I see one bicyclist as I leave Jasper on the Yellowhead Highway, which leads to Edmonton. I won't see another cycle tourist between here and Edmonton, and in fact the only cyclists I'll see at all will be children. Quite a contrast from the past few days. Between Banff and Jasper the road was full of cyclists, including a fair number of self-contained campers. Before that there were fewer, but people seemed to expect to see cycle tourists. But from Jasper to Edmonton I'll be an anomaly -- though clearly not an unwelcome one, as I receive several friendly toots from people who seem to wish they were in my place, and a couple of unsolicited offers of rides that are nothing short of amazing.
Though Jasper is east of the Continental Divide, it's actually behind the Rocky Mountain front. The Athabaska River cuts through several ranges as it flows northeast from Jasper, and my path out of the park follows it. Since the river has cut perpendicularly through the mountain ranges, the views are breathtaking yet the ride is flat, and I stop repeatedly to identify ranges and mountains, as well as to observe hoofed wildlife. The turn to Miette Hot Springs looks interesting, but it's a dead end and I need to make some time now. And I fear that any hot spring identifiable from the road will be a hot swimming pool. Near the park exit I stop to munch, with a view back. I notice rain back toward Jasper.
Since Kootenay, Banff and Jasper National Parks adjoin one another, and the towns of Banff and Jasper are actually in their eponymous parks, I've been riding entirely in national parks for slightly more than seven days since entering at Radium Hot Springs.
Ironically, the level stretch ends at the park exit, where the riverbed becomes swampy and the road leaves the river. Partway up the first hill traffic is slowed by two bighorn sheep in the middle of the road licking the pavement (presumably for salt). I expose my last frame of film and keep rolling, as the rain cloud seems to be chasing me. Aside from a single campground, there is no private development visible along the highway leading to the park gates. Quite a few more miles of rolling road, forest, marsh and countryside nearly devoid of human habitation finally start to give way to a little agriculture leading into Hinton. I locate the municipal campground. The rain catches up with me as I set up my tent. I want to go the mile back into Hinton for a nice restaurant meal, but what looks like a break in the rain closes as I start, and I abandon that plan. Since I scrounged what was left of the group food, I have plenty to eat in my tent. I was well fed with the group, being one of the lighter eaters (if a light eater on a bike tour is not completely oxymoronic in concept), so the stash of Powerbars I started with is still largely intact. And for a change, no danger of bears here.
I sleep late. There's no one's schedule but my own now.
I go back into Hinton for breakfast. At a Chinese restaurant. Seems a bit odd to me too, but it works. Best fried potatoes I've seen in a long time, crisp and bite sized. I eat slowly and read Peter Beagle's _I See by My Outfit_, which I've been carrying for three weeks without removing it from its ziplock bag. An appropriate choice I think, as it's a travelogue of a trip across the US on motor scooters. In the IGA I talk with the butcher about the weather (what else) and metrication. Meat is labelled in pounds, he says, because he hasn't yet heard anyone ask for half a kilo of chicken. But he can't find any bagels for me.
This is the day I thought I might do a century. There's still time, but the fact that I don't get out of Hinton till ten o'clock doesn't bode well for 100. Neither does the bumping sound that I start to hear a few miles out of Hinton. (Of course. There was a bike shop in Hinton, and the next one is 60 miles ahead.) I feel the tires and find nothing, but the sound persists. I closer inspection a few miles later reveals a damaged sidewall on my rear tire, with the fabric pulled apart and the innertube actually visible, trying to pouch its way out through the slit but jammed! I didn't know the tube could show but not blow! I let the pressure out before I even think about working on it.
Remember the IRC tire that I put on in Pincher Creek, and the Swallow tire that I bungeed on for a spare? Well, the IRC is undoubtedly higher quality, but it has very lightweight sidewalls, just unprotected fabric basically. I might have damaged it by riding it for a week with only about 50 psi in it, or when I got the pinch flat at Canal Flats, or last night on the rocky roads in the Hinton campground, or at any of a zillion other rough spots along the way. It doesn't pay to use the lightest possible tires for this kind of riding. Ironically, the cheap Swallow would probably have done just fine, due to its rubber sidewall. I'm rolling again ... underinflated again ... on the Swallow.
