Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Great Divide Chapter 1: Calgary to Jasper to Banff

Sometimes I feel like Steve Winwood of Traffic, just "staring at empty pages"; so much happened on the Great Divide trip that I don't know where to start. Even knowing knowing how to tell the story is difficult. Alas, the way I decided to do it is on a day-by-day basis, with each day having a little section in the post. It isn't the most creative way, but to be honest, a lot of the reason why I write this blog is for myself, so I can look back later and remember little details. By doing it this way, I think it'll be easiest for me to remember this trip of a lifetime.

Before the actual post begins, I'll post my favorite picture from the section, or at least one of my favorites. Somewhat to highlight the photo, but also because the blog chooses the first picture for the highlight picture in links. So there, I outsmarted you, blogger. This picture was from the section right out of Banff before Spray Lakes.

I'd say the trip began on June 16 when I picked up Will from his house. Back at my house, we loaded the luggage in my mom's car and then did some final planning on my computer looking at the first section of the route. There were some crazy clouds outside that evening - there was actually some specific name for them that I can't remember - and I remember testing out the InReach (our satellite trackers) for the first time walking around outside to get a signal. 

Day 0 - The flight to Calgary and riding to the hotel (14 miles, 600 feet, 1hr 5min)
The next morning, my mom dropped us off early at the airport, and the journey really began. We had packed our bikes in cardboard boxes (since it was one-way to Calgary), so it was a little nerve-wracking flying with cardboard boxes for the first time. But, all went well, and then bikes arrived in one piece Calgary. We built the bikes up and put all the gear on the right outside the Calgary airport. I remember the airport security guard walking over to us, and at first, I was nervous she was going to be mad. Instead, she was full of questions and wished us well. Someone walking by inside thought it was funny what we were doing, and they asked to take a picture of me building my bike from through the glass. I obliged, and went on my way. Once the bikes were built, we shoved our duffel bags and cardboard boxes into the trash cans outside the airport (as best we could), and set off for the hotel. The bike shop we tried to stop at surprisingly had no CO2 cartridges, so that would have to wait. The hotel wasn't too far away, only an hour ride, and it was easy to get to. For dinner we ate at the Denny's across the street, which, let me tell you, isn't high quality grub. Will's "steak" was a pale grey color and quite thin. My burger was a little bit better, but still a far cry from even a McDonald's burger, which is saying something. Either way, it was food, and we were so excited to start that it didn't even matter. We did a few final bike prep things in the room (like re-doing the wiring on Will's dynamo when he pulled the cable end off) and then went to bed.

Day 1 - Calgary to Lake Louise (120 miles, 5300 feet, 8hr 42min)
We set off around 6:30am after a breakfast at Denny's (much better than their dinner), and were met with a light drizzle out of town. We rode through a college campus, did some bike paths, and then got to a highway which led out of town. The road wasn't great for riding, but it was Calgary, so we were super excited. After a while, we got to Ghost Lake, then continued on toward Canmore and Banff. Our first stop for the day was Canmore, where we got some Wendy's. The mountains in this area are unbelievable, and really, no matter how I try to describe them, it won't do them justice. The bike path between Canmore and Banff is breathtaking, and it's where we saw our first black bear and elk. Then we rode through Banff and stopped at a bike shop for CO2's. After Banff, there was a park road that was closed for cars that was very scenic. That was where we saw our first grizzly bear; it was being scared off by a park ranger with a paintball gun. It was really cool to see a grizzly, and we felt very safe considering the park ranger was right there. We also saw some bighorn sheep right on the road, and they were extremely tame. That park road eventually led to a short jaunt on a highway to Lake Louise, which is where the campground was. This campground had an electric fence around it for bears, so it was a nice way to ease into bear country. We got to camp around 6pm and had cooked up some rice and ramen on our stove. One of the craziest things was how late it stayed light out, and even when we went to bed around 9:30pm or so it seemed like it was barely evening. Even around midnight when I woke up for a little, it was still pretty light out.
From top to bottom (and left to right): the bike path out of Calgary; a black bear between Canmore and Banff; mountains between Canmore and Banff; bighorn sheep after Banff; mountains after Banff; dinner at Lake Louise

Day 2 - Icefields Parkway (114 miles, 6100 feet, 7hr 59min)
We woke up to grey cloudy skies that turned to rain when we got to the gas station in Lake Louise. We got some food there and waited around for a few minutes hoping the rain would stop, but it didn't. We set off into the light - with my Sealskinz socks and waterproof glove shells on - and about 10 minutes after leaving, the rain stopped. 

