Part 2: Waterton Lakes to Banff

Day 9: in Waterton

Next day is our first rest day. Montana Mountain Woman Lynda, Maine Man Geof, Carolina Bill and Flatlander Ton ride the boat to the south end of the lake, most of them planning to hike at the other end. They all take the first boat back. Guess what the weather is like? I am holed up in the Tamarack Mall (with six shops, no threat to West Edmonton) waiting for a break in the same storm when they return. This is the only day of the trip when my bike rolls exactly zero miles -- and thus is the other day I didn't reach 30 mph. (Miles. Yes, because the trip started in the US and I don't want to change measure in the middle, I stay with miles for the entire trip even though virtually everything in Canada is posted in kms.) I finally cut holes in the soles of the neoprene booties I bought at Braxton's in Missoula, making my spuds rain-compatible.

I have a long list of people to whom I'd like to send postcards. I buy forty, and stamps, and spend a few minutes in the laundromat figuring out how to draw a quick figure of a cyclist. I don't get started actually writing the postcards. Remember this.

Day 10: Waterton to Lundbreck Falls

Despite the break, California Bill has had enough. The forecast is for more rain and he doesn't like rain riding, his Achilles tendon hurts, and he has a new girlfriend at home. He catches a shuttle to Pincher Creek and a bus to Edmonton so he can use his plane ticket home. The remaining seven of us, starting earlier, reach Pincher Creek as he leaves. He takes his coffee maker and gourmet coffee with him, so we will move a bit more slowly in the mornings henceforth.

Two showers and a mist out of Waterton, Lynda and I stop to read an historical marker. The occupants of an RV parked there invite us for coffee. They are depressed by all the rain they've been encountering. We try to cheer them up, but we aren't sure they will be able to stick it out. It takes real gumption to keep going in this weather.

My rear tire has been soft since Delta adjusted it for me, and I figure my front has lost some air in a week. Frame pump doesn't work well enough to fully inflate tires? No problem! Plenty of gas stations in Pincher Creek with air hoses! No gauge? No problem! I can judge pressure with my thumb! No problem! BANG three blocks later. Hmm, better let some air out of the front before it goes too ... Let's see, why was it I said I don't carry a spare tire? Oh yeah ... because I like walking around with a bike with a flat tire looking for a bike shop in a small town knowing that the rest of my group has already gone on ahead, that's it. I think. All is not in vain; I run into Andy and Shelly (the couple headed for Alaska) as I walk through town; they've stopped for pie. Amazingly, there is in fact a sporting goods store in Pincher Creek that has two, count them two, 27-inch tires. I buy them both and install the IRC tire. The shopkeeper lets me change the tire inside the store and even offers the use of his tools. There is an advantage to breaking down in a small town. Ever heard of a Swallow tire? Well, I reckon it will do for a spare, and slide it under the bungees. I try to buy a tire pressure gauge too, but he doesn't have one. In fact, he doesn't even have one for his own use. Once burned, twice shy -- and I will spend the next seven days with my tires severely underinflated. I arrive at the Lundbreck Falls campground and proudly announce that I am leading the race for SuperDumDum award. I also discover that all the others got hit by rain between Pincher Creek and Lundbreck. Maybe I'm not so dumb -- all I got hit by was an incredible 180-degree view of the Rockies ahead of us. (And maybe, I realize later, I didn't really put so much pressure in the tire anyway. Possibly it was damaged when Delta pushed it off the rim, but didn't blow out until I got it fully pressurized. Maybe.)

The rain holds off for most of the evening, and Lundbreck Falls is gorgeous. We've been on the edge of the prairie for most of the day, with only rolling hills and no real climbs. But large creeks sometimes cut pretty, if small, gorges through this terrain. At Lundbreck the Crowsnest River not only cuts a gorge but drops about 5-8 meters all at once. The gentle, subtle landscape is somehow even more impressive after the mind-blowing spectacles of the last few days. There's also quite a floral display in the gorge. I continue the dumdum theme by discovering at bedtime that I tossed my soap bottle into my tent without closing the top. Oh well, the rain will wash it all out in a day or two.

Day 11: Lundbreck Falls AB to Fernie BC

Falling water remains a theme. It shifts to the sky around 4:00 AM and we have our morning ritual.

