later we went to the Glacier Cyclery (a wonderful and very helpful bike shop) to drop off our bike boxes and extra gear and purchase last minute things that were forgotten. We had lunch at Truby’s outdoor café before we cycled up Big Mountain. On the way up a black bear crossed in front of us. However, it disappeared into the woods too quickly to get out our cameras. After cycling an hour we reached the lodge area and we took the chair lift to the top of the mountain (which took about 40 minutes). We sat for a while in the cold air and listened to 2 folk musicians entertain café patrons and watched mountain bikers hop off the chair lift, hope on their bikes, and disappear down the steep and twisting trails. On the top of Big Mountain we got a picture postcard view of the entire area. It was about 20 degrees cooler at the top and the wind-chill made us even colder. On the way back down, I took another picture postcard shot with my camera.

Later in the day we left the comfort of the motel to join the rest of our tour group at the KOA campground that was 5 miles west of town. Despite leaving the comfort of the motel, it was great to be outdoors and sleeping in my tent. The next day the rest of our Adventure Cycling group arrived, set up their tents, and got aquainted. Since our first meeting wasn’t planned until dinner time, I decided to cycle around Whitefish Lake. It was a peaceful journey and provided more great photo opportunities. In the evening we had a formal get acquainted meeting at the KOA lodge. Dinner of pizza and beer was enjoyed by all as we discussed the morning’s bus tip to Jasper in Alberta, Canada where our cycling journey was to begin. During the bus ride we stopped to photograph the mountain goats grazing along the road.

The town of Jasper is at the northern end of Jasper National Park. Established in 1907, Jasper National Park is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies with 10,878 square kilometers of mountain wilderness. We camped in the park and cycled into town to purchase the food for the next 3 days. We were leaving civilization for wilderness camping where no food was available (or showers, or flush toilets, etc). On the way out of Jasper the next morning I photographed an elk grazing near our camp.

For the first 20 miles, our route took us along the Athabasca River toward the Athabasca Falls. The falls were not large but an impressive amount of water moved over them and it provided another postcard moment.

By day’s end I cycled 47 miles to the Jones Creek campground and the journey there provided more picturesque views. The campground was rustic. It had no showers and only pit toilets. Like most of the campsites on this trip we had to put food items into metal bear boxes and make sure that no food or even tooth paste went into our tents.

The next morning started off with cold temperatures (in the 40-degree range) as we left the campground and cycled on The Icefields Parkway. We had some serious climbs and along two scenic rivers—the Sunwapta and Saskatchewan. We stopped at the Athabasac Glacier for a tour. The Glacier is part of the Columbia Icefield and located in Jasper National Park. To get to the glacier we boarded special vehicles that looked like RVs with monster truck tires. These vehicles took us onto the glacier where we got out and walked around. Most of us were bundled up with extra clothing but it was still cold.

Continuing on the Icefield Parkway we cycled up Sunwapta Pass at 6,676 feet. The mountain was full of wild flowers including many “Indian Paint Brush” plants in different colors. At the bottom of the overlook was a very blue colored lake.

So far most of our cycling has been in what is called “a sub-Alpine area” – the areas just below the no-tree zone. The trees in this zone were small for their age. That night we camped at Rampart Creek—another rustic campground. My soapless bath in the glacier-fed creek was very cold and quick. While we only cycled 41-miles it was a long and tiring day.

Finally, we headed back to “civilization” with a 57-mile journey to Lake Louise. Lake Louise is a resort town with a large and civilized campground. Food was available in the village not far from the campground. However, the lake and resort area were a steep 2.5-mile climb up the mountain. The lake sits at the foot of a glacier and was well worth the effort to get there. Unfortunately, none of my pictures captured this wonderful scene.

We left Alberta and entered British Columbia on a short cycling day to the Marble Falls campground—our last rustic place. On the way to Castle Junction I stopped to watch a large male elk grazing just off the road. I was amazed at both the size of this animal and his indifference to the tourists watching him eat. While the day’s ride was only 28 miles we did have a climb that took some time as we cycled over Vermilion Pass (5,145 feet) to our campground.

During our evening meal a sociable small black bear came up to where we were eating. While I ran for my camera, others decided to make noise to scare it away—so no up-close photos of cute baby bears. However, that incident did provide much levity later on. During the night one of our cyclists woke up coughing but the fellow in the next tent thought the noise was a bear. He screamed and tried to get out of his tent. In his panicked state it took him awhile to emerge from the tent and by the time he got out the rest of us were standing around looking for the “bear.” When the fellow with the cough started hacking again the panicked fellow realized that he had not heard a bear and when he admitted it, the group had a good laugh—for many days afterwards.

Next morning we started off with a nice down hill ride but we had a hard climb over Sinclair Pass at 4,875 feet. The climb was long but the downhill to Radium Hot Springs was great—once it got started. The pass had a false top and required climbing for several additional miles after we thought we crossed the pass. Except for the mosquitoes, the Radium Hot Springs campground was nice. It was called Canyon RV Park and was literally in a small wet canyon (with an 8% grade below the highway) that served as a mosquito breeding ground. Most of our meals were eaten in the campground and we took turns cooking and cleaning up. This night’s meal was created by our tour leader. He made a Thai dish consisting of rice, spinach, peanut butter, pineapple, Tabasco sauce, onions, and green peppers. It was a big hit but as soon as we were done eating the mosquitoes attacked in full force. The cleanup crew put on extra clothing and the rest of us headed for our tents.