The terrain is still rolling. What with the stop and my low energy, I'm moving slowly today. I stop to read the sign at Obed Summit. Almost unbelievably, this is the highest point on the Yellowhead Highway between Winnipeg and the Pacific coast! My memory will tell me later that the elevation is 1639 meters but the maps will tell me that's impossible. I think the actual elevation is 1239 meters, which is slightly higher than Yellowhead Pass west of Jasper. Apparently much of this area is marshy, and the road is searching out the hills to stay away from the swamp.
I start playing cat-and-mouse games with the storms. Out of the mountains now, I can track their movement much better. I'm headed east, and the storms are moving northeast, so I keep watch over my right shoulder. One seems to be angling in on me, so I pull into the very small Obed Lake campground in hope of finding shelter. There is none, but the storm passes in front of me while I have a lovely view over the lake. One successful dodge. The green scene continues, pleasant to ride through but with so few landmarks that I won't remember much of it later, except for a turn where the railroad crosses under the highway to take the south side for a while. The storms continue to prowl, but they avoid me for a couple of hours. A band of them finally closes in on me. I know I can put on my rain gear -- I've done it often enough -- but I'm also a bit weary of the routine. I know there's a campground near, and it miraculously appears just in time. As I turn in, the road is seriously wet no more than 100 meters ahead.
Two boys of about ten or twelve hole up in the cook shelter with me. They say they've ridden out from Edson, where they live. How far? "Sixteen clicks .. um ... about ten miles." Quick kid. The rain tails off and I leave, though I still need the rain jacket, both for the remaining drizzle and for the cold wind which follows the storm.
At last I reach Edson. Between here and Jasper, 110 miles back, the only stores of any kind, even gas stations, have been in Hinton. The highway is otherwise totally uncommercialized despite moderate traffic. I'm unaccustomed to such isolation outside of parks, and for once I'm a little relieved to see a town. I have considered stopping in Edson, where my campground guide lists a Lions campground. It's a small, depressing RV dump right on the highway, and I decide to forge ahead. But not yet. I find a Tom Thumb supermarket, and the storms sneak in as I shop. I eat dinner at Smitty's (a chain similar to Denny's but a bit nicer), fill my soft tire at a gas station (using my gauge!) and roll out of Edson about a quarter past eight. The storm has passed and is now ahead of me. The guide shows a forest campground about 16 miles ahead, which I should easily reach by dark.
The best-laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley.
I have forgotten about the fact that winds blow away from storms, but I am quickly reminded. The chasing storm blew me into town, but now I fight my way toward the cloud. My consolation is a beautiful 180-degree rainbow, with half a secondary bow. I drop to cross the Embarras River, finally reaching 30 mph for the first time today. The light is good, as I watch the sun slowly sinking over my left shoulder. But there is another problem! This storm, which dashed so quickly toward and past me earlier, has slowed down, and soon I catch it! What good does it do to wait for the rain to pass over, when the rain stops and waits for me? I pass a rest area which I earlier picked out on the map as a possible emergency stop, even though camping is not permitted. I can't even see it from the road -- which of course would make it an excellent place -- except for a glimpse of a modern-looking shelter. But I'd rather be legal, so I head on toward the campground. It's getting pretty dim and damp when I see the sign "camping access 1 km". Glory Hallelujah! Then a click later a sign says "camping access 53 km" and points right. Must not be the place. But a few miles farther there's still no campground, so I pull out maps and books in the drizzle. I never do figure out exactly what happened. There is definitely a campground 53 km off the highway. But either there is also a campground right at the turn, which I missed, or the guide fails to mention that the campground is off the highway.
