Copyright (c) 1998 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 55 - July 5 to August 20 1998 Missoula, MT to Prince Rupert, BC 21,875 miles (35,282 km) cumulative
Glacier country. A land of some of the most amazing mountain formations in all the US. A land of wild animals, green forests, babbling brooks, roaring rivers, icy cold lakes, small towns, and our most favorite road in all North America, Going-to-the-Sun Highway. From Missoula to Jasper we'd be following familiar trails, the Adventure Cycling Association's Great Parks North route which we rode once before some 8 years earlier. We also drove some of the route about 5 years ago when we were on a 1 week long hiking/back packing trip and we even passed through here on our very first bike tour 10 years earlier. This place is a magnet to us. It calls to us to return again and again. Each time we return we are quick to recall just what the magic is that brings us back, the mountains, those awesome rugged glacier carved mountains. In all our travels we have as yet to find any place with such magnificent beauty.
Leaving Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley behind we headed up Blood Rock Canyon just due east of the city. This is a trail that was known to both the Nez Perce and Blackfeet Indians long before white man's arrival. The Nez Perce traveled up the canyon over to the prairie side to hunt buffalo. The Blackfeet, on the other hand, found great pleasure in scrambling up the walls of the canyon to lay in wait for the Nez Perce. The Blackfeet were some of the most aggressive and fearsome warriors of the entire west and they loved to "harass" all other tribes in the region, which usually meant killing warriors and taking horses and women. It is said the trail up the canyon was so strewn with skulls and other ghastly remains it took on the name Rock of Blood, or Blood Rock today. This is also the route that Merriwether Lewis, I believe he's the one, took on his return from the Oregon coast. He and Clark split the group somewhere just east of what is now known as Lolo pass. His sm! aller group explored regions a bit more north of their original route while Clark and the rest returned over their old and already mapped trail. Lewis' trail was quite a dangerous one, passing right through the hunting grounds of those very same Blackfeet. Amazingly he made it to their selected regroup point within 9 days of Clark's group, not one loss among them.
Today the route has become civilized. No longer do the brave and regal warriors dressed in feathers, beads, and their battle finery sit tall upon their ponies overlooking the canyon waiting patiently for their next victims. Instead, drivers sit in their steel and glass cages roaring along the strip of asphalt often barely aware of the fabulous scenery surrounding them. I'm sure few know of the gruesome history their path follows. Route 200 has become another arm of that system of transportation arteries that keep our country moving daily. Cars, trucks, and RVs of all shapes and sizes roar along at Montana's "reasonable and prudent" speed limit, which is often far higher than what I'd consider reasonable and prudent. The road is shared with the much slower paced bicycles who've departed Missoula for points either further east along Rt. 200 or toward the north. Fortunately there is a large shoulder making this section of the ride actually rather nice.
We climbed up and over a low mountain range, just 1000 ft, into a broad flat valley where we turned left onto Rt. 83 headed north. The road rambles up and down through a series of lake filled valleys gradually getting narrower and narrower as you head further north. It culminates at Swan Lake where you can head west over another low mountain range to the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi, the Flathead and on into the large town of Kalispel. The hills on either side gradually grew taller and more jagged a sure sign that we were at long last approaching Glacier National Park. They're all covered with lodgepole pines, all the same size, same height, similar spacing. This is logging country as attested to by the "Supported by the timber industry" signs posted outside many businesses and homes and the huge frightening logging trucks that passed us several times daily. Recalling our previous tour of 8 years ago, the road seemed much busier than before. More traffi! c, more trucks both logging and other. Stopping in one of the many Forest Service offices along the way we asked about this. We learned that about 4 years ago Montana turned the road into a truck route. They repaved the road but did not bother increasing the shoulder width in the process. So it's essentially the same road with a whole lot more trucks. Now we are strong supporters of Adventure Cycling Association. However, it would seem to us that if there were going to be any changes to the roads along any of their routes, especially those in Montana, they'd be in the state Senator's and department of transportation office each and every day pounding their fists on the desk and emploring emphatically, "If you make it a truck route add a shoulder."
It's also the land of the log home builders, those log homes you select from a catalogue. Simply send in your order and voila, a truck load of instant house arrives at your doorstep. "Some assembly required." There is one advantage to buying one of these log homes, they've all been preassembled at the kit builder's lot. So unless you make some real drastic mistake they should slip together real easy. Wanna bet a lot of folks still don't get it quite right and wind up with more problems than anticipated. The quality varied enormously. The better log homes had larger diameter logs and each log had a lengthwise cut making for a much tighter fit between each log. Only a little chinking material would be required for these to make for an airtight wall. The el cheapo models only had notches to fit the logs together at the corners. There were huge gaps between logs all along the length of the wall. It'd take a lot of mortar to fill in those gaps. I think if I were buying o! ne, the better fit would be well worth the investment. I was surprised to see that each cut and notch is hand hewn. I had expected someone would have invented some sort of saw that would automatically make the notch. We find it rather amusing that back in the pioneering days no self respecting pioneer would consider spending their entire life in a log home. A frame home was the ultimate goal. Now log homes are hot items. Although the log home of today is far from the dirt floored rustic cabin of long ago.
Kalispel was a nightmare. For the past 10 years or more there's been a mass migration of people escaping the congestion, pollution, crime, hassles, and high taxes of California by heading for the mountains towns of Montana. Towns such as Missoula, Kalispel, and Whitefish have suddenly seen their populations double or triple. Suburbs have sprung up where before there were none. On the one hand the migration has brought with it bits of urban culture that probably wouldn't have happened otherwise. Missoula even has a brand new Barnes and Noble book store to compliment a very international selection of restaurants and very west coast style coffee shops. However, it has also brought with it many of the problems the Californians were trying to escape in the first place. Property and housing costs have risen sharply, crime and pollution are on the rise, and the road system has in no way kept up with the increased traffic. Missoula, being an important center, has obtained the n! ecessary funds to upgrade their roads which accounts for the construction projects scattered all across town. But Kalispel appears to be having to make due. Traffic in Kalispel is particularly heightened in tourist season when the major road, Rt. 2, is full of people making their way up to Glacier National Park. As one bike shop employee put it, "During summer you're pretty much on your own out there."
The road into Kalispel along Rt. 2 was awful. But the road going out, the Whitefish Stage Rd. was quite nice. It's a narrow, 2 lane country road having only very slight rolling hills that passes by farms and houses situated on huge lots. Over our right shoulder were those magnificent mountains overlooking the gateway to the park. It's a road that hasn't been discovered by the tourist crowds and the locals are fabulously respectful of bicycles. This was perhaps the most pleasant riding we'd had since leaving Chief Joseph pass about a week earlier. But, after turning back onto Rt. 2 to head into the park we found ourselves once again on a narrow 2 lane road carrying every piece of traffic into the park as well as all the Rt. 2 through traffic. There's a short section of road, about 4 miles long, through a canyon that for some reason has never been upgraded to have a shoulder. We don't quite understand why as just before and after this section there are huge shoulders, ab! out a whole car width. So why, we keep wondering, can't they finish the job. After riding through Montana 10 and 8 years ago and riding through it now we've come to a conclusion, we don't want to tour here again until such time as they put a number on that "reasonable and prudent" speed or we'll only ride the Great Divide Route so we can stay away from the traffic. The stressful riding just isn't worth it.
