A Rocky (and smoky) Start: Dawson Creek, BC to Canmore, AB

First, let’s rewind about a year and half….

 

 

Well, it appears that I have neglected this blog for some time. It would be impossible to sum up the last year and a bit in a few introductory sentences. A lot has happened and a lot has changed since I was last touring. While I had the idea to continue pedalling around the world last year, the passion and the forward momentum that I once had was starting to fade. I was worn out and feeling a bit aimless. After a failed attempt at a summer tree plant in Australia I had planned to return home for only a few months to a new forestry job to replenish my savings. I guess it was a result of  being away from home for so long that I ended up loving that job and loving Canada again. I started to notice all of the very “Canadian” things – a familiar mosaic of my surroundings that I used to pass off as part of a mundane, every day existence. I loved how “Canadian” the radio journalists sounded, seeing Canadians with their Tim Hortons coffee addiction, how so many Canadian men wore baseball caps and hearing again that two letter word we are so famous for:

“Buddy’s just givin’er, eh?!” (Note I am in the north of BC).

The day I had planned to quit my job again in August 2017, I had a conversation with a friend. I told her that I suddenly felt hesitant to get on the road again. Then, she asked me a vital question: Are you doing this because it is something you feel like you should be doing? Or is it something you want to be doing? I really thought about this. It felt like being a world cycle traveller had become part of my identity. It was a point of pride – being able to travel under my own steam, pushing my body to the limits. On my bicycle I felt unsurpassed freedom – nothing else had rivalled it. But I was burnt out, in need of lasting personal connections and community. I was also starting a intriguing relationship which didn’t feel right to abandon. 

So, I ended up staying.

I fuelled my outdoor adventure/fitness addiction through work – making it through a winter that I would classify as significantly harder than any bike tour I have ever done. I lived in a wall tent with a wood stove for three weeks at a time, sometimes at -30 temperatures. It was surprisingly warm! I will always look back on one brutal work shift though. In a unexpected and bizarre flooding event in the dead of winter, I came back to a tent frozen under 6+ inches of ice. My co-worker and I spent an entire work shift trying to chip that thing out. It was so severe even chainsaws got involved to cut through the ice. It was a surreal moment for me as I suddenly had a flashback of tree planting a year prior in the tropics of Australia, almost passing out from heat stroke. Literally from one extreme to the other. We spent eight hours per day snowshoeing in thigh deep snow and returned home to spend about an hour each night chipping away at the ice. We were beyond exhausted at the end of those three weeks. It was so intense my already lean co-worker returned home 35 pounds lighter. 

Soon, the great thaw began and winter’s grip began to loosen. I was getting ready for my ride that I had put off for a year. My plans had changed a lot, though. I would only ride to Arizona, not down to Argentina. I planned to ride from where I was based in Dawson Creek, British Columbia down to Hinton, Alberta where I would connect with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I would ride until Colorado, where I would turn West to one of my dream cycling destinations: Utah. I would end the ride in Phoenix, before flying home. With almost three months of riding planned, I left Dawson Creek mid August 2018. I was riding towards a horizon choked with wildfire smoke. This was set to be one of the province’s worst fire seasons on record. After a week on the road I came across a new obstacle and the smoky skies became the least of my concerns…

I was moving at a blistering pace towards Grande Prairie on an uninspiring highway, thanks to a mad tailwind.  Perhaps riding 135km on the first day of a bike tour wasn’t the wisest decision, but I was determined to get off the highway as quickly as possible. Unfortunately in this part of the province there are few options for side roads that aren’t busy industrial haul roads. I had calculated four days to Hinton, where I could finally get away from traffic and onto dirt. 

 

 

 

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With my friends. Lorry and Alanna at the start in Dawson Creek, BC

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Dawson Creek, BC: Mile “0” of the Alaska Highway and my trip. I wasn’t actually heading towards any of those places on the sign and going in the opposite direction of Alaska…

Earlier in the day I met up with my friends Lorry and Alanna to take a touristy photo at the Mile Zero sign post in Dawson Creek, perhaps the “highlight” of the town for a passing tourist.  Dawson Creek is the beginning of the Alaska highway. I joked that it was the “Mile Zero”  marker of my trip, but I was going backwards, heading further and further away from Alaska. Mile 0 and negative:-25km, -80km, -1000km…

I chatted with some colourful characters at a gas station in Hythe, my first break of the day. I had forgotten how much attention you receive as a bike tourist. Once again I had become a bit of a novelty. Suddenly everyone wanted to talk to me and know my story. One older man on a $10 bike began to reminisce about local life back in the day in “tougher times.” A disheveled Hollywood stereotype of “that crazy old man” he started going on about life on a potato farm outside of town and coming to the very gas station we were at to siphon gas from other vehicles because it was too expensive. It made for an entertaining lunch stop. I was amused by these random encounters on the road, when suddenly a group strangers become temporarily drawn into your equally strange day-to- day existence. 

Aside from the dull riding, which I had done many times by car, it was fun to play tourist. I even stopped at Beaverlodge’s most famous exhibit. I was also particularly amused by the hair salon nearby called the “Sheared Beaver.” Good or bad for business? 