Well, I have a dilemma. I can go back about six miles and look for a campground that may or may not exist, go back about ten miles to the rest area and be illegal, or forge ahead and look for a place to stop, knowing that at worst there is a public campground some 15 miles away. Though it's nearly dark now at 10:00, the Yellowhead Highway has an excellent smooth shoulder about four meters wide (!), so I feel fairly safe even in the dim light, and my natural aversion to retreat sends me forward. I try a gravel side road, but the gravel is loose and sucks up my wheels, so I stay on the highway. I see what looks like a brick gazebo, probably a farm building, perhaps a hundred meters off the highway, that looks like good shelter. But I don't get a meter off the asphalt before realizing that the ground conditions here are less than favorable. It's a treacherous slimy gooey clay, and I don't feel like even walking off the road, much less dragging my bike. So it's forward again, my cleats now so clogged with clay that it takes a mighty effort to clip in. I give up on the idea of roadside camping, even though I don't care for the idea of riding another 15 miles like this.
And then, as in the Sidney Harris cartoon, a miracle occurs. A sign says "camping access 1 km". There is no campground listed here in my guide (which has otherwise been quite thorough). How far off the highway will it be? As I near the turnoff, I also see the Carrot Creek Community Hall, which looks like a place I can camp behind if the campground is far off. Carrot Creek isn't much of a town, but this is the first possibly public building I've seen since Edson. At the turn I'm relieved to see a sign directing me 3 km to the campground, and I turn (very carefully, now assuming I'm invisible to traffic) onto the side road. I see a surface change ahead and I pray that it isn't turning to gravel, and my luck holds again. The road is dim without headlights, but I also don't have to worry about traffic. The campground shows up on schedule, and though it's in an isolated grove of trees in the middle of a farm, it has the standard cook shelter. No tables? Don't need tables, just a place to sleep. Can't find the campsites in the dark? Well, naturally that's a problem since the rules always say no sleeping in the shelters. No rules posted here? Hmm, no problem ...
I sleep soundly. When I rise briefly at 3:00, the storm is gone and I notice the red glow in the sky of dawn, or dusk, or midnight, or whatever it is. I don't think the sky ever got completely dark.
In the morning traffic starts to build up on the road past the campground. By 8:30 it's reached a rate of, oh, five vehicles per hour, so I figure it's time to leave. The water pump here doesn't seem to work, so back on the Yellowhead Highway I stop at the Carrot Creek store to fill my bottles. The man running the store says he noticed me on the road in the near-dark last night. As I said, not too many cycle tourists around here.
The isolation is diminishing now, though I discover I have to leave the highway to see the towns. The new highway has mostly bypassed towns built on the old road. I pass right by Niton Junction and Nojack, never knowing whether there is a town just out of sight or only a name. I stop in Wildwood to picnic and to find shelter, hoping some storms will blow past. But dodging isn't working as well today; the storms are slow and unpredictable, and the cloud cover is becoming thicker and more uniform. Eventually I continue, and the droplets hit me off and on for the next several miles. Soon a sign announces highway 16A, which I guess to be the business route through Evansburg. I'm right, and the traffic is lower than on the main route. An alluring bakery appears in Evansburg, but my bags are already overstuffed with extra food. I've despaired of hitting 30 mph today, but this changes just out of town when the road drops into a delightful river gorge! At the bridge I stop to look at the bluffs, and part way up the hill I stop again at Pembina River Provincial Park. This subtle place would be pretty set anywhere, but its clean bluffs are especially attractive after miles of flatland.
I pass Entwhistle quickly at the top of the hill, and three things happen suddenly and almost simultaneously:
I'm back at the Yellowhead Highway.
Signs point to Edmonton on the Yellowhead and to Drayton Valley straight ahead.
Numerous large raindrops attack me.
In studying maps I have considered going south to Drayton Valley here, which would take me only a few miles off the shortest route to Leduc, site of the Edmonton airport. I want to take a last look at my maps before deciding, but of course I don't want to get the maps out in this rain. So I make a flash decision to stay on the Yellowhead Highway. As it turns out, I won't regret the decision. I won't stay on the busy road much longer anyway, and what looks like it should be a congested area near Edmonton will never be more than moderate country roads.