Over the past 3 years and during our many, many years of vacation travel prior to quitting work we've seen over 150 National Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites, Battle Fields, Seashores, Grasslands, Swamps, and Wild and Scenic Rivers. Yet in all these we've never seen a place quite as spectacular as Glacier National Park. Coming into West Glacier via Rt. 2 you can see hints of the amazing glacier carved mountain scenery all around. In the distance are glimpses of the gray colored jagged, knife edge peaks that characterize this area. You turn left just before the well maintained historic train station, ride under the old stone railroad bridge, into the small town. On the right is a brand new Alberta Canada visitor center looking a bit like a miniaturized and modernized version of the grand Prince of Wales hotel in Waterton Lakes. There's a small store, hotel, photo processing shop, restaurant/cafe, a couple gift shops, and a laundromat all set amid nicely shaded walkways. ! It's a good place to pick up an ice cream cone before heading on down the road. From here it's an easy 3 mile, flat ride to Apgar village inside the park. Apgar village is located at the end of the 9 mile long Lake McDonald. Even though the terrain to the south of the lake is flat, it is surrounded on the three remaining sides by steep, rugged mountains. The water, being snow fed, is icy blue and when still provides a mirror reflection of the surrounding mountains. As an introduction to Glacier country, this view is most memorable.
The objective of all bike tourists heading into Glacier is to tackle the world famous Going-to-the-Sun road and its summit, Logan pass. Coming from the southwest, you first ride along the shores of Lake McDonald and then continue up river at a gentle climb. However, the last 12 miles are the true test. It's a 3,500 ft climb up a road that quite literally was etched into the side of a rock cliff, called the Garden Wall. It has only one real switchback, a 180 degree turn, followed by 8 miles of 6% constant grade up the side of the wall. Normally this kind of altitude change and grade is no big deal, an easy climb. That is if you had all day to do it. But, this is an old, historic road started in 1928 and finished in 1932, one of those depression make work projects. It's narrow, has just 2 lanes, a rock wall adjacent to one side and a nearly vertical cliff on the other. It was made for cars built in the 1930s. Not the large, long, and wide cars and RVs of today. And it! was certainly not built with the level of today's traffic in mind. So the Park Service has placed severe restrictions on bike travel up the west side. There are 2 locations, along the shores of Lake McDonald and from the start of the climb up to the pass, where bikes cannot ride between the hours of 11 AM to 4 PM. So what this means, as a biker you camp the night before as close to the climb as possible, Sprague Creek or Avalanche, get up at the crack of dawn, 5:30 AM, eat a cold breakfast, and get on the road by 7 AM. 3 1/2 to 4 hours later you'll be at the top, just as the traffic really starts picking up. It's a bit frustrating, but to be fair there are also strict restrictions on vehicular traffic. Anything over 21 ft long and 8 ft wide is not allowed on the road at all.
Having ridden up this pass twice before we were better prepared this time. The first time we thought "surely there'll be some sort of food service at the top". After all there is a visitor center and every other summit visitor center we'd ever seen before had at least a cafeteria. Not so. In this case there's just the visitor center and a small book shop. That's it. Nothing more. We'd brought nothing but a few trail munchies, peanuts and M&Ms, in other words gorp, and believe me after that 3500 ft climb on nothing but a cold breakfast we were starved. This time we were wise and brought a full lunch. It's also usually cold, windy, and overcast at the pass. You may be hot and sweaty when you get to the top, but you quickly cool down and even get quite cold. A change of clothes or a few layers to add on are a must.
Having taken these precautions and being better prepared we decided to stay at the top for a while. Some may say we're a bit crazy, as after having ridden some 22 miles up a 3500 ft pass we then took off for 9 miles of hiking before heading back down. Yet we felt, after having gone through all that effort to get up here, why not enjoy it for a while. Far too many cyclists climb up, stop just long enough to eat and put on fresh clothes, and they're off again. There are 2 excellent alpine hikes that are quite spectacular and popular at the top. The first, 1.5 miles each way, is an easy stroll on a raised boardwalk that takes you over flower filled alpine meadows up to a top level view of one of Glacier's many glacier made lakes, Hidden Lake. Another 1.5 miles down some 800 ft would take you to the lake's edge, but we had other plans for this day. There are a few twisted pine trees in the meadow, but it's mostly filled with low lying alpine plants. This particular day the! alpine Lilies were in full bloom, a plant with a big yellow flower about 2 inches across all lying within about 3 inches of the ground. Alpine plants are truly well adapted. They have to germinate from seed, grow to full height, produce flowers then seeds all within a mere 3 month span. The boardwalks were put in place long ago to keep people from traipsing all over the meadow. The tiny alpine plants may be able to withstand subzero temperatures, high winds, searing sun, and dry air. But they quickly die under the tread of a single boot. The boardwalks seem to work as the meadow plants now come right up the the edge of the walkway indicating people must not be stepping off very often.
Hidden lake lies within a former glacial cirque, a French word meaning circle, that is now a hanging valley over an adjacent glacier carved valley. Glaciers form when snow collects in these flat areas or carved out bowls having an open side. As the snow accumulates pressure is exerted on the lower levels which turn to ice. Eventually the ice takes on a plastic flow characteristic and begins to move downhill making what is essentially a river of very slow moving ice. It takes with it all sorts of rock, dirt, and debris as it scraps the floor and walls of the valley through which it flows. A glacial carved valley is typically U shaped whereas a river valley is V shaped. Often a major glacier will have several smaller offshoots. The main glacier, being wider and heavier, digs a much deeper valley than its smaller tributaries. When the glaciers finally melted the tributaries left bowl shaped valleys hanging well above the main valley. These usually are surrounded on 3 sid! es by steep mountain walls. Consequently a lake usually forms and a waterfall cascades out of the hanging valley. Glacier and Waterton Parks abound with example after example of these hanging valleys, each incredibly spectacular and unique.
The next hike, called the Highline Trail, takes you out on a small trail chipped into the side of the same Garden Wall that the road climbs. It stays above the road and in many places is only a few feet wide, rock wall on one side, cliff on the other. A cable has been provided for those less comfortable with heights or for those days when the winds are high or the rocks are slick. As you follow along the trail, tracing your steps back along the road, you gradually gain a long distance view of the entire road and the valley containing the river that feeds Lake McDonald. It's a rare opportunity to view the climb you just made a few hours earlier. It also gives you a great appreciation of obstacles the engineers and builders had to surmount to build the road in the first place. Men using climbing gear would string themselves along the face of the cliff long enough to drill holes in which black powder was rammed. Hanging on the side of a cliff, black powder in hand is one c! ombination I would not want to try. I can see why this road was named as a World Heritage Site for Engineering achievement.
We only hiked 3 miles out and back along this trail as it was getting to be time to head on down the mountain. But if you continue further you eventually come to one of the back country chalets that are scattered throughout the park. As with several of our large western national parks, Glacier was essentially a wild place until the railway decided to turn it into a major tourist destination. A man named Lewis Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railway, became interested in the Glacier in the early 1900s. He established a rail route to West Glacier, built the historic railway station, and then built a string of elegant yet rustic styled lodges and chalets. These include Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, and our all time favorite the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes as well as the chalets. Now if you were a rich dude back in those times, perdepression, a time when only the rich had the time and money to take long holidays, you leave the train at West Glacier w! here a horse buggy and later the famous red buses would pick you up, whisk you off to Lake McDonald Lodge where you'd spend several days wining and dining. Then another horse train would take you to one of the chalets, first class chalets with waiter and maid service, for more wining and dining. Another horse trip to Many Glacier, more wine and food, again by horse to the end of Waterton Lakes where a boat would take you to the Prince of Wales. After more wining, dining, and perhaps a round of golf you'd repeat the whole process backwards. It was a vacation that lasted several weeks and cost a bundle. You can see why only the rich could afford such a journey. After popularity of the train diminished and the car came into its own, allowing us Joe Shmos to visit the parks, the hotels and chalets were sold a couple times. Their current owner, the Dial Corporation under a subsidiary named Glacier Park Inc. The hotels still retain their old world charm and elegance and the ! chalets have become more overnight stops for backpackers who don't wish to carry a tent.
