Leaving Jasper, I stopped to look back at the impressive backdrop of the mountains towering over the small town. From here on in I would be surrounded by the huge peaks of the Rocky Mountains, hopefully see lot’s of wildlife and experience true wilderness camping in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. All I had to do was climb the hills and avoid being eaten by the bears – that wouldn’t be a problem would it?
The Icefields Parkway runs from Jasper to Lake Louise on Highway 93 for a distance of 230 km (or 140 miles), and is pretty much a two lane road with plenty of passing places and for the most part, a decent shoulder. However as I was a few weeks early, the salt from the road had washed into the cycle lane shoulder and I spent much of my time cycling on the road, which wasn’t a problem at this quiet time of year as the season doesn’t really get under-way until June.
Jasper is at 1,063 m and the highest point of the Icefields Parkway is Bow Summit at 2,069 m before you drop down to Lake Louise at 1,534 m. There are two significant climbs to tackle, the first being Wilcox Pass just after passing the Icefield Centre and the second being Bow Summit. I chose the easiest direction to tackle the climbs, as it is virtually impossible to cycle up the steep hairpins of Wilcox Pass with a loaded touring bike and this was confirmed when I met a Taiwanese family (son, mum and dad) who walked (most of the way) up it.
The road follows the Athabasca River as it winds it’s way down past the beautifully named Honeymoon Lake and onto Sunwapta Falls, where I stopped for lunch. I had been steadily gaining height but my riding had been very leisurely and I’ve learned to do this more and more when surrounded by such scenery – I don’t want to miss a thing!
Round almost every new bend I would be faced with another imposing peak, dominating the skyline. It was difficult deciding which ones to stop and capture a photograph of, as each time I’d have to find somewhere to lean the bike while I accessed my camera (I’d learned long ago not to try cycling with it around my body) and then spend time composing the shot. I eventually became mindful of the fact that I actually needed to cycle as well as take pictures, but it’s very hard when you love landscapes as much as I do.
I think even if I had not been taking pictures I would still have stopped regularly, as it was good to just get off the bike and wander around a little, often just down to the riverside to fill up my water bottles. Everyone I met wanted to hear my story and it was really nice when I was handed an energy bar and snickers by a young girl. The Canadian people have proved to be extremely friendly thus far.
Up to this point I’d seen some of the very diverse wildlife from a distance, including eagles, herons, deer and those cute little gophers. What I never expected was to have a (very) close encounter with a grizzly bear! As I cycled along I saw this fellow feeding on the ridge above the road, separated from me by just a narrow ditch. I quickly put down the bike and got out my camera, snapping away at the totally disinterested grizzly. Perhaps he’d seen too many tourists (and maybe even eaten one or two) to worry about a scrawny cyclist with hardly any meat on him at all. By the time I’d got my picture a crowd had gathered, so Mr Bear just wandered back into the woods.
I was really surprised by how soon a fleet of campers and trailers had gathered, given that the roads were so quiet most of the time. Was I just getting used to sharing the roads with them and hardly noticing their presence? Whatever, the riding was sublime and not difficult as I continued to climb steadily towards my first nights destination on the Icefield Parkway.
My campsite for the first night was Jonas Creek Campground, which if it had been open would have been well beyond my meagre budget (cyclist’s pay the same fee as a 40 ft camper!). However like all the national campgrounds along my route, the season had not yet started and so I crept in and found a spot to pitch my tent. In some of the campsites later on this route I would not need to erect my full tent, as I slept under the covered picnic area using my inner tent as a mosquito net with my sleeping mattress and bag inside.
The next morning and the climbing began immediately, but thankfully at a nice easy gradient to begin with as I’d filled myself up with porridge and was feeling more than a little ‘gippy’. After 20 km though the real climb began and as I clicked through my gears, I stubbornly refused to use them all, figuring I’d leave my lowest gear as an emergency before bailing out if I had to. I needn’t have worried, as although the climb was relentless (for it’s 10 km length) I got into a nice rhythm and never needed to use the last gear I was holding in reserve – I was quite pleased with myself!
As I approached the summit I pulled up outside the ‘Skywalk’ building, where tourists arrive by the bus load to walk out along the metal gangway and then onto a glass bridge that appears to hang out over the gorge. I settled for a photograph rather than (paying to) experience the real thing. You can just see the bridge in the left hand middle of this photograph below:
No sooner had I raised my camera to take the above picture than I was accosted by two lovely girls from the Icefield Centre who assumed I was part of a coach party. When I showed them my bike and told them where I had come from they were pretty incredulous and insisted we took some pictures, before inviting me to call at their homes later to have a meal. Sorry girls if you’re reading this, but it was only lunchtime and I would have been waiting around instead of cycling for the rest of the day, not really an option at that time.
I took one last photo of the road down, before I put on my jacket, gloves and tightened my hat for the cold descent, as I would drop like a stone to the valley floor.
The road down from the pass was insane, as I screamed past anything in my path on the switchbacks, showing total confidence in my disc brakes and grip provided by the schwalbe tyres, leaning the bike over on the bends – hey, this was real fun biking and worth all the sweat I’d poured out on the climb. Once I got down into the valley I set up my tripod for an attempt at a self portrait of me riding along with the mountains behind and after a few botched attempts, managed to capture myself:
To be continued…