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In Search of Maple Syrup and a Decent National Anthem

01 December 2003

by Dave Mitchell

A Canadian friend once cheerily informed me "if you're being chased by a bear, it's easy to figure out whether it's a brown or a grizzly. Just (quickly) climb a tree. A brown will follow you up the tree while a grizzly will stand at the bottom and push it over, or at least shake it hard enough so you fall out." Canada has long tempted me - not because of the recent North Shore phenomenon but on account of the all that huge terrain coated with singletrack. Neither bears nor the spate of forest fires roaming the country would hold us back from indulging in the Canadian experience. Our arrival at Vancouver Airport gave Air Canada yet another chance to practice losing luggage. Our bikes tumbled onto the conveyor but there was no sign of our bags. We would have to ride nude. Two other kiwis on our flight were even less fortunate. Their bags were lost on the first leg and their bikes on the next. Excellent. We had plenty to keep us busy though, with a van, camping gear and provisions to purchase for our six-week road trip. Later that day we became the proud owners of a massive, blue, gas guzzling Ford Econoline V8. The five of us, that's Mike Pearce, Dave Fenton, Ditte van der Meulen, Pete Braggins and myself were gagging to go. Our lost luggage, no doubt having enjoyed a bonus trip to Albania, turned up at the 11th hour. We tossed everything in 'big blue', cranked the air conditioning, and headed out of town.

We drove for the rest of the day to the Kamloops. Pick up any copy of Bike magazine and you'll find snaps of Richie Schley and Brett Tippie executing death defying descents around Kamloops. The riding certainly looked wicked but the shock of being transplanted from a NZ winter to temperatures of forty plus in the shade was uninviting. We fled for the cool of the mountains, ending up in Dunster. We free-camped next to one of many glacial fed rivers. Rough ice bobbed down the river making for a bracing post-ride bath. Rausch Valley was the first on our massive list of rides. It's a classic jaunt up a big river valley, but we were thwarted by an impossibly overgrown track and predatory mossies. We ditched the bikes the next day and galloped up Horsey Creek. In the lead, Pete and I surprised a mother bear and her cub. No need to perform the 'tree test', as all parties instinctively scampered in opposing directions.

Next stop Jasper and our first taste of National Park campgrounds. The rules require a maximum of two tents per site so with four small tents we had to spread out over two plots. A behemoth RV sleeping five plus a tent with three more would only pay for a single site, how fair is that? Still we all had generous backyards. The Overlander was our first sample of famous Jasper singletrack and it truly rocked. Then it was up Whirlpool River Valley into glacier country. The following day we hit the Saturday Night Loop - a truly awesome 35 klicks of orgasmic singletrack. The trail speeds through aspen, open meadows and around a series of picturesque lakes. We seldom met anyone else on these trails. A sad commentary on the sorry state of society but it was great to have all this fabulous riding to ourselves.

We were forced to flag our next couple of planned rides as the forest fires made their presence felt. Vast tracts of British Colombia were ablaze causing massive destruction. The hot spots were completely off limits for obvious reasons, but the fires also generated huge volumes of smoke resulting in a constant overcast sky and in some places a thick grey fug. So we fled Jasper for the Colombian Ice Fields. The massive glaciers of this high plateau are very impressive, and non-lammable to boot. We headed into the Alexander River area on an old fire access road. Helicopters have made these roads obsolete leaving them for hikers, bikers and horses. It felt like bear country but all we found were big mountains and imposing hanging glaciers. Pete and I decided to knock off Doug's Landslide Lake. It was a big day, carrying our bikes up to 2500 meters. But a scree downhill and some naughty singletrack gave us reason to grin.

It was time to head south to Lake Louise. We ticked off the Ottertail Trail and then after a rest day cruising singletrack into Moraine Lake, we were primed to tackle Allenby Pass. It's a rocky trail used primarily by commercial horse trips. Unfortunately the surface is rutted and generally trashed as a result. The Pass tops out at 2400 meters and is a mass of eroding rock, the descent full-on, and the ride out hard work. A great day and we were totally shagged. A superb stretch of singletrack around Miniwanka Lake beckoned. While recklessly racing one another we encountered four big horn goats. It was a Mexican stand off until we stood off the track to let them pass.

The fires had caught up with us again. The air reeked of smoke, ash settled on our camp. The fires had closed the Canmore backcountry so we eased down to Bragg Creek. That afternoon we did a loop around Iron Creek and the Tom Snow trail. The next day was biggy with a gnarly climb up Jumping Pound Ridge, a carry onto Moose Mountain and a massive, equally gnarly downhill to complete the loop. We stopped to chat with the fire warden who lives atop Moose Mountain. A bleak and stark place but with amazing views, Apparently the lights of Calgary are visible on a clear night. The fires still hot on our tail, we headed to Waterton National Park - leaving a ton of planned rides around Canmore and Crowsnest Pass still to tick off. Like McArthur and Arnie "we'll be back".

We found a fabulous spot to camp by Upper Waterton Lake. We managed a couple of final rides before the fires forced us across the border to the States, and the promise of clear skies and bad beer. But that's another story.

Nitty Gritty

  • With its lower dollar, Canada is a cheaper destination than the USA. Most things seem to cost about the same as in NZ. There's a 14% GST/PST that is additional to the ticket price, but you can reclaim much of this when flying out. Check outwww.canadiantaxrefund.com
  • 'Free camping' outside of the National Parks is the go. We found some wonderful spots. Within the Parks you can only use the official camp grounds. They are set-up for RV's, caravans and gigantic frame tents. It's good value if you don't mind burping and farting in one big tent but expensive for the single traveller or lots of little tents. 
  • Doug Eastcott's 'Backcountry Biking in the Canadian Rockies' is the definitive guide. 'Mountain Biking in British Colombia' by Steve Dunn also has some great rides. 'The Canadian Rockies' by Graeme Pole is a good reference manual. 
  • Late summer and early autumn (Aug/Sept) has more stable weather and less biting insects. Canadians are laid back and friendly, drive with courtesy and don't lock their houses. We had a ball and can't wait to return.