Good morning, Bill. Good morning, Lynda.

Good morning, Rich and June. Good morning, Lynda.

Good morning, Ed. Good morning, Merry Sunshine. Yes, Ed, the sun is really shining out here, can't you hear it hitting your tent?

My age is showing. I know Merry Sunshine, but the group theme song is "singing the clouds away" from some TV show I've never seen.

We've started the game of finding good things about rain. The obvious ones of less heat, more greenery. Better waterfalls. Few or no log trucks. Sun doesn't get in our eyes. Automatic windshield washers. Tires don't get dry rot. No coat of pollen on your tent. Gee. I know we had a lot more. I wonder why I forget them so quickly.

Only Ton is left when I leave camp. He's hoping the rain will let up, knowing that he can catch the rest of us. We've agreed to meet at the bakery in Blairmore, 15 miles ahead. I find the bakery but see no bicycles, no bicyclists, no red & yellow safety triangles. I assume that the others didn't want to wait for me in the rain and went on. Half right. They are holed up in a laundromat, but I don't figure that out. I add a jacket and put on my ski mittens -- it's cold as well as wet -- and continue. This is not comfortable. In addition to the constant rain and the fact that I worry about getting chilled if I stop, the mittens apparently alter my posture, as my shoulders are aching. And water is pooling inside the mittens. Today, more than any other day of the entire trip, I'm grateful for the wide smooth shoulders on most Canadian highways around here. (You must realize, as an Easterner I think of the shoulder as where the grass grows. Any ridable shoulder is a luxury. Wide smooth shoulders are heaven.) The shoulders are also enjoyed by a profusion of earthworms trying to cross the road whenever it rains. We long ago gave up planning roadkill stew, but fried worms seems like a cheap way to get plentiful protein. Another good thing about the rain. Dinner?

I stop at a small shelter on the edge of the lake near Crowsnest Pass to eat and rest out of reach of the wind. A mile or two beyond, I cross the Continental Divide again, into British Columbia. It's raining again. But this crossing is almost imperceptible -- only about 800 feet of climbing in 30 miles, and only a small hill at the end. The highway actually climbs above the pass by about 100 feet, because there is a small lake right at the pass! I enjoy coasting for a bit.

Meanwhile, the main group has dried their clothes in Blairmore, given up on riding to Fernie, and is looking for a ride. There is a bus, but bikes would have to be boxed. But at the bus station they meet Diane, who has a truck and can arrange another vehicle, for a very reasonable price. They have to wait for her to get off work, but are more than a little happy to know they won't have to ride in the cold rain.

I pass a short bit of road construction work. Among the endearing things I encountered in Canada was the habit of hiring beautiful women as flaggers on road crews. One yesterday, another now. Only problem is that they are so eager to help a bicyclist that they wave me right through! Ah, for some traffic, for an excuse to stop. It turns out that Ton is only a few minutes behind me now, having also missed the main group, and the lovely woman tells him of another cyclist just ahead.

The trucks stop to pick up Ton, so it's a few minutes yet before they catch me. Remember, until I hear someone call my name I'm still assuming they are all ahead of me, and it takes me a moment to figure out what's happening. By now the rain's not bothering me much and I'm warm. But my shoulders hurt, and it's getting late and I have cook duty tonight. So discretion being the better part of valor, I take the lift from Sparwood to Fernie -- my only concession to motorized transportation between the Missoula and Edmonton airports, save a very short side trip later. A good move, probably, as the road turns south at Sparwood and a headwind was likely. Carolina Bill and I fix lasagna, since we are staying in the hostel in Fernie and it's the first time since we left Missoula that we have access to an oven. Al, the hostel owner, transplanted himself from Vancouver just over a year ago and is still in the process of transforming half of his motel into the hostel. Highly recommended. Open for ski season too. We visit Squeaky's laundromat cum sauna.

The rain actually stops shortly after we reach Fernie, and we have a pleasant evening. I never get into the main part of town, but those who do, say it's very pretty and well worth taking some time for.

