Into the Canadian Rockies
The next morning, we rush to finish the last of our chores in Prince George. Matty leaves to recycle our engine oil and to finally change his tire. Ben has taken his rear brake caliper off and found uneven wearing in the pad. The caliper squeezes from only one side and has worn the outer pad nearly to metal. He’s caught the problem just in time to prevent damage to his disc, but we’re both quite stumped as to why the caliper is half seized. Ben plans to tear the caliper apart, clean its bits, bleed the line, and replace the pads. He can’t fit room into his budget to pay a shop, and these camp side repair jobs with tape, zip ties, and British ingenuity are all we have to keep our mornings comical and our bikes on the road.
I watch Ben from across camp swap between the repair manual on his clean, white Kindle and the filthy bike parts it says to remove. I doubt the white will rub off on the bike — quite the opposite, actually. I turn back to packing the mess of my camp gear and think that these boys truly are flogging two dead horses across the Americas.
I originally planned to separate from Ben and Matty in Prince George for two reasons. One, I’m careful not to extend my welcome; they set off on this trip as two and not as two plus one. Second, they plan to ride west to the national parks Jasper and Banff, and I wish to visit Vancouver. Last night, however, they invited me to continue riding with them for as long as I like! I’m not so bad company after all, it seems, and I am quite eager to see the Canadian Rockies. Vancouver must wait. I pack my gear and prepare for another dash across Canada with the always chipper, disheveled duo.
Matty rides into camp sporting a new tire, though he says his morning wasn’t without drama. I’ve learned in two weeks that Matty isn’t one to show rage or anger. He instead stifles his frustration beneath a smile and approaches conflict with a level head. This isn’t to say he’s without malice. After being quite pissed two days ago that Honda hadn’t rushed the delivery of his tire alongside Ben’s, Matty took to removing his wheel this morning in their parking lot! He says they even had the audacity to question him about it. In Honda’s defense, Matty did not order his tire at the same time Ben ordered his, and this lag put two days between deliveries. Moreover, I think it prudent to confirm delivery of parts before turning a single wrench — a recommendation we are all sure to follow in the future.
While I finish packing, Matty fixes Ben’s rear brake by bleeding the line. The caliper now squeezes evenly on both sides of the disc, and this puts Ben at ease. While we mount our bikes and prepare to roll out of camp, Matty speaks of the beautiful lakes, towering glaciers, and twisty mountain roads before us, and I can’t help but think ahead. We’ll climb more than two-thousand meters across several mountain passes and descend almost as deep into the valleys below. The Yellowhead Highway will deliver us to Jasper and the Icefields Parkway to Banff. The next four days will offer the most beautiful views of Canada yet. We motor out of camp as three, ride through Prince George one last time, and point our adventure west to Alberta and another time zone.
I feel relieved riding again along the open road with unknown sights, sounds, and smells ahead of me. The day passes quickly. During a long stretch of road, Matty rides far ahead of us, and I find myself cruising along at 60-mph quite content with the speed. Ben rides ahead of me also happy to take the day as it comes. I’m looking down at the dash controls of my bike when I notice a clump of gray beating violently in the wind. I sit forward and lean past the bulk of the tank bag for a closer look at what appears to be a small bird. I carefully trade between glances at this animal’s misfortune and the road ahead of me. Quite horrifically, what must have been a very sudden impact has left this bird’s neck and body separated by a crook of my bike’s beak. The place between the left indicator and the headlamp assembly, shaped perfectly to break the neck of anything so unlucky to meet it at speed, has done just that. I accelerate alongside Ben and point to the bird. When he looks unsure, I try a charade of one-arm wing flapping. After looking closer, he gives a big thumbs up and a head shake. I shrug my shoulders and fall back into formation, hoping the bird will be the last and largest animal to meet my bike — hoping.
