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.
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.
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.
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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.
We have been going to Lake O’Hara for a couple of years on family day weekend, but this year we decided to switch thing up for a variety of reasons.
We considered skiing in to Mt Assiniboine again, but the forecast did not look promising in terms of seeing the mountain after what for us is a 2.5 day ski in.
Spray River from Banff to Goat Creek has been consistently good for us in that we’ve never seen people there that didn’t come with us, it is easy to bail from, it is pretty, and it super easy to ski or bike to.
We decided on 2 nights at the campground with a day trip up Goat Creek. Tania chose skiing over biking, the kids followed her lead, and since I didn’t really want to bike alone, I skied as well.
Tadhg and I towed sleds, he likes to avoid backpacks at all costs, I just had too much stuff to fit in my backpack.
It was not warm, but with our routine of using a fire to roast our burritos, then going for a walk before bed rather than sitting around a fire getting sweaty and telling our bodies to shed heat, we were quite fine as we went to bed near 10 pm.
Fiona and I were under the tarp as usual, and since the forecast called for cold, we had our -10ºC sleeping bags with our quilts over them and were toasty warm. When I looked at the thermometer at 8 in the morning, I was a little surprised to see it reading -23ºC (-10F). Fiona and I eventually got out of bed and made the trek down to the eating area to make coffee.
In what would turn out to be a potentially serious event, when I screwed my stove together, I failed to notice some ice that prevented the canister from sealing correctly to the valve. As the stove sat there burning poorly, I went to get some more snow to melt. As I was returning with the snow, I got to see the fuel that had leaked out catch flame. While unspectacular, I was concerned that if I just left the flames burning, it would heat the canister enough to become a big problem. I cleverly figured what the problem was as I was walking toward the stove, and quickly reached in and tightened the canister to the valve. Once the leaky canister was dealt with, the remaining fire quickly dissipated.
Now this would not have been very serious at all if not for the quantity of fuel that leaked out. In the absence of a scale to measure how much fuel was left in the canister, I have to rely on “the force” to estimate remaining fuel. The remaining fuel did not give me a comfortable feeling. I was certain that I would have enough for dinner, but not positive that Monday morning coffee was going to happen.
I advised Tania when I handed her her first cappuccino that we might have a fuel shortage. Neither of us was keen on facing a morning without coffee. While there is a fire pit at the Spray 6 campsite, making a cooking fire at those temperatures seemed a little onerous to set ourselves up for. We decided to do our day trip and then head home afterward. The choice was hardest on Fiona who would have liked to stay another night. We did get in a wonderful ski on a beautiful clear day.
Though cut a bit short, we still had a great weekend in the woods. When measured in fun, this was a great success. It also shows the importance of being willing to change plans in the event of unusual circumstances. We weren’t really in danger, but we also weren’t necessarily in line for the level of comfort that we wanted.
I like to think that I learn lessons when things don’t go exactly according to plan.
We did of course have the option of me skiing back to town to buy a spare fuel canister, but this was a family trip, and the trade of me missing the day’s skiing with them for a trip to town sounded like poor value. In hindsight, this was the correct decision.
In the future, I can consider several options. The best option is to be more careful with fuel, to avoid leaks. I should also have been making more of an effort to get to the river to fetch water rather than melting snow. Also, on a trip like this, would it really kill me to bring an extra 200g of fuel? I only had about 75g of spare fuel and I estimate that I lost about 100g.
I normally bring 2 fuel canisters with me on winter trips, in this case, I had used up the mostly empty canister on the first night. I had felt that since I had plenty of fuel, there was no need to be thrifty and I could just use up the canister. Next time, there will be no frivolous (fuelish?) wasting of even the dregs of the canister.
I had also expected to be using fresh milk for cappuccinos, which saves fuel. I had not insulated the milk jug though (I usually do), so it froze solid on the first night. I will continue to hang my food bag at night, not just for bears, but for rodents, who will spoil a food bag very effectively overnight.
