Chapter 9: Are we there yet?

I’ve been subconsciously putting off writing a blog for Alberta, partly cos we zig zagged our way through and spent quite a long time there, partly cos we haven’t really stopped and the crossing from Alberta to BC was so blurred, and partly cos I’m loosing motivation as we get close to the finish line.

I could probably sum up the following blog in a couple of sentences; the Icefields Parkway, Rocky Mountains and Lake Abraham were a dream come true…And now I’m ready to go home.

The first few days in Alberta were really just a continuation of Saskatchewan, with a few more towns dotting the way. The road did get hillier pretty much as we passed through the border town of Lloyminster and the farmland got greener with more lakes and more trees. We pulled a couple of big days to get to Edmonton, and even saw the world’s biggest Pysanka (Ukranian Easter Egg) in Vegreville.

After two 100km+ days, we reached Edmonton and it was more than a little terrifying cycling in to the city! Even though we took a quieter route in, there were still sections of 4 lane highway where the shoulder would just disappear. We made it safe enough though and were hosted for 4 nights by Kirsty’s friend Cat and her boyfriend Stu. Kirsty and Cat went to primary school together, and Cat left just before I arrived…And that was the last time they saw each other! It was awesome to reconnect and share lots of laughs in Edmonton with them. We even were able to enjoy Guns and Roses playing at a nearby stadium from there balcony, and indulged in plenty of red wine and good food.

Cat and Stu decided they also fancied a trip to the mountains, and offered to take us the 400km along the highway to Jasper. As a 4 hour drive for them meant 4 days of cycling for us, and we would get an extra night of camping with them, we eagerly accepted. It was a shame not to get the full effect of cycling in to the foothills, but we were grateful to miss 4 days of busy, divided highway and get to the country we’d been anticipating for so long.

It was a misty and foggy morning as we awoke in Hinton at the base of the Rockies, but we enjoyed a dip in the Miette Hot Springs on the way to Jasper, surrounded by the atmospheric fog hiding the mountain peaks from view. It was less than an hour from there to Jasper, and although the mountains were still hidden in cloud, we gradually became more and more surrounded and it was just beautiful. We arrived to a drizzly Jasper town, but as it cleared up I just fell in love. The town is obviously touristy, but not tacky or overwhelming, and the mountains on every horizon just make it an awesome place to be. We stayed with friends of friends of Cat’s, and Sharon and her daughters India and Anika were such a pleasure (/honour) to meet and we set off the next day with warm hearts and a great excitement for what was to come.

I had a massive smile on my face as we cycled off on to the Icefields Parkway, and it didn’t leave for the next 5 days. We decided to take it really slow, stopped whenever we wanted and surrounding ourselves with the stillness and silence of the mountains. Bike travel really came in to it’s own, as we were able to stop at places that cars and other tourists couldn’t and really soak up the surroundings. I was quite nervous about seeing bears but we didn’t spot any, and I felt perfectly safe staying in the HI Wilderness Hostels and at the campgrounds. Each were very good about food storage and waste management, avoiding the areas becoming a bear attractant.

We stopped at Athabasca Falls and Beauty Creek for the first two nights, and although our bikes were heavy with five days worth of supplies and the road was hilly, the scenery kept us going. The Goat and Glacier lookout spot was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen – blue, grey and red mountains towering over forest and a river valley where we could just imagine bears living and playing. Beauty Creek really lived up to its name, and we made the most of the hammocks by the river (of course surrounded by mountains) and felt very grateful for the last three months that got us here.

Basically every corner we turned was just beautiful. The road is lined with pine trees but the mountains tower above in every direction. From Beauty Creek we had a big climb up to the Columbia Icefield, so we’d planned a particularly short day to do it. The hill turned out to be nowhere as bad as we had heard or expected, and I even managed to cycle the whole thing. There were lots of places to stop to catch our breaths and take in the scenery, which certainly helped.

As we approached the glacier, one of Kirsty’s spokes decided to give up. An attempt at cable tying it to the adjacent one didn’t work and her wheel instantly went out of alignment. Long story short she managed to get a ride all the way back to Jasper, get her wheel fixed, and then hitched back to the Icefields where I waited overnight, making the most of the Wilcox Pass Hike and chatting to other travellers.

Our next stop was Rampart Creek hostel which again was such a treat. They were equipped with their own wood burning sauna and as a thunderstorm rolled through during the night, we were very grateful not to be in our tents. The drizzle was still there the following morning, but after 5 days of bluebird skies we couldn’t complain.

