Bicycling on the Polar Sea

Thirty years ago this week, near the end of my first winter in the Northwest Territories, I completed a bike ride I’d been planning for months: north along the Mackenzie River ice highway from Inuvik to the coast, and then across the sea ice to Tuktoyaktuk.

The journey seemed like the sort of thing one might want to blog about – except that “blog” wasn’t yet a word and the World Wide Web had not been invented.

In the hope that 30 years late is better than never, here’s that blog post now.

(Note: this ice highway closed for the season for the last time in April, 2017, and has since been replaced by the four-season, gravel surface Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.)


Wednesday April 5, 1989 – near Reindeer Station

How do you bicycle from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk? You ride north down the Mackenzie River, about 160 kilometers. At the mouth of the river you hang a right onto the Beaufort Sea, and after about 30 more kilometers, just past the pingos, you roll ashore into downtown Tuktoyaktuk.

Obviously you don’t want to try that in the summer, because the carefully maintained ice highways of Canada’s western arctic region wash out to sea by the end of May. And it’s tough to do in winter – the sun shines not at all or only a few hours, and the temperature stays at –40° for days on end.

I had slept outside in temperatures of –40, but only when I was a short walk away from Inuvik where I could go inside and warm up for the day. And I wasn’t particularly keen to be out in the mid-winter deep freeze for days on end.

So I planned my ice-road excursion for the Arctic spring, when the sun shines past 10 at night, the mercury might rise to above zero during the day, and a cyclist can get a deep northern suntan all the way from chin to forehead.

Being a cautious sort, I still wanted to be prepared in case a spring blizzard blew in, dropping temperatures to the –30°C range. This meant I needed big boots, down pants, down parka, sheepskin face mask, and my biggest mittens – all articles of clothing I couldn’t wear while riding because they were too warm, but things I would need if I had to sit out a storm. Adding all that to two down sleeping bags and a ThermaRest mattress made for a big load, and I spent many hours figuring out how to pack it all so that everything was convenient to get at but still balanced on the bike.

And then there was the question of food. Even on a two- or three-day ride to Tuktoyaktuk I would burn a lot of energy, but what if I were stranded by a blizzard? I decided to take enough food for a week. A big bag of caribou meat, which I had sliced thin and dried earlier in the winter, would be my main protein source. Since the meat was lean and wouldn’t provide nearly enough calories, I also carried a bag of rolled oats, another of toasted buckwheat, and several sticks of butter. (Winter camping is so convenient! You don’t have to worry about your butter getting soft and messing up your bags.) With clean snow to melt I didn’t need to carry water, but the gear and food still added up to an extra 50 kilos on my bike.

The weather was warm as I left Inuvik – about –10°C – but snow soon started to fall and a north wind blew it into my face. I settled into a comfortable pace, at which I would produce just enough body heat to keep myself warm but not so much that I would work up a sweat. The road was generally smooth with a thin layer of hard-packed snow along the edges to give me traction. Here and there I would encounter 50 meters or so of glare ice, and on one such patch I took a tumble. I was unable to get enough footing to lift my loaded bicycle upright, and I had to drag it back to road’s edge before I could stand it up. Thereafter I got off and shuffled across any unavoidable patches of glare ice.

I was told I could see Reindeer Station – for several decades headquarters of the Canadian government’s experiment in arctic ranching – from the river bank at km 55. I found cabins, locked, and dog teams, barking, but no humans to inquire of. I walked my bike up a snowmobile trail into the woods and made my camp about 6 pm. By then the sun had emerged and in the shelter it was cozy. The forest provided escape from the wind, and black spruce branches and dry willow twigs made for a roaring campfire – a luxury I didn’t count on finding after another day’s ride north.

When I put on my sheepskin face mask that night to settle into sleep, I was surprised to find my cheeks and nose uncomfortably hot. In spite of the cloudy sky, and in spite of the fact that I had faced north almost all day, enough sunlight had reflected off the snow to give me a sunburn, which I hadn’t noticed as long as cool air acted as a local anæsthetic.

Thursday April 6, 1989

Where am I tonight? Something like 75 km north of Reindeer Station, overlooking a wide channel of the Mackenzie River, relaxing in my sleeping bag in a trench in a snow bank.

I had intended to spend this morning hiking to the abandoned buildings of Reindeer Station. But by the time I’d eaten my porridge there was a strong south wind and I decided to take advantage of it right away. I pedaled north and watched the trees flanking the Caribou Hills to the east dwindle and then disappear. Every half-hour or so a pick-up truck or semi-trailer passed me, usually bringing curious stares, friendly honks of the horn, and occasionally an offer of hot tea from a thermos. At midday I saw a curious apparition slowly approaching on the northern horizon. A massive tractor was creeping down the road toward me, pulling twenty trailers on skis. The oil companies were concluding their winter drilling activities, pulling equipment away from drilling platforms out on the sea ice.

By late afternoon I was beyond the tree line. The scenery was big, hills rolling away gently forever; the scenery was small, ripples in the snow, little wind sculptures mirroring the topography of the hills themselves, and when I looked down while walking I felt like a ten-thousand-meter giant gazing at distant mountains from on high. At the top of the world I had found heaven, and I wanted to bask in the sunshine savoring this season of light.

I knew the Beaufort coast was only a few hours ahead, and then another hour or two would bring the end of a trip I’d anticipated all winter. I didn’t want the journey to finish for another day so I stopped riding at five p.m. From the snow-plowed road along the ice I searched the landscape for shelter. At a curve in the river, it appeared, the wind would blow directly over the five-meter bank, leaving in its lee a calm space in which I could make my bed. I hoisted the loaded bike over the windrows that marked the highway and set off for my place in the sun. The wind-blown snow was not quite hard enough to pedal across but firm enough that if I got off and walked, the bike rolled along smoothly beside me. After ten minutes I was home for the night.

The first item to come out of my packs was a snow knife. The winter’s winds had piled more than three meters of snow here, packed in a 45° slope. After a half-hour’s work I had cut out enough blocks of snow to make a nice flat trench to sleep in, with the bigger blocks stacked around the head end to further shelter me from eddies in the breeze and to reflect the sun shining directly at me from the far side of the river. Out from the packs came the mattress and sleeping bags, the down parka and down pants, the heavy mitts and felt-lined boots – no sense catching a chill while basking in the sun.

