Home, James

British Columbia - Part 2, the return trip

the Hazeltons - Rest Stop on the Yellowhead Highway
the bicycling Alchemist
Prince Rupert - town at the end of the rain(bow ?)
railway stations of Prince Rupert
a bicycle repair puzzle
hiking the Icefields Parkway
cities in front of mountains - Calgary
the homeless bicyclist
my first Rocky Mountain bicycle pass - Beartooth Pass


the Hazeltons - Rest Stop on the Yellowhead Highway

The tourist attractions on the western part of the Yellowhead Highway are undeniable. Take for example the advertised main attraction of Topley (east of Burns Lake). It's a 3 story high fly fishing pole in front of the visitor's center, by their own estimation the world's largest. Camping mobile drivers filled the parking lot and approached the big rod with all due respect, camera drawn at the ready. But no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn't get the whole thing in their view finder. Perplexed they circled the rod, checking their viewfinders regularly. The best way view of the world's largest fishing rod is from a fair distance, like from a swiftly moving bicycle.

Small museums along the way serve as repositories of strange contraptions that have disappeared into obscurity in the rest of the world. The Telkwa Museum serves as example. I stopped here just as it was about to rain. If it had not rained at that particular point, I never would have seen the ingenious sock knitting machine, a device that must be of great use for the long winters. "Looks very complicated. I wonder how it works" said the very nice girl in the museum behind the vase inscribed "Donate generously".

But I don't mean to make fun of these things. They all have their own interesting angles. West of Houston the landscape acquired new variety again also. The Babine Mountains appeared in the distance. By the time I reached Smithers I was surrounded by peaks again, glaciers above, verdant green below. I was moving along at a blistering pace, for me personally. For about a two week period I covered 80 to 90 miles on out and back rides. Maybe it was inspiration from Nicklaus. Or maybe it was the predictable wind from the west that came up every afternoon, just when I turned to ride east.

Finally I came upon a place that broke my "keep going" habit. Old Hazelton had an irresistibly inviting appearance, a picture that said sit, rest and look around. The old boardwalk on the Skeena River lead along an old stern wheel boat, metamorphosed into a coffee shop. Benches and flowers competed with old mechanical junk for attention. The architectural medley in town included an Anglican church with a little castle like tower and a the 1830s version of a big box store, at that time referred to as the "Hudson Bay Company store"  The old residential houses drowned in colorful flowers. The only person sitting on the stern wheel boat coffee shop yelled "hey there's a big bear on the other side of the river". The bear moved swiftly along the opposite shore for an entire 20 minutes, never taking notice of this side of the Skeena, the side with boardwalk and adjoining town. Old Hazelton would be an irresistibly inviting reststop, even if it was not at the end of a long downhill into a new ecozone with wildly colorful flowers and even denser forest than east of here. But that helps too.

Old Hazleton's history predates the Grand Trunk railroad - by about 5000 years according to one estimate. The stern wheeler is a clue. Before the railroad, miners and homesteaders who traveled inland from here, were supplied by boat. But for thousands of years before that, the Gitxan natives lived at this river confluence in cedar plank houses, fishing and hunting in the summer, and enjoying elaborate rituals in the winter. The Ksan museum takes you back to that time. What looks like four relatively modern barns, if it wasn't for the inspired totem pole creations fronting them, are really recreations of log cedar houses in which the Gitxan used to live. Their modern appearance is partially due to the fact that they managed to split cedar wood so that it roughly looks as if sawed, as opposed to building with whole logs. This culture flourished here into the 1870s because they were a far ways from missionaries who could inform them of the errors of their ways. In this paradisical spot under the sharp peak of Mount Roche de Boule, they spent their summers catching salmon, and the winters carving totem poles with a "clan theme". The tour of this museum focuses mostly on the feasting they did in the winter. An interesting device they had was a "talking stick". As long as you were in possession of the stick noone could interrupt you. In case of war, the brave would choose between an armor of wood and leather. For good luck, some of these "armor suits" included a bird mask over the head. It must have made for picturesque chase scenes, running around with a target over your head. And so they lived happily until the missionaries came. The missionaries added another interesting visual element in the landscape, an interesting series of old Anglican churches.

And that's just old Hazelton". There's also a South Hazelton and a New Hazelton. You can blame the Grand Trunk railroad for that. All in all it's an unparalleled mixture of ancient native, anglican pioneer, modern summerhome, Indian reservation cultures, and here is another interesting fact : Old Hazelton does not have a grocery store. But it has a liquor store. Shopping for groceries has to be done in New Hazelton, the drag along the new Highway.

the bicycling Alchemist

Sometimes you meet a star endurance athlete on a bike ride, sometimes a bible fundamentalist and at other times somebody who is just plain loony. When he talked the gold on his front teeth glistened under a tired smile. Ron, maybe around 40 years old, was riding a GT mountain bike with neatly packed panniers and a radio light combination mounted on the handlebar,  nothing crazy about that. He took regular smoking breaks and walked up the hills. - That's normal behavior also. You have to use those walking muscles regularly too, and the enjoyment of smoking is heightened by a good bike ride. He rode a bike because he didn't want to pay his traffic tickets. - That's certainly logical.. He wore street clothes for biking. - Makes sense. Who needs those silly black shorts and that 150 dollar aerodynamic helmet !

