Part 3: Banff to Jasper

Day 17: in Banff

Breakfast is lazy, and we wander off to miscellaneous ends. I still must do laundry, June has been wanting to see the Banff Springs Hotel since she saw a photo in a magazine, Lynda wants to walk up Sulphur Mountain (and ride the tram down, since it's free in that direction). In the laundromat I pull out my postcards and start drawing my stick cyclists and raindrops; I get about 15 done. It was over a week ago that I told you to remember these cards. File them away again. They will reappear.

I buy the Wet Rider gloves, and mail home the ski mittens that hurt my shoulders. Note this crucial decision. Now I'm possibly prepared for cold rain -- and though we haven't outrun the rain, it will not again get cold and wet at the same time. I will not find out on this trip whether my new gloves really work. There's an open public weather office in Banff, and I talk with the meteorologist, who is very jolly and says there's little hope for any immediate improvement in the weather since the jet stream is holding this low pressure trough in place and it just wants to sit here. So's yours, I say. He can't call up conditions in individual Florida cities, but he gets the north Florida forecast. High in the upper nineties, low in the lower seventies, chance of afternoon thundershowers. You could move to Florida, I say, and not have to learn a single phrase. Use that forecast for five months running every year. This is incredibly heartening. I remember now why I am in the northern Rockies instead of at home. Between the sauna that masquerades for a Florida summer, or the infrequent and inconsequential cool bracing showers we've delighted in coasting through, the choice is easy.

We're tired of eating our own cooking, and a bit of research has turned up one of the few eating establishments in Banff that matches the group budget. After dindin, Rich and June and I explore Tunnel Mountain Drive. Here June finally finds the view of the hotel that she remembers from the magazine. You have to be on the opposite side of the Bow River to see the hotel properly. It's more than a little striking. From the same overlook I can see the spot on the other side of the river where I enjoyed the view of Bow Falls earlier. They continue up the drive while I experiment with some skinny-wheeled offroading. The trail along the Bow River, between the river and Tunnel Mountain, is mostly ridable, very pretty, and a most pleasant change from being always on the road. I get back to camp in good time. (Tunnel Mountain does not have, and has never had, a tunnel through it. The first survey for the railroad proposed a tunnel. Plans soon changed; the name stuck.)

For once our luck holds. Despite the lack of a cook shelter here, we never get rained on in Banff (and there was rain in the area). The goddesses of rain have apparently been appeased, perhaps by my purchase of Wet Rider gloves, as we will have little rain between Banff and Jasper -- despite the forecast.

Day 18: Banff to Lake Louise

Rich and June are taking the practical cyclist's approach to the conditions, though: they are renting a car from Banff to Jasper. Some might cry foul, but we are all happy they are staying with us. Starting a tour exhausted from work, then fighting a cold for ten days while riding in the rain, would have stopped many of us much sooner. We declare them hale and hearty souls and wonderful companions. Besides, they've offered to carry the group cooking gear and food in the car.

We retreat back up the Bow Valley Parkway, opposite the river from the main highway. This is a low-traffic road, and in places the two lanes separate for a few clicks. On one of these I feel strangely fatigued, barely moving even though the road looks nearly level. I spend an apparent eternity in this condition of minimal forward motion. Finally I reach the downgrade, and descend at 43 mph, my maximum speed for the entire tour. Obviously the almost-level appearance of the road was no more than an optical illusion. It climbed quite a height while appearing level.

There's an intense rainstorm in the distance ahead; I get only a glimpse now and then. It turns out to be just beyond Lake Louise, where we stop for the night. The lake and lodge are up a high hill from the town and campground, but well worth the climb. We only regret that we have no extra time here, as there are numerous short trails above the lake, a ridable trail from the lake down to the town along an old tram route, and a few miles away, Moraine Lake (which is on the back of one of the Canadian bills, I think the twenty). We lost a day because the Canadian railroad changed their schedule this year, and those traveling by rail from Jasper to Edmonton must leave on Sunday instead of Monday. We all agree that Bikecentennial should figure out a way for Great Parks North groups to have a day at Lake Louise. It's just too good to miss.

At camp we meet Andrea, a German girl who is travelling on a heavy bicycle, heavily loaded. She has crossed Canada several times already in her youth, and the casual way she carries her load puts us all to shame. She is even carrying a hatchet -- more than eight of us together were willing to do! We use her hatchet to split the wet firewood. I even show her how to use it more effectively (as a splitting wedge rather than a chopper). At least we aren't totally incompetent beside her.

Day 19: Lake Louise to Ramparts Creek

A mile or two after leaving Lake Louise on busy highway 1, we turn onto the Icefields Parkway, which will lead us to Jasper. Not far out of Lake Louise we follow a lot of wet road -- we're quite glad we didn't have to ride into that storm yesterday. At a view stop, we meet Jerry. Lynda knows Jerry from Bikecentennial leader training three years ago. Not only has he led tours, his home in Iowa is on the Northern Tier route, and the Bikecentennial Northern Tier groups regularly spend a layover day there. He had planned to ride from Lake Louise to Jasper with his wife and a friend, but the others chickened out. Jerry, a true cyclotourist at heart, couldn't bear to pass the scenery too fast and decided to go it alone. He has his bike and company too, as he joins us the rest of the way to Jasper.