Swooping down from Logan Pass we started to encounter the high winds which are typical in these mountain passes. It wouldn't be so bad if it were a constant tailwind. Instead it's usually a swirling, gusting wind that can, if you're caught off guard, easily throw you and bike across the road into oncoming or passing traffic. You have to grab the handle bars with an iron grip and be prepared for a strong side gust at any moment or pull off the road if the winds get too strong. We made it down safely. But one woman riding on one of those sagged tours was not so fortunate, or experienced I suspect. I think that having a heavily loaded bike on one of these gusty passes may have its advantages after all. It may have a large cross section to catch the wind, but it also is well weighted down. Hopefully this makes it little easier to control. It is still a nerve-racking ride down in any event.
St Marys on the east side of the park is another small tourist oriented town similar to West Glacier. Both towns despite being set up solely for the tourist industry are actually quite nice. Nothing compared to Gatlinburg, the entrance to the Great Smokies National Park, or Estes Park, the entrance to Rocky Mountain NP. Prices are outrageous, of course, but they're relaxed, easy going places. There's no wax museums, Ripley's, or even neon lights. It was in St. Mary's that we encountered perhaps the most number of bicycle tourists we've ever seen. We have to differentiate bike (human powered 2 wheeled vehicle) from bike (gas powered 2 wheeled vehicle) because it happened that a huge BMW rally in Missoula had just finished this weekend. The park and St. Marys were full of BMWs all headed home to where ever. Here we actually saw perhaps a good 20 fully loaded bicycle tourists. Interestingly this was a very different class of tourist than we had met on the middle transco! ntinental trail. These all had just panniers, not B.O.B. trailers, most of which were faded and well used. I didn't see many camelback water carriers, few clipless pedals, well worn biking clothes, and lots of odds and ends of pieced together equipment. One thing we long term bike tourists learn quickly is that there is always a way to put together some thing-a-ma-bob that makes your life just a bit easier. These were experienced bike tourists of all ages, folks who'd been around the block and perhaps across the country a few times. People with whom we could relate, people who weren't in a big hurry, changed their plans at a whim, went where the inspiration takes them. We met one man from Wisconsin who told us last year he wanted to end his tour back in Wisconsin. On a whim he headed west and actually wound up in San Francisco. This year he again is supposedly headed to Wisconsin ..... then again maybe not. Part of the reason we met so many in St. Marys is the winds ! had been particularly rough for several days. If you were headed west it meant a headwind all the way up the pass. So these bike tourists, the ones with a more flexible schedule, were all gathering at the base of the climb just waiting for the winds to abet. So as we sat reading our mail we saw more and more show up from both the west and east, all converging on this one point. Sort of our own bike rally.
Most of the time the questions and comments we get from people are all fairly predictable. There's the three favorite questions, "Where'd you start?", "Where are you going?", and "How many miles do you do in a day?" One man actually managed to belt out all three under one breath in less than one second flat. Yet every once in a while we get a comment that is so unique it's worth writing down. This happened in the Belly River Campground just 2 1/2 miles north of the US Canadian border along the Chief Mountain road. We'd met 2 families from Manitoba who were vacationing together, one in a pop-up trailer and the other in tents. Being Manitobans they had the Midwest open, curious, and friendly personality. As we were getting ready to leave one woman started taking inventory of some of the items we carried, "Extra water bottles, that's good. Long pants for sun, good. Fire extinguisher." Fire extinguisher? She had mistaken the small red MSR fuel bottle we carry on our bi! ke frames as fire extinguishers. I have to wonder if later that day she didn't realize there is no logical reason for us to carry a fire extinguisher. I would certainly hate to have her come running up in the event of an actual fire and throw the bottle contents onto it. Gasoline and fire can make for a good bombfire.
Adjacent to Glacier National Park on the Canadian side of the border lies the much smaller but equally spectacular Waterton Lakes National Park. These two parks are independently managed yet combined forming what was the world's first International Peace Park. It was created to demonstrate the international friendship and cooperation that has existed between our two nations for many generations. More importantly this combined park, along with all adjacent wilderness areas creates a huge setting where wild animals can continue to thrive. There will hopefully never be so much development that these magnificent creatures can't continue to survive.
Waterton Lakes NP is home to my most favorite of all park lodges, the Prince of Wales. Lewis Hill had the dream to build the hotel in the early 1900s. But it took 13 long years, for him to finally get the lease to do so. It sits out on a raised point that juts into the lake. It's a huge, block shaped building made to look like a gigantic Swiss or French Chalet. It's got a steeply sloped green roof, off white stucco walls trimmed with red painted wood. It's 7 stories tall, the top 2 stories having dormer style windows. Inside is a magnificently cedar wood adorned 5 story tall lobby with a huge 3 tiered black iron circular chandelier put in place in 1960. And across the lobby, an enormous plate glass window that gives full view of the dramatic mountain ringed lake and the village of Waterton below. It's furnished in dark stained cedar sofas and chairs, the employees wear Scottish tartans, and high tea is served each afternoon in front of the huge window. It's old world! charm and elegance at its best. Yet the hotel may have had an entirely different shape had it not been for the fickle nature of Hill. He started with a long, low 3 story building much like his Many Glacier lodge. He changed his mind, requesting a design more like the chalet it is today. More stories were added by putting dormer windows on the upper roof. So many design modifications came from Hill that major sections had to be rebuilt 4 times. The construction crew also had to cope with high winds which twisted the frame off its foundation on 2 occasions, and high snows which kept them snowed in their bunk houses for days. Yet they did manage to get it finished a mere 1 day before it opened. I imagine that last day was quite hectic indeed. Even the name, Prince of Wales, was left to a last minute decision and is probably due more to the insistence of a newspaper reporter than Hill himself. It was named for Prince Edward VIII, the well loved monarch who would have be! come king had he not abdicated the throne to marry a *gasp* divorced American commoner, quite the scandal in those days. The name seems fitting as this is one very regal, elegant yet rustic lodge. And I just love it.
Waterton Lakes Townsite campground is a great place to take some time off from riding, which we hadn't done since leaving Missoula. The walk-in sites are most unusual. Located toward the back at the foot of some of those gray rugged mountains and right on the shores of the lake, they're not much more than an open grassy field. Not a flat field. There are bunker style mounds designed to give some wind protection and perhaps even a little privacy. The first time we saw the sites 10 years ago we were reminded of a golf course filled with sand trap bunkers and we're still reminded of those bunkers. Each night the sand trap bunker filled field sprouts a wide array of giant multicolored mushroom looking nylon dome tents. During the day, some stay, some leave, and others arrive causing a subtle shift in the giant mushroom arrangement. There are great bathrooms with free showers and these 3 sided picnic kitchen buildings that provide wind, rain, and sun protection when needed.! It's a great place to stay. The town of Waterton Lakes is small, quiet, easy going and doesn't even feel all that crowded or touristy. Almost as if it's a real town first, a tourist town second. A beautiful town in a beautiful setting, what more could be asked for.
