Calgary to Vernon

Aside from the dangerous animals and the possibility of an accident on a remote tail, the one thing that I was most worried about was not being at Calgary airport to meet Ingrid when she arrived! She was arriving on the 17th July at 8pm, so I had to be there or have a very good excuse why I wasn’t… and she’s a teacher so she knows a thing or two about excuses With a storm outside I opted to get a taxi to the airport and arrived with half an hour to spare. Or so I thought. What I had forgotten was to change the time on my phone when I crossed the last timezone. So I actually got to the airport an hour and a half early. Well, it’s better than being late.  Back at the hotel I’d planned a nice romantic meal for the two of us but once again my lack of planning became apparent as I hadn’t factored in the jet lag that Ingrid would be suffering. Instead it became a not so romantic meal for one, although the food was damn good.

Next morning I extended our stay at the hotel an extra night to give Ingrid more time to recover. Instead of hitting the trails I took her to Drumheller. She got her first experience of riding across the prairies, the oil wells and then the sudden contrast with dropping off the plains into the badlands. The badlands around Drumheller contain fossil beds. As a result the town is filled with dinosaur related attractions, statues and the gift shops. We bypassed all of those and headed straight to the Royal Tyrrell museum. This is a works class fossil museum and research centre, it was worth every penny to go see it.

Saturday, 19th July, we set off from Calgary to continue the TCAT. It wasn’t far out of the city that we got back onto gravel. Thankfully we only started out on some easy grid roads as I wasn’t sure how the additional weight on the bike would change the balance and stopping abilities of the bike. It didn’t take long to get used to the changes and soon we were off the flat plains and into the foothills of the Rockies. That afternoon, as we rolled into the town of Canmore I was relieved to got to the end of the day without dropping the bike, which is quite an achievement considering I had dropped the bike at least once each day that I had ridden it on the TCAT since the 14th June! We stayed at the HI hostel in Canmore. I’d phoned ahead to check they had space but when we got there I wasn’t sure we were in the right place as there was a wedding party just getting started. Would they really want two dusty adventure bike rides crashing in on the party? Before we could reconsider the bride welcomed us into the reception area, where the check in desk was before getting back to her celebrations… Well that answered the question then.

Sunday we were having south(ish) from Canmore. Initially I didn’t have a destination in mind but as the day progressed, and we made good time, we figured we could probably make it as far as Fearnie. Mostly the trails were in good condition, although one section was closed with a gate and signs warning of a washout section ahead which requires us to find a detour. The last section to Fearnie was over an unpaved pass. This was a really nice trail, although a step up in difficulty from anything I’d done so far with Ingrid on the back. Someone must have been smiling on us though as we made to the Fearnie side of the pass without dropping the bike. That was a long day, about 500km (310 miles), which isn’t that far on paved roads but on gravel when I’m constantly worried about the safety on Ingrid behind me should I drop the bike it’s exhausting. Thankfully there was room in the hostel for us to stay the night.

Monday morning we set off again. Almost straight away we were climbing up over a mountain pass on a logging road. It had been raining and so the road was slippery mud in places and I had to work hard to not drop the bike. It was threatening to rain again and I really didn’t want to get stuck on these steep slippery trails. Thankfully we made it down the other side in one piece and still without having dropped the bike. The rest of the day a mix of recreation area tracks, mountain trails and logging roads. After the excitement of the muddy pass in the morning, the day was pretty uneventful with one exception. We’d been warned that on one logging road the can be patches where dust accumulates. Whenever someone warns me that some section of the trail is going to be bad I build it up in my mind until my expectations are worse than reality and I have no problem when I get there. The dust, however, was that bad. The mountain must have been limestone that the lorries had pommelled into a talc like powder. To make it worse the powder filled up the deep ruts. All I could do was follow a rut into these dust piles and hope it continued straight. On at least one occasion they bike hit a hidden cross rut. As the bike for thrown around I didn’t think there was any way I could rescue it and both Ingrid and I would have to jump for it but somehow I managed to through the ruts and out of the dust. Someone was watching over us that day and decided it wasn’t time for Ingrid’s first flying lesson just yet. Also, during the day we came across another R1200GSA rider who had stopped to take pictures of a moose in a pond by the road. We got talking and it turns out he’d just come over a dirt road pass that we’d be heading over next day. His advice for us? Don’t go that way as the road is virtually impassable, recent landslides had covered the road in sharp rocks that had sliced open his tyres… Hmm, could it really be that bad?

