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.
Jeremy loves to take his family on bikepacking weekends. That’s mostly because he loves his family, but also because he loves riding bikes and sleeping outside. He was kind enough to invite me on a weekend ride to celebrate his birthday and to have fun with the kids.
For bikepacking with kids, it is very helpful to have a bunch of trail characteristics. First, things are much easier if there is no motorized traffic on the trails. Second, a place to sleep with only a short distance to ride. Third, a fairly short drive to get to the trailhead. For us, that leaves essentially 4 trails available for weekend riding. Since 2 of them were closed and the third was booked up, our choice was made for us.
Cascade Fire Road is an old fire road, now a trail. Of our options, it is the least technical, and sees the most equestrian use. It has 2 campgrounds that can be reached by bike. We booked our sites, and watched the weather forecast go from cloudy to showers to rain. As the forecast grew worse, the number of people coming with us dwindled. By Friday, it was Fiona, our friend Carla, and me for Friday night, with Jeremy and Cadence joining us for the Saturday night.
The car ride out to Banff park was fairly constant rain, but by the time we pulled into the parking lot, the rain had let up a little, and as we started riding, it stopped raining entirely. About 3 minutes after we had set up our tarp. Conveniently, someone had stacked some firewood at the eating area, and though it was raining fairly steadily, we managed to get a fire going to roast our Burritos (well, alternately roast 1 side while the other got soggy). We didn’t hang out long after dinner, it was late and raining, and we were ready for bed.
Since Carla hadn’t been bikepacking before, I lent her some stuff, including a hammock, bags for the bike, and a bike. While the hammock wasn’t ideal for her, lending her Tadhg’s fatbike was a great idea since the trail was ridiculously muddy. It didn’t take much pushing downhill for Fiona to wish that she had brought her own fatbike. Carla was also glad that she spent the last few winters riding bikes so she was a bit more familiar than most with slippery surfaces.
Last fall, I started using a new tarp that I sewed up myself. I used a caternary cut to try to have a shape that would hold up better in wind as well as shed rain with less pooling. I used Silpoly instead of Silnylon to avoid having to re-tension the lines in rain. This was its first major rain test, and it rained steadily and sometimes heavily nearly all night. I am happy to say that we were dry in the morning, though the rain was not as wind-driven as it sometimes is. The second night I pitched the tarp lower to shelter us more from the wind. Although it worked very well at wind blocking, we did get a little more condensation, which is typical in any shelter with minimal airflow.
Fiona had some minor clothing issues, her “magic” raincoat, that we had purchased a couple of years ago for a trip that seemed likely to be ridiculously rainy, had lost its magic, and its waterproof quality so that her down puffy jacket underneath got quite damp. The following day she used her SOL Emergency Poncho as her rain layer. The poncho provided excellent protection, especially since the adult size reached nearly to her ankles. I had my MEC cycling rain cape. The MEC cape was a nearly perfect cycling rain garment and surprisingly affordable, so of course it was discontinued a year after its release – I will miss it terribly when mine finally wears out. As my warm layer, I had my new favourite jacket, the Men’s Essential Jacket from Spirit West. I cannot say enough good things about this jacket, it is warm, still warm in the wet, and is 260g of ridiculously light. I can’t imagine that it will be very abrasion resistant, so I have no plans to wear it when trees are whipping at my arms. Disclaimer: I paid full price, I am not affiliated with them, though I won’t turn down a discount on the rest of the family’s jackets, there are no arrangements or expectations of such, I just love the jacket.
Jeremy did arrive with his daughter Cadence on Saturday afternoon. I had no concern that he would arrive since he is so consistent with his lack of concern about rain. Cadence had been a real trooper and had ridden most of the way in spite of her skinny 20″ tires and the slippery mud. The whole time he was riding in, he was thinking of how glad his wife was that she had stayed home, not because of the rain, but because of the deep mud that would probably have prevented her from getting her cargo bike and 2-year-old in to the campsite.
The rain had mostly cleared by the time Jeremy arrived, but made further appearances during the evening to prevent our drying of clothes. It wasn’t a big problem, it simply forced us to put our rain gear on. As we sat around for the evening and Fiona and Cadence played, several Elk walked by just the other side of the river and then forded the river just upstream from us.