Ron was on his way to the Yukon "to take care of some business". There was no need to ask in order to get further elaboration. Ron was on his way to dig for gold. He showed me two prized rocks, carefully wrapped in a cloth bag. He valued one at a million dollars. It looked like some sort of green quartzite. Five minutes later we were deeply involved in Ron's secrets. According to him all placer gold was man made. It was a byproduct of making glass, which Indians had done for millennia, and he knew how to make it. Ron learned the secret from his father when he was 10. His father died 17 years ago. His plan was that once he had sold his gold in the Yukon, Ron would publish his formula of how to make gold on the internet, the price of gold would plummet, and the Euro would become the dominant currency on the American continent. By that time Ron would be in Czechoslovakia, where his father was once famous. I was waiting for him to catch his breath so that I could bid him farewell. But the topics melted seamlessly one into another. Actually his father had all kinds of secret knowledge that he passed on to him, like the plans of a device the size of a watch, to generate power for a whole city, how to make carbon tools with the strength of steel. Once a group of lawyers poisoned Ron because of all his secret knowledge. The motives in that story weren't quite clear to me.

Ron seemed like a completely sane, functional normal human being, except for his stories, which exhibited the imagination of a science fiction author. One thing is clear. Ron grew up somewhere in the isolation of the Yukon, and his father must have told him some pretty strange stuff. I left him on the western end of Terrace, at the entrance to a first nation (Indian) settlement. Apparently he had met an Indian on the boat from Victoria, who told him he had everything he needed for Ron's secret formula to make gold. So while I was shopping at the Terrace Wall Mart for Rahmen noodles and Tofu, those two were probably cooking up a pot of lead looking for gold in it. Maybe reality is not all it's cracked up to be, but for me it's all I have. I wish him happy insanity.

I met one more cyclist on the way to the western most point on this tour. She was more in touch with reality, so much in fact that the two conversations we had always circled in on computers and how to use Photoshop. She was on her first "really long" bikeride, as she put it. She felt compelled to give a reason why there hadn't been "a really long one" before this one. "Before this I was more into river running". Now she was on a 3 month circle tour from Jasper to Prince Rupert, with plans to continue to Victoria, Vancouver and back through the Okonagan Valley. She towed a trailer, camped at rest stops and was a teacher in her non summer life. And I should also mention that she was probably in her 60s.

Between the Hazeltons and Terrace another major mountain vista sneaks up on the unsuspecting cyclist. It's easy to miss. The Yellowhead Highway does not climb to seek out vistas. It stays in the valley like a lazy stream. The vista has to come to the Yellowhead, not the other way around. A sign looking like advertising appeared, saying "the seven sisters". Is it a cafe, serving a secret recipe for yet another version of hamburger ? Is it a motel ? Is it a convent ? No. It's a jagged series of peaks, scraped bare by glaciers, giving the appearance of 2500 meter molars, still messy from having dug into a white frosted birthday cake. At places like this it made particular sense to me that I was riding the same road twice, once in each direction. The probability that I would actually see the peaks and not just the clouds was twice as big. This was particularly true when I managed to get the good weather on the return trip, like on this leg, even though logically speaking, it shouldn't have any more logical appeal than the other way around.

Conversely, the logical appeal of riding each stretch of road twice was the least, when I got bombarded by rain on the way back. This happened on the following day during the ride into Terrace. I tried to resume my 80 to 95 mile pace days. But this time it was harder. The wind didn't do me the favor to switch direction with me any more. I was blasted by rain on the return ride. A series of flats plagued my bicycle. The grip shifters stopped working all together in the rain.

Prince Rupert - town at the end of the rain(bow ?)

Two days before biking into Prince Rupert, the weather report called for "shallow fog". - "That's fog that doesn't really understand the depth of what Prince Rupert has to offer" joked the radio host on the CBC morning program "north by north west". Fog and rain generally have a deep abiding love for Prince Rupert, the Prince of the rain belt. Consequently I felt especially privileged when the fog lifted the next day, and sunshine showed the land and water from its best angle. All the times I pictured riding the last miles into Prince Rupert I never pictured it like this, uniform blue sky without the hint of a cloud. The road followed the Skeena River, heading for the ocean. The river grew in size with every unpronounceable creek that gushed into it, adding its own sandbars to the braided mass of Skeena silt. Soon the stream resembled a lake. The snowcapped peaks receded further and further behind a mass of water. Tidal features started to appear, and the lake became an ocean. Long grass lined dark, slimy mud pools. The smell of salt was in the air. There was no denying, the ocean was near. These last miles along the Skeena were the scenic highpoint of the Yellowhead Highway west of Mount Robson. The weather made it that way.

