Different Parts of Everywhere

#78: Dea cycling solo in the Rocky Mountains, part 3/3: Into the wild

CANADA, 25th June – 6th July 2018

A mighty tailwind blew me out of Jasper National Park, so that it was only just that I managed to stop and take a couple of pictures. They were both inspired by Sanne, who I had just said goodbye to the same morning. I admired a thick tree trunk that had been cut down by beavers, the tree stump bearing clear marks of their little, strong teeth and the immense work they had done. The other was of the sleeping giant (a shape of a face in profile seen in the mountain ridges), that Sanne had shown me the previous day from the canoe. It looked a bit like a Chinese kung fu master with cool sunglasses and shark teeth. The indigenous people of Canada believed these sleeping giants were protecting their land and people, and I hoped this one was going to look well after my friend in Jasper.

I actually also forced myself out of the glorious wind at some information boards that explained how a big wild fire had burned on the hills before me some years previous. The dead forest still stood as obvious evidence of the destruction, but I learned that a wildfire actually is good for various things. For example this burned out area at the edge of the national park now protects the rest of the park from other fires to reach the park, but more than that many plants and animals actually rely on the fresh growth of plants after a fire. Therefore it is really an ecological dilemma to not allow the wildfires in the national parks, but this is something that has not been acknowledged until in recent years. As a result of this the forest in the Jasper National Park is therefore growing old and as it does so its health weakens, which has made it possible for the invasive pine beetle to spread intensively and slowly but significantly kill the forest. Cycling through the park I had seen huge areas of red, dying trees, and these areas of dry timber are now even more likely to catch fire and start a huge wildfire. Which is the only thing that can really kill the pine beetles, but of course also something that will look controversial and tragic in a national park that is supposed to protect the nature. All in all I began to understand that the policy regarding wildfires and nature protection is a very, very complex matter.

Before I knew it I was out of the national park. The mountains quickly flattened out and soon the forests was interrupted by the line of shopping areas and car parks of Hinton. I had not been shopping since in Golden, and my bike was now so wonderfully light, but it was time to load it again, as I would be heading into the back country from here and not getting to another town for the next four or five days.

Stocked up on food again I now went to find another home of some hospitable strangers. Louis was a colleague of Sanne, and from what I had told her about our journey and my general interest in music and teaching, she had been very eager to set me up with Louis and his wife Rhonda. They were teachers and musicians, and had also been on various long travels, so in theory we should be getting along very well. When I saw the old campervan in the driveway set up for travelling, like the one my parents had had when I was little, I felt confident that we would. And surely, I immediately felt at home in the company of Louis, Rhonda and their nearly adult son Mereck as we fell into interesting conversations over the delicious dinner. The conversations only stopped when after dinner Louis got his head into helping me finding the best route to avoid the worst traffic and dust on the gravel roads I was going to cycle on onwards, studying various maps and calling people he knew who knew the roads well.

The next morning I was all set up to go, the route was planned and my panniers were full of food, but Louis and Rhonda invited me to stay another night, and as there was a big tv in their basement showing the World Cup football with Denmark playing France, I found it easy to postpone my back country adventure another day. And even though it was a boring match ending 0 – 0, I did not regret my decision. The wind blew even stronger outside than the day before, but it would no longer have been to my advantage as I would be going south from now on. Instead I enjoyed the free time the rest of the day and another lovely family evening with Louis, Rhonda and Mereck, where I almost felt like the older daughter.

South of Hinton I was aiming for a road called The Forestry Trunk Road, a main gravel road that would lead me south through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains towards Canmore south of Banff National Park where I would be reunited with Chris again. I had high expectation that the Trunk Road would provide me with another back country adventure like I had enjoyed them in British Columbia, especially since this road had been added to Adventure Cycling’s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a route of gravel roads that goes all the way from Jasper to the Mexican border in New Mexico, US, and a route Chris and I were planning to follow south later that summer. Now I would get a little taste of it, but I had actually been warned by other cyclists along the Icefields Parkway that there was a lot of commercial traffic on the road due to the logging and mining industry in the area.

The first day I gradually climbed into the hills on a road that was paved as it serviced a mine that I passed late in the afternoon. I could see the rugged mountain range of the Rockies to my right and I was surrounded by thick, green forest and on my way into the wild, I hoped. After I passed the mine and the little town Cadomin, I began looking for a place to camp, but before I found any a car coming towards me stopped.