Morning dawned sunny. Though I woke up early, I managed to get myself back to sleep to let the grass and shrubs dry out a bit before getting up. By the time Fiona and I got up, Jeremy had eaten breakfast already. Friends don’t let friends drink bad coffee, so I had promised Carla some Aeropress as an alternative to her having to choke down the foul-tasting liquid known as instant coffee. Jeremy takes care of his own coffee needs with a pour-over filter and premium coffee – he is one of the few friends of mine who have more sophisticated home coffee setups than me.
Bear and Elk pictures courtesy of Jeremy
While packing up camp, we were treated to a bear walking by. It was the best kind of bear encounter, with the bear completely unconcerned with us. It’s always encouraging to see wild animals that don’t think people are a source of food. Of course I had my bear spray in hand with the safety off, but my camera was already on my bike. Jeremy was more prepared.
In spite of the dry morning, the trail remained quite muddy. There was a great deal of pushing bikes through mud on our way out, but there was more downhill than up, so progress was made.
The last 4km are an enjoyable smooth downhill. We had to encourage the kids to keep in control, especially Cadence with her small wheels that are much easier to knock off track than the adults’ big wheels. In spite of Jeremy’s encouragement to use lots of brakes, Cadence did catch the edge of a rut and went down hard. She didn’t cry for long, and she got herself back up, so I thought she was just bruised. Jeremy carried her and her bike in his cargo bike the remaining 100m of trail and bit of road. She did complain about her arm being very sore, and Jeremy was thinking there could be a fracture. In fact, when they got home, they made a trip to the hospital and she had in fact fractured both bones and is now wearing a cast. She is definitely a tough girl!
We invited a few friends, and booked some campsites. With a couple of weeks to go, it looked like there might not be enough sites for the number of people coming. Sadly, many of the people we were hoping could come had other commitments or had to alter their plans. There must have been a cool dad’s conference that I didn’t know about because several were away for business that weekend.
By the time we hit the trail, we were down to just half of my family, Lindsay’s family for just the first night, and another couple with their wonderful daughter. Definitely not the major event I had braced for, but probably a better size group for me and my introverted ways.
Lindsay got to take her new Surly Troll on its first bikepack adventure. She built it up herself based on a frame and fork with Rohloff/Generator Hub wheels that she built herself. It is one of the most well-rounded bikes I’ve seen, good for everything from paved road to rocky singletrack either loaded or unloaded. It was probably the most suitable bike in our crew for the trail we were on.
Tadhg and I had met Becky and David, and their daughter on a trip on the long weekend. It seems like the backcountry is where the most awesome parents go. It wasn’t more than a few minutes before I realized how much I’d like to have them come on the family bikepacking trip. I am very grateful that they came. Not only were they fun to hang out with, but their daughter blended in seamlessly with the rest of the kids’ gang. It was great to see them “spying” on the adults, building, hiding, and chasing in the forest.
Since it was their first family bikepacking trip, Becky and David didn’t have as finely tuned setups as I do, but with a quick rack purchase, some borrowed bags from me, and some ingenuity, they were ready to ride in no time. Their daughter felt left out with her packpack not matching the official “bikepacking” gear, so I strapped it to her handlbars with spacers that Tadhg built, and the red strap that I built to hold my sleeping roll when I started winter bikepacking. This made a young girl very happy, since she now felt included – even though there was nothing wrong with the backpack.
My instagram friend Lori came for the second night of our ride. It was great to meet her in real life. She has a great love of being active in the mountains and she got along well with all of us. Her friend Philesta completed our group. Though Philesta did not bring her bike this time around, she hiked/ran with a packpack at a similar speed to the families biking. Her children are older than mine, so it was great to get some tips on living with older teenagers and beyond.
