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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Icefields Parkway

Between Thursday July 21st (Day 56) and Monday July 25 (Day 60) was some of the best bicycle riding we had done on this trip, and possibly in our entire lives. From Lake Louise to Jasper we were on the fabled Icefields Parkway, a 140 mile (230 km) two-lane road that parallels the main spine of the Rockies. There’s little in the way of services on the route (and what services there are, they ain’t cheap), but there is lots in the way of spectacular scenery!

I don’t feel that my words can do it justice, so I’m not going to attempt to go into flowery prose. You’ll just have to check out the photos on my flickr account when I get them uploaded.

Since the road parallels the mountains, going between the Continental Divide Ranges and the Front Ranges, very little is flat. We were either climbing or descending for the five days of riding. Though even though this was mountain territory and we crossed two passes, little of the riding was steep, mostly gradual inclines and declines, with a few steep sections thrown in. While the traffic on the Icefields was fairly busy, as this is a tourist road at the height of tourist season, the capacious six foot shoulder for most of it meant we didn’t have to worry much about vehicles.

Originally we intended to ride from the hostel in Lake Louise to Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel in one day, a distance of 57 miles and over Bow Pass. But Thursday morning (July 21st) was a wet one, so I altered plans somewhat: we would ride only to Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel, a little under 20 miles. This also gave us the opportunity to actually see Lake Louise. While the hostel was in the town, the lake was about three miles away, and up a steep (8% grade) hill. But the ride was worth it. Lake Louise’s aquamarine waters were perfectly framed by mountains and glaciers in the background. The circus of tourists hardly fazed us.

The ride to Mosquito Creek was on an upgrade, but not that steep. And we were to witness the first of four Wilderness Hostels on this route. Through Jasper, Banff, and Yoho National Parks is a series of primitive hostels administered by Hostelling International Canada. Many of these hostels don’t have power, and all don’t have running water. They do offer common areas including a kitchen, bunk houses, and pit toilets. It’s an ideal of hostelling from the early days, before the term “backpacker” came into vogue: provide the bare necessities of services for a small price for those who are traveling on their own steam. And the Wilderness Hostels are definitely designed for bike touring, as the distances averages 35-40 miles maximum between hostels. It is completely possible to to a “hostel to hostel” tour between Banff townsite (actually you can start at Canmore, 20 miles east of Banff) to Jasper townsite, staying exclusively in hostels. Pretty much every other bike tourer we ran into at the hostels were doing this. Someday we will come back and do this too, unencumbered by camping gear.

Mosquito Creek was run by Richard, an affable gent. While there was no “power”, as all of this area of Banff and Jasper National Parks is off the grid, electric lighting (with LED bulbs) was powered by solar panels. The stoves, room heaters, and refrigerators were powered by propane. There was spotty internet (!) via satellite. And the best part: a sauna room! April and I took advantage of the sauna room, and after steaming and sweating I jumped into icy-cold (probably 50F/10C) Mosquito Creek to “refresh”. It’s not technically a shower, but it felt just as good.

Friday we rode 40 miles between Mosquito Creek to the next hostel, Rampart Creek. This meant crossing Bow Pass, at 2,088 m (6,850 ft) the highest point of the journey. But since we were already at a high elevation (we wouldn’t dip below 4,000 feet in elevation until we hit Jasper), and the climb was so gradual, it didn’t feel as “epic” as the other climbs we had done. Not only that, but there was no summit sign at the pass, but a turnout to go walk to a viewpoint over Peyto Lake.

Rampart Creek was another great hostel with the same amenities as Mosquito. We ended up liking this one the best out of all the wilderness hostels. Maybe because the sauna was that much closer to the creek, or the narrow canyon that Rampart Creek cut into the hillside? Alan, the acting manager, was also a good guy and we talked a bit about hostels. Many of the same people we saw at Mosquito were here as well.

This was another thing I liked about these hostels: it felt truer to the original purpose of hostelling. When hostels were started, it wasn’t about offering free continental breakfasts and a way for drunk Europeans to “hook up”, it was about sharing a common experience with others. We did more talking and hanging out with fellow hostellers than I have in a long time. In bigger hostels, if you interact with people it goes hardly beyond pleasantries. Maybe you’ll go on a pub crawl or something. But here it felt like we were getting to know other people.