We find camp next to the highway and up a slightly inclined dirt road. The trail starts wide near the pavement and ends abruptly against a thicket of low bushes and spindly trees. Ben, Matty, and I park the bikes once the ground flattens and narrows into a comfortable perch above the highway. Against the horizon, rounded mounds of earth rise and fall in a synchronous flow of monotone grays to the south and east. The sky overhead, orange and pink with the retreating day, holds long enough for us to make camp and prepare for the show. Matty and I ready our cameras and wait. I feel the promise of a beautiful night sky as eager stars shine through the ebbing light. And on the far edge of the stage, as the last colors of the day turn dark, a sea of black begins its race from horizon to horizon. Night opens the curtain and sends a glowing spectacle eons in the making into the audience.
I have no music to accompany the scene, but I play scores from Fantasia in my head. An orchestra of sound bellows with drums and chimes and stringed harmony. The sounds soften as a river of cold fills the air. Day has moved on to a new part of the earth, heat has retreated with it, and night’s cool air now fills my lungs. I imagine a stringed piece with violins plucking to the twinkling light and wonder how many others look to the sky. A hundred million people or more live along this longitude, and I wish they all could ignore the stress of life to see and feel this transition of day to night with me.
One finds oneself by pausing to empty everything from the mind and filling it with the energies of life outside ones own. On a night not unlike this, I realized nature’s true indifference to my well being. I learned of its unconcern for all who rely on the clockwork of its systems — that the sun brings warmth and light each day, that exhales become inhales by no work of our own, and that clean water springs from the earth because the ground can hold no more. And humankind is lost to these ideas. We ignore that which continues to warm us each day, fills our bodies with life each second, and nourishes us without end. Instead, we exalt the things in our lives that have very little to do with living at all — entertainment, wealth, fashion, and other man made notions of life.
I think about this now, but I first came to these thoughts several years ago while my brother and I backpacked many miles into the mountains surrounding Mount McKinley in Denali National Park. Early in the hike, fields of ripe blueberries stretched beyond our sight, but the blueberries cared not that we found them tasty. A pond half way through the day replenished our water, but it did not exist for that purpose. That night, the heat of the day retreated more quickly than it has here, and the stillness of warm air turned violent and threateningly deadly. Our wet shoes froze solid even inside the protection of a tent — shoe laces wound about the groundcloth in a rigid mess. But outside, despite conditions ready to freeze any unprepared for the unyielding volley of anti-life, the stars shone more gloriously than ever I saw. And that night, I vowed to look up when the sky speaks and to appreciate the life born from all that is not man made.
Tonight, that means I stop and look to the universe again with sincere gratitude for quenched thirst, full breath, and the promise of warmth in the morning. And in the morning, oh does the sun shine.
In its most basic needs, this camp is perfect. That the sun warms us and charges our motivation for a day of riding, it truly offers the best accommodation of all. We take our time striking camp and load the bikes; I know we each appreciate the heat. Once on the road, Ben, Matty, and I make quick on the miles and ride into Jasper National Park and the Canadian Rockies. Because we plan to stay overnight in the park, we pay a $20 toll at the entrance and secure a twenty-four hour window to get in and out — an invalid permit is a welcome for fines says the attendant. Around the corner and into the park, we’re greeted by the best view $20 can buy, and I instantly proclaim a rekindled love for snow and mountains.
The Canadian Rockies puts on a show to be rivaled. Towering Mount Robson, the most towering of peaks, stands century before us as we ride into the park. Spanning more than four-thousand square miles, Jasper claims title to the largest of national parks in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Jasper borders Banff to its south, just west of Edmonton and along the British Columbia and Alberta border. We expect to see glaciers in the Columbia Icefield, emerald green lakes, endless waterfalls, and of course mountains! If we’re lucky, the wildlife will keep a safe distance, lest we needlessly find ourselves face wise to an angry moose or hungry black bear. I don’t think Matty’s charming Australian accent can talk us out of dinner. We ride into the resort town Jasper for the best deal in town — a cheeseburger with fries and a beer.
After lunch, we take to the streets. Tourism in Jasper abounds. At one point, we pass an ice cream store calling to us with serenades and promises of icy, creamy, sweetness. The very attractive paddle wielding attendant behind the counter serves me the tinniest of cones made for children, and I pay the dollar and a quarter for my treat. Ben and Matty splurge on sweets too, and we exit the shop in a trio of giddiness. We even see our first wild beast. Nothing quite says Canada like ice cream and a life size plush bear that won’t eat us.