“Do you know there is a wildfire burning up the road?” the driver asked me. I did not, but now that I did I was no longer looking to camp hidden in the forest. Instead my first idea was to try and find some internet back in Cadomin to learn more about the fire, and to be near other people with cars in case of an evacuation. Confused thoughts about being caught in a fire, about turning back to the main road and finding another way span around my head as I turned around to see that the driver had stopped to inform another car that was coming up behind me. As I passed this second car, the man in it asked me with a cigarette hanging from his lips, if I needed a place to sleep and if so, I was welcome at his place. He looked like he was in his fifties, and as he was not wearing a shirt, only a worn cap, I could see the old tattoos on his arms and upper sun tanned body.

“Don’t worry, you will be safe staying with me.” He said with a reassuring smile.

Suddenly I was in that ‘a solo female traveller’-situation.  Now, I have travelled quite a bit either alone or only with other females, and thus I have encountered various situations where I have had to judge in an instant whether a man seemed trustworthy or not. It is not so much a conscious process, more like an instinctive analysis of him and the situation, and I have confidence in my immediate gut feeling in these situations. Based on this, I accepted the man’s offer, but as I cycled back towards his house in Cadomin, thoughts of how to avoid and/or protect myself in case of the unthinkable flashed through my mind. “I’ll keep the bear spray in the tent” I thought “and my little knife”, and then I immediately felt bad for my panicked suspicion towards this man who had so kindly offered his hospitality. This was a classic dilemma and that is just how it is. A bit of cautious thinking is healthy, but I would not let myself get carried away by my mind’s worst-case scenarios.

Zane, as the man was called, was busy when I got to his house, having some neighbours over to work on his big truck, so I put my tent up in the garden feeling more comfortable sleeping outside the house. Then I borrowed his computer and phone to do some research into the fire and contact Chris, Louis and Rhonda, who I figured probably would wonder how I was dealing with the fire.
The fire was located some 40 kilometres away, actually much nearer to Hinton where I had been in the morning, and it was big and out-of-control. But despite the dramatic sound of this, I sensed no panic in the little village and I understood that no one in Hinton was panicking either. And so my first panicked thoughts were also calmed. I began to understand that wildfires is such a common thing in Canada, and although they are dangerous and unpredictable, the fire fighters were some of the best in the world and one of their main tasks was to keep the fire away from people – and people away from the fire. Road closures was probably the most likely inconvenience I would encounter, and I would just have to see how the fire developed overnight. With the location of the fire and the wind blowing it to the west there was a good chance that the best option for me would be to just keep going south just like I had planned.

Talking with Chris fuelled my other concerns however, about Zane, because what seemed to come first to his mind was to question whether I would be safe with this stranger, but I assured him and myself, that I would be fine. Once again I pondered upon the different kind and degree of worries that followed me on this trip of my own compared to when I was with Chris.

In the evening Zane cooked me a very delicious dinner and then continued the trend of worrying for me.

“Do you have a gun`” he asked me.
“NO! Why would I have a gun? I have bear spray…” But Zane didn’t seem to consider bear spray the necessary item to deal with the wildlife out here and he told me some dramatic stories about bears, wolves and cougars he had encountered right outside in his garden. Suddenly I didn’t feel so safe camping out there, especially not when Zane insisted I’d bring a bowl of cherries to the tent as a dessert. My main camping rule is: No food in the tent. So after nervously eating a few I got up and returned the cherries to the house, and then with my bear spray within reach I had a peaceful sleep without nightmares of either fires or bears or tattooed men with evil intentions.

The fire was still out-of-control the next morning, but I was convinced that if I only stayed on the main gravel road, and didn’t go for a more remote section that I had had in mind to avoid the commercial traffic, there would be people along the road that could keep me updated with the fire and help me out in a real worst-case scenario of an evacuation.

Surely there was traffic on my gravel road and when rows of ten cars or more passed me they covered me in a thick dust cloud which reduced the visibility to almost none, which perhaps was the greatest danger I had been in at all those days. While they passed I waited by the side of the road with my little red backlight flashing desperately. I got through the first 20 kilometres like this, before taking a break by the side of the road. Some road workers came to close off a road in the intersection that led to Hinton because of the fire, and they told me that the highway further north through Hinton was closed now, and all the traffic was directed this way instead. It confirmed that I had made the right choice to keep going instead of turning back where I would have encountered this road closure and it explained the excessive amount of traffic. The second plan of my fire plan was to camp at a campsite that night, again to make sure I was around other people should the fire suddenly move south, and this plan was also confirmed sensible when the road workers told me that a campsite nearby had been evacuated due to the fire, not because they were really in danger there, but just be a step ahead and to make sure people were not getting in the way of the fire fighters. And that was as far as I know the only evacuation made in relation to this wild fire, which indicates the high level of knowledge and control the Canadian fire workers really have, even with out-of-control fires.