My dad and granny were flying out to meet us in a few days time, and if we continued to head straight south we’d arrive too early, so we decided to turn off the Icefields Parkway and head East instead. We headed down Highway 11 and it was such a treat. The level of traffic dropped to about 10% of what it had been, and Lake Abraham was so beautiful. The blue colour of the water stood out even with an overcast sky, and then when the clouds cleared it was just amazing. We felt very lucky to have found a somewhat secret spot that was really just as beautiful as the Icefields Parkway.

We cycled through Nordegg and on to Rocky Mountain House. We were both feeling pretty good and the weather was nice again…Until we left Rocky Mountain House. As we packed up our tents it began to get drizzly, then just got worse and worse. We were heading South for Calgary where we’d meet Dad and Granny and the rain just didn’t stop. Amazingly on our first day in the rain we were picked up by a truck who was actually travelling in the other direction, but when he saw us powering on with our heads down through the rain he turned around and offered us a lift to our destination. And on our second day, our warmshowers host Sheila met us 10km from her home and took our bags, making the last cold section so much more enjoyable. Our evening with Sheila was also just a dream, we had hot showers, enjoyed a delicious meal with red wine and slept soundly in comfortable beds. We got to Calgary the next day with no trouble, met Dad and Granny and enjoyed 4 days of no cycling with them in Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise.

Then since leaving Lake Louise (and so Alberta), we’ve travelled through Golden, Revelstoke, Chase and Kamloops. It’s been a little bit chilly and we’re both a little bit tired. We’ve mostly been on Highway 1, the trans Canada route, and it is so busy with cars that sometimes it’s hard to appreciate the beautiful scenery.

Our first two days were relatively big and BC is hilly (!) and truth be told Kirsty was not enjoying herself one bit. So we slowed it down and are now doing 50/60/70km days until we reach the coast. British Columbia really is beautiful, but it’s hard not to think about the finish line and everything and everyone that’s waiting for us at home.

As I said on Facebook recently, lots of people we meet and people at home say we must be brave, but I still worry and at times am afraid. Even though we only have 7 days to go we are heading in to mountainous bear country and I’m nervous about what’s to come. However, this makes each little achievement even more special and I feel so proud when I reflect on what we’ve seen and done already.

Chapter 8: Saskatchewan

The land of golden fields and blue skies… and headwind. Lots and lots of headwind.

Saskatchewan was the first of our last three provinces, and I felt motivated to cycle strongly to make the most of the relatively short time we had left on our bikes. We’d had a fantastic rest in Manitoba and after seeing Paul and having a little taste of home, I was beginning to get excited about finishing and getting back to family and friends in Scotland.

People say that in Saskatchewan you can see your dog (or wife) run away for three days, and after hearing this joke only a few hundred times, we were expecting Saskatchewan to be pretty flat. Imagine then our surprise when in our first 5km of the province we found a massive valley. We enjoyed the downhill rush, but the uphill slog was a bit of a rude awakening. Especially when we reached the top and Kirsty spotted my back tyre was a bit low. On further inspection the tyre had been pierced with a piece of glass, so 12km in to our first day back on the bikes I was at the side of the road trying to patch up the rear tyre and tube. Super fun.

We set off again and were happy to not see any more valleys, mostly enjoying a flat cycle in the famous prairies. There were corn fields as far as we could see, and even though we were on a busy road it felt like we were out on country roads. We pulled in to a gas station 30km further along the road for a cool drink, only to find my rear tyre was completely flat again. Turns out the glue on the patch had melted with the heat of the day and the road. Reluctant to put a brand new tube in to a damaged tyre, we didn’t have much choice but to hitch hike to the nearest town and try to buy a new tyre. We borrowed a marker pen from a man in a caravan, got some cardboard from the gas station, and stood by the side of the road with a homemade sign. About half an hour later we were in the car with Marlo and Teri, local farmers who were more than happy to take us to Yorkton. The bike shop were super helpful and fitted me with a new tyre, and even gave me a new quick release axle when it transpired I’d left the original on the side of the road 50km East…

We were pretty tired after a long first day back on the bikes, especially as there had been an hour’s time change which we hadn’t expected. We cycled a few kilometers out of Yorkton to look for a camp spot and ended up on a farm, starting the theme that would continue through the rest of the province. Eddie and April were very welcoming and allowed us to camp safely on their land, and their 7 month old puppy Roxy took it upon herself to be our guard dog for the night. Would have been great if she hadn’t kept sticking her head in to my tent during the night and chewed through Kirsty’s guy rope…

The next day was when the headwind started. It’s said that no matter what direction you are cycling in the prairies, the wind is always against you. It didn’t start out too badly but gradually got worse and worse and was exhausting. We had been aiming to do about 80km and reach Foam Lake but by 4pm we literally had no energy left. We decided to call it a day and ended up camping happily on another farmer’s field, both asleep before 8pm. We vowed to set off earlier the next day, hoping to “beat” the wind and make more progress towards Saskatoon – our half way point through Saskatchewan.

