CANADA, 21st – 24th June 2018
It was late in the afternoon but still uncomfortably hot as I began the long gradual climb up Bow Pass, which was the first of the two 2,000 metre passes that were awaiting me on the Icefields Parkway. I was at first surprisingly unimpressed by the famous road as I slowly went on and on with nothing else to see than trees, trees and more trees lining the road. Moreover the trees were kept at such a distance from the road that they didn’t provide me any shade, and I was struggling on the long gradual ascent. Then I reached the first picturesque Hector Lake that opened up the forest and gave me views of the range of rugged mountains that stretched north to my left and things began to feel better.
I reached Mosquito Campground, where I was going to spend the night, and circled around it looking for an available site only to find that they were all taken. There were no other camping options in a distance I could reach that evening and I still feared the park ranger’s fine too much to attempt wild camping, so instead I went around to ask if somebody would mind sharing a site with me. I first approached three young girls who were playing cards, thinking they looked likely to say yes, and luckily I was right. The 18-year old Americans were on their first road trip away from home after they had just finished high school. It was fun to talk with them about their trip and future plans and tell them about my journey, somehow reflecting myself in them and that first youth that I had now left behind.
The next day the splendour of the Icefields Parkway really revealed itself. The mountain range to my left went on and on with grey, rugged mountains in spectacular formations and with various stripy patterns of white snow on them. One of these patches of snow, that didn’t look too big from the angle I first saw it at, grew into a big glacier called Crowfoot Glacier. I got great views of it at the rest area by Bow Lake near the top of the pass, but at an information board I read that the glacier foot used to have three toes, which made it look like a birds foot and therefore explained the name. Now due to the rising temperatures only two toes were left and they were shrinking too. It was an unsettling fact, an evidence of what we are doing to our planet right in front of my eyes impossible to ignore.
As I stood there in thoughts a woman (with her husband following behind her at a little distance) came up to me and before she even introduced herself gave me a hug. I was being hugged a lot these days considering I was travelling all by myself.
“It is so good what you do!” she said with a lovely German accent, and once again I blushed and didn’t know what to say, but again feeling this particular connection between me and other women. I explained about my travels and asked them about theirs. Karin and Thomas were travelling around in a rented RV for a couple of weeks before returning home to Bonn. Bonn, where Chris and I had been last year at the start of our trip, just as the Japanese cherry trees were blossoming. The world felt so big and so small at once.
A little further up the road I reached the summit of the Bow Pass and here I locked up the bike at a big, full parking lot and walked up to see Peyto Lake. Once again I was on a busy hiking trail, but I turned my attention to the many information boards that explained about the ecosystem of the alpine forest that I was in and found the walk quite lovely this way. Reaching the viewing platform an unbelievable sight revealed itself as the lake deep underneath me was the most vivid turquoise I have ever seen. It seriously looked fake, but I know it was not, it was just that incredible and it took my breath away. The crowd there had me leave again soon though, but I had enjoyed the walk in the high alpine forest so much that I extended it for another few kilometres further up the mountain getting a little lost on some smaller trails, before turning back to my bike and the road.
The rest of the day I cycled steadily along the range of Rockies through endless, untouched pine forest only sometimes disrupted by big lakes or the wide Saskatchewan River that cut through the landscape on its way from the mountains in the west to the flatter land in the east. The weather turned a little more rough with fast moving clouds and some of them bringing brief showers, but everything was still mighty and beautiful.
By evening I arrived at another campground where I immediately was taken under the wings of a big group of cyclists. They were all Canadians, one couple cycling with a friend, another couple by themselves, all of them having retired from their jobs, and one young guy cycling by himself. They were all sitting in a shelter, cooking and talking the cycle touring talk, and after having set up my tent on one of their campsites, I went there too to do just the same. They were all experienced travellers, and it was, as it most often is, such a rewarding experience to spend the evening with other cyclists. The conversations are always interesting, entertaining and relevant with everyone listening and having something to say and with many laugthers to share, something you can really appreciate after the many hours alone on the bike.
Refuelled by this evening in good company I headed out for a day where I could certainly need a little extra mental energy. The scenery was still stunning, but the weather more foul than the previous day. As I hit the climb for the second pass, this one being shorter and steeper and called Big Hill, it began to rain and clouds covered the mountain tops I was aiming for. Despite the wet and cold weather I rather enjoyed the challenge and rhythm of the climb, and tried to appreciate the dramatic looks of the mountain pass partly covered in floating clouds, although it could not be denied that it was a shame not to see it all under clearer skies. The road flattened at the top and as I now cooled down after climbing hard I began to feel really cold as I was wet both from the outside and the inside and with the temperatures up at 2,000 metres being one digited. I knew I could get inside at the Icefield Centre some ten kilometres away so I just put my head down to get there as fast as possible.