After a short rest I took a half-hour hike up over the river bank and into the brisk breeze on the hills. There I was able to gather a big armload of branches from willow shrubs. Back at my sheltered camp, the twigs burned as fast as I could throw them onto the fire, but with constant tending of the blaze I managed to create hot water from heaps of snow.

Supper’s opening course was hot tea and cold kwok – thin slices of raw frozen caribou meat. Then came the house special – boiled caribou and buckwheat stew. Around 10:30, as the sun-dogs were slipping below the horizon, I pulled off boots, heavy socks, down pants and wool tights, sweaters and mittens, pulled on a sheepskin face mask and down hood, and crawled into bed. Some hours later when I got up and took a short walk to cool off, I was surprised to see light not only in the sky but also on the surface of the river a few hundred yards out. The illusion of light shimmering on flowing water was a shock – until I realized I was seeing the aurora borealis reflected off smooth ice in the middle of the highway.

Friday April 7, 1989 – Tuktoyaktuk

When I got up this morning to celebrate the last day of the journey I thought I might have some tough going. At this latitude the Mackenzie River had widened considerably, and the closer I got to the coast the rougher the road became. On the wide expanse of ice there were pressure cracks big enough to swallow my front wheel and pitch me overboard. I had to watch the road carefully, swerving back and forth to cross the cracks at a sharp angle. But the wind had picked up in my favour as I passed Whitefish Station, a fishing camp which in winter consisted only of a collection of tent frames.

At midday I met the arctic coast and turned east to ride along the sea ice to Tuktoyaktuk. Soon two pingos appeared on the coast – volcano-shaped formations formed in very wet soil as a core of ice gradually rises up out of the permafrost over thousands of years. A little later I could make out the golf-ball dome and screens of the DEW line* radar station, and then the smaller houses came into view.

Fifty-five klicks today, and I was surprised to see Tuk on the horizon so soon. I’m hungry and wind-burnt and tired, but this ride was almost too easy and, after months of anticipation, the end of the ride came far too soon.

Colour photos were taken with a
Minox 35, and black-and-white photos were taken with a Minox C, April 1989.

*The Distant Early Warning Line was a string of radar stations built across the Canadian arctic in the late 1950s to give advance warning of a possible Soviet nuclear attack launched from across the Arctic Ocean. Most of the stations were deactivated in 1988.

The Kettle Valley Trail: Myra Canyon

October 1, 2016

The sun was close to the horizon as the eastern reaches of Kelowna came into view far down the slopes. The sky carried both the threat of rain and the promise of a beautiful sunset, depending on which way the clouds might move. And just ahead were the Myra Canyon trestles – eighteen famous wooden bridges which conducted the Kettle Valley Railway trains around the rim of the Myra Canyon, which now make this the most spectacular and most visited section of southern British Columbia’s rail trail system.

Satellite map showing approach to Myra Canyon from the east, and road down to Kelowna at the west end of Myra Canyon.

Satellite map showing approach to Myra Canyon from the east, and road down to Kelowna at the west end of Myra Canyon.

I still had 37 kilometers to ride if I chose to make it to downtown Kelowna that night. But it was easy to see that a good part of the trip would be downhill.

View from Kettle Valley Rail Trail of eastern outskirts of Kelowna, including airport.

View from Kettle Valley Rail Trail of eastern outskirts of Kelowna, including airport.

It wasn’t long before I arrived at the eastern trailhead for the Myra Canyon trail – a busy parking lot full of hikers and bikers packing into cars and SUVs for the ride home. As I continued towards the first trestle I noticed that the trail surface here was smooth and well-maintained, and that there were still lots of other bikers and walkers in spite of the late-afternoon hour.

An unfortunate fact is that all eighteen trestles are located in one 18-kilometer stretch of trail, so that this ride seemed to fly by in a flash. Or, a fortunate fact is that all eighteen trestles are located in one 18-kilometer stretch of trail, so that I was able to ride to the trailhead at the far side of the canyon in the last hour of sunlight.

If I lived in the Kelowna area, no doubt I would ride this trail many times. But since I’m unlikely to have the chance to visit more than once, I’m glad to have this slideshow from my ride (accompanied here by an excerpt from “Everybody Slides” by the late great dobro player Mike Auldridge).

Now Kelowna and Okanagan Lake were clearly in view, but there was no way of knowing how easy it might be to find my way to downtown in failing light.

Twilight view of Kelowna from Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

Twilight view of Kelowna from Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

Little White Service Road was my route from the west end of Myra Canyon to Kelowna – and though this is a two-lane road open to cars and trucks it’s a very rough ride. In a little over 4 kilometers before Little White Service Road meets pavement at June Springs Road, you drop over 400 meters at a 9% grade. On smooth pavement with wide-radius curves this grade would mean you could fly along at 50 or 60 kph. But on a rough gravel road with many sharp turns, it means you get off the saddle and put all your weight on the pedals so your legs can act as shock-absorbers, thrust your butt back over the rear wheel to keep balance, and squeeze the brake levers as hard as you can, roughly every five seconds, to keep your speed under control.

But soon enough I was cruising down the pavement through orchard country, sniffing the scent of ripe apples in the moist late evening air.

It was well after dark when I reach the shore of Okanagan Lake and found a motel near Okanagan College. I had a real surprise when I got off my bike: my left ankle was swollen and throbbing and I could hardly walk. Apparently that ankle had suffered some damage when I fell on a rocky section of the Kettle Valley Trail a few hours earlier. But through the past 40 kilometers – the most thrilling 40 kilometers of riding since I crossed the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park – I had been quite oblivious to the detail of a small sprain.

Ah well, I had a first-aid kit in my pack, and now I had the satisfaction of knowing I hadn’t carried that first-aid kit along for nothing. As soon as I wrapped the ankle snugly in an elastic wrap it started to feel better, and most of the pain was gone by morning.

Sunday morning, October 2nd was sunny and calm, and it warmed my heart to know that my bike ride was over, and there was nothing more pressing than exploring the flat neighbourhoods of downtown Kelowna and gazing across the lake at mountains I did not intend to climb.

