Day one and I am buzzing from head to toe. I pedalled out of the same driveway in Canmore where an injury forced me to end my trip a year ago. I was filled with excitement and anxiety. Although I was coming to the start fit and healthy, I was anxious that my knee issue might resurface. I wanted to continue doing what I loved most. Leaving the town behind, I started to slowly climb to new heights. The mountains beckoned, surrounded, cradled me like a new life.
I had a wonderful few days with my Warm Showers hosts Toivo and Suzanne in Canmore. These two had taken me in the previous year when I had decided that I was unable continue my planned route on the Great Divide. It was also great for my dad to join us – a lifelong cyclist was a new interest in touring.
This year, I had a new plan. In May 2019, I came across a Facebook post about a new long distance bikepacking route through the USA called the Western Wildlands Route (then named the ‘Wild West Route’ but changed in 2020 out of respect for First Nations as it passes through traditional territories). The route claimed to be “more remote and rugged” than the Great Divide.” The 2700 mile route passed through Montana, Idaho, Utah and Arizona. The crossing of Utah and Arizona is what hooked me in. I had planned to deviate from the Great Divide anyway to go to those states. It seemed too perfect and I was beyond excited.
Back to the beginning – after a decent climb out of Canmore, I turned off onto the Goat Creek trail, following blissful double track through the woods.
I was alone, fiercely in tune to my surroundings. The sun appeared every now and then, illuminating a corridor of green.
I passed by several small lakes and travelled along power line tracks.
Eventually, I left the tracks behind and entered the Spray Lakes Road. Kananaskis area is a very popular area to visit in the summer, so I saw a little bit of traffic on this road.
The views continued to amaze.
Wanting to avoid the busier and pricey campgrounds in the provincial park, I opted to wild camp. I ended up camping near a MTB trail by a river, pushing a bit into some tangly undergrowth in attempt to conceal my tent. Being in grizzly country, I made sure to clear all food and smelly objects out of the tent and hang them in a tree. Although I have wild camped many times solo around the world, overnighting in bear country always made me feel slightly uneasy.
Leaving camp the next morning, I began the climb up a remote power line trail towards Elk Pass. Travelling through bear country, I like to make some noise, so as to avoid a surprise encounter. This would usually involve some singing or occasionally yelling out “whoa, bear! Hey bear!” or something of the sort. I guess I was too focused or winded from the climbing that this time it escaped my mind. Cresting a smaller hill, I suddenly laid eyes upon a grizzly with two cubs, maybe 50m away.
As one would expect, my adrenaline shot up to the max. Luckily, years of experience working in the bush helped me to stay calm and react rationally.
I got off my bike and began to walk backwards very slowly. She stayed put and merely gazed at me, sniffing the air. The cubs were large enough to be small black bears. A trio I wanted nothing to do with.
When I was a ways away, I slowly turned around and started to descend slowly, making sure I wasn’t being followed. I ended up finding another MTB trail that would take me around to Elk Pass, avoiding that section of the power line and the grizzly hangout.
I was still experiencing the rush, afraid that she could reappear at any moment. The alternate trail followed a narrow, scenic corridor carved out around a stream. Eventually, the trail left the waterway and climbed steeply to Elk Pass, back on the original power line trail. I scanned my surroundings and to my relief saw no grizzlies.
The descent that followed was spectacular. I ripped down the flowing power line trail towards a sky dominated by the giants of rock and ice.
Eventually the trail led to the Elk Lakes Forest Service Road, one of the most spectacular I have ever travelled on.
After a while, the big mountain scenery disappeared slightly behind denser forest and hilly clearcuts.
A man in a pickup soon pulled up beside me. He had a long scraggly white beard and a gruff voice, likely formed by years of bush work, booze and cigarettes. He was falling danger trees and asked me if I was going to New Mexico, because he had met an Irish cyclist earlier.
I always enjoyed these brief encounters in the middle of nowhere. A human voice to ground my drifting thoughts from being lost to the land.
A few hours later, I ended up seeing another grizzly cub on the side of the road! I was relieved when the bearded man drove by in his pickup again moments later – perfect timing.
Coming out of Round Prairie (merely an area, not a town of any kind) the Divide route turned onto some singletrack. I was uncertain about this section because I felt like my moderately heavy load and lack of mountain biking experience might make it a bit of a struggle. I ended up having a lot of fun with it. If I had to push a little bit, who cares, thought. I wasn’t in a rush.
