I most admit that being back onto the trails from Kyle I was a little nervous. It was over two weeks since I’d ridden the GS off-road, the last time didn’t have the happiest ending. However, the prairie grid roads are super easy to ride on and it wasn’t long before I was having a blast. Navigation was simple, because the prairies are laid out in a 1 mile by 1 mile grid system, all I had to do was look at the map, count off the grid lines crossed and count off the miles to the next turn.
Before long I got to the town of Sceptre, which was even smaller than Kyle, although it didn’t have a motel with a small cafe attached where I stopped for lunch. I got chatting with the woman running it and told her I was heading to Cypress Hills that night. She kindly said that it should only take 2 hours to get there, so I’d have plenty of time to explore the hills. She was a little bemused when I explained the route I was taking and said there was a perfectly good highway that would get me there quicker. At this point I figured it was time to smile, nod, pay the bill and leave. Her reaction was not unusual when I told people what I was doing. Some people would eventually come to some understanding of my motivation, others s would just shake their head and point me in the direction of the nearest highway.
Soon after Sceptre I entered the Great Sand Hills. This is an area of sand dunes in southern Saskatchewan that has a very sparse grass covering. Motorised vehicles were strictly limited to a single sandy road, for which I was grateful of my Moroccan desert riding experience. The route continued south across pastures on which I had some very close but uneventful encounters with cattle. There was also an interesting moment passing a salt lake. At that time of year the lake should have been pretty much died out but recent rains meant that the track was very slippery saline mud. After dropping the bike several times I ended up riding to the side of the track where I could get some traction on the grass but I still wondered if I’d be spending the night there. Eventually I made it to Maple Creek, the closest town to Cypress Hills, and I got my first view of the hills. In a completely flat prairie they really stick out. With evening approaching I had a daunting task of riding up the eastern hills, across to the central block and on to the far west of the western block of hills, approximately 150km. The hills are an inter-provincial park and as I entered the park the ranger at the gate didn’t think I’d make across the road that runs between the central and western blocks, another biker had recently fallen and broken his leg on it, but I said I was going to try any way. The road really wasn’t that bad, especially compared with earlier tracks on the TCAT, and soon I was in the western block. I made it to the campground just as the sun was setting.
The following morning I was feeling pretty beaten up. The previous day has been a long day and I’d lost a lot of my off-road riding fitness. Finding a really nice cafe just outside the campsite for breakfast went a long way to lifting my spirits. Soon I was away from the Cypress Hills and into the rolling hills of the prairies again. Riding across through cattle ranch pastures I was suddenly away a herd of very big cattle to my right, only they weren’t cattle. To my surprise it was actually a herd of bison. They are such magnificent creatures, it’s a shame restricted to farmed herds, like this one, and a few parks.
Riding across the prairies is quite incredible. Yes they are mostly flat but suddenly out of nowhere there’ll be a river that’s cut down a hundred feet or more and you can’t see it until the road drops down into a valley. I also discovered the j joy of riding along the canal roads. The irrigation canals are incredible feats of engineering that snake their way across what would otherwise be barren grasslands. Sections of the canal roads had yet had the grass cut, so it was impossible to see the gravel tracks, instead I was riding along in a sea of grass and wild flowers beside a river.
Unfortunately I had a painful awakening from this dream. Whilst riding, I have a self-imposed rule: either have visor closed or wear sunglasses, never have eyes directly exposed to gravel, dust, bugs or other projectiles. At the time I was riding visit open with sunglasses on because it was so hot. For a while I had been setting what looked like bright orange giant Toblerone shapes in the fields but couldn’t figure out what they were. Suddenly it felt like if been shot in the face. As I slammed on the brakes I came to the realisation that I wasn’t about to die but I couldn’t get my helmet off quick enough! Whatever it was that had hit me had managed to knock one of the lenses out of my glasses and I had a searing, white-hot pain in my nose. Checking in my mirror I saw a big fat bee sting firmly embedded in the skin of my nose. Walking back up the canal road I managed to find my missing glasses lens, which now has the remains of a bee splattered across it… so that’s what the orange things are, bee hives! I now had a new rule for the canal roads: if the road has the canal on one side and bee hives on the other, I must ride with visor closed! (Bees need to drink water too.)
It had been a long day on the dirt, about 500km (plus the bee incident), so I decided to check into a motel for the night so I could get an early start to get to Calgary to meet Ingrid. Next morning I was well rested and ready for what should have been an easy and relatively short ride into Calgary. The day started out well with canal roads and some grid roads but then things went rapidly wrong. Some of the grid roads had signs on them saying “Impassable when wet” but they had been fine. Then I found out why they are impassable. I started down one track that seemed to be solid but that was just a thin crust on top of slippery clay mud. By the time I figured this out I was at the bottom of a slight valley and half way along the track. My choice was to battle on or try to backtrack. I don’t know if I was wise or stupid but I decided to continue going forward. I only had about a mile to go but I have never worked so hard in my life. The tyres couldn’t get much traction on the clay but what they did get just flicked the clay up under the front mud-guard when it collected and jammed up the front wheel. Once again I was grateful for the trowel I had been given in Nova Scotia, all I could do was ride a few metres then stop and dig out clay from the front wheel, then ride a few more metres. I dropped the bike numerous times, each occasion it was talking longer to pick her up again. It was baking hot and although I’d started the day with four litres of water on the bike I was rapidly drinking my way through it.
I’m not ashamed to say that at one point I just say down and cried for a while, this was supposed to be one of the happiest days of the trip, when I got to see Ingrid again. Yet here I was, stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no one to help. Still, with no one to help I had no choice but to battle on. I finally managed to get my bike to firmer track but still had one last muddy section to cross of only a few metres before I was on gravel. This time I decided to try a new idea. Rather than waste my energy fighting with the bike, I went in search of some gravel. This made the world of difference and soon I was back on solid gravel roads. It had taken me two hours and every ounce of energy I had to get along that track. That track had taken me to my lowest low, but getting out of it had been a euphoric high. As I was riding into Drumheller I felt like I was floating in the clouds… or maybe that was dehydration! Thankfully I find the Last Chance Saloon, quite an apt name given my situation.
Rehydrated and re-energised, I had a choice. Ride the last 150km to Calgary on the TCAT trails or hit the highway. Having checked out the weather forecast and the clouds that were forming, I decided to head straight for Calgary, I could come back and do the TCAT with Ingrid the next day, after all I wanted to take here to Drumheller and the dinosaur museum so the TCAT would be a good way to get back to Calgary. As I headed to Calgary the clouds got bigger and bigger, blacker and blacker in front of me. There was going to be a storm of epic scale before long. In my haste to get to Calgary I hadn’t filled up with petrol in Drumheller, which was a big mistake. The area between Drumheller and Calgary seemed to be devoid of fuel stations and my reserves were getting low… Should I return to Drumheller and risk being caught in the storm, or continue towards Calgary and hope I got to a fuel station before I ran out? I went with the later and thankfully the gamble paid off. With a full tank of fuel I was really able to open the bike up and was extremely pleased to not pass any police – or if I did, they weren’t interested in chasing me! I made it into Calgary as the first of the rain started coming down and found the hotel before needing to get my rain gear out.
As I checked into the rather swanky Westin hotel, I got some rather odd looks from the other business and finely dressed guests but in my muddy, sweaty, smelly and exhausted state I really couldn’t care less what they thought. I had a reservation and all I wanted was to go get a shower!