I’ve been getting a lot of credit for organizing these multi-family weekends, and I am flattered. I think a lot of families want to get out and be active, and if I can help, I am totally willing to share. Especially since I don’t really have to put myself out to plan these things. All I really do is plan a weekend when I’d go bikepacking with my kids. Then I invite a dozen or so others, and it becomes a group. There isn’t really much actual organizing. I am there, of course, and I am willing to answer questions both before and during the trip. Usually, at least one person asks me for a gear list. Sometimes people ask if their gear is good enough (usually this gets a yes). I try to leave lots of room to do things differently since there are different priorities for each family. I generally bring enough coffee to share. I have a no douchebags rule that I adopted from my friend Mel, but I’d probably be lenient with even that rule if you had to bring your brother-in-law along to keep your spouse happy.
I have high hopes to get more of my friends out winter bikepacking with us this year.
He started his bikepack negotiation with, “I’m not riding 100km days unless you carry all my stuff. I’ll ride 20km total [5km days] if I have to carry anything.”
Both proud and appalled, I planned out a 90km/day route. Unfortunately, I heard from a friend that the route included a pass with “impassable snow” and there was also the potential for some flooding on some parts of the route.
I also got out of going to BC, so we decided to start closer to home. We never regret a ride along Lake Minnewanka, but I wanted a much longer ride.
I figured I could easily convince Tadhg to ride from the Goat Creek trailhead to the Minnewanka LM11 campsite (~45km), so that’s what I booked.
Tadhg asked why we were parking at Goat Creek, but seemed unconcerned, I took this as a good sign. The disadvantage to this route is that it starts with a downhill (therefore ends with uphill). It was only a short while later that we were in the town of Banff. I took the opportunity to revise our itinerary in person since the online booking system couldn’t believe that we could get from Goat Creek to Minnewanka in daylight hours. (I could, even on foot, and I amn’t the world’s fastest man) I also got us some Falafels, which were excellent, but meant that I was now carrying an extra dinner.
We had the pleasure of seeing a bear on the trail right near LM11 campground (where we were staying). I say pleasure, because the bear was not habituated to people, and ran away from us once it heard us. It took a left turn up the creek that runs adjacent to the campground and once it had some distance from us, it resumed foraging.
Tadhg was very thrilled when I told him he could sleep in as late as he wanted. Our second day was a mere 11km of mostly nice singletrack.
The LM22 campground sees few visitors and so it is a bit more overgrown than the LM11 campground. That coupled with a large number of ungulates in the area mean that it’s a haven for ticks. The other folks in the campground were finding many of them. Even with permethrin treated clothing, I found a few on me. Tadhg somehow escaped the tick menace.
Day 3 was another sleep-in day for Tadhg. Though we needed to cover 38km, it was on our way back over ground we had already covered. Though my lack of rear brake had me keeping my downhill speed a little lower than I might have liked, we made great time.
I love meeting other families on the trail, so I was very stoked to meet a couple from Canmore and their 6-year-old heading out for an overnight. They were doing things right with a very happy girl. Some of that happiness rubbed off on me.
Mid March, my friend Katrina organized a very fun overnight bikepack to Lake Minnewanka. The original plan was to get up early on Saturday, bike from Goat Creek trailhead through Banff (town) and then ride up to the Lake Minnewanka trailhead and proceed to the LM8 campground.
The year previous, this is exactly what an intrepid group had done. Of course winter fatbikepacking is a task requiring either time, flexibility or both, it pays to be adaptable. In this case, we were out for Saturday overnight, some of us hadn’t had the experience of pushing a bike for a full day, and the group consensus was that it might not be the most fun to have on a weekend.
Katrina and Mike were celebrating a 21-year anniversary, Tadhg and I would probably have gone bikepacking anyway, I asked Jeremy to come along (because he is fun), and Guy was there for fun and to test out some new equipment. Ultimately, it was all spurred on by Ryan Correy who started the Bikepack Canada organization. Though Ryan is battling cancer, he continues to passionately promote bikepacking in Canada.*
Waiting for the old people pushing.
Since we started a little later than expected, the trail was softening in the sun as we rode. The benefit of weighing a mere 100 pounds and having lots of fatbike experience showed with Tadhg being able to ride almost everything. I was able to ride about 90% of what I ride in summer thanks to my Bud and Lou tires on 100mm rims, and my willingness to ride with less air than most people think is necessary. I think it’s important to note that there is no substitute for experience, and I’ve been bikepacking on snow since the 1990’s and I’ve owned a real fatbike to do it since 2004.
