Friday, August 26, 2022

Great Divide Chapter 2: Banff to Red Meadows

This stretch was probably the most dissimilar to other sections, except perhaps parts of New Mexico. It's really impossible to overstate the mountains in Canada, and the feeling of being in the "north" is very real. Plus, there was an exceptional amount of singletrack and doubletrack in this section, which only added to the excitement.

Day 8 - Banff/Spray Lakes to Elkford

We started off this day at Spray Lakes, which we got to around 10pm the night before. We filtered a little bit of water from Spray Lake, which was difficult because it somewhat muddy and very shallow near the shore. This morning was also the coldest morning, and we awoke to some frost on the tents if I'm not mistaken. There were huge mountains on either side of us, and they blocked the sun until well past sunrise. Finally, sunlight hit the campsite and we got rolling shortly after. The first road was a massive, wide gravel road along the lake. We filtered more water at a mountain stream (much easier to filter) and rode some more incredibly scenic roads along the lake. 

Eventually, we got into a little national park village along some bike paths and stopped by the store there for some overpriced food. A slice of pizza and a hot dog was incredibly expensive, but worth it. I distinctly remember sitting near the park store and seeing all the tourists walking around; it felt a lot like being at the Grand Canyon or some other popular place in America, very different from a typical mountain-town like Park City or Breckenridge. I guess its because there aren't as many ski resorts.

After the store, we climbed Elk Pass. It's not a super long climb, but it's extremely steep. I'd guess it got close to 25% or 30% grade at times, and being stupid like we are, we shifted into our easiest gear and went full throttle (at least I was full throttle) to clean the whole thing. Toward the top it got sightly muddy because the snow had just melted a day or two before, but this nothing like New Mexico and the mud was easy to navigate.

Over the top, we saw an old couple with their Jeep stuck hopelessly in the mud, and met another bikepacker doing then Great Divide (also southbound). The downhill off of Elk Pass was phenomenal, and the views were literally what you'd imagine being in a magazine or postcard. We stopped for some snacks after the pass, and the Jeep couple came blasting by, I guess they escaped with the help of their winch or another person. They told us they saw a Grizzly bear just back on the road, but sadly we did not see it.

The rest of the day was more scenic gravel weaving through the mountains, and near Elkford, we popped onto some singletrack for a while. It was really nice singletrack, and Will said it reminded him somewhat of pacific northwest trails in Washington. One section in particular was especially green and "rainforest-like".

We left the singletrack and rolled into Elkford, where we stopped at a fancy burger place for dinner. We sat at the bar after much discussion so we could still see our bikes outside. After dinner, we got to the campground in town (which was full of RV's) and tried to get a spot. The girl about our age working there said they don't accept cards or American dollars, but she was nice and just let us camp there for free of charge, despite Will's best efforts to convince her to let us pay, haha.

Spray Lakes (left) and the road out of Spray (right)
Cultivating mass (left) and singletrack near Elkford (right)
Top of Elk Pass and the backside

A snack after the top of Elk Pass

Day 9 - Elkford to Elko

After a gas station breakfast and resupply, we headed off onto the trail. And this I literally mean trail. The route followed the Elk Valley trail for most of the day. It was a pretty hard day of riding, with singletrack most of the day.

At one point we reached an open pit mine that had completely swallowed the trail. We tried to go around the edge of the mine, but it was dense brush and after hearing a grunting noise in the woods - was it a bear? Probably not, but we thought it might be - so we turned back and took a little doubletrack detour. Simple enough.

At some point in the day we rolled through Sparwood and also Fernie, where we got some food and resupplied. The end of the day started to get pretty hard, and all the singletrack was definitely tiring.

We got to some trails out of Fernie where we met a couple older mountain bikers on the trails, so we stopped to talk. They told us up ahead was a big washout on the trail, and the trail was closed. Typically, "closed trails" are easy to get around, so we ignored their warnings of "massive damage" and kept riding.

Sure enough, we passed a little tiny washout that we easily rode past, and we laughed. 

"Wimpy Canadians, that's not a washout!", we both thought.