It’s worth thinking about bringing my white gas stove as well. While it is a bit more complicated to use, it is much easier to tell exactly how much fuel is left in it. Had we been going to Mt Assiniboine, I would have been carrying both stoves (or possibly an alcohol beer-can stove), I like to have a backup because of the greater isolation of the trail. I would bring only a small fuel canister for the butane stove and consider it emergency backup. The white gas stove (I have an MSR Whisperlite) is also way more functional below -30ºC (I also have an arctic pump for mine) where the canister stove works, but is very slow.
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.
This year, I built a second pulk sled for Tadhg, and mine is much more refined than my original. Tadhg is not the biggest backpack fan, so now he has the option to ski without wearing one, though he is pulling the sled, unlike on the bike where he has bags on the bike.
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The trail in to Lake O’Hara is an 11km gravel road which is groomed and trackset. It climbs steadily for the first 2 and last 3 km, with the middle portion being rolling hills. Other than some waxing issues I was having (Skier Bob was having the same troubles), the trip up went really well. I had decided to avoid the trouble of melting snow for our water by bringing up 20L of water for the weekend. While pulling it in the sled was much easier than carrying it, I would skip the water carrying next time. I might bring a large pot to make snow melting easier, especially at Lake O’Hara with its eating shelters with stoves.
Just past the half way point, we met the aforementioned Skier Bob, and he took our picture and spoke with us for a while about my waxing issue and about our camping adventure. We were lucky enough to have our picture featured in the skier bob story of his ski.
When we reached the campground, we were disappointed to find the toilet was locked. This seemed unusual to us since we had been there before and had used the pit toilets there. There was another outhouse up at the Le Relais shelter (about 5o0m up the trail), but it seemed a long way to go when you need to go.
There are two picnic shelters at the campground, both with wood stoves. The wood stoves are usually very convenient for cooking on, but they work poorly with the door opened, and the shelter we chose had the stove door panel removed, so it was not getting as hot as we wanted for toasting our burritos. We at least got them hot and melted the cheese, even if the outsides weren’t as crisp as ideal.
When we arrived, we had the entire campground to ourselves and we shoveled out the first spot for the tent, followed by laying out Fiona’s and my sleeping bags and pads in a stomped down area in a tree well. (like described here). Fiona is definitely a fan of sleeping outside, and our setup was as outside as you get.
Our morning was the usual routine of backcountry cappuccinos for Tania, fresh-ground Aeropress coffee for me, and breakfast all around. The overnight temperature was around -12ºC, so while my water bag was partially frozen, the milk was only at the slushy stage. Winter camping is generally easier than summer when it comes to keeping foods fresh, though fruits and vegetables are often susceptible to damage from freezing.
We had plans to build a quinzhee, so we did some shoveling to pile up the snow. Well, mostly I did the shoveling. I got a good size pile, and we went for a quick snowshoe up to the lake, the Elizabeth Parker huts, and a bit of the surroundings. The kids were looking forward to getting back to the campsite, so we only wandered for a couple of hours.
On our way back to the campsite, we saw that some people had arrived at the warden’s cabin, so we stopped to ask about getting the toilet unlocked. Edwin, the warden, wasn’t hopeful, but said he would come by later with some keys he had to give it a try. He also provided us with a great lesson on an ingenious braking system for the pulk sled, as well as some good general information. He and his friend seemed very impressed that we had our kids out winter camping.
Edwin did have the correct key and got at least the women’s washroom unlocked, this would be much handier in the morning than the substantial walk. Not that we don’t like walking.
Digging out the quinzhee was going rather well, the interior was starting to get fairly big, until a sudden settling alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t packed down the base enough, especially on one side. Rather than risk an unstable shelter, I abandoned the project – the kids were mostly building their slide anyway.
We were joined on Saturday by a group of men who set themselves up in the other shelter and started drinking. They seemed friendly enough, and we assumed they would be like a similar group the year before, competent and quiet.
As we finished our dinner, a second group arrived, this time two couples. We didn’t see much of them that evening, but they were definitely there to enjoy the backcountry.