I loved the windy bits through the woods, the foliage filtering the sun’s rays, dispersing them in golden strands.
In Elkford I stopped at the gas station for some late morning instant noodles, eating them at a picnic bench outside. I joined a crew of colourful local characters – some retired, some just bored. I told them my grizzly story and they followed with some bear stories of their own. Apparently there were a few “locals” around town that were spotted often. They even had names for some of the bears and complained about them like a surly neighbour. “Last time, I got ‘im, Billy, with birdshot, told ‘im to fuck off.” An entertaining stop it was.
The single track continued for a while until I hit the paved road to Sparwood, where I would take a day off to meet my friends Lucas and Starr, whom I met working in natural resources years ago.
Of course I had to take a photo of me and my bike with “Titan” the gigantic mining truck.
Lucas came to pick me up to take me and my bike to their beautiful little town of Bellevue in the Crowsnest Pass. One planned night off turned into a full day off as I couldn’t resist their amazing company and a chance to go canoeing on Beaver Mines lake. Heavy rain was also in the forecast for the late afternoon and early morning, which I certainly didn’t mind hiding out from.
They spoiled me to the max with good food and company.I felt so lucky to have friends like them!
The next day, they drove me to the start of the Flathead Valley at Corbin Rd. so I could avoid backtracking to Sparwood and riding the highway. After the pavement, I turned onto the muddy Flathead FSR. On the Great Divide routes there are two options from Sparwood to the USA border. The first is to head south towards Fernie on a mellower route with slightly more pavement. The second is to head southeast into the remote, rougher and untouched Flathead Valley, nicknamed “Grizzly Highway” and the “Serengeti of North America” for its high concentration of wildlife. I opted for the more adventurous route.
The start of the Flathead was very slick and I was glad I had waited out the rain the day previous. I met more than a few side-by-sides on the road, which became a common sight on many parts of the ride. It was also the weekend and people were out to play. I stopped a few times to scrape the slimy mud off of my tires. Eventually the surface solidified a bit, only to morph into a bumpy and rocky mess and then to a full on riverbed.
I spotted one jeep crazy enough to attempt the journey. They barely made it across some sections and were moving about as slow as I was. One motorcyclist I met said that he saw someone trying to make it through with a camper. Only parts of it survived the haul apparently.
Apart from the odd ATV parade about once an hour, I had this wonderful place to myself. The dense forests of the valley crawled up the mountainsides. A wild landscape free from the scars of clearcuts and seismic lines.
I had planned to get to Butt’s Patrol Cabin that night as it was not recommended to wild camp in an area with such a high grizzly population. I was worried that I wouldn’t make the 80km distance because of the super rough road conditions. Luckily, they improved and I eventually hit smooth dirt.
I had the tiny, spartan cabin to myself. I slept with the bike inside, cozy yet unable to shake off that “Cabin in the Woods” kind of creepy feeling in the dark and total silence.
The next day, I can say, was one of the best I have ever had on a bike.
I had already been lucky with such amazing weather on this stretch of my trip and that day it continued. The climb up to Cabin Pass along smooth double track track was like slowly moving through a pleasant, familiar dream. Purple, white and yellow wildflowers lined the path, softly illuminated by the sunlight. Drifting clouds created shadows that shifted on the high peaks, defining its contours. There was a light breeze – just enough just to tickle my face and not hinder my forward progression. Bliss on a bicycle, this was it.
I only saw two parked vehicles that day and a few other bikepackers. After the magnificent climb, the track became much rougher on the descent. I met up with the Wigwam River Rd. a double track trail that was closed to motorized vehicles. I met a pair of French cyclists along the way who were doing a small section of the Great Divide. I meant to ask them about the infamous “Wall” that lay ahead on the route, but it slipped my mind. I was on such a high from the day that i sort of brushed off the thought of any potential difficulty that might lay ahead.
Eventually I left the relatively easy 2-track in exchange for rougher overgrown single track that eventually followed a river. I was unable to ride most of it and resorted to walking. Then, the beast revealed itself. “The Wall” was an accurate description: a pretty well vertical rocky and rooty hiking trail of about 60m+ (that is just a guess!). It took everything I had to push/pull/carry my bike and load up that hill. I had to unload my rear panniers and do it in two trips. I was completely wiped out.