There are also some of the most exciting hiking trails easily accessible from the townsite. One, called the Crypt Lake trail, is about 5.2 miles long one way. It starts on the opposite shores of the Upper Waterton Lake, which means you have to take a boat taxi to get to it. From there it heads up Hell Roaring Canyon, a gorge that starts as a wide outlet into the lake and gradually gets narrower and narrower as you climb up the 2500 ft elevation change along the trail. It follows a roaring stream passing lakes and several water falls along the way. It's all beautiful scenery up to this point, but the most spectacular and exciting section occurs in about the last mile of the trail. Following around the curve of the mountain, past a secluded backcountry campsite, across a creek, you find yourself walking along what seems to be a nearly vertical loose rock slope on a trail that is no more than about 12 inches wide. A thousand feet below is one of those small lakes sitting in! the former glacier cirque. That's not the most interesting part by any means. After about .25 mile along this slope you come to a huge rock wall. The only way around is to climb up 5 rungs of this rather wimpy looking and very narrow rusty ladder which puts you at one end of a 25 ft long tunnel. You start down the tunnel standing up and wind up crawling on hands and knees. The end of the tunnel leaves you literally on the side of a vertical solid rock cliff with another little 12 inch wide trail. A steel cable has been screwed into the cliff wall for you to grab for support. After another 20 ft even the 12 inch wide shelf in the cliff disappears and you have to step over a 10 inch long gap up a waist high step while grabbing onto a piece of steel rebar cemented into a rock to pull you up. The excitement finally over, you find yourself in one of the most picturesque lake filled cirques ever, a small lake surrounded by shear rock walls about 1000 ft high having little w! ater falls snaking down the sides to fill the lake. It's well worth the trip. Now you get to turn around and go back down the same way you came up. Needless to say, it's a whole lot more scary going down than up and it's definitely not a trail for anyone having the slightest acrophobia. It's a most popular trail, both with hikers and the bears. This year a grizzly sow and 3 cubs decided to make the trail their hunting and foraging grounds. So travel for hikers was restricted to groups of 4. Since we were a group of only 2 we selected another hike, the Carthew-Alderson Lakes trail. This one also takes you up along a nearly vertical incline of loose rock just as steep and just as high as the Crypt lake trail and has scenery just a breathtaking. But without the ladder, tunnel, and shear cliff it's just not quite as exciting.
The day we left Waterton Lakes was just one of those days where things went wrong for me. To begin with I was a day away from the start of my menstrual cycle. Now normally I'm a pretty easy going person. But, at this time things just plain hurt and I can get quite irritable and downright nasty. Even on the best of days I can find something to gripe about. But on a day like this, it's real, real hard keeping an even temper. Next, despite sharing 3 liters of water on the trail and downing another 2 pitchers at dinner I was dehydrated. Dehydrated for me means having one of those temple throbbing headaches that will not go away. It's the same headache one gets on the day after, a hangover. Somehow it just doesn't seem quite fair, to suffer the hangover without having had even one drink. The cure, of course, is to drink a ton of water which just makes me have to stop about every 1/2 hour along the way as it goes in one end and right back out the other. The next problem ! occurred just a few miles out of the park. We'd stopped for lunch and were having an interesting conversation with one of the many odd ball characters we usually find in Alberta. I shrugged my shoulders and felt an odd snap. A trip to the ladies room confirmed my suspicions, a broken bra strap. Not wanting to change bras at this stop I rigged up a quick fix that left me with an uncomfortable lopsided feeling for the rest of the day. I was still keeping my temper in check when the final straw hit, a broken front derailleur cable. When a rear cable brakes you're left with 3 gears that somewhat cover the range from hard to easy. But when the front breaks, you're left with just a bunch of easy, hill climbing gears. Going up is no problem. Going down you either coast or pedal real fast sort of like showing a movie in fast forward.
We arrived in Pincher Creek, bought a new cable, and went to replace it. However, the cable end was nowhere to be seen. Brian kept saying it must have popped out. I kept saying there was no way. It had to be inside. Of course by this time the discussion was becoming a bit heated to say the least. Brian went off to get something cool to drink while I flipped the bike upside down, took the shifter apart, and searched. I found it, feeling completely vindicated, wedged up inside the shifter dial, a spot where it was sure to mess up all proper functioning. The only problem, once you get the shifter apart it's a real bear to get back together. There's this stupid little plastic pin that has to be positioned just so in order for the dial to work and, of course, you can't see the position of the pin as you put the shifter together. The engineer who designed this mechanism ought to be shot.
After an hour mucking around with that *&^%& shifter and Brian finally managed to get it right. Then we needed to find camping. First the Pincher Creek Municipal campground. It had nice grassy sites, reasonably clean bathrooms, right on a babbling brook. Looked good until we started reading signs saying things like "Due to vandalism toilet paper is removed on weekends" or "Thefts have been reported in this facility. Please report any suspicious activity to the RCMP." Really makes one feel secure. Next we tried one RV park down near the river. What a dive. We couldn't find a level site that wasn't rock covered. The other tenants looked a bit like transients who'd moved in for the summer, a sign we've learned could mean trouble after that theft attempt on our bikes in northern California. One more trailer park remained and this one was at least descent. However, no one was around to collect the cash. We'd had enough, it was getting late and we needed to get dinner a! nd settle down for the night. We left $10, a reasonable sum, and moved in. All in all it was a pretty crummy day. The riding was fine, just everything else. But on the other hand, I'd just received an email from Wendy telling how she read in the paper about 2 cyclists who were accidentally shot (with a gun that is) while sitting on a bench alongside a bike trail and another of a girl who was hit and killed near the end of a 600 mile journey. So I guess as far as bad days go, this one wasn't so bad after all.
>From Waterton Lakes to Kootenay National Park and the gateway to the fabulous Icefields parkway is a 250 mile 4 to 5 day ride, 4 if you don't have to mess around with derailleur cables and if you skip the sites along the way. We'd already ridden this route and, consequently did not feel any compulsion to stop in at any of the museums. We'd already seen the Flank Slide interpretive center, a place where at 4:10 AM on April 25, 1903 90 million tons of mountain slid down on top of the mining town of Frank, or the Leitch Colliers, an old iron forge, or even the Crowsnest museum which, housed in the old red brick school house, looks more like someone's well stuffed attic than a museum. Instead we rode on aiming to get to the Icefields Parkway and some of North America's most spectacular paved road bike touring. I'm sure there are off-road trails that would even put the Icefields to shame.
Our first introduction to the Icefields and what it has to offer came at the very start of the road through the western entrance of Kootenay National Park. Here the road winds through the bottom of Sinclair canyon literally wedged between rock cliffs on both sides. A little further up are the Radium Hot Springs where for $5 you can spend a day swimming in the crystal clear blue swimming pools filled with mineral hot springs water. There are the cool pools that are more like a heated swimming pool, and the hot pools which are like sitting in a hot tub. The cool pools are most popular. Pumping on up the 1900 ft climb to the top of Sinclair Pass the temperatures soared to 33 degrees C and sweat poured off my back, chest, and arms. At the top we found the beautiful blue/green clear waters of Olive lake. Every stick, every twig, every rock, every tiny rainick, every twig, every rock, every tiny rbow trout perfectly visible through the water. Then the road took us down into! the long glacier carved U shaped valley. Here's where those rocks, those amazing gray, ragged rocky peaks begin to really appear. As one BC woman said, "The mountains here in BC are OK. But their just these round green things. Now in Alberta that's where the real mountains are. It's the rocks." It's an easy ride from river to river along a huge wide smooth paved road with gigantic wide shoulders. Good road, great weather, fantastic scenery, a few services, lots of campgrounds, and semiheavy traffic. It's about as good as bike touring can get.