Dripping wet I got inside the big centre that was chaotic with tourists also not wanting to be out in the rain. I managed to find a place to sit, and spent some time on the wifi waiting for warmth to spread in my body. Meanwhile I could observe how the many tourists queued for a bus tour that apparently took them up on a glacier with a bus leaving every 20 minutes or so. I looked out of the windows and finally realised I could see a rather big glacier on the other side of the road. It looked grey and sad. I could also see the road where buses were going back and forth from the centre and sure enough right up onto the glacier. I could hardly believe my own eyes. The glacier looked mighty but in a worn and miserable rather than glorious way, and it was hard not to think that it was suffering, maybe not directly from the hundreds of buses that drove on it every day, but certainly indirectly from what they represented: Global warming due to extensive CO2-emission which the growing tourism industry must hold at least some responsibility for although I don’t know the exact numbers. Just looking at the case of this particular glacier, people were flying to Canada from all over the world, driving to the national parks in fossil fuelled RV’s to go on a bus ride up onto the melting ice itself. Here they could stamp on it and take a selfie of their big smiles when really they should be crying like the melting glacier itself.
I almost cried when I a little later walked up to the foot of the Athabasca glacier passing one information board after the other showing where the glacier used to have reached and overhearing parents explaining to their kids how it was shrinking every year and maybe would be gone within their lifetime. I remembered how my parents had taken me to see a glacier in Norway when I was ten, and as it was long before the awareness of global warming really began no such terrifying stories had been told. We had just marvelled at the mighty masses of the icy blue and white snow. Now kids were growing up with this frightening awareness of the damage we have caused to our planet, an awareness that I as an adult find hard enough to bear. How was it not affecting these children? It all made me so incredibly sad in a way I have never felt before during a nature experience. And I just could not get my head around how a national park, that says it is protecting these glaciers, could be driving buses up on it, even if it was to make money to further protect the nature in the park. It just seemed so wrong, distorted and disrespectful, really.
And it made me think I also almost just wanted to go home – and leave the planet undisturbed to recover. I was a tourist too and although I had not flown and driven to the glacier, I had just taken a cruise ship instead, and I was just another human being greedily living out my dream about travelling the world and by blogging about it even promoting it and encouraging others to do the same. The world would probably be better off if I didn’t…
The Columbian Icefields made a deep impression on me and I was confused, upset and sad when I began the winding descent. My mood got further darkened when a car with a huge caravan passed me very closely on the inside of a curve around the cliffs, seemingly unaware of the width of the vehicle. It caused me screaming, but of course the driver didn’t hear me. I saw however that they stopped at a parking area down the road and as they got out I went to talk with them about it in what I thought was a calm way. The man, who had been driving, immediately got offended by my approach and just stated that he WAS a good driver and that he WAS sharing the road, so I gave up and just went on down the road with my inside boiling even more.
I sat down on a bench at the next viewing point to calm down and find some peace of mind. In front of me was another big glacier, but I hardly saw it. Next to me sat a woman, and she began talking to me about how she had gone up on the glacier on a bus tour and how much it had cost. It made me feel extremely tired, and I just wanted to get out of this silly national park. Then she realised I was the cyclist she and her husband had passed on the road, and the conversation changed as I explained about our journey and asked about theirs. Keith and Chris were from Newcastle and really friendly people on one of the big holidays of their lives. Sitting there with them, listening to them and sharing laughs and experiences, I remembered what my travelling was good for: meeting all the various people of the world, trying to understand their situations and stories and finding the goodness in nearly every one of them. I knew I couldn’t hold them as individuals responsible for the suffering glacier. It was a much more complex and subtle system we humans had created around, between and inside us that was the problem and so hard to comprehend and break down. I ended up feeling much cheered up by meeting Keith and Chris.
Meeting all these people along the road and at the campsites was beginning to overload my social account, and so I was happy to find that the little, wet campsite where I was going to stay that night was almost empty. Here I could have my own site where I could retreat to my tent and have some time for myself, just like I had wanted it on this trip on my own. But before doing so, I did get to talk with a young German couple, Anne and Louis, as we all made our dinner in the communal shelter. Here I witnessed how they thoroughly and extremely detailed planned their next days in the national parks considering the weather forecast, studying maps and travel guides, writing down notes and keeping account of it all in their calendars. They were the complete opposite of Andres and Nais, the hippies from Lake Louise, and it made me smile to think about the many people I met and how we all structured our freedom differently. The Germans were really nice people too, living in a rather impressive long-distance relationship where they both studied abroad in different countries and had done so since they met each other and were going to continue this way for more years to come. Understandably travelling together now was a special time for them and it seemed like they were making the most of it. We were joined in the shelter by Richard, a newly retired McDonalds-owner from Arizona, riding his motorbike up to the Arctic Sea and back, as this had been a dream of his for many years and now he could finally do it. Because I wanted some time by myself, I left the others to the talking and had the needed evening on my own.