Unfortunately, the wind also decided to get up early and by the time we’d cycled the 20km to Foam Lake we were already feeling disheartened. We met a french couple, Oceana and David who were cycling in the same direction as part of their 2 year cycle around the world. They too were struggling and was nice to get reassurance that we weren’t just soft! We powered on over the next couple of days, stopping every 15-20km at the communities along the way to break up the journey in to bitesize chunks. More than in any other province, we got so many toots and waves from passing cars, and this definitely lifted our spirits as we peddled on. We surprised ourselves a couple of times by getting further than expected and we couldn’t really tell if the wind was getting lighter or we were just getting more determined.

After two 95km ish days we made it to our warmshowers host, Hamilton, in Saskatoon. We were both exhausted, but it was so nice to arrive a day earlier than we expected and enjoy eating and sharing stories of adventure. Hamilton cooked us a delicious Israeli meal that he’d picked up on his travels, and we slept well indoors after a few nights in the tents. Saskatoon itself is a nice city, I bought a foldaway tyre to keep as a spare and we enjoyed a long lunch. We both gave the bikes a well needed clean before sharing another meal with Hamilton. Saskatoon has a strong Ukrainian heritage so Hamilton made us perogies, a boiled bread dough filled with Saskatoon berries… delicious!

We set off again feeling refreshed and motivated, this time with Edmonton in our sights…just a small 530km away. Leaving the city was pretty terrifying as there was no way to avoid really big, busy roads…but we made it and arriving on the long, open highway felt amazing. We even had a tailwind!! We just flew along and the cycle felt like no effort at all compared to the road leading towards Saskatoon. We were able to have conversation, and suprised ourselves again by doing 110km in 5 hours of cycling.

Sadly the headwind was back the following day and we had 35km to cycle from our camping spot before we get water and coffee. It was the first time we’d had to cycle so far and reminded us on the importance to carry extra water through slightly less populated areas. Coffee tasted amazing and we ended up hiding in Tim Horton’s for almost two hours before building up the motivation to cycle on. As the wind was strong, we decided to allow ourselves to have a short day and headed for a village another 35km away which google told us had a church. We’d met some cyclists along the way who told us they often camped in church gardens, and although we hadn’t done it so far, we decided it would be a good option for the night.

We arrived at the said church in the quiet village, and it had lots of grass perfect for pitching our tents. We knocked on the door and found it locked, when a voice across the road asked if we needed any help. When we explained to Marilyn that we were looking for somewhere to pitch our tents for the night, she first invited us to pitch them in her garden, then invited us to join her for dinner, and finally invited us to actually sleep inside. It was amazing how quickly she invited us in to her home, acting purely on kindness and we were blown away. We had a lovely evening with her, her husband and their friends, and slept soundly in a soft, comfy bed. We even had a shower!

We left the following day with warm hearts and even the wind wasn’t too bad to begin with. It soon picked up though and was blowing in our faces once again. We were aiming for Lloyminster, the border town between Saskatchewan and Alberta. At 100km away, Maidstone at 50km seemed like a good place to stop for lunch. Marilyn had sent us away with some fresh veges so I planned to eat that for lunch and Kirsty headed to the gas station to pick something up…but the universe at other ideas again.

A motorcyclist called us over asking where we were from, where we were going… the usual questions. He said he and his friend were biking to Alaska and had passed us on the highway. Impressed with what we were doing, he invited us to join them for lunch…his treat. As we sat down, Quan’s friend Greig was talking to a man at the next table who mentioned he’d seen us on the road the day before as well. He soon left for the road and we enjoyed a hilarious lunch with Quan and Greig hearing stories of their 30 year long friendship. After we’d eaten, the waitress came over to tell us that the man we’d spoken to as we sat down had paid for all our lunches before he left, simply with the message “pay it forward”. We were all blown away, and Kirsty and I cycled away slightly in disbelief at the last hour. Selfless random acts of kindness rarely happen, and I vowed (not for the first time) to pay back all this kindness and more as we travel on and after I get home.

We didn’t quite make it to Lloydminster, but camped 15km short…staying in Saskatchewan for our last night. Although the province for us had been mostly spend on the highway and we hadn’t got to really explore and experience it like we had done other provinces. It was still enjoyable and I’d found the endless fields, farmland and sunny skies really beautiful. We’d had a taste of what it would be like to stick to the trans-Canada highway for the whole journey, and although it’s not the type of cycling I would want to do for 4 months, it wasn’t totally awful and did allow us to average 90-100km a day and get ever closer to the Rocky Mountains. The prairies certainly weren’t as awful as so many people had warned.

Now, Alberta, let’s see what you have to say.