The teen years mean father and son trips are a lot lamer than they were when my son was young. Not that I’m slower, or less adventurous, but I’m just not as cool as his friends are.
[as usual, click photos to enlarge.]
The solution to this, is of course, to bring friends.
Adam had been on a spring fatbikepacking trip with us, and he is good company and competent outdoors. He has many skills, and can keep both Tadhg and I interested with his memory of interesting facts. He also has his own fatbike.
This trip ended up being a bit more challenging than I originally anticipated, but with the challenge came adventure. We had some of nearly every type of snow, lots of pushing, a river to ford, and nearly a full day of blizzard conditions. And yes, we did eat a bag of chips and hummus for breakfast.
Adam may have to sleep for a week after riding, pushing, and carrying his bike on over 80km of winter trails, but I hope he’ll have memories for a lifetime. This was full-on adventure riding, and when things got tough, the kids were up to the challenge.
This is where I spotted the new bridge over the river we just forded.
My friend Guy is a super positive influence to take on bikepacking trips. He always has a new piece of home-made gear to show off, or a new idea to solve a common problem. He never whines, which is good, because…
The Sensible Part
Our first night out was led by our mutual friend Steve O’Shaughnessy, the host of the Bikepack Canada Podcast. Since Steve had to get home to his kids early, he wanted to show off his favourite camp spot within an hour of his home. Steve is very fortunate (and grateful) for the beautiful Lake Enid that sits an easy ride from his home.
In what I think of as the middle of the night, Steve was up and away at 4AM (sorry Steve, we did not get up to see you off). That left us with my speculative plan of reaching a camp spot near Dave White Cabin, about 1000m higher in the mountains. There was ice on the water in the morning where we were.
We Find Winter
Around 30km into our ride, things started to get really scenic, and also somewhat covered in snow. Just a few km later, and a couple hundred metres higher, the somewhat covered became completely covered, and the snow started getting deeper. We hadn’t brought fatbikes, who does for unknown conditions high in the mountains in late fall?
We got to some steep, rocky, snow-covered trail, we pushed the bikes onward. Guy didn’t whine, in fact, he seemed happy, just like I was. We didn’t make it to the cabin, we did make it to some nice larches showing their beautiful golden fall colour. The mountains were stunning. Don’t go, you’ll hate it. We set up camp early enough to eat in the last of our natural light.
We had first tracks except for this guy.
We Sleep Through a Cold Night
The cold warning went off on my InReach at some point in the night. That usually means -18ºC, though the temperature on my thermometer was -14 when I got up after sunrise. I am very glad that both of us were prepared, because that is definitely into the realm of cold temperatures. I usually use my jacket in its bag as a pillow and I was within a couple of degrees of swapping it into a jacket and using my clothing bag as backup pillow instead. With my -10ºC quilt, and my hacked Costco blanket, I was theoretically good to about -17ºC plus a wool sweater.
Coffee, breakfast, a ride back to Invermere filled out the rest of our winter mountain adventure.
I’m told this area is popular with snowmobilers in winter. I think we may need to go back and try our luck after a few snowmobiles have packed a trail for us. Worst case, we have fun again.
Thanks to Guy Stuart for the pictures of me and the better scenic shots, to Kimberly for the group shot, and to Guy and Steve for being the kind of friends they are.
I tried to talk Tadhg into bikepacking the Alberta Rockies 700 but he thought that sounded like a 2 week rather than 2 day ride. So, in the tradition of compromise, I scaled back. I may have to do it solo next year. I did want to do a new and hopefully a bit challenging bikepacking route. After communicating with an Instagram Friend, I was inspired to try a route in the Castle Wilderness area. There are several mentioned in Doug Eastcott’s Backcountry Biking in the Canadian Rockies. It is an older book, so some of the routes may have become impassable from floods, avalanches, landslides, and fires.
The plan was to take a route from Castle Mountain Resort to Sage Creek recreation area in BC. The first night we’d random camp somewhere on the Alberta side, and the second night at Sage Creek. I plotted out a route on my GPS and we had a plan.
We had previous plans to go watch the Stampede Parade. So, we did, as usual bringing our stepladder in the cargo bike so we could avoid the hassle of showing up early to get a good spot. We just saunter up and set up the ladder behind the crowd. We have a great view of the show and we can sleep in as well.
After a run to get groceries, we headed off in the van (yes, I did suggest riding there) at around 3:45pm. Since it is over a 3 hour drive to the trailhead, we weren’t riding until 7:30.
