Oh sure, the distance between Calgary and Edmonton is only 300 km (180 mi). Three days on a bike, right? But like we're doing this trip "The Easy Way", right? Part of the point of coming up so far north was to ride between Banff and Jasper National Parks via the Icefields Parkway. And this would mean a long, circuitous route between the two major Alberta burghs. Rather than three days, more like 10.
I've been wanting to bike the Icefields Parkway since I first heard about it several years ago. I almost attempted it during the summer of 2008, but the opportunity to go on the B:C:Clettes Wheely Fun Tour came up, so that's what I did instead. And now the opportunity has come up. I didn't care that routing our tour through the Icefields would in effect amount to back-tracking. But whatever.
Of course, getting to Banff, the "start" of the Icefields* from Calgary meant getting out of Calgary. And that's easier said than done. We spent a good couple hours and 10 miles (16 km) on Monday July 18 (Day 53 of tour) doing that. We rode over a hill in Nose Hill Park in late day heat, got confused on Calgary's bike paths and neighborhood routes through its suburban streets, and then got onto Highway 1A, which at the point of leaving Cowtown was an urban freeway. But we finally broke loose of Calgary's suburban confines, out on the open road. Rolling prairies and mountains in the distance.
My aim-to spot for the evening was Ghost River Provincial Recreation Area, which looked like it would be a little over a 30 mile ride for the day. And we had all intentions of getting there. But couple that with a late start (the story of our trip, right?), then add in a thunderstorm we managed to dodge by this much, then factor in the stiff headwind that kicked in after the thunderstorm passed, we got into Cochrane, the first (and only) city after Calgary before Canmore just a little before 8 pm. By the time we got some food to eat, it was almost 9pm. I figured we'd still be able to make it the 10 miles to Ghost River because the sun sets around 9:45pm (go Northern latitude!)
But I realized the futility of the situation as soon as we took off. That stiff headwind wasn't going anywhere. (Well, technically it was going eastward.) And now we had the setting sun in our eyes, something I hadn't dealt with on this trip since we're heading east. Not only was the sun annoying to us, but it would mean drivers would have a harder time seeing us as well. And I didn't know if there was a steep hill between here and Ghost Lake (we'd just come down a two mile long 7% grade to get into Cochrane) and I was warned not to bike out this way after dark. Abort mission.
So what now? I knew there was an RV park in town from my research on the route. But I also knew it wasn't cheap ($40 a night) and I didn't even know if they did tent camping. Maybe we could sweet-talk the price down? Yeah, right. We tried that once on last year on our Olympic Peninsula trip when we were in a bind, and that didn't work. So we tried to find a cheap hotel. Super 8 was $150 a night (yikes!) but the concierge recommended us a place in the heart of downtown that was more "hostel" style. So we checked that out. And they had "European" style rooms (read: bathroom's down the hall) for only $50 a night. Since this was only $10 more than the RV park, why the hell not?
The room was serviceable, if a bit hot. It reminded me of the place we stayed in Astoria last summer, more of a place for long-term workers or transients rather than actual travellers. But it worked.
In the morning (Tuesday July 19) we went to a local coffee shop for java, as hotels frown upon the use of camping stoves in rooms. We ran into a couple who were bike touring west-east (B.C. to Winnipeg) and had just come from Icefields. So they had just ridden the route we'd be on. They warned us about the section of Hwy 1A we'd soon be on: narrow and windy, not much traffic but "questionable" drivers. They were actually picked up by an ambulance on that stretch of road the night before when they were riding after dark, and got a ride to Ghost Lake Campground. "I'd rather pick you up now", the ambulance driver stated, "than have to come back and pick you up later."
I had been warned about the drivers on this section by a few other cyclists. No one mentions, or at least no one wants to mention, that this particular stretch of road is through Indian Reservation. "I don't want to sound racist..." was actually said by one of the advice-givers. So everyone talks in vagarities and gives me a look. "You'll be fine..."
And of course we were fine. I didn't have any problems with drivers. It was the condition of the road that was the biggest thing I had to worry about. (Apparently Alberta's well-groomed, wide-shouldered highways end at Reservation boundaries.) I had been warned about bullet holes through signs, but couldn't remember any examples. (Maybe as an American it doesn't register, as I've seen plenty of rural road signs riddled with bullet holes?)
The big thing we had to worry about was storms. The first one managed to miss us. We remarked on our luck of dodging storms, never a bad thing to say. We finally got our first storm towards the west edge of the Rez. Rain dumped on us for a bit, and the wind picked up. But we managed. Now the headwind remained as we limped into Exshaw for a break at the gas station/convenience store/cafe. Another storm almost came by but passed. We thought we were good.
It was barely a couple miles after Exshaw that the next storm came bearing down on us. The Bow Valley ahead of us was barely visible. And the rain came down at a vengeance. This would have been bad enough, but the wind went into overdrive, with 40-50 mile gusts. When April caught up with me, I asked her how she was doing.
Now I don't really like to cheat, and would prefer to bike every mile of the trip. We did "cheat" on getting into Seattle, Vancouver, and Spokane, but those were due to how late it was. We cheated a bit on Logan Pass, but that was due to road construction, not because we wussed out on climbing a pass. But this wind...it was dangerous. It didn't look like the rain would stop anytime soon. And the temperature had drastically dropped from the 70's F it was at the outset of the day to about 50 F. I could feel the cold, and I was soaked. Now I understand why hypothermia is such a big deal in the mountains. So hitch we will.
It took us less than five minutes to catch our first ride. A French dude working and living in Canmore, driving in a converted small schoolbus ("Cool Bus") with a bed in the back. It was a bit awkward, as his English was limited (and you don't want me speaking French!) He kept on asking if we were going to Canmore and we had to remind him we were heading to Banff. We passed a campground in Canmore and he asked us if we'd want to be dropped off there, causing me to almost snap "We're going to Banff!" He at least dropped us off on the far side of Canmore, about eight miles from where we got picked up. But it was still fourteen more to go to Banff, and the wind and rain hadn't let up.
So we rode to a spot on the Trans-Canada Highway (Route 1) where we could hitch again, and we got picked up by a nice guy in a camper van with two mellow dogs. Not only did he get us into the town of Banff, but dropped us off the door of the HI-Banff hostel, the place I had reserved for the night. Sweet! When we got to the hostel we were informed that the power was out due to the storm, but came back on as we checked in. Exhausted, we hauled our wet gear and wet asses up to our room, pulled out everything so it can dry, and breathed a big sigh of relief.
Oh yeah, we saw the landscape transition from prairie to aspen parkland to mountains, but the rain sort of blotted out a lot of the interesting things to see.
*It really does start 40 miles north in Lake Louise, but whatevs.