I could soon make a turn away from the highway deviation route and onto the actual Forestry Trunk Road. Here the amount of traffic was much more tolerable, especially since the first long climb was paved and when the gravel returned it had been watered to reduce the dust clouds. I had a great afternoon steadily cycling south away from the fire and into the wild, that actually began to feel more like wilderness and less like commercial forest, by the end of the day, especially when I spotted an elk in a meadow.

Every night since I had left Golden I had been camping in camp sites or been hosted by people and I began to really look forward to the solitude and privacy of wild camping, as being all alone in the nature was one of the things I had imagined about cycling solo, but even though I now felt at a safe distance from the fire, I stuck to my promise to myself and to Chris that I would stay at a campsite that night too. It was a nice, quite one in the midst of the forest, and except from the great number of mosquitoes I had the evening all to myself. The next morning however, I accepted the invitation for morning coffee from my neighbours Sarah and Sheryl. Mother and daughter was escaping what sounded like a rather demanding family life and health issues by a week camping in the wild. No phone reception gave them peace out here and they seemed to enjoy their self-sufficiency and independency cutting fire wood and handling their big RV all by themselves. It was nice talking to them, and I was by now losing count of all the good people I had met and talked with during this solo trip.

When I finally got started with the cycling of the day, one thing that Sheryl had talked about stuck with me: wild horses! There were wild horses in these forests and according to Sheryl more of them in the flatter land to the east, but the Trunk Road was going south through the foothills. When I got to a road fork I studied my map, and discovered that I could actually take a route south east out of the hills and into the flatter land, to my next supply town, Rocky Mountain House. The idea of potentially seeing wild horses and the more gentle elevation profile made me make another quick decision and turn left instead of right. I was high on the feeling of freedom to do exactly as I liked and change my plans and route in a few seconds, as I pedalled along the new road going south east, while my eyes keenly searched my surroundings for horses or tracks of them. All I saw was horse poo, but quite a lot of it.

I cycled on my new route all day, gradually growing less excited as the horses never appeared while rain showers swept over me again and again. By evening I reached a big reservoir and a campground that was busy with people, for this was the first weekend of the summer holiday. But I wanted to finally wild camp, so I left the campsite with just getting my water bottles refilled, to refresh my skills in finding a good spot. They proved to be rather rusty, my wild camping skills, as I several times went for an opening in the forest along the road, only to find the ground covered in fallen logs hidden in high grass that first of all were extremely difficult to push my bike over and second of all left no ground flat enough for me to put the tent up. So I returned to the road and rode on and it was almost 9pm before I finally found an open area that perhaps sometimes were used by people to practise target shooting, but nevertheless had a little flat, treeless area. And as a little treasure wild strawberries grew all over the ground. I was tired, really, really tired after in the end having cycled almost 100 kilometres.

The following day my new route took me trough a first nation reserve. I had already been warned about cycling through these reserves, but hadn’t been told what the danger really was. This one was just on my way and I went on with an open mind. I was aware that a sight of a cycle tourist maybe wasn’t so common here, but many people smiled at me, waved and a few stopped their cars to ask me if I was alright. So in that sense it was not much different than any other place and I was glad I had not let the warnings stop me. I was especially happy about this when I finally saw my wild horses. Maybe they weren’t exactly wild as they were standing in the shade of the community centre building at the main settlement, but they were surely not behind any fence and could enjoy the natural way of roaming around where they pleased. I was so glad to have seen them!

More showers and a section of very loose gravel on a climb uphill made for a rather trying afternoon, but by the end of the day I found a little hideaway from a bike path leading into Rocky Mountain House and, pleased with my wild camping skills having improved, I enjoyed this little place out of sight from the world and a tremendous round of thunder and lightening that shook the ground.