The others did more pushing, but there was still a reasonable amount of riding, I’ve certainly done trips where the bike was just an awkward cart for my stuff, or worse, a hard-to carry piece of luggage in snow above the wheels.
At the campsite, we all set up our tents and such, Tadhg had relented to the use of the tarp when I explained that he would be carrying any tents that we were going to use. My tarp is 430g with pegs, so it really does offer a significant weight advantage, even if it isn’t as luxurious nor as wind-protected as our HMG Ultamid.
I’m fascinated by other people’s techniques for winter camping. Guy had a vapour barrier liner that he was experimenting with. In the morning, he deemed it a success. I’ve had good experience with vapour barrier liners in terms of them keeping me warmer, and keeping my sleeping bag insulation very dry. The dry insulation is a significant benefit on trips over 3 days since sleeping bags and quilts lose insulating value as they accumulate moisture over consecutive nights. The vapour barriers do have the disadvantage that they can get moist and clammy on the inside. In my experience, my body tends to sweat less if I use the vapour barrier, but the inside still feels more damp than the sleeping bag. The vapour barrier is definitely something I’ll consider on longer trips and it seems like Guy is planning using it for all trips.
Our ride out was earlier in the day than our ride in, so we had the benefit of a frozen trail. Tadhg rode everything but the hill that he usually walks, I was pretty close to him as far as riding to pushing ratio, and I think all of us were much happier to be mostly riding.
A big thanks to Guy for taking us all out for lunch, it wrapped up our weekend nicely.
*Since I wrote this, Ryan has succumbed to cancer. I’m grateful for his efforts to bring us all together. His Bikepack Canada organization has done a lot to share skills, experience, and advocacy to the community. He will be missed.
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.
Mike Rocked the pack-mule bike and trailer.
Katrina is my new bike hero.
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.
The fancy new outhouse at Romulus
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.
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.
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.
People often ask me how I get my kids to go out camping in the winter with me. The truth is, when they were young I acted like it was normal (and it is), so by the time they noticed that no one else was with us at the backcountry campground, they were hooked. Now they vie for the privilege of going to the backcountry in all seasons.
Getting outside in the winter is our way to enjoy the inevitable. Staying inside is simply not an option for us, we are unwilling to put our recreation on hold for an entire season. Aside from the physical benefits of being active, the mental benefits of being surrounded by nature, and the skills we gain by challenging ourselves, the outdoor world has a lot to offer in terms of simple enjoyment. In some ways, being outside in winter is easier than in summer. There are few bears out in winter and keeping warm while active in -35ºC is easier than keeping cool while active in +35ºC. It is way easier to get away from the crowds in winter than it is in summer and even a paved road looks like wilderness if you hide it with a few feet of snow.
Fiona is the one we refer to as “Arctic Girl”, she will generally be the first to be taking off layers whatever the temperature.
We sometimes credit Fiona’s cold hardiness to the Scandinavian tradition of putting babies outside to nap. At first we thought it was so we wouldn’t be trapped in our house every day for nap time, but we soon realized that our baby slept better outside than in.
Nap time at -20ºC
Yes, the thermometer says -32ºC next to that 7-month-old
sleeping outside at -30ºC (on a camping mattress for warmth)
No matter the reason, Fiona’s cold-hardiness does not give her superpowers. She can get frostbite or hypothermia (at least we assume so) and so we take the same precautions that people in cold climates have taken with their children for millennia.
Tadhg seems to have colder extremities than most kids, so we need to pay close attention to keeping his hands and feet warm if he is to feel comfortable on any cold weather outing. When people tell me that their kids are too sensitive to cold to go on winter backcountry excursions, I often mention that Tadhg isn’t tough enough either, he is just well dressed.
The frost on his hair at -35ºC shure is pretty
Though his sister was skiing in a T-shirt at -25ºC, he was dressed
So what the heck do I do to keep my kids warm? First, I listen. If they tell me they are feeling cold, I believe them and I look to do something about it. Before they could talk, I used to reach in to snowsuits and blankets to feel if hands and feet felt warm enough. I also watched for signs of discomfort – young kids may not shiver, but they won’t be comfortable, so if something is disturbing that placid sleeping baby face, it’s worth paying attention to.