For the last few miles, the Yellowhead Highway turned away from the Skeena. The road climbed one last aborition of a summit before Prince Rupert. Rainbow Summit is 160 meters above sealevel, and at the bottom is a large parking area where large trucks have to chain up, in order to reach the dizzying snowchoked summit of 160 meters. But not today.

railway stations of Prince Rupert

Prince Rupert is probably the smallest, famous bicycle destination in Canada. Its fame derives from the fact that it is at the end of a long trunk route, 715 km from Prince George. But that's not the way it was planned. Prince Rupert was supposed to achieve wealth, fame and fortune, and with that a populated hinterland.

In front of me was an illustration of the railway station planned for Prince Rupert. It was a terminal fit for a capital, grandiose architecture, a dock unloading passengers from ships on one side, on the other side a chateau, everything threaded together by magnificent thoroughfares. This was the plan for Prince Rupert that Charles Hayes, director of the Grand Trunk railway took to London before WW1. Unlike US railway entrepreneurs, he needed to obtain financial support from outside the country for his venture. And why shouldn't he succeed ? Prince Rupert was closer to Asian markets than Vancouver. Its harbour was ice free. Prince Rupert was conceived to rival Vancouver in importance and become the most important city of Western Canada

But it never happened. Hays died on his return from Great Britain. He was on the Titanic. Even if that had not been his fate, he failed to get all the financial backing he needed. World War 1 was about to start and money was getting scarce. The Grand Trunk railway was eventually built. But the magnanimous station remained an image. The illustration hangs where the real thing should have stood. It hangs inside a little shack of a station, one of the 400 nearly identical little stations once spread out along the tracks like modular homes. Only three of them remain, and one of them has been dragged here, fronting the waves of the Pacific in downtown Prince Rupert, to house this interesting little museum about the Grand Trunk railway.

Right next to it stands the real Prince Rupert station, a rather nondescript building in an advanced state of decay, entry prohibited. A train is parked in front, waiting for passengers. But that is only an image too, not the way it really is. The place where people get on it is down by the ferry terminal, not here in this collection of ghost railway stations. A hotel with a walkway bridge connecting the station has already been torn down. Prince Rupert station will be next.

So what does the city brought to life to rival Vancouver in importance look like today ? The waterfront gives the impression of a lake with a thousand islands. Totem poles are the most common form of art, marking schools, public places and parks. The most interesting buildings for me were two old wooden churches, one with an Anglican tower, the other one a grand old nailed together shed on a hill. The main street has a comfortable dilapidated quality that is much too individualistic for a common chain store. The rich people with the nicest houses and the fanciest most colorful flowers live on top of the hill around a park offering the definitive view of Prince Rupert. From there you can see the statue of a man on main street, a smaller than life statue, a man looking rather unassuming, but somebody who played a role in the history of the town. Yes, it's Charles Hayes, director of the old Grand Trunk Railway. An image of him remains between totem poles, a link between the grandiose schemes of the past and picturesque decay of the present.

I didn't linger very long to celebrate my most westward location on this trip, just long enough for the customary Chinese buffet. Compared with other Chinese Buffets the one in Prince Rupert was sub standard, especially when compared to the the capital of Chinese Buffets, the other Prince, that would be Prince George. But there at the Prince Rupert Buffet I did have an interesting conversation, during which I learned the four seasons of Prince Rupert : rainy, rainier, rainiest and construction. Currently we were in the construction season.

a bicycle repair puzzle

In retrospect the area around Terrace would have warranted further exploration by bicycle. But my bicycle was not in perfect health. The grip shift was refusing to stay in gear, while the rear derailleur was shifting by itself, even when the grip shift happened to stay in gear, a mysterious double paradox. It was manageable to ride on smooth surface without rain. But the grip shift became useless as soon as it was wet, and the chain was shifting all over the place on even a slight dirt road. This mystery took a while to figure out. It seems that people are always figuring out new ways for things to break. We call it progress. Just when you figured out how everything on the bike is supposed to work the parts become unobtainable, and the new parts break in new ways.

So far I haven't reported much about broken bicycles on this trip. Actually I replaced the entire drive train along the way. I had all the parts I needed with me in the camper. So it wasn't the kind of "go begging for a wheel" story that happened on previous trips. Instead all the bike parts were spread out on the parking lot, and I had the luxury of making small talk with a tourist from Denmark about the rainy Jasper weather, while matching the length of the new chain to that of the old one, stretched out to record level. But new frontiers in bike repair still existed. I think I already mentioned it : Just when you figure out how everything works, new parts break in new ways.

The grip shift finally broke completely at the start of the first ride during the return trip. I wanted to drive back roughly the same way I came. I felt like I had explored a 3000 mile corridor from Denver to Prince Rupert, and now knew all the best camping places, and hundreds of trails and sidetrips that would stir anybody's interest, but I didn't have the energy to take on the way north. At least I could reduce the number from the hundreds to the hundreds minus a dozen. The first sidetrip I didn't take, on the way north, was from Hazelton to Kispiox, promising more dilapidated missionary churches and totem poles. As I got on the bike, the cable popped out the side of the shifter and a spring inside the grip shift was clearly broken.