There are even a few things to see along the way. There's the paint pots. An odd location where cold water springs well up through iron rich soil leaving deposits of deep vermilion colored soil everywhere. Early Indians used the soil for body, pottery, and cloth coloring. Later the soil was used as the base for paint. There was a pretty heavy collection industry in the area right up until 1920 when the park concluded this kind of mining was contradictory to the park's goals. Collection was stopped but some of the old equipment is left behind, rusted and twisted out of shape. Just 4 km further up is the bizarre Marble canyon. This is a strange canyon about .5 km long that is literally just a narrow, deep crack in the earth. It was created by the Marble creek, a gushing glacier silt filled creek that flows down a falls at the end of the canyon and rushes through the canyon with such intensity that all the tiny silt particles have created this slit in the earth. It's ca! lled Marble canyon because of the white and gray color rock walls, but the rock is actually dolomite. Bridges cross and recross the canyon as it gets deeper and deeper until finally you reach the top falls and once again the creek flows at surface level.
Up and over the incredibly easy, from the west at least, Vermilion pass, named for the paint pots color, and we find ourselves in the Bow River valley. Turn left, ride a mere 15 miles along a slightly rolling and very quiet Bow Valley Parkway and we arrived at the very popular Lake Louise village and the very start of the amazing Icefields Parkway. Lake Louise has a few amenities, small grocery store, bike shop, gas station, gift stores, and restaurants all carrying goods at some mighty dear prices. But as there are few services between Lake Louise and Jasper this is the place to rest up, stock up, and wash up. It also provides the starting point for another one of those great Canadian day hikes. Bow Valley is one of those glacier carved U shaped valleys created by one of the larger glaciers of the last ice age. All along it has beautiful hanging valleys filled with those little glacier lakes all created by smaller glacier tributaries. Just above the Lake Louise village! is one such valley, the one containing Lake Louise itself. Originally called Emerald Lake, it's name was changed to honor the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. Not only was this particular lake created by glaciers, it's waters today still come from existing glaciers. Up in the back country beyond the lake is the Valley of Six Glaciers. It's a large round cirque in which 6 glaciers still flow and their meltwaters wind up back in Lake Louise. This gives Lake Louise some of the most dramatic coloration ever, a color that changes with season. In early spring before the real snow melt has started it's a clear deep blue. As summer comes on and more silt dumps into the lake it's color changes to that milky green jade color. The effect is reversed as fall and winter come on and the glacier runoff refreezes, trapping the silt in place.
A hike up to the valley takes you along the calm, blue/green waters of the lake and up a rugged climb into the valley to a point just below the 6 glaciers. From here you can watch as large chunks of ice break from the glacier face and crash onto the rocks below shattering into a puff of ice crystals and listen to the distant rumble sounding like a far off thunderstorm. Pieces fall off every few minutes so you're sure to see and experience one or two. If you like you can watch from the patio of the backcountry tea house while being served cold sandwiches, tea, coffee, cookies or other goodies. Only a few lucky students get the job serving at the tea house.
Retrace your steps to Lake Louise and you'll get a spectacular view of the Lake Louise Chateau, a huge off-white stone lodge placed right on the shores of lake. It's positioned just perfectly so as to get a clear reflection of the building in the water on calm days. Of all the park lodges and hotels we've visited the Lake Louise Chateau is my least favorite. It's just this big white monolithic blocky building. It's not rustic, like the Yellowstone Lodge, it doesn't have elegant chalet grace like the Prince of Wales, it doesn't even have fairy castle qualities found in some of the well known European castles. It's just this big, white block that to me looks more suited to a space on New York's Fifth Avenue than a spot out in the wilderness. But I suppose that's what the builders were trying to achieve, an air of cosmopolitan life amidst wild bear and elk. I still don't like it.
>From lake Louise on north to Jasper runs the amazing Icefields Parkway. It climbs up to the heavens along three river valleys, the Bow, Columbia, and Athabasca, surmounting two passes, Bow Summit and Sunwapta, before descending once again to the townsite of Jasper. Each river valley has been meticulously sculpted by the greatest artist in existence, Mother Nature. They're the former beds of huge glaciers of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. The low portions of the U shaped valleys are filled with tall, skinny lodgepole pines or aspens in locations where the pine is thin. The river for each valley zig-zags its way along and it has lots of fast moving very chilly water. The Athabasca and Columbia rivers are glacier fed so they're a torrent of muddy gray looking water. Further up the slopes you can see the smooth ridges of the side moraine from the former glacier all rounded and covered in dark green pines. The verdant green of the low valleys is in sharp contrast to the! craggy jagged knife edged mountain peaks. It doesn't take too much imagination to see just where those huge glaciers carved a swath right across the edge of each side of the valley leaving hanging valleys where tributary glaciers once stood and those rocky peaks. All this in and of itself makes for one spectacular 253 km. But the piece de resistance are the icefields and blue glaciers that cover many of the mountain tops and edges along the way. At each turn in the road another awesome glacier perched high upon a mountain appears.
The center piece of all this is the Columbia Icefields and the Athabasca glacier. You can see bits of the icefield from the road looking like a thick layer of white icing across the mountain peaks. In its entirety, the icefield is enormous. It's 352 square km in surface area and in some places over 70 stories high. They say you could give every person on the planet a glass of ice cubes from the glacier and still have billions and billions of cubes left over. Some of the glaciers, in particular the Athabasca are in full view of the highway. It is the most easily accessible glacier in all Canada. In fact you can even pay for a snow coach tour that takes you right out on it. Or better yet a guided walking tour. We took the walking tour during our earlier trip and it was one exciting experience. Roped together, a group of about 15 gingerly takes their first steps on the steep slick ice of the glacier toe. Gaining confidence, you continue on up to a spot that is at about! the same level as where the snow coaches go, some .5 km up the glacier or so. Along the way you stop to look down crevasses, the large cracks in the ice, or millwells, holes where melting surface water suddenly dives into and under the glacier to reappear at the toe sometime later. Your guide stakes out a line, wraps it around your waist, and lets you lean as far as you wish over one of these millwells, an experience I shan't soon forget.
It all seems so tame when you're with an experienced guide. But, glaciers can be quite dangerous. Snow bridges that the day before supported a person might collapse when you try to step on them. The ice around a millwell is very, very slippery and it's a long way to the bottom if you make it that far. It's not uncommon for people who are wandering on the glacier without a guide to slip and get wedged within the ice. And it's mighty cold in one of those crevasses. Since 1991 two tourists have died from hypothermia when they fell and got caught in one of those crevasses despite rescuers arriving on the scene within 20 minutes. Even experienced people can get into trouble. Our guide told us a story of a former fellow guide who fell into a millwell. Miraculously he slipped on through and came out in the water at the toe. He hasn't set foot on a glacier since. So be warned, if you want to wander on a glacier it's best to go with a guide.