Thankful that the mosquitoes sent us to bed early, we got up the next morning facing a hard cycling day of 70 miles. We passed through Columbia National Wildlife Area and the town of Invermere. Invermere (with a population of nearly 3,000) was hosting a lively farmers market and craft fair in its historic district. Once we left the town the ride got less enjoyable as the weather got warm and the road conditions deteriorated. We cycled around Windermere Lake but did not get to see much of it. We posed for a group picture at Hoodoos’ Mountain but no one wanted to move so that the mountain would be in the background. Later several of us stopped for lunch at the Fresh Garden Café in a very small town called Canal Flats. Ironically, while the food was good, there were no fresh garden items on the menu. Even the strong riders complained about the day’s ride. That night the group camped at Wasa Lake but I checked into a motel next to the campground. I rationalized that a bed and hot shower were required to rejuvenate my tired body.

I knew I made a good decision the next morning when the group complained that a noisy party in the campground kept them up most of the night. We had another 70-mile day and I was ready. Joe and I left early and missed a turn at Fort Steele, taking us on the main highway. Our ride was nice because of low traffic and a tail wind. We stopped in Jaffray at a country club for breakfast and then decided to stay off route as we headed toward Elko. Because it was later in the morning our route had more traffic but it was not bad. It got hot by the time we reached Elko where we stopped for several milk shakes (each!) before starting on the last leg to Fernie. Our map indicated that we would have rolling hills the rest of the way. However, the map was wrong. After an initial climb out of Elko we had easy cycling and nice scenery. I even stopped to cool off in the Elk River. In Fernie we stayed at the Raging Elk Hostel.

Fernie was our first and only layover day. It was a good-sized town with a population of 4,600. However, no one was in town. We were there during a Canadian national holiday similar to our Labor Day with most shops being closed. The 14 people in town belonged to our group. We spent most of our free time eating and resting.

Leaving Fernie we head for Blairmore and the Lost Lemon Campground. It was a 46-mile day over Crowsnest Pass at 4,457 feet. At the beginning of the day we continued to cycle along the Elk River as we head to Sparwood. At Sparwood we stopped for photo ops at the “world’s largest truck.” Leaving Sprawood we start to climb into the coal mining area as we head for Crowsnest Pass which is also the boarder between British Columbia and Alberta. After crossing the pass we enjoyed 15 miles of down hill cycling. It rained in the evening, the first rain of the trip. Despite the rain the cooks put together a good evening meal.

The day started out with a continuation of the previous day’s down hill until we got to Lee’s Lake Road where the terrain became hilly—not steep hills but constant ups and downs. As we got closer to the town of Pincher Creek we were blessed with a nice tail wind and passed fields of wind driven electrical generators. However, leaving Pincher Creek the terrain again was rolling hills combined with moderate cross winds. We were in the Canadian Plains but heading back into the Rocky Mountains. Overall, it was a tough 66 miles to Waterton Lake National Park—our campground for the evening. Near the park entrance we saw two black bears just off the road and in the town we encountered a very tame deer walking the streets…so much for “wildlife.”

Before leaving Waterton Lake that morning the group had a fancy breakfast at the Prince Edward Hotel that overlooked the lake. It was good that we had a great breakfast because we had a long climb out of the park. Later, we went through the Canadian-U.S. border and up Chief Mountain International Highway. Coming down the other side was a fast and fun ride. At the interchange with route 89 we met up with two more fellows from our 2002 cross-country trip (they drove up from Missoula, MT to join us for several days). We cycled 48 miles to Saint Mary where we stayed at the Johnson RV Park.

Leaving Saint Mary we faced our last, but best climb of the trip. We cycled from East Glacier up the Road-to-the-Sun Highway that runs through Glacier National Park. It was a long but beautiful climb to the top. However, it was not a difficult climb and had lots of great places to stop and smell the roses—waterfalls, overlooks and switchbacks. At the top, the group gathered at the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center for pictures and to kill time before we descended into West Glacier (because of traffic concerns, the road is closed to cyclists until the afternoon). Of course we had another fantastic downhill ride! At the bottom of the hill Joe and I stopped at a lodge and posed with an “old prospector” for a comic postcard. Our 52 mile day took us to a KOA campground just west of the park.

The final ride of the trip was taken in the rain. Some of us missed the “low traffic” route and decided to get to Whitefish the quickest way. While there was a little more traffic we were early enough not to have any problems. We flew over the 27-mile route and got to the motel in about 2 hours. While I was wet and dirty I felt great. After checking into the motel and taking a long hot shower I met the rest of the group at Truby’s for a final lunch.

Our train home was 2 hours late getting to Whitefish. A train derailment earlier had slowed eastbound traffic. Thus we were very late getting to Chicago and I missed my train to DC. However, the guys going to NY were able to get on their train that was also late getting to Chicago. Amtrak put me on a train that went through Philadelphia, PA that was scheduled to arrive in Washington, DC at 8 p.m. the next day. However, it was not all bad news. Riding in the same train car was a Blues band returning from a festival in Spokane, WA and they willingly entertained us.

The delays continued and I did not get to Washington, DC until 2 a.m. on the following day--14 hours after my originally scheduled time. At that hour of the morning the train station was deserted and the Metro and taxies were not running. However, my son was there and he took me home.

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