Since it was impossible to obtain friction shifters anywhere in the area, I bought a new Rapid Fire Grip shift at the Smithers McBike store. It seemed to work fine in the store. When I got on the bike the next time, it was not construction season any more. Near Tete Jaune in the western BC Rockies, it was smoke season. The mountains were translucent cutouts, like a transparent curtain hiding detail. The bike shifted all right. But it shifted all the time. The rear chain happily jumped over a range of 3 gears during the course of single foot rotation. I had pretty much convinced myself that the problem was the chain. Even though I knew the package said that it was 9 speed compatible, which is what I had, it clearly wasn't. But then, why is the problem so much worse with the new shifters ? The break through clue came on an old smoky dirt road near the old Duster railway station, the only truly small station building I encountered along the old Grand Trunk Line. Staring back at the derailler I saw it move by itself. The derailleur was moving even without the shift lever. The problem only occurs on the Mantra Frame of my bike. The cable housing connecting the rear triangle and the main frame was too short. Whenever the suspension moved ever so slightly the cable stretched and caused the deraulleur to shift. When the new derailleur was installed, the mechanic accidentally switched the front and rear cable housing. The front one was just a little shorter than the rear one. However the original rear cable housing was already slightly too short, since I had it replaced two months earlier. That explained why the problem was marginal at first and now became worse. I managed to cut another old housing that I had with me and fix the problem for now. Bumps were enjoyable again.

hiking the Icefields Parkway

After all that bicycling, the idea of using the legs in different ways acquired new attraction. "Walk on us", I heard them say. "We can carry you even without that funny metal frame resembling a stick horse". They were right. They carried me through thick forest to timber line of the Babine Mountains outside of Smithers. I picked them because I thought they would be a good vantage point on the 7 sisters peaks and Roche de Boule mountains behind Hazelton. Actually I was further away from both ranges than I had thought, but the view of endless lakes receding into the Central Plateau made it a great hike/trail run anyway.

Having cycled the Icefields Parkway made me want to take hikes along it. Having seen the ridges glisten in the morning sun made me wonder how the road would look from the top of those ridges. Having cycled in the vicinity of these great glaciers makes you wonder how they would look from an even better vantage point. The question was which trails to take. Atmospheric conditions played a large role in the selection. Atmospheric conditions usually means weather, but not always. South of Sunwapta Pass atmospheric conditions were manmade. A controlled burn at Slave Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park covered the area north of the pass with a dense fog that you could smell. South of Sunwapta Pass conditions improved.

My first choice for a hike in the Canadian Rocky Parks was Parker Ridge, leaving from the top of Sunwapta Pass. The largest number of RVs parked at the trailhead guaranteed the largest proportion of scenic value divided by the required steps to get there. A short hike lead me to a classic viewpoint, where it seemed like nobody could abstain from taking a picture of a glacier far below, ending like a a thick brittle paste at a small but spectacular lake, looking rather like the dot below the exclamation mark. The sound of clicking was continuous, even if the light was miserable. I added my personal click to the cacophony.

I ran up Parker Ridge. I fevered up from Pinto Lake trailhead to see the braids of the Alexandra River unite with those of the North Saskatchewan River under a buttressed ridge wearing a thick white blanket. I hurried up to the mountain club hut under Peyto Glacier. The glacier that I thought was virtually close enough to touch when I cycled below it, still took the entire day to reach on foot. A fan of waterfalls from the ice unite into a torrent. The sharp glacial till has carved out an impressive incised canyon, leading to the edge of Bow Lake, a place where complete strangers still ask others if they would like assistance in taking a picture of themselves.

That was the end of the Icefields Parkway. But why stop here. If the weather fits, wear it, or something like that. More appropriately, hike in it, but that's not how the saying goes. The weather continued its mostly sunny disposition, fog in the morning that made peaks float in the sky like the largest most massive blimp that fantasy can conjure up. The next hike was in the Lake Louise Area, leaving from Lake Moraine. Here strangers asked me where I was hiking today. My goal was a pass high above the lake. Not expecting such social friendliness at this lake of supreme Japanese aesthetics, I finally inquired for the reason of their wanting to know. It seems that hiking in groups of less than 6 people was actually illegal in the area. The reason was a grizzly bear. Painstaking statistical analysis showed that attack by grizzlies of anything more than 4 people was significantly lower.

I kept running past groups of 6 people or more. Actually they all could have constituted a single group of hikers, a single group much larger than the required minimum of six, and that was good enough for me. But after half an hour I found myself alone on the trail. And then it happened. No, I didn't run into the grizzly. I ran into another single hiker. Steve was on an impressive one way hike over two passes to Lake Louise. He was also the man with the whistle, which was certainly more useful against grizzlies, than the handweights I carried during my interval jogging. Our speeds were remarkably compatible, which meant that he walked about as fast as I ran.