The map says it's only 29 clicks from here to Wabamun, but the rain is steady and it seems to take forever. Despite the rain, I refuse a ride offered by a man in a panel truck belonging to an office supply store. There may not be many cyclists on this road, but if anything that makes people friendlier! I was offered a ride a couple of days ago, back near Obed, by a man in a pickup going to Edmonton. Sometimes I think I'm crazy. But the fact is that despite the conditions, I know I can make it, and I want to.
I don't even notice that I'm crossing a divide, from the Arctic drainage back into the Hudson Bay drainage! The ground is a little higher, including a good view out over Wabamun Lake, but bears no resemblance to the last crossing of this divide at Sunwapta Pass. Completely unmarked, of course. I will figure it out later from maps.
I'm starting to notice some periodic clunking in my drive train. Sounds like the freewheel. Isn't much I can do about it here except hope the rain keeps it lubricated. The noise will stay with me but will never become terminal.
Finally I do reach Wabamun, and as I turn off the highway to find food in town the rain lets up. There isn't much to be found in Wabamun. I eat the worst turkey hoagie I've ever seen, and buy yogurt and potato chips. I ask two kids on bikes whether there is a back way into the provincial park so I don't have to go back to the highway. They describe two routes, both of which sound horribly muddy. They also say the city park on the lakeshore is open to camping. I pass on all these opportunities, though I'll have reason later to wonder if I should have chosen to set up camp here.
But I only have to go a couple of miles to Wabamun Lake PP, though the rain lets loose again. Sign at the entrance says no one on duty, pay at nine AM. OK. I see a phone, but the rain stops so I figure I should set up camp before calling home. The gravel road is a muddy nightmare. The turn into the first camping section says reservations only. The second area says RVs only, then come two group areas. Nothing indicates how far a tent camping area is, I don't like the idea that I'll have to return via this mudslide to the telephone, and the rain starts up yet again. I decide to go back to the phone, and afterward try to locate a more reasonable campsite. As I look through the trees toward one of the group areas, I notice a cook shelter. Hmm ... won't be any group here tonight, I bet, nor any rangers checking. Inside the shelter I would be completely out of sight. Against the rules, I'm sure ... later I walk down to the telephone. The day has been wet and muddy, but the shelter tonight is comfortable and comforting.
Early in the morning I police up filter tips around the group camp, since I'm planning to leave before the entrance station opens to take my money. I know the muddy roads aren't their fault, but I still feel a bit mean-spirited due to the mud caked on my bike. Water from a faucet in the RV camp area smells strange, but there is no warning sign, so I fill my bottles. Back near the highway, there's a road that seems to veer off to the southeast. I'd like to get off the Yellowhead Highway -- although the four-meter shoulder makes riding easy and safe, the traffic is getting heavier as I close in on Edmonton, and the noise is unpleasant. The parade of the ubiquitous double-bottom and occasional triple-bottom trucks doesn't exactly rank up there with the natural wonders of the area, either. My maps don't show this side road -- at first I think so, then realize the line on the map is the railroad. Inquiring of a couple of local-looking drivers produces no useful results. Signs indicate only that the road goes to two generating plants. I decide to chance it. I've got two days to get to Leduc, and it's only a one-day ride, so even if I get seriously lost it's just an adventure, albeit an adventure in the rain.
In a couple of miles I enter an Indian Reserve, and almost immediately pass a Mohawk convenience store. Yes, Mohawk is a large chain. This is not a joke, though it seems like a bad one. Given knowledge of how far I will ride before passing another store I would stop. I don't know, and I don't stop. The road seems to be trending generally east as it winds, which is good. I pass the turnoff to one of the power plants, and the surface deteriorates. I'm really hoping this road doesn't just fizzle out and leave me at a dead end. I reach a large operation which looks like mining for the other plant, complete with a long overpass for the road so the equipment need not disturb or be disturbed by the road.
