Great Divide Mountain Bike Route: Canmore, AB to Eureka, MT

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 Wild West Route. 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.

Goat and her kids near Canmore, AB

Goat Creek Trail near Canmore, AB

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.

Spray Lakes Road

Spray Lakes Road

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 from Elk Pass, power line trail where I encountered a grizzly and two cubs!

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.

Elk Lakes Forest Service Road

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.

Riding singletrack near Sparwood, BC

Of course I had to take a photo of me and my bike with “Titan” the gigantic mining truck.

Titan truck: Two pickups and two Greyhound buses can fit into the box of this thing!

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!

 

Beaver Mines Lake, Alberta

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.

Start of the Flathead Forest Service Rd.

The road and the river become one.

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.

The rough and remote Flathead Valley, BC

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. 

Butts Patrol Cabin for the night

The next day, I can say, was one of the best I have ever had on a bike.

Perfect track on a perfect day to Cabin Pass, BC

Hello, little friend.

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.

More singletrack, the easier section before I had to walk it…

 

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.

Inside Trapper’s Cabin where I spent the night

Lonely 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.

 

My amazing hosts Jim and Sue in Eureka, Montana

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.

Bikepack Canada Interview

This summer I completed a 5300km ride from Canmore, Alberta to Arizona/Mexico border via the Canadian side of the Great Divide and the Wild West Route. The trip was approximately 80% off road and is now one of my favourite tours to date. I will be posting photos and stories eventually (as you can tell, I don’t update very often!)  while hanging out in Patagonia for the 2019/2020 winter.

Here is an interview I recently did with Steve O’Shaughnessy, host of the Bikepack Canada podcast about this trip and my touring life in general. Enjoy!

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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

 

 

 

What I’m packing for a multi-year tour

It is surreal to think that in less than 48 hours, I will be boarding my flight to Beijing. And after two days in Beijing I will be loading my bike and gear onto the Trans Mongolian Train bound for Ulaanbaatar. I have been planning and dreaming about this trip for years and it’s finally happening. I have been running around like crazy in Toronto these past few weeks. Mainly I have been visiting family and friends and doing some last minute shopping for gear. I have been stressing myself out about minor details – do I have enough spare batteries? Are my GPS maps good enough for Mongolia? Do I bring 2 or 3 shirts?..and it goes on. As the cliché goes, this isn’t my first rodeo – I have toured before, stressed out about the same packing details. I just have to remind myself that once I arrive, I really won’t care much about all of it. I will be happy enough to be pedalling and I will get by on what I have. I do personally believe, however, that it is always good to invest in the best gear you can afford.

I have spent years accumulating stuff for bicycle touring and my investment reaches into the thousands. I will also say that not being able to afford top end gear shouldn’t stop anyone from touring. Go with what you have, get out there, ride and have a great adventure! There are two things though that you should never cheap out on – tires and racks. My Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires will still be good for many miles yet and my Thorn racks are bombproof. I think  that the rear rack is rated to up to 35kg alone. This is reassuring, because I will be carrying more weight with me this time than on my past cycling trips to Asia and South America. A lot of it has to do with my chosen routes and new techie additions like a Macbook Air 11″, tripod and selfie stick for filming with my GoPro.

Crossing Mongolia, I will have to carry all of the bike spares that I could possibly need as many parts will not be available. For some stretches I will also need to carry up to 15L of water and food to last 3-4 days as settlements are far apart. All of this will probably amount to 80-100lbs of gear on my bike. Good thing I have low gears! For a comprehensive packing list, check it out here. And below is an idea of what will be inside my panniers (minus food and water of course).

My load for 1.5 years

There are many items that I have taken on my previous tours that will be making another appearance in my luggage. Here are some of the more noteworthy ones..

Showers Pass Elite 2.1 Jacket

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from Showers Pass website

This jacket has kept me dry in all but the heaviest of downpours. The jacket is well designed for the needs of cyclists with plenty of zips for ventilation. I also find that the event fabric breathes slightly better than Gore-tex. There is also the option for a detachable hood that fits under the helmet. The customer service is also excellent. I was having some problems with seem failure and Showers Pass very quickly provided me with a replacement  jacket for my trip. Great company all around.

Ortlieb Panniers

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Back roller classic 40L ortliebusa.com

I have the Back Roller Classic 40L, Front Roller Classic 25L , Ultimate 5 handlebar bag and 31L rack pack from Ortlieb. In my opinion these are the best panniers available and I expect them to last me for many years. After about 9000km of touring with mine, I havem’t seen much noticeable wear and tear. They are completely waterproof and I like the roll top design because I find it easier to fit more gear.

Brooks B-17 saddle

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My Brooks after 3000km of use

I think there is a reason why I have met so many other bicycle tourists using this seat. Yes, there is a bit of a break in period (about 1000km for me) but the leather will eventually mold to your shape. Mine is now so comfortable that I don’t even need to wear padded bike shorts with it (still do anyway).

Go Lite Adrenaline 0F (-18C) sleeping bag

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from backcountry.com

This bag is awesome because it is down, very warm and packs super small (soccer ball size). I bought this bag for my last cycling tour to Patagonia and I’m sure it will keep me just as warm crossing the Himalayas and Mongolian Steppe.