Fast forward about 1/2 mile, and the whole trail was completely swallowed up by a massive ditch, probably 40 feet deep and 60 feet wide. We stared at it for awhile before making the trek in the woods around it to get by. It took all of our ingenuity and strength, but we got through.

After that, we avoided the second closure and took some gravel before meeting back up with the route.

As we exited the trails, an old redneck Canadian guy pulled up alongside us in his pickup truck. He turned to us and started barking like a dog. Extremely strange. He was driving super slow, so we picked up the pace and got away from him.

Almost on the very next downhill, we came within 10 or 20 feet of t-boning a big black bear that ran right in front of us. It was super cool to see on that close, but it definitely made be a little nervous.

After a few more miles of gravel, we got to a little burger and ice cream place and stopped for food. It was the first time on the trip I was actually overheated, and I remember standing in the direct sun being baked alive waiting for my food. I crushed two burgers, some fries, and some sodas, and we continued on to camp.

The campsite was in a park, and it ended up being a pretty ideal spot. Enough people around to feel safe with bears, but nowhere near enough people to feel crowded.

Note: not too many pictures were taken this day because it was pretty tough, most of our (my?) focus was on just getting around the washed our trails and making it to camp.

Doubletrack out of Elkford (left) and some good doggos (right)

A cool stretch of Canadian pavement and our camp that night.

Day 10 - Elko through US Border to Whitefish Divide, then GRIZZLY and up Red Meadows at Night

We woke up with about 20 miles or so until the first resupply for the day. It was a little convenience store run by an old man with some missing teeth. We bought some snacks and drinks and talked to him for a couple minutes. He told us about bears and about the Canadian gun laws in comparison to the ones in Montana. From what he said, far less people carry guns in Canada and the border guards don't take too kindly to guns. Good, because we didn't have any guns with us.

We crossed the border without anything of note, the border agent was friendly and let us pass fairly quickly after scanning our passports and asking if we had any raw meat or vegetables on us. Once we crossed the border, we could see the actual US-Canada border cut into the mountainside. The governments had clear cut a small swath of forest right on the border, perhaps to aid in identifying the border from above or just to make it easy to remember, haha.

A few miles into the US was the town of Eureka, Montana. We stopped at a Subway, got some good food, then stopped at a grocery store to stock up. Will went in to the store as usual, and I sat outside and plugged in electronics into the outlets. I was baking in the sun, and for some reason by feet were pretty sweaty. I took off my socks and shoes to let myself air out for the few minutes Will was inside.

After leaving the store, we started up the first legitimately large climb of the trip. The Whitefish Divide climb was around 3,000 feet from bottom to top, but it was pretty gradual. We met a couple on the more gradual lower slopes of the climb who had a dog with them. They seemed to be making pretty good time even with their dog.

The climb started as pavement, then turned to gravel, and then turned to rough doubletrack as we neared the top. The views were amazing, and I really can't think of enough adjectives to describe it. The road carved up the side of the mountain, and massive forests were surrounding us. To our east was Glacier National Park (maybe 10 or 20 miles), and we were in the Flathead National Forest.

Near the top, I was cranking out of the saddle when all of sudden, "Pffffffffttttttt!!!"

I sliced my front tire and the air was pouring out. I stopped and held my finger over the hole while we got repair supplies out. I tried a Stan's Dart, but the hole was more a massive slice in the the sidewall, so a plug was pointless.

I knew immediately a tube would be necessary, so I put a tire boot in and threw a tube in. Not ideal, but at least I was rolling again.

Fast-forward two minutes, and again, "Pffffftttt!".

This time it wasn't as fast, but it was definitely leaking. Upon inspection, the tube had a slice in it. I think the tube might've been old (it was Will's tube, not to place blame hahaha). I tried to patch the tube so I wouldn't have to burn a second time, but just as I thought it was fixed, it started leaking again. We tried supergluing the tire to keep it more intact and to prevent debris from getting inside, but the superglue ended up more on my finger than on the tire.

Finally, I gave in and put a second tube in. That one worked, and we crested the top of the pass after a slight delay. A couple miles again was Tuchuck Campground, our planned stop for the night.

