Twenty hours at the airport should give us plenty time to get some sleep, check-in our bikes, go through security and enjoy our last stroll on Icelandic land at a relaxed pace. And yet, we find ourselves running hectic down the airport corridors trying to find the correct gate as it is no longer displayed on the information boards. We can find our way through hillsides, mountain passes and moorland, but we fail miserably at getting to and around airports with elegance. It’s an internal battle of free-range versus on-schedule. Yet even if we fail, we never give up; we might be 15 minutes late for our flight but until we see the actual gate closed and the airplane taking of, it’s game on. Our style might lack grace, but we’re on a plane to Canada watching ice fields of Greenland slide under us.
It’s sunny and warm when we get out of the airport in Edmonton, Alberta. A short ride should get us to Devon, where we plan to resupply before heading west to the Rockies. As we roll in we decide to eat out for the first time in a month, Iceland was just too expensive to eat anything that didn’t come from Bonus, the biggest and cheapest discount market. We are glad to have our fresh fruit and vegetables back.
In one of the town’s back roads we notice a big “Marci’s – Bar, Grill, Pizza” sign on one of the buildings. The beer garden is full of bikes and we see smiling faces gazing out of the bar’s window. “WELCOME TO BIKE TOWN!” they cheer as we enter. Devon might be a quiet town in the middle of Alberta, but it sure has a great cycling community and we’ve just been invited to join in. One of them, Trish, invites us to camp in her garden and we gladly comply, great company and hot showers care complimentary. Trish is planning her first big cycling trip that will take her around Iceland and we are glad to share our, still piping hot, impressions of the island. The same evening, I receive a message from a long not seen kindergarten, primary school, secondary school friend Stachu, who emigrated to Canada a couple years ago and lives in BC.
“Where are you?”
“Small town in AB, Devon… close to Edmonton”
“I’m 15 min away…”
We make a plan to see each other the very next day for lunch. The things that happen to us never stop to amaze me. It’s funny if you consider we had problems meeting back home, but manage to do so in a small town hidden somewhere in Alberta’s 662 thousand square kilometers. Stachu brings some treats for us and, what he feels is the most essential piece of kit in Canada, a teddy trumpet. The pepper spray sized can is capable of producing some serious noise, apparently enough to scare the Yogi’s and Bubu’s away. We might look for a proper bear spray once we get to the trails.
Before we leave town we pay a visit to Judy and Pepper, a mother and daughter team who run Devon’s bicycle repair shop Shift Happens – a success story since the first day of operation. The girls decide we should join the team and issue us with two pairs of shift happens socks, we also get an old pair of aerobars laying around in the shop which we install on Saska’s bike to make it more road and gravel friendly. It’s just our second day in Canada and yet so much good has happened.
We camp just out of town near the highway 60 bridge and the next day we try to connect some local back roads to avoid cycling the busy highway.
While riding a dirt road we pass a house and I decide to ask for directions, just to make sure our cross country effort doesn’t end up in us backtracking the whole route back to Devon. We mention our plans to the friendly lady working on her enormous truck and she immediately responds “Cross-country? You won’t make it, too many private properties…”. Ask we go further into our conversation it turns out that Sherry is on her way to a music festival in Hinton. That was our original destination and I ask whether we could hitchhike with her. A definite “sure!” was Sherry’s answer. Thanks to her we saved some 3 days of riding Alberta’s busy roads on our way to the Rockies. Instead of listening to trucks roaring past us we spend great time with Sherry talking about Canada’s situation as the bright yellow canola fields roll by in the distance.
Once we’re in Hinton the clouds gather in dense clusters around us and start spitting rain down on the small town. After saying our goodbyes to Sherry (thank you for the lunch and gadgets!) we take shelter at the information center, but have to leave soon afterwards once the center closes. In pouring rain, we decide to ride out of town just far enough to find a quiet camping spot and see what the weather does the next day. It’s a downpour the whole night and in the morning we use a short dry episode to break camp and head down back to town to check the forecast. On our way down we decide to wait out the next wave of rain at the local bike park. Here we meet Maureen and Bill who are doing volunteer work improving the local bike trails. The four of us share the same love to travelling and cycling and from word to word we get invited to stay at their place and wait out the worst of the weather drinking. We’re treated like long not seen members of the family and watch out for their house as they are busy tending to the bike trails just outside of town.
