Tour Divide Diary Day 1
Banff to Boulton Creek
58.8 miles 4202.8 feet of climbing
We ended up getting into the motel in Calgary pretty late after picking up the hire car. It was cold, chucking it down with rain and we eventually got the bike boxes through the airport to the car hire counter, which was difficult as most of the doors were narrower than two bike boxes on a trolley and we had to keep picking up the trolley and turning it to one side to get it through. I’d hired a Chrysler Town and Country, which was a pretty massive mini van. We folded all the seats down, just leaving the two front ones, and it swallowed up the two bike boxes with ease.
So when we left the airport, aside from the fact I’d been awake for 27 hours, it was dark, I was driving on the other side of the road and it was peeing it down with rain! We put the address of the motel into the satnav and went off on our way and where it told us to turn right the road was closed for construction. We ended up going straight on and then taking the next right turn, which also happened to be a freeway. So I was completely out of my comfort zone!
The satnav managed to reroute itself and we eventually turned up at the luxurious Comfort Inn. I’d booked a basement room as they were the cheapest and when the receptionist saw us struggling in with two bike boxes he very kindly upgraded us to the ground floor so we wouldn’t have to wrestle with the lifts or stairs.
We got into our room and had a good go at getting the bikes together. When we finally went to bed it was midnight local time, but seven in the morning UK time, so Tom went straight to sleep as he normally does, lucky devil, and my body clock said “time to get up and go to work”. So I had a very fitful night’s sleep, Tom woke up around six. We finished building the bikes, disposed of the cardboard and all the clothes we wore on the plane and bag we used, got totally ready to go and then headed off for breakfast.
The breakfast was a self service affair with the addition of a rather awesome waffle maker. I had scrambled egg on toast, a banana, muffins, yogurt and a waffle along with about a gallon of orange juice as I felt so dehydrated from the flights, a good start to the day!
We reloaded the bikes into the car, which this time was much easier, all we needed to do was take out the front wheels. The drive to Banff was considerably quicker than Google said it would be, an hour and a half, instead of two and a half and that was within the speed limit! We got into Banff nice and early, even with the added hassle of driving round the block twenty times to locate both the service station to fill the car and then the parking for Avis, which ended up being in the underground car park of a shopping centre.
We changed into riding gear in the car park, found a supermarket to get the day’s supplies, which turned out to not be enough in the end. We bought bear spray, which is priced to take advantage of your fears, yowsers sixty five dollars each!! A quick trip into Starbucks for a last coffee in civilisation and we pedalled into the trailhead car park at midday, exactly what the plan was. Perfect timing!
As we were riding to the start there was another guy on a bike fully loaded with bikepacking gear, who was starting at exactly the same time as us. He was from Connecticut, we chatted for a bit and talked about our respective plans, but it turned out he was a little slower than us and was planning on doing forty miles on the first day, where we were planning on doing sixty to get to a proper campsite, rather than having our first night in bear country.
The first part of the trail was amazing, it was a mixture of doubletrack and singletrack. There was some incredible singletrack. When we eventually got to the Spray Lakes Reservoir we were riding along on the doubletrack and Tom suddenly says “BEAR!”. We screeched to a halt, got out our unfeasibly expensive bear spray, took off the safety catches. I then hurled a few choice obscenities at the bear. It stood up and had a good look at us and then wandered off into the woods in a decidedly disinterested way. We waited for a good two minutes, looking all round, waiting to see if it was going to hop out the undergrowth and rip our throats out, but it clearly couldn’t be bothered and just wandered off to do whatever it is bears do. So the next hundred yards of trail to where the bear was standing we rode with bear spray in one hand. Once we’d got past that point we got our heads down for a couple of minutes and put some distance between ourselves, then pulled over to calm down, in a rather giggly, post adrenal heap!
The next section brought the fun back with a piece of north shore that had been built to bridge a large section of boggy ground. When we eventually hit the part of the reservoir that wasn’t hemmed in by trees we were treated to a breathtaking view, but we were beginning to feel the burn as we had been going about four hours and our internal clocks (still on UK time) said midnight. Tom however was doing a great job of keeping me motivated and we kept going, eventually we got to the end of the reservoir, which was huge and made the Elan Valley ones on the Welsh Ride Thing look like duck ponds! The trail then turned uphill and did an up and over to the next part of the trail. It had a great section of singletrack too, but tired legs and a fear of bears were making it hard to get the best from it.
