Calgary interlude, July 18-21, 2000
Kerie and I arrived in Calgary, Alberta on July 18 to spend a couple of days checking out the city and getting acclimated to the altitude before heading to Banff. We decided to rent a van to haul our bikes into town from the airport and to take a trip into the plains. The hotel was just west of the downtown area in what we thought was a slightly seedy section next to a very seedy looking karaoke bar. When we first drove up to the place and cruised around through the parking garage and around the back we nearly kept going. The hotel turned out to be fine and we were a close walk away from most of the downtown area, including a very good outdoor store fashioned after REI called Mountain Equipment Coop. On the 19th we spent most of the day riding the excellent trail system along the Bow and Elbow Rivers. But first we had to put the bikes together, which took less than an hour for both my Bike Friday and Kerie's Trek 520.
The trails were well marked, with small yellow arrows showing the direction in segments where the trail became part of the street network. Luckily for us the Calgary Stampede was the week before so we rode by the site where it is held and saw the acres of debris being cleaned up. We rode for over 40 miles, 99% of which was on bike trails or routes.
The next day we decided to see some of the surrounding countryside and drove south about 120 miles to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, an American Indian site where the buffalo were killed by herding them over a cliff. It was used before the advent of horses and was the most efficient way to hunt. It required elaborate planning and coordination, no cell phones or walkie talkies allowed. Afterwards I decided to take a different route back to town and the road quickly turned to loose gravel with just a scattering of ranch houses in the distance. We both figured that our bleached bones would be found weeks later after running off the road, but we didn't say much until we were back on roads going in what we were pretty sure was the right direction.
The drive down was mostly flat farmland with mountains off in the distance, but the return route was further west in the foothills and was a more interesting drive. Later we walked to the outdoor store and Kerie bought a good, waterproof pair of bike pants to prepare for what she was sure was going to be a cold, wet ride in the Rockies. I returned later under the guise of needing brake pads so that I could buy some last minute presents for Kerie's birthday on the 22nd.
On Friday, our last day in Calgary I wanted to see the Karl Rungius landscape and wildlife paintings at the Glenbow Museum, so we headed out early since we needed to get back to the airport to catch the van ride to Banff at 3:00. The show was excellent. Rungius has never been fully appreciated as a fine artist since much of his work was for magazine publications and reproductions for the general public. His quick oil sketches made in the field for later use in the studio as studies for larger paintings were very good with vibrant colors and a nearly abstract landscape quality. I was frustrated that there were almost no postcards or other color publications for sale in the museum shop.
At the airport we ran into our first tour mates, Ted and Ruth from Glenwood Springs, CO. Others started to arrive and we piled into the Timberline Tours van with tour leaders and owners of Timberline Tours, Dick and Carol, Carol at the wheel hurling through the unending Calgary suburbs towards Banff.
Our room at Rundlestone Lodge was very nice but we didn't have much time to enjoy it since we needed to put our bikes together again and check out the town of Banff before dinner next door. We met a few more people at dinner, then the group gathered in a spare storage room at the hotel to hear the orientation talk by Dick and Carol. It's not often that we have the owners of the tour company as our guides, but Timberline isn't an ordinary tour company. Besides running the business Dick and Carol go on several of their own tours each summer, schlepping bags and humoring the guests. Unlike most other tours, we weren't subjected to the round of self introductions, but later wished we had at least called out our names as it took a few days to figure out everyone's name and where they were from.
We found out at the meeting that our first day would be even more of a warm up than most first days, a 15 mile ride to Johnston Falls. Our original plan was to stay at the Storm Mountain Lodge which was now closed, and there were not many alternatives. For the next 9 days we would be riding through 3 national parks, and there were very few towns and most of the motels and lodges were reserved long ago.
To stretch out the miles on our first day Kerie and I decided to ride through Banff and check out the Banff Springs Hotel, the massive stone structure that is pictured on most postcards of the park. It's an impressive place, with impressive rates as well; rooms start at around $260 Canadian a night. Dick had suggested a side trip of about 10 miles to Lake Minewanka so we took Tunnel Mountain Road, past the Hoodads, eroded sand formations along the banks of the Bow River. En route we saw our first elk crossing the road.
Once we started the official route we headed out on Rt 1, the trans-Canada highway that is the major through route for all traffic in the area. The shoulders were wide but the truck traffic was heavy and seemed to get worse every time we had to travel on Hwy 1.
It wasn't long before we turned off onto the Bow Parkway, Rt. 1A, which also had a shoulder and the traffic was much calmer. Immediately after turning we came across a herd of bighorn sheep coming out of the woods, their coats looking very mottled since they were in the process of shedding.