Stop sign and dilemma. I've reached a road that seems to go north and south, and I want to go east. Which way will lead to another road? I'm also considering which way will lead to potable water, as I've realized how horrible the camp water tastes, and I'm even wondering whether it's safe to drink. I stand there for five or ten minutes trying to look lost, as three or four vehicles pass but don't stop. I'm not doing a good job of looking lost. Finally I get the bright idea of getting out my compass -- after all, the overcast is heavy and I've been on a winding road. Behold! This road runs east and west! My sense of direction has been twisted fully 90 degrees. East is now an easy choice. I pass the Keephills generating plant, cooling ponds, visitor center (by appointment only) and old townsite. I wonder, but don't learn, whether the pronunciation is Keep-hills or Kee-phills.
Slowly, slowly I figure out that I am on secondary road 627, which is actually on my maps! I don't fully believe it until I see a CAA-placed sign identifying it. The map had implied a fairly important road. This is just a small country road. I'm beginning to realize that what looks on the map like a lot of people around Edmonton is in truth little more than a lot of names on a map. I don't think serious traffic exists outside the central portion of the city. I keep expecting some kind of store somewhere as I close in on the city, but there is absolutely nothing. I'm drinking just enough of the awful water to keep my mouth wet. Finally after about 25 miles I pass a small community center building that has a water spigot outside, and I have tasty water again.
I particularly notice one pair of fields. To my left, bright yellow canola, with barns and farm buildings in the brightest barn red. (This is definitely red barn country.) To the right, deep green wheat, and a trio of old unpainted weathered buildings. Quite a contrast, especially under heavy cloud cover. Canola fields abound on this road, repeatedly deceiving me into looking over my shoulder to find the sunny patch the corner of my eye says is there.
It's raining hard when I reach highway 60. I need to look at my maps, but there is no shelter here -- no convenience stores on every corner as I would expect in the US. I decide to go straight. Any resident of Edmonton will recognize immediately that this means I haven't yet realized the difficulty of crossing the North Saskatchewan River. A couple of miles later I enter the city limits by crossing 215th Street. A couple of miles more, at 199th Street, I realize that none of the traffic is going straight, and figure that since the rain has stopped I should look at my maps. Belatedly I discover that I have to either go north almost to the center of Edmonton, or retreat to Hwy 60. Neither sounds very appealing, partly due to my state of fatigue. I go south on 199th Street (which isn't on my map) hoping I can find my way back to Hwy 60 and possibly avoid the storm I just passed through. Adventuring again.
It goes well for a while. 199th ends but a jog takes me west to 207th, and thence a very rough road cuts over to 215th. South on 215th I reach the very most southwestern corner of the Edmonton city limits. City limits signs at right angles to each other. Everything I've seen of Edmonton is totally rural; no indication of a city at all. Unfortunately, the road ahead is gravel. A woman stops at a bank of mailboxes and I intrude to ask directions. She tells me yes, I can get back to Hwy 60, and directs me down a winding gravel road to the right. This gravel is muddy, but doesn't completely suck up my wheels, so I plod on through several bends in the road. After three eternities over about a mile of road, I reach pavement again, and a couple more turns bring me to the highway. A short way south the road descends!!! The North Saskatchewan is another river cut deeply into the plain. The bluffs are spectacular, and I stop part way down to look. It's a sight for sore eyes and a tired mind. There's a short climb up the other side into Devon.
And stores. Plural. I've ridden over 50 miles since I passed the Mohawk store in the Indian Reserve this morning without seeing a single store, not even a gas station.
I look around quickly (there's a pretty, small-town street) and go for a bakery. I eat outside -- the rain, in its irregular rhythm, is off again. Three o'clock lunch. A half hour of sitting and munching makes me feel much better. I needed the rest as much as the food. I sometimes forget that.