As we rode through this land of wonder I was thinking, "Imagine what a boring place the planet would be if there were no molten core.", assuming it still had an atmosphere and it still spins causing some sort of weather. Albeit, these assumptions are probably breaking multiple laws of physics for example the shear weight of the earth's upper layers would create so much pressure you'd be guaranteed to have a molten core. But, for now just imagine the earth is one solid cold rock surrounded by a water and oxygen filled atmosphere spinning along its orbit through space. What would be the result? In the first place global navigation would be a lot more difficult. We'd have to rely on the stars alone as there'd be no magnetic north and south poles. Next there'd be no plate tectonics, no earthquakes, no volcanoes, no mountain building, no plate overlapping, no continent up lifting. Which all means no Rocky, Appalachian, Alp, Andes mountains, no Mount Rainier, McKinley, or Eve! rest. It would seem that the only external force that could create hills of any kind would be the occasional meteor strike. But then the rains would fall and within a few million years, the blink of an eye geological time, these few hills would erode back to flat sand. Without the continental uplifting there'd be no Grand, Bryce, or Zion canyons, no Canyonlands. There probably wouldn't even be the deserts or rain forests as there'd be no surface features forcing the water laden air high into the air. I imagine the entire Earth's surface would be covered with flat lands or even just a shallow ocean and the only differences in flora and fauna would be due to temperature differences at different latitudes. Indeed it would be one very, very boring place. We may fear the effects of volcanoes, earthquakes, land landslides, but I think we're better off having these events than not.
The scenery and glaciers of the Icefields all seem unchanged from 8 years ago. However, the atmosphere of the tourist trade has changed dramatically. Looking back we recall the entire week spent on the highway as a very pleasant, relatively uncrowded experience. Not so this time. Much to our surprise the Icefields Parkway has turned into a huge, major tourist destination. Daily there are 20 or more large group tour buses sporting such names as Brewster, Princess Tour Co., and the always present Gray Line careening up and down the road stopping at certain major points along the way to disgorge their cargo for their allotted 5 minutes. There are also hundreds of rented RV's speeding along at a "hurry up, gotta get there fast" rate. The rentals were easily distinguished from the owned by (1) being all alike such as the many Canadian, Chevrolet, Californian, Arizona etc Flyers we saw, and (2) they all have spare tire covers on the back with the name of the rental agency emb! lazoned in bright easy to see colors. This was in addition to the many more private vehicles filled with camping gear that were cruising along. We couldn't quite figure out why everyone seemed to be in such a hurry as the best scenery lay all around them. And we did spot those famous white passenger vans with the blue tarp covered luggage rack on top and the blue and red plastic coolers at the back. This is the TrekAmerica tour group which we've been seeing all during the past 2 years from Alaska down to Guatemala. We just wonder how many of these identical vans there are.
There were also many, many SAG wagon (that's "support and gear" for all you non bike tourists) supported bike tourists making their way up the roadway. There was Backroads, a group that carries your stuff, provides bikes, helmets, camping equipment, and food. You just show up with clothes, toiletries, and a willingness to ride an unloaded bike about 50 or so miles each day. Actually you don't have to ride up Sunwapta pass if you really don't want to. The van will gladly pick you up. Cost for their 7 day tour from Banff to Jasper of which only about 5 were actually riding on the parkway, $768 US per person. There are also several other supported bike tours where you stay in the INNs and eat in restaurants along the way, such as the CANUSA bike tour groups. Cost for these 7 day tours we heard is around $1600 per person. Brian and I averaged about $35 per day for the 2 of us or in other words $122.50 per person for food and camping at the exact same places as the Backroad! s people camped. Someone sure is making a killing here. And at the end of their 7 days they're whisked back to the airport, probably at Edmonton, so they can be home in time for work on Monday. At the end of our 7 days we headed on up Rt. 16, the Yellowhead Highway bound for Prince George. It's certainly worth saving that $645.50 per person per week, in my opinion that is.
Each day on the parkway found us rushing far faster than we'd like just so we could get to a campground to claim a site before it filled. Side hikes we would have liked to explore had to be left behind as we pedaled hard to the next campground. It just made the entire ride not as enjoyable as it could have been without the crowds. This experience has taught us one thing, if we ever want to ride the Icefields Parkway again we'll plan to do it during the fringe season, June or September. It's just far too crowded during the peak season.
As opposed to Banff, which has become a huge tourist Mecca with corresponding tourist related shops and such, Jasper still manages to retain much of its low key mountain community atmosphere. Granted we happened to arrive on the eve of Canada's most busy summer holiday weekend, July 31 to August 3, which produced an unusually high level of crowding on the streets of the downtown area and there happened to be a Folk Festival as well. Even still, this town has more the feel of a place people go to to collect supplies before heading out into the backcountry. These aren't your Dollywood type people. These are folks who came to do the mountains. It seems nearly everyone has either a backpack or a bicycle and, unfortunately, bike theft is quite common so a lock is a must. Outside town are 2 National Park campgrounds with over 700 campsites. Add to that the many hotel rooms and I'm sure the 5,000 full time residents feel quite inundated during summer months. There are 2 main ! streets in the downtown area, Patricia and Connaught, both of which parallel the railroad tracks. Near the center of town is a full block of grassy tree covered lawn surrounding the beautifully stone walled and wood trimmed National Parks information center. Absolutely every visitor eventually finds their way to the info center and the lawn has become a traditional gathering place for backpackers and travelers from all over the world. No sports on the lawn please. There are 2 grocery stores in town, the IGA and A&G foods, both having prices that aren't too outrageous. There are several tourist trinket type stores selling the usual array of T-shirts, hats, postcards, and other Canadian made things. But the majority of stores seem to cater to the outdoors enthusiast. We visited 3 bike shops and at least 4 or 5 stores selling various camping gear. For a town this small this is a very high ratio of outdoor equipment stores.
Perhaps the most fun and unique store to visit is Nutter's Bulk Food store. It's a kinda health food/bulk food store in one. There are 3 aisles lined with bins filled with jelly beans, assorted candy, pretzels, corn chips, and other snack foods, beans, drink crystals, hot cocoa and ice tea mix, a variety of coffees and teas, hot cereal mixes, cake and muffin mixes, pastas, any spice you could ever imagine, different types of flours, dry eggs, baking powder and soda, corn meal, pancake mixes, dried vegetables and fruits. It goes on and on and on. Everywhere you look there's some other hard to find in small quantities or even hard to find at all item. Nearly everything is listed in cost per 100g and prices aren't that high when compared to similar items in the other grocery stores. If you're planning a back country trip this is the place to visit.
We left Jasper heading west and north along Rt. 16, the famous Yellowhead Highway that goes all the way from over in Manitoba to Prince Rupert and even onto the Queen Charlotte Islands. It's named in honor of a blond hair Iroquois freeman fur trapper named Pierre Bostonias, although some historians have his last name a little different. What a combination, a blond Indian with a French name. Evidently he was quite well regarded as he left his nickname on a mountain, mountain pass, river, highway, and even a town although the town's name is Tete Jaune Cache, Yellowhead cache in French. A cache was a location for storing provisions.. As we left Jasper we made the easy climb to the Yellowhead Pass and from there expected to have 4 easy, in other words flat, riding days to Prince George. Rash assumption as it proved to be anything but easy and certainly not flat.
First we made a one day stop at Mt. Robson Provincial Park. At just over 13,000 ft Mt Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. But compared with the Colorado Rockies, which boasts 60 peaks over 14K ft, and Mt McKinley which is over 20K and of course the bigee of them all Mt Everest at over 29K ft this one is just a mole hill. However, it's positioned within a great viewing spot from the highway and tends to soar massively towering over it's neighbor peaks which makes it appear much more impressive. It's covered in glaciers and an icefield and for 340 days of the year is also covered in clouds. We got lucky and happened to be there on one of its 20 clear days. What a treat to see that mammoth rock of a mountain with nary a cloud in sight.