These are a just few of my favourite pieces of gear, another is MSR Hubba Hubba tent and these Shimano SPD mountains bike shoes that have lasted me 8 years! All I had to do was get some leather inserts put into back when the heels were wearing out.

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Still going strong after 8 years of pedalling!

I apologize to those non-gear freaks out there that may find this part of post rather boring. I like talking about it because, from experience, having the right stuff can make a bike tour more comfortable. I will say it again though – go with what you can afford and don’t let it stop you from taking off on the trip of your dreams!

I can’t wait to start cycling Mongolia. I am anticipating that it will be quite challenging due to prevailing winds (Westerly mainly – the direction I am cycling) rough roads, lack of signposts and unpredictable spring weather. I will be staying with Warm Showers hosts in both Beijing and Ulaanbaatar, which is great way to ease into the local life of a new country. I am really looking forward to it after the great experience had cycling Vancouver Island. My next update will likely chronicle my experience in Beijing and the train journey to Ulaanbaatar. Can’t wait for the adventure to begin! Check out my route here. 

Prologue: Cycling Vancouver Island

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waiting to board the Mill Bay ferry

I was transported to that place again. That realm of peace, joy and exhilaration that is unique to life on a bike. I had missed hearing the whirring of my wheels, seeing the slow changes in the landscape, the high speed descents and the burn of pedalling of 100lbs uphill (maybe not that much).  It had been over a year since I travelled on a loaded bicycle – last time was in Patagonia with friends. This time I am doing my second solo cycling tour. I spent the last 10 days cycling and exploring Vancouver Island in preparation for my 1.5 year world tour across Asia and Africa.

The trip started off with a rough commute in heavy rain to Tsawwassen Ferry terminal from Vancouver. I spent the next 4 days visiting friends in Victoria and Shawinigan Lake before starting my loop of southern Vancouver Island. My ride from Shawinigan Lake began along the Trans Canada Trail – an old railway line converted to a a dirt and gravel path. It loops its way along Duncan, Lake Cowichan and Shawnigan Lake. After a few kilometers I had reached the Kinsol Trestle – a very impressive railway bridge that is one of the largest in the world and the highest timber trestle remaining in the Commonwealth.

Kinsol Trestle near Shawnigan Lake, BC

Once I had passed the trestle, the trail weaved it’s way through the coastal woods and I was alone for most of the 40km to Lake Cowichan. As it is the off season, sections of the trail were not maintained. Several times I had to unload bike and ferry all of my gear across some fallen trees.

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obstacles on the trail

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A spare if I needed it?

I stayed at a campground that night just outside of Cowichan Lake. It is a forestry town, apparent by the many logging trucks passing through. The town is surrounded by large green hills scarred by clearcuts.

Late into the night, the rain began and didn’t cease for the next 24 hours. Coming to Vancouver Island, one must understand that it does rain here – a lot. Still, waking up in the morning I was far from motivated to camp that night in Port Renfrew. This is when I decided to try out Warm Showers or Couch Surfing. I was able to contact the only Couchsurfer in Port Renfrew, Didier. Within half an hour he had responded to my request and agreed to take me in. I was looking forward to it.

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Many clearcuts on the road to Lake Cowichan

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It was a wet and hilly ride, but there weren’t as  many logging trucks as I had expected. For the first 30km, a landscape of impossibly steep clearcuts dominated. It was a sight I had grown used to, after working in the industry for almost 10 years. I stopped to see the Harris Creek spruce tree about 20km from Port Renfrew. It was absolutely massive.

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Harris Creek spruce

I rolled into Port Renfrew soaked – really, I couldn’t have been any wetter (Gore-tex maxes out after about 3 hours). Luckily, it was still around 10 degrees and I had a big smile on my face – I was out bike touring again! I went to the visitors centre to find out where there was a coffee shop to warm up. A lady told me to go to “the hotel” – meaning there was only one hotel and that was all that was open. Directions were simple as there was really only one main road.

DSCF0201I pulled my bike up to the Port Renfrew Hotel and walked into the bar area awkward and dripping wet. There were only a few people there. Upon asking for tea, a smiling, bearded fellow said “Hi! You must be looking for Didier.” He introduced himself as Johnny Mac and said he had spoken to Didier earlier, who mentioned that he was hosting a cyclist.  “I’m the Wal-Mart greeter of the town!” Johnny said, laughing. Immediately I felt very welcome in this tiny community (around 200 live there in the winter). He even offered me a ride to Didier’s place, which I happily accepted as I wasn’t itching to ride in the rain anymore (even though it was less than 1 kilometre away).

Didier divides his time between living in Vanuatu in the South Pacific and in Port Renfrew to be closer to his children. He has travelled the world by offering his skills as a carpenter, which he has done for 30 years. In Port Renfrew, he lives with his amazing dog, Charlie Brown – a local celebrity. I was humbled by the kindness and generosity shown to me by Didier. A warm bed, a shower, a tasty meal, good conversation – all of it made the 4 hours of riding in the rain 100% worthwhile. I am thrilled to finally be a part of the couch surfing community and I hope to one day give back myself as a host.