With a hop and a skip out of the tourist trap Jasper, we ride south not thirty miles along the Athabasca River to the falls. Not known for its height — a squat twenty meters at best — the falls certainly makes up for its shortness with flow. A grand volume of snow melt collects each spring into the river and ferociously finds the narrow gorge at Athabasca Falls in a fury of liquid turbulence. In short order, the slow moving river of twenty five meters across narrows to five, gathers speed and fight, and then cascades over a hard quartzite shelf. The maelstrom above carves a number of large, swirling potholes into the soft limestone below, and by doing so, has etched a very stunning display of time into the earth. The sun has undoubtedly crossed over this park a thousand million times — with the river flowing all the while — to create the spectacle before me. Even where furious water loses itself to the air and gives up on the river below, rainbows arch over our heads, and the droplets land assuredly against the surrounding stones, now smooth against the crumbling rock of this mountain range.
Ben and Matty lean over the rail to see below. Other visitors pass closer to the middle of the path and show good effort to avoid the ledge. Past the etched canyon walls and high above the current froth of water, sunbeams carve beautiful rays of light into the scenery and illuminate the colorful canvas of grass and moss about the ground. A curious mixture of green, gold, and brown blotches the forest floor, overtaking fallen trees and helpless rocks. I take in the wet air with heavy, full breaths. Only the rushing sound of water fills my ears. The beauty and tranquility of this place are only out matched by the thought of the road ahead. But for now, I keep my mind here and pause to appreciate this moment.
Seemingly no sooner than the sun rose in its spectacle of warmth and light over our camp this morning, it sets through peaks of the Rocky Mountains this evening with a pinkish chill. I bundle in double layers ahead of the Icefields Parkway, wrapping a wool scarf about my neck and tucking a hood beneath my helmet. Still, as we climb closer to the glaciers, cold leaks into my jacket and sends an occasional shiver to my core. The sky grows dark, and I no longer see the sun as it falls behind the tall mountains to our south for the last time. At the top of the pass, I feel the chill of Athabasca Glacier score a wintry path from its field of ice through the thickest of my layers. Nothing stops winter at this altitude, and I recommend to Ben and Matty that we snap quick pictures.
Athabasca Glacier is the most prominent of glaciers visible from the Icefields Parkway. It feeds the river of its namesake. This region of the Rockies, though bare of snow now, receives upwards of six meters of snow a year — largely within the span of six months. Riding this road at night doesn’t chill me nearly as much as the thought of sleeping here in the cold does. I urge Matty to put the idea of a hike out of his mind — it’s time to find camp.
The road descends into the heart of Banff National Park as quickly as it climbed to the ice field. A giant switchback carves our descent into the lush, green North Saskatchewan River valley below. I roll to a stop ahead of the first campground we find — it’s barricaded by a large sign and wire. None of us speaks. Ben lifts the wire blocking our way, and we ride as quietly as possible away from the road and into the cover of trees. The gravel path crunches beneath my tires over the sound of our engines. We find ourselves a stately camp nearby the food lockers and a plentiful pile of firewood. Three tents go up ahead of complete darkness, and we put a hearty dinner of noodles and sauce together soon after. All the while, the wilderness around us speaks a sound reminder of its tameless nature. While the fire sputters smoke and we spoon spaghetti into hungry mouths, an eerie chorus of deathly howls erupts from the woods. Moreover, the sound that first hit our ears from the east now sounds louder from the north. All at once, the wolves go silent and an even more noxious noise of capture fills the dark. I look to Ben and Matty with my headlamp and express delight — our neighbors too have eaten for the evening.