I started us off on the right foot by misinterpreting the route I had planned and staying on the wrong side of the river. The trail on that side was much more hilly than I expected. Eventually, it ran out entirely in a maze of game trails, forest, and river. I checked the GPS, and when zoomed in, realized we needed to be on the other side of the river. Rather than backtrack, we forded the river, technically, I forded the river, and I carried Tadhg on my back so he could keep his shoes dry (I wore water sandals). After a hundred meters of bushwacking, we came to a quad trail (a handy thing about quads is that they create a lot of braided trails that you can use to get back to the main trail) and we followed the network of progressively larger quad tracks until we got back to the main trail. The real trail was a hard-packed gravel road and we made good progress to the start of the climb. The climb quickly got steeper, but mostly it got more rutted and rocky. My goal was to make it to the gate about 1.5 km from the top of the pass where there was an unserviced camp spot. We made it before dark fell, set up camp and had a great night’s sleep.
There were a couple of creek crossings to negotiate while climbing the pass, but since I had anticipated having to ford the Castle River, I wasn’t too put out. Again I ferried Tadhg across on my back since I didn’t want him to have to take off his shoes. The non-water parts of the climb were mostly loose, steep, washed-out, and rocky, so we pushed most of the way. I expected this, since this route had been a road designed for motor vehicles and so it was no surprise to find it was steep and rutted.
The view from the top though, was stunning, other than a few unsightly (illegal, rogue) quad trails braiding the pass, the view was quite spectacular. The wind was also quite spectacular. Like many mountain passes, the wind funneled up one side and was ferocious in the pass proper. The frame bag on my bike was catching enough wind to cause the bike to weathervane around the front wheel as I pushed.
The descent was, of course more fun. The highlight was a series of pump-track style bumps near the top. I amn’t sure if they were original, or from or to stop vehicles, but they were fun on the bikes (watch out for the fallen trees!). The next section featured dense bushes that were crisscrossing the trail at about face height. We had to go slowly, or risk not seeing obstacles. One tree leaning across the trail snagged my backpack and almost removed me from my bike. The bushy section was occasionally interrupted by sections of avalanche debris. As we got lower down, the debris from the previous years had been cleared, or a path cut around it, so it was easy to negotiate, even if it wasn’t all rideable.
Our brakes were given some respite as the valley leveled out somewhat. The riding continues to be fun and occasionally interrupted by more debris.
Part of decommissioning a logging road is to remove the drainage pipes and leave the ditch in place as a water bar. These make fun little jumps if you can manage to take them at speed. As we neared the end of the “trail” section toward the logging road we met some folks from BC Fish and Wildlife who were studying wolves in the backcountry. They told me they had seen at least 14 distinct grizzlies on a single wildlife camera. Given the number of berry bushes, I was not surprised, but rather glad that I had arrived out of season for the berries as well as singing heavy metal and punk rock songs on the way down.
There were a couple more creek crossings (shallow enough for pickup trucks) and then we had a section of smooth logging road to our goal, Sage Creek Recreation Area. This flat creekside campground was nothing super special, but it did have an outhouse and picnic tables, and it was clean. We met some folks out on a forest road drive in a quad and a jeep, and they offered me beer from their seemingly infinite supply. I was glad for their hospitality, even if they didn’t seem to understand that I really wanted to eat all of the food I had brought so I wouldn’t have to carry it back over the pass.
As we were getting to sleep around 10, Tadhg started pestering me about how we would make it back over the pass the following day. I really wasn’t that concerned, and I probably should have spent more time calming him down before going to sleep.
Getting a teenager up at 8:30 AM is not easy, and of course, since this one had been worrying all night about the pass, he didn’t get the great sleep I did, and he felt sick. This translated to possibly the slowest riding I’ve ever witnessed, with me riding ahead at just fast enough to balance my bike, waiting, and him catching up at practically trackstand speed. I soon decided that taking the other, possibly harder, route back would be a mistake.
Since we were going so slowly, had the chance to observe more around me, so I took more pictures of roadkill than I usually would.
In spite of Tadhg’s lack of energy, we eventually made it back to the top of the pass. Though the downhill on the far side was not always rideable, it was at least downhill. Once we hit the bottom of the hill, Tadhg’s energy returned and he found himself able to keep up with my fastest pedaling.
In hindsight, I would probably chose to climb the pass and then proceed to one of the lakes near the top of the pass to camp. Another good possibility would be to attach this to another route such as heading through Cabin Pass and the Wigwam Valley to Fernie. Either way, I’m glad to have seen it and I’ll definitely be back to see more of the Castle area.
For those that are into these things, I posted my ride track on Ride With GPS.
I get asked, like most winter cyclists, “why?” The situation varies between riding with my kids a couple of blocks, to riding in extreme cold, to riding and pushing through snow to go sleep outside somewhere. The implication is that it’s too hard to be worth it.