The next three days tend to blend together in memory. One point of view says all we are doing is riding up this big ditch. The sides of the ditch are a kilometer or two high so there's no chance of seeing out into the real world. It's cold up top and the pipes have broken, and no one has even bothered to knock off the ice that hangs down everywhere. Off and on we come to the end of the ditch we're in and have to climb out, which gives us a thankfully brief opportunity to see the disorganized mess up top before we coast down to ride along the next ditch.

Another point of view says this is simply by far the grandest extended spectacle I have ever come anywhere near.

I've seen some other spectacles: the Teton front, Yosemite Valley, Joshua Tree NM, the Mogollon Rim. But here, it just keeps coming. Not just one large spectacle, but a new and different spectacle around every bend. Mountains, ridges, rivers, glaciers, trees, flowers, wild strawberries ... words simply don't measure up to the task. Nor do photos.

Today we finish off the Bow River, up to Bow Lake and Bow Pass, and share the Peyto Lake overlook with hordes of tourists bused in. Sometimes we resent the sudden crowds, but sometimes we enjoy the sudden silence between crowds, and we remember that some of these people on the buses would be driving a multitude of private cars if they weren't in buses. A short loop trail is loaded with yellow columbine, and an eroded trail above the loop leads to a much higher Peyto Lake overlook, shared with no one.

Lynda is patching a tube at the overlook, and we razz her for it. She's the only one riding a mountain bike, and has told the rest of us how glad she is to have wide tires so she doesn't get flats.

Crowfoot Glacier has a missing toe -- it resembles its namesake much more strongly in the 1920 photograph with all three toes. I stop for water and discover that some campgrounds here do not have drinking water! Must be prepared. Luckily the day is cool, and I don't get seriously thirsty. The huge bluffs of Mt Murchison loom over us for several miles.

After many more views we reach Saskatchewan Crossing, and sit and watch the Saskatchewan River braid its way beyond downstream around numerous small islands. The entire afternoon is one of those dreamy-wonderful times when it's difficult to pick out any specific event, just one delightful hour after another.

Several supported bike tours are also on this road, and we watch them arriving en masse at The Crossing motel. They probably pity us as we ride on to our campground. We pity them. Our campsite sits in splendor. The view tonight is one of the best of the trip, perhaps rivaled only by Waterton Lakes. As a cloud blocks the late afternoon sun, my mirror reveals a brightly lit snowy peak directly behind us.

Day 20: Ramparts Creek to Jonas Creek

The next day is Sunwapta Pass. This is the one we've been hearing is the second most difficult of the entire trip, after Logan. It's nothing. The day starts with a cruise along the Saskatchewan River, and I catch up with Lynda, Geof and Bill at the foot of the climb. No hurry -- the road is blocked at a bridge a short way ahead by a herd of mountain goats who are more interested in stopping traffic than in having their pictures taken.

As we start the climb, we can see a tongue of the Columbia Icefield. (For the picky, an icefield "drains" into more than one drainage; a glacier goes in one direction only. The Columbia Icefield leaks off the mountains via four major glaciers; it's the world's largest icefield outside the arctic regions.) There's a short moderately steep stretch, a large flat switchback loop with a nasty headwind, and another short but steeper climb. Then there's a pullout where all the buses stop, and Jerry is waiting for us. We play leapfrog taking pictures of one another making the climb. The view back down the Saskatchewan River is OK (that's what all the ooh-ing and ah-ing is about) but the wind is cold, and I move on before I have to start adding clothing.

And that's it. For all practical purposes the climb is done, though we have several miles of gentle climbing into a fierce headwind. Eventually I have to stop to eat, and add a jacket. Jerry points out a facing slope that he says would be a likely place to sight grizzlies if we had a strong scope and lots of time and patience. We've been traveling along a highway stuffed with cars, RVs, buses and bicycles, all loaded with a diverse assortment of homo sapiens. It's hard to realize that once off this road one is immediately into seriously wild country. But it's true.

We have talked about walking the trail up to Parker Ridge, but we've been dawdling all morning and don't quite feel we have the time. I've drunk more water than I expected today, so I stop when offered some -- and stop to chat with the offerer, a pretty Swiss young lady who is part of the crew for the Timberline tour.

The road has actually climbed above the pass, so we coast down for a mile or two to the actual crossing. Though this isn't the Continental Divide, it is a major divide: we are going from the Hudson Bay drainage, represented by the Saskatchewan River, into the Arctic Ocean drainage, represented by the Athabaska River. Can't tell from here, though. Just a couple of creeks. We regroup with Rich and June at the visitor center another mile or two along and take the Snocoach ride up onto the Athabaska Glacier -- all but one conscientious objector. Walking up would be a far more satisfying experience, but though our schedule has slack in it, we are indeed on a schedule. It would also be much more thrilling to get all the way up onto the icefield itself, but that's a much more serious expedition with serious skills required.