Children’s snowsuits from better suppliers are generally warm, but that isn’t the same as designed for sleeping outside in -30º. Inactive people produce substantially less heat that active ones, so if the kids are standing around or sleeping, they need much more insulation. When the kids were smaller, I generally bough an extra suit, one size too big to put over the base suit. When they were in diapers, I tried to have the zippers on the snowsuit layers line up so I wouldn’t have to completely remove either suit. For naps and sleeping, sometimes a double snowsuit wouldn’t be enough to keep me (yes me, the caring parent) comfortable – for those occasions, I would put the kids onto a sleeping bag over the snowsuit layers.
A great way to keep anyone warm is to keep them moving. We try to keep moving until it is time to eat or get into a warm sleeping bag for the night.
A popular evening camp (in)activity is sitting by a campfire. While it is fun, it is also exactly the same as any other type of sitting – it produces virtually no heat. Couple that with the warmth from the fire tricking your body into shedding warmth and even sweating, and a fire with no shelter becomes a recipe for feeling cold. Lately, we have been going for walks or bike rides in the evening after eating. Instead of getting cold, the moderate activity warms us up so that we get into our beds comfortably and can relax right away instead of shivering for the first while. This is not to say that we never have campfires, we just limit the times we spend sitting around them.
Boots for kids are generally not as good as they should be. The problem is not the manufacturers, just the many demands placed on kids’ boots. Adults will generally spend hundreds of dollars on their own boots, but it is hard to part with as much when they are only going to be worn for a couple of months. Most waterproof boots will not allow water vapour from sweat to escape at -30ºC, while boots that aren’t waterproof will be wet and cold at temperatures around freezing since they will allow water in. For babies, my compromise was to put camp booties on them. I usually bought two pairs so I could put the pair that wasn’t being worn in my pocket to dry it out while the other pair was on the baby’s feet. The smallest kids didn’t wear them out, especially since they didn’t wear them on concrete in the city. Warm legs can help to keep the blood that reaches the feet warm If a kid is wearing shorts, they will tell you all about how their legs don’t get cold, but their toes will be like little ice cubes. Closed cell foam mattresses are a great way to keep the ground from drawing heat away from feet or bums that may be in contact with the ground. It is surprising how much warmer feet will be when standing on a piece of blue foam.
Mittens are another problem area for kids. They are constantly trying to pick stuff up but have small sensitive hands that lose their heat quickly. Around freezing, the only solution seems to be to have several pairs (as many as you can carry) and change them as often as you can without running out mitts before the outing is over. With Tadhg’s sensitive hands, he will often wear a pair of my mitts over his own liner and overmitt. Many people neglect the arms as part of the mitten system, but like feet, the hands depend on the blood reaching them being warm in order to keep warm. Warm arms go a long way toward keeping the hands at the end of them toasty.
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On the bikes, I have pogies for everyone’s hands, but I also wrap the brake levers in foam packing material which I hold in place with heat shrink tubing. Metal poles (including ski poles) are really good at conducting heat away from hands. Insulation between the hands and the bars helps and of course so do carbon fiber bars.
Hot liquids can help greatly in warming up a child who is getting uncomfortably cold. By the same token, drinking icy cold drinks can really cool a body, and especially a small child’s body, quickly. Too many hot liquids can of course be a problem since a trip out of the tent in -40 is a good way to lose the heat that was gained by drinking a hot tea.
There is a lot of talk about how much heat is lost through the head, and in fact wearing an insulated hat is an important part of outdoor activity. Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the biggest source of heat loss, the lungs. The human lung has a moist surface area of at least 50 square meters which is 25 times the skin surface area of a large person. Imagine getting out of the shower and then blowing on yourself outdoors. The easiest solution to this is to wear a scarf in front of the face, which is great until it becomes a mask of ice and wet fabric. Most Northern peoples have developed some type of hooded clothing that places a pocket of still air in front of the face where it can be warmed by outgoing breath and facial warmth. This is great, though it allows no peripheral vision, it does keep the face warm. My preferred solution is a heat exchanger mask or balaclava. There are a number of them on the market, with the https://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=coldbikecom-20&o=15&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0091CC38A&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr“>Ergodyne (amazon.ca affiliate link) and the Airtrim being my favourites. I generally feel that a good heat exchanger mask will add 10ºC to whatever you are wearing.