Steve, a strong man in his 40s, the head of a nonprofit housing organization of the homeless in Minnesota, had a remarkable arrangement with his his family. Since 11 years he has been taking vacations with his dad. His father gets to pick the location, and Steve gets to hike to his heart's content at the place of his father's choice, while his father sometimes picks him up at the end of the hike. Final arrangements to the exact point of arrival are made with walky talkies en route. His wife and daughters will meet him for  the final part of the vacation, a hike in Glacier National Park, where his family fear that will be dragged through the wilderness.  Steve and his dad were kind enough to carve out a niche of space in their station wagon, stuffed to capacity with everything necessary for an enjoyable camping vacation and then some, and returned me to where my camper was parked.

The highpoint of this one way hike from Moraine Lake to Lake Louise was the stretch over Sentinel Pass and the view of the Pinnacle Mountain that opens up from the top. After making one's way down a talus slope that contains remnants of a trail, Horseshoe Glacier come into view. This time the glacier was not above, but below - only remnants of ice at the bottom of a gigantic horseshoe shaped landform, marking the transition from sheer rock to a virtual maze of moraines.

cities in front of mountains - Calgary

Cities in the mountains offer the best of two very different worlds. But on the North American continent large agglomerations of people are situated where they can be easily reached by transportation corridors, in front of the mountains, never directly in them. I have lived in a city in front of the mountains for the longest period in my life, Denver. Calgary also fits the "in front of the mountains" description. But more than that, the descriptions of the two cities are somewhat interchangeable. Both have the nickname "cowtown". Both host a cow event, even if the Calgary Stampede is a bit more elaborate than the Denver Stock show. Both have a modern skyline. Both downtowns are situated around the confluence of two rivers, even if the Bow is bigger than the Platte. Both are the home of large model sporting goods stores, even if the Denver REI is housed in an elaborate old museum and the Sporting Goods Coop in Calgary is not. Last but first, Calgary and Denver are east of Rocky Mountain Front Ranges, even if you can't see them from Calgary. They are still within weekend excursion distance. They are both subject to chinook weather conditions. I had read about an elaborate Calgary bicycle trail system, even if they're called "paths" in the Albertan language. I know the elaborate Denver bicycle trails system well and wanted to bicycle to Calgary, hoping for a sort of home away from home feeling. This is how it went.

We'll start with the approach from Canmore. On the third day of out and back riding I reached signs of Calgary. The route was along Highway 1A. Had I approached Denver from the west I would be riding a frontage road to an interstate Highway. Here 1A is a sort of frontage road to the four lane highway, Route 1. But here several miles of farmland separate the two. The first sign of a population center was named "Cochrane". this seas of houses covering treeless hills are a bedroom community for people eager to commute, just like Parker, Longmont and others are for Denver. These towns all have the same type of housing developments, endless rows of houses behind fences, breached once in a while by an access road with a slab of stone advertising a pretentious name, in this case Glenneagles Ranch.

From Cochrane the route to Calgary was clear, Bow Valley Trail. I already mentioned that in the Albertan language "trail" has a multitude of mysterious meanings. In this case it means two lane road, becoming a four lane road, shared by commuters, trucks, and bicycles on the spacious shoulder. As a matter of fact, this four lane trail is the one and only way to access Calgary from Cochrane. Other "roads" dead end at private houses.

I had some local help. A cyclist  sharing the shoulder on a recumbent took me to an entity named the "Bow Valley pathway". This Albertan word "pathway" can be translated into English as "smoothly paved bikepath with a yellow center strip and regular speed limit signs for cyclists". The Bow Valley pathway is paradise for the urban cyclist. But we will get to that later. On this first day my goal was to track down the west end of the pathway. It took most of the day. Heading back west, the path crossed the Bow in an architecturally adventurous hanging bridge construction, suspended below a highway bridge. On the other side, fellow cyclists informed me the path was about to end, and from the north side of the river there was no easy way for me to get back to Cochrane. My search for another bikepath route on the east side was doomed to failure. Even though I was urged on by walkers to follow the Bow river, my path ended on railroad tracks. There was only one way to get back, another mega development, another clever marketing scheme, another suburban nightmare, a development named Tuscany Hills. Every street name had the word "Tuscany" in it. There was a Tuscany way, a Tuscany Boulevard, a Tuscany Road, a Tuscany Springs Road. Needlessly to say, the area resembled Tuscany as much as a Ranch, no matter how many colorful flags the developer put up with the word "Tuscany".