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Beaverlodge’s Giant Beaver

 

I was welcomed into Grande Prairie, not by the angry and insane drivers, but by my awesome Couchsurfing host Ken. It was awesome to share stories with a like minded traveller again.

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With my Couchsurfing host Ken at his home in Grande Prairie

Grande Prairie is a truck type town – the bigger, the more accessorized and jacked up, the better. A bicycle on the road is a rarity indeed. This is probably the reason why I was approached and encouraged by many people when I stepped off the bike (away from the crazy main road) for a break. I was probably one of a handful of touring cyclists to pass through that year, whereas in a mountain mecca like Canmore further south I would be cyclist #600.

Leaving Grande Prairie, the traffic became heavier and the wildfire smoke thicker. It was like biking into fog all the way to Grande Cache. The sun’s blood orange rays struggled to escape the haze like a beacon of hope. The road began to swell as I pedalled closer to the mountains. My legs battled against the transition and I struggled up the steeper hills. I was completely wiped out when I arrived in Grande Cache. Arriving at a gas station, a man approached me and asked me if I had ridden from Grande Prairie. He described an apocalyptic scene, driving into black with his headlights on in the middle of the day. “I thought I was right in the middle of a fire!,” he said. I did an online search and sure enough found videos showing exactly what the man was describing. It was the road I had cycled the day before in a complete blackout from the smoke. Freaky.

 

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The smoke apocalypse hits Grande Cache. This was around 3:30pm.

I experienced a similarly eerie scene later that afternoon at my Warm Showers host Laverna’s place in Grand Cache. At around 3:30pm the sky turned dark orange and the streetlights went on. I had never experienced anything like it in my life.

Laverna took my around Grande Cache, a very cool little mountain town. It is home to the popular Canadian Death Race – a gruelling 125km ultra marathon.  If only I could see the mountains. From her porch she told me that only on clear at least five peaks were visible. Instead, they were engulfed in a sea of white.

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Pointing at the non-existent view

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Smoke galore in Grande Cache

That night with Laverna and her friend Chris, I was drawn into another world of adventure. The two had made an impressive slideshow about their cycling and hiking expedition to the other worldly volcanic peninsula of Kamchatka, Russia. I saw photos of landscapes that held a surreal beauty far beyond anything I had ever experienced. These two traversed active volcanic fields, turning around when the air became too heavy with sulphur. It was the most impressed and inspired I have felt by an adventure in a long time. Definitely check out their story.

In Hinton at another Warm Showers place, I met Becky and Graham from Washington D.C., a tandem couple cycling the Great Divide Route. I guess I have a knack for running into the rare tandem cycle tourists, like my round the world cycling friends Marcus and Kirsty of shesnotpedallingontheback.com. The were held up because of a damaged fork caused by mishandling on the airline. I wondered how they would fare because of the challenges my friends faced going off road on a tandem on their world tour.

Leaving Hinton, my wheels were finally hitting gravel. I was thrilled to be off the highway.  To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Great Divide Mountain Bike route, its creators added a section connecting Jasper with Banff, via Hinton and the Forestry Trunk Road. I had cycled the spectacular paved route from Jasper to Banff, the Icefields Parkway, some years ago with my dad. The few passing vehicles left behind a cloud of dust that coated me and my bike. At one point I had considered wearing a buff to save my lungs. I was riding into a rather unhealthy concoction of dust and wildfire smoke.

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A bit of traffic at the start of the lonely Forestry Trunk Road

Briefly back on pavement, I came into the semi- ghost town of Robb, where I had expected to find at least a gas station or convenience store. I knew of one hotel in the town that was open. The only visible shop was boarded up, the lacklustre paint job and company slogans fading away into history. I admit it was sort of amusing to visit these oddball spots in my own country. 

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A closed convenience store in the semi-ghost town of Robb, Alberta

The next few days I rode through a tunnel of spruce trees and relentless hills, with the odd clearcut on the Forestry Trunk Road. I had been down many of these types of roads before in a vehicle for work as a forestry technician

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Finally a blue, semi-clear sky on the Forestry Trunk Road

South of the old mining community of Nordegg, the trees lining the road suddenly stretched higher towards the sky as the smokey haze finally departed to reveal a piercing blue. The landscape continued to swell from rolling green hills to dramatic rocky mountains.

Sometimes the trees parted to unveil an expansive wetland cradled by mountains in the distance.

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Waterways abounded and I stopped for a break at a particularly large one – the Saskatchewan River. Unfortunately a steep sweeping descent to a river always meant a steep climb out of it.

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Taking a break at the Saskatchewan River

This characterized the rest of the Forestry Trunk Road – fly down to the river, crawl out of it. The scenery ranged from beautiful mountain landscapes to to ugly clearcuts. The scarred hillsides lay defeated like wounded animals, their hides torn apart by predators. 

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A hideous hillside of clearcuts

After about five days of fairly aggressive riding, I started to have pain on the left side of my body. 