In Rocky Mountain House I was bound for another round of shopping, but more than that, I had also managed to time my arrival with Denmark’s next football match in the World Cup against Croatia. From the free wifi at McDonalds I followed the updates online and stayed in close contact with Chris who was watching the match from the house in Golden where he was now house- and dog-sitting for some people away on holidays (another one of Rachelle’s crafty arrangements). It became a long match when another 30 minutes had to be added to the first 90 that had seen the two teams deadlocked at 1-1, and the extra minutes didn’t change that. So it was down to the penalty kicks and then down to the final kick from the Danish player against the Croatian keeper that would decide who would still be in the hunt for the World Cup title and who would go home. I was at this moment so stressed and so hungry and so excited, so my disappointment was intense when the keeper saved the Danish strike for goal. It was over, we were out of the World Cup.

To get over the disappointment on my nation’s behalf I went to explore the celebration of another nation’s creation, that being Canada’s ‘Canada Day’, as I cycled out to the historical site outside Rocky Mountain House where the festivities took place. I actually went there more for the historical site, and it was interesting to learn how the first Europeans had come from the east to trade with the indigenous people from the mountains in the west, establishing the first exchange of cultures. How exciting and difficult it must have been. But it was also interesting to see how the national day really gathered the people these days, many wearing red-and-white Canada t-shirts or the like. However it all got a bit too nationalistic for me when two women, who curiously came to talk with me, revealed their very hostile opinions towards the immigrants of today, totally neglecting who they themselves were descendants of. Similar immigrants who had come and radically changed and overruled the existing life of people here. I fled the conversation, but found that I generally drew a lot of attention to me cycling around there, so in the end I escaped doing a longer detour back up on the main road and back towards town.

With all to-do’s dealt with I left Rocky Mountain House to get back onto the Trunk Road and eventually reach my final destination of Canmore. To my great delight it didn’t take long before I felt surrounded by wild, remote nature. The first day I navigated some small roads that went through huge cattle grazing areas and there was just me, and a few other people camping here and there. There were gates to keep the cattle in, but there would always be a little side gate smaller vehicles could use, so it all went well and was really lovely, just like I had dreamed about. Until I reached a gate that I could not get through. And I was on the private side of it having obliviously trespassed  on private property as I came out of the wild and back down where the cattle owners lived. The house of the property was right next to the gate, so I went to see if someone there would let me out, hopefully without any complaints, but the place was empty. So instead I found another gate in the fence that was leading me behind the stables and across their front yard, and this way I sneaked out and got back onto a more main road. This road soon turned into gravel and joined the Trunk Road I had left a few days before, I was back on track. This happened at the same time as I realised that the occasional shower that had darkened the sky was not going to ease off anytime soon. I pressed on in the rain determined to reach a distance of 50 kilometres cycled, even though it meant cycling up a rather steep climb. Up at the top there were not many options for wild camping, as all the forests was in some state of logging. In the end I camped by the side of a little dead-end road and listened to the rain drumming on the tent all night long.

It was hard getting up the next morning due to the prospect of getting out of the dry, warm sleeping bags (it was so cold these days that I again slept in two) and into my wet clothes and out in the unchanged wet, wet world outside. But when I finally managed to get up, I realised the dripping on the tent mostly was from the trees, not from actual rain from the sky, and as I dried slowly while cycling, it became a quite alright day. The best thing about it was that I was finally all alone. The road went through remote areas with only a few settlements and camp sites and the rest was just wild forest. It felt like no one else was interested in driving out here during these wet, grey days, so I had it all to myself and I enjoyed it thoroughly! I spotted a lot more horsetracks and poo, and finally sighted wild horses a couple of times. One group stood in a field, a stallion and few mares and foals, just doing their horse things and it was so lovely to just look at them as they curiously looked back.

I did not see many signs of other wildlife, no bear scat like we had seen in other places, but I did see one rather big paw print that I (with help from my animal expert friend Google) would believe was from a wolf.

Another beaver den and dam

Before the day was over I got to the most perfect place for camping. It was an open, grassy meadow by a little stream with a big mountain just coming out of the rainy clouds behind it. I could not pass a place like this although it had been my plan to cycle a little longer and get the next big climb over with, but this was too perfect to pass. So I spent a good long evening here, drying my stuff as the sun finally came out, washing in the stream and just, for once, enjoying my complete solitude in nature. This place, the evening, this feeling, was exactly what I had dreamed of and imagined for my solo trip in the back country and I was glad I had actually found it finally.