After another delicious dinner of what has become a camping staple for us, red lentil sweet potato dal (I have been shredding it with an immersion blender to make the sweet potatoes rehydrate better), I read to the kids for a couple of hours, and then we headed off to bed. I had deployed the tarp to keep the snow off Fiona and I since it was snowing fairly steadily.
Though the group of men in the picnic shelter did have a fairly loud and late party, we slept well enough, and soon morning dawned. It had snowed several cm overnight, and the campground looked nice with the fresh covering of powder.
Some of the campground was not so nice. The party group were packing up quickly, no doubt because they were hung over and hopefully embarrassed to have left so many cigarette butts and so much mess in the shelter. Somebody had also peed on the seat of the privy, failing to lift the seat seems to me to be the epitome of laziness, as well as an indication of contempt for your fellow campers.
Breakfast, on the other hand, was a treat. The two other couples in the campground joined us in the shelter, and they were beyond delightful. Not only did they have some more good pulk sled information, but they were clearly people who embraced the joy of winter camping. Though I failed to get any of their names (social graces are not my strong suite), we thoroughly enjoyed meeting them. Their invitation to join them on an Iqaluit (where one of the couples live) adventure was icing on the cake. Their coffee setup was similar to mine, with a portable grinder for the beans while they had a 2-tier stove top espresso machine rather than my Aeropress.
The ski-out featured enough fresh snow that Tadhg and I were sometimes pulling the sleds downhill, since they had enough drag to not slide on their own. The temperatures were warm enough that we struggled with snow buildup on the kick zone of our skis, but some scraping and crayoning of glide wax in the problem areas seemed to help.
Though we might want to skip the party gang next year, we still had a great weekend and enjoyed our visit easily as much as last year.
Like all bad ideas, it started innocently enough. “The kids have no school on Friday, let’s go camping.”
The Point campground on Upper Kananaskis Lake is a spot that we have walked past, but not camped in. It is only 4km from the trail head if you go the hard way, and 7km the easy way. When we had been there before, it had been summer, so we were blissfully unaware of what winter conditions might entail.
We thought it might also be a good shakedown for my new pulk sled, before we take it on a longer trip. The new sled is basically the same as the old one, with slightly improved hardware.
We set off in the snow at a balmy -12ºC on Friday to hike to Point campground. We chose the 4km route since it was shorter and there was just the one hill that we could recall. Tania and Fiona got a head start with Tadhg and I hauling the sleds behind. The forecast called for -18ºC at night, so we brought a few extra items of clothing and sleepwear just to be on the safe side.
It was snowing as we set out, as per the forecast. We figured the sleds would work better with a bit of snow, so we weren’t overly concerned. Of course, the hike started with a pull across the gravely surface of the dam, where there was almost no snow at all. Soon though we were into the woods with a wonderful packed trail that climbed gently enough the forest.
[Click on pictures to enlarge]
The first avalanche path that we came to was pretty icy and slanted, so we unloaded the sleds and ferried the gear across so no gear would get lost if the sleds went downhill. The next avalanche path was much easier to traverse.
Another short section of path led us to the switchback boulder field that led down the hill we had climbed. We had totally forgotten this part of the path, and it was more than a little obscured by snow. This was where we met back up with Tania and Fiona, who had turned around and were heading back to the car since they had been unable to find the remaining path to the campground or the campground itself due to the whiteout conditions.
It turned out that the path they had been following was not the correct one, just the one that many people had trampled. We never did find the correct one, but by heading across the lake for a bit, we came to the campground.
The Point is a fairly extensive campground with about 30 sites and 2 outhouses, but we were happy with the first two sites in from the lake, which had a pre-shoveled tent pad and a quinzee, respectively. The roof on the quinzee was a little low, but a bit of shoveling got it to the point where I could stretch out enough to sleep and we were soon set for the night. (Fiona and I had the option of sleeping under the tarp as usual, or sleeping in the tent).
Once we had the tent set up, we moved on to our favourite opening night meal, roasted burritos. A few folks have asked, so here is the basic recipe.