Staying overnight we took the combination bike/hike up the Robson river to Kinney and Berg lakes by way of the Valley of 1000 Falls. At a total of 14 km riding and 25 km hiking it was a long, tiring trip but well worth every foot blister. All along the path you follow the Robson river, a torrent of that murky gray colored glacier silt filled water. Occasionally it provided a cool breath of air, AH! air conditioning. After the first 1000 ft climb you emerge at one of those glacier carved valleys, the Valley of 1000 Falls. True to its name there are dozens of water falls cascading down the vertical rock cliffs all along its length, each emanating from some glacier tucked amidst a high hanging valley. Although 1000 is a bit of an exaggeration, there are lots and lots of water falls. Another 1500 ft climb and you're at another even higher glacier valley covered in just rock debris. At first you just see a huge field of rocks, not many plants. But coming over a rise you sp! ot the beautiful blue green waters of Berg Lake and the two, not just one, glaciers that descend from the peaks into its water. True to its name there was even an iceberg floating way off in the distance on the waters. The scenery was far more spectacular than the Athabasca glacier. Yet being so far in the back country we got to enjoy the site all by ourselves, well just a few other backpackers. Even day hikers rarely make it this far as it's a good 19 km each way. Without the extra 7 km biking distance I know we wouldn't have made it either. I am so glad they let you bike some of it.
We left Mt Robson the next day, not one bit rested, for 4 days continual riding to Prince George, 90, 90, 61, and 75 km each day. Here is where we had thought the route would be relatively flat. Looking at our 2 dimensional AAA map with its distinctive lack of contour lines and very simplified road lines we said, "Ah ha, the road goes through a river valley. Surely it'll be flat." Wrongo. We encountered hill, after hill, after hill. This happens to be the newest section of the Yellowhead, finished in the 1960s and by that time there was no longer the need to follow the flat river course. They had the machines to dig and contour the road as desired and they put them to good use. The road actually lies up on the side of the river's valley which is cut intermittently with smaller V shaped tributaries from the many creeks that wend their way down to the main river. Naturally the road goes up and down each one of these. And there were headwinds and high temperatures too b! oot. The first 2 days our thermometers peaked out at 44 deg C, that's well over 100 in degrees F. Then in came a howling cold front and temperatures plummeted by over 20 degrees, into the 60s in degrees F. Of course since we were headed north and the front was a cold one coming from the north it brought with it howling headwinds from the north. After 4 days of this constant battle we dragged our tired bodies into Prince George, up one last hill to the campground, and stopped for a while.
Over the previous few days I'd begun to note some disturbing changes in the vegetation bordering the roadway. The light greens of spring and dark greens of summer were starting to be replaced with the more avocado greens and even yellows of fall. It's as if mother nature is telling the plant life that pollinating time is already over it's time to start closing up shop for another year. We also started seeing the annual southward migration. Not Canadian geese, elk, or even other birds. No this was the tail end of the yearly migration of 2 wheeled cyclists all obsessed with the idea of riding from somewhere way up north, Inuvik, Prudhoe Bay, Anchorage, all the way to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of S. America. It seems every year, like lemmings, people, mostly young men, head for the northern most reaches of N. America to begin this trek. We suspect the reason for this obsession is that it's perhaps the longest north to south route you can do through reasonably s! afe countries, at least no one in the western hemisphere is having an out and out civil war right now. Most of these riders have amazingly short schedules in which to complete it, one year or less and, consequently, are averaging extraordinarily long distances each day. We met a Japanese man in Waterton Lakes who averaged 100 km per day, a two Swede brothers averaging 145 km and a Swiss making the record of 200 per day. We wondered how many begin the trek and how many actually make it. So many things could cause them to quit. I'm sure there are many whose bikes are either stolen or damaged beyond repair somewhere along the way. It's virtually guaranteed they will all get sick sometime and most will probably not sit put long enough to properly recover. And then there's accidents, running out of money or time, or even just plain giving up, although this last is probably the least likely since it means losing face. Our estimate is a good 50% or more don't make it but I'd ! sure like to get some solid statistics to back that guess.
As far as we're concerned, after this summer we'll have completed a Fairbanks Alaska to the tip of Baja California route. That's quite satisfactory for now. Someday we plan to head to S. America for some bike exploration, that is after we get done with the rest of the world. So it's highly likely we'll eventually wind up completing the Alaska to Tierra del Fuego route just because all the bits and pieces we do along the way add up. It's not a major goal of ours and, in fact we tend to wonder just what the whole point is anyway. Even today you'd be real hard pressed to complete the route via bike as there's several hundred miles down in southern Panama where there is absolutely no road. It's called the Daring Gap. To get past it cyclists are forced to either take a boat, plane, or struggle for nearly 2 weeks over rough rock trails and along rivers always in danger of disappearing for good. There is a movement afoot to put in a road, the US government wants one. But en! vironmentalists are steadfastly against the whole idea. Just think as soon as the road was in place you could kiss all that jungle goodbye. Peasants would move in, slash and burn everything in sight creating new farms, and the wilderness would be gone. Somehow I suspect the US government will eventually win the argument and the road will be built. Now that will be the time to embark on the great Tierra del Fuego to Alaska ride. Actually we'd go the opposite way everyone else does so as to get good road information from all those headed south. We often wonder what all the natives at the town right at the tip think each year when these dirty, well worn looking cyclists show up wearing half crazed expressions of ecstasy at their accomplished feat. "Crazy gringos" I'll bet.
Prince George is located in a large bowl at the confluence of the Fraser and Chilako rivers which means you get a long downhill ride into town and a long uphill going out. It was created in 1808 as a trading post for the local natives and fur trappers. Originally named Fort George in honor of the man who was to be King George VII, it was renamed Prince George when it finally incorporated as an actual town. It's role as a trading center in northern BC is essentially the same today as it was back in the 1800s. It is still the business hub of the northern regions. It's got the railroad going through the east edge of town, 3 paper mills to the south east, high rise buildings in town, banks, offices, shopping malls, big grocery stores, fast food, dozens of restaurants, lots of traffic, a fairly descent bus transit system, absolutely everything a city of 75,000 needs to exist. It's so amazing to be riding along through tree filled wilderness for so many days to suddenly find a! booming city in what seems the middle of nowhere.
The Yellowhead highway continues toward the northwest up and down rolling landscape for the first few hundred miles past Prince George. I found the terrain quite surprising as I had expected a much more mountainous region. Instead there were rounded hills, sort of like the ancient Addarondack mountains of back east, and even quite a few broad flat valleys. Huge farms raising mostly wheat and oats for cattle lined the highway along with the managed forest farms of the logging industry. You don't actually start seeing big mountains again until you reach Hazleton and drop down to the shores of the Skeena river. Then, once you pass the intersection with the Casiar Highway you start getting more and more into the coastal mountain range where the Skeena river cuts a deep fiord through the rugged mountains directly to the shore. Here is where the spectacular scenery once again returns.