East from Devon the wind is behind me and the pavement is smooth -- both particularly welcome, as this is one of the few busy Canadian roads I've encountered with no paved shoulder. I can now see some airport traffic overhead. I'm watching for a place to pee, rejecting some secluded but residential locations, when a vision appears ahead. I can't tell whether it's a monument, or just a fancy mansion, or what. As I approach, it looks more and more middle eastern. I turn in and learn that it is the Nisku Russian Orthodox Church! Not wanting impose on their hospitality, I go well behind the church to relieve myself before I explore. The current building is about twenty years old; the site is much older. Small on the ground, the brick walls nonetheless rise high to a large central onion dome and four smaller domes at the corners. The plaques on and in front of the church are in English and Russian. In the adjacent cemetery, Russian predominates. The cemetery goes back many decades, though I neglect to note the earliest date I see. I can transliterate a few names, but actually reading Russian is far beyond my ability. There's a strong sense of an old community here. (There was an earlier sign of Russian immigrants, an historical marker between Pincher Creek and Lundbreck with text in Russian and English, though with no explanation for its bilingual nature.)
Still another storm is approaching. The church's refuge being mostly physical today, I sit under the front portico as the storm hits a glancing blow and veers away, then I follow it.
I can see the airport buildings soon, way off to my right in a field. But how does one get there? Ah, one turns onto the expressway, the Calgary Trail. I stop in to find out what I will have to deal with early in the morning day after tomorrow. The Delta agent is most helpful and interested, says he would offer to let me stay at his place in Devon but he just got back from vacation himself. There's a campground in Devon, and I could stay there and get a ride with him Friday, but it would be early -- he starts work at 4:30. I'm in a mood to find a motel -- enough is enough -- but he gives me his home phone number and says to call if I need any help!
There are two motels just across the highway, but I wander into Leduc to see what else is available. Still another storm collides with me, and I take shelter in front of the Leduc Inn. By its appearance I guess this establishment is not in my preferred budget category. When the downpour is reduced to a sprinkle I cross the street to investigate the Maplewood Inn. The innkeeper offers a rate, and I think about it for a while, explaining how early I have to reach to airport and that I'm wondering if it's worth paying a little more to be a little closer. As I hem and haw, he reduces the rate to $67 for two nights, tax included. (And remember, this is funny money -- CA$). I can even get a tax refund if I want to go to the trouble. Sounds good to me. I'm under a roof at last. Roof and walls, that is -- I haven't used my tent since Hinton. I begin the decompression process.
This involves leaving my bike on the balcony to dry. This involves calling home. This involves wandering slowly down the street to Tim's Donuts for supper. But most of all this involves just lying down.
Oh, and decompression also involves sleeping late in the morning. After which I wander out for breakfast. Then I stuff my clothes in two panniers and roll gently in the general direction of a laundromat -- the last one. Once clean and dry, it's time for lunch. Time flies when it isn't rolling.
Last night I called Robert Lewis, rec.bikes reader and contributor in Edmonton. I've planned to go into the city today. But my body is telling me in no uncertain terms that it's time for a rest. TODAY, not tomorrow. This is a serious shame, as I was looking forward to seeing the city, the university campus, and possibly Mr Lewis. And the weather, of course, has turned absolutely lovely today, dry, sunny with a few wisps of cloud, moderate temperature. But it isn't to be; I'm just moving too slowly.
And I have postcards to write.
Remember my postcards? The ones I've been carrying over 800 miles, from Waterton? The ones I worked on briefly in Banff? Well, it's now or never. It just won't do to mail them from Florida, and the stamps I've bought won't send them far in the states. At least if they are postmarked "Leduc", no one I'm sending them to will know that Leduc isn't in the mountains. So I draw, and write, and address, and stamp, and even buy a few more postcards. I drop 57 varieties -- oops, that's 57 postcards -- really -- into the box at the post office. They won't be picked up until 4:30 tomorrow afternoon, by which time I'll be home in Florida.
I do have time for a short whirl out toward Rolly View before I eat, set several alarms, and pack absolutely everything. I sleep with my SPD shoes and glasses on so I'll be ready as soon as I awake.
I don't get wet on the short ride to the airport, but the road is wet. The intense storm is behind me. I wave to the friendly Delta agent, box my bike, and check in uneventfully. US immigration at the airport wants an ID, unlike their Canadian counterparts at Chief Mountain. I shove my box through customs and park it beside the baggage conveyor.