3 cups dry pinto beans, 1 large onion, 2tbsp miso paste, 3tbsp chilli powder, 1/4 cup of butter. soak the beans overnight, rinse them, add ~4cups water and the other ingredients, cook in a slow cooker about 8 hours, blend with an immersion blender until they are not-quite smooth. Then dehydrate them in a dehydrator. I usually fry some onions and red peppers and dehydrate those at the same time. At the campground, I rehydrate the beans and peppers, wrap it in a wheat tortilla with some shredded cheddar and then I roast them on the grill that comes with most fire pits, or on a flat rock if I have to.
Running out the clock when camping in winter is sometimes tricky, but this time around, we managed to keep everyone up and active until 9pm, and so we headed to bed. We woke up to a few inches of fresh snow in the morning and I started in on making Tania’s coffee. Fiona started converting the path to the bear-proof lockers into a bobsled track, which was good, since it kept her warm in the -19ºC temperature.
Our Saturday was spent on the usual Saturday chores, building a quinzee, making a bobsled track, going for a hike across the lake so we would have a better trail for the morning (foreshadowing) and of course a great deal of eating. It continued to snow for the day and the temperature stayed pretty steady, so we had an easier time staying dry.
When I looked out the quinzee door on Sunday morning, there was only an inch or so gap between the snow and the top of the door. After burrowing out through it, I found myself in fresh snow up to the tops of my thighs, nearly 3 feet of snow. My hands were dragging in the snow if I didn’t lift them.
This table had been cleared to bare metal just the night before.
Before making coffee, I excavated the lower 4 feet of our 6 foot tall tent from the snow so Tania and Tadhg could get out without an avalanche.
The top 3 sections of our 7 section tent.
The temperature felt balmy, I was shocked when the thermometer read below -20ºC.
Once coffee was done with, we had a quick candy and granola bar breakfast and quickly packed up our stuff for the slog out.
And what a slog it was. I was towing over 100 pounds on the sled, and the snow was deep enough that the sled was just plowing it rather than gliding on top. The snow varied between waist and upper thigh deep and even though it was fluffy, it was still an all-out effort to pull the sled through it. I tried to keep my forward progress to a minimum of 20 steps between breaks, but sometimes I didn’t even make that many. It was also quite windy, so I no longer thought it was warm. This went on for 3.75 hours to make the 3.5km back to the car.
At one point Tania asked me if I felt like I was Max pulling the Grinch’s oversize sled. I responded that I’d sure like my heart to grow three sizes that day…
Now, a lot of people have asked me this week if I felt like activating the SOS feature on my InReach device. and the answer is, “not even close.” Now, this was a very difficult trek for all of us, but that’s not something that requires a rescue. If any one of us was in danger of so much as losing a toe, I wouldn’t hesitate, but we were not at that stage. At all stages of our weekend (including the hike out in the full out blizzard), we consistently asked the kids how they were doing – how were their feet/hands/face, etc. We were all very uncomfortable on the hike out (and there were a few tears from the kids), but that doesn’t need a rescue, discomfort is not the same as an emergency. When we arrived home, we still had clothes we hadn’t worn. And, not a trace, or even threat, of frost-bite.
Personally, if you asked me to go out and do it again next weekend, I would. Fiona still reports liking winter camping better than summer camping.
When we got back to the car (the lone car in the parking lot), not only was it covered in piles of snow, but the snowplow had been by. The kind driver had plowed to the side we were parked on, leaving a very tall snowbank/windrow to get through before getting underway. Thanks. While I loaded the car, Tania and the kids shoveled out a space in the wall of snow so we could get underway. Luckily, the snow hadn’t melted and frozen again and, therefore, was relatively easy to remove. This time we weren’t too concerned about the sweat the shoveling could generate since we’d be driving back to Calgary in a warm car (you want to avoid sweating whilst winter camping).
Every outdoor trip/adventure has its “learning moments” and this one was no different. When you’re dealing with the outdoor elements, you need to be prepared for all types of weather, which we were. Even with our uncomfortable moments, it was still a successful adventure with a lot of fun moments, but definitely a little more “adventure” than some of our trips.
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.