Some of the questioning comes from a mistaken assumption that it is inherently unpleasant. This is almost invariably from people who haven’t tried it. There is seldom a ride where I feel uncomfortable during the ride. I generally dress reasonably for the temperatures and weather conditions. I often end up shedding a layer while riding, but seldom feel the need to put a layer on. I don’t like being uncomfortable, so I avoid it. I sleep well outside.
Many people assume from my hobbies and appearance that I’m some sort of hardcore leathery mountain man who pits himself against the odds to see if he can. Again, that is rooted in a lack of knowledge. I love to see the beauty of the mountains. I love the freedom of outdoor life. I love a challenge, but I’m quite cautious by nature. My 10-year-old daughter is way more of a daredevil than I am.
I do get a rush from the exertion of pushing myself a little. I sometimes enjoy the thrill that comes from not holding back. Sometimes I like to suffer a bit, to feel my lungs burning, or to fight falling asleep on the bike as I put off stopping for the night.
Mostly though, I like being outside, moving. I was not built to sit idly by as life passes. Past experience tells me that if I get out and move, I feel good. It’s as simple as wanting to feel good. Some might call it an addiction, but if it is, it’s one without consequences and one I feel comfortable sharing with friends and family.
This winter has, for some people, dragged on. For me, It has been fun. I’ve been out camping on skis, my feet, my bike, and most importantly, I’ve done it with my family and friends. I feel good that I haven’t wasted my winter watching TV. I feel great that I’m fit. I mostly feel great because I’ve spent my time outside. Even the most mundane grocery run is more fun when you do it by bike.
Life is short. At the end, I anticipate regrets, but I don’t expect to regret a single minute of riding my bike, in the cold or not.
Fiona and I had enjoyed the previous weekend’s trip to Shadow Lake, that Tania suggested we do a quick overnight to the campground at km 7.2, Lost Horse Creek.
Tadhg and I decided to bike, both of us generally prefer biking when it’s one of the options. Tania left herself the option to ski or walk, and Fiona was planning to either ski or ski with her other pair of skis. At the trail head, Tania opted to take advantage of the packed trail surface and walk.
With the weather above freezing, the way in had us down to our t-shirts in short order. Tadhg did leave his hat on.
Fiona and I decided to sleep under the stars to save time putting up our tarp and in hopes of seeing some Northern Lights (though chances were slim, the northern sky had mountains obstructing the view). We dug out a nice spot in the snow to put the tent up for Tania and Tadhg.
I was proud of getting up at 7:15 to make coffee (a pride that lasted until I found out it was time change weekend in the car home) Winter has the great advantage of being able to bring real milk for Tania’s cappuccinos, and I always feel better about serving real milk than even the whole milk powder that works reasonably well.
We gave Fiona and Tania a substantial head start while we packed up, but even with that, the bikes speed advantage over Tania’s walking, and the downhill trail meant that we passed them on our way down. It was a fun finish to a very relaxing weekend.
I think if someone was carving a gravestone for me the epitaph might read, “You got here by bike?” It’s certainly a phrase I hear a lot. I sometimes let it slip into the background as I bike off to the store.
Though I may not think much about it now, there have been times when I needed to deliberately structure my life to bring biking back in to it.
When I first became a stay-at-home parent, I knew that I didn’t want my days to be a series of car rides. Not only did I not want to live in a rolling metal box, but I didn’t want my child’s first interactions with me to be with the back of my head.
Back then, I hadn’t even heard of bakfietsen, nor of cargo bikes of any description. I wasn’t sure that my Chariot trailer was the smoothest way to transport my delicate baby. While I used the Chariot a lot, it wasn’t quite the experience I wanted. So, I walked. I walked a lot. I pushed the stroller around town, some trips were as far as 20km each way. Any distance is walking distance if you have the time, and with a 10-month-old baby who didn’t nap, I wanted to fill our days with fun, and I had lots of time to fill.
I knew that transportation by bike was great for saving money, fitness, and fun, but I hadn’t really solved the child transport piece of the puzzle. As Tadhg grew, I would carry him in the trailer or on a rear-mounted seat on my bike, but it felt like we were missing out on some of the fun. I would often revert to walking, and if pressed for time, I would take my car.
By the time our second baby came along, I had heard of bakfietsen being imported into Canada. I showed my friend an article, and she immediately ordered one. I have to admit, while I thought the concept was great, I wasn’t 100% convinced that they would work here. I suspected they were too heavy for our hills, over-geared for our hills, and too big to work well with our lack of infrastructure.
