Different Parts of Everywhere

#76: Dea in the Rocky Mountains, part 1/3: Gender and bear aware

CANADA, 18th – 20th June 2018

”I don’t want to have a weapon,” I said to Chris with a can of bear spray in my hand. After Rachelle’s many warnings and strong suggestions I had bought this item, only to be used for self-defence in a bear attack of course, but nevertheless formally considered a weapon. I had never imagined myself owning a weapon and now that I did, I really didn’t like the position it put me in. A position of superficial powers that were not really mine. And also it brought a new awareness of whether and when I needed to carry and use this weapon or not. More worries about bears than before. I did not want to cause a bear discomfort and distress. If I got too close to it it was my fault, not the bear’s. And what if I couldn’t get the security clip off fast enough or if I got the spray in my eyes myself. That would be so ridiculously pathetic. No, I was not so content with my purchase, but at least Rachelle would not be mad at me for being stupidly naive. Apparently all cyclist and outdoor activists in this part of Canada carries bear spray as the risk of bear attacks is real. It was sensible and reasonable to buy it, but emotionally I was on uneven ground.

Maybe also, because I was about to set out on three weeks of cycling alone. I was not concerned or worried about this, just excited. I was often secretly nursing a dream of doing solo cycling trips even though I loved Chris and cycling with him. It was a different challenge to do all this we did together all by myself. But everyone, except from Chris, seemed a little more nervous than normal. I could hear it in my parents’ voices even though they wouldn’t say it and in Rachelle’s warnings about bears, where to camp and the highway traffic. I knew they only meant well, and from more than a year of cycling I knew by now, that people’s concerns on my behalf 95% of the time are exaggerated. It is as if our imaginations about what is out there often are much more dramatic than reality. Probably it was just going to be a bit boring cycling and camping all by myself, right? But their worries were however just a bit unsettling, and not less so with my new bear spray to defend myself against all the grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains. Inside I was confident that I could do this without getting into any more troubles than when cycling together with Chris (there was a good chance I would even get into less), and I was sure I would be able to deal with whatever came my way on my own. I was not worried, why were they? Should I be? 

The only thing that worried me a bit was the weight of my bike

My plan was to cycle from Golden into the National Parks of the Rocky Mountains, go north up through the parks and then south again on some gravel roads in the foothills. Chris would stay in Golden in the meantime working out his bike problems and getting started with the writing of Into the Sunrise. Eventually we would meet again in Canmore 160 kilometres down the road where we would be house-sitting for a month.

I was keen on going, but there were a few more to-do’s. England were playing their first match in the World Cup against Tunisia and Chris and I went to the pub in Golden to watch it. Here Tim and Kate came to meet us, two warm and friendly strangers who knew all about us as they are keen followers of this blog. They had made a decent detour around to Golden on their way home to come and meet us and I felt a bit sorry that it had to happen with three of our four eyes glued to a TV screen, but they were warned about it and took it in good spirits. Having met each other through their passion for cycle touring we had much in common and really my attention towards the football match was hard to keep up as we talked about our trips and they told us about their life in Canada. It was a real pleasure to meet them!

With the final shopping done, I hugged Ned and Rachelle goodbye and last, but not least, Chris too. Finally I was off and it felt good.

There was a seriously big hill going out of Golden and my bike was heavier than usual. As you may remember, we had bought not less than five kilos of peanuts and trail mix in Salmon Arm, not knowing that these peanuts would be a threat to Rachelle’s life as she was severely allergic to them. So I now had my panniers stuffed with 4.5 kilos of peanuts, and then all the other food I needed for the next five days of cycling through Yoho, Banff and Jasper National Park. Pushing uphill out of Golden I thus felt I was near the limit of what I  could manage, but up I got, of course. And after having waved goodbye to Golden town down in the valley, I continued up through a narrower valley that had the blue Kicking Horse River flowing deep below me, while the road hugged the cliffside, winding and narrow without any shoulder. This was one of the things I had been warned about, but staying focused and in the flow of the passing traffic, that was slow and considerate, I found it was no trouble at all.

