Of course I just put up a link to a podcast that mentioned me, which reminded me that I was the featured guest on the biketown podcast a few months ago. All their podcasts are worth listening to, they have talked to some brilliant people, I’m glad to have been a part of it.
This Podcast from bikepack.ca is well worth listening to if you are at all interested in winter cycling. It is both interesting and entertaining. They also spend several seconds talking about me, which made me very happy.
[This is the original writeup from our KVR trip in the summer of 2011, I have transposed it here to make it easier to access and to avoid accidentally seeming like I endorse Spot. In the years since this trip took place, I have lightened my setup substantially, but I would still consider the Cetma a viable option for a rail-trail tour like this]
We set out on July 30, 2011, our 17th wedding anniversary, from Midway BC, Mile 0 of the Kettle Valley Railroad (KVR) trail. My wife Tania and I had decided to bring our children on a bike tour of the KVR from Midway to Osoyoos, a 270km trip mostly on abandoned rail bed.
Our plan was to avoid most of the hottest parts of the day by starting our riding in the early morning. When we started from Midway, it was about 12C and so we started out in fleece jackets to keep us warm.
Our 7-year-old son Tadhg was riding his own bike, a 15 pound BMX race bike. In order to help him succeed, we had him carrying his water bottle and nothing else.
Tania was riding her own bike which I had fitted with 2.35 inch tires in anticipation of loose trail. She carried her own clothes and sleeping bag and her water bottle and things.
I was riding my CETMA cargo bike with our family food, tents, hammock, cooking equipment, fuel, 15 litres of water, sleeping pads, 3 sleeping bags and tools and repair equipment. In among our gear sat our 3.75 year old daughter Fiona (aka Finny).
I also had a Follow-Me Tandem attachment so that if Tadhg had trouble with the distances or the trail, I had the possibility of towing him on his bike.
The morning temperature in Midway was a pleasant 12C as we set out, making us glad to have brought some warm layers even though we were anticipating heat later in the day.
The trail doesn’t go far before detouring around a sawmill on a short singletrack trail. In spite of the lack of signage, we managed to keep on track easily enough. Early in the day we passed through a number of farm fields with gates and in one of them, a donkey and a horse befriended Tadhg. The donkey was particularly fond of Tadhg’s hydration pack and seemed to be trying to eat it, although it was probably just trying to extract salt from the fabric.
Much of the trail had very substantial weeds growing on it and at some points all that was visible of Tadhg was the top of his helmet moving through 4-foot-tall grass and weeds.
At one of the farms between Midway and Rock Creek, the farmer had plowed under the rail bed and there was a detour around the farm field. The detour consisted of soft soil and tall plants and an almost indiscernible trail through them. None of us were impressed with the rough ride.
Later in the morning, there were a few road detours (none of which were signed) and we passed by a large fairground style campground full of leather-clad bikers and their harleys. I had originally thought the Rock Creek campground might be a possible bail-out campsite if we were struggling on our first day. It made for a rather noisy road and we were glad to return to the trail a couple of kilometres later.
Conveniently for us, just as we pulled in to the Kettle River provincial park campground, we greeted the park ranger and he guided us to an available site. It was the last single site available and our other choices would have been half-double sites or continuing on and finding another alternative. Continuing would have been difficult since sore bums were starting to set in.
Fiona and Tadhg were thrilled to get to spend the afternoon swimming in the river. There was a fairly constant parade of people floating on inflatable stuff going by on the river and it seems to be the main pastime at this campground.
Tania was somewhat concerned that our first day had required substantial effort to reach only the 24km mark on the trail and it was definitely a substantial effort to ride the erratic trail surface.
For our second day we started out early with plans to stop for coffee and oatmeal sometime midmorning. Unfortunately, our breakfast break ended up being more than an hour long. We did get to eat some trailside raspberries and prepared some delicious coffee, but it wasted a great deal of precious cool morning air and by the time we reached Paul Lautard’s KVR cyclists’ rest stop, it was 11AM and we were into the heat of the day.
To compound the heat, the trail after the rest stop is loose, sandy and washboard from substantial quad use.
A family on motorcycles and quads passed us in this section. A shout of “get off the trail and out of my my way!” was what these folks though was a greeting as they blasted noisily past smelling of unburned gasoline, exhaust and raising a cloud of dust. The ATV association should find that family and thank them for setting their advocacy efforts back so effectively. We passed several gates clearly labelled “no motorized vehicles”, each of which had quad tracks circumventing it through the ditch. Many of these “no motorized vehicles” type signs throughout our trip had bullet holes decorating them.
As we passed over the Rhone canyon bridge, we started looking for the swimming hole which was listed in the guidebook as 300m after the bridge. A km or two passed and we ended up backtracking, convinced that we had missed the swimming hole. We were hot and cranky and we didn’t need to ride any extra distance.
Finally we gave up looking (after at least half an hour) and just continued down the trail. Several km later, an outhouse on the side of the trail marked the location of the swimming hole. The swimming hole was indeed a nice spot and Tania got all the way into the creek in spite of the cold water.
After a refreshing swim, we got back on the bikes and headed further up the trail before stopping at a flat spot where we stopped to camp for the night. The constant washboard, the riding in the heat and the long day on the trail had taken their toll and we all felt worn out. (and Tania felt like throwing up). We needed lots of food and a good night’s sleep.