When my friend was put on bed rest, she “forced” me to borrow her bike. It was surprisingly practical. Though the brakes were underwhelming (some might say terrifying) and the gearing was too high, and the riding position too upright for my spine, I found myself using it a lot. I grew to appreciate it as a way to return the speed of the bike to my car-lite lifestyle.
After returning the bakfiets I went back to the trailer for a while, but it was clearly insufficient. I had been spoiled.
I started looking for cargo bike options. I tried out a couple of longtails, I liked them, but I had been spoiled by the kids being where I could talk to them. I tried a few of the front-load options that were available at the time. I even tried a trike that separated into a stroller.
I was weighing my options, when I saw on the bike forums that there was a guy in Eugene Oregon starting to build a new cargo bike that offered many advantages. The significant option for me was that it had a longer, less upright cockpit than the Dutch bikes. The geometry was much better for climbing. It was steel, which theoretically meant a bit of springiness and therefore comfort. It had a flatbed to which the sides of the box were added which gave it more versatility.
I bought the bike on a leap of faith based on a video that he took of himself riding the bike. I got the bike in May of 2009, and have been riding it ever since.
Now, 9 years later, I am still happy with that decision. I’ve taken the Cetma on tour, around town, on singletrack trails, and in every type of weather. Though my kids don’t ride very often anymore, it is still handy for shuttling them to friend’s houses and other short trips. We sometimes even use it for date night.
My friend Lindsay, a “newbie” after just 2 years has just written a review of her Cetma. She has much more information about it, and much less rambling prose.
Every year I try to make it out on a couple of trips alone with each of our kids. The one-on-one time is great bonding for all of us. I try to choose something that will be at least some challenge so the kids can take some pride in it afterward. I have high hopes that I’m providing some opportunity for my kids to learn the freedom that nature provides.
In spite of our local school board’s efforts to instill fear of any cool temperatures in my kids, Fiona enjoys the challenge of a cold weekend. She was disappointed to hear that the forecast low for the weekend was -16ºC. “But I was hoping for cold!” she told me. Personally, I was thinking of how much easier it would be to not have to deal with the extra work that comes with cold. Putting on boots in the morning is so much nicer at -16ºC than -30ºC.
We’ve been on a few ski camping trips this winter, and I’ve been wanting to do some bike trips while the season is here, so I encouraged Fiona to agree to a bike trip. I had had heard good things about the Redearth Creek ride to Shadow Lake. Only the first 10km are open to bikes in summer, but in winter bikes are allowed as far as the lodge. (Shadow Lake Lodge is a beautiful historic backcountry lodge with individual cabins and a wood-fired sauna.)
We left the house on Friday afternoon, and after driving through a snow storm, (past many crashes, one of which I stopped to offer assistance to the driver) we arrived at the trailhead just after 4:45. We were riding by 5, which was good since at this time of year, the lights need to be turned on at about 6:45.
[click photos for larger version]
The trail was steadily uphill, but not overly steep, so I could ride almost all of it though conditions were a little loose. Fiona needed to push up many of the hills, the laws of physics dictate that 10 year old girls do not have the favourable power to weight ratio I have.
We weren’t there to race, so our many snack breaks and slow pace weren’t an annoyance, just a part of our ride. It did turn out to be the longest 7.2km in history though. I started investigating side trails for signs of the campground about 2km back from where the actual campground was. We were thrilled when we finally spotted the sign for the campground in our headlamps.
As per usual, few people had used the campground this winter. We placed a high priority on shoveling out the outhouse door to simplify visits later on. I often wish the National Parks outhouses did not have the front step exactly the same height as the door. It would be much easier to open the door if it were an inch higher so that we didn’t have to scrape every molecule of ice from the step. Since it was snowing hard, we set up our tarp, even though we had an ample tree well to shelter in.
There was a nice creek water source at the campground, and the approach to it looked very reasonable. I was, however, too lazy to shovel a path in the waist-deep snow to get to it, so we melted snow for our coffee, oatmeal and the day’s drinking water.
We took our time, and were riding our bikes by 11AM. Again, we weren’t racing, and since we knew that we had time to backtrack if we missed the campground, we didn’t even need to be vigilant, we just needed to enjoy the ride. We weren’t any faster than the guys on snowshoes who kept stopping to take pictures, but Fiona’s riding had benefited from a good night’s sleep and she was riding up some fairly steep sections of trail.
Fortune smiled upon us, and we encountered a woman snowshoeing just as we were to pass by the campground. She was surprised that we would even attempt to camp out in winter, but kindly showed us where the site was.