As I took a break at a rest area a woman came up to me.
“Me and my sister saw you cycling on the road and we just said to each other, that we could never do that. Cycling in all that traffic, with all that weight and all by yourself. You are so brave.”
I was blushing under the compliments, not really knowing what to say, but more than that I was also puzzled. I heard a new tone of admiration in the woman’s words that I didn’t usually hear, when I cycled with Chris. Something I received for being a woman on my own, although I felt like I was doing just the same as usual. Having Chris cycling with me would not change the traffic, the narrow road, nor the weight of the bike much and I would still be alone on my bike with him often being hundred metres ahead or behind me. It was just an hour ago I had kissed him goodbye. But seeing me cycling alone changed the way these women (and many other people I later met) thought of me as a cyclist and traveller. It felt like my gender became more apparent, more noticeable in relation to what I was doing and that was something different than being a more gender-neutral half of a couple cycling. And I must admit, that I feel the same special admiration for the  long-time solo female cyclists I know about (we hadn’t met many on our way). I find great inspiration in and truly admire their strength, courage and independence. In my mind, they almost turn into superhero-women in matching tight suits and capes with superhuman powers – like we women so often idealise others, I guess, and secretly a part of me envied them. That was probably part of the reason why I wanted to go cycling by myself, to compare myself with them and to briefly be one myself. However, as I now received that same admiration I didn’t feel it belonged to me, because I had not really changed into a superwoman at all (I didn’t consider a bear spray I didn’t know how to use a real superhero gadget). I was still the same person doing exactly the same thing as always, I was capable of the same and had the same weaknesses, I was no more a superwoman than any other woman. And I was absolutely sure the two sisters could do it too, if they wanted to. Anyone could. And I hoped that was what I passed on to them.

In the wider valley that opened up around the river as I reached the top of the climb, I went to find a free campsite that was located on the river banks opposite the highway. It was a lovely place, and it was great to be able to camp here out in the open landscape without having to hide. I sat down for a few minutes just taking it all in. The wide, fast flowing river, the grey mountains beaming red in the last evening sunlight, the grassy meadows and the colourful variety of wild flowers. This was one of those moments that made me feel I was living just the way I wanted, just simply being in this wonderful world. The evening was near the longest it would be in the year and I had it all to myself, I could do things just how I wanted. What a freedom! It was, however, still exactly the same things as always: getting washed, cooking and cleaning the pot, bear securing the food and pitching the tent. Doing it all by myself made me appreciate each of the tasks and their necessity more. Nothing was done for me, nothing could be skipped or ignored, it all just made such good sense to be doing.

Yoho National Park was the first of the chain of national parks I would be cycling through on my way through the Rocky Mountains. With the mountains really being rocky and rugged, having all kinds of shapes and layers and colours, and the Kicking Horse River’s milky turquoise colour from the rock dust that the glaciers and water grind off the cliffs on the way down to the river, it was such beautiful scenery. I could not imagine anything more perfect than that. That the Trans-Canada Highway I was cycling on was running right through this piece of perfectness (and even was busy with roadwork to widen it further) was a bit disturbing though. In Canada the balance between human and nature seemed to be a delicate thing, because the unspoiled nature still exists here and is considered important and precious, something to protect – at least to the extent that it doesn’t compromise human’s comfortable lives and needs.

As I had previously enjoyed our little hikes to waterfalls and through old forest, I got off the bike for a two kilometre hike to Wapta Falls. And it was nice again this time to walk through the forest on a narrow, winding trail, only just with a bit too many people doing the same thing. We all wanted to enjoy the tranquillity of nature, but at an easy access point like this, it felt oddly crammed.

I stopped to check in with Chris from the Visitor Centre in Field, a little town in the national park. I found it curious to think about that it was here Chris had met Vivian, the Chinese-Canadian Toronto-girl on her first ever cycle tour, when he cycled this way two years ago on his way back to me in Denmark. Vivian, who I had since also made friends with online, but never met, and who had done such an impressive job of cycling across Canada without any previous experience or sincere passion for cycling and outdoor life. She had done it to change her life and she had succeeded. I thought about how she had pushed her bike up this very same pass out of Field that I also approached now, not able to cycle up, but not wanting to quit. I admired her for her personal perseverance and determination to push her limits so far and to day by day gain confidence and success with her project.