Matty wakes the next morning in a cacophony of noise. He dons nearly every piece of clothing he owns and starts jumping about camp like a rabbit. Deprived of the morning sun by trees, set next to a glacier fed river, and perched thousands of feet above sea level, camp feels a bit chill this morning, he says. I laugh and point to the frost covering my bike. Winter has caught up to us overnight — again. We leave the campground after returning our site to its undisturbed, “closed for the season” status. A keen eye might see worn footpaths around our camp. A thick layer of tree needles covers the ground in places we haven’t disturbed, yet I think a new layer will fast hide evidence of our trespass well before anyone comes looking. As we scoot beneath the barrier and the invisible “Welcome Ben, Matty, and Brian” sign, I compliment ourselves on another successful evening in the wilderness without drama of wildlife or authority.
A swift headwind blows through the valley, offering its unseen warmth in pair with the quickly rising sun. A splash of cloud covers much of the sky and mutes the light. We ride the valleys deeper into the park and toward Banff to the south. Construction greets us where highways 93 and 1 meet. Shortly after, we turn off the highway and follow the signs to Moraine Lake. A giant man on a giant hog steals the lead at a four-way ahead of an RV convoy. Not stopping, he turns fast, and with an uproar of chest pounding reports, rockets through the first corner and out of sight. I look to the GPS and see an exciting road ahead of us — a perfect path of twisty tarmac climbs high above the valley and into the mountains before ending at the lake. Riding point, Ben quickly ditches the train of RVs ahead of us, and though without the orchestrated accompaniment of the Harley, manages to whine his way up the first big climb. Matty follows, and I take my time to make a pass at the next chance. Far beyond sight, the Harley never stops moaning and roaring. Its big-bore engine pops and howls while retarded ahead of curves and smoothly screeches a steady volley of unsuppressed explosions after. Our ninja-quiet BMWs follow.
At the top, the road turns and we find ourselves nestled between towering trees and the crystal blue hues of Moraine Lake. Left behind by time and the ice field that created it, the lake assumes a peaceful place inside a bowl of rock. Remnants of nature’s battle lay about. Cracked and battered piles of rubble — glacial moraine — now cascade into the water from mountain faces and form the would-be sand of the lake’s shoreline. Like palm trees and sea brush edge beaches far south of here, scores of driftwood — broken trees, some with their roots, worn clean of any life and all color — collect at the lake’s edge. I walk the stationary logs like the plank of a ship and boulder my way over the rocks to a nook out of sight from the parking lot. As a kayaker glides across the lake’s undisturbed surface, almost as if it were ice and his boat on skis, I stoop to choose a skipping stone. I find no need to search; every rock is flat and shaped perfectly to envy even the kayaker’s sleek vessel. With a practiced snap of the wrist, the rock spins rapidly from my hand and falls perfectly to the surface. It leaps and bounds a dozen times before plowing the final meter, pausing, and dropping below the surface. I find another, and another, and another. Each throw yields more skips and significant applause from Ben and Matty.
An air of competition consumes me, and I profess aloud — with a wry smile no doubt — a rock skipping challenge. They digress. And rightfully so — these boys are terrible at skipping rocks. Even with the lake offering what feels like an invisible reverse gravity, their rocks take dives instead of flights. One skip, and Ben’s rock abandons normal flight for an acrobatic tumble into another direction altogether. Matty’s suave hair and smile won’t even coax the stones to fly properly. Thinking maybe size matters, Ben grabs the largest flat rock at his feet. Remnant of the flaking cliff nearby, it looks the size and thickness of a large pizza! He grips the plate of earth and plants two firm feet to the shore. After a spin and quite the humph, Ben sends the rock beautifully into the water. It lands against the surface in perfect form — and sinks. Clearly, size matters.
We spend a grand while skipping stones into the lake, pausing only for pictures and breaths of fresh air. Ben and I trade cameras at the thought of striking complicated yoga poses in our very restrictive riding gear. The precarious footing seems firm enough if I can only hold my balance! Ben makes no effort to take his time with the camera; he seems to do it naturally! Three tries later, we capture the shot, and I trade positions with Ben to get his “draw me like one of your French girls” pose. Unfortunately, he keeps the image to himself. Such a shame!