We ate our supper and we were just getting ready for bed when Fiona announced that she had found a snake. I was very concerned that she was unwilling to back away from it until I could confirm that it was not a rattlesnake. I grabbed her and pulled her back until I could have a look and I confirmed that it was not a rattler, but Finny was very angry that I had grabbed her and I needed to have a long discussion with her about staying away from snakes.
As I was hanging our food bag to keep it away from squirrels and bears, the mosquitos came out. The quantity of mosquitos was astonishing, on par with northern BC and substantially worse than the Amazon. Of course the following day we found that our campsite was about 200m from a mosquito hatchery, a large swampy area ideally suited to mosquitos. Tania was feeling defeated after this long, hot, hard day with not a lot of mileage to show for it.
After the questionable trail on the second day, it was apparent to me that Tadhg was probably capable of riding the entire trail under his own power unless we had to deal with traffic or injury. We actively encouraged him to take pride in this ability, partially to avoid having to pull him but mostly to build up his sense of accomplishment.
In the morning, we deferred coffee again in order to make it to Beaverdell, our last food supply store before Penticton. We purchased the entire produce section from the Beaverdell store, consisting of 3 watermelon slices, 5 apples, 3 oranges and 2 pears. We had also hoped to find beer, but unfortunately the beer selection consisted of Canadian, Kokanee and a few other equally unpalatable choices. For either of us to carry it on a bike, beer needs to be high quality and flavourful – and not in heavy glass bottles.
After reading the chocolate milk chapter in “Mud, Sweat and Gears” by Joe Kurmaskie, we were eager to try out its magical energy-giving powers on Tadhg. Although we got him to drink some, it was definitely not something that he would ask for. It did give Tania and me a great energy boost. (Tania normally HATES chocolate milk but drank it to try out the magic – it was magical)
The trail out of Beaverdell is completely unlabelled and so it took a bit of asking for directions and some trial and error before we found the bypass around a small missing section of rail bed.
Once back on the trail, we made reasonable progress. The trail slowly climbed up a huge switchback and we travelled North, West and East at various times during the day. We witnessed the collection of stuffed bears attached to the shed and around the yard of the house where Carmi station once was.
Tania was feeling particularly good and so we stopped at Wilkinson Creek to fill our solar shower and she strapped it to her bike to warm up as we rode.
We decided to either camp at Arlington Lakes or to continue up the trail and random camp if we found it unsuitable.
The trail was climbing steadily and made a large switchback up the side of a mountain giving us great views of the valley below us whenever the forest opened up into meadows. We came across a huge field of daisies which stretched out in front of us like a beautiful carpet. The daisy field had a huge number of butterflies of several different types in it and I amused Fiona for a while by having her hold out her hand so that butterflies could land on it. Of course there were no butterfly landings, but there was one that touched her hand and that gave her a thrill.
Tadhg astutely observed that the air around us was hot, and when Tania asked how he knew, he said, “When I look across the field of daisies, I can see the air shaking.”
Our initial choice of spots at Arlington lake was nothing special but it was good enough for the night. Fortunately we asked Archie the ranger if there was a good place to access the lake for swimming and he pointed us to the walk-in sites on a peninsula in the lake. Once we moved, our campsite was secluded, quiet and surrounded by water. The lake was warm enough for me to get in for a swim and for a guy who needed a wetsuit in Hawaii, that says a lot.
Tania’s plan for showering worked admirably, the water was warm by the time she got off the bike in our campsite, and a bit of extra time in the sun topped it off enough to give her a truly hot shower.
Having made about 50km of progress in a single day, we were now ahead of schedule and we decided to sleep in and ride a mere 21km to McCulloch lake where we hoped to find as nice a campground. We weren’t sure if we could find many places to camp beyond McCulloch lake and before entering the provincial park at Myra canyon so it seemed the most sensible place to stop.
For a portion of the morning we had the privilege of riding through an area where the predominant ground cover was lupins. They were in full bloom and some of the sections were amazingly fragrant and smelled wonderful even from the seats of our bikes.
There were a couple of sections of the trail where quad barriers required me to unload my bike and portage it through, but it was a small price to pay for smooth, unchurned trail.
The main highlight of the day was finding a couple of patches of wild strawberries. Tadhg was absolutely thrilled and crawled along searching for more “jackpots” of berries. Few treats can compare to freshly picked wild strawberries.
Unfortunately, the campground at McCulloch lake was not as nice and could have used some tidying of cigarette butts. The lake itself was nice enough and we spent most of our time down there since there were far fewer mosquitos at the lake than at our campsite. The mosquitos at the campsite were serious enough for us to need our mosquito shirts to keep them off us. Of course, mosquito shirts are not so comfortable in the hot summer, so we traded millions of mosquitos for substantial heat.
When we first arrived at the campground we purchased some Gatorade from the campground attendant. I was thinking that it might be a great way to help keep Tadhg hydrated. Unfortunately, he liked it about not at all – oh well, good thing he likes water.
Back down at the lake, the kids decided it was time for some playground time. Since there was none, they did what kids do and built their own. A log that took both of them to lift and a rock that was on the beach made a fine teeter-totter and the kids were as happy as if the playground were made just for them.
The campground attendant very kindly provided us with some water (for free) from his personal supply. We were anticipating another night of wild camping and we thought it would be a good idea to have a full water supply as we made our way into the arid Okanagan valley. We were carrying a water filter, and by this time it had become apparent that we had enough fuel to allow us to boil our drinking water but it was a lot more convenient to just pour 10 L into our water storage bag.