Day 12: Fernie to Ft. Steele

In the morning we head out under cloudy skies, grateful for a break in the rain. I stop to work some oil into my squeaking front hub. We enjoy the ride down the Elk River to Elko, where we turn back north again, now on a very busy highway for a few miles. It's a relief to get off it onto an almost unused road, with lovely views out over the Kootenay River. Carolina Bill's rack breaks, Lynda proves the value of carrying hose clamps (several of us will establish personal stocks of them at our next opportunity). We stop at the Kootenay Fish Hatchery trying to avoid a thunderstorm, but for once the storm seems determined to avoid us instead. The storms are moving very slowly today, and it doesn't seem feasible to wait it out. A hatchery worker gives us her personal tour of the hatching pens. This is more interesting than it sounds.

A truly dry day would never do, though, and we suit up about five miles from our Ft Steele destination. Just as we pass out of the rain, we round a bend while staring at a huge bird's nest, perhaps an eagle's, atop a power pole. After dinner we cross the road to the actual Ft Steele, a reconstructed pioneer town. Around here, pioneer means turn of the century. After five admission is free, and though you can't go in the shops or take the tours, it's fascinating and colorful, tastefully done. There's a good bit of apparent research in furnishing the shops and professional offices with authentic equipment (old or reproduction).

Day 13: Ft. Steele to Fairmont Hot Springs

We leave Ft Steele with only clouds, but a couple of miles takes care of that deficiency. Twelve miles to Wasa, and we stop for hot chocolate. No point in staying for long, but Ton's eyes are still glazed as we roll into the rain again. Twelve even-longer miles bring us to Skookumchuck, which consists of little but a cafe. Andy and Shelly have arrived earlier; they soon leave, and for the last time we bid them drought on their way to Alaska. The weather looks miserable. We book a hotel room in Fairmont Hot Springs and commence trying to get a ride. Rich and June (our Colorado couple fresh from Ride the Rockies) stand on the road with thumbs out. I talk with a hitchhiker going the other direction -- he's from Edmonton, and since I'm headed there at the end I'm looking for information. Avoid The Mall, he says. Two hours later we are still in Skookumchuck, the road is still wet, but the rain has stopped and we admit that we have to ride. I'm bringing up the rear as usual, and a couple of miles along the way a cyclist pulls across the road to ask who we are and where we are going, etc. His load is amazingly light, all carried in a small parcel on top of a rear rack. He started in Ottawa with full camping gear but quickly discovered that credit cards are much lighter. He says it's been raining on him ever since he left Ontario. Why am I not surprised. As I'm talking to him, Lynda passes driving a pickup. OK, riding in one. She's found a ride so she can secure the arrangements at Fairmont. I toss most of my load into the truck.

It doesn't help. Canal Flats is aptly named, for its effect on my tire as well as for its topography. Coasting in, my once-burned-twice-shy finally catches up with me, as an underinflated rear tire combines with a rock to give me my first pinch flat ever. Luckily my tools were not in the panniers I tossed on the truck. The rest of the ride turns out to be rather pleasant. Though pleasant is another relative term, and by now we have adjusted to making the most of the small things in life ...

Canal Flats is an odd way to cross from one major watershed to another, to reach the small end of a great river. You come down a long hill to the flats, and cross a bridge over the Kootenay River. Then you ride across this flat swamp and suddenly you are at the edge of Lake Columbia. These two rivers, less than a mile and a few feet of elevation apart here, will meet again only after traveling several hundred miles each -- the Columbia some 200 miles north and then south, the Kootenay south to a loop through Montana and Idaho, till their confluence in British Columbia near the Washington-Idaho corner.

The end of the day is at the other end of the lake. We never reach the hot springs in Fairmont, partly discouraged by the descriptions that portray them as much more commercial than those at Radium which we expect to drop into a day later. The hotel is at a campground, so even here we have a cook shelter for dinner. Of course, there is a laundry facility.

Day 14: Fairmont Hot Springs to Radium Hot Springs

Morning takes us off the main highway along 15 miles of almost deserted road into Invermere. This turns out to be an attractive and well-supplied little town despite an official population of only 1000 -- presumably the result of a strong tourist trade. Here Carolina Bill finds a replacement rack. We all stock up on hose clamps. We get cash at the ATM. We pig out at a fabulous bakery where we watch the bakers taking bread from the oven, and we make a note that we don't have to buy lunch for tomorrow, as no one ate what they packed today. We visit the two excellent second-hand clothing stores, and by the time we leave town I am the only one who has not bought clothing since leaving Missoula -- me, the Florida boy that Lynda was worried wouldn't understand that it gets cold in the Rockies.