Pretty much right out of Lake Louise we hopped on the Icefields Parkway. This pavement road goes from Lake Louise to Jasper, and I'd heard it was one of the most scenic roads in the world. It certainly did not disappoint. We were met with endless miles of the most amazing views of my life. Literally everywhere you looked were massive snowy mountains. The road itself was somewhat busy with RV's and cars, but there was a massive shoulder - big enough for us to ride side-by-side most of the time even with cars passing. There was a convenience store midway through the day, but unfortunately we didn't notice the restaurant right next to it, so we had a lunch of Lunchables and candy instead of an actual lunch. Oh well. 

Later in the day, we got to the Columbia Icefield, a big glacier with a tourist center near it. We stopped there for a quick soda, and then continued on our way. We saw some more bighorn sheep, and then eventually got to the campground for night two. It was a quiet little campground right off the Icefields Parkway, near a small lake. When we got there, we noticed a biker-only spot, so we got that. Canadian campsites are really nice, and this was no exception. Once we got settled, we headed over to a pavilion to cook some dinner, away from our tents to avoid luring in a grizzly. 

There, we met two couples who were also bikepacking. The first was a couple named Curtis and Jenny (in their late 50s or early 60s), from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They rode up from Whitefish, and were planning to ride the Great Divide back to Whitefish where their car was parked. We talked with them awhile; a few years back they rode from Alaska to Argentina over the span of 3 years (or was it 18 months?). They shared some stories, gave us some tips about grizzlies, and showed us their "un-cloggable" water filter and their wood-burning stove. It really gave a unique perspective on life and how they viewed it and chose to live it. 

The other couple, whose names I either forgot or never knew, was from the United Kingdom. They were in the 30s I'd guess, and were planning to do the whole route from Jasper to Antelope Wells. The guy had some issue with his dynamo not charging his Garmin, so hopefully he got that figured out. 

There was also a German family with an RV right next to our campsite, and their smelly German soup was lofting through the air and into my tent. Not exactly ideal in grizzly country, but we/I survived.
All pictures from Icefields Parkway, the last picture obviously is camp for night two.

Day 3 - Starting the actual GDMBR in Jasper (102 miles, 4100 feet, 7hr 38min)
It was mostly downhill from the campsite to Jasper, and along the way we stopped for a quick meal of tuna packets and tortillas. Once in Jasper, we got some breakfast at a diner and figured out logistics for the next couple nights. The very first trail on the route in Jasper was closed due to "elk birthing", so we had to detour on the road for about five miles. Once we rejoined the route, it turned into a nice gravel road, which turned into doubletrack, which then turned into a dense singletrack. 

This singletrack was by far the gnarliest of the entire trip, and was somewhat surprising considering the rest of the route was mainly gravel and doubletrack. The brush was dense, so we tried to make noise to avoid scaring any bears. In a little open field on the trail, there was an old log cabin where we took some pictures at that was really cool. Eventually the trail popped back out on the road, and we took that road about 20 or 30 miles to Hinton. 

In Hinton, we got some lunch/dinner at McDonalds and resupplied at a Walmart. We started our routine there of Will going into the Walmart to shop for us both, and me staying outside and watching the bikes, plus plugging in electronics to the outlets outside the store for a quick charge. There was a big climb out of Hinton, and since it had been raining, the gravel was a little bit sloppy. Luckily, it doesn't really get muddy up there like in New Mexico, so it was just annoying mainly. The rain stopped though and the roads dried, and by the time we reached camp it was really nice out. 

This campsite was huge, and we were the only people there. It seems almost like the Canadian government commissioned these campsites as some sort of work project, because they seem way too big for how little use they seem to get. Nonetheless, it was a really cool place, and we hid our food in the bear safe garbage cans that night to protect it.
From along the singletrack trail out of Jasper, and then camp in the evening

Day 4 - The Trunk Road to Nordegg (90 miles, 6100 feet, 6hr 59min)
We were on a scenic gravel road for a few miles out of camp before a right turn onto a pavement road. Shortly after that, a pickup truck passed us. No big deal. Just up the road around a bend, we see the same pickup with the driver out of the car waving at us. 

We wonder if perhaps he's mad at us, but as we get closer, we notice he's pointing to the grass off the side of the road. Finally we can hear him.

"Watch out, there's a grizzly over there!"

Slightly alarmed, we rode just past his car and then stopped. We felt safe with his car there, so we took some pictures and watched as the big bear ate dandelions in the grass.

We then continued on that pavement road for some miles, it was Highway 40 I believe, and we thought it would be pavement all the way to camp. Surprisingly, the main highway just suddenly turned to gravel, although it remained just as wide.

