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Piecemeal Bikepacking with Tadhg

We were dropping Tania and Fiona off for a 4-day weekend in Radium and so the logical idea was to challenge ourselves with the Kootenay Gravel Grinder route. We were a week late for the race, and we’d be days off the pace, but it was in the right place, and from what I hear, a nice route.

The forecast 35ºC heat sounded a little discouraging.

Fortunately, the very rad Megan “Evil Moose” Dunn was putting on an overnight family bikepacking trip on behalf of bikepack.ca on our “home trail” the Elbow Loop. Though Tadhg was going to be the only teen on board, I didn’t want to miss a chance to meet other bikepacking families. I figured Tadhg’s babysitting experience would serve him well.

We decided to take the easy way in so that we could leave the car in a good position to follow Megan’s overnighter with another, longer ride.

We always think of the hike up to Elbow Lake as a bit of a slog, but as Tadhg grows, more of it becomes rideable for him. Our 7km ride in to Tombstone campground was done in just under half an hour, I felt like going for an out-and-back ride somewhere just to have been riding my bike for a bit of time.

[click pictures to embiggerate]

We set up our tent, and were just discussing moving it to a more open area to get out of the stench of horse droppings (the campground is used by equestrians, who apparently have no rules or desire to do any cleanup after their horses) when Megan and her gang arrived.

They had made it up the Little Elbow side of the trail in about 5 hours, which sounds slowish but is actually pretty good time for a family. When there are a 4 and 6 year old riding a tandem attachment and their own bike, the speeds drop pretty quickly.

Later in the afternoon another family arrived on foot with their 1-year-old baby in a backpack. This was definitely a hardcore group.

Once the tents were set up in a more open area of the campground, thoughts turned to food (and the kids started playing tag with each other). I had my new “recipe” rice:

  • 2 cups instant rice (with salt from rice instructions)
  • 1/2 cup roasted cashews
  • oil from rice instructions in separate container
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk powder
  • 1 tbs curry powder
  • Add water according to rice instructions and let sit for 5 minutes (10 minutes if above 1500m)

The coconut milk powder really boosts the calorie count and the cashews add some valuable protein to this tasty dish. I plan on adding dehydrated vegetables to future versions.

As we finished dinner, Jeremy and Chris arrived, Chris’s 8-year-old was under her own power on a 24″ wheel fatbike while Jeremy had his Surly Big Fat Dummy with his daughter as cargo (and pusher on steep hills). They had experienced some traffic and other delays, and had come up the much harder Big Elbow side. Their 5 hour time was a substantial accomplishment.

I struggle to find adequate words to describe how much I liked this group. I knew Megan was the real thing in a world of phonies. It turned out that her buddy Katrina is pretty much a force of nature. She and Mike’s son is the kind of kid I like to be around, energetic, patient, intelligent and fun-loving. Jeremy and Chris were justifiably proud of their daughters. It took a lot of effort for them to ride/push in the harder way. It really is easy for me to like bikepacking parents, I hope to do something with them again soon.

For our second day, Tadhg suggested that we do the 40km loop, and since he had bonded with the younger boys, we opted to escort them out and then giv’er back to the campsite for our second night.

 

From experience, I can say that the 5 hours it took us to get out to the trailhead was a very decent speed for a group that included a pregnant woman, a dad with trailer and panniers, a 4-year-old on tandem attachment and a 7-year-old. The level of whine was impressively low as well.

Our trip back up the other side with just the two of us (mostly unladen) was just under the 2.5 hour mark, including a stop for second lunch and investigation of the newly refurbished Romulus campground. This was always our favourite of the loop campgrounds, but the new version has a much improved hiker section, so that the equestrian and hiker sides aren’t the posh equestrian and the rustic hiker sections. I can’t wait for it to open.

Monday’s ride back to the car was uphill, so it was slower than the way in, the plan was to move the car to Sawmill, and then ride the High Rockies Trail to Goat Creek trail and then down to the backcountry campground near Banff town.

I had heard on Friday an interview with the designer of the High Rockies trail in which they discussed how beginner-friendly it was. There was also discussion of how much flow it had. There was even mention of bikepacking, though I was dubious. Previous sections I had ridden were fairly smooth, so I was a little surprised when it became clear how much climbing we were doing.

The reality is that the trail is designed to follow contours and drain well, so it isn’t quite as beginner as I was expecting. Tadhg has no pump track experience, so the constant dips sucked his speed away rather than giving him a chance to pump. The trail flow is also at faster speeds than he could manage with a loaded bike.

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Since we had the car option, I decided that we needn’t suffer quite so much and so we turned around after 45 minutes or so to return to the Sawmill Parking lot. Conveniently, we may have missed a bear closure on the trail just ahead of where we were. The more downhill ride back to the car was much easier than the ride out.

A look at the map and a car ride took us a bit further up the trail. Buller mountain seemed a reasonable place to start and be able to get into the campground by nightfall. The trail was still difficult, but Tadhg was getting the hang of the wavy trail and keeping some of his momentum. After nearly 18km, we came out to a spot near the road and had a good look up the valley. We saw virtually nothing. The smoke was getting quite thick and was obscuring our views of the mountains. We then made the decision to pull the plug on the adventure. Neither of us were in the mood to ride through a smoky mess with the accompanying dry throat and stinging eyes.