Two days later I finally rode the Bow Valley Pathway all the way into downtown Calgary. From Baker Park on the west side it leads through numerous spacious parks on the order of 15 miles into downtown Calgary. On the other side of the deep Bow Valley old olympic ski jumps greet the cyclist like oversized Swiss mountain horn musical instruments. The skyline of Calgary is outlined in the clouds ahead. The pathway elegantly follows the river to avoid street crossing, just like the Platte River Path in Denver. Only once does it follow the road for about a quarter mile. Approaching downtown, the pathway becomes a split two level affair, one on each side of the river, again resembling the Denver's Platte River Path. But here the elaborateness of the Calgary path and parks far surpasses its Denver counterpart. Several cycling bridges cross the wide river, again one is suspended below a highway bridge, a construction characteristic of Calgary bikepaths. Detours from the pathway through works of art in a park adjoining downtown, are mandatory, I would say. On the other side, the city lies before your front wheels, a Chinatown with several Chinese and Korean buffets, street canyons comparable with those of New York City, a skyline that was used in a Hollywood Production for its futuristic appearance ( a movie called Superman 3 ) , historic Fort Calgary with a backdrop overpowering the foreground. In conclusion, it is satisfying to ride through the downtown streets and see how much motorists pay for parking, while listening to reports of miles of standing traffic on the socalled "trails".

At the confluence of the Bow the cyclist must choose if he wants to follow the Bow or the Elbow. If these names were chosen to be confusing on purpose is not known. The pathway system here becomes just that too, very confusing for the first time visitor, but I would bet most rewarding for the long time resident. At least partial paths exist on both sides of both rivers, which,  from here upstream, have many bows - or as the case may be, elbows. I spent the better part of a day riding them in scenic circles, but did not attempt to follow them to their logical conclusions, presumably lying at various entry points to Calgary. After all those out and back rides on straight dead end roads, it was great to be able to ride in circles of varying sizes again. There was always the Calgary skyline, complemented by a large variety of foregrounds to keep me going, the stock yards of the stampede, smaller business mainstreets resembling outlying Denver areas.

The orderly square grids of modern sky scrapers gave me the hoped for home away from home feeling. But the history of the two cities is really very different. Calgary's modern appearance is due to recent history. Canada is a net exporter of oil, and many of its companies are headquartered in these few square miles of towers with a golden glow even under cloudy skies. Calgary was once a fort for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But its first boom period happened because the first Canadian Transcontinental Railroad decided to pass through it on its way to Rogers Pass. Denver on the other hand predates the first US transcontinental railroad. The railway even bypassed it, favoring a route north of there through Wyoming. It wasn't until 2 years later that Denver got rail access. Therefor it's ironic that the center piece of Denver's downtown should be a noble large old railroad station, while Calgary only has a single line running through it, fronted by a small modern glass building resembling a station.

Approaching Calgary from 50 miles distance on a two lane road, it's hard to believe you are about to enter a city whose population approaches a million people. Riding into Calgary on the Bow River Pathway it's hard to believe that only a million people live around this urban colossus, spreading its tentacles skywards. There was only one real city on this entire tour. But for me it was one of the most satisfying cities on the north american continent to explore by bicycle.

Calgary and Denver have another thing in common, the weather. What I mean is, in my experience the temperature on August 20-23 was about the same as on a good winter's day in Denver. But what most impressed me most about Calgary ( after its bike paths) was its ethnic diversity as evidenced in its China town, and also its radio programs. Not only is there interesting French music on CBC. That can be heard all over Canada. This part of Canada has what just might be the best radio station playing World Music on the Planet. CKAU can be heard in all of Alberta. Even a few Montanans are lucky enough. There is also something called the Fairchild radio network. In a single day I picked up music programming in German, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, a form of Chinese, several South American Countries, and half a dozen Asian languages that I couldn't identify further. This rich diversity seems to have been lost in the cities south of the border, in the great melting pot. But maybe that's why they call it a melting pot.


From Calgary I drove south to a small city park campground. Dupuyer was still fresh in my memory from the trip north. This was the opposite of the big city. Even on the weekend it was a quiet. No wonder, you have to know it's there. Otherwise it looks like the entrance to a farm. Even when you know it's there, you have to move slow enough, like on a bicycle, to be able to read the hand lettered sign reading "public park". In my case the post master had told me all about the park, in addition to offering water from his own personal faucet. The little Dupuyer Park was the perfect place to wait for the weather to improve, and then ride a training ride to the horizon and back.

South of Chouteou the Big Belt Mountains spill out onto the plains like a big pancake. As an alternative to the route over the pancake, this time I rode around the edge of the volcanic pancake to Great Falls. From Great Falls a very pleasant cycling route parallels I 15 through a shallow but scenically pleasant canyon cut by the Missouri. Nearly 50 miles of it are named Recreation Road, pleasant homes interspersed with fishing access parking lots and scenic views onto the Missouri.

This route also leads through the most major metropolis in the area, relatively speaking. The "great" in "Great Falls" is greatly exaggerated. All that's left of the great falls is a couple of lips of sedimentary rock under a medium sized hydroelectric damn. It looks a little like an project by Cristo, the curtain hanging artist, with the main difference that could can't just take this curtain down.