It was a hot day and the pass also took its toll on me, so that at the top I really enjoyed a little break taking the classic picture of my bike by the big sign welcoming me not just into the next national park of Banff, but also into the next Canadian province, Alberta.

From here it was all downhill to Lake Louise town and campground where I had planned to camp that night. With the fines being very high for wild camping in the national parks I was actually more scared about the park rangers than the bears, and because they didn’t sell ‘park ranger spray’ to guard me in a potential encounter, I had therefore decided to use the campgrounds along the way through the parks. Safe from the park ranger I was also very well protected from the bears at Lake Louise Campground, where a big, electrical fence surrounded the tent campground. Grizzly bears use the area of Lake Louise as a corridor between feeding grounds, and sometimes even get tempted to hang around in the town where food can be easy to access, although the community there, like in most Canadian towns we’d been to, are very bear aware with bear safe bins, no food littering and for example not growing fruit trees.

Bear and park ranger safe, my only concern now was just the rather expensive accommodation, 27CAD for the camp site, but after a few hours a backpacker couple came in willing to share the site with me. Andres and Nais were Chilean/French and hitchhiking across Canada with very little planning of anything. Andres was a hippie type with long dreadlocks and I shouldn’t have been surprised when he greeted me not with a handshake nor a kiss on the cheek, but a full on hug. But of course I was a little surprised with the stranger’s arms around me.

Andres and Nais

I didn’t stay up to hang out with my laid-back neighbours, because unlike them I had a set plan for the following day. I wanted to see the nearby Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, as they were famous for their beauty. But they were also famed for being extremely crowded with tourists and the narrow, winding road up to Moraine Lake should be a horrible cycle during the day. Therefore I got up before the day began, at 4.30, grabbed one pannier from the bear safe storage box that was packed with my breakfast, and went for the 15 kilometre ride up to Moraine Lake. I rang my bear bell (a bear precaution purchase I was much more pleased with) cautiously along the way, thinking that a bear would be more likely to be out grazing by the road in this early, quiet hour and wouldn’t expect such an early visitor here, but I really was all alone as the day gradually woke from its sleep. I was climbing up a few hundred metres and as I reached the top and the trees opened up a bit, the warm sunrays suddenly burst out over the mountains behind me bathing me and the range of snowy peaks in front of me in its first, golden light. The day had arrived and it was a precious moment.

Despite my early start I was not the only early visitor at Moraine Lake. Several others were already ready with big cameras on tripods to take the first morning picture, and I wondered how many thousands or millions of pictures of this lake that exists? Looking out at it at 6.30 when the sunlight had reached the snowy mountain range that rises from the far bank of the lake, but not yet the perfectly still turquoise water, I felt exactly that same urge to photograph it too, to try and eternalize that incredible beauty although I perfectly well knew that it could really only exists in the present moment that was now. A picture could never grasp my lonely (in the best of ways) experience as I walked along the shore of the lake, away from the main view points and through the forest, passing a curious deer a few metres from me nibbling on some breakfast branches, before finding a flat rock a step out into the water where I myself sat down to have my PB&J sandwich breakfast while I marvelled at the mountains and the mirror of the lake that I could reach out to break if I wanted to, but I didn’t.

On my way back to the bike I went up to the main view point where a small crowd of people was gathering to take that iconic picture of the lake home as a souvenir. This place held a significant, spectacular beauty that was beyond imagination of the perfect and I felt really lucky to have experienced it – and shared it with the other early risers.

Cycling back down to Lake Louise, which is only a few kilometers out of Lake Louise town, was fast downhill, and I appreciated the execution of my early morning plan, as there was already now a steady flow of cars and RV’s making their way up to the lake I came from. It would not have been pleasant to cycle there already now at 7.30am. I was still pretty much the first one going down, but at Lake Louise the parking lots were already filling up. Luckily I could just lock up my bike to some trees, and walk to the lake. It was another amazing sight, the turquoise colour of the water now deep and nuanced in the sunlight and with the mighty tongue of a glacier stretching down from the mountains at the far end of the lake.