Ton, too, has now had his fill of the rain. Too much wind and rain in Holland, makes for a busman's holiday. Since he's much stronger than the rest of us, he figures he can make it to Jasper with little rain riding if he rides when the weather's good and holes up when it's not. As far as we know, that's what he did. We last saw him in Banff a couple of days later. We will miss his potato-carrot-onion stew and his sense of humor.

So then there were six.

Radium Hot Springs is Only 8 Minutes Away according to the billboard. Somehow it seems to take a little longer, but the view over the Columbia River is gorgeous. We were considering staying at Red Streak campground, said to be the nicest on the entire route. A few days ago when we were wondering what the red streak is, Ton slapped a mosquito on his arm and indicated the result. Hmm. We go to Skyview instead.

We'll take a long ride in Kootenay National Park tomorrow, but today we are only going a short way in to the hot springs. I stop at the small info center at the park entrance. A man from an RV is questioning the quite knowledgeable woman tending the ranger station:

This place has all changed since I was here five years ago!

Well, sir, it really hasn't changed in ten, twenty years. Fifty actually.

Um, urrg, well just tell me where to camp tonight!

Well, sir, here are your choices. You can go up to [...] or if you prefer you might --

I don't care about that! Just tell me where to camp tonight!

I have some ideas for him too, but I keep my mouth shut and give the ranger a nice smile when the RV man has left.

Somehow I think of a spring, even a hot spring, as a place that water comes out of the ground, not a place where it flows into concrete swimming pools. But so it is. Here the geothermal leakage smells of chlorine rather than of sulfur. I find some shorts to wear -- I mailed my swimsuit home from Waterton, seeing no possible use for it, forgetting hot springs. And the warm concrete pool does contain the usual assortment of nubile young ladies in swimsuits. Later we pig out on pizza, and I discover Greek pizza, which I find I like.

It's in the campground here that Geof notices my bent seatstay. Obviously I didn't examine my bike closely enough after Delta sat on it. Well, it's held out for two weeks; hopefully it will hold for two more. (Eventually I will be advised that there is no functional damage and that I should leave well enough alone.)

Notice something missing about this day? No rain. We are disconcerted, thrown off balance. After nine consecutive days of rain, we don't know what to do without it. But being good sports, no one complains.

Day 15: Radium Hot Springs to Marble Canyon CG

The next day makes up for it. We start dry, but as soon as we start the early climb of Sinclair Pass the drizzle commences and soon turns to rain. We stop at the top, in the rain, to don warm duds for the descent. A quarter mile farther along is a picnic shelter, but no one told us we could get out of the rain. The descent is drenching. The back of the Bikecentennial map says "the lower valleys of the park are characterized by hot, dry summers ... and low annual precipitation". Huh. Wrong on all all points based on what we can see. This pelting rainstorm is not compact, and we don't leave it for a couple of hours. When it subsides, the headwinds take over. We occasionally get a glimpse of the peaks around us, and wish we could see more. This scenery is serious, and we are finally beginning to really resent the cloud blockade. Eventually I catch Rich and June, who have found a large patch of wild strawberries and are grazing.

This is Kootenay National Park, with an odd history. Around 1920, British Columbia wanted a road from Banff to the Columbia valley but didn't want to pay for it. The feds built the road in return for all the land for five miles on both sides of the road, which became the park. Except for the road, this is isolated country. In 104 km from Radium to highway 1, the facilities consist of one tiny food store next to a small motel, and a few campgrounds. No side roads. Nothing off the road but trails. In the wet and drear it looks very lonely. I try to imagine winter here and can't. But then, I'm from Florida.

We trusted that small store at Vermilion Crossing to supply our food tonight. It manages, by the skin of its teeth. Rich and I grab the six packages of ramen (the only pasta), the single dozen hot dog rolls (the only bread), some canned vegetables and tuna, and muffins for breakfast. We don't leave much behind. We will worry about lunch tomorrow. The store does have fresh hot chili, and some of us succumb to its allure.

