Calgary to Canmore: A Shitty First Day

…continued from Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier Caves

So, Canada happened. But Juneau happened before it, and that was only because Burning Man did not. I tried to buy tickets to Burning Man this year after seeing all of the videos and pictures of the festival – its artwork and its people, its burns, its whole freaking aura – only to discover that a whole shitload of other people were thinking the same thing. Its ticketing system amounted to 2 million people all trying to buy 40,000 tickets in the time window the size of a golf ball. I missed my window by microseconds.

That left me an extra week to work with and decide on some other adventure, and hopefully something at least as good. It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with Alaska, so I looked for something there that I could fit in at short notice. I had never been to the southeast panhandle, which is a bit different from most of what I saw the first time further north. I added Juneau to my Canada trip on a whim, which was already booked and ready to go. So it was a week of glaciers, forests, big misty mountains instead of a desert metropolis. Burning Dan will happen another time. Screw you, ticketing system.

Juneau came and went in a blur of rain, ice, whitewater, and fog. But it served its purpose. Before I knew it I was loading my gear into an SUV cab and riding to the Juneau airport on an uncharacteristically sunny morning. I lucked out. There was hardly a drop of rain for both of my big days outside, which says a lot for an area where the locals don’t use umbrellas, but put on rain gear and learn to ignore it.

When I checked in at the airport, the agent spent 45 minutes trying to figure out what to do with my bike box. Clearly they’ve never dealt with a huge pie shaped bike box before. Hassle though it may be, it’s the only one of its kind that doesn’t screw up the brakes or derailleur, and doesn’t require me to remove the pedals, which are rusted onto the crank arms anyway. Plus, it has a wheel kit at the bottom, making it super efficient to wheel around. Honestly, it’s probably about as much as I can do to minimize the logistical pain of bike travel. In this case, I was a few minutes away from missing my flight, thanks to the extra attention from the attendant.

Four hours later, I landed in Calgary. By coincidence, it happened to be Canada Day, which was also the first of 10 days of the Calgary Stampede. Every summer, hordes of people come together in the city for parades, barbecues, and rodeos, and the city transforms into a huge festival of wild horses and the cowboys who chase them.

I didn’t care much about this, but I did want to see the downtown fireworks that evening. I made a few friends at the hostel and a group of us left to watch it along the river. The sky to the west darkened behind the red and white explosions, and I thought ahead to my journey out that way. I was two days out from my bike trip into the big mountain country. The Icefields Parkway of Alberta.

Later that night, I hung out in the hostel back yard with Melanie, a French backpacker who had spent almost 9 months traveling around the US and Canada, and was in between another short roadtrip and a job at a nearby cattle farm. These trips always bring interesting travelers like her across my path, who are just as interested in my adventures as I am in theirs. We had beers and talked for hours, trading stories of our time on the road.

I spent the next day working out logistics that needed to get done before my bike trip. It took most of the day. I hauled the pie box out of the storage shed, reassembled the bike, took it to the shop to fix the wheel truing, packed my computer and extra gear into the box, and FedExed it to Vancouver. I had one week to get to it there, and as long as I did, my adventure would continue along the coast.

After everything was squared away, I was exhausted and needed a drink. Melanie agreed, and we walked into downtown to find some good bar food and whiskey to take the edge off. We sat down at an 8th Ave tavern, which for the Stampede seemed unusually quiet. When I asked the server about it, she said that the second day is the “calm before the storm” and then the next day is when it really begins to go nuts. She went on to say that people in corporate jobs will take off for the week and return to their old food services jobs during Calgary Stampede because they can make thousands of dollars. I could feel the energy simmering in the city. This was Calgary’s equivalent of Mardi Gras.

Next morning, I awoke to the rattle of snare drums and bagpipes from outside. A marching band was warming up for the parade, and it happened to be right next to my side of the hostel. As their drill leader hyped them up for the big day, the bagpipes were soothing to the nerves. This was it. I was hours approaching the open road. I would make it to downtown Jasper in four days this all goes according to plan. As Roland Deschain would say, there will be water if God wills it.