Hot foods are warming as well, not just from the heat of the food, but from the heat released when the body uses the energy in food. There are many ideas about eating foods like cayenne pepper to warm the body, but I find that just eating a hot meal will work well enough.
When camping in the winter, there is often no heated building to take shelter in if things go poorly. It is imperative to be prepared. If things get out of hand, it may be necessary to simply get into the tent and snuggle the young ones to warm them up. Hanging out the door of the tent while making a hot drink may not be the preferred cooking method, but it allows a parent to get hot liquids into a child while helping to warm them. Hot water in a steel water bottle can be used as a warming pack inside a sleeping bag to help warm a mildly hypothermic person of any age. For that matter, rocks can be heated to use for warming purposes assuming care is taken not to melt any tents/clothing/sleeping bags or burn anyone.
One of the key elements for us being out in the cold is to have fun. If we are having fun, we can more easily deal with the troubles that come from cold. We also aim to be flexible and we are willing to shorten or cancel an activity because we feel it will stop being fun.
Away from the lights and noise of the city, I always sleep better in a tent. I do awaken frequently to check on the kids though – especially when Fiona talks in her sleep. Many of the cases of frostbite in winter camping happen from sleeping through the onset of frozen feet. There are also many cases of hypothermia that happen at night, so it pays to be extra careful. When the kids were young, we would put them to bed in a snowsuit, a large snowsuit (that either covered hands and feet, or with booties) and then pack the whole kid-snowsuit assembly into a sleeping bag. While this was heavy, it was warm and comfortable. These days, we have moved toward simplifying the system with Tadhg sleeping in a down/synthetic sleeping bag, adding a down jacket if it is colder, and with a down jacket of mine if it becomes absolutely necessary. Fiona is now using a down sleeping bag with a home made synthetic overquilt. Either the quilt or the bag is good to about -10ºC, but the combination should be comfortable down to about -40.
There is a persistent myth that people need to be naked inside their sleeping bags. The fact is, insulation inside the sleeping bag works (until it gets compressed) just as well as the sleeping bag itself. The only caveat is that wet insulation of any type works poorly.
In the same way that layers of clothing can help to keep people comfortable in a range of temperatures and activities, so too can sleeping bags be layered. Of course no one wants to carry three sleeping bags per person, but it is not too onerous to carry a sleeping bag/overbag combination in most cases. In our case, our overbags weigh only 800g, so the total weight is actually less than what a single -40º rated bag would be.
Sleeping bags only insulate the top half of a sleeper since the bottom of the insulation is compressed beneath them. A warm sleeping pad is essential, more so the colder it gets. I really like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm mattresses, but after having one spring approximately 500 leaks on me this summer, I will not trust them as my sole sleeping pad. In the past, I have used closed cell foam pads either alone or for extra insulation with an air-filled pad, and I have now re-instituted their use in winter. (note that my leaky pad was replaced, and Therm-a-Rest recommend a foam pad as backup)
Some kids roam in their sleep and this makes keeping them on the pad an extra challenge over simply putting them on a quality sleeping pad and letting them sleep until morning. I generally pile all of Fiona’s and my own packs next to her so that she would have to work to wander over them. Her new sleeping quilt attaches to her sleeping pad and helps somewhat to keep her in place on the pad.
The quilt strap goes around the sleeping pad to hold in in place
Testing the new quilt
People some times question the safety of taking your kids camping in the cold, but I have to defer to the the entire North of Europe, Asia and North America. Many of the First Nations from around here referred to winter camping as “life” and though they had occasional issues with extreme weather, they thrived in our climate even though they slept out in tents every night. While their teepees were much larger and heated by a fire, it remains that they did not live in thermostat-controlled heated houses. I feel that on our most daring adventures, we have always left a large margin of safety, so while we have occasionally been uncomfortable, we have never been at the threshold of physical danger.
[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.