There were also a lot more towns of reasonable size fairly evenly spaced along the Yellowhead north of Prince George than we had seen southeast of Prince George and than we recalled from our days along the Casiar 2 years earlier. There were enough grocery stores, in fact, that we could stop to shop each day before getting to our selected camping site. It actually felt a little luxurious to be able to pick up salad fixins and something fresh from the deli and bakery each day. By the time we reached the town of Terrace, just west of the intersection of the Yellowhead and the Casiar, our entire perspective of northern BC had changed entirely. But thinking back to 2 years ago, when we came down the Casiar we'd just ridden a 450 mile stretch of road on which were only 3 or 4 small convenience sized grocery stores, essentially no motels or commercial campgrounds. And we'd spent most of this time in a continual dreary drizzle. At the Yellowhead we turned left to ride some 55 mi! les into Terrace. With a population of around 13,000 this was the first place having huge grocery stores we'd seen since leaving Whitehorse several weeks earlier. Yet after Terrace it was another 90 miles or more of absolutely no services to Prince Rupert. Needless to say 2 years ago we came away with the impression that there was nothing but wilderness and tiny towns anywhere north of Prince George and perhaps a bit further south. This year, riding up from the south our whole perspective is changed. If we had just turned left at the Yellowhead instead of right 2 years ago we would have discovered that civilization is just a mere 20 or so miles down the road. This area really is not as remote and wild as it seemed back then. As is so often the case, things are not all they appear from a first look.
"Be careful. There's a lot of mushroom pickers up there." quipped a bright young lad dressed in relaxed jeans, blue and white short sleeved shirt, and one black and white bicycling glove on his right hand. "What?" we both shot back almost in unison. We were sitting on the porch of a small country convenience store in the town of Topley munching on some nondescript sandwich, corn chips, apples, and cookies, our standard lunch. This boy of about 13 or 14 had ridden up on one of those powerful yet unwieldy looking 4 wheeled ATV contraptions, hence the need for the single cycling glove I suppose. After going through the normal litany of questions he suddenly came up with this strange bombshell of a comment. Being familiar, through hearsay only, with the characteristics of certain mushrooms that grow on top of cow pies and since we had been passing ranch lands ever since Prince George we both jumped to the conclusion this boy was referring to these particular mushrooms. We h! ad horrifying images of skuzzily dressed people wandering out in fields picking and eating these mushrooms on the spot and then getting into their cars to drive home, most likely not in a very straight line. Certainly something to be very, very wary of. What would you call it, DUIM (Driving Under the Influence of Mushrooms). Much to our relief that's not what he had in mind at all, although he also was familiar with the qualities of Magic Mushrooms, as he informed us they were called. No. It turns out there are certain NORMAL mushrooms native to the northern interior BC area that draw quite a bit of money from Asian markets. One particular type, I forget the name, can attract up to $2000 Canadian for a single kilogram bag in a lean mushroom year, such as this year. Needless to say a lot of folks spend summers wandering through the bush looking for these 'shrooms, drying them, and waiting until just the right year to make their killing on the 'shroom market.
>From the intersection with Rt. 37, the famous or in our case infamous Casiar highway, we were once again on familiar territory. However, this time Mother Nature decided to give us a big break. After having spent nearly 3 weeks in either a constant drizzle or downright down pour 2 years earlier we were really expecting much the same this time. We came prepared, mentally, physically, and financially, for almost constant rainy weather from Prince George all the way to Prince Rupert. It just did not happen this time. True the days were mostly cloudy and overcast and we often had rain at night and on into the early mornings. But, for the most part we rode on dry roads, put away a dry tent, cooked dinner on dry tables. There was only one day, the day we rode into our most northern destination for this summer the town of Hazleton, where we got caught in a down pour and wound up completely soaked. And in this case there was a nice warm, dry, not too outlandishly priced hotel r! ight in town. Even in Prince Rupert we experienced a day of nearly cloudless blue skies and the ferry ride back to Vancouver was spectacularly clear.. I tell you, when the weather is nice this region of the continent can be absolutely wonderful. But if the weather is foul, it can sure be rough.
On August 14 we spotted our first flock of geese flying south in their V formation. That same day we rode into the town of Hazleton at the most northern corner of the Yellowhead Highway. That was our sign, it was time to turn our front wheels southward once again, toward the warm weather of southern Mexico. By August 20 we were on the BC ferry headed to Vancouver Island and points south. Canada's a great place for cycle touring and has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Each time we visit we note more and more places we'd like to see either on bike or in a canoe. Yet, there's a whole world out there to explore and we've already spent a significant amount of time in Canada. So as we bid farewell to Prince Rupert once again it is with the realization that this will likely be the last time we're in Canada for many years to come. But, you never know. Our plans have been known to change from time to time.
One note to other bike tourists planning a Northern Canada trip. We discovered a little trick for storing food in bear country when there's neither bear pole or locker around. In most rest areas or campgrounds there are these odd rectangular box shaped bear proof garbage bins. The tops have special bear proof handles for lifting the lid. Well, it turns out the backs also open. Inside you'll typically find a plastic bag used to hold the garbage and behind the plast bag is plenty of room for a food filled pannier. The plastic bag keeps the garbage container reasonably clean, certainly clean enough for a road worn pannier, and since no one else would think of opeining the back it's a bear and people safe place to store food.
Appendix A - Route
Montana Rt 200 to Rt 83 to Rt 209 to Rt 35 to Rt 82 to Rt 2 to Kalispel, Whitefish Stage Rd to Rt 2 to West Glacier, Going-to-the-Sun Highway to St. Marys, Rt 89 to Babb, Chief Mountain Hwy to Canada
Alberta, Canada Rt 6 to Waterton Lakes townsite, Rt 6 to Pincher, Rt 3 to Elko
British Columbia Rt 93/3 to Bull River Rd to Rt 95/93, Westside Rd to Athalmer, Rt 95/93 to Radium Hot Springs, Rt 93 to the Icefields Parkway (Rt. 1)
Alberta Icefields Parkway (RT.1 and Rt. 93) to Jasper
British Columbia Yellowhead Highway (Rt. 16) to Prince Rupert
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
Montana Clearwater Crossing Montana FWP Campground ($), Lake Alva Campground ($), Swan Lake campground ($), White Birch Campground in Kalispel ($), Apgar Campground in Glacier National Park ($), Sprague Creek campground in Glacier ($), Rising Sun Campground in Glacier ($)
Alberta, Canada Belly River Campground Waterton Lakes Nat'l Park ($), Waterton Townsite Campground 3 nights ($), Clelan Trailer Park in Pincher Creek ($)
British Columbia Mountain Shadows Campground in Sparwood ($), Norbury Lake Prov. Park ($), Dutch Creek Resort Campground ($), Mountain Shadows campground south of Radium HotSprings ($), Mcleod Meadows Campground Kootenay NP ($), Marble Canyon Kootenay NP ($)
Alberta Lake Louise Campground 3 nights ($), Waterfowl Lakes in Banff NP ($), Columbia Icefields Campground in Jasper NP ($), Kerkeslin Campground Jasper NP ($), Whistler's Campground Jasper NP 3 nights ($)
British Columbia Robson Meadows Campground in Robson PP 2 nights ($), Beaverview Campsite in McBride ($), Slim Creek Rest area north of McBride, Purden Lake Prov Park ($), Blue Spruce RV Park in Prince George 2 nights ($), Riverside Municipal Park in Vanderhoof ($), Rest area north of Fraser Lake, municipal camping in Burns Lake, Shadey Rest RV Park in Houston ($), Riverside Municipal Park in Smithers ($), Bulkley Valley Motel in Hazelton ($), 7 Sisters RV Park west of Kitwanga ($), Ferry Island Municipal Park in Terrace ($), Exchamsiks Prov Park ($), Prudhome Lake Prov Park near Prince Rupert ($)
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.