We had planned the next day to take us through the Myra Canyon to a small backcountry camping spot just off the trail near the Bellevue trestle.
Morning at McCullogh lake was a little chilly and we started out around 7:30 with espresso in our bellies and fleece layers on our bodies. After an awful rough, rocky , sandy and loose first kilometre, the trail smoothed out and other than a few washed out sections and a 75metre long puddle, we made great progress.
Fiona was very much in the mood to take many breaks and so she asked to pee, poop or stop to eat every 30 seconds or so. Finally, I pointed out a sign (4 year olds conveniently can’t read) that said “no stopping”.
The Myra Canyon is frequently touted as the highlight of the trip and we were pretty excited when we came to a ridge that overlooked Kelowna and shortly thereafter the parking lot for the Myra Canyon. (Doug was pretty excited because in the Myra Canyon parking lot – the van that rented day trip bike rentals also sold chips – he bought a few bags of each flavour).
In order to keep the rail grade at 2.2%, the rails performed a series of contortions across trestles and through tunnels to get over and around the steep Myra Canyon and the creek below. Now a provincial park, the trestles are famous both for the trestles themselves and the views available from them.
Being a provincial park, it is actively patrolled and quads are kept off the trail. The trail surface is also regularly maintained. All of a sudden, our average speed doubled as we pedalled easily down smooth trails.
We were quite a contrast with most of the Myra Canyon riders. While we were carrying our camping equipment and food, most of the folks in the canyon were out for the day with a water bottle and lunch or even less. We could certainly see the appeal of the day trip as the scenery was breathtaking and the trestles impressive.
After the provincial park, the trail became shared with a logging road and there was occasional traffic but the trail conditions remained reasonable for riding. As we came to where we had intended to camp, we were feeling good enough that Chute Lake Lodge seemed attainable. We had heard from several trail users that beyond the Bellevue trestle, the trail deteriorated badly, but the promise of a lake and a campground with toilets and showers sounded like a good enough incentive.
As we rode the next section, the trail/road did in fact deteriorate into wheel sucking coarse sand, Tania discovered why I had insisted on replacing her perfectly good tires with ridiculously wide ones. Tadhg, unfortunately, had no such option and I was seriously considering hooking him up to my bike and towing him. Tadhg was really having to pedal hard even to make slow progress and he even had to dismount and push for 100m a couple of times.
In spite of Tadhg’s troubles, we were keeping up with some folks who were out for a day trip on their unladen bikes. They later admitted that they were pushing themselves to avoid being slower than a 7 year old and us with our fully loaded bikes. Little did they know that I could probably have doubled my speed and Tania could have tripled hers.
If we hadn’t been warned, we would have had a hard time coping with this section of trail. As it was, the bleak post forest-fire scenery and the evil trail surface were demoralizing and energy-sucking.
After a couple of hours of riding the road through hell, we came to the oasis. Chute lake is a small lake on the edge of the trail and beside it is Chute Lake Lodge. Although it has seen better days, the Lodge has a small restaurant which makes delicious pies and excellent fries. After a tasty meal of french fries, pie and beer, we set up our tent in the (expensive) campground. Tadhg made friends with a girl his age who was on a road trip with her family. We had encountered them on the trail earlier in the day. The girl had crashed her bike a little after we had met them and scraped her leg pretty substantially.
Tadhg’s friend and her family invited us to have marshmallows with them by the campfire. After supper we went up and met with them. Tadhg was pretty happy about the marshmallows until he tasted one. He said, “I like cooking them, but I really don’t like the taste.” Yet another junk food that he doesn’t like.
Beyond Chute Lake, we were expecting more rough trail. We heard from some people that there was a lot of walking for them going uphill. I dropped the pressure in everyone’s tires to see if we could gain a little more flotation in the sand. As soon as we left, we realized that we were not in for the same kind of trouble as the previous day. Although the trail was intermittently sandy, there was a noticeable downhill grade that had been missing the day before. Also, the landscape changed from skeletal burnt forest to actual forest.
Now that we were in the Okanagan valley, the weather warmed up quickly and it was approaching 30 C by 9 AM. Nonetheless, we enjoyed ourself immensely as we quickly rolled down through the forest in Rock Ovens Municipal park. The rock ovens were built for the railway construction crews by the same Italian masons that built the dry-stacked retaining walls and approaches to the trestles. The rock ovens allowed the camp cooks to prepare fresh bread for the railway construction crews. The ovens themselves were igloo shaped dry-stacked (no mortar) rock ovens similar to the type seen in pizza restaurants.
We rode through the small Adra tunnel but the large Adra tunnel (which makes a U turn through a mountain) is bypassed due to an unstable roof and water accumulation in the lower end. A project is underway to restore the large tunnel and they have opened the first 100m to the public. The approach to the tunnel is an impressive rock cut surrounded by forest, making it feel like approaching a cave through a canyon.
We were all feeling great as we rolled out of the forest into more arid scenery punctuated by vineyards and orchards. We had a great view of the Okanagan valley below us and the riding was easy enough that we kept relatively cool in the heat.
The last section into Penticton rolled through the middle of orchards and vineyards. Since the original rail bed had mostly been reclaimed by the farmers of the area, there were more hills and valleys than the usual rail trail. Still, the predominant direction was downhill and the riding was nice.