Looking west across Okanagan Lake from a small waterfront park in Kelowna

Looking west across Okanagan Lake from a small waterfront park in Kelowna

Top photo: a view across Myra Canyon from one of the eighteen trestles in this section of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

The Kettle Valley Trail: Carmi to McCulloch

September 30 – October 1, 2016

over-the-hill-tocWhen I began to plan my trip the Kettle Valley Rail Tail was the prime item on my itinerary, and now that I had arrived at Mile 0 of the trail, I had also decided that the KVRT would be the last leg of my ride.

Having heard from several experienced riders about the trail conditions, and having ridden a good chunk of the adjoining Columbia & Western trail, I was content to travel only a small portion of the 600 kilometers of rail trail in this part of BC.

These trails can be slow going with a fully-loaded touring bike. In addition, for a rider like me who grew up in the prairies, the trails’ frequently constricted field of view, with a wall of new-growth trees on either side, often felt claustrophobic.

But I didn’t want to miss one spectacular stretch of the Kettle Valley Trail just outside of Kelowna, where the trail crosses 18 trestles as it makes its way around the rim of Myra Canyon.

So I set out from Midway – Mile 0 of the Kettle Valley Rail and right on the US/Canada border – on Friday September 30, headed northwest towards Kelowna. The plan was to ride west on BC 3 (the Crowsnest Highway), turn north on BC 33, and switch over to the Kettle Valley Trail soon after.

From Rock Creek north to Carmi, both the Kettle Valley Trail and BC Highway 33 stay close to the Kettle River.

From Rock Creek north to Carmi, both the Kettle Valley Trail and BC Highway 33 stay close to the Kettle River.

That was the plan, but the wind blew. Not just any wind, but a tail-wind. The day was sunny and warm, I was riding straight north, and the wind was straight out of the south – the best tail-wind I’d had for the whole trip. So I stayed on the pavement until early afternoon, by which time I’d ridden 80 km to Carmi and spotted a roadside restaurant where I could enjoy a late lunch.

Sign marking the former Carmi station and trailhead.

Sign marking the former Carmi station and trailhead.

Just north of Carmi the Kettle Valley Rail Trail takes a sharp turn away from the highway, starting the long slow climb up to the rim of Myra Canyon. The sun was still warm as I made my way up this trail, adjusting to the very different pace required to dodge rocks and loose sand after cruising on the highway with the wind at my back all morning.


I stopped to make camp when my odometer read 98 km for the day. I would have liked to make it an even 100, but I had seen very few flat spots big enough to pitch a tent and lay out my air mattress. So when I came to this wide spot on the trail I figured I’d better settle down for the night.

Campsite along Kettle Valley Rail Trail north of Carmi.

Campsite along Kettle Valley Rail Trail north of Carmi.

The sky had clouded over as the sun sank low, and soon after dark a light rain started. It was the first time on the trip that my tent was tested by steady rain, so I tossed and turned nervously until I was sure no seams were leaking. Once I was confident I would stay dry the patter of soft rain became a perfect lullaby.

After breakfast and coffee in the morning I set off, hoping I would find a water source soon. This countryside was very dry, so when I came to a pond I filled a couple of water bottles just in case I didn’t find anything better. The pond’s resident Castor Canadensis made sure I didn’t forget about the possibility of beaver fever (Giardiasis), and I was glad I had a stove to boil water, plus chemicals to treat the water.

Castor Canadensis

Castor Canadensis

Within the hour I came to a much more convenient water source. The Arlington Lakes campground is right along the trail. The lake water there still needed to be treated to be safe for drinking, but it was much less murky than the water from the beaver pond, and there was a picnic table to sit at while I boiled water and enjoyed a second breakfast.

The campsite was waking up by then and a veritable symphony of internal combustion instruments filled the air. Each resident family appeared to have at least one four-wheel drive pickup, a camping trailer, a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle, a dirt bike, and a gas-powered generator. The crew that built the rail line 110 years ago could only have dreamt of the horsepower that was present in that one campground.

For the rest of the day I rode northwest along the trail, glancing often at the heavy clouds moving around the sky. It was my plan to camp for another night along the trail before riding the Myra Canyon leg and then down the mountain into Kelowna.

This timber retaining wall is all that stands between the trail and a steep upward slope.

This timber retaining wall is all that stands between the trail and a steep upward slope.

Just past Hydraulic Lake, my attention lapsed as I tried to ride through one of the many patches of loose rock and gravel – a spot where it would have been wiser to walk. My front wheel slid out and I went down hard on my left side. As I picked myself up I was pleasantly surprised to find that I hadn’t injured my hand or wrist, and the only really sore spot seemed to be a big bruise on one calf.

One of those frequent but short stretches of the trail where it makes sense to walk rather than ride.

One of those frequent but short stretches of the trail where it makes sense to walk rather than ride.

This first fall of the trip might have indicated I was getting tired and should stop for the night. But I could catch glimpses of Kelowna in the distance far below. Heavy clouds still filled half the sky but the sun was shining just ahead, and the first of the Myra Canyon trestles was only a few kilometers away.

The late afternoon light would make for a great view of the Canyon – perhaps better than anything I’d enjoy in the morning – and I might make it down the hill into the city before it got really dark. After one last look at the map, I got back on the bike and headed for Kelowna.

Hydraulic Lake near McCulloch Station

Hydraulic Lake near McCulloch Station

Top photo: the late afternoon sun breaks through the clouds between Carmi and Myra Canyon.

Log booms on the Columbia River west of Castlegar

Columbia & Western Rail Trail

September 27–28, 2016

About 125 years ago gold and copper were discovered in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia and a fury of railroad building ensued. In part this was a simple matter of providing rail access to new mines. But the construction was also motivated by fear of US annexation of this remote territory: Canadians realized that if American companies were the first to lay rails into this area, US expansionism might result in a redrawn border.

The result was a series of ambitious projects which connected new towns – Castlegar, Grand Fords, Midway, Keremos, Osooyos and Pencticton – with the Pacific coast via the Vancouver Victoria & Eastern Railway.

Nearly all the track is gone now, but what remains is an extensive system – roughly 600 km including the many spurs – of rail trails. These trails, including the Columbia & Western and the Kettle Valley rail trails, are now part of the nationwide Trans Canada Trail network.