Another day of cycling the hilly and remote Trunk Road empty of cars, trucks and dust clouds, but with more sun and less rain went uneventful as only cycling in such a place can be. So delightfully lacking in anything but the feeling of just being there right in it. I camped in a little opening in the forest where someone had dumped an old washing machine totally out of place, indicating that I was getting near human’s habitat again. And that evening I began to feel a loneliness in the long, light, silent evening.

The weather turned 100% sunny the next day and suddenly the road was almost busy with cars as I now passed by several camp sites and hiking trail heads. I had to keep my eyes and ears on the traffic again after having been able to forget almost all about it for a few days. And the reality of the danger of traffic became all to clear to me when I saw a car lying upside down on the road ahead of me. As I cycled closer I saw a police car was parked behind it and some young guys were standing around the car, one of them taking a picture of it. As if nothing had happened, they approached me asking questions about where I was cycling to/from and so on, but I was way too upset by what I saw to really go into that conversation and instead I asked the guys what had happened. The four of them had lost control of the car driving too fast over some potholes and the car had gone up onto the slope by the side of the road before rolling over. It was a miracle that none of them were hurt, one of them had a little bandage around his arm, but that was all. It was also a miracle that the car had not gone to the other side of the road where there was a steep slope down to the river. It was extremely uncomfortable to think about what could so easily have happened, but the guys seemed alright if only a little shocked too, which I thought was just healthy. I offered them water and food, but they were already being taken care of by the policeman who was sitting in the car waiting for assistance, the only thing the guys wished I could do for them was to turn back time to before the accident. If only I could. I hoped it meant they had learned a lesson that would influence their driving for the rest of their lives.

A little later I got another reminder why it was so much safer to be using a bicycle than motorised vehicles when I stopped at a rest area where a man was limping around his 4×4 truck and an off-road motorbike. He told me he had crashed rather badly on the bike up on some trails and most likely had bruised or broken some of his ribs. He could hardly lift his one arm and while we talked he often had to stop to catch his breath. He was not in a good shape, but insisted that he just needed time to recover and someone to help him get the motorbike up on the truck. We both knew I was not the girl who could do that, but we flagged down the police cars that were coming down from the other accident, and I left them to help the man.

I held my fingers crossed that some superstitious rule of everything coming in threes wouldn’t involve me in the third accident of the day, and superstitious or not the crossed fingers worked and I made it safely to the end of the Trunk Road where it joined the secondary highway that I could follow west back into the Rockies to Canmore.

That night I camped under some pretty, white birch trees only just hidden away from the highway. It was the last evening of life on the road before our one month break in Canmore and the last of my solo trip too. Time for a few reflections. I had been curious to borrow the ‘solo female cyclist’ identity and it had been interesting to experience people’s reaction to me as such. Many warnings, many encouraging words and many hugs from strangers. More than that I had been curious to feel and listen to my wants and needs undisturbed by the constant consideration of anybody else and I had been eager to deal with all practicalities and sudden challenges myself. I had so appreciated the freedom and empowerment of making all decisions  and actions based solely on my own intuition and reflection. And everything had went well although not without various unpredicted challenges like inconsiderate drivers, full camp sites, a wildfire, a topless tattooed man, a car accident and a good bit of rain.  Maybe people had worried for me, and I knew it was all just out of care and love, but now I could confirm that there was no need for these worries really. And I could make peace with my secret desire to try and cycle alone again. A growing feeling of emptiness in the long, light evenings and during the silent breaks by the roadside had assured me, that no matter how much I admired solo female cyclists and secretly dreamed of being one myself, in reality I loved someone and what was more important than anything else, was to be with him and enjoy travelling together with him.

So I packed up one last time and cycled as fast as I could towards the Rocky Mountains that grew from distant, faded blue figures in the horizon to rugged, grey giants that flanked the road high over my head as I rode the final kilometres into Canmore, where I was now more than ready for our month break (‘holiday’ as I called it) from normal life on the bike.

Hinton – Rocky Mountain House – Canmore

Distance cycled: 732 kilometres

2 thoughts on “#78: Dea cycling solo in the Rocky Mountains, part 3/3: Into the wild

  1. Malcolm

    Hi Dea, I’ve been loving reading your solo adventures. You’ve written your thoughts and experiences with a subtle and engaging rhythm. Photos are great too! Cheers, Malcolm

    1. Dea & Chris Post author

      Thank you so much Malcolm, I’m really glad to hear that – I found it got a bit too long, so I’m very glad to hear you got through it AND enjoyed it too! It encourages me to keep writing 🙂

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