The next morning Richard was keen to talk to me as he had not encountered a cycle tourist before and it had raised a lot of good questions in him that I was happy to talk with him about. He was yet another good and inspiring person making his dream come true while curiously learning about people and the world along the way. I was really overwhelmed by all the rewarding encounters I had had with such different people on my solo trip that I had imagined would be kind of lonesome – and it didn’t end here.
I felt a rush of joy when the skies cleared and the still ongoing range of Rockies came out of the clouds while I fast and effortlessly rolled downhill, and in this glorious moment a loaded cyclist came up the road towards me in similarly good spirists. It was Corey, and we were mutually happy to meet another travelling cyclist as the road on this sunny Saturday was mostly frequented by lycra-dressed road cyclists on a day ride out of Jasper. Corey was on a long ride all across Canada and a really cheerful and funny person that I would have loved to spend more time with. We talked, said goodbye, then talked some more and finally got ourselves going, me even further uplifted by the encounter.
This was my last day cycling on the Icefields Parkway, as I was quickly closing in on Jasper town at the end of this picturesque road. So I made sure to take it all in sufficiently, which was not hard in the euphoria I always feel after rainy clouds have given way to blue skies and sunshine. The landscape was still perfect like a postcard, mountains, forest and a fresh river glistening in the sunshine, and I stopped a couple of times to explore some waterfalls. I felt the spray of them and walked through corridors that the water had cut in the cliff, and appreciated how close I could get to these natural wonders.
In Jasper I went straight to the house of Sanne, a woman who had offered to host me for a couple of days. She was a friend of Rachelle, and I soon learned that she was an energetic and always enthusiastic Dutch woman with an overwhelming passion for all outdoor activities. She wasn’t home yet when I got there, but I made myself at home in her little backyard drying my stuff and using the wifi. When she came, she was on the phone, talking to her neighbour, Jamie, who had had a dramatic afternoon tipping over in a canoe together with his mother in a freezing cold, fast flowing river. Luckily they had both got out of the water safely, but the canoe was stuck under a log in the river, and now Sanne was involved in figuring out how they could get it out. In the midst of this she invited me inside and I had had a quick shower before we went over to have dinner with Jamie, who lived two houses down the road with his wife and their little son, and his parents were there too. I was thrown right into a group of people that all shared a true adventurous outdoor-spirit that exceeded mine by far, and I was amused and curious to just try and follow their conversations about rivers, kayaking, skiing, bears, rescuing helicopters, elks in the garden, ropes, equipment and national park policies (Sanne and Jamie worked for the parks). I was however horrified to hear the mother describe her desperate swim to get out of the strong currents of the cold river and I felt no desire to follow their example. Cycling around the world was more my kind of thing.
So the next day (after Sanne had been out rescuing Jamie’s canoe which had her beaming with excitement over the great adventure it had been) when she asked me how I wanted to go and explore the nature around Jasper, and came up with a list of suggestions, I opted for one that sounded safest: paddling in a canoe on shallow, marsh lakes with beaver dens and dams. Sanne was strong as an ox and easily flipped the big canoe around and slid it onto the roof of her little car and tied it up with some solid knots. I was witnessing some serious outdoor skills at a whole other level than mine. We drove to a series of lakes that we had all to ourselves, got the canoe in the water and slowly paddled through them while observing everything alive around us. A loon duck with it’s two ducklings, the beaver den and a beaver quickly swimming to it to hide, the impressive beaver dam, another duck with more than ten ducklings with it, so that Sanne thought it must have stolen them, swallows living in holes in the banks, we listened to birds song and smelled for moose and bear. Sanne experienced nature with all her senses wide open and found the little birds and the beaver just as exciting as if we had seen a bear. Her passion for nature was inspiring as it brought with it such an immediate and present way of being alive.
And so my ride through the national parks of the Canadian Rockies ended in the most balanced and serene natural experience thanks to Sanne, and I was grateful for that.
Banff National Park – Jasper National Park – Jasper
Distance cycled: 214 kilometres