I hadn’t actually heard of the Icefields Parkway before I began figuring out the best way to get to Banff, the starting point for the Great Divide mountain bike ride. In fact, it turns out it’s one of the highlights of the Rockies, so it was certainly a very nice perk to what I was expecting to be a rather long slog to Alberta.
At 230km in distance, and rippled with a couple of 2000m passes, the Icefields boasts World Heritage Site scenery and straddles two national parks. And stunning it certainly is. It’s impossible not to marvel at the incredible, vast icefields that toter between jagged, sawtooth 3500m peaks, or gaze upon the stunning turquoise glacial lakes that appear in every tourist brochure. And each year, half a million people do just that.
And there’s the rub. It is a beautiful ride, of course, but with that many people travelling through (mainly in massive RVs) and a string of facilities and picnic spots to soak it all in, the Icefields doesn’t exactly feel like the wildest and most remote place in the world. Added to this, I rode it on Labour Day weekend, the last holiday of the summer. Cue influx of tourist RVs inching their way through the mountains and Harley Davidsons burbling by in convoy, chrome exhausts glinting in the sun, piloted by grey haired men with thick, caterpillar moustaches.
As expected, the ski town of Jasper proved to be a real honeypot for tourists, cyclists amongst them. For some time now,I’ve been hearing about a family from the Isle of Skye – travelling on an Orbit childback tandem and a solo bike, both with BOB trailers – so was really pleased to finally get a chance to meet them. They too are headed down to South America, stopping along the way to en sure their 9 year daughter Kate – a Scottish accented version of Little Miss Sunshine – does all her homework!
There too I bumped into Meika and Niko from Germany, and along with Matt, we cycled in convoy to a campsite 30 clicks down the road. Camping in a group makes sense in Canada’s national parks, as fees range between 16 and 27 dollars (you pay for a delightful RV spot, gravel and all), which really adds up if you’re travelling alone. Seeing as my (rarely kept to) budget is around $15 dollars a day, I generally wild camp instead – but that’s not looked upon too kindly by the parks officials.
In theory at least, you’re also supposed to fork out another 9 dollars a day to be in the park, though there’s conflicting opinions on whether this applies to cyclists – we liked to think it didn’t, so rode on through the barrier without being yelled at. That night, Matt and I cooked up dinner together; Matt calling upon his incredible larder of spices, condaments, and the trusty cast iron pan he lugs around to rustle up a delicious portion of organic potato and garlic hash browns from Pete’s garden, along with pesto, pasta and a small forest of fresh basil. Washed down with a bottle of red wine… Ah, this is the life!
With my early-to-start routine, I ended up riding ahead of Matt and the others. Unfortunately, the forecast was for heavy rain over the few days it would take to ride the Icefields Parkway. As it turned out, the sun shone for a good deal of the time, until a storm swept in and vented its fury upon me as I inched my way up Bow Pass, unleashing a wall of rain and dusting the mountain tops with snow. Funnily enough, (in hindesight) it was perhaps when the storm was at it’s strongest that I enjoyed the Icefields the most – it brought out the wild side of the Rockies, a change from this sometimes rather sanitised ride.
Plus, as I was descending off the last pass from Bow Lake, I spotted the kind of sign bedragled riders day dream about (and don’t quite believe) when they’re utterly soaked from head to toe: ‘Cyclists, come in and warm yourself round the fire.’ Really? Are they talking to me? Intrigued, I turned in at the Mosquito Creek campsite. Camp manager Silvia had seen me earlier that day looking wistfully out at a lone beam of sunlight permeating the murky, inky sky, and figured I could do with drying out my clothes. Not only that, but she was planning on biking in South East Asia over the winter, so we sat down around the wood burner, soon toasty and warm, and chatted about faraway places to ride. Ever the social butterfly, I was even invited by Benoit and his French hiking friends to join them for dinner – so no need to call upon the emergency delights of instant noodles…
Better still, after I’d peeled myself out of my damp, single skin tent in the morning, Elki, their guide, plied me with sandwiches and chocolate bagels and fruit, which tied me all the way through the following day.
And rounding off this social whirpool, I bumped into three young riders in Lake Louise, cycling 4500kms to Montreal – Nuka, Luc and Julien are mates from school, and just 20 years old. We rode together the backway to Banff, where the incredible baton of hospitality I’ve experienced on this journey was taken over by Scott, who biked the Great Divide Ride with Hat, my old housemate, last year.
More on the turquoise-rivered wonders of Disney-Banff and its majestic primo singletrack soon – in the meantime, feast your eyes on this…