Once in Penticton proper, the trail transforms into a municipal multi-use trail. After wandering through the city for a few kilometres, the trail suddenly ends at a shopping centre parking lot. Suddenly we were left with major roads to navigate and traffic to contend with.
We hooked Tadhg’s bike to mine for the first time in the trip, not because he lacked strength or stamina, but because we needed to navigate significant urban roadways with abundant traffic. Fortunately, it was not for long and we soon found ourself on the canal pathway to make our way toward hotels where we hoped to find accommodation.
We arrived at the Ramada, which featured a pub with KVR memorabilia and so we checked in to a room.
Unfortunately, the pub was not opened to minors (even though it was calm, friendly and served food) and so we were directed to the poolside restaurant. We could not see any good reason for this since the poolside restaurant had a much bigger bar than the pub. Unbeknownst to us, we had arrived during Peachfest, when the town of Penticton is remade into a version of the movie “Animal House”. Several large, intoxicated, 19 to 25 year old men arrived at the bar just as we had ordered and proceeded to get loudly more drunk. We ate and went back to our room.
The kids immediately changed into their swimming gear and asked to head down to the pool. Although I was somewhat concerned about the drunks, I thought that the hotel would provide a safe enough environment for us to enjoy a bit of pool time.
The kids did indeed enjoy the pool, although I was chastised by one of the other patrons for protecting my children from the sun (they wear long-sleeve sunwear and hats). I however was somewhat traumatized when one of the drunks came up to the pool next to us and dove in to knee-deep water. Fortunately for him, the heavy steroid use protected his neck from breaking and he only bashed his head on the bottom of the pool. After getting him out of the pool and getting a towel to apply pressure to the bleeding, I asked the bartender to call an ambulance. The drunken friends talked the bartender out of the ambulance and one of them volunteered to drive the injured one to the hospital.
They were back in 15 minutes since there had been a long wait at the hospital and it would have interfered with their drinking time. They were very upset to hear that they had been cut off at the bar and they started to threaten the bartender loudly. They alternated between threats of lawsuits and violence until the police arrived to escort them from the hotel.
We were anxious to get away from Penticton the next morning. We started with a trip to Starbucks and a return trip to the hotel to retrieve forgotten items. At Starbucks we encountered a man who had cycled extensively in the area and who confirmed what the guidebook told us, that the trail out of Penticton was missing and that we needed to travel the highway until past Okanagan Falls. We took the municipal path South to the intersection with the highway and pulled out on to the highway. It was 8:30 in the morning and it was already over 30 C, so much for our cool morning riding.
As we pulled on to the highway shoulder, Tania got a look at the hill that we were facing. There were several km of 6-7% climbing ahead of us and Tania did not like it. We stopped for a while to discuss the alternatives, but it was obvious that what we needed to do was climb the hill. I hooked up Tadhg behind me so that he wouldn’t wander into the traffic lane and we set off. Tania quickly left us in the dust as she channelled her displeasure into climbing energy. We plodded along behind, the loaded cargo bike feeling like a bit of a whale on the steep hill.
As we reached the first crest, it became apparent that Tania was going to not only make it to the top of the hill, but that she was going to make great time. Many other cyclists were passing us on the road, but none of them was carrying more than 2 water bottles of weight on their sub-20 pound triathlon bikes.
We stopped at a roadside fruit stand for some peaches, apricots and cherries. We still had a long climb ahead of us, but it seemed less like certain doom and more like a challenge.
In order to make me feel better about myself, the BC provincial government placed a weigh scale at the top of the hill to measure just how much I had just lugged up. It turned out that my rig weighed 200kg (440 lbs) with our gear, food, (less 7 days that we had eaten) water, Finny and me. Tadhg and his bike were another 30kg (66 lbs). That meant that we were carrying over 150 lbs of gear and food.
After the weigh scale, we had a stretch of rolling hills, followed by a steep descent into Okanagan Falls. We stopped for snacks and to browse a shop. We moved on and rolled along the now much flatter highway toward the next section of trail which would take us through Oliver. We got held up by road construction part of the way there, and the heat was oppressive, but we made reasonable time. In a quirk of BC highway construction, (the other is misleading signage) the highway narrowed for every sharp curve, so that whenever there was a blind corner, there would be no shoulder and we would be forced dangerously close to speeding traffic who couldn’t see us.
We stopped at a gas station just before the trail to pick up some chocolate milk and Gatorade. We discovered that Tadhg liked lemon flavour Gatorade almost as much as he disliked orange flavour. From there on, he pointed out the Gatorade logo whenever he saw it. It’s probably a good thing for him to have at least one junk food that he likes.
Passing through the Oliver area from about half way between Okanagan Falls and Oliver to Halfway between Oliver and Osoyoos is a bike path that uses partly the KVR bed and partly alternate routes. The important part is that it is shady and flat and after the highway climb and descent, it was really nice to ride on dedicated cycling facility. We made great time to Oliver where we stopped at the former train station which has been converted to a tourist information office.
The super helpful folks at the tourist information office went out of their way to help us to find suitable accommodations for two nights in Oliver.
Somehow, in a stroke of incredible good fortune, we lucked into the Retreat By the Lake B&B near lake Tuc-el-Nuit. The room was huge and tasteful and for a modest price, a second room was available for the kids. Included in the room was wine, fruit and the use of the fabulous outdoor pool. The real gem though, was the couple who owned and operated the B&B. Patricia and Bob went out of their way to help us and make us comfortable. From driving us to get takeout from the local indian restaurant to inviting us to a barbecue with their friends and family, their hospitality was as good as it gets.