I really enjoyed the views here too, and the wide walking path along the shore made it possible for everyone here to get a good view (and pictures) of it all. But as I made my way around the bottom of the lake, I realised that something else than the lake had caught the crowd’s attention. Above the path in a lush meadow dotted with dandelions a grizzly mother and her two cubs were having their breakfast, not oblivious to, but also not bothered by the crowds of tourists that were watching them. The meadow was closed off by the park rangers as the bears had come out to feed on the flowers every morning for several days now. I made my way up to a spot where I could see the bears well. To my delight, a ranger stood there watching the situation and generously answering all our curious questions about the animals. He constantly spoke in a low, calm voice to not upset the bears 50 metres away and it was like being in a live nature documentary listening to his information while watching the mother grazing intensely and the cubs roll around in the flowers. The mother was determined to gain as much energy as possible, as it is her main task all summer to store enough body fat to feed her two cubs in the den all winter. I asked the ranger, how it was possible that the bears could live through the winter without even drinking, and he explained how the theory is that their body system simply slows down to a bare minimum. How this actually works is something scientists still yet have to find out, and for example NASA is very interested in this research, thinking they possibly can apply the knowledge to astronauts on long-time space journeys. But the secret is hard to get to, as it is extremely difficult and dangerous to monitor a sleeping bear in its den. The two little cubs in the field was more busy with just being playful creatures new to all and everything and oblivious of the secret they held. The mother kept a close eye on them all the time. With them being the precious next generation of bears in the area, they were in danger of a male bear killing them if he was not the father, so that he could plant his own genes in the female and the cubs she would soon bear instead. In fact, she was residing near the touristy lake exactly because the big males were less likely to come here. In that curious way the tourists were protecting her cubs while getting full value for their money with this ideal bear sight. Such is nature constantly adapting to the changes we force upon it, while all the time fundamentally driven, simply and brutally, by life’s essentials: surviving and reproduction. I felt I would never be able to fully grasp the reality of it.

And thus, overwhelmed and grateful as only humans can be, I finished off my morning by the famous lakes of Banff National Park, and went back to the campground to get ready for check out at 11am. Andres and Nais were also planning to leave the campground, but they seemed to think 11am was hours away, not just 30 minutes, while they slowly went about cooking coffee, talking on the phone and still not having packed anything including the tent at 10.55am. Surely we both travelled with a sense of freedom in mind, but I guess there are many kinds of freedom amongst us.  I left them just in time for check-out curious about how their day and journey would develop.

Before I began my own the cycle north up the Icefields Parkway I went to the Visitor Centre in Lake Louise town to let Chris and others know that I was just fine and had not needed to use the bear spray yet. Outside I met another cyclist, and this one a real solo female cyclist from Germany called Anni. Only in my mind she was wearing a superhero cape, in reality she looked rather normal and was genuinely nice. We immediately bonded really well and chatted away for a long time. Anni was on a long journey that perhaps would go all the way around the world, but she didn’t have any set plans. She had started her trip backpacking and occasionally working around in Europe before she went via Iceland to Canada and decided to get a bike to continue her journey this way. It was not the first time she did a long cycle trip, and she seemed to enjoy being back on the bike and had extensive plans of cycling both further north in Canada during the summer, before heading south through the Americas. I felt like we could have had a great time cycling together although she seemed to be one of the faster cyclists compared to myself, but as I’ve heard is often the case with the rare species of solo female cyclists, they are always going the other sodding way. Anni had come down the Icefields Parkway, where I was going now and she gave me some updates on which campgrounds were open and not, and as she was heading to Golden I told her to look out for Chris there. We said goodbye, me hoping that the cycling gods would let our paths cross again somewhere further south on the continent.

Golden – Yoho National Park – Lake Louise

Distance cycled: 185 kilometres

5 thoughts on “#76: Dea in the Rocky Mountains, part 1/3: Gender and bear aware

  1. Alda Vervoort

    Hello Dea and Chris,

    Beautiful pictures!
    You do that fantastic!
    Soon I will read the full blog.

    Be careful and big hugs.

  2. Vivian Ip

    Dea!
    You are so sweet for think of me. I miss the cross CANADA trip more than ever. I am so happy right now to be under the same roof as you and Chris. I am already looking forward in seeing you guys for the future, it gives me GREAT MOTIVATION to resume back to day-to-day life. I love you guys.

    x

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