The Great (snowy) Divide Mountain Bike Route: Banff to Eureka
FIFTEEN CENTIMETRES of snow for Banff itself on Thursday - this was what a bus driver had told Gabi. Checking the forecast on the internet didn’t hold much more promise - subzero temperatures, the snow-line creeping ever lower. With great trepidation we embarked on day one of the Great Divide Mountain Bike trail.
However, we weren’t too sad to be leaving Banff. It is in a stunning location, and it is a lovely town, however the tourism-inflated prices were debilitating - we had been paying $80 for a bed each in an eight bed dorm!
The trail quickly entered the wilderness. There were a few short, steep climbs that saw both of us off our bikes, pushing them uphill. The weather held off until afternoon as we were coming into the Spray Lakes West Campsite, when the rain began in earnest. We scrambled to erect our tent, managing to keep the inside of it mostly dry. We hunkered down, listening to the raindrops hammer off the fly, waiting for 5 o’clock - the time we had arbitrarily set as suitably late enough for dinner! During a pause in the downpour, we started making dinner, but ended up sheltering under the eaves of the toilet block - not the nicest of places to cook dinner! We also discovered that the rocky trail had wreaked havoc with our bear-proof food canister. Not so much the canister itself, but the contents within. A sachet of instant pasta sauce had burst open, and was mingling with the rest of the contents of the box, coating them in a fine power that quick turned to a sticky paste as it became wet. It was too much for us to handle at this time; in fact we didn’t end up cleaning it all until almost a week later.
In the middle of the night Gabi woke me up: “Jamie, I think it’s snowing! The rain sounds different!” In my infinite wisdom I said that couldn’t be so: “No, it couldn’t be, snow wouldn’t make a noise against the tent”. I was wrong, and we woke the next morning with a good sprinkling of snow over everything.
We cycled through beautiful mountain scenery that day, through a few small snow flurries, and arrived at Elk Wood campsite that night. No sooner had we set up the tent and eaten our dinner, than the few snowflakes gently floating down turned into a full-blown snow-storm. There was thunder and lightning as well, and three inches of snow fell in just half an hour. The campground host and his wife drove past in their pickup to check up on us and make sure we were ok. I asked them how long these storms normally last around there. They told me they had no idea, as they weren’t locals themselves - “This crazy weather is all new to us!”
The following morning we struggle with freezing fingers to pack up the tent. The campground host warned us that we would be pushing our bikes for the most part of the day - “They would have got at least a foot of snow up at Elk Pass where you’re headed!”. Luckily by the time we actually got there, the majority of the snow had melted, and we only had to cycle through a a few short stretches of shallow wet snow. I thought it was thrilling, and it started me off daydreaming about future fat biking adventures!
We made it over the pass and in to the Elk Valley. We surprised a pack of coyotes while we were flying down the slope at break neck speed; they dashed off into the woods. Lucky for them their reaction speed is significantly faster than mine - I probably wouldn’t have been able to stop for them anyway as my clumsy waterproof mittens makes it quite difficult to move my fingers to the brake lever quickly. Snow had turned to rain, and the track to mud by this stage, and our bodies and bikes were covered in a thick layer of logging road muck by the time we cycled in to the sleepy end-of-the-road town of Elkford. We availed ourselves of the hot showers in the lovely campground in town, and found ourselves lingering in the bathrooms - the floors were HEATED! It was the first time in days we could properly feel our toes.
Here we met Elissa, a young woman from Ontario, cycling the Great Divide to raise awareness of post-concussion syndrome. Having had a number of big spills mountain bike racing, Elissa is back in the game after a long recovery from this illness, which is sadly often misdiagnosed, or goes completely unrecognised. She certainly seemed fighting fit to us, planning on riding to New Mexico by Halloween; she hadn’t even allocated herself any rest days! When Elissa first saw Gabi wearing her helmet, she exclaimed “Have you been wearing that the whole trip?!” Indeed Gabi had - it is an old blue bucket helmet that doesn’t fit her very well, and often sits at a lopsided 45 degree angle on her head!
The mining town of Sparwood stood out mainly because they have a really really big truck outside their visitor centre. I mean it’s really really big.
From Sparwood, the Great Divide splits, with one option taking you the more direct route to the US border, through the resort town of Fernie, and the other taking you through bear-ridden wilderness, with some brutal hike-a-bike sections. Having had our share of inclement weather, we opted for the creature comforts of the former option. I certainly think we made the right choice, as the last fifteen kilometres in to Fernie was on delightful flowy singletrack - so newly made that they had only finished putting in the final bridges a few weeks earlier. What a blast. I was having so much fun that I even forgot to take photos of this section, other than of a very stinky, sulphurous, fluorescent green lake
I loved Fernie. Such a beautiful small town, with a wonderful community feeling. Surrounded by mountains, it has fantastic hiking and mountain biking in the summer. In the winter it is lucky enough to get an average of 9 metres of snow a year! What a paradise. I would love living somewhere like that. What’s more, the supermarket there has one of the best bulk foods sections we have come across! We love being able to stock up on just the right amount of quick oats, rice, pasta, chocolate and other snacks.
We stayed with Heather and Tim, our lovely warmshowers hosts, and their dog Marley. Heather took me out mountain biking on the local trails, where we saw plenty of bear poo around and made lots of noise to scare them off. We didn’t see any, thankfully, but Heather heard on the grapevine that the following day a grizzly and her cub had been seen on the trails and had even made some bluff charges at people. Scary! Because of this, Gabi and I decided to forgo the singletrack leaving Fernie the next day, and cycled along some dirt backroads instead. There would be less chance of us surprising a bear that way.
All of a sudden we found ourselves at the US border, saying goodbye to Canada and hello to Montana. The customs official was the first friendly one we have had: “You guys going all the the way to Antelope Wells? Cool, have fun!”. No further questions! We pedalled along good gravel roads through farmland, and into Eureka, Montana. The clouds were menacing, but we managed to make it to Jax Cafe just before the downpour started.
As I think we have mentioned a number of times already in this blog, we have been overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people we have met along the way. It’s almost as if each place we ride into is in competition with the others for the friendliest town! Well, Montana, you have certainly made an astonishingly good first impression. When we sat down in Jax Cafe, the lady at the table next to us said hello, asked us where we were from and where we were going. The conversation didn’t last long, as we were tired and hungry and had food on our minds. The woman had finished her meal and left soon anyway. After we finished our own burgers and fries (which were delicious), I went up to the bar to pay. “Oh no,” the waitress said, “The lady has paid for your meals already.” We couldn’t believe it! I thought that sort of generosity existed only in movies and books!
Good start, Montana, good start. Keep it up!