We arrived at Johnston Falls to join the busloads of tourists walking along the river to the falls, the most crowded hike of the tour, a little like hiking Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah NP on a weekend. We had a cozy little cabin and a good dinner that night in the lodge.
There was a powerful storm that night that caused a power outage which meant no water in the morning. The kitchen broke out the propane grill and fixed an excellent breakfast.
Cool rain continued throughout much of the day's ride to Radium Hot Springs along Rt 93. Traffic was steady and fast; it seems that no one obeys the speed limit, and from a display at one of the roadside stands, it is reflected in the high number of animal deaths. The route mostly followed the Kootenay River through a glacial valley surrounded by snow-covered peaks.
The shoulder started to run out just when we needed it most, on the rainy descent into the hot springs. It was frustrating to have to brake so hard but it was a dangerous ride with RVs passing within inches, horns blaring. The Springs were a great reward at the base of the hill, with clean hot pools awaiting us.
The motel was a nondescript place along Rt. 95 in the town of Radium Hot Springs. There was a hose handy for cleaning off the sandy bikes. Dinner was a 3 hour ordeal, and from then on we staggered our eating times to avoid the 25 of us from overwhelming the facilities.
As with most tours it didn't seem that we had much time to look around once we arrived in town, between cleaning the bikes, washing bike clothes, showering and just taking it easy for a while.
Day 3 was a flat ride amongst the logging trucks and tractor trailers on Rt 95 to Golden. We followed the mighty Columbia River not far from it's source. It is a wide slow river at this point unlike the roaring river that it becomes further west. There were lots of large birds of prey including osprey and bald eagles. We spotted both with our binoculars once we stopped to scan the river banks.
The only real climb was the last mile or so from the town of Golden to our motel atop the surrounding cliff, the Golden Rim Motel. Golden is a working town with a small college, unlike the tourist towns of Banff and Lake Louise. When we arrived at the motel the pool was full of fellow riders, with a view overlooking Golden and the river valley. Many of us stopped in Golden for drinks and snacks, including Marilyn, who left her rack-top bag open with her wallet sitting inside. It fell out on the way out of town. Once she arrived at the motel she realized that it was gone so she and Carol hurried back down and discovered that it had already been turned in to the police station. As Marilyn walked into the station the officer there said 'you must be Marilyn'.
We continued to climb when we left the motel on our way to Lake Louise. After a day of riding outside of the parks, we would enter Yoho NP on our way to Kicking Horse Pass. Before the town of Field where we stopped for lunch we made a short side trip to Natural Bridge where the Kicking Horse River has carved out a small gap in the rocks. Field is a small funky town with a good natural foods restaurant where we sat outside and I scanned the surrounding mountainside for signs of mountain goats or bighorn sheep. From there we had a tough climb to the top of Kicking Horse Pass where we met Carol and the van. Unlike in the US, the passes are not prominently marked and it is often not clear when you are at the top. It had become a beautiful, clear day, one of the best riding days ye despite the speeding trucks and rec vehicles. Near the pass we stopped at the figure 8 rail tunnel created so that the first trains could navigate the steep grade.
At the daily route talk Carol had told us about a short cut to Lake Louise, Rt 1A, that was now closed to all motor traffic. It wasn't marked and most of us missed the turn. Tim happened upon Kerie and I as we pondered whether to turn at what looked like the right place, and together we agreed to try it. It turned out to be the right way and we had a great, traffic free ride to the Great Divide display along the way, where water runs either to the Atlantic or Pacific. As we rolled into the Paradise Bungalows, most of the rest of the group was finishing their climb from the town of Lake Louise, the price they paid for missing the turn.
We weren't used to the spacious suite that we had at the Bungalows. A bedroom, kitchen, living room, and full bath. Dinner at the lodge at Moraine Lake, about 10 miles from our motel, was excellent.
As is often the case, we didn't get much rest on the "rest day". On our way to breakfast at the Chateau on the lake, about a 1.5 mi. walk from the bungalow we saw Dick heading back to the lake and we hitched a ride. Most of the group had been out for an early lunch and were going for a long hike with Dick and Carol. We opted to sleep in and take a short hike from the lake. There are two small peaks nearby, Little and Big Beehive. On the way was a teahouse nestled beside a small lake where tea, cookies, and soft drinks are served by college kids who spend the summer there, returning to the lake 2 days a week. The views of the many lakes in the area were spectacular and we took 2 rolls of pictures. It made for a tiring day, especially since we didn't carry enough water for what turned out to be a long hike. Unfortunately dinner was a repeat of the long slow dinner at Radium Hot Springs, mainly because it was far enough away that we needed to ride in the van, and couldn't stagger our arrival.