Our early arrival at the campsite left us with plenty of time to go for a short hike up to Shadow Lake proper. There wasn’t much to see on account of the heavily falling snow from overcast skies, but it was worth going for a walk and answering an extensive series of science questions from Fiona. Our discussion of the future of humanity did stray a little toward the preamble to the film “Idiocracy” but she was hoping to direct our evolution toward having 6 fingers per hand – because, “I’d love to have more fingers!”
We got back to camp in time to prepare supper in the light and then, after some reading by headlamp, we were off to sleep.
I don’t know if it’s the mountain air, the physical exertion, or some other factor, but I always sleep well outside. I awoke feeling refreshed and happy. Fiona had also had a great night, and other than some reluctance on her part to put on her cold boots, she was at her best and helped with breakfast and breaking camp.
We decided to start our day with a quick jaunt up to take some pictures at the Lodge. Conveniently, a kind stranger offered to take some “kind stranger” pictures of the two of us.
The trail back was mostly downhill, which we were looking forward to. We were somewhat concerned about the new snow that had fallen all weekend, but the trail was mostly rideable and with the weather cleared, we enjoyed much better views.
An interesting thing had occurred as the snow fell and the supply snowmobile from the lodge had passed up and down the trail, what had been a single trackset on the trail had become several. In a couple of places I’m afraid that we ran out of room and used the 6th or 7th ski track for ourselves, I know that I’d have a tough time being angry if I was on skis and was limited to even 1 set of tracks, so I hope everyone else feels the same.
The loose conditions allowed Fiona to practice her control skills. Though she acts modest, she has tremendous talent when it comes to keeping a bike going in snow. Of course, any time we get a chance to put in 3 consecutive days of riding, skills are going to improve. While Fiona had a couple of crashes, it was still a lot of fun.
I’d like to encourage others to go out and try this sort of trip with their kids, or on their own. Not only is it a learning experience and healthy physical activity, but it is fundamentally fun. With a little luck, one day we will get to a backcountry campground in winter and the outhouse door will already be shoveled.
Our friend Lindsay suggested one day that we should do an overnight bikepacking trip with our families to celebrate the start of the new school year. I never pass up an opportunity to sleep outside, so I was definitely in. We each told a few friends about it, and before long what we had thought would be only be us and another couple of people turned into a full campground. I blame Lindsay for being so famous.
Side note: Lindsay sent many of you here to read my capture of the energy and essence of the trip. I’ll try not to let her down [pulls out “Writing English for Dummies” book].
Our friends were diverse in experience, backgrounds and ages. We were all experienced cyclists, but some of us had not been bike camping before. A few of us had been on Megan Dunn’s bikepack.ca family bikepacking trip during the summer, a few of us were people we knew from social media and hadn’t met in real life.
Though I myself like some of the more technical trails, I wanted this trip to be accessible for novices. That way they wouldn’t hate me for my trail selection. I also wanted it to be a not-to-distant drive from Calgary, and to provide enough challenge that the kids and parents could feel that they had accomplished something. Lindsay and Des were planning to bring their cargobikes, so I wanted to pick a trail that would be compatible with them as well.
When Tadhg and I had toured the newly-built Romulus campground (it replaced the one that was washed away in the 2013 flood) we thought it was very nicely done, with the hiker section being just as nice as the equestrian side, and the food area being separate from the sleeping area. The trail in met our criteria, and so it was what we recommended.
We met at the trailhead at 11:00 AM parent time (11:45) and loaded up the bikes. We started riding some time around 12:30. Everyone spent some time getting to know each other as we rolled up the trail.
Bikepacking with kids in tow is best described as slow. Kids like to stop to look at flowers, push bikes up hills, push bikes down hills, have snacks, tell you how tired they are, have more snacks, complain about the lack of snacks, well, you get the idea. Suffice to say that we broke no speed records that day. We did get lots of time for the parents to speak among ourselves (mostly bike talk, this was a pretty bikey crowd).
The stars of the show were the babies. My friends Andy and Ellen had their 8-month-old twin girls along. They towed them in their chariot with their gear distributed between the trailer and their panniers. This was the twins’ first overnight camping trip, so we were pretty excited to have helped indoctrinate encourage them to bring their kids out camping.
The kids all had their usual lines about how tired they were, how far it was, and how steep the hills were, but their energy levels once we got to camp belied the difficulty of the riding. A 10-kid game involving bears, wolves, horses, and a lot of chasing took up most of the camp time, with the exception of all the eating of course. I have been on trips with parents before where there were structured activities for the kids. I am both too lazy to carry items like bored games, and all of the information that I have read shows free play to be valuable for learning and physical development. My kids often play with the toys in the backcountry: rocks and sticks, make crafts with the supplies in the backcountry: rocks and sticks, use the sports equipment in the backcountry: you guessed it, rocks and sticks.