The road out of Moraine Lake leads us straight away to Lake Louise. I viewed Lake Louise for the first time on the face of a post card. Full of greens, and blues, and whites, the scene that cost me $2 at the store now stares back in real life. The lake starts at one end with the notable Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise resort and ends against raw mountains and Victoria Glacier. Between, people of every nationality, age, sex, and language waddle about snapping photos of the scene and each other. I’m transfixed by the quite substantial difference between these lakes! Where Moraine welcomed us with natural peace and wonder, Louise screams commerce and people! It’s not without beauty or the essence of wilderness, but Lake Louise is without its virginity. A paved walk, complete with bronzed looking glasses, comfortable benches, and flower beds borders Lake Louise. I suddenly miss the hour we spent bouldering and log rolling at Moraine Lake.
Ben, Matty, and I walk away from the hotel and seek a spot of quiet away from most of the crowd. Along the way, I’m nearly knocked from my feet by oncoming traffic. A gaggle of chatty women laugh under their breath at the sight, and one recommends I wake up just loudly enough for me to hear! I smile, look her square in the eye, and say quite assuredly that I’m awake. She smirks and looks away, clearly uncomfortable with being held accountable for her outward witticism. We dodge the rest of the stampede and stop once the manicured seawall takes a more natural appearance. Still, Ben can’t find a flat rock to save his life. Even the water’s edge, past our reach, looks paved of round boulders and washed clean of nature’s touch. Not a rock looks out of place. Lake Louise, I decide, is a post card even in reality. Soon after, we leave and look to Banff for lunch.
Along Highway 1, the provincial government of Canada is putting tax dollars to work in the name of motorist safety. From what I see of the tall wood posts and steel mesh lining either side of the corridor, I expect this area sees a large number of vehicle/animal collisions. As in Alaska and many other areas with road systems that span wilderness, top heavy quadrupeds tend to wreck cars and kill people when they unwittingly dash in front of vehicles traveling too fast to stop. The aim with the fence is to keep animals from the highway altogether. Even Florida has erected barriers along its arterial highways. What make this project fascinating are the colossal overpasses that span from one fenced side of the highway to the other. Nearly as wide as they are long, these giant wilderness crosswalks feature vegetation and terrain that resemble the raw land very well — despite being arched some thirty feet above the roadbed.
Riding south along the highway, I’m taken through each step of the massive undertaking that is to build one of these structures. The first overpass is fully finished. I slow to look more closely as I approach, still not sure what exactly I see before me. The road loses its shoulders, narrows considerably, and squeezes into a half dome metal pipe beneath what looks to be a very awesome and well placed off-road bridge. Northbound traffic does the same. At the second, I notice heaps and heaps of earth — rock, dirt, sand, and gravel — piled over the tunnel structure. But the business of the structure isn’t another road or a fancy footpath over the highway; the dirt of the overpass arches significantly over the roadbed and looks strikingly like the landscape to my either side. I don’t catch on to the master plan until several miles later and until passing beneath several more land bridges, each staged in a progressively earlier form of completion.
These overpasses funnel wandering animals from one side of the highway to the other without risking human life or limb! The beautiful landscaping creates a familiar segue for the furry ones to traverse from one side to the next. Moreover, the fence that lines either side of the highway also spans the overpass lest animals dive bomb oncoming traffic from above. When the moose population dwindles in Alaska, fewer cars strike the beasts, and the government promotes wolf hunting to give moose a boost. As a result, people kill the moose predators, moose production quickly turns about, and with it so do the impacts as cars dodge the nuisance animals. In Canada, people build fences and bridges to keep moose and people apart. Moose and wolves keep to themselves. Everyone wins except the auto-body shops.
I honk my horn through all of the last pipe and find other motorists — including Ben — a bit miffed by my amusement. The horn isn’t stock, and it’s quite loud. Still, I can’t refrain from blasting it through a tunnel, even if my road buddies jump unexpectedly at the noise.