After a hearty breakfast, we set out on our last day of riding with mixed feelings about leaving, but with the confidence that we could make the 30 km remaining without too much trouble.
The ride through desert valley with vineyards surrounding us, was beautiful and fairly quick for the all-too-short rest of the bike path. There is more bike path under construction after the end of the existing bike path, but we were not at all sure if it would end in the middle of somewhere and it was not yet signed, so we did not take it.
The last 15 or so km to Haynes Point (campground in the town of Osoyoos) was on the highway again, and the ride was less enjoyable than path, but we managed the last few hills in reasonable comfort in spite of the heat. We unhooked Tadhg once we were off the highway so that he could finish his ride under his own power.
My parents had kindly offered to shuttle our car from Midway, so they arrived in the early afternoon for a swim and to visit.
The busy campground at Haynes Point, with its blaring televisions and generators was a big change from the peaceful quiet of the more remote campgrounds.
THINGS WE WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME:
It was dumb of me not to pack a bunch of toys for Fiona to play with in the bin of the cargo bike. For the next trip that we take, she will be big enough that we can put her on a tag-along type of bike so that she can feel like she is riding herself. We will also bring some toys along.
Sandy sections of the trail were difficult to navigate with Tadhg’s skinny-tire bike and he might be better off with wider tires, especially as he grows heavier. There is a lot to be said for his bike being under 20 pounds though.
The two man tent, three man tent and the hammock added up to a substantial weight, although this was not a huge problem on the shallow-grade rail bed.
Tadhg did not like the parts where we stopped to read the guidebook or the map, perhaps we will involve him more with the navigation process on future trips.
Ideally, we would avoid stopping in bigger towns during party seasons. Unfortunately, a bike tour such as this cannot be rigidly scheduled as it is difficult to adhere to distance and time schedules with children involved. The weather for our trip was ideal, but there was every possibility of extreme weather delaying us by a day or more.
Further research into the details of supposedly missing trail sections would be beneficial. Knowing that there was a trail along the shore of Skaha lake to OK Falls would have substantially changed our experience.
For various reasons, we decided at the last minute to take a holiday at the end of August. There are, of course, limits to what can be planned at the last minute, and so we decided to go bikepacking on another section of the KVR trail. I packed the food and we each packed our bike bags. We lined up possible itineraries with likely camping spots for the night. I built some wheels for Fiona’s bike (in the living room, much to Tania’s chagrin). I lined up everything so it was ready to go.
Tania went with Tadhg to Radium with her parents, I went bikepacking (can’t have too much bikepacking in your life) with Fiona and the Roberts family for Saturday night. When we got back on Sunday, I repacked and on Monday morning we were off to Radium. Until the pass coming down into Radium, everything was going more or less according to plan. Then my brakes started making a nasty grinding noise.
Fast forward to Wednesday morning, we were driving out to the Kananaskis in a borrowed truck with our bikes on the back and our bags in the luggage space. The kids and I have used the Elbow Loop as our stand-by route for a number of years. Tania had done the lower segments, but had not yet experienced the entirety of the loop. With our time now limited to three days and with the unknown of bikepacking with kids on a non-rail trail, we decided that it would be a good fit. Our “emergency vacation” was on!
The first day was a known quantity, 7km of easily rideable gravel. All of the 2013 flood damage on this part of the trail is repaired or re-routed. The campground is serviced by an ordinary pickup truck. As such, the campground had an ample supply of firewood and was cleaner than it had been last year.
Around 5AM, the wind suddenly picked up quite a bit and became gusty. This did not bode well for the following day as it was coming directly from the direction we were going to. I was hoping for the wind to die down a little while I served Tania her backcountry cappuccinos and we all ate breakfast.
The first few km were not too bad, fierce headwinds, but rideable terrain. Until we reached the first missing bridge, the trail was even fully repaired. I had worn my sandals with the intent of ferrying the bikes and people across the river so that no one else would have to suffer cold, wet feet.
Once across the river, we were fully exposed to the wind. I should explain, that Tania is not usually a mountain biker, this trail fell into the barely rideable category for her without the wind. When the wind started knocking her from her bike, she was not amused. I felt bad, I hadn’t predicted the wind would make things so much more difficult. Much worse, I was enjoying the extra challenge.
After the second river crossing, there were a few washed out sections of trail that required some hike-a-bike and even a bit of bushwhacking. Tadhg and I had been through here last year, so it wasn’t that new to us, though we usually did this section as a technical downhill in the opposite direction. I did a bit of ferry-pushing where I would walk back down steeper sections to retrieve Tania and Fiona’s bikes.
We took about 5 hours to cover the 14 km or so to the campsite at Tombstone, but we did make it. I like to think that Tania will forgive me one day. I did carry the beer and the tasty dinner to recharge after a long day.
Our last day was back in the comfort zone. We had a couple of km of pushing followed by 15km or so of mostly downhill. Fiona rode 90% of the pushing section, I alternated between riding and pushing, and we made it to the top soon enough.
Though it was threatening to rain, it was warm enough that we didn’t need to bundle up for the downhill. Tadhg and I made a game of doing jumps off the water bars. We paused frequently to allow Fiona with her smaller wheels to keep up with us, but we still had some easy riding.
Fiona did yell at me whenever we came to an uphill (all very small) since I promised that the day would be almost all downhill.