With such a bike crowd, it was no surprise that the kids’ bikes were all good quality light bikes. The parent’s bikes were a quirky assortment. Alex and I had our Krampus 29+ bikes, mine a singlespeed, which were overkill for this section of trail, but are versatile enough that both of us use them as our main bikepacking bikes. Ray earned some cred with his dump-salvaged Trek turn-of-the-millennium hardtail which was in excellent condition, especially considering its $0 cost. There was a fleet of long-tail cargo bikes present, mostly Xtracycles, a couple of MTBs, and Tania, Andy and Ellen brought their fatbikes. The three trailers were a fat-tired Burley, the Chariot child-carrier trailer, and Ray had a salvaged trailer that had seen better days but worked fine to carry their stuff. Arguably, the most suitable bike for this trip was Jeremy’s Surly Big Fat Dummy, a longtail fatbike destined to carry his children and gear across many sandy, snowy, or really any kind of adventure they choose.
This summer has been extremely dry, and so the trail in was quite dusty. Much as we were enjoying hanging out together, we were all glad to have the rain start in earnest around 8:30 PM. Not only would the moisture consolidate the trail for the ride out, but it was a great way to encourage all the kids to bed. The rain on our tarp is a familiar sound to me and so I was quickly lulled to sleep.
There is always a risk of a kid not sleeping on any trip, usually on the first night as they adjust to an unfamiliar setting. This was no exception and one of the twins (we won’t mention which) was reluctant to do any sleeping. The parents were heroically tolerant of this, I suspect they might even take her on another trip.
The ride out is predominantly downhill. Thanks to the rain, the dusty trail had consolidated and was much easier to ride on going out than coming in. Even the least experienced riders had gained some extra confidence, though some of them were more tired than they had been on the trip in.
I am very happy at how well this ride turned out. From meeting new people, to seeing different gear and styles, to enjoying the creativity and open minds of the children, it was a great success. We were talking of more trips even as this one was unfolding. There have been requests to join next year’s ride should we make it an annual event. I am overwhelmed by the positive response this has received. I am flattered that others think that the things I like to do are fun.
Though this was not a major adventure, nor a life-changing experience, it was something that I hope the kids will remember. I feel it has strengthened bonds between the families and given us all new ideas. Thanks to all of you for joining us.
Fiona a.k.a. Tonie, at age 9, is a veteran of several fatbikepacking weekends. She loves outdoor winter sports and really does sleep better outside. I was due to take her out for a fatbikepacking weekend without her brother. At the same time, there aren’t that many more winter weekends left. I had promised to take my friend Sean for a winter overnight ride for the past several winters.
I decided to make the most of the weekend by combining family and friends. With the potential for sitcom-like results, I invited several of my middle-aged friends (as well as some families and other kids) to come along with Fiona and I on an overnight winter fatbike campout. It ended up that the logistics of finding fatbikes for other kids was an obstacle, and so the roster consisted of Sean, my friend Tyler, and I, with Fiona as our guide for the weekend.
Tyler had some work commitments that kept him from starting with Sean, Fiona, and I, but the three of us set out on the 14km of Goat Creek Trail from near Canmore to Spray River SP6 campground in Banff Park.
Back when Tadhg was 8, I built up a Salsa Mukluk with shorter cranks, narrower tires (for the lower BB and lighter weight) and put a super-short stem on it. I also switched to a single small chainring since I did not anticipate a need for high gears. Tadhg has gotten good use out of it, and it seems in hindsight like I made some good choices. Now Fiona is tall enough and it has passed on to being her bike.
Fiona’s bike is almost exactly half her weight. That, coupled with somewhat challenging conditions and a poor sleep the night before made the uphill portions of the trail difficult for Fiona to ride. I did hand out several snacks on the way, but I can’t really take credit for her making it to the campground, she had to dig deep, but she did not once complain. She did a bunch of pushing her bike, through deep or loose snow on the uphill sections. Though it took us 5 hours, I was still impressed. Her limits are purely her size and if she had been our size, she would have been waiting for us at every bend in the trail.
[click on pictures to enlarge]
The abandonned bike at the Spray Junction provided some entertainment.
I also have to mention that I was impressed with Sean’s patience. I’m the dad, I have an obligation to care for my daughter, and I was feeling the urge to ride. His restraint was nothing short of remarkable. He also used the relaxed pace to get to know Tonie a little better. As he mentioned, there was no sweating by us adults, and Tonie is really good at shedding layers to manage sweat – she was down to a t-shirt for the warmer parts of the ride.