We got to the campground and found a nice looking site near a guy camping in a van. He was cooking some smelly barbecue (not ideal in grizzly country), but we thought it was the only option. We set up our tents, cooked some [less smelly] food, and settled in to just enjoy the site.

As we were walking around, we noticed that the main campground was actually a few hundred yards away, with picnic tables and another bathroom. Since we weren't too keen on sleeping next to barbecue-man, we moved our campsite to one of the real sites.

Before long, the couple with the dog we had met before rolled in and set up in the next site over. Will and I walked to the creek to filter some water, then we hung out for a little bit before going into our respective tents to get some sleep.

Literally just as I took out my contacts and was ready to fall asleep, we heard "Bear!"

It wasn't a frantic voice, but it was a stern voice. I immediately grabbed my bear spray and waited a second to listen for anything else. After a few seconds, I unzipped my tent and peeked my head out. I said something to Will, but he didn't respond at first. I said his name again and he answered, and we both got out of our tents to look around.

The couple next to us was also standing around, so we cautiously walked over to them to see what the matter was. They said a large grizzly walked right past the tents down the main path. Immediately I knew we were going to pack up and keep riding, but we waited around for a few minutes to talk. The bear seemed to be walking right down toward the RV camper who I mentioned earlier was cooking barbecue. Now, I'm not against people enjoying nature, but I think cooking a smelly barbecue dinner at a primitive campsite - especially when you have an RV and most people have tents - is a little bit inconsiderate. I just think especially in grizzly country, you're bringing unnecessary risk into the campsite.

But anyways. We talked with the couple for a few minutes and then a group of park employees (who were camping there and clearing trails) walked up. They said that the bear was definitely still close by, which re-affirmed our decision to pack up and keep riding. The park employees started revving their chainsaw in an attempt to frighten the bear away, but like I said, Will and I didn't really want to risk it.

We loaded up the bikes again and set off around 9:30pm, just before sunset. The descent off of the Whitefish Divide was mostly in the daylight, and it was incredible. A narrow, rocky road weaved the mountain through vast expanses of openness, and the orange glow of the sun reflecting off distant snowy mountains was a sight to behold.

Before long, it got dark, and after some adjustments, we got the dynamo lights good to go. The next climb was Red Meadows Pass, infamously know as the snowiest pass on the route. It only gets slightly above 7,000 feet, but in northern Montana in June, that's typically below the snow line, especially on north facing slopes.

The climb was entirely in the pitch black, but being a clear night, the stars above were shining bright. When we stopped for a quick snack and our dynamo lights faded, the stars really came out in full force. We continued up the climb for a while, always expecting to see snow around the next bend, but it was remaining clear. Maybe the snow was all melted.

Wrong. Soon enough, we reached the snow line, and the hiking began. Will was of course hiking extremely fast even though we weren't racing anyone haha, so it was a grind for quite a while. The snow was pretty firm and crunchy since it was nighttime, so at least the hiking was pretty mellow compared to trudging through deep powder.

After almost an hour of hiking (or maybe more? I completely forget how long it took) we reached the pass. Red Meadows Lake was up there, but since it was dark, we couldn't see much. There was actually another set of bikepackers already camping up there, which was pretty surprising. The pit toilet at the primitive campground was very small, and that combined with other people being there, we decided it was not smart to sleep in the bathroom. 

By this point it was pretty cold, probably in the low 40s, and the air felt pretty wet. Or maybe I was just soaked from sweat. Either way, we quickly set up a tent and got to bed sometime around 1:15am.

Riding and hiking up Red Meadows Pass with snow on it was easily the most epic thing we had done so far on the trip. It's one of those things that in the moment, I was telling myself, "these are things you'll remember the most". And I was right. You only live the moment once, but you can recall it a million times.

Almost to the border, and the top section of the Whitefish Divide climb

Some snow on the Whitefish Divide, and our first campsite next to barbecue-man

Getting some water at the creek and our updated campsite

The bottom of the Whitefish Divide descent and setting up the dynamos, after leaving Tuchuck.

Just as the sun was setting and hiking through the snow on Red Meadows Pass

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