We were finally able to leave the Trans-Canada highway and most of the truck traffic when we headed north on the Icefields Parkway toward Jasper. This stretch, that would take us 3 days to traverse, was the most beautiful of the trip. We were in the middle of Banff and Jasper National Parks and the mountains were spectacular. Our destination that night was Saskatchewan Crossing, a gas station, tourist store and motel near where the parkway crosses the Saskatchewan River. There were a few climbs but nothing extreme. Peyto Lake was an optional side trip, a short climb on an asphalt trail where we joined the motorized tourists on one of their few forays outside their vehicles. I continued to use up film on the spectacular vistas. We also started to see more cyclists, including another Timberline group that caught up to us at Lake Louise, and a Backroads group that always seemed to have their bikes sitting atop their support vehicle. We had an OK room and dinner at the Crossing and once again weren't motivated to try the spa.
The day started out cool and we rode with extra clothes on for most of the time. We would be riding by the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest in N. America. It threatened to rain several times but merely misted as we approached the Icefield Visitors Center. At that point an arm of the Columbia, the Athabasca glacier, ends within a couple of hundred meters of the road. Busloads of tourists were headed onto the glacier for a tour while we fought the remaining busloads at the visitors center for seats in the cafeteria. At the center here was an excellent display about glaciers and the surrounding area. The ice field creates it's own weather and it is usually cloudy and wet at the center.
We had a decent room at Sunwapta Falls, another of the tourist islands in the center of the park, a short walk from another set of falls cut into the bedrock by the Athabasca River. While surfing channels in the lodge we happened across a show on dog agility and saw Kerie's sister Linda and one of her border collies win her event. Others at dinner were talking about the event and Kerie told them about the world class athletes in the family.
Our final full day of riding turned out clear and sunny. With the weather and scenery, it was one of the best riding days ever. Our first stop was to check out the campground at Honeymoon Lake, a beautiful spot of lakeside sites on the small, crystal clear lake. We made slow progress as we stopped often for photos and to savor the day, including this one of us with the other Dennis and his wife Marilyn. At Athabasca Falls we turned off onto Rt 93A. The river had carved a completely new channel in the rocks, and we could walk through the adjacent old river bed.
Earlier we were told that the road may be closed due to fires on the surrounding hillside. We saw the burn area as we rode by, the fire temporarily halted although still smoldering in the ground. Some of the roads leading into that forest to the west were still closed. While stopped for one of the rare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from the support van an Edmonton racing club came flashing by. It was surprising to see them since the road was very rutted and rough. We heard later that some of the riders had taken a spill on an early stretch the road.
I went part way up the very steep climb to Mt. Edith Cavell just before we rejoined Rt 93 on the outskirts of Jasper. Jasper is a lively mountain town with many outfitter shops, geared more toward hikers and bikers than the motor tourists who frequent Banff. We stayed at the Tonquin Inn on the east edge of town, next to a huge apartment complex where the summer and restaurant, shop and motel staff live. We had a very good dinner at the Mad River Inn.
For a treat on our last day we planned a brunch at the Jasper Mountain Lodge which is even more upscale than the Banff Springs Lodge. But first we took a short ride to Pyramid Lake as a group. Ted had been admiring my Bike Friday and wanted to take it for a test ride and this was his last chance. It was another beautiful day and since we were away early, the light was ideal for photos. The two lakes were like glass, with a mirror-image of the surrounding mountains reflected on the surface. From there we rode to the lodge, spotting a huge bull elk on the way and we fired off more photos. Brunch was one of the best meals of the trip, and I made several trips back to the buffet. On the veranda before the meal we ran into a family we had met at Lake Louise on our hike to the tea house.
Once back at the motel we showered and packed for the van ride back to Calgary. Because the van had a car top rack, we didn't need to pack the bikes which worked out well since we planned to ride on our lay over day in Calgary.
Although the rough Calgary bike trails were better suited for mountain bikes, we had a good ride along the north side of the Bow River and into town for the last time.
From our experience with Icefields Rambler, I highly recommend Timberline Tours. There were many repeat customers so I assume that most everyone agreed. A minor complaint was that there weren't as many snacks provided during the day as are available on most other similar tours. The maps were terrible, but the directions were usually very straightforward so there weren't many problems with getting lost. Before taking one of their tours (assuming that all maps are of similar quality), be sure to find a good regional map before departing. The group was a little too large at 25 people, but it worked out better than I suspected.