In the campground, we took our time setting up, Fiona and I had our usual tarp setup and the bag and quilt system that we have been using this winter. We were pretty confident that we’d be comfortable right down to -40º, though the forecast called for a mere -15ºC. Sean had a single person tent that he has used for the last 10 years and he has justifiable confidence in. His sleeping bag system was remarkably similar to our own with a synthetic outer and down inner sleeping bag. It is a well tested combination and makes good sense.
We were about halfway through setting up our shelters when Tyler arrived. He had started about 2 hours behind us, so he made fairly good time. His total load is heavier than mine, and his narrower rims and tires made some parts of the trail less rideable for him than they were for me.
One of the advantages of the SP6 campground is the eating area is well separated from the sleeping area. I figured this would work to our advantage when Sean and Tyler stayed up to sing campfire punk-rock songs until midnight.
Tonie and I were hoping for a campfire to roast burritos on, so we were glad to find an axe and the fire pit were accessible. While I put some water and snow on the stove to heat, Fiona went off to find some firewood. I shouldn’t have been, but was, surprised when she dragged back a huge pile of branches from a fallen tree she had found. She knew she had done well, and made a bit of a show of breaking up all her branches so they would fit in the fire. Tyler tried to hire Fiona to work construction for him.
For the record, I had offered to bring an extra burrito for Sean, his foul-tasting dinner was not my fault. The freeze-dried camping meals that are available are hit-and-miss at best, and are expensive mistakes if you get one that tastes bad. For longer hikes, we usually take a few days’ worth, but we do try to avoid them as much as we can. We do have a few dinners that we know that none of us like, I will sometimes choke one down just to reduce the inventory.
Much as I dislike the music of Hank Williams Jr., I am sometimes struck by how à-propos his song “All my Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down” can be. My punk rock sing-along theory was clearly delusional since we were all in bed by 8:30 pm. That was the last we saw of each other until morning. I did have to adjust my sleeping bag to the unzipped mode since I had overestimated how much warmth I wanted and woke up uncomfortably warm at some point. I also was vaguely awakened by the nearly full moon peeking out from the cloud cover to shine very brightly on us.The temperature sat at -16ºC both before I went to bed and after I woke up.
I was pretty happy and refreshed at 7:30 when I got up. It took me a while to realize that the time change had happened and it was actually 8:30.
Late rising or not, I got my morning coffee in. Though I had to watch Sean and Tyler sacrilegiously drinking an instant brown liquid product, it did not take away from my enjoyment of my fresh-ground Aeropress coffee. I did have enough coffee to share, but somehow did not succeed in converting the fellows to my side. Oh well, at least I can’t be accused of religious intolerance.
Sean had some commitments back in town, so he packed up and hit the trail as soon as breakfast was done while Tyler stayed with Tonie and I for the ride out. We had heard the grooming sled go by, and we though that had good potential to leave us with a nice rideable trail, but we did have 360m of elevation to gain before we reached the parking lot. The forecast also called for the weather to warm up which can make trails soft and unrideable.
Apparently the sleep had done Fiona good because she was riding all but the steepest hills and was riding well. I kept the snacks and drinks flowing, but I was concerned that she would fatigue, or that the trail would soften to unrideable mush.
I needn’t have worried. Fiona rode almost everything and rode it well. The trail did become softer, but it was still very rideable. As the weather warmed, Fiona shed layers until she was complaining about being too hot in her t-shirt. She kept riding though and that made all the difference. We made it back to the car in just under 4.5 hours, quicker on the uphill direction than we had been downhill. Fiona did take a break to pull out a wiggly tooth and of course for apple chips, brie cheese and some candy.
I could not be a prouder dad. Through the magic of never complaining and hard work, Fiona impressed and endeared herself to my friends. She showed determination and strength, and did it while having fun. I am lucky to be dad to such a wonderful person.
We had some trouble deciding where to go on our father and son fatbikepacking trip. We’ve had some warm weather and some of our favourite trails are an icy mess. We debated trying a few new routes, but some of them were likely to be 90% what Scott refers to as, “hiking with an awkward cart.”
We were pretty confident that our old favourite, the Elbow Loop would be mostly free of the kind of ice that forms from lots of foot traffic, and since it is re-opened to snowmobiles this year, we had high hopes that a grooming crew had passed at least once. Tadhg’s main reluctance was the 12km of closed road that we would have to ride to get to the trailhead. Steep and varying between deep snow and treacherous ice, it is not our favourite.
[as always, click pictures to enlarge]
This variant of the road was bumpy hard snow followed by an exhilarating descent on 4km of bare asphalt. Once past it, we were on to the real riding.