In planning my trip through this area I learned that trail conditions vary widely, from hard-packed gravel to loose sand to fields of shattered stone that has washed down from blasted rock cuts. Forest fires have destroyed some of the wooden trestles, not all of which have been rebuilt, and some tunnels have caved in. The upshot is that a cyclist planning to bike these trails needs to keep a flexible itinerary.

On September 27 I set out from Mile 0 on the Columbia & Western Rail trail, along the Lower Arrow Lake section of the Columbia River on the outskirts of Castlegar.

Map of northeastern sections of Columbia & Western trail, via Columbia and Western Trail Society website. Click here for interactive version of map.

Map of northeastern sections of Columbia & Western trail, via Columbia and Western Trail Society website. Click here for interactive version of map.

My goal was to ride the trail at least as far as the former Paulson Station. (The adjective “former” applies to all stations shown on the above map. There are no longer any settlements or stations, and very few road crossings, along this route.)

At least I wouldn’t face any steep grades. In common with most railways, the Columbia & Western was routed to avoid any grades steeper than about 2%.

Elevation profile of Columbia & Western railway.

Elevation profile of Columbia & Western railway.

Starting at Castlegar and biking west my first 43 kilometers would be uphill – but the steepest grade would be 2.2%. It was slow going – maintaining a speed of 10 kph was hard work – but that was mostly because of the many patches of loose gravel. For the first 20 kilometers the trail hugged the shore of Lower Arrow Lake, and I could only tell that I was going uphill by the fact that the log booms on the lake gradually grew more distant.

By then I had to think about replenishing my water supply, and the only creeks I saw were trickles at the bottom of steep canyons, viewed from trestles far above. Fortunately I passed more than one good spring, tapped by pipes that emerged from rock faces.

A spring water tap beside the Columbia & Western trail.

A spring water tap beside the Columbia & Western trail.

And traffic? The Trails BC website warns that “You will almost certainly encounter motorized vehicles along the route, particularly ATVs and dirt bikes, which could be travelling at high speeds. Over the years, unregulated motorized use has degraded the trail surface along the Columbia & Western, making many areas quite challenging for hikers and cyclists.”  But I met a grand total of two ATVs in 24 hours, plus two other cyclists. I met those two cyclists three times in two days, as they did out-and-back rides from different trailheads.

George and Anne Clark were the only cyclists I met in 60 km – but we met at three different places.

George and Anne Clark were the only cyclists I met in 60 km – but we met at three different places.

Anne and George came by just after I had replenished my water supply at a spring and I had settled down next to a rail cart to make coffee. Thanks to Anne for snapping the photo below.

Break time at Railside Cafe. Click for closeup.

Break time at Railside Cafe. Click for closeup.

It was late afternoon when I reached Bulldog Tunnel – at 912 meters, the longest tunnel in the BC rail trail system. Not only is it long but it is curved, so as you head west there is no “light at the end of the tunnel” for most of the way. I had been told that a recent collapse here had been repaired days before through the installation of new support beams – but still, my pulse sped up just a bit as I mounted a light on my helmet and pedaled into the darkness.

Almost immediately I found I was riding through big puddles, and then through loose rock. A shard of stone bounced up and got caught between my spokes, then made a horrible crunch as it hit the fender. Now each revolution of the wheel made a loud grating noise. What a great place for the first mechanical breakdown of the trip! By the light of my headlamp I couldn’t tell where the noise was coming from or how to fix it – and I wasn’t sure how long my lamp would stay on before the battery weakened. It did help to flip the cable loose on my front brake – I didn’t need brakes inside the tunnel anyway – and then I walked the rest of the way through.

When I emerged into the late afternoon sun I was delighted to find a convenient camp site. The picnic shelter shown below was under construction, and was just a netting of reinforcing rod in a square excavation. But there was an outhouse, a reasonably flat spot beside the trail to pitch my tent on, and a picnic table where I could sit for supper as well as to unload my bike and fix my front wheel.

Campsite at Bulldog Tunnel. The picture at left is from the Columbia & Western Facebook page, showing the new shelter which was built a few days after I passed through.

Campsite at Bulldog Tunnel. The picture at left is from the Columbia & Western Facebook page, showing the new shelter which was built a few days after I passed through.

In the morning after I’d prepared oatmeal and coffee it was time to get some more water, and I knew there was a spring just 900 meters away – back at the other end of the tunnel.

This through-the-tunnel-and-back water-carrying hike was also an opportunity for gadget-play. I rigged a GoPro camera on my helmet, mounted a light high enough to shine over the camera, used another camera to record some sounds, and then tried a time-elapse video of the trip. The light flashed a “battery low” warning about half way through and I had to switch to a lower light setting – but the light didn’t give out. Here’s a glimpse of what it’s like walking through Bulldog Mountain.


My second day on the trail was much easier than the first. I had only 12 kilometers left of the uphill section to Farron Summit.

At 1200 meters, Farron Summit is the highest elevation point of the Columbia & Western. (Click here for enlargement of sign.)

At 1200 meters, Farron Summit is the highest elevation point of the Columbia & Western. (Click here for enlargement of sign.)

The downhill stretch from Farron to Paulson was an easy ride, but when I got to the first intersection between the Columbia & Western and the Crowsnest Highway (BC 3) I was ready to get back onto pavement. Much of the paved route was downhill too, and what a difference a paved surface makes! While I had been flying along at the breakneck speed of 18 kph in the loose gravel of the trail, on the highway I soon came to long hills I could coast down at 45 or 50.

First I passed Christina Lake, then I met the Kettle River and followed it downhill to Grand Forks. While I had spent a day and half biking 60 km of trail from Castlegar to Paulson, the 50 km to Grand Forks on the highway took only a couple of hours.

Christina Lake, viewed from BC 3, the Crowsnest Highway.

Christina Lake, viewed from BC 3, the Crowsnest Highway.

Top photo: log booms in the Lower Arrow Lake section of the Columbia River, seen from the Columbia & Western Rail Trail.


Topaz Creek, on the west side of Kootenay Pass along the Crowsnest Pass in BC.

