Sharon Hawley has finished her bicycle trip in Canada for this summer. She hopes to complete the adventure in another year. Please follow her winter adventure at

Route Map

Route Map

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wilderness Travel Among Tourists

It has been four days since my last post. I hope those you who follow this blog were not worried. But after my farewell on June 4, “You may not see me for three days, internet is unlikely. But like a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon, my bicycle should emerge in Canmore on Sunday evening.” Well it did not emerge on Sunday, but on Tuesday. And here is why:

I came to Jasper intending to ride the full length of the Icefields Parkway to Canmore in three days. I expected to see spectacular mountains and wildlife and also high prices and tourists in Canada’s most popular region. It’s a hard problem for someone who loves nature and the people who live with nature, to come into a once-pristine environment with a hoard of visitors. They care little for the lifestyles and emotions of wild inhabitants, but emerge from their vehicles just long enough for a picture of themselves in nature.

So I devised a scheme to enjoy as much of what I wanted and avoid as much of tourist annoyance as I thought possible. I could have camped on the two nights necessary to make the distance; that would avoid high-priced motels and tourists. But a story was floating around Jasper that changed my attitude. The story has nothing to do with camping, but a lot to do with my attitude.

A few weeks ago a cyclist was coasting down a hill on the Icefields Parkway, aware of mountains, forest all around him, and aware of the likelihood of wildlife encounters. He saw the bear along the side of the road a good two hundred feet ahead of him and immediately hit the brakes; his skid marks show the place. Since a bicycle is almost silent, the bear did not hear it coming and turned with a start when it heard the squeak of brakes. A strange something was charging the bear and it reacted as one being attacked. It charged the strange thing, and with a swipe of a paw, took the rider off the bicycle. With a few bites, the rider stopped moving. When authorities arrived, the bear was hovered over the carcass protecting it against theft by intruders. Incidentally, the young man survived to tell his side of the story.

I left Jasper early and began almost immediately to learn about the animals. Elk, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep all stopped long enough for my camera. I was also given lessons in French by the Ministry of Highways. Every sign is bilingual. They seem to think I should start preparing for my later passage into Quebec Province, a mere two thousand kilometers away.

A few kilometers south of Jasper, I turned off the Parkway onto little-used Road 93A. It goes the same way, but follows the other side of the Athabasca River. The road is rough and narrow. I climbed over a pass open only half the year on this lovely alternative, empty of traffic and seemingly far from tourists.

When I joined the Parkway, there were fewer cars and RV’s than I expected, maybe one in five minutes on average. The road has a wide shoulder, safe to ride on, save swerving animal-lookers and eyes peering from the forest perhaps.

I encountered just one business today, the overpriced and under-quality Sunwapta Lodge. I tell myself, “It’s a tourist area. You’re not here for the food.”

A list of animals I saw today includes elk, mountain goat, raven, bighorn sheep, Canadian goose, and German cyclist bound for Alaska. Of course we discussed bears; everyone hereabouts discusses bears. It seemed strange that for all the hype about this route being world-class for cyclists, that I would encounter only one other today.

Yes, the mountains are truly spectacular, everyone agrees on it. But being alone, out in the air, feeling as though my physical effort somehow earns me more pleasure than most, swallowing the landscape in great chunks, I felt like an explorer. I had to stop often for pictures.

At the end of the day, when the sun was still high in the five-pm sky, I came to Beauty Creek Hostel. It has fourteen beds in a small dormitory cabin, and a kitchen with a table in another cabin—no phone, no electricity, no running water, showers or flush toilets; outhouse toilets are available. This hostel meets all the Hostelling International quality standards as a “rustic hostel” and guarantees that you will have a safe warm, comfortable sleep in clean facilities away from the bears. It might have been crowded in that small dorm, but tonight I was the only guest, so it was a quiet mountain cabin. I slept in preparation for the long, steep climb up Sunwapta Pass in early morning.

Last night’s light snow was clinging to the post-tops as I ascended the next morning, new sun brightening the peaks long before it reaches into the valley. I climbed from dense forest into scattered trees. Finally, all but a few hardy trees have decided this rocky remain of the ice age is too harsh for them. The landscape becomes bare rock with scooped-out cirques and eroded moraines.

Near the top I came to the Icefields Center, where you can ride on the glacier in a big odd-looking bus. Surprisingly, the place was open at eight in the morning, and I stopped for a good breakfast. But sitting by the window with the glacier not far away, I saw a fearsome sight. The Canadian flag stretched out to the north, and I was heading southeast. I hoped the wind would reverse direction after I rounded the pass.

But it did not reverse, and I faced its cold blast going down into the next valley, a few snowflakes hitting my face. Runners were coming uphill in a relay race, about fifty of them. I waved and shouted encouragement, their faces looking almost hot as they ran up the hill.

Headwind continued off and on for two hours, and when I reached Saskatchewan Crossing, my right knee was hurting some. It was clearly not a good idea to keep going another thirty-seven hard uphill kilometers to Bow Pass, as was my plan. I took a room, the cheapest room, at $139. It does not even have internet and no phone. It’s a noisy room by the pub, or it would have been expensive.

Already three days behind schedule, I had added a fourth as I headed up toward Bow Summit on Sunday morning. I arrived on the other side at Mosquito Creek Hostel. Again, I was the only guest, besides a group of five. So with two dorm cabins, I had one all to myself.