After stopping for the night at a wonderful B&B on the shores of Windermere Lake we set off one again. The first trail was meant to be along a power line road. I was a little nervous of this, having ridden power line trails in Ontario I know how rough they can be. Ingrid did a great job at staying on the bike, despite me being the GS airborne at least once! Unfortunately our “fun” was cut short by a big gate that had been put across the track. The was no possibility of getting the bike around it, so we had to back track and find an alternative way around. Before long we were back on the TCAT route and riding on logging roads. By now I was well accustomed to how the bike handled with an extra person on board, which is just as well as rain clouds were rapidly building overhead and threatening to drench us. We got back on proper roads just as the heavens opened. We were only give minutes from Kimberly so, as it was lunchtime, we find a great little cafe for food, hot drinks and shelter from the torrential rain. I thought that Ingrid and I looked like drowned rats until a couple turned up who were on a cycling holiday in the area. Suddenly I felt very grateful for my waterproofs and heated grips. The worst of the rain had passed over whilst we were eating lunch, which was good news as we now had to ride over the treacherous, rocky mountain pass. Well, I don’t know if I’ve become accustomed to riding over difficult terrain or if I just keep meeting very inexperienced people but I didn’t find anything about the pass challenging. Yes, it was a bit stony in places but my very worn out tyres found plenty of traction on the gravel and I didn’t get a single puncture from the “razor sharp rocks”. At the bottom of the pass we got talking to a couple outside a little general store, they agreed that most people that attempt the pass are just inexperienced with driving on gravel. Apparently it’s not uncommon for visitors to be sent over the pass by blindly following their GPS! The couple we are taking to we’re also the first people on the trip we’d met on the side of the road that invited us to stay in their house for the night. I’d stayed with strangers along the way but they had always been like minded adventure bike rides with a connection through the ADV rider forum. This couple was just showing pure kindness to strangers on the side of the road. We thanked them but we were heading for the Toad Rock Motorcycle Campground in the hope of meeting up with some bikers I’d meet in Winnipeg. When we got to the campground the owner showed us around. The campground is quite incredible, the sort of place an adventure travel could quite happily could waste a couple of weeks on months at. In fact a German rider has arrived there a few years back and had stayed to be a handy man/camp mechanic, only going back to German to be able to renew his visa. It was a shame that my friends had already left but there were plenty of other people there that were keen to hear my story or had great stories of their own.

Leaving Toad Rock the next morning I dearly wished I had another few days to hang around there but the road was calling. We had a hotel reservation in Seattle and would have to keep moving if we were to get there on time. The first gravel road of the day was immaculately graded and followed along the side of a lake. That was the type of gravel travel the big GS Adventure was built for. It was soon over though as we arrived at a ferry across the next lake. Canada has lots of inland ferries across lakes and rivers, amazingly they’re all free! I guess that they’re government-funded instead of having to pay to build bridges or tunnels. I think they’re great as it gives you a chance to stop, relax and talk to other people on the road; something you can’t do whilst driving over a bridge. Soon the break was over and we were back on logging roads. Part way along the road we came to a big sign saying the next section was being actively logged and any users had to obtain prior permission from the logging company – presumably so they can stop cutting trees whilst you pass so you don’t have a tree fall on you. We could hear chainsaws and heavy machinery in the distance, so there were definitely trees being cut down but without mobile signal we had three choices: 1, go back to find a spot with signal and seek permission; 2, wait until they’d finished logging for the day, which could be several hours; 3, keep riding and hope we don’t get hit by a tree or get into trouble with the loggers. Obviously I went with option 3! As I cautiously moved forward it soon became apparent that the logging had moved to the downhill side of the road. I picked up the speed and we managed to sneak through without being caught. The logging road finished at another ferry back across the lake. At this point the TCAT continue on the same side of the lake that we were on but I’d been watching the storm clouds building over head and knew it was only a matter of time until they broke. The description of the TCAT indicated that the next part of the route was difficult when wet. Having experienced muddy logging roads in Quebec and Ontario it wasn’t something I wanted to try riding with Ingrid on the back as well. So we hopped on the ferry to get on a proper road. If we’d continued on the TCAT we would have been two days from Vernon but due to the impending storm we took the road straight over the mountains. As we approach the crest of the pass the storm finally broke. I was very glad I chose the road instead of staying on gravel roads as the storm was epic. As we rode down the mountain valley we got pummelled with rain and marble sized hail stones. I was worried that the hail would break our visors and it was getting hard to hold the bars as hail smashed into my knuckles. All the time thunder and lightning was crashing around us. It was scary to continue riding, barely able to see the lights of the car in front, but there was no shelter either.

Finally we arrived in Vernon and find a welcoming Tim Horton’s to shelter in whilst I tried to get in contact with Matt, my friend from Guernsey who now lives in Vernon.

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