I passed by a lot of passes on this tour, without going over them, Logan Pass, Rogers, Kicking Horse to name a few. From Helena the opportunity to incorporate 2 passes, Mac Donald Pass and Mullan Pass, into a pleasant circle gave itself, and the sun was even shining. I took the hint. - Doug was probably sorry that I showed up with my bike behind his during the climb up Mac Donald Pass. He was carrying a lot more weight, and I kept asking him questions about Calgary, his hometown. Consequently he had to stop a lot to let his heart pressure recover, while I kept asking him more questions about the wondrous Calgary bike path system and his favorite Chinese Buffet in the area. It seems one could ride a whole book about bikerides to Chinese Buffets on bike paths in Calgary. Doug, a music teacher riding one of those elegantly butted frames from decades past, was on a one week circle starting in Grand Falls. We both noticed a certain sameness of our equipment. First there was the same Avocet computer with altimeter. We both wore a New York T shirt, which in my case means only that all other shirts are currently not in a wearable state. Before too long we were comparing favorite Jazz guitarists. Since he was one himself, this was of special interest. I just missed him yesterday on Recreation Road. It was another satisfying conversation, carried out on the shoulder of the road. We crossed Mac Donald Pass, and after a fast lunch he followed his tight schedule to Butte, and I followed the dirt road over Mullan Pass back into Helena.

the homeless bicyclist

It is an irresistible campground for bicycle tourists. A group of loosely spaced trees between two camping loops look like they need a tent with a bicycle next to it. It is also free, the Bureau of Reclamation Campground in Townsend. I had stayed there already on my way north and met the first three bicycle tourers on my tour, a friendly old Texan, a German American woman and a black girl riding a recumbent. They were 1/3 of their way from Oregon to their destination in Georgia. They met over Crazyguyonabike's web site.

On the way back, the same irresistible site was again occupied by a cycle tourist, this time a tourist of a different kind. By most standards he would be called an old man, with the age of 71, even though his white beard and hair were the only hint of his age. Otherwise he resembled a strong bodied athlete - except for slight limp. He had just converted his mountain bike into a tricycle. A neatly welded attachment screwed into the rear dropouts and held a wooden board with a cooler serving as trunk. The handlebar and seat were set up for an upright riding position, in order to make riding with damaged vertebrae easier.

By his own account, Joe rode across the US the first time in 1950, from Washington State to Florida. When asked about the route he answered "that was 1950 and you expect me to remember the route". His other stories made me think of journalists, and their desire to corroborate stories with a second independent opinion. Two years ago Joe was hit by a car, while riding his bike with a trailer on the side of I 15 north of Helena. The result was not broken limbs, but damaged nerves. He showed me the braces on his legs. Due to the medical bills, Joe had to sell his house and was now living in a tent on his bicycle. According to himself, he had been riding to this here town, Townsend, every summer for 6 years.

Anyway, however blurred the facts may have become over time, Joe was clearly living in a tent, currently even two tents. A man he had done an odd job for had just given him another tent. Joe was giving a running monologue on setting it up and its benefits. "Hell this thing is so big, I can sit on my backpacking chair in the tent, and read a paper or something, and really look like I knew what I was doing - now that's scary".

Joe did have something in common with modern yuppie cyclists, a certain preoccupation with equipment. But for him it was not a titanium seatposts and carbon sandwich frames that lit a spark in his eyes. Instead it was the 2 gallon waterjar that he got for 20 cents at a garage sale, or "the plastic tentstakes which don't pull out half as easy as those crappy metal ones - unless you let them lie in the rain for a couple of months, wait till they rust and are pitted. Then they're worth something". Of course these things were important to Joe, they were like the walls on his house. They were responsible that his belongings didn't blow away.

Joe wore a cap with a military decoration of some kind and an American flag. Of course he hated all politicians, but he hated Kerry more than Bush. This was very depressing to me. I can see why the CEO of US drug company would be a Bush fan. I can even see why stock holders in a US drug company would be pro Bush. But a Bush fan, who by his own account has to spend 290 dollars on prescription drugs a month, living in a tent because of medical bills, is a mystery to me. Homeless people are not typical proponents of corporate welfare. He was a demonstration of the effectiveness of right wing propaganda that Americans are subjected to by their corporate media. The encounter with Joe was the most depressing encounters with a cyclist on this tour.

my first Rocky Mountain bicycle pass - Beartooth Pass

One more ride on the return trip deserves description. I missed this route on the way north due to weather. In the scenery department it belongs in the top three US Rockies passes, together with Logan Pass (Going to the Sun Highway) and Trail Ridge Road in Colorado. Considering that Beartooth Pass is the only one of those three that is not in a national park, but on national forest land, puts it into a category by itself. It has less traffic, no usage fees and a plethora of offroad sidetrips. In the history department Beartooth pass is a late arrival. Not even anecdotes about college students exploring the area, and then giving formal presentations to their family of their summer exploits exist, as is the case with Sunwapta Pass in Alberta. While the Beartooth Plateau has been crossed by Indians and the US military since Indian war times, the road itself was created through an act of congress during the Great Depression years. Hence it is sometimes referred to locally as a "make work project". On the other hand, I would argue that it requires an economic depression, followed by a federal "make work project" in order to get a really great pass road on the north American continent built.