The gravel road was called "Forestry Trunk Road", but most of the locals affectionately called it just "Trunk Road". The only traffic on the road was logging trucks, and although they kicked up a lot of dust, they were very friendly. This day had a lot of shorter, punchy climbs, and the views were very different from before. Instead of being in the mountains, we were on the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies.

For miles we just cruised through the foothills and admired the views. Eventually, we made it to an intersection of a main pavement road and turned on our phones to check for cell service. Luckily, there was service, and we double checked which way to Nordegg.

Only a mile down the road, we turned off to Nordegg, where we found a little restaurant attached to a motel. We decided to get a room at the motel, mainly because the only camping option also cost a decent bit of money and we wanted to ride back into the town in the morning anyways for breakfast. It was a nice room, and with the exchange rate, it ended up not being too expensive.

Another big note from this day was meeting Mike for the first time. He was on a Surly mountain bike and planning to ride the entire route from Jasper to Antelope Wells on the Mexican border.

There was also a very friendly gas station clerk named (Will, help me out here) who we talked to a little bit about the trip.
Top left is the grizzly bear, then the highway turning to gravel, a some gravel road pictures, a funny road name, and the motel in Nordegg

Day 5 - Nordegg to the Abandoned Campground Pavilion
We left Nordegg at a good time in the morning after getting some gas station food for breakfast. The first climb and scenery right out of Nordegg felt like we were in the far north. And I guess we sort of were. Just something about the trees and the hills seemed like something from Alaska or the Yukon. The route out of Nordegg was pretty hilly, but mainly 500-1000 foot climbs, nothing huge.

The Nordegg gas station clerk told us about Ram Falls along the way, so we stopped there for lunch and walked down to the lookout to see the falls. They were really scenic, as expected, and we saw a lot of rams/sheep just past the falls on the road.

Later on, we got a flatland prairie type area, where there were wild horses along the road. According to people we talked to later on, the horses have been wild here since the Spanish brought them, at least since the 1700s.

There was a sizable mountain pass climb out of the flatland, and about halfway up the weather turned awful. First, there was thunder and lightning, then a light rain began. The rain turned heavier, and as we climbed higher, it turned into large hail balls. The hail actually stung quite a bit, but luckily it turned back to rain as we crested the pass.

The downhill was pretty brutal, at least the first mile or so. Mud was spraying everywhere and my face was covered with a grimy gravel sludge. Halfway down the descent, we rode out of the storm and it was blue sky and sunny again. At the bottom of the downhill, we reached an abandoned campground where we planned to stay the night. 

A note about that. The campground used to be run by the Canadian government until the 1980s, but it was deemed too costly to operate anymore, so they left it to the locals to take care of it. None of the structures really saw any maintenance, like the pavilion or outhouse, but it was still a nice place.

We weren't sure if there was a pavilion or not at first, but luckily there was at the back of the campground. As we got closer, we could see someone else already there. It was Mike from Nordegg!

He gladly said we could stay under there with him, so we unpacked our stuff and hung our clothes on the rafter beams to dry. We talked with Mike for a while, cooked some Ramen, then talked a while more.

He told us some stories from his days climbing Mount Rainier and being a firefighter for Los Angeles County, and we told him a little bit about us. During the storytelling, a vicious storm hit the area, so were glad to be under shelter.

When we asked him about bear safety, he said he had an Ursack, a cloth bag to put your food in that's supposed to be somewhat scent proof but also difficult for the bear to tear through. You're supposed to put it far away from where you sleep to not lure the bear near you, but Mike hung it right above his head in the pavilion. This way, he could fight off any bears that came for his food. I'm kidding of course, but it was still funny. And honestly, it did not worry me at all, so if you're ever reading this Mike, know that your Ursack was one of the funniest and brightest moments on the trip for both me and Will.
Gravel out of Nordegg, Ram Falls and the rams right after it, and the campground pavilion we stayed at with Mike

Day 6 - The Abandoned Campground to Sunset Lodge
The day started off ominous. We heard a thunderstorm right around sunrise as we were still sort of sleeping, but the rain stopped when we woke up. We packed up fast and tried to leave before the rain started again. We succeeded, but it started raining again just minutes after leaving.

It continued to rain and rain as we rode on. The roads got grimy and sloppy, but never terribly muddy. I remember standing under a little campground welcome sign with small awning and eating a pack of rock hard gummy worms. At the time, we had recently taken off our arm warmer, and had only a jersey and rain jacket on. The temperature was in the high 40s, I would guess.

After leaving the awning, we progressively put more and more clothes on. By the time we neared the top of the next pass, the rain had turned to slush and the temperatures were hovering around 36 or 37 degrees. We had all our clothes on and were still freezing, which was a little bit concerning. After the downhill, we got to a closed campground with another pavilion. We cooked up a hot lunch thinking it would warm us up, but in reality, stopping just made us colder.