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Charlie Brown – the world’s greatest dog!

By a miracle, the sun came out the next day. Since it usually rains around 300 days a year in Port Renfrew, one had to take advantage. I walked down to Botanical Beach from Didier’s. Botanical Beach is at the start of the Juan de Fuca trail, a tough 47 km hiking route stretching east along the coast to China Beach near Sooke. The trail to the beach wound through beautiful coastal forest bearded with bright green mosses.

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fairytale forest

And the beach itself was stunning. Different from a tropical, white sand beach, the rugged British Columbia coastlines almost have an ethereal feel to them.

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Botanical Beach is know for its tidepools that are made out of sandstone. Some of these parks tidepools are formed by wave-tossed boulders carving out pockets in the sandstone. Purple Sea Urchins further modify these tidepools by grinding out small pockets.

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The wet coast is a haven for slugs

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Botany Bay near Botanical Beach

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Botany Bay

It was a great day. I really enjoyed my time in Port Renfrew exploring this remote and beautiful place. After such a great first time couch surfing experience, I was ready to cycle to French beach, 50km away to meet my next hosts Damaris and Justin.

The weather was on my side again and I climbed my way out of Port Renfrew, rolling up and down all the way to French Beach. The road was forested most of the way, with a few roadside clearcuts offering views to the ocean. Around 17km from Port Renfrew I took a steep side road down to Sombrio beach, recommended to me by a friend who used to surf there. I wasn’t a surfer myself, but I knew that more beautiful scenery awaited.

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Sombrio Beach

In the parking lot by the trailhead, I saw a few VW vans with scruffy-haired surfers emerging in their wetsuits. Down at the beach, there were probably about 10 people riding waves, while others hung out by their tents around a fire. I really liked the feel of the place and just sat on the rocky beach, watching the scene unfold.

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After a bit of a grind back to the main road, I headed towards French Beach. I crossed paths with an Italian cyclist who was spending 5 months riding around Canada and the USA, going the opposite direction as me. We chatted briefly and upon leaving we gave each other the most awesome and enthusiastic high five/hand shake. “Enjoy life!” he said and then rode away. It kept me smiling for a while after.

In French Beach, my host Damaris had told me that her property had large metal gates with dragons on them and I couldn’t miss it.

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Can’t miss the dragon gate…

I soon saw the dragons and the very steep driveway and starting pushing my beast of burden to the top. Damaris and Justin lived in a beautiful little cabin tucked away in the woods. Once again, I was shown great kindness and hospitality. Both are long time travellers that met through couch surfing. They entertained me with hilarious travel stories and amazing vegan food. Justin and his parents had built their home entirely themselves and had a very impressive collection of iron sculptures they had welded. That night I had another amazing sleep on probably the most comfortable couch ever.

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My hosts Damaris and Justin in French Beach

I headed out the next morning towards Shawnigan Lake again to break up the trip back to Nanaimo, where I would catch the ferry back to Vancouver. On the way to Sooke, I wanted to stop at the Kemp Lake Music Cafe, where Mirjam, the Cycling Dutch Girl passed through last year. I have been following her journey for a few years. She has been on the road since 2001. The guys that worked there definitely remembered her, saying she was a “neat lady.” It was a cosy little place – a spot where I could easily waste away a rainy afternoon sipping many cups of tea listening to local musicians playing.

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Out of Sooke I hopped onto the Galloping Goose Trail – a well maintained dirt trail that connected Sooke with Victoria. Being an old railway line, it was flat route and very pleasant to ride.

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Galloping Goose Trail

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Along the Rotary Route towards Nanaimo…

I spent my final night on the Island with Warm Showers hosts, Jim and Cory. They lived in a quiet farming community just south of Nanaimo. Luckily I could avoid the main Trans Canada Highway and ride the “Rotary Route” on quieter roads that paralleled. The final stretch to Cory and Jim’s house was the most enjoyable – quiet roads through farming communities. Another steep driveway had me huffing and puffing to the top, where I was greeted by Cory’s lovely smile. She immediately showed me and my filthy bike into her garage and once again, I felt like a very welcomed guest. Soon after I met Jim and right away the cycling talk began – tours we had taken, looking at and discussing the components on my bike etc. etc. Cory made an incredible stir fry for dinner and we spent the night talking about travel in the most far flung places. Cory and Jim traveled the world for almost 10 years, self publishing a book about it.

I left the next morning for the ferry back to Vancouver. Although this was a short tour, it was made incredibly memorable by the people that I met along the way. I had planned to camp most of the time, but only did so once. I am so thrilled to have finally gotten to know the Warm Showers and Couchsurfing communities. It was a wonderful and humbling experience to be taken care of so well by strangers. After this trip, I feel excited and ready to begin my adventures in Asia. I know, however, that this experience will be far different than the rough roads and remoteness of Mongolia, where I will begin the journey.

I will be spending the next month in Vancouver and then Toronto preparing for the big trip. On April 29, I am flying to Beijing and will be taking the train to Ulan Bator where I will start cycling west. Stay tuned for my adventures!

-Margo Polo

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