Saturday was “The Big Day” as we would bike over our final mountain pass of this adventure,* Sunwapta Pass, and see the Icefields. Sunwapta’s elevation is 2,035 m (6,677 ft), nearly as high as Bow. And tougher. We were warned by a fellow bicylist that it was steep for a good six miles, from the hairpin turn known to local cyclists as “The Toilet Bowl” to the summit. He said that it was steep enough that he has to walk it in places.

Sunwapta definitely had some steepness, but it was nowhere as bad as it was made out to be. Maybe about 3 miles of 8% grade, tops. Neither April or I walked the bikes. It leveled out in the last 3 miles, and then a nice descent for another 3 miles until we reached the Icefields Visitor Centre. And...a glacier!

Athabasca Glacier was spilling over the mountains into the valley, not far from the road itself. The glacier was a tip of the Icefields, a glacier as big as the city of Calgary that fed both the Pacific (Columbia), Atlantic and Arctic watersheds. There was a road that led to a short trail, so rather than spend $50 or so on the bus that drives onto the glacier, we opted for the trail. Riding to the parking area we passed by markers that showed where the glacier’s furthest extent was in the past. We got as close as we legally could to the tip of the glacier, maybe 200 feet from the edge. One thing that we noted about Parks Canada is that they don’t pull any punches in their warning signs. Everywhere we looked there was a sign outlying the stupidity of leaving the permitted zone and walking onto the ice, as the ice is unstable and people have fallen into a crevasses. One sign explained that it usually took 2-3 hours to extract someone from a crack, by then the person usually dies by hypothermia before they are pulled out. Or the one that graphically showed a young child trapped in the crack. Even with all those warning signs, WE STILL SAW PEOPLE WHO WENT BEYOND THE FENCED AREA.

The day was only 35 miles and the hostel for the night was at Beauty Creek. Sean, a young Aussie, was our manager. It lacked the sauna and LED lighting (lighting was propane!), but made up in the atmosphere department. We hung out around the fire circle, and one of the guests offered us beer. “Beer, sure!” Then another one came out. Then a young Swiss guy asks us if we like microbrews. “Sure!” He proceeds to procure from his car three six-packs of Pale Ale from a brewery in North Carolina, of all places. Turns out that he knows the brewer because he stayed with him when he was an exchange student, and just met up with him in Montana where he got the beer. I had two. “Hey I got some vodka. Want any?” In any case, I got pretty knackered that night without intending to. Thankfully in the morning I woke up on time and did not show any signs of a hangover. (And I didn’t even drink any water the night before.) Whew!

Sunday was another great day of riding. It was mostly a downgrade the whole way, with epic views. The two attractions were waterfalls--Sunwapta and Athabasca. It was another 35 mile day to the Athabasca Falls hostel. While there was no sauna, it was the only hostel with electricity.

Monday was a short day, only 20 miles to Jasper townsite. We mostly used Route 93A, an alternate routing to the main Icefields Parkway (Route 93). This road was narrow (no shoulder), somewhat hilly, and had crappy pavement in places. But it was quiet and scenic. Before we knew it, we were in Jasper and at the HI hostel there. And I’ll have to say that the hostel was a bit of a comedown from the great experiences we had at the wilderness hostels. It was bigger and more institutional, with a ridiculously large dorm (44 beds?) and a return of the drunk Europeans looking to hook up.** And the hot water heater was down for repairs, requiring a trip to the town pool for showers. This was a large frustration. We hadn’t had a proper shower in four days. And the hostel is about 6 kilometres outside of the town proper, and up a ridiculously steep hill. Seriously, like 10%, the steepest we had yet to encounter. It was the only hill I walked. And trying to take a pleasurable shower at the town pool? Not possible.

We made the best of the situation. After the shower we explored Jasper. I liked it a lot better than Banff’s town. It lacked the chain store orgasm factor, as most of the places were locally owned. And it had grocery stores! We practically danced in glee down the aisles, loading up our baskets. It was the biggest selection of food we had seen in a long time. We loaded up supplies for dinner, and pushed our bicycles back up the hill to the hostel. After a dinner of veggie burgers we crashed early so we’d be ready for the long three day ride to Edmonton.

*We will see some mountains when we get towards the East Coast, but it will be nothing like the West. Plus we’ll be crossing the Appalachians via a canal towpath, so no steep grades there.
**Yes, I’m projecting a bit and making assumptions here.

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