The next morning I looked out the window of the hostel to a good three inches of snow on the ground, and still falling. I wanted to make the twenty-eight kilometers to Lake Louise, a town that’s 400 meters lower in elevation, where I might get warm. Snow collected on my glasses as I rode, and my fingers were getting numb. But once started, there was no option but to keep going. Watching as best I could for bears as I coasted fast on the downgrade. I kept moving to retain warmth. The road was only wet, not snowy or icy, and the air was cold and stinging with flakes in the wind.

It was snowing hard when I approached the town of Lake Louise (not the lake). I had descended in cold snow from 1800m elevation to 1400m and asked a park ranger where I might warm up. He directed me to a cafe, which I could barely see in the snow. By the time I staggered into that café, snow clinging to me, glasses fogged, mind fogged, well, it was quite a ride.

After Lake Louise, there was no more snow, no rain, just cold. I cruised through Banff, knowing I could not stay, but stopped at Chili’s for a good meal. Now I am at 1300m elevation, warm and rested in a hotel at Canmore.

The Canmore Hotel is the finest—world-class! It was built around 1890 and has been improved only a little since. The rooms are upstairs over the bar, with the bathroom down the hall. But it is cheap and adequate and has internet; what could be finer?

I came to the Canadian Rockies warned that winter storms can hit these mountains during any month. I started the trip earlier than most people thought best, but I did so to arrive in Maine before winter. Now I am seeing the summer snow of Canada. A local woman said today that last year, August was the only month that did not snow.

I don’t see many local people in Canmore or any of the towns along the Icefields Parkway. It seems like everyone is either a tourist or a college kid with a summer job. And I expected to see bicyclists with all their stuff, voyeurs like me, but met only the German. And I saw no bears. Maybe word of that recent attack got around among bears as it did among cyclists.

I have had way more life than I deserve, but it seems to keep on and on. Next the Great Prairie. What after that? I seem always driven to other places. So I continue to struggle in a risk-reward venture, like a kid. Its funny, most older people want to avoid risk, but we are the ones who have the least at stake. I want the flexibility to change my situation, to run, search, and bike.


  1. Sending you warm blankets of thoughts Sharon. What an adventure. I followed every word of it and I'm glad to know you came through to chilli from the chill. I can't imagine living in a climate where it snows most of the year. I love the Pacific Northwest and its inherent gloom but snow nearly year round is beyond. Beautiful photos. Wishing you fireplace dreams.


    I loved yuor scenic ride through

  2. Sharon, This was a great post, thank you ! Your pictures of the wild life are spectacular, however I was hoping to see a bear in there, oh well. Better no bear - than a big scary papa bear, and with the beginning part of your story, better safe than... Late spring snows are picture perfect, I like to say as close to heaven as you can get on Earth. To more great prairie pictures, and PS. I love the last line of your post. Thank you !

  3. That beautiful proud big-horn ram, he has an seemingly civilized elegance amidst the wilds, a boldness mixed with a natural inclination toward adventure in mountains, like you... and we... follow your tracks, you're giving us an unforgettable experience of the cold wild beauty even from afar, we the lucky ones who can watch from here. Thanks for all the hard work it takes to do this, and keep that wonderful smile glowing out from under your helmet, it lets us know there's the pleasure in it, of experiencing the unseen and recording it here for us.

  4. An amazing post. An amazing adventure. I loved reading every word of this post.

  5. When I was a kid and had earned enough autonomy to discover the gold mine sitting inside our small local library, the first thing that I devoured was the Little House on the Prairie series. Now I eagerly anticipate and savor all the deliciousness that you offer us.

  6. Thanks, Lois, for warm thoughts. You know, half the effort is mental. It's why encouragement helps so much.

    Thanks, Michael, it is pretty close to heaven up there.

    Kath, Yes, he has "civilized elegance" and "boldness mixed with a natural inclination toward adventure." But I must take issue with "we, the lucky ones who can watch from here." Thanks for following in my tracks.

    Thanks, Debbie, nice to see you riding along beside.

    Anonymous, I hope to see the prairie tomorrow or the next day and to find many little houses on it. Please, just a clue, a tiny clue?

  7. Well, I knew that particular phrase would amuse you, and invite your "taking issue". Yes, of course from your point of view, you are the lucky one who can see it all first hand, and I so admire that. ... still I consider myself lucky to be able, at least, to watch and be aware, being your friend. Also it is not only he (mr. big-horn) but YOU who has that has that elegance, along with your boldness and natural inclination toward adventure. I love it all about you!

  8. Opps, sorry I failed to id the comment. A clue... let's see... speak your 1st name... late to the party... speed freak (SB - LA)(I apologize for that).

  9. Thanks Sharon and Kath, I like your styles

  10. Hi Sharon ! Seems like you are becoming a pro at blogging :) God be with you in this journey !


  11. Hi Sharon, I'm just catching up with your trip, sitting here dewy eyed
    looking at your spectacular pictures and feeling for you- the cold, the snow, the painful knee, at the same time taking in that crisp air and
    picture perfect scenery. How well chosen and lucky you are!
    God's speed and sunshine!
    Erika W.

  12. Good to hear from you, Erika