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Sunday, 16 August 2015

On the Road Again - Part 2: Jasper to Canmore by Bicycle

As soon as I arrived in Calgary, I made preparations for joining my friend, Eve, who I picked cherries with last year, on a cycling trip down the Icefields Parkway. A couple of days later, I made it to Jasper with just my bike and panniers.

My Kijiji rideshare was a bit worried about me on the way to Jasper, since I was asking him if he knew anyone I could with for free stay that night. These days I have ditched all pretexts for planning in exchange for spontaneity, backed by the confidence that everything will be alright.

After sunset I rode around the town of Jasper. I ran into a travelling Czech couple, sleeping in their van. We shared some conversation and they pointed me to a nearby park, where I found a nice little hidden spot to roll out my sleeping pad and bag behind a novel rock wall.
Stealth sleeping in Centennial Park, Jasper
Eve arrived the next morning, but without her bike! A mishap by Greyhound meant that we had to stay in Jasper an extra night, waiting for her bike to arrive. Well, we made the most of being in Jasper, easily hitchhiking between the town and our campgrounds, getting rides from happy holidayers.

The Ride Begins

The next morning, Eve finally got her bike and we packed all our gear into our panniers, eager to hit the road. The Icefields Parkway is renowned for its spectacular drive lined by majestic mountains, accompanied by gentle rivers and dotted with clear blue lakes. We rode off in bliss.
Day 1 was a constant but gentle uphill, and we managed to do around 85 km in 8 hours, ending at Beauty Creek Wilderness Hostel. Our hostel was modestly occupied by travellers from Switzerland and Germany. This is no surprise for me, since in Calgary I hosted many Germans through Couchsurfing.

Day 2 began with our first big hill, a climb towards Columbia Icefields. One advantage of cycling a roadway is you get to know your surroundings better. I got to appreciate how high up in elevation the Columbia Icefields were because it was so difficult to reach. This is something I never noticed while driving this highway.

Our reward for our big climb came quickly. We arrived at one of the newest attractions of the Icefields, the Skywalk, and Eve decided to make a friendly inquiry. One of the staff pulled us aside and said that cyclists get in for free! The Skywalk is a beautiful modern glass walkway hanging over the cliff. I wouldn't have gone in for the normal $30 fee, but to get in for free was such a nice perk.

Athabasca Glacier from the Columbia Icefields Centre
We originally considered stealth camping that night, but we kept hearing warnings about overly curious bears, so we decided to cycle on to the next campgrounds. We made it to Waterfowl Lakes Campground, which was full, but the first campers we asked were happy to share their campsite with us. We later offered to split the campsite fee, giving them $10. After the sweaty long ride, 80 km or so, we took a quick dip in the chilly waters of the lake to clean ourselves.
The water was freezing, but at least we got our bath in!
Day 3 started off with another big hill near the start of the day, which was part of the plan. After a grueling slow climb up a hill of 8-10% grade over 2 hours, we peaked at Peyto Lake where we ate a well deserved lunch with a great view (and too many tour bus groups).

It was mostly down hill the rest of the way, which was exhilarating. Going downhill fast on a bike feels like an infinitely long subway entering an infinitely long station, with the wind roaring past your ears, whipping your face and hair. The hours just fly by, cycling in such a beautiful place, and passing cyclists always provide a boost in spirit, whenever it is needed.

We needed only around 60 km of riding to reach Lake Louise where we camped for the night. By Day 4, Eve discovered friends in town, so we parted ways, as I continued on my own down the Bow Valley Parkway towards Canmore.

The weather was beautiful and it was easy riding, mostly downhill. The Bow Valley Parkway eventually turned into the Legacy Trail which links Banff and Canmore to provide cyclists a safe route off the TransCanada. I did another 85 km or so, bringing my total to over 300 km in 4 days. As enjoyable as this day was, I realized it would be quite lonely to cycle alone for an extended period of time. As Christopher McCandless famously said "happiness is only real when shared."

When I arrived in Canmore, deciding whether to brave on towards Calgary or find a place to stay, I decided to lunch at a great little vegetarian joint called CommuniTea. There, I ran into a colleague, who was able to give me and my bicycle a ride back to Calgary that evening!

This trip had its share of twists and turns (and I'm not talking about just the road) but it was an adventure and a half. Thanks again to Eve, this trip wouldn't have been possible without her experience and gear!

Flick photos:

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

On The Road Again: Part 1 - Toronto to Calgary

I finally decided to hit the road again. At some point I felt my tumultuous time at home in Ontario had expired. At the same time I had some opportunities calling in western Canada.
Our approximate 4 day road trip route - Toronto to Calgary
Luckily I found a cool Kijiji rideshare guy named Simon from Toronto - an outdoors lover and headed west on vacation, up for an unconventional road trip at a quick but flexible pace. We started off in my Toyota Yaris on July 31 from Toronto. We decided to drive through the US as it would be cheaper and quicker, and the scenery less flat (see Prairies).

We aimed for Madison, Wisconsin the first night, but fell short, getting caught in Chicago rush hour. While on a country road, we spotted a school and drove in behind it to stealth (free) camp. However, someone must have spotted us because after setting up our tent and settling in, a flashlight beamed in through the tent!

The flashlight belonged to a cop, who eventually told us to pack up and move to nearby campgrounds. We ended up stealth camping again on a long farm driveway walled in by rows of corn. The next morning we took a few cobs with us!
Simon taking in the cool, crisp morning
Day 2 was a long drive, maybe 12 hours, but was broken up nicely by a refreshing swim in the Black River in Minnesota and a visit to an eccentrically hippie coffee shop. We eventually made it to Minot, North Dakota, where we stayed with a friend of mine who I met in Istanbul many years ago. Sean is a friendly guy with a central US accent, intelligent yet capable of chugging a beer in just a few gulps.
A refreshing dip relative to the famishing heat of the inside of my car - Black River, Minnesota
My friend Sean, from Minot, North Dakota, happy to accommodate me, despite many years after meeting
For Day 3, we aimed for Glacier National Park but, once again, fell short by several hours. Fortunately, we realized that Montana offers free camping spots with a 5 day limit, and we found a sweet campground off a river. The next morning, we took it really easy, with Simon fishing and roasting the corn, and me doing a bit of yoga and meditation, as well as a quick dip in the cool river, to recover a little energy after lots of driving and little sleep.
Sunset from our campsite off the Milk River, Montana
The next morning
Day 4 was, thankfully, a casual day involving the shortest drive, at around 6 hours to Calgary. We stopped by Cypress Hills Provincial Park, southeast of Medicine Hat, Alberta, taking another dip in a lake, which was quite chilly!

Staring into the cold waters of Elk Lake, tentative to jump in
Overall, Simon was a great road trip partner, spontaneous enough to be ready to sleep anywhere, and taking breaks for throwing frisbee and swimming. We never paid for accommodation, gas was cheap (despite the currency disparity), and I managed to dumpster dive to cover more than half my food needs. My best score was outside a Cash-Wise grocery store in North Dakota, where I recovered bananas, cherries, and 3 boxes of mixed salad greens plus a few vegetables.

Some people ask me why drive and not fly? First of all, it's the journey, not the destination! It's a great way to know the landscape. Sharing the journey with someone else can be a good bonding experience. I was able to bring more of my stuff out west (pretty much all my possessions). And it's cheaper than flying - $120 each in gas.

Being on the road and free again was liberating, and the countless hours behind the wheel also provided time to watch the landscape roll by, and for a slow release from pressures building around me during my time at home. It was also a good transition into my next adventure, a cycling trip in the Rockies...