First my lower back and then my IT band. I would finish each day exhausted, hoping that stretching and a good nights sleep would cure it. 

Despite my aching body, I was enjoying being on the road again – not even minding the haze that often blocked out most of the scenery. I had the attitude that I had already experienced so much beauty in my travels by bicycle, that it almost didn’t matter. I was enjoying the forward momentum towards that liberated mental state.  It is something unique that I can only achieve while cycling and also running – solo, in remote places. 

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Gravel grinding

I had also missed wild camping, which was also a bit of an adventure in bear country. 

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Good wild camping spots were in abundance

 

 

 

I was practicing “bear aware” practices by clearing my  wild camp site of all food and scented objects (even toothpaste) by placing them in  a stuff sack and hanging them in a tree. I found a useful instructional video for hanging food with a stuff sack. On the first night I attempted it, the pot (used for weight) got stuck high in a tree when I attempted to swing it over a branch. I ended up having to climb fairly high to get it down. I eventually got better at it.

The pain in my leg had now progressed to my knee, and this was quite worrying. I had a couple days left to Canmore, where I decided to take a few days rest. On day 10 of my ride I awoke to stormy skies and a loud crack of thunder outside of my tent. I lay there for a hour longer than usual as the rain began hammering my tent. I suddenly remembered that this was my least favourite part of cycle touring. I was stealth camping in the woods fairly close to an expensive campground, so I felt pressure to get going sooner rather than later. Amazingly, the heavy rain stopped around 10am. I packed up and headed towards Canmore. 

My body felt relief when I hit the paved road again after a challenging five days on the Forestry Trunk Road. My knee was really acting up now and I rode the last 100km on painkillers to get me through. 

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Towards Canmore and the smoky/foggy mountains…

Arriving into town wet and tad cold, I was super grateful to once again be taken into the company of my wonderful Warm Showers hosts Toivo and Suzanne. After a few days off, it became apparent that my knee wasn’t going to heal very quickly. I ended up making the difficult decision to temporarily abandon my ride and let the knee heal. I left my bike behind in Canmore and took the bus to Vancouver to stay with my sister. Unfortunately, my knee didn’t heal in the few weeks that I had hoped.  Eventually I made the tough  decision to continue the tour next year.

I am now at home in Dawson Creek, my bike in Calgary, where it will sit until next summer (thanks to my awesome friend Lucas for dropping it off and Kelly for storing it!). I don’t know the exact cause of my injury. This is my first ever from cycling. The culprits were likely a very tight IT band or position of my cleats or my saddle causing my patella (kneecap) to track or be pulled out of proper alignment.

Dealing with an injury is incredibly tough if you are an active person. My athletic endeavours are very much a part of who I am and to have that taken away has taken a very big hit on me mentally. As a non-driver, travel by bicycle is my ultimate freedom and I feel like I have had my independence taken away from me. As I explained earlier, it has also become a point of pride over the years, perhaps unhealthily so. I has also spent a year planning and dreaming about the ride, giving me motivation through the toughest days at work in the winter. Also, now that I have months off, boredom is a big challenge to overcome.

The first few weeks I felt depressed, frustrated, defeated, directionless. After a month off, I still struggle with it, but I am getting better. I am trying to see this as a chance to learn about my own body and perhaps treat it better in the future. I went through a similar overuse type injury with running five years ago. I had just finished a tree planting season, feeling more in shape than ever. I jumped right into high mileage training, because I had the lungs, stamina and mental endurance. I ended up paying for that with a severe shin split that lead to me pulling out of a marathon race that I had planned and it resulted in no running for 6 months. It is never a good idea to go headfirst into any sport without preparing your body for it. I should have ridden 60km my first day and not 135km. My drive and stubbornness put an end to my tour. And (trying to avoid the topic) I guess I am not in my 20s anymore!

So, the advice I would give to cyclists, or any endurance athletes of any level is to ease into it! No matter how fit you are from another sport. Get a proper bike fit, take it easy your first week. These are the things I plan to do next year when I get better. With patience, I know that I will. 

Even though I only got 10 days on the road, I am grateful for those miles and the people I encountered. I was able to live in that world again, even if only for a short time. That glorious state that I reach pedalling towards an undulating horizon along a bumpy swath of dirt. My thoughts become a bit of a shock absorber for the the terrain that rattles body and bike. I temporarily drift into the trees, the mountains moving past like an old film reel. It’s kind of like floating, as Gary Klein put it:

“Riding is about rhythm and flow. It’s the wind in your face and the challenge of hammering up a long hill. It’s the reward at the top and the thrill of a high-speed descent. Biking lets you come alive in both body and spirit. After awhile the bike disappears beneath you and you feel as if you’re suspended in midair.”

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Descending the Baralacha La, Indian Himalaya 2015. Photo Credit: www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “A Rocky (and smoky) Start: Dawson Creek, BC to Canmore, AB

  1. Outstanding writing skills, Tara! The struggles, emotions, environments, and reflections are depicted so eloquently. Glad we inspired you about Kamchatka.

    Chris Goulet
    Grande Cache, Alberta

    Like

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