We (well, mostly me) were absolutely delighted to come down the steep embankment to the river to find that a temporary bridge was in place until the permanent one gets installed. I left my sandals right where they were and we all crossed the river with dry, warm feet.
A short couple of km and we were back at the car. Another family bikepack, more or less successful.
My buddy Scott at Porcelain Rocket has been several times to Fish Lakes, up the Mosquito Creek trail on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National park. He has consistently talked about it being one of the best hikes he has been on. We have been watching for vacancies in the campground that lined up with potential vacation days for a couple of years now, and this year we had the opportunity to try it.
Our first day was a bit of a warm-up with a short 5km hike to the Mosquito Creek backcountry campsite. It was pleasantly tucked into the woods near the creek, and the hike was easy, if a little muddy from all the rain we have had this summer. There are occasionally horses on the trail, so the trail does have numerous potholes that drain poorly.
The Perseid meteor shower was due to peak on our first night out, but there were some fairly persistent clouds that prevented us from getting much of a view of them. Fiona worked herself up over them enough that she woke up a couple of times in the night to ask me to check for “rocks falling in the sky”. Though we were under the tarp as usual, we had the bug net deployed, so I needed to move quite a bit further than usual to see the sky.
Our second day was much more ambitious, 13km over North Molar Pass. The kids have learned to be leery of the word “pass” since it sometimes means really steep climbing and equally steep descending on the far side.
After the first couple of kilometres of hiking, we emerged into a gorgeous alpine meadow with views of mountains all around. The meadow itself would have been enough to make most hikes worthwhile, but it turned out that this was only the opening act of a very impressive show.
The meadow went on for a couple of kilometres, and then gave way to the climb of the pass itself. The hike wasn’t easy, but at the same time it was not as arduous as many of the passes we have hiked this summer.
But what a view! It was spectacular on the way up, even better at the summit, and continued to amaze on the way down. I know why people come here.
It was only a few downhill kilometres to the Fish Lakes campground on the shore of upper Fish Lake. We got a laugh when we spotted the “no fishing” signs. The kids really enjoyed the irony. We set up our mid and our tarp in a couple of the cleared spots in the trees and started on making dinner.
As per usual, we met a few friendly and interesting campers. I increasingly believe the idea that time spent in the backcountry improves your sanity. It seems that the people who spend the most time in the backcountry are the easiest to get along with.
Fish Lakes has a number of options for dayhikes from the campground. Armed with a vague description and no map, we decided to try Pipestone Pass, with the idea that we would turn back if it turned out to be too far (I have a pretty good map collection, but not this one).
After passing the rangers’ cabin a kilometre or so down the trail from the campground, we followed the sign to Pipestone Pass. After a series of switchbacks through forest, we were ejected into a series of alpine meadows with lakes and mountains and glaciers to look at. We hiked on through the day in a wonderland of flowers and lakes that were breathtaking. The recent rains meant that the trail was quite wet and there were a couple of creek and bog crossings where we took off our shoes to cross. Neither this, nor the “horsed ” trail could dampen our enthusiasm for the surrounding scenes.
I did have to break out some stories on the trail to distract Fiona from working up to a trail conniption. I usually tell lesser known sequels to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. This time, it was one about the boy joining a civil service construction union. It took 4 guys, seven weeks to change a lightbulb – only a slight exaggeration. The stories are based around being long, literary merit is not given the least consideration.
As we came to the summit of the pass, we were a little disappointed when the trail died out suddenly. Only later, when we had read some trail descriptions. did we realize that this is how the trail goes. A bit of bushwhacking (rockwhacking?) would have gotten us through the pass to see the far side unimpeded. As it was, we had spent more time and gone further than we had intended. Our one-way distance was around 11.5 km and we still had the return journey to make.
Fiona was near the limit to her hiking, but as soon as we turned around, she perked up. (after we explained to her that she could still swim when we returned)
The time flew on our way back and soon we were back at the campsite to spend another night. The 8-year-old and the 48-year-old were pretty tired, but the hike was well worth it.
It was also our fancy dinner night and we had coconut couscous lentil stew, it was delicious, even though I added a little too much water to the lentil part of it. We cook up the lentil and spice part ahead of the trip and then dehydrate it since lentils cook very slowly at high altitude.
Of course when I woke up at 6 on Sunday morning, it was starting to rain. A thorough look at the sky showed me cloud from horizon to horizon, with a thunderstorm passing just the other side of the lake. It was clear to me that we were going to be packing up and hiking out in pouring rain again.
Just after our first coffee, I was proven wrong when the clouds moved off leaving a sunny sky in their wake. The hike out was actually very pleasant, other than the trail being somewhat wetter than when we hiked in. We did the entire 18km out in one day, with a couple of lunch and snack breaks.
One of the classic Canadian Rockies hikes, the Rockwall in Kootenay National Park has been in our sights for a while. Last week/end, we finally got around to this 55km gem.
Since the hike starts and ends at two different spots, I brought the car down to our end point at Floe Lake trailhead with the intent of hitching a ride back. The Floe Lake parking lot is a bit deserted, so the hitching was a little more difficult than some. Fortunately, as I was planning on doing a 12km run back to the trailhead to start our hike, it started to rain – always a boon to hitching, and I got a ride right away.
Of course, this meant that we started hiking in the rain, but we came equipped, and we seldom back out for weather disturbances.