A Tale of Two Passes

September 25–26, 2016

over-the-hill-tocWhen I biked over the Going To The Sun road in Glacier National Park at the beginning of my journey, I thought I had faced the most difficult climb of the trip. My first day on the Crowsnest Highway showed that I really should do better research.

Leaving Creston, BC, I knew I had about an 85 km to ride to get to Salmo, and I knew there would be a mountain pass along the route. But the mapping app on my iPad didn’t show elevation profiles, and the first couple of hours of riding just contributed to complacency.

First I crossed the wide Kootenay River valley, then started climbing at an easy pace. I cruised for a long time thinking, “this road is great, it’s almost like a rail trail! With such a gentle incline, I feel like I could climb all day!” But after about 25 kilometers of this easy climb it wasn’t feeling so easy any more.

With the benefit of hindsight and a better mapping app, I now realize that I had picked a very bad time to get tired.

The elevation profile shows a 1238 meter (4061 feet) gain in elevation, from the Kootenay River up to the point where the road reaches its highest point and starts down the other side. This is almost twice the elevation gain I had struggled with on the visually spectacular but comparatively gentle Going To The Sun road.

Elevation profile of Kootenay Pass climb, east side, on BC Highway 3 (Crowsnest Highway)

Elevation profile of Kootenay Pass climb, east side, on BC Highway 3 (Crowsnest Highway)

But the biggest part of this climb happens in the final 12 kilometers – that is, after the point at which I realized I was getting tired.

Final section of climb to Kootenay Pass, east side.

Final section of climb to Kootenay Pass, east side.

While I had climbed 590 meters over 25 kilometers, I had to finish by climbing 648 meters over 12 kilometers. The air temperature dropped from about 7°C at valley bottom in the morning, to about 4°C near the pass. There was no rain or sleet, nor was there any sunshine, just a damp breeze that seemed to cut right through my jacket, rain pants, wool jersey and tights, which were damp with sweat long before I stopped climbing.

The road curved endlessly, never affording a long view forward or backward, so I couldn’t gain any sense of how far up I had come or how far I still needed to go. Each .1 km – the smallest increment on my odometer – marked a pathetic, hard-won victory. At last I had to admit that as I was only biking at 6 kph, and even then stopping for a rest at least twice per kilometer, I might as well get off and walk.

Pushing the loaded bike up the hill was slower than pedaling it, but barely – I managed 5 kph as a pedestrian. “A change is as good as a rest”, some say – and after walking for a kilometer I was able to get back on and pedal with slightly renewed vigour.

Shortly after getting back on the bike I rounded an embankment and came to the most wonderful sign a weary cyclist will see: “Check your brakes, 600 m”. It was just over half a kilometer to the top! So it turned out that the kilometer I had walked was the second-to-last kilometer in the climb.

There is a small pond at the pass, and a cook-shelter at a trailhead for Stag Leap Provincial Park, whose primary role is to provide sanctuary for the dwindling numbers of woodland caribou. I sat down just long enough to eat an energy-rich snack, pull out the last layer of wool clothing from my panniers and put that on underneath my rain suit. And then I pushed off, hoping I’d get no colder than I already felt.

Just a couple of kilometers down, I rounded a curve to see a small group of Bighorn Sheep standing in the middle of the road. They jumped a concrete barrier and started climbing an almost-vertical rock face as I rolled by. Though I briefly considered stopping, struggling with my over-tight gloves, getting my camera out, and trying to get some pictures, that would have meant going back uphill a little ways. No way was I reversing course! – it could have been the Sasquatch scrambling up that cliff, and still I wouldn’t have gone back up the hill to take a photograph.

Thirty kilometers later when I reached the valley floor it was sunny and 18°C. I was still wearing three long-sleeved wool shirts and two pairs of wool tights under a full rain suit, and I was still cold. It was only after I had pedaled for a half hour on level ground, at the outskirts of Salmo, that I took off my wool hat, gloves, and rain suit.

Finding a warm and cozy shelter was first priority, and the Reno Motel more than fit the bill. The 1950s-era motel looked like it had never been renovated – just like me!

The room had a fridge, microwave, and original art on the walls. The guest services booklet in my room also had a long writeup of the Kootenay Pass from a cyclist’s perspective – including the news that I could have avoided the climb altogether by going north from Creston and taking a free ferry across Kootenay Lake.

But it was pure luxury to soak in the deep claw-foot bathtub, and my dinner of tinned soup was special, served in such a cheerful bowl.

Soup bowls with soup.

Fine dining at the Reno Motel.

September 26, 2016

While the Kootenay Pass nearly finished me off, the next day’s climb over Bombi Summit seemed almost too easy to be true.

About halfway between Salmo and Castlegar, the Bombi Summit is at 1214 meters above sea level (compared to the Kootenay Pass at 1775 meters). As I pedaled uphill I didn’t realize my climb would only be half as big as the previous day’s climb, and it was a beautiful warm sunny day besides. When I saw the “check your brakes, 600 meters” sign I couldn’t believe I was really at the top of the hill already – perhaps, I feared, I’d go down a short steep hill and then start climbing all over again.

sign warning "Steep Grades Ahead"

Yet the “Steep Grades Ahead” showed 7 km of steady downhill, so I had finished the climb before breaking into a serious sweat. This mountain riding can be a breeze!

A sign detailed the proper procedures for truckers:

Brake Check Advisory sign.

I couldn’t help but notice the omission of any procedures for bicyclists, so I took the liberty of adding a few lines:

Check Your Brakes sign including procedures for cyclists.

Check Your Brakes sign including procedures for cyclists.

The road downhill was smooth and wide, and it wasn’t long before Castlegar appeared in the distance. By early afternoon I crossed the Kootenay River near its juncture with the Columbia and rolled through downtown Castlegar.

That night I was hosted by a Warmshowers member just across the Columbia from Castlegar. Richard proved to be an exceptionally knowledgeable cyclist as well as a great gardener and cook. He shared lots of information about the Columbia & Western and Kettle Valley rail trails, which were next on my itinerary. To our delight we were also joined that night by a Spanish cyclist who was nearing the end of a cross-Canada bike ride.

Pablo Pedroche, Richard Roussy and yours truly in Robson, BC, near the Columbia River.