The pass has a short formal history. But Beartooth Pass is rich in personal history. Beartooth Pass was the first real pass that I ever crossed on a bicycle. Some 30 years ago, an old highschool acquaintance had the idea to ride a horse across the US, from New York to California. It was my opinion that this was impractical. "Well, then I'll ride a bicycle" he responded. "Well that's impractical too. But if you can, I can too" was my response. Our view of the United States was like the view of the world, popularized by a poster popular at the time. The world outside of the New York consisted mostly of Long Island. West of Buffalo the map was pretty much blank and its size completely distorted. We knew there were Rocky Mountains somewhere out there, but not exactly where. When one morning we rode out of Red Lodge and climbed up the four ramping switchbacks, I wrote glowing descriptions in my diary, which did not do the pass justice at all. It was the most impressive ride on the entire cross country ride.

Ten years later, I knew the Rocky Mountains a lot better, but mostly south of there in Colorado. One summer I wanted to ride the pass again, and found an appropriate day circle staring at me from the map. The ride started in Cooke City, crossed Coulter Pass, Dead Indian Pass, continued to Belfry and Red Lodge and finished with the pass that glowed in my memory like a campfire that won't go out, Beartooth. It was quite a dayride - with an overnight stop in Red Lodge. At least it was planned as a dayride. Apparently I must have had problems adding up the mileages of the road that crosses the Montana Wyoming state boundary. While climbing those 15 last miles from Belfry to Red Lodge in complete darkness without as much as the sliver of a moon on that first night of the day ride, I was convinced somebody had forgotten to mark this as a pass on the map. Beartooth Pass itself presented itself as a climb out of valley fog the next morning, even better than the first time.

It was time to ride Beartooth again, this time in the out and back or up and back down fashion. Leaving Red Lodge on an Alberta sized shoulder, the truncated forested hills give no hint of what's ahead. A 1000 feet higher the shoulder becomes much smaller. But at this point the cyclist is too involved in the scenery and incline of the road to even take notice. The road turns up four long ramps connected by switchbacks. The rider learns quickly that he is going to climb a plateau that he won't forget for a long time. From below, the plateau looks like it should, a flat tabletop. But this misconception is quickly corrected once you start to peer over it. Beartooth Pass has two summits,  and the plateau is a slightly inclined smooth erosional surface of rolling tundra. There is plenty of climbing to do between the two summits. Here I met a young couple from Berlin, resting with equal portions of tiredness and amazement next to the road, wearing all the clothes they had with them, just like I had done the first time I rode this pass many years earlier. Looking to the south, the surface breaks into gray monoliths, like an apple that has been take a large bite out of, with the cyclist playing the role of a microbe crawling along the smooth rounded surface.

Given the good weather and excellent location, the few people on the west summit were in a good mood. Since I just came from Canada , where it is customary to ask others if they want assistance in having their own picture taken at the summit, I asked a couple on a motorcycle. The woman answered: "Thanks, we already have a picture of us. He just still needs a a picture of his motorcycle up here". - Hm, very interesting. The bonds between man and his cycle can be strong, with and without motor.

After the second summit the road begins to act in a truly drunken, party like manner, long meanders wildly waving back and forth over the landscape, passing nearly a dozen lakes. The cynic might say, that the make-work-project ran out of work, and they still needed to build more road. But the truth of the matter is, the road complements the landscape perfectly. Climbing up that final dozen of switchbacks from the west side, a cyclist from Colorado will notice an eerie resemblance to the last set of switchbacks on the Mount Evans road at 14000 feet, even if Beartooth switchbacks aren't as steep and at lower elevation.

After those wondrous miles on the plateau above treeline, the road rolls gently into a forest. Once it emerges from it, the landscape is dominated by different mountains, the volcanic rocks of the Absoraka Range. One peak particularly captures one's attention, an mountain made from pitted eroded rock, glowing red but only in early afternoon light, a spire that seems to have been moved here from drier badlands to the south, Pilot Mountain. Below it Coulter Pass starts its ascent to Yellowstone. But after Beartooth Pass, it seems like little more than a road through the woods, even though its east side also offers great views of Pilot Mountain.

The last pass in the area on this circle is Dead Indian Pass, these days more often referred to by its more dignified name, Chief Joseph Highway. While roughly parallel to Beartooth Pass, it leads through a completely different landscape. Everything about it is tortured angles of sedimentary rocks, as tortured as the history of Chief Joseph and his pursuit by the American army. Since the last time I rode over the route, a detailed account of the part of the chase that happened here and in the adjoing canyon of the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River has been erected. If you are into historic details, plan to spend an hour studying informational tablets containing attack and escape routes on the top of the pass. The other alternative is to make plans to return again and again, and in this area any excuse will do to return again. That seems to be what I have chosen

Home, James


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