With kids in tow, we try to keep the mileage lower than we might if we were just hiking on our own, so we had just under 7km to the Helmet-Ochre junction campground. It made for a great start to our hike, and though the campground scenery was less spectacular, it was pleasantly surrounded by creeks and lush forest.
There are plenty of bears in Kootenay Park, and we had no desire to contribute to their delinquency, so we made plenty of noise on the trail. Shouting, “Hey bear!” is frankly boring, so we usually sing or tell loud stories on the trail.
The kids are prone to loud singing at home, but if you get them on the trail, it seems to shut them down completely. We introduced Fiona to the “marching song”, and made up our own lines. She was at first reluctant, but then became the “marching song monster” so that we spent over an hour singing it on our second day.
The second day was the day of our major obstacle for the trip. A missing bridge at the 12km point of the trail required either a ford, or crossing a log that spanned Helmet Creek. The creek had clearly eroded the bank around our end of the log, so that it now was floating in the creek behind a tree and was partially submerged. The water was quite turbid, so a place to ford the river was quite elusive as well. We opted for the log, with me making a second trip to carry the rest of the family’s packs across. It was more than a little nerve-wracking, but we managed it, and were relieved to be past.
For the last couple of km into Helmet Falls campground, I sang most of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album so that I wouldn’t have to sing any more of the marching song.
This section of trail generally seemed to lack maintenance. There were many fallen logs across the trail and some were challenging to climb, especially for the four-foot-tall girl.
Helmet Falls is an impressive falls, and the eating area for the campground conveniently has a great view of the falls proper. Though it rained through our meal, we were still treated to a great view, and the kids used the space under the bear bins as a rain shelter for eating their dinner. Of course they were singing loudly during dinner.
We are always a little apprehensive, when we need to cross a pass, sometimes what they really mean is, “climb a cliff.”, but our first day of pass crossing was strenuous but reasonable with mind-blowing views at the top.
“I am sick of marching sooong! It’s gone on for far to looong!” In my efforts to tame the “marching song monster”, I introduced the Arrogant Worms’ “Last Saskatchewan Pirate” to the mix. It was a move I would later question as I sang the song 6-12 times per day for the remainder of our hike. There is no question that the kids were happy to be shouting at the top of their lungs for the chorus and I’m certain the bears were well alerted to our presence.
Tumbling Creek was another large campground with the eating area conveniently in the open so we could look at the Rockwall and Tumbling Glacier while we ate.
As happens so frequently, we ran into a guy from the neighbourhood. We had a nice chance to eat and converse with Michael and his daughters who were on a 3 day hike through Floe Lake and Tumbling Creek. The teenage girls would be the only young people we saw on the hike and they were both good company without any of the disagreeable nature that people associate with teens.
The following day was another pass, this time Tumbling Pass to Numa Creek. The views were once again phenomenal. The descent to Numa Creek was a little overgrown, but easy enough to find. We made good time to the nearly deserted campground. In spite of the 18 bear bins, there were only ourselves and one other couple in the campground. Our six days on the trail was the exception more than the rule, and most people tried to do it as a 3 or 4 day hike. This meant that the Helmet-Ochre junction and the Numa Creek campgrounds were skipped by many people (though we heard later that there were a few people who stayed an extra night and hiked out from Tumbling Creek when they didn’t think they could manage a 2 pass day).
Numa pass was the most climbing of the 3 passes along the Rockwall, but it felt no worse than the others except that it had the most downed trees across the trail of any section we had done. We counted 50 tree trunks across the trail which made for substantial obstacles for Fiona.
On our way up the pass, it began to hail. We made an attempt at waiting out the worst of the storm with a 9 minute pause before we broke the treeline and that worked out really well since the snow and hail didn’t start back up in earnest until we were over the first saddle of the pass. As we pushed through the pass, we were a little disappointed that we were missing the views afforded by our high position, but we pressed on.
Fiona asked me why I was laughing, and I tried to explain how there was nothing else to do since we were on top of a mountain pass, walking in mud, being snowed and hailed on in a wind in July. I don’t know if she understood my gallows humour, or if she just accepted that maybe dad had cracked, but she stopped asking.
Fortunately for us, just before we dropped off the ridge with the best panoramic view, the clouds dissipated enough for us to get a great view of Floe lake and its backing rock faces and the surrounding valley. There was still mist lingering at the tops of the cliffs, but it was nonetheless beautiful.
When we reached the campground, we set up and had a rest as the rain had started up again and we didn’t feel like standing around in the downpour if we didn’t have to. Fiona even had a nap. We had a quick break in the weather that got us halfway through dinner, and after finishing eating in the slushy rain, we went back to shelter. The heavy slush was pushing in on the tarp by quite a bit, so I re-set the cords to improve things and keep us dry.
Coming in to the campground in the midst of this was Greg, perhaps the happiest guy in the world. He came in during the worst of the downpour, smiling and cheerfully commenting that he didn’t see too many others camping under a tarp. He had one of the lightest backpacking setups I have seen, and I was very impressed with his back country skills as well as with his very positive outlook.
Fiona and I got up to get some pointers on tarp camping from Greg, as well as some general conversation. I felt enriched by his great outlook and by the level of enthusiasm he had for being outdoors. I hope to encounter him again some day.
Our last day dawned overcast and rainy, but we still enjoyed our coffee and breakfast before heading back down the trail back to the car. The trail down was overgrown, and though it made for some beautiful flower displays, we grew weary of pushing foliage out of the way.