Pablo Pedroche, Richard Roussy and yours truly in Robson, BC, near the Columbia River.

Twilight falls on the Columbia River.

Twilight falls on the Columbia River.

Top photo: Topaz Creek, along Crowsnest Highway on the east side of Kootenay Pass.

Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

In the Valley of the Kootenai

September 24, 2016

over-the-hill-tocThanks to the generosity of my hosts from, on my single night in Idaho I met several cycling enthusiasts in what was clearly a very warm and friendly community of outdoor enthusiasts, and they happily shared some of their favourite biking routes.

So when I left Bonners Ferry, Idaho on a sunny Saturday morning, I headed not to the highway but to a meandering gravel road that would take me through the lowlands of the Kootenai River valley.

This road led me first around the southern and western edges of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, passing wheat fields, cattle pastures and a large hops farm, before winding back to the east across the Kootenai River, where I would turn onto the highway north to Canada. Since the major highway route from Bonners Ferry to my next stop, Creston, BC was less than 60 kilometers, my more circuitous route would round out an easy day by adding another 16 km.

A small creek flows towards the Kootenai at the southwest corner of Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.

A small creek flows towards the Kootenai at the southwest corner of Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Wheat farm west of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

Wheat farm west of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.


Quad wheel tractor pulling sprayer.

The traffic was sparse but sometimes it was heavy.

Wetlands in Kootenai River valley.

Extensive wetlands make this an important area for migrating birds.

Just north of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge is Budweiser Loop, the site of an intensive hops operation owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Kootenai Valley hops farm owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Kootenai Valley hops farm owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Where the valley-bottom road crosses the Kootenai River before heading uphill to the highway, I stopped for an early-afternoon picnic lunch.

Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

My afternoon’s itinerary included riding the entire length of Idaho State Highway 1 – all 20 km of it. That would take me to the US/Canada border, where the Kootenai River mysteriously transforms into another stream with a different name. (Don’t ask me y.)

Relief map of Kootenay River system

Map of the Kootenai watershed and portion of Columbia watershed, adapted from map by Shannon1 and published under GNU Free Documentation License at

Although I would return to this spell-shifting river several times over the next few days, my brief rest on the flatlands was quickly drawing to a close. When I pedaled in to Creston that afternoon, there were just 500 meters of road between me and my destination for the night – and that half a kilometer was on a 10% uphill grade.

US Highway 2 in western Montana.

US Highway 2

Sept 20 – 23, 2016

over-the-hill-tocHow do you go from West Glacier to Idaho? Just get on US 2 and ride west – you can’t miss it.

Why did I choose US 2? For two reasons of sentiment, and one issue of practicality. First, while I could have turned more directly north into Canada, I preferred to roll my wheels in the great state of Idaho for at least a few hours. You see, I’ve been religiously obeying the Idaho stop law for many years, so Idaho is a bit of a personal Mecca.

Second, I wanted to get a new case for my GoPro camera, and that meant getting to a big town with major retailers. When I had strapped my GoPro onto my helmet on the Going To The Sun road, I noticed the case was cracked right at the mounting clip and it was in danger of flying off in the wind. Luckily that didn’t happen, but I didn’t want to push my luck. Kalispell (population 22,000) would be the largest city on my route for weeks, so I set my course for Kalispell.

Finally, my first full-time summer job had been in construction on US Highway 2 in 1970. I worked in a gravel quarry just outside of Bemidji in northern Minnesota – a long way from Montana. At fifteen I was too young for a driver’s license, and I had hitchhiked to work each morning along Highway 2. This strand of pavement represented a connection of sorts with that long-ago me in a faraway place, so when I looked at the map that one meandering line had more appeal than the others.

Google map of US Highway 2 through western Montana

Google map of US Highway 2 through western Montana

In reality, US Highway 2 from West Glacier to Kalispell was anything but romantic. Mile after mile the road was lined with fast-food restaurants, motels, car dealers, and the other standards of ex-urban sprawl that characterize the outskirts of small US cities across the country. The main local twist on this theme was a liberal sprinkling of shops advertising wild huckleberries, but they all seemed to offer the same array of over-sugared confections: huckleberry syrup, huckleberry jam, huckleberry preserves, huckleberry pie, huckleberry muffins, huckleberry candy. I had nearly given up on actually tasting a real huckleberry when I came across a health food store which sold small bags of pure frozen huckleberries. At another time of year that would have been difficult food to manage on a bike tour, but I guessed that in the fall I could pack the fruit in a little plastic tub, eat the berries as they thawed, and enjoy a delicious healthy addition to each meal for a couple of days.

There was one memorable tourist attraction along the route, however. The Ten Commandments theme park is a circle of billboards around a small gravel parking lot right beside the highway. Each of the Ten Commandments is illustrated with contemporary imagery. The Commandments are interspersed with other bill boards that tie the biblical verses to phrases in the US Constitution, as if the white aristocratic slave-owners who penned the Constitution were the direct successors to Moses. American exceptionalism aside, I found in one sign a very pointed message to travelers of my ilk: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ox, nor thy neighbour’s ass.”

Illustrated "thou shalt not covet" commandment billboard.

On this warm sunny morning, coveting my neighbour’s ox was a thought-crime easily avoided – but the day before, struggling through the sleet up to Logan Pass, either my neighbour’s ox or my neighbour’s ass would have proven a grievous temptation.

This stretch of road didn’t offer an attractive place to sit down for a quick picnic lunch until I got to the Glacier Park International Airport. The turnoff was marked with the little bit of “nature garnish” which typically signifies “a large tract of formerly natural landscape which has been flattened and paved”. For my purposes, though, this looked like a suitable roadside rest, a place to sit down in the sun with my maps while I enjoyed a meal of rolled oats, yogurt and huckleberries.

entrance sign for Glacier Park International Airport

I sprawled out on the soft grass, pulled out maps and bags of food, started mixing up lunch – and a loud rhythmic “whoosh” began, followed by sudden showers. The automatic sprinklers had ticked on! I scrambled to fold up papers, cover food, put on shoes, and scamper to a safe distance with my bags. I should have known that this lush manicured oasis did not grow just on the rain God sent from the skies!