Melanie said goodbye, we agreed to stay in touch. Her time in Canada was coming to an end and mine was just getting started. I left with my loaded bike and rode through a city that was packed wall to wall with cowboys, vendors, and a huge parade of horses. There was no more holding back. This stampede was full on, as was a bike tour more than a year in the making. As I’ve already said, I didn’t really care much about this whole scene. I’m not that kind of cowboy. What mattered to me was distance, which I needed to catch up on due to a late start. Unfortunately, the entire square perimeter of downtown was blocked off to traffic and crowded street to street.

I finally found an underpass and went underneath the main arterial street on the south end. As I headed west, the god drums of the marching bands faded behind me and uncertainty lay ahead.

For a while, I followed the Bow River on a city bike path that went out to the beltway. From there, it got confusing. I needed to get onto the TransCan Highway, but there wasn’t bike accessible shoulder at that point. So I had to spend the next fucking hour going around side streets, pointlessly winding bike paths, and a suburban neighborhood before rejoining the highway and the big shoulder I was looking for. If it weren’t for Google Maps, it would have taken me even longer.

The road straightened across the open plain while the sun was poised brutally high in the sky. The price I would pay for sleeping in. I crested and descended rolling hills uneventfully for hours as the spires of Canada’s Rocky Mountains slowly came out of the burning haze and into clarity. There was one last chance gas station at the 22 junction, about halfway between Calgary and the mountains, to refill my already depleted water bottles. It was blazing that day in the ranchlands.

I continued up huge hills against hot headwind as flies landed all over my head and arms, crawling and buzzing in my helmet. At times, I could go downhill just fast enough to blow them off, only to have more land on me when I slowed down again.

I finally got to the edge of the mountains in the late afternoon, out of water and pushing onward to the next gas station to refill. To my benefit, the mountains blocked the sun from anymore of its punishment. I found a small pond next to the road to cool off. In that kind of weather, it’s the only bearable choice I have. I stopped at the first store I saw at Dead Man’s Flats, five miles from my campsite. I was almost there. Fucking hell, it’s been a day.

As I sat outside mowing down a gas station sandwich and Gatorade, I heard a pop and hissing sound come from my right. That’s a strange noise, I thought. Could somebody be using the pressure pump around the corner? It went on steadily until I noticed the rear tire of my bike deflate and the hissing stop. It just blew out of nowhere. Not from riding over glass or nails, or doing anything stupid. No, it just decided to blow out on its own. What the fuck???

Furiously, I took the tire off to figure out what happened. I found a big hole in the tube where it beaded into the one of the spoke holes and eventually blew. It was the result of an improper installation on my part and probably an under-inflated tube. So it was my fault, even though that didn’t make me feel any less angry.

I called the shop in Calgary that fixed the truing yesterday for advice (not their fault, I didn’t ask them to check the tires). The guy told me to install a new tube and work it under the bead all around, and reinforce the rim with electric tape, and it should hold. I nervously hung up and took his advice. Would this happen again further into the tour? Like say, when I’m flying down a mountainside? If so, would I crash my bike at worst and wind up stranded at best? And if I do get stranded, what then? These challenges all feel very real at game time.

Some local electrical contractors noticed me and offered a ride in their utility truck as far as Canmore. YES! That’s where I’m going! I loaded my gear into the back and rode in the back seat for the last 5 miles straight to my campground. It was encouraging to know that good people were around to help a traveler out, and that if things really did go south, that I wouldn’t be left entirely to my own agency.

All of the bullshit aside, I made it there at the planned hour.

I set up camp, fixed my bike, and walked into town to get supplies. The sky to the northwest blazed in orange and gold above the silhouette of Cascade Mountain, twenty miles ahead. It was a fair reward for all the trouble I went through that day.

I went to sleep in my tent that night, uncertain if my bike would hold out for the rest of the tour, and if I could really do this. There will be water if God wills it.

Part 2: The Columbia Icefield