Sunday, June 3, 2012

Day 6. Edmonton to Jasper to Athabasca Falls

Four o’clock in the morning and I am up, chomping at the bit to get on the train and resume my trip. But for all my hurrying up the train took its sweet time to come to the station, and it must have been 8:30 am before we got started. I dozed a bit at the beginning of the trip, but half an hour later we were already going to pine forest and crossing deep river canyons. So I was glued to the window for four hours waiting to see the high Rockies. Unfortunately it was raining, and the clouds obscured the distant mountain profiles (and I was having nightmare thoughts about biking in the rain). Finally, when I was ready to give up, the sky cleared up and monstrous peaks appeared all around us. They were all I had ever expected of the Rockies, with chalkboard examples of folds and thrust faults, neatly highlighted by the leftover snow.

When I got to Jasper, at 2 pm, I was totally ready to start my adventure. So much so that I barely took a look at Main Street (kind of quaint), asked for the way out, and got pedaling. Jasper is in a valley, so the start was not strenuous at all. I needed to cover 32 km to get to the hostel at Athabasca Falls, and since it was reasonably early I had no doubt I could easily reach this goal. It is wonderful how fast you can move on a bike! Walking at a good pace I can walk about 4 km in an hour, but with the bike you can easily make 10 km per hour, so after a while you feel that you are flying. And then the scale of the whole valley overwhelmed me. Here is a nice, long stretch of rock, and there is that snowy peak toward the end. An hour later you are still in the same stretch of the valley, and the snowy peak has grown into a mountain of gargantuan proportions. For the first time I realized that my idea of biking across the triple divide in three and a half days was pure folly.

I stuck to it, however, biking up the gentle upgrades and pushing the bike on foot in the steep ones, all the time looking for some sign that I was getting any closer to my destination. Again, this is not like the “caminos de Galicia”, where there is a town every 10 km, and a place to drink a glass of vino tinto every 5 km. Oh no, this is the most imposing, stark, and interminable wilderness ever, and I didn’t even have the encouragement of mile markers to keep me on task.

Finally, after three and a half hours of biking I came across the blessed sign for Athabasca Falls, and a few minutes later I was entering the hostel, happy in the knowledge that this was not the day in which I would have to rough it in the wilderness. Well, the hostel is pretty rough, with no running water, but in every other respect is an island of warmth and friendliness. I was counting on being able to buy some food at the hostel (cup of noodles or something of the sort) but the hosteller sadly informed that he had nothing to sell, and no, there were no stores between Jasper and Banff. After he had a chuckle at my expense he turned to his buddy and asked if he might find something for me to eat in the “Free Food” bin that is found at every hostel. “Sure, we will make sure you don’t go hungry.”

With that promise still ringing in my ears I went for a walk, to admire the Athabasca Falls. The Athabasca River is a wide, mountain stream, perfect for canoeing, except that at this point it encounters a ledge of the Gog Quartzite, an incredibly hard rock that will not give way to the river. So the river is forced into a narrow gorge, where it hurls all its fury against the hard rocks. Past this stretch the river widens again into a broad, meandering stream, much frequented by fishing grizzly bears. Interestingly, below the falls there are all sorts of fishes, but above the falls there is only one type. Clearly the falls are a major barrier to the colonization efforts of salmon and rainbow trout, but how did the lonely species of red trout made it up the falls?

When I got back to the hostel, a tall young man accosted me and asked if I was the man who needed something to eat. Yes, I acknowledged in some surprise. Well, here, I made some pasta carbonara, and here is some salad. Then another young man came and offered me a pack of ground beef, and some cold cuts, and these two girls offered some rolls. I was overwhelmed by their generosity and friendliness, and had a fabulous dinner. It must be my reward for feeding my young people when they come study at my home :)

Day 7. Athabasca Falls to Beauty Creek

Today is my big day! I have looked at the map carefully and have the option of going to the Beauty Creek hostel (60 km) or the Mosquito Creek hostel (90 km). Hmm . . . Beauty Creek or Mosquito Creek? To judge by the name I believe my best bet is Beauty Creek. OK, so 60 km it is, which at an average of 10 km per hour should take me 6 to 7 hours. My new friend Gabriel treated me to an excellent breakfast of eggs and ham, topped by a cup of coffee, and by 7 am I am on my bike, full of energy and determination. The road is incredibly beautiful, surrounded as it is by majestic peaks clad in snow, and barring a couple of long ups and downs it has a fairly gentle gradient. Unfortunately my bottom has some disagreement with the narrow bike seat, and after 30 kilometers I am feeling very sharply every little bump in the road.

I stopped at the one resort to be found between the two hostels, innocently thinking I might be able to buy some camping food. Nada! I could buy a measly and horrendously overpriced sandwich, but there is no hiking food for sale. Come on, surely there is a fortune to be made selling granola bars, trail mix, and beef jerky to the passing tourists? So I have to continue as a mendicant, hoping a good soul will feed me at Beauty Creek hostel.