The artificial deluge only last a couple of minutes but the grass was soaked, so I had to be content with eating lunch from a perch on the dry concrete wall.

Leaving Kalispell the next morning, riding away from the major tourism attractions, the trappings of suburbia dwindled more quickly. I was also pleased to find a just-constructed, separated bicycle path running alongside the highway. The path was so new, in fact, that they were still backfilling the edges of the asphalt pavement with gravel, and I had to dodge “path closed” signs in a few places. The separated bike lane carried on for almost 20 kilometers, and by then Highway 2 was winding through a long stretch of sparsely populated country.

For the next couple of days I passed just a few towns or small villages, passed just a few gas station/convenience store combos, along with one lakeside resort lodge. Logging trucks were the main component of traffic, but that traffic was thin, so most of the time I biked in silence.

Nearly all of this roadway had paved shoulders of adequate width to bike on when the occasional logging truck roared by. With few exceptions the hills were gentle and reasonably short. For the most part, biking through western Montana was a pleasant, meditative, if unremarkable process.

US Highway 2 in western Montana.

On September 22 I took just one photo (above) but I could have taken a hundred that looked pretty much the same. That morning a light westerly wind had blown in a fine flowing mist, which was predicted to clear up soon but instead hung around until mid-afternoon. I again reflected on Bill Streever’s explanation of the wind seeking equilibrium between pressure zones. On this day the wind seemed determined to enforce a different equilibrium. As I pedaled along in my rain suit I gradually got wet, as much from perspiration as from precipitation. After an hour or so of fairly stiff riding I should have worked up some heat, but the headwind gradually picked up and the moving stream of 10°C air kept me just on the shivering side of comfortable. I took no break longer than a 10-minute snack break, and then picked up the pace in an attempt to get warm, but the wind simply adjusted strength to keep my temperature in a chilly equilibrium. Arriving in metropolitan Libby, Montana that afternoon, I found I had ridden 96 km in just over 5 hours – a brisk pace for me, and enough to call it a day’s work.

By mid-day on September 23 I crossed the border into Idaho.
At the Welcome to Idaho sign on US Highway 2.

Going To The Sun road in Glacier National Park, autumn

Glacier Park part three: over the hill

September 19, 2016

over-the-hill-tocI’m biking west on the Going To The Sun road, but the sun appears to be taking a different route. I have no idea if I can actually make it up to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.

It’s 27 kilometers from my campsite to that high point on the road. For most of that distance I’ll hug the shoreline of St. Mary Lake, so I can expect the road to be more or less level. After that, the road climbs 650 meters (2100 feet) in 10 kilometers of 6.5% grade.

Map of eastern section of Going to The Sun road.

Map of eastern section of Going to The Sun road. click map for larger view

While there is spotty sunshine along the lakeshore, the sky to the west is ominous:

Looking west along St. Mary Lake, Sept 19, 2016

Looking west along St. Mary Lake, Sept 19, 2016

The wind is cold and blowing out of the west so I put my head down and concentrate on making steady progress without working up too much of a sweat. I try not to look very far ahead, but each time I do the snowy peaks have come a little bit closer.


Eventually the road veers away from the lake shore and starts heading uphill. At least, my legs complain as if we’re going uphill. This is one of many times on the trip when, surrounded by towering slopes with no level reference point in sight, I can’t really see whether the road is sloping uphill or downhill. On several stretches the road appears to be level but I’m pedaling hard just to keep moving – am I simply fatigued from battling the wind? Are my tires going flat? (Nope.) Perhaps, I tell myself, the problem is that I should have done this ride before I got to be sixty-one-and-three-quarters years old … maybe even before I was sixty, or before I was fifty ….

At last I reach Siyeh Bend where I stop for a snack. I pull out my map and see that I have covered nearly all of the distance between the campground and Logan Pass. But what encourages me most is a glance back to the east at the route I’ve just traversed.

The valley I’ve climbed out of looks almost dizzyingly deep, and I break into a big smile at the thought that I must already be much of the way up to Logan Pass. On cue, as if to say “wipe that silly grin off your face”, a shower of sleet blows in, turning the road white in the time it takes to put on my rain pants and full-fingered gloves.

The sleet proves to be intermittent but the views get ever more spectacular the closer I get to Logan Pass.

And believe me, I spend a lot of time admiring the view! While my legs feel strong enough to keep moving, I gasp for oxygen in the thinner air – just a few pedal cycles leave me breathless. Luckily there are pull-outs along the road something like every 100 meters on the last few kilometers up to the pass, and I think I stopped at most of them.


Finally the visitor center comes into view and I manage to pedal the last few hundred meters without stopping. I stay just long enough to put on another layer of wool underneath my rain suit for the chilly ride down. I don’t want to rest long enough to let my muscles get cold, but I do stop for the obligatory photo in front of the Logan Pass sign, and another visitor snaps a shot with my camera.

That night when I download the photos, I’m surprised to find that there’s another cyclist in the picture, in the background at right. This was the only other cyclist I saw that day. He had intended to ride up to the Pass from the west, but he decided the route looked too scary so he hitched a ride up with his bike. When we chatted in the visitor center he was buying another layer of clothing, while debating whether he should try the ride downhill.

I didn’t see him depart, but just after I started downhill myself, he was walking his bike back up to the top. I guess that’s understandable – I mean, this guy had some serious miles on him! Judging by his unruly white beard and drastically receding hairline, he looked to be not a day under 62!

But he missed a great ride. The next 35 kilometers were downhill all the way to Lake MacDonald. After I’d gone far enough to get out of the rain and sleet, I put on my helmet camera and filmed about a half hour of the descent. These excerpts from that ride, set to “Gearheads” by Joey Defrancesco and Danny Gatton, bring to mind the joy I felt all the way down. This is dedicated to all of us who are well and truly “over the hill”.

hiking trail in Glacier National Park, Sept 18 2016

Glacier Park part two: the friction of trees and mountains

September 18, 2016

The view from my motel window was encouraging: the previous night’s horizontal rain was gone.