Then it was another climb at the Mt Shark Trailhead, we were heading towards the six thousand feet mark for altitude and, as someone who lives at sea level, I was finding it a little hard. Tom had the luxury of youth on his side! We’d done forty miles and still had twenty’ish to go and were both wondering just how long it would take.
Up the next climb to the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, I was totally done for and was off the bike and pushing, feeling very sorry for myself. Tom was still riding, about twenty feet in front of me. All of a sudden to the right of me in the undergrowth there was a very long, very deep growl, followed by another. I hopped back on, shouted “BEAR, GO!” to Tom and we both set a potentially great Strava segment time up to the top of the hill! I still don’t know whether it was a bear, mountain lion or something else. I looked round as I got on the bike but saw nothing, which I must say was actually scarier than seeing the bear earlier.
After that unexpected sprint we were close to empty so we ate all our remaining food, I then ran out of water on the way to the top of that climb, fortunately just the other side of the top there was a car park which luckily had a creek flowing through it. We stopped and filtered water, topping ourselves both up, getting savaged by mosquitos at the same time. We learnt a valuable lesson there though; check your water on a regular basis, filter the water and top up before you need it, don’t wait till it’s too late. When you’re tired and thirsty even squeezing the filter bag is not an easy task!
After that it was downhill for the next twenty miles, not steep, but enough to make a pleasant difference to tired legs. The Smith-Dorrien Spray Road was a long, very wide, gravel road and actually had a surprising amount of traffic on it. Fortunately for us though most slowed down to pass so it was a nice, less taxing, end to the end of the day. The last part of the descent down the the lowest point was an absolute blast and we hit thirty five mph on the way down to the Kananaskis Lakes Trail. We also met a really gnarly looking old dude, who looked not unlike Father Christmas going the opposite way on a fully loaded fat bike, that could have been a joint hallucination though!
So the last part ended up being a five miles that took way longer than it should have, the sun was out, the conditions were great. We’d turned onto tarmac at last, but the undulating road went on forever. We were very pleased to see Boulton Creek Trading Post, which was happily still open too. So we went in, bought everything in there, which cost rather a lot and then I begged the girl to let us stay at the camp site for the night. However it was fully booked and despite my wibbly bottom lip she suggested we went over the road to the Lower Lake Campground which still had places.
We descended the road to the campground and turned onto the camping loop, only to see the large sign “Bear spotted in area, use caution”, great. We found a free camping bay, choosing to camp next to a noisy family figuring they’d hopefully keep the bears away. By the time we had cooked and washed up it was nearly eleven and we packed everything away. Because we had no car to put our remaining food in we put the food in a dry bag and hung it over a high branch of a tree that was a good distance away. As we were getting into the tent to go to sleep we heard a car pull up and they were looking at our bag hanging in the tree wondering just what it was. I got back out the tent and walked over to explain and the lady said they had bear proof storage lockers, but they were right back up the top of the hill. I deployed the wibbly bottom lip again and they happily agreed to let me leave it there.
So we crawled into bed, Tom slept like a log as usual, and I spent the night drifting in and out of sleep wondering when we would be attacked by bears!
So day one had drawn to a close, was it everything I had expected and conjured up in my head? Yes it was and so much more too. I’d been dreaming about this trip for so long and the reality left me feeling rather different to how I had expected too. Our incidents with the bears had really shaken me up, why had I brought my child along with me and just what the hell was I thinking putting him in danger? I was struggling to reconcile my actions and in reality although I knew from following the Tour Divide race for so long that incidents with bears were a rarity, I just couldn’t reconcile it with riding the trail with Tom.
The first day really set the tone for me of how we would go about the trip from there on, I had originally planned to ride till we could ride no more each day and wild camp wherever we ended up, but the parent in me just couldn’t let me do that from a safety perspective. Irrational or not I made the decision that we would end each day in a campground in a town. However this would mean the distances we could cover would have to be rejigged to fit round towns and ultimately it made it rather more difficult.