- It’s a holiday weekend, and the one server working in the hotel restaurant at breakfast time is struggling to keep up with the demands of several occupied tables.
“They’ve got you working hard,” I say.
He laughs. “You don’t know the half of it. I was working the bar till 2:30 this morning.”
My reward for two days of hard riding is a short, relaxed 200-mile ride south and east to Jasper National Park. The road gradually transitions from tightly packed modest hills to a broad river valley surrounded by increasingly dramatic peaks. A couple dozen miles shy of Jasper, the road takes a long straight-away toward the base of Mount Robson. It’s “only” a bit over 13,000 feet at the summit, but topographically-speaking, it’s the most prominent mountain
in all of North America’s Rocky Mountain chain. Low clouds crowd the mountain, but gaps reveal sheer and widely spaced rock faces, hinting at a massive bulk that seems to rise to an impossible height.
The town of Jasper is about what I expected – wealthy, crowded, mountain-resort-chic – not unlike my visit to Whistler two and a half weeks ago. I stop to replenish my oatmeal supply and then begin my way down the Icefields Parkway.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the grandeur of this stretch of the Canadian Rockies. Every turn reveals new mountain vistas with snow-capped peaks, forested valleys and rushing streams. Scattered sun and clouds cast brilliant relief and the clear air lends a sharp immediacy to distant objects.
I had expected full campgrounds for the holiday weekend, but I find the Rampart Creek campground is less than half full and set further off the road than most of the others. Only one of the six walk-in sites on a small loop is occupied, so I settle in to an open space. It’s been a wet late summer and the soaked wood exceeds my fire-starting skills. After nursing a smoky, sputtering flame for half-an-hour, I retreat to my tent shortly before the evening rain starts falling in earnest.
Icefields Parkway Scenes
- The clouds begin to scatter as the sun comes over the horizon. The air is fresh and crazy-clear. It’s a perfect day for riding. I had thought to pack up today and wander gradually down south, but Rampart Creek is already about halfway between Jasper and Banff and I can’t think of any reason why I wouldn’t stay here another night.
So, I hop on the bike and spin southward to Lake Louise. A seasonal park ranger comes straight up to me as I pull in to the parking lot.
“A dual sport! What a great bike.”
He’s not a rider, but in two days he’s boarding a plane for Australia, and top of his list when he arrives is learning to ride and getting licensed. He’s a man with a mission:
“I’ve wanted to live in Australia all my life, but it’s tough to get into the country for any real amount of time. I’ll tell you what, I’ve spent more time hooking up with Aussie women than you could imagine. But I finally found the right one! So, she sponsors me and I get there on a long-term visa that gives me six months. After that, who knows, whatever it takes to stay, so hopefully things work out with her.”
“So, you’re going to try to marry this woman, basically so you can stay there permanently?” I ask.
Another park ranger overhears me and turns to the Aussie-phile. “Man, you’ve been talking to this guy for five minutes, and he’s already got you figured out.”
The soon-to-be-emigrant shrugs his shoulders and smiles.
I hike four miles along the length of Lake Louise and then up the mountain valley, past late summer snow fields and into a heavy mist and cold rain. I hear a sharp crack followed by a low roar and watch as a hanging glacier
calves an avalanche hundreds of feet down a cliff. Near the end of the trail, Swiss mountain guides built a two-story, stone warming hut in 1924, and for decades a family has operated it as a mountain tea house. The place is full, and there is no lack of hikers who come up this far, but after the impersonal crowds down at Chateau Lake Louise there’s a modest camaraderie among those who make the effort to get here.
One thing the Chateau has that the tea-house lacks is single-malt Scotch. I’ve been a fan since I was 22, hanging out in a punk bar in Inverness with Nick, a freelance photographer from Chicago, whom I had met in the hostel earlier that day. Two relatively straight-laced Americans were an oddity for the aggressive, spike-haired regulars, and they crowded around us at a corner table, talking to us for hour after hour with a combination of veiled hostility, generosity and naked curiosity. We had been drinking beer and at some point late in the evening one of the larger, more threatening guys (a bassist in a punk band, his hand was bandaged after putting his fist through a bathroom window a couple of hours earlier) turned to another and said, “Let’s see what these Americans are made of. Go get two of the Laphroaig
I’ve loved single-malt ever since, particularly as a way to mark meaningful points in time. And now, sitting next to a high picture window looking out over Lake Louise and the mountains and glaciers beyond, my journey to the Yukon and beyond unwinding toward its end, seemed like just that kind of moment.
Just the one other tent site is occupied again tonight, but the occupants have changed. Sophia and Robert are young Swedes. Just graduated from university they spent months thinking about what to do next, and settled on a three-month bicycle ride, from Jasper to San Diego, CA. Their tent is poorly staked (by morning it will be sagging heavily) and their used camp-stove has stopped operating, but it’s just two days into their trip and they are giddy with enthusiasm.
Tonight I overcome the wet wood with a couple of long-burning fire starters, and enjoy watching the flames dance in the dark.
Heading down the Plain of Six Glaciers trail
More Icefields Parkway
Sophia and Robert
– Riding south the winding, two-lane Icefields Parkway morphs into a four-lane divided highway at Lake Louise. I exit for the more scenic 1A route, but that road is crowded with trees and devoid of much interest and I roll into Banff by late morning.
I check into a hotel, wander the town and spend a couple of hours at the local hot springs, alternating in and out of the warm pool and brisk late summer mountain air. That night I get a table at one of the town’s best restaurants for a tasting menu and wine flight. It’s a slow night, and the pretty young waitress chats me up between courses.
Heading to Banff
– I’m up early to make a 9:30am appointment at Anderwerks in Calgary for a long overdue oil change and 12k-mile service interval. After dropping off the bike, I take a bus downtown and wander among shops, office towers and pedestrian malls. I am far, far away from Eagle Plains. The work is complete by late afternoon, and I point the bike east to ride 180 miles to Medicine Hat.
Then 650 miles to Winnipeg. And this day I reach a different type of milestone: By entering Manitoba I've now ridden in all 49 continental U.S. states and all road-connected Canadian provinces and territories. I'm looking forward to getting out to Hawaii someday and renting a motorcycle. As for Nunavut - if anyone knows of a land route to access that territory, I'm all ears. In the meantime, future trips are likely to take me southward.
Then 460 miles and I’m riding through a deeply familiar urban neighborhood. There is my wife, there is my dog, there is my house, there is my daughter. It’s wonderful to be home.
Still, it won’t be long before I’m planning my next solo trip. It’s just something I have to do. And besides, someone has to be a beacon of manhood and hope for the minivan occupants of the world.
Shower outside Medicine Hat
Highway 1 and the Canadian Plains
Prince George to Minneapolis