The last half of the trip was painful. For one thing, the slopes are getting steeper, and for other the road bumps are getting bigger (or is it that my derriere is getting more sensitive?). I was told a grizzly bear has been sighted around here, so I must be cautious. Still, it is easy to forget these small discomforts by casting my gaze over the fabulous landscape.

I finally made it to Beauty Creek, at about 4 pm. As the name implies, this rustic hostel is perched along the bank of a beautiful river, the Sunwapta River, which downstream merges with the Chaba River to form the Athabasca River. I arrived there at the same time as another cyclist, Kiko from Barcelona, and together we said to hello to Jordan from Australia, who was going to be my gracious host that night. Jordan turned out to be an angel in disguise, who reached into his own supplies to provide me with a pasta dinner, after which we sat companionably by the campfire, shooting the breeze. We were later joined by Nicholas and Caroline, a French couple, and by Roger a Brit-now-Canadian, so it was a very enjoyable early evening.

Day 8. Les Champs de Glace

I woke up early, and had time to consider my plans before I jumped out of bed. The idea of reaching Banff was nonsensical, first because I still had the hardest climb ahead, to the edge of the Columbia Icefield, and because Banff is 180 miles (not kilometers) from Banff, which means I would still have to cover 200 km in two days. Having settled that point to my satisfaction, I decided to abandon my bike for the day, hitch a ride up to the champ de glace (icefield in French, which I think sounds a lot more interesting), hike around there, and then hitch a ride back to Beauty Creek. I was mulling on this plan, sipping coffee around the campfire at 6 am, when Roger came out of his room, ready to go. Last night he had mentioned something about heading for the icefield, so I asked him if he would give me a ride, he said yes, and we were off!

Roger turned out to be the perfect companion for this trip. He is a Cartography professor at Prince George University, is into remote sensing, and for the last few years has been mapping the retreat of the Canadian glaciers (or at least some of them, since there are several thousand glaciers in the Canadian Rockies). So, he was a wealth of information on what to see and what to do. Imagine the Columbia Icefield as a giant pile of ice cream sitting atop a knot of mountains, with strands slowly oozing down the different valleys. These strands would be the independent glaciers being fed by the icefield. It is these strands that have been retreating since the end of the Little Ice Age, in 1844. The better known of these glaciers is the Athabasca Glacier, which is the one visited by most tourists, and since folks have been around since 1844, there are plenty of maps and photographs to show where the toe of the glacier was in 1844, 1880, 1890, 1900 . . . and so on. I had my photograph taken at the place the glacier stood in 1982, when Faby and I visited the area 30 years ago. At the often spoken rate of 20 m per year the toe of the current glacier should have been 600 m away. Alas, it was less than 200 m, so no, the rate of glacier retreat has not accelerated in the last few years, the claims of global warming enthusiasts notwithstanding.

After a thoroughly invigorating walk and discussion about the ways of glaciers, Roger suggested a hike up to Parker’s Ridge, from which a fabulous view of the Saskatchewan Glacier can be enjoyed. It is only 2.5 km to the top, so it should have been a 2 hours walk at most. It took us 4 hours! The trail was covered in snow, and we intrepid galciologists had to wade in soft snow down to our butts for the best part of the way. It was worth it, though, for we had the best view of this little-visited glacier, which is at least three times as long as the Athabasca and is better “framed” by wooded slopes. We paid a dear price for our adventuring, however, for we got very cold, our feet went numb, and I developed a rosy snow burn all over my legs (foolishly, I was wearing shorts for this outing).

Our last hurrah was a visit to the Bridal Veil Falls (yes, just like in Yosemite), followed by a tasty but expensive lunch at the Icefields Visitor Center. Food and booze are generally more expensive in Canada than in the US, but in this faraway location the prices are pure highway robbery. Still, we enjoyed our lunch together and cemented a friendship that I hope we maintain for years to come. Roger works with satellite images for his mapping project, and I intend to pick his brain as Tonya and I embark in our remote sensing of the oceans project.

I thought I was going to hitch a ride back, but it turns out I misunderstood, and Roger was backtracking north in order to go to his town of Prince George, so he dropped me off at the door of the hostel, where I was looking forward to a relaxing afternoon.

Once again Jordan saved me from starvation, and we were settling down to a quiet talk when a most interesting newcomer came in. Nice young man, whose name I never caught, carrying a bicycle saddle bag. He was on a bicycle journey from Anchorage, Alaska, to Panama City, Panama! Solo, and carrying with him repair tools and spare parts, food for a week, tent, sleeping bag, and clothes (a total of 50 kg), he was going at an average rate of 150 km per day! Throw in a day or rest here and there, and he was planning to cover the 8,000 km distance in about two months. Crazy, isn’t it? Ah, but the allure of adventure . . .

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