With a little help from the pirate song, we made our way back to the car, loaded up, and were on our way. The first thing the kids wanted when we got home was the pirate song on the stereo.
[Click images to enlarge them]
Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park is one of the few trails close to us that allows bikes and is long enough for a reasonable bikepacking weekend. As such, we tend to go there a lot. Sometimes I get the feeling that it is a compromise to go there since it is so familiar. This weekend, we met a few people who adjusted my perspective and rejuvenated my attitude toward this ride.
For all the times I have taken the kids to Lake Minnewanka, Tania had never come with us. When the weather forecast looked good, I booked us in at the LM11 campground since it is our favourite.
By mountain standards, the day was ridiculously hot, 25ºC and hardly a cloud in the sky. Our car ride out suffered from the greenhouse effect – that is, our car is a greenhouse. Fiona was on the sunny side of the car, and we heard a lot about how put out she was to be in such oppressive heat.
I hurried my way through the assembly of bikes at the trailhead so that we could get on the trail. Since our ’93 Previa only holds 3 bikes and their wheels need to be removed and I remove the bags of the bike on the roof, it isn’t trivial to get ready for the trail. Tadhg is starting to be a bigger help, and he can get some of the bags installed on bikes.
The crankiness started soon after the trailhead, with someone complaining about how it was too hot, and she was too tired after the hot car ride to ride a bike. Tania and Tadhg cleverly rode ahead to get out of earshot of any further whining. After an hour or so of deliberately slow pushing and complaining about the heat, Fiona decided I had been punished enough and got herself in the mood to ride
We made reasonable time with Fiona riding, and we were only 50 minutes behind Tania and Tadhg when we got to the campground. This included fixing a flat on Fiona’s bike.
Since the sun is up late this time of year, we took advantage of it and had dinner before setting up the tent. The campground was nearly full, which is apparently a trend as more people discover how great backcountry camping is. This year, we have had some struggles as backcountry campgrounds that were previously available a single day in advance are now booked months in advance.
The wonderful thing about the backcountry campgrounds is that they usually attract a clientele of diverse nature lovers. This one was no exception, and we were happy to meet Jesse, who was there for a weekend on his own in the woods. Erin was a dedicated cyclist (though she was hiking this trip) from Wisconsin who was visiting Banff for the first time who Fiona took to right away. It was their perspective on the lake that reminded me of how special a place it really is.
After dinner (burritos grilled over the campfire, yum!) Tadhg and I set up the tent while Fiona used the free art supplies on the beach to build things with.
We all got a great sleep, and we didn’t stir until 9:00, and after a leisurely breakfast, Tania and Fiona were wanting to lay low to avoid overheating in the 27ºC heat. They stayed back and had a beach day of playing in the water and building rock structures.
My restless nature needed some expenditure of energy, so I drafted Tadhg into coming on a bike ride with me. We had a great time in spite of the heat, and we rode down to the campground at LM20 and back. We were both feeling great and would have gone further except we had told Tania we would be back and I didn’t want to extend our fun at the expense of her worrying.
Tadhg was thrilled with the way his new bike handled, and had no trouble keeping a fast pace for our entire ride. At the ranger cabin at km 15, we saw some deer browsing on the rich grass that grows around the cabin.
After dinner, Tania took the kids for a walk with Erin, and Tadhg actually got in the water for an in-and-out swim. For Tadhg to get more than toe deep in glacial water it needs to be a very hot day.
Sunday was our day to leave, and so after breakfast, we packed our bikes and hit the trail. This time, Fiona’s mood was good, and her riding reflected it. We put her in front to set our pace and were making great time.
As I was enjoying the rhythm of rolling along, I had to make a sudden stop as I was powering up a steep bit and my chain snapped. I opted to try to take out a link since I didn’t have another single speed quicklink with me. It was tight and involved pressing the wheel all the way forward in the dropouts and removing my wheel tensioners, but it just barely made it with only a tiny bit of bearing notchiness. Back on the trail, Tadhg and I quickly caught up to Tania and Fiona.
It turned out that Fiona had had her own mechanical issue when she was alone with Tania. She had crashed and knocked her chain off. She then told Tania, “I can just fix it!” and did so in seconds.
With the family together again, we rode along, and were joined by a woman on her first ride after knee surgery. She was clearly thrilled to be on her bike, but sensible enough to hold back from re-injuring herself. Fiona immediately adopted her as a buddy, as she is prone to doing. When we stopped for a snack at the base of a steep hill, Tania pressed ahead of us pushing. I helped Fiona push the steepest parts and when I returned to get my own bike, Fiona and her buddy were riding off. It is so nice to have people on the trail help my kids and encourage their riding progression. I took advantage of the freedom to ride a little quicker on the fun parts of the trail.
As I hopped a tree root, I heard a crashing sound and suddenly remembered that I hadn’t closed my camera sleeve as my camera cartwheeled down and off the rocky trail. Surprisingly, it was in a mere two pieces and though it no longer has a rear LCD, it still functions. I also had to repair the lens as it had torn from the mounting plate. I do not recommend abuse of camera equipment, but the Fuji XT-1 gets a ringing endorsement from me.
While I was dropping my expensive belongings and then finding them in the trail-side bushes, Fiona was busy tearing up the last bits of trail. She loves to impress people, and she takes pride in her abilities and her drive.
Camera notwithstanding, it was a very successful weekend.