When I finally returned to a rideable road, the climbing continued to Trapper’s Cabin where I had planned to spend the night. Completely out of energy and with my brain functioning at about 50% capacity, I saw a big pile of wood planks and briefly though that the cabin was no more. I almost cycled away, before I decided to check the map and noticed that the cabin was slightly off trail. Sure enough, it was a few hundred metres away up hill and across a stream.
I mustered just enough energy to cook my cycling special of pasta and tuna before passing out blissfully in that tiny cabin in the woods.
The next day I went over the steep and rough Dalton Pass. The descent was almost as tiring as the climb and I had to stop often to rest my hands from all the braking. The landscape changed to dry, open grasslands dotted with Ponderosa Pines. It very reminiscent of a corner of British Columbia near Kamloops that I have spent a lot of time in. The border crossing at Roosville was very laid back, the border guard wishing me well on my journey. I was now in Montana, where I would turn away from the Great Divide and begin the Wild West route.
Still exhausted from the previous day, I decided to call it quits after about 60km at a free campground called “Camp 32” close to the quaint town of Eureka. I set up my tent and went to seek out some water, asking an older couple RV camping where I could find some. They directed me to a stream in the woods. On my return they asked what I was up to. When I mentioned that I was heading to the Mexican border on my bike, they insisted on feeding me. I went back to continue setting up camp and then returned to meet my new, interesting neighbours.The guy had been drinking a little bit when I first met them, but now he was completely hammered. He praised me over and over saying how “awesome” and “crazy” I was. The conversation topics ranged from tales of my cycling life, to anti-Trump rants to their working life in the wilds of Alaska. Then, things got extra interesting.
“Do you have a gun?” he asked, “what do you do for protection?”
“I have bear spray, which I would hope to not have to use on a person.”
Then, he paused for a minute and reached into a case under the picnic table.
“You are from Canada, so you might find this a little strange…”
He slapped two handguns on the table and said I could have one if I wanted.
“I think I’m OK, thanks!” I said, a bit surprised.
Then, the conversation took a wild turn.
“Would you kill someone if you had to?” he said, in a drunken slur.
That was a bit jarring. “Ummmm….if I had to in self defence, I guess?”
“What if acted like I was going to get you with one of these guns?”
“I’d shoot ya!” his partner glared at him.
“Ah cummon, honey, calm down, I’m not serious obviously!”
Then he proceeded to tell me that he had been in jail a few years from acting in self defence and was still healing from his time there.
After a while it seemed that these two were harmless, if a bit wacky. Amongst the wild stories and gun offerings they fed me heaps of food, offered me drink and continued to praise me. I excused myself around 11pm and they said to come back for coffee in the morning. What an entertaining night!
The next morning I went to oil my chain and noticed that I had a broken link. I took out my chain tool, only to realize that it was damaged to the point where it was useless. The lady I had met the previous night was heading into town with her pickup and offered to take me and my bike in.
In Eureka, I asked at the local hardware store if there was some way I could repair my tool. “Nope, nothing like that here,” the guy at the counter said. Then, right behind me in line, a man said, “Go to the high school and ask for Jim, he rides bikes a lot.” I went straight to the school and it turns out that Jim, the superintendent of the school was already waiting for me. He said that he would help get me back on the road. He didn’t have a chain tool, but he was headed to Kalispell, Montana for the day and could drop me in Whitefish at a bike shop along the way. I gave my older friend a big hug and thanked her for everything she and her entertaining husband did for me.
After a great afternoon in Whitefish, I met up with Jim and his wife Sue again to take my fixed bike and new chain tool back to Eureka. Jim and Sue said I could spend the night at their place and I gratefully accepted. They took me to an absolutely beautiful outdoor restaurant that was an old barn house converted into a restaurant and micro brewery. I enjoyed their company so much. Jim’s own story is highly inspirational. He used to be dangerously overweight and is now an Ironman triathlete and ultra runner at 59 years old. He told me that he had an interest in bikepacking and was intrigued by my own experiences on the road. Sue was also a gem of a human – easy going and kind. I felt so privileged to have met these two. When I left, I joked that I was glad to have broken my chain, because it brought me to them.
While nature will thrill and amaze on a cycling tour, I feel that it is those human encounters that truly define the experience. And here I was, living these encounters, on the road again.