The descent of the north side of Sunwapta Pass is steep, but we are slowed by a humongous headwind. Partway down, I stop to take in the view of the Stutfield Glacier. It's one of the most fascinating on the entire Icefields Parkway, resembling nothing so much as a huge layer cake. I am finally remembering what we noticed long ago, that wind blows away from storms, and indeed we are aimed straight at a nasty-looking rain. We don gear; the wind is bad enough to entice even hard-core tourists into a loose paceline for a few miles. The rain is almost stopped by the time we reach camp -- our only wetting between Banff and Jasper.

Rich and June are going on into Jasper tonight with the rental car, but they have stopped by the campground, selected a campsite, and dropped off the food and cooking gear for the rest of us, leaving it in the lockers provided. Only gradually do we notice that something is amiss -- first I can't find the top to the large pot, then the utensils are not here, and worst of all the spaghetti is missing. Rich and June obviously overlooked a bag when getting things out of the car. And they probably won't notice until they unload in Jasper, 55 miles away.

A lively debate ensues over whether they will drive back when they find the bag, with an interesting spread of opinions, all based on perfectly sound personal principles. In their position, Lynda would have full confidence in our ability to make do, and not waste the resources to come back. I, however, having said I would deliver, would do everything in my power to return with the missing items. (Well, almost everything.) Even I don't think it's wise to wait for them, though, and the scramble begins. We have bagels for tomorrow's lunch, so we plan bagels with spaghetti sauce. We borrow some utensils from other campers. Jerry's wife and friend stop by -- they are going into Jasper tonight and have been watching for Jerry. They add what they can to augment our cheer, not the least of which is provided by a few drops of gin and wine. A couple of minutes later Rich and June arrive sheepishly and are greeted with the appreciation that can only be bestowed by hungry bikers on friends bearing food. One last meal on the road -- in a cook shelter -- with toast made over a wood stove.

And then there were four. Actually five, counting Jerry, our Iowan pickup.

Day 21: Jonas Creek to Jasper

Our last day together on the road takes us below Endless Chain Ridge, another in the endless chain of spectacles, and all day along the Sunwapta River. Going downhill I notice that my speed is 3 mph. Yes, three. I reseat my cyclometer and later figure that I've lost about six miles. Secluded Sunwapta Falls gives way to tourist-laden Athabaska Falls. Then our route follows the deserted old highway on the west side of the river, past Leach (not Leech) Lake, over the Whirlpool River (an important historic route), and past the largest field of ripe wild strawberries we have found. Geof, trailing, is delayed by a bear in the road. We catch up with Jerry helping a cyclist whose tube refuses to hold a patch. Once the guy finds that none of us has spares that will help him, he decides to hitch a ride back into Jasper. The first vehicle to pass stops for him. Send that man with the pickup back in time, back to Skookumchuck, when and where we need him!

We also follow the old road for the last mile into Jasper, where at the very end we are stopped for about ten minutes by trains. No problem; we ask the lovely local lady who is waiting on her local bike for advice on local dining establishments. Our budgetary discretion has been such that we can afford a motel room for the last night, with jacuzzi even, as well as dinner out. Jerry finds his wife, and Lynda, Bill, Geof and I find Rich and June, who have taken the responsibility of securing the room.

There is, needless to say, a laundromat in Jasper. And the motel lets us wedge our bikes onto our private balcony on the second floor, overlooking the main street.

After dinner we recap the trip. I show 888 miles, and we agree that this sounds like a good official number. I guess I've spent the most time in the saddle, because despite being the slowest I also have the most miles. Not by much, and nobody's counting anyway. (But remember, I -- oh, OK, I'll shut up.)

Day 22: Jasper to Hinton

Our really really last day together consists of a leisurely breakfast, some leisurely sightseeing, leisurely packing. Lynda has a special gift for each of us: a real spoky-doky from her bike. Now for those of you who have been fortunate enough to avoid encountering spoky-dokys, they are the most irritating bicycle accessory ever invented. They are small pieces of plastic that clip loosely over individual spokes so they can slide. When the bike is moving slowly -- say 3 mph or less -- the spoky-dokys slide up and down with a rattle that sounds terminal. At higher speeds they spin out and achieve silence. The result is that on starting and stopping, and when walking the bike, observers think it must be falling apart. It takes quite a while to get over this feeling, and even after three weeks I still think half "something's wrong" and only half "here's Lynda". Still, these are special spoky-dokys, having been installed on her bike for her honeymoon (by someone who's still a friend, a claim the rest of us find a bit incredible) and having been there ever since.

I've thought of bailing out and taking the train to Edmonton, as I'm not really sure I want another five days of this weather. But I check the forecast at the info center, and it indicates high pressure building over the area for the next couple of days, with a resulting decrease in rain activity. Foolish optimist that I am, I believe.

Rich, June and Geof are taking the afternoon train to Edmonton, to catch flights home the next morning. Carolina Bill is riding back to Montana with Lynda and her husband Mark, who drove to pick her up; Bill has to get back to his car in Missoula to drive to Iowa for RAGBRAI. We say fond farewells before the train loads, and the others give me a push toward Edmonton, since I'm the only one riding on.

And then there was one. I'm alone. I wave at the train as it passes, though I can't tell whether anyone is waving back.