We were both shivering uncontrollably, not knowing what our plan should be. It seemed like each one of us was afraid to suggest staying at the Sunset Lodge right up the road where Mike planned to stay, because it would mean admitting we were uncomfortably cold. Nonetheless, we both mutually agreed to ride up the road and try to get a spot at the lodge.

Riding to the lodge was pretty crazy, because my hands were completely numb and I wondered if I could ever warm up again. Sure enough, we reached the lodge and a random person there called the owner over for us. She booked us in a small cabin, and we hurried down to take a hot shower and wash our clothes in the laundry room.

After warming up, we enjoyed some sodas, burgers, and hot dogs at the little restaurant built in there. Really, restaurant is the wrong word, but it was food nonetheless.

We told them about Mike, who was probably freezing somewhere behind on the road, and told them that if he doesn't get here somewhat soon, they might want to send help. Thankfully, Mike arrived and gave us each a fist bump. His hands felt deathly cold, and he told us somewhat triumphantly,

"I've climbed Mount Rainier five times, and this is the coldest I've ever been!"

Another classic Mike quote came when he described what was going through his head when was thinking we were going to try to make it to Ghost Lake that day instead of Sunset Lodge, another 50 miles up the road.

"No way those boys make it to Ghost Lake! No way!"

And he was right, we only made it to Sunset Lodge.

We had a second dinner with Mike and talked some more. There were some other great quotes from Mike that Will and I talked about for the rest of the trip. One great one was:

"Do you have any hot soup?", which he said when he arrived to Sunset Lodge. The answer was no.

Another classic was,

"Raisin juice? Raisin juice?! What's this?!" It was grape juice, but the French influence in Alberta gives it the name raisin juice. Mike had about 5 or 6 cartons of the raisin juice.

Also, the cabin Will and I were in was extremely comfortable and almost hot, but the heater in Mike's cabin was pretty bad and he said he was cold all night. He said he was "rebreathing in his sleeping bag" all night to stay warm. Tough one.
A rainy road in Alberta en route to Sunset Lodge, the pavilion just before sunset lodge where we froze, inside the teepee at Sunset Lodge (bottom left) and under the canopy where we ate at Sunset Lodge (bottom right)

Day 7 - Sunset Lodge through Banff to Spray Lakes
Ever since we had arrived at Sunset Lodge around 1pm the day prior, it had been raining. It was a constant rain, not terribly heavy, but the temperature was also in the high 30s, so riding would be miserable. The forecast said the rain should stop around noon, so we decided to get a late start this day. The rain ended up stopping earlier than expected, so we set sail again around 10am.

It was gravel for only 20 or 30 miles, then it turned into fast pavement to Ghost Lake. Once at Ghost Lake, we retraced the route we had done earlier from Ghost Lake to Canmore. We planned to either stay at Canmore or Banff in a campground, but seeing as we got to Canmore early and got a fast meal at Wendy's, we decided to go to Banff.

Going to Banff would mean a 100 mile day, which was respectable but not a terribly challenging 100 miles. Once in Banff, we rode to the campground, and we immediately knew it was full.

The park rangers offered no alternatives, and it was already 7:30pm in the evening. Out of options, we decided just to continue on the route. We got to the start of the traditional GDMBR route in Banff (and also the start of the Tour Divide race) and started onto Goat Creek Trail south out of Banff.

Two mountain bikers saw us and our loaded bikes and joked (friendly joking),

"You guys heading to Mexico?"

"Yep", we responded, and we talked for a minute or two before going on our way.

Goat Creek Trail was fantastic. It was pristine doubletrack along a creek (duh), that slowly climbed up into the mountains. After an hour or so of climbing, we turned onto an even smaller trail called the High Rockies Trail. It meandered past a little lake before turning into a grassy doubletrack in the saddle of two huge mountains. 

Toward the top, I must've ran out of energy, or Will just hurt me too much, because I completely bonked. I sat on the ground and ate some gummy bears, and Will took a funny picture of me looking destroyed. We were about 123 miles in at that point. Luckily, the gummy bears completely revived me and I energetically continued riding. We reached the Spray Lakes campground (very primitive) and saw a sign warning about bear activity. We were both tired, it was 10pm, and the danger did not seem imminent, so we camped anyways. The view of Spray Lake and the massive mountains all around us was truly stunning. I think it was maybe the best view of the entire trip.
The first three pictures are from the Sunset Lodge, then the rest are from the stretch from Banff to Spray Lakes

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