It's rained off and on while we wait, but mostly leaves us alone the rest of the way to camp. This is unquestionably the wettest, dreariest day of the trip. Even here there are rewards. The next section displays perhaps the highest concentration of avalanche chutes on the entire route. Having only read about avalanches, I have assumed they always follow drainages. Clear areas in a forest, I assume are clearcuts. Wrong on both counts here. Narrow bands of trees march up the mountainsides, alternating with treeless green areas kept flat by snow tractors. The idea is reinforced by sections of road signed "No Stopping -- Avalanche Area". OK, OK -- I keep moving.

The Marble Canyon campground has strict rules about setting up tents only on the gravel pads (the ground is sensitive) and rain is passing through rather regularly. The cook shelter is great, one of the largest we have seen. Eight tables (of finished wood), two large wood stoves, a bird's nest in the rafters, and food lockers right next to the shelter. Lots of space to hang stuff in a feeble attempt to dry it. Geof and Bill get their tents set up while Rich and I cook. Of course, the rules prohibit sleeping in the shelters. And we wouldn't break the rules, would we? Would we?

Day 16: Marble Canyon BC to Banff AB

The next day is short, so there's time to explore Marble Canyon, just across the road from camp. Only about a quarter mile long, it looks like a slot canyon in form, but cut through hard rock (marble is compressed limestone), probably along a crack of some kind. One of the odder of the many odd formations along our route. And quite a floral display along the top.

The rain starts as a drizzle but gradually thickens as I'm steadily climbing toward Vermilion Pass. This pass is deceptive. A false summit leads to some almost level road where it's hard to identify the actual divide -- signs announce Alberta but obviously aren't at the precise border. Finally, after a couple of miles of this, there is a monument announcing the actual Continental Divide, right here.

Of course, our third and last crossing of the Big Edge is also in the rain. I'm the only one left with the group to ride all three crossings. And a personal, rather accidental, record is intact: I've crossed the Continental Divide many times in the air, five times on a bicycle, and never by any other means. In particular, never in a car.

After the pass, of course, the road ascends into Alberta. No, wait. It should descend, shouldn't it? Hey, ROAD, listen! Down, dammit! You don't understand how this works! Cross a pass, the Big Edge, and then we go DOWN. No use. The road continues up, on an agenda all its own. Finally it tops out (for no better reason than whatever led it upward) and it's a quick if bumpy ride to Castle Junction. I'm feeling tired and riding slowly into Banff. There's another cruel joke here, as the campground is two miles out of town, up a steep hill, and has no cook shelters -- the one exception, and we are staying here for two nights. The view from camp is great, but it's starting to drizzle. The others are ready to go into town, and decide to take the shuttle bus, as the thought of climbing back up the hill is not attractive at this point. I was last to camp, and I take my time putting up my tent and generally relaxing.

By the time I'm ready for town, I'm a bit more ready to ride too, and my natural aversion to waiting keeps me off the bus. I've also been studying maps, and learn that the back way into town is a much easier ride. I discover the Cake Company and devour the first of several delicious pastries I will squander my calories on over the next day and a half. Finally I find a tire gauge, and put the right amount of air in my tires for the first time since my bike changed planes in Salt Lake City. And I look at the Wet Rider gloves in Park 'n' Pedal. The shopkeepers swear that Banff residents ride in them in the winter. The gloves are expensive. I have a day to think about it.

Across the street is a combination laundromat, cafe, video store and a couple of other things. Since I need to do laundry, I check it out. Should have known -- the rest of the crew is already here, hogging dryers. Seems I made the right choice on transportation. The bus was slow, they had to take two buses, they need bikes for getting around in town. They will do it my way next time. (Ah, the feeling of being right.) Just before we sit down to dine at a park near downtown, I take my bike (see, I have wheels) to the liquor store for wine. After dinner the others must rush to catch the last bus, so I go by the Safeway for last-minute food and supplies. Hmm. Seems having wheels is getting me a lot of errands.

We enjoy staying up late without having to worry about getting up early. The late light is amazing, especially to the southerners among us. There is still light in the sky at midnight, and I know that dawn is visible by three o'clock. In between? I never get up with a clear enough sky to see for sure, but I'd guess the sky never gets completely dark up here at this time of year.