Banff is nearly the highest organized community in all of Canada, second only to Lake Louise. Like Lake Louise, Banff is a resort town and popular tourist destination. It’s known ubiquitously for its winter sports and hot springs. That it is neither snowing nor raining in Banff today is no surprise. The community gets most of its precipitation through the summer. We exit Highway 1 and head downtown. Given the great weather, people and cars and bikes pack Banff’s streets. We find fortuitous parking next to beautiful herd of Harleys, staged in perfect alignment and spacing along a quiet stretch of street. I look to Ben and Matty as if to declare this our parking spot. Traffic lets us reverse park as we stage our bikes BMW style — crooked and a mess. The spacing is all wrong; the front wheels don’t match; Matty’s bike sits alone on its center stand; and yikes are our bikes dirty! I think twice a moment about insulting these riders — they may just tip us over while we’re away.
For being the winter sports hub of Alberta, Banff sure looks busy this fall. People and their children pack the streets. Bells ring at every opening and closing of shop doors. Bursts of shouting and laughing pour into the streets from overhead restaurants and bars. Once along the main street of Banff, we take to looking for a meal, and this is where the Banff visit gets interesting. We shrug menu after menu because of exorbitant prices. Clearly, lunch in Banff will cost a pole and a ski, not to mention the arm and leg so attached. Ben begs off for a cheap lunch at Subway while Matty and I get fleeced for burgers and fries at a small lunch cafe.
I’m quite excited about the days ahead. Matty’s on the phone clearing my stay with his girlfriend and her roommates in Seattle. If I’m welcome, which he says is quite likely, we’ll have a place to stay in the city. Earlier when he first mentioned the idea, he rattled off several places he wants to show me. I’ve only visited Seattle by air and am very eager to experience city culture. Moreover, Seattle seems like an excellent place to start that goal, and the generous hospitality of Matty’s friends is an unexpected treat. Matty signs a thumbs up and shows a smile. I nod a solid thank you and begin planning a mental list of must-do activities, not neglecting to worry about this Oktoberfest thing Ben and Matty keep mentioning.
Still waiting for food to arrive, I look for something to keep my mind from the hunger stirring inside. People walk back and forth in the street, but nothing holds my attention. I suddenly remember the post cards and postage I bought in Jasper. Thankful for a useful distraction, I write home to my parents and friends. One card will travel to Spokane ahead of my visit; two cards will fly home to Alaska. It takes a long moment to recall all the addresses, and I think I seriously transpose some numbers on one. But soon after I finish the last card, my food arrives. When I ordered the buffalo blue cheese burger with a plate of fries priced at $14, I genuinely expected a burger as big as the mountains and a basket of fries to envy Canada’s forest of trees. If not endless — as deep as Lake Louise at least. Quite the opposite sits before me. I sigh and take to eating one very expensive quarter pound patty of meat and handful of fries.
That’s Banff for you, Harleys in a row, expensive lunch, and post cards. When we catch back up to Ben, he’s super excited to tell us all about the inexpensive and filling Subway sandwich that he nearly couldn’t finish eating. I roll my eyes and talk up savoring the flavors of my meager meal. Quality over quantity sounds great, but I’m already thinking of dinner.
Out of Banff, we ditch the newer Highway 1 and race along the older, two lane Bow Valley Parkway. Its narrow shoulders and tight turns follow the mountain contours to our east and the Bow River to our west. The road feels wild and exhilarating like the untamed shores of Moraine Lake. No fence protects us from wildlife; the danger and risk is ours to own. After one rise and fall of the road, the lanes diverge around a knoll. For a short while, oncoming traffic takes a different route. The road, very narrow now, burrows through a thick encasement of trees. The only noise I hear is that of our bikes and a slight breeze through my visor. I flick the shield up and slow my pace to breathe the freshness of air without exhaust. A scent of pine and mulch fills my nose; I exhale a breath of steam. When the road straightens and resumes as two lanes, Ben and Matty power away. They speed through the next series of turns, eating the last kilometers of the parkway in haste. A giant tour bus enters the road to slow our speed, but we clear it safely on the next straightaway. And just as the pile of fries ended sooner than my stomach filled of them, the wild fun of the parkway ends. We return to Highway 1 and resume a moderate pace in traffic to our next destination.