I took my time getting ready for the day’s ride, waiting to see if the gale-force winds in the forecast were really on their way back.

over-the-hill-tocWhen I rolled up to the Glacier National Park entrance gate just a kilometer from my motel, however, I was met with another challenge. The Going To The Sun road was closed due to a landslide! The night’s heavy rain had brought rock and mud down across the road in the Big Bend area, just beyond the high point at Logan Pass. I could bike up to the Pass, I was told, but then I’d have to turn around and come back. And there was no guesstimate when the road would re-open.

Meanwhile the sun was shining but the wind was picking up and there were ominous clouds to the south. The best course of action, I decided, was to set up camp in the park’s St. Mary campground, just a kilometer from the entrance, and plan an afternoon hike.

The campground had some nicely sheltered campsites. I set up my tent and then cooked a pot of oatmeal on my stove; though the wind was whistling through the treetops it was quite calm at ground level. Studying my National Geographic map of the park, I picked a nearby walk that I thought would provide some beautiful scenery without a lot of exertion.

By that time another camper had told me the Road to the Sun had reopened. But my legs were still tired from the previous day’s bike ride, and I wasn’t ready for several hours of biking uphill. So I chose to walk the Beaver Pond Loop and part of the Red Eagle Trail, totaling perhaps 8 km (5 miles).

With rain suit and extra clothes in a small backpack, I set out into a warm but occasionally ferocious wind. Looking west across St. Mary Lake the sky was mostly blue:

St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.

St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.

The view to the southwest was different – dark clouds and streaks of rain hung between the mountains.

The view to the southwest along St. Mary Lake.

The view to the southwest along St. Mary Lake.

With such a brisk wind it seemed improbable that the rain would stay at a safe distance all afternoon, and yet I carried out my whole walk in warm sunshine.
Rain clouds over the mountains in Glacier National Park, Sept 18 2016

Why does the wind carry clouds and rain over the mountainsides just a few kilometers away, and yet bring warm, dry air through this part of the valley? I thought again of And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind.

Moist air is less dense than dry air, Bill Streever explains, and so it will rise, creating a lower pressure zone at ground level. Unless, that is, the moisture in the air is condensing, in which case it will sink, causing a lower pressure zone up above. Air will quite simply flow from higher pressure zones to lower pressure zones, towards equilibrium of atmospheric pressure. Except, that is, in the real world, where there are all sorts of complications and wind flow is not simple:

The difficulty comes in understanding why wind seldom moves in a straight line between pockets of high pressure and low pressure, why it never succeeds in reaching equilibrium, why the highs and lows that drive it form and disappear …. The difficulty comes in understanding the confusion that arises from the earth’s incessant spinning below its atmosphere and from the friction that occurs where moving air meets unyielding ground and trees and buildings and mountains.”

Along my walk I approached some of the stands of pine trees that have fallen victim to the mountain pine beetle throughout this region.

Pine trees hit by mountain pine beetle infestation, Glacier National Park.

Pine trees hit by mountain pine beetle infestation, Glacier National Park.

The trees were dead but they were not silent. The friction of the wind against the bare treetops produced an eerie song, which I heard both in areas hit by the pine beetle and in areas hit by forest fire.

Though my camera microphone isn’t the greatest tool for capturing this song I gave it a try. Turn up your speakers and you can hear some of the music that I heard on my walk:


On the short ride back to the campground that evening that wind nearly blew me off my bike. But another camper advised that with all the twists and turns on the Going To The Sun road, the wind would most likely be at my back some of the time.


Gathering in campground at sunset, Glacier National Park


On that cheery note I said good night.


sunset in Glacier National Park

Glacier Park part one: “those with outdoor plans should prepare for strong wind gusts”

September 17, 2016

“Big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser whirls and so on to viscosity.” – Lewis Fry Richardson

over-the-hill-tocOn the train across the the northern US to Montana I passed the time reading a fascinating book by Bill Streever: And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air. The book recounts the centuries-long effort to understand the wind: why does it blow, what effects does it have and how can it be forecast? Lewis Fry Richardson (1881 – 1953) was one of the most prominent pioneering scientists of weather, whose methods of forecasting didn’t really become practical until the arrival of supercomputers long after his death.

As a touring cyclist the wind is always one of the major influences on my ride, so I read Streever’s work with great interest.

When I disembarked from the Amtrak train in the village of East Glacier on the evening of September 16, I was steeling myself for the first anticipated challenge of my trip: the ride over the famed Going To The Sun road in Glacier National Park.

From East Glacier north to St. Mary, and then along the Going To The Sun road to West Glacier, is about 130 km (80 miles), a distance I have often covered in a day on a loaded touring bike. With a tail wind, might I ride that fast through Glacier National Park? I set out on a sunny Saturday morning to find out.

It didn’t take long, riding on Montana State Highway 49, to realize the 50 km to St Mary might be a day’s work. What my iPad map application didn’t tell me is that there are two major climbs of over 300m (1000 feet) between East Glacier and St. Mary. For a cyclist still acclimatized to summer on the flat-lands along Lake Ontario, a chilly autumn ride over mountains was a challenge.

Google map of route from East Glacier to St. Mary, with elevation profile

Google map of route from East Glacier to St. Mary, with elevation profile

But what views! The great part about being frequently out of breath is that it makes it easy to stop often to take pictures.

Fall colours in Glacier National Park, Montana, Sept 17, 2016

Fall colours in Glacier National Park, Montana, Sept 17, 2016

When I got to the top of what would be the last climb of the afternoon, the outlook suddenly changed. A stiff breeze accompanied by fast-moving mist hit me in the face. Out came my rain suit and soon I was rolling down a steep hill, slowly, against the wind, all the way to St. Mary.

Rain blows across the mountains, Glacier National Park, Sept 17, 2016.

Rain blows across the mountains, Glacier National Park, Sept 17, 2016.

Did it look like a good night for camping? Not if I could find a room. The Red Eagle Motel obliged and soon I was warm and dry, logged into wifi and pondering this forecast:

Special Weather Statement warning of high winds, 17 September 2016

Wind warning for Glacier National Park, Sept 17, 2016

Listening to the gusts and rain batter the motel walls through the evening I was glad to be inside – my cheap summer tent would have been torn to shreds. My comfort was lessened somewhat, though, at the thought of biking in the same wind the next day over Logan Pass, on the Going To The Sun road.