The North side (Little Elbow) has a new bridge on it since September, and so we knew there would be no major obstacles. Tadhg was feeling pretty tired, but I encouraged him to dig deep in our attempt to get to the Tombstone campground where we had booked the night. The trail was mostly rideable with snow cover and not too much ice. Some spots were a little punchy, but we could still mostly ride. Tadhg was walking some of the steeper sections since he felt like his energy was low.
We passed the wreckage of Mt Romulus campground around 6pm, after sunset, but with enough twilight to see where we were going. Unfortunately, with the greater snow and steady climbing (and only 2 snowmobiles traffic this year) as it got dark, it became increasingly difficult to ride. Tadhg could ride some of the trail, but I was walking most of it. Eventually, we decided to stop for the night since we weren’t likely to make it to Tombstone before 10pm.
Since our camp spot was of questionable nature, we had no fire to roast our burritos. I was pretty certain that we would not be in any trouble since we were our usual no-trace selves and there were not likely to be anyone coming by anyway.
Tire pressure down to 2 wrinkles.
While the wind may have blown over both our bikes during the night, we were snug and warm in our tent. Tadhg was tired enough to get to sleep by about 9:30 and slept right through until I woke him after 9 in the morning. I knew the day ahead could be hard, and I wanted him in good shape to tackle it. I fed him some more burritos for breakfast, and we were on our way. The food and sleep had done its job and Tadhg’s energy and attitude were both refreshed. He was optimistic about the rideability of Tombstone pass.
What had been unrideable for us at night turned out to be mostly rideable when we had a better look at it. We were down to less air pressure in our tires than most people use, but still, we were riding [Mike Curiak explains fatbiketire pressure here]. Some of the steep uphill parts needed some walking, but that is often the case in summer as well.
Through Tombstone Pass was equally mostly rideable, there were some drifted in sections, but even some of those we managed to power through.
The descent from the pass was a combination of drifted in trail and crust hiding unknown depths of snow. We began the descent with Tadhg able to ride more than me due to his light weight, but even for me most of the trail was rideable. Where we punched through the crust, we came to a sudden stop in sometimes waist deep snow, but we were having a ton of fun. Our only concern was that we might have to push the bikes back up if there was no packed trail when we reached the bottom.
As we approached the Tombstone junction, my fears were confirmed when I could see no tracks heading in the Big Elbow direction. I was dreading the climb back over the pass. Fortunately, it was only a large snowdrift hiding the first 10m or so of the tracks and my stress was for naught.
The trail leading toward Big Elbow had not seen much traffic, maybe one or two snowmobiles, but it was nearly 100% rideable with the exception of the hills on the snowmobile route. In the summer, the bike route follows a different trail than the winter snowmobile route and since snowmobiles require almost no extra effort to climb grades that leave people on bikes pushing, the snowmobile hills can be steep and involve much more climbing and descending. I distracted myself from the brutal climb by trying to get Tadhg to swear, (he doesn’t) but the most I could get from him was, “stupid hill!”
Even with the steep push, I couldn’t get Tadhg to swear.
Though steep, the descents on the snowmobile portion of the trail were tremendous fun. The snowmobile route also avoided the double river crossing or cliff climb that is part of the bike route.
Once back on the main route, we found a feature that was normally a small stream crossing in summer, was in fact a treacherous ice flow at least this winter. As I looked back to take some pictures of Tadhg crossing the ice, I stepped poorly and started sliding quickly down the cascades of ice. By using my bike pedal as an ice axe, I stopped my descent after about 20m. Tadhg wanted to go for a fun slide after he got his bike across, until we investigated where the cascade ended and it was the river.
A while later on, we came to the first of the missing bridges from the ’13 flood. It has not been replaced, but there was a convenient natural ice bridge across the river.
After the short climb and descent on the far side we came to the bridge that several people, including a park ranger told me had been replaced. It was in no way replaced, and the ice bridge that happened to be nearby seemed on its last legs. I had brought my overboots in case there were water crossings, so even if there hadn’t been ice bridges, we would likely have made it across with dry feet.
The Big Elbow campground is a familiar haunt for us, and we settled in for some dinner. I read to Tadhg for over an hour since we had gotten to the campground so early and we slept through a very windy night.
The wind continued in the morning, and though it made coffee and breakfast preparation a little more difficult, it was in the direction we were headed, so we had high hopes of tailwind for our ride back to the car.
The wind, being a Chinook, was warm and dry and had visibly sublimated some of the snow on the trail out as well as the road. The tailwind was strong enough that we pedaled up the road hill with ease (except for getting blown off once). We were somewhat fearful that the downhill side of the road would be a bumpy sheet of ice, but it turned out to be treacherous in only a few spots, and though it was teeth-rattling bumpy, we were at least riding.