I quickly realize the mood of my travel companions. A moderate pace turns fast once the roadwork ends. The road feels of rush hour. With Ben and Matty in the lead, we zoom past a train of tractor trailers and slow vehicles. We pass into Yoho National Park from Banff, and the scenery takes my attention from the traffic long enough for Ben and Matty to race ahead and out of sight. It’s not that the mountains, trees, lakes, and rivers of Yoho look any different from those of Jasper or Banff, but I do feel a definite urge to avoid the stress of riding blind of the subtle changes and instead use the new park as an excuse to slow and take in my surroundings. Large trucks soon pass and put obstacles between us.
The road climbs steadily for miles alongside the rail and into Kicking Horse Pass, and then I see Ben and Matty stopped at the Spiral Tunnels wayside. I smelled a heavy stench of exhaust while riding. Now stopped, it lingers still. This is the Trans-Canada Highway. Everything about the corridor feels of commerce and not the raw nature surrounding it. Locomotives slog along with dozens of overfilled rail cars, and tractor trailers retard their engines on the steep downhill. The noise pelts my ears with successively louder compressions. Yet just past the noise of mankind is a forest hundreds of acres in the making and teeming with another kind of life — waterfalls roaring, rocks tumbling against each other in the turbid rapids of a river, wind sifting through the sleepy branches of ancient pines. And amid that beautiful commotion, creatures too small to make a noise beyond a few feet surely feel as I do now amid this racket.
I walk with Ben and Matty to the viewpoint. Below us, the lower track enters and exits Mount Ogden. Above us and across the highway, the track circles deep inside Mount Cathedral. Before ever building the highway or the spiral tunnels, the Canadian government built a steep and dangerous rail belt through this corridor. In the late 1800s, the Canadian Pacific Railway achieved the first land based transportation link between Lake Louise, Alberta and Field, British Columbia. But after numerous costly derailing incidents along the 4.5 percent grade — the steepest length of main-line rail in all of North America — the government reduced the grade by half using a pair of spiral tunnels in Kicking Horse Pass. In 1909, the tunnels opened, and the suicide pass closed until the 1960s when the Trans-Canada Highway opened to take its place. Despite negligent dynamite explosions having claimed the lives of many workers during their construction, the tunnels have seemingly improved the safety of railroad travel — not a single train crashes while we read the placards.
I look back to the parking lot in time to catch a wily fellow and his camera ogling our bikes. From several angles, he stoops to a kneel, raises a long lens camera to his face, and presumably snaps photos. Ben, Matty, and I gawk at each other and burst into laughter. Even as we approach, he continues. And when Matty speaks up, he finally acknowledges us with questions about our ride. We fill him in on the trip, hand out cards, and then awkwardly pose for pictures before gearing up and riding off. As we egress the wayside, we’re greeted again from the shoulder by the same guy shooting with his camera when we ride past. He promised to send us copies of his shots, but we never receive them.
Ahead of the ride to the waterfalls, we stop and watch a freight train traverse the Spiral Tunnels. The lead engines power through the first tunnel, snake around and down into the second, and exit at the lowest level into view again. The sight absolutely amazes me. If I hadn’t seen the diagram earlier, I would think of this as a real life game of snake!
The train clanks its way out of sight, and we set off again for the falls. Like all the roads of British Columbia, this road too is pristine and perfect for fast riding. Ben and Matty ride together through the twisties while I hang back and ride by myself. At one point, we meet a switchback so steep and narrow that signs prohibit trailers and long vehicles from proceeding. We navigate our bikes over three different climbs. The switchback gains a hundred vertical feet in a span of a hundred. The road continues, and we delve even deeper into the forest and away from the noise of commerce.
A parking lot and trail system greets us at the end of the road. I follow Ben and Matty along the trail to the falls. The path parallels the teal green Yoho River that for seconds looks creamy with glacial silt and at other moments emerald green. The river isn’t roaring with water this late in the year, but it flows swiftly enough beneath the footbridge to cascade into a beautiful motion blur the longer I stare. Matty stops to take pictures, and we three pause on the foot bridge to enjoy the beauty of the Yoho Valley.