On the way back, we did shortcut a section of the trail by taking the road, but the dusty gravel held little appeal, and we were soon back on the trail. All total, we rode roughly 60km for the day which isn’t a bad number for the types of trails.

I do not want to seem like I’m disparaging the High Rockies Trail, it is extremely well-designed, especially given the difficult area it travels through. My main issue with the High Rockies Trail is its lack of campgrounds. There are essentially no campgrounds (a couple of car campgrounds at the south end) for the entire 80km of trail. Since few people (and no beginners) have it in them to ride 160km of the trail as an out-and-back trail in a single day, the lack of campgrounds is a significant oversight. If there were campgrounds at the North end and two other places along the trail, they would go a long way to making the trail bikepacking friendly. I’ve heard that I wouldn’t have this issue if I didn’t have my family to slow me down, but realistically my family don’t move much slower than the average adult, and approximately no hikers will go 80km between campsites.

As it sits, the High Rockies Trail is a great collection of day rides. I might one day ride it as a very long day, but as a hiking or bikepacking trail, it fails miserably until some campgrounds are built along its length. Perhaps making the Mt Rummel campground year-round would be a good start.

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Back to the Rockwall 2017: Revenge of the Porcupine

Last year’s hike to the Rockwall was spectacular, but trail conditions were a little questionable, and the weather ranged well into the adverse zone with snow, sleet, hail, wind, and rain. We thought we would have another go at it this year to see if we could top our previous experience.

There were many emails warning of bridges out and deadfall and avalanche debris on the trail. We weren’t overly concerned, since last year featured whole days of mostly climbing over deadfall, routefinding over large expanses of snow, avalanche debris, and the very same bridges missing.

We were very concerned about the possibility of smoke obscuring the views, but we saw pictures and heard reports that it was clear, so we went ahead with our trip in spite of some trepidation. It is way less fun to do a world-famous hike when you can’t see the world-famous mountains – we experienced that at Mt. Assiniboine and had no desire for a repeat.

We ended up having the luckiest hike in history. We lucked out on weather, though if we need to complain, a couple of days were too hot and sunny. We were also fortunate that the smoke was elsewhere, and the views were spectacular. The trail crew had been hard at work to clean the trail debris, the missing bridge was a trivial wade across the river, the sun had melted most of the snow, and there was less deadfall for the whole hike than we experienced some days of last year.

[click pictures to enlarge]

One of our ideas for going in later July was that the wildflowers would be in bloom, and we certainly were treated to some impressive displays.

 

On our third morning we were were alerted to the presence of a bear by some other campers. The bear had come between the two eating areas of the campground after circling the one where we weren’t. We made some substantial noise and the bear left. Our last 5 minutes of hiking were also enlivened with a bear sighting, this time an adult bear about 50m to the side of the trail. We again made some noise, this time with the safety latch of the bearspray off, and we made it to the car with the bear having been last seen heading slowly away from us.

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The bear, as seen from our breakfast table

There was the porcupine attack…

I awoke at 1:45 AM to a gnawing sound. I looked out the mosquito net to vaguely discern a shape that was possibly gnawing on Fiona’s flip flop. I bravely attempted to retrieve or bat the flipflop away from the (blurry) large-cat-sized rodent, possibly a large marmot? Fortune smiled upon me once again. The rodent was not a skunk. I am 100% certain of my mammal identification because my swipe at the sandal was interrupted by the pain of a couple of porcupine quills stabbing into the backs of my fingers.

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Once I had painfully removed the quills from my flesh, (the backs of fingers fortunately don’t have too deep of flesh before the quills hit bone) mopped up the blood, and calmed down a little, I wanted to go hunt down the porcupine to take a picture of it.  I am pretty certain that it was very cute, even though it did a number on the handle of Tania’s hiking pole handle (its actual chewing victim, not the flipflop). Fiona would have no part in the chase, “Dad, it isn’t cute, it’s a porcupine!” For his part, Tadhg was concerned about possible venom in the spines and asked “What if it comes back to eat us?”

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The porcupine wounds cleared up, and I hope I have learned an important lesson about finding the flashlight before lashing out at vague shapes in the night.

 

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Valhalla BC Provincial Park

Fiona got a chance to spend a few days with her cousin and Grandma, that meant that Tadhg and I were in the West Kootenays of BC for 5 days and wanted some adventure. Tadhg had a foot injury from helping me to re-roof our house, so he was favouring kayak as the mode for our adventure (my wrist and arm injuries didn’t rate).

Valhalla Provincial Park is about 20km of shoreline on Slocan Lake and was reasonably close for us to make it our destination.

Tadhg did all of the steering of the (rudder) kayak. He absolutely loved our days when we encountered strong winds and big waves, he said it was really fun, and type 1 fun, not our usual type 2 fun.

I’ll keep the text to a minimum, but my summary is very positive. Waterfalls, hiking trails, forest, First-Nations pictographs, fish, forest and much more await the visitor to this gorgeous park. The campgrounds are beautifully maintained. We will be back.