Before coming to Canada we have decided to avoid the paved roads in Alberta’s National Parks. In Reykjavik, while researching our options I came upon a racing route that avoids the Jasper and Banff National Parks, the Alberta Rockies 700, it seems to follow the Forestry Trunk road, a 300 km stretch off gravel connecting Hinton with southern Alberta. When we share our plans with Maureen and Bill, Maureen immediately turns to us and says “You really should see the National Parks, you won’t regret it”. Maureen’s words and a quick google image search is everything we need to change our plans in a split second. Icefields Parkway it is! Anyway, after several days of rain the gravel on the Forestry Trunk road would turn to sticky mush and that’s pretty low on our fun factor scale.
The Yellowhead highway from Hinton to Banff is busy for the first 30 kilometers, but a generous shoulder and Canadian road courtesy leave us with ample space to enjoy a fast paced ride into Jasper. We race the stormy clouds clustering just behind us and manage to come in at first place covering the distance between Hinton and Jasper in just over three hours. Halfway through our ride the rolling hills covered with thick forest shoot skywards losing their green coats and opening up to vast valleys and northern delight, with meadows cut apart by fast flowing glacial rivers, turquoise in color.
That’s the place where wild life thrives, and some of the animal seem not to mind the traffic. Mountain sheep graze at the side of the road blocking traffic as the reach for greener grass on the other side of the highway. An elk is posing for drivers stopping by to take a shoot of this enormous animal that’s just 4 meters away from their car door. A man runs between me and the elk in an effort to get the perfect angle, that’s clearly out of the elk’s comfort zone and he bluff charges the guy, wide opened eyes and nostrils showing signs of stress. I just manage to lift my arm in front of the animal and calmly say “wow boy!” in a futile attempt to stop several hundred kilograms of muscle stampede over the fragile human existence. I don’t think the man even noticed what has just unraveled behind his back, he was too much into his wildlife photographer mission.
Everything is big on the Icefields Parkway. The peaks reach way beyond 3000 meters, the passes are 2000 meters high and stretch out for several kilometers, and some of the tourist would haul a 15-meter-long camper with their 6-liter engine trucks, four bikes on the roof and a small jeep towing behind all this. It’s mid-July, but the Icefields never disappear from the Canadian Rockies. Canadian Rockies might be huge and wonderful but it is the Canadians who mark the highest peaks in our hearts. Ever since we entered the country we’ve encountered so much good it makes our teeth hurt. We’ve been invited for lunch, we’ve been hosted by strangers and we have been hitchhiking with our bikes, all thanks to the awesome people of Canada.
We meet lots of touring cyclist along the way. Some are on shorter trips, some of them already far into their long-term journeys; like Julie from Brazil who started in Alaska several months ago, enduring early spring time temperatures dropping far below zero Celsius in the most northern parts. Frank Sapach and Shiela, a man & dog duo who left for a journey in 2013 and never stopped barking their way through Canada.
For a few days our path intersects with Jeff and Jess, a couple of friends from Philadelphia who are on their 4-week long road tour of the Rockies. They share a similar approach to riding, choosing fun activities along the way instead of crushing centinetals each day. We are always happy to see them again and enjoy their cheerful mood in the evening and morning hours.
At the Lake Luise camping we have a cyclist get-together; with 8 people sharing the campsite we’re quite a bug bunch. Alex from East USA just finished his northbound GDMBR ride and is on a detour for his final days. When asked about his experience on the trail there is only one word that could describe the last two months “Amazing!”. Emma from Holland just started her 3 week trip that will take her north to Jasper and then to British Columbia. Alex mistakes her for a German, a “big” no-no in the European book of national faux pas, one of many that have their roots in the long and twisted history of the old continent. Alvaro and Alicia from Spain took their 3-year old son on a casual trailer ride up the Rockies, although Alvaro would dispute the “casual” aspect of hauling close to 100kg of weight on and behind his bike.
The last stretch of paved road separating us from the Great Divide trail is the Bow Valley Parkway, a quiet 60 km section of quiet road going straight to Banff. The sideway parking and campsite information boards are full of warning leaflets informing about wildlife in the area. Wolfs and bears are becoming too bold, encouraged by irresponsible tourist behavior they are seen around campsites roaming for food; not something the park rangers want to see happening.
We are in a fast paced mindset and manage to catch up with Jeff and Jess, and we roll the last kilometers into Banff together. Once in Banff we look up the address of Keith, a friend of Janet we met earlier in Devon, who agreed to host us, a very welcome gift before starting our journey up the trails and gravel roads of the Great Divide route into Montana. We arrive late at night and are welcomed by two young hiker girls. “Keith is sleeping, but he mentioned something about two bikers… come on in!”. A house that’s open to adventurous people, we think we came to the right place.