I run back to my bike for a tripod before again catching up to Ben and Matty on the trail. For the most part, we go our separate ways, cameras in hand, to capture our own images of the scene. I pass Matty, kneeling in some rocks by the runoff tinkering with his camera. I see Ben in the bushes doing the same with the falls in the background. A waterfall is a beautiful sight, and two waterfalls together — one cascading into the next — offer twice the beauty! An unimaginable amount of water has fallen here since my arrival. Just as at Athabasca Falls, the surrounding rocks look worn and smooth. Mist lingers in the air and wets my face. Large boulders to my right stay perpetually damp and show green with algae and moss on the lee side of the downpour. Large wooden pointers atop posts give direction to several notable landmarks in and beyond sight. I look up for a mountain, but clouds cover the sky and any such view. Even the glacier to our south, birthed in the surrounding trees, continues without end to the sky in an expanse of solid white.
Ben and Matty join me at the edge of the falls while the sun retreats behind the mountains and turns the clouds pink. We walk together back to our bikes with a new train of thought — dinner and camp. Not only has the day ended, but we’re now also inside a Canadian National park without a valid permit. I get back to my bike eager to look on the map for a camping spot. The devastation that awaits me is only fitting for my adventure. The giant black raven that I shooed away from my bike earlier returned in my absence and pecked holes through the plastic of my map holder. All around the perimeter and nearly missing the screen of my mp3 player, cracked plastic gives way to gaping holes and chewed paper. Pieces of a brown paper sake lay about the parking lot beneath my bike. The bird managed to pull it completely free of the tank bag through a hole half its size. I’m absolutely beside myself. Ben and Matty stand near and look just as shocked as I do. When I left the bike earlier, I covered the bag with my gloves, and this curious bird knew enough to throw them away to access the good stuff. Fortunately, the gloves look intact. The five dollar map of British Columbia, however, does not. I decide on the spot that this unprovoked act of war by the bird kingdom must be in retaliation for the finch I killed days ago. Every time I look to a map, I will forever think of the raven as an evil, menacing creature.
Riding back to the highway puts my mind at ease if only because riding at night requires so much attention. With the tank bag covered in its rain shell and out of sight, I rely on Ben and Matty ahead of me to lead the way and find a camp. When we exit the road and find ourselves faced with expensive camping options, I recommend a hiding spot behind the trees and out of view from the parking lot. It takes us forever to find solid footing for the bikes, but we eventually land a huge and secluded site. Each of us looks beat even though we haven’t traveled more than seventy miles from our previous camp. On top of the abysmal distance we made today, Matty must still work in a promise to be in Seattle by tomorrow. Not wanting to be in Seattle as long as Matty will be, Ben and I plan to stay behind and ride next the six hundred miles in three days that Matty plans to ride in one.
The day in Banff and its beautiful parks, the starting and stopping, and the unfortunate task of planning Matty’s next move weigh heavily on me as we muster enough energy between the three of us to produce dinner. I’m tired. I want to sleep. Mostly, I just despise the drama of fitting the wants and desires of three into a single movement. Ben and Matty fortunately work out a plan that I think will keep us all sane. With dinner complete and me tucked comfortably into bed, I drown out the noise of the roadworks and freight trains above us with ear plugs. I don’t think the wonderful silence of my own thoughts matters tonight because I find sleep quickly and without a bit of struggle. Tomorrow, Matty will wake to continue his ride alone while Ben and I set our pace as two. We’ll ride to the hot springs in Radium and across beautiful lakes south of Revelstoke. Ben recommends we follow a route to Vernon that promises an amazing stretch of technical riding on twisty mountain roads.
I follow the route in my head at the very edge of sleep. When my finger traces the line and comes to a gaping hole, I’m suddenly taken to a new scene. Perched before me is a raven. The missing piece of the map hangs tauntingly from its beak, and all I can do is smile. Whatever uncertainty lies before me, the raven knows. Before losing the dream altogether, I make a pact to treat that uncertainty with respect and welcome each day with a fervor to live. I don’t see the missing piece of the map, but I know with conviction that this is okay and exciting. After all, I’m on an adventure!