We leave late the next day, when the sun is high overhead and thunder clouds are already building. Leslie loads us down with sandwiches, and with one last goodbye, we’re off. The trail climbs past the fancy Castle styled hotel and into the woods. It’s different from the gravel roads we’ve followed so far, and I struggle to find my flow over the rocks. There’s other bikers out- northbounders finishing and other South bounders just starting. We see more bikers in an hour than we did on the entire Jasper to Banff section. We climb and climb until we find the campground by spray lakes. Jagged grey mountains rise from blue Crystal Waters. It’s only 4pm, early to call it for the night, but it’s too pretty a spot to miss.
We wake up to damp - dew has settled by the lake and soaked everything. Clouds blow overhead, and the oppressive heat of the past few days has gone. We head out, pedaling as fast as we can on gravel road. We stop for an early lunch as a moose gazes at us dopily from across a meadow. Then it’s just a few more kilometers to Bolton Creek. We visited the store there last year on our GDT hike, and have fond memories of some of the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten. I get two slices and an ice cream. Steve orders so much food that the guy behind the counter asks him if he’s serious. Clearly we have more hiker hunger than most. We eat and chat with the few GDT thruhikers resupplying. Then we head up, over bear scat littered Elk Pass to lower elk lakes. We hiked through here last year at mid-morning and I was devastated that we couldn’t camp there. Now, it’s a few kilometres off trail, but it’s a worthwhile detour to camp somewhere so amazing.
A porcupine snuffles by the food lockers in the morning. We head down the road, passing a few GDT hikers and a whole herd of horses. Then two familiar figures: Oliver and Tanya! We met them last year on the GDT and this year they are hiking the trans Canada trail. Our two paths overlap for just a day’s worth of riding, but we’ve accidentally timed it pefectly. We catch up for an hour or so, then go our separate ways. Half an hour later, I hear a crashing in the brush. A small black bear bolts away so fast Steve doesn’t even have time to see him.
We detour to a lake recommended by Oliver and Tanya, then head into Elkford on swoopy single track. We get a spot at the campground where they have hot showers, electrical outlets and are walking distance to a little restaurant, where we eat all of the food and drink a few beers.
The campground is loud all night, and we’re a bit sluggish in the morning. Breakfast and coffee perks us up a little, then we head out for more single track and dirt roads. We hit pavement outside of Sparwood and fly. Laura, a cyclist we met at Spray lakes, catches us taking a break, and we ride in to town together to get massive grocery store sandwiches.
Here, we have a choice. We can go through Fernie and a few other small towns on a well traveled route to the border. Or we can head up the Flathead Valley, with no services and no people. None of the cyclists we’ve met are taking this route. I’ve found the last few days a little overwhelming: we met one cyclist between Jasper and Banff, and now there’s someone at every break spot and every campsite. They’re fun to talk to, and I’m learning a lot from them, but I’m ready for a little introvert time. So we buy three days of food, hoping we won’t need all of it, and head out in the opposite direction from everyone else.
The first part would be easy, if it wasn’t for the headwind. We follow the highway, then turn on a paved road towards a mine. I stop to get water and two old men putting their fishing gear in a truck ask if I’m ok. I say I’m getting water: “I’d rather you didn’t!” One says. “Have you ever had giardia? Let me give you a bottle.” It seems easier to take it and the Gatorade he gives me rather than explain how my filter works. We continue on past the mine, where we eat a packed out salad for dinner, then up a rutted dirt road. The ruts are so bad that it’s slow going, but we make it almost to the pass before camping for the night.
Our little spot is shady, so the sun doesn’t wake us until after eight. We finish climbing, then drop down on wild trail into a beautiful Valley. It’s not fast: the track is eroded and a stream runs down the middle, making us push our bikes over slippery river rocks. I’m happy though- this is where I’m at my best: when my feet are wet and cold and the river takes back the road and everything is wild and beautiful.
We spend most of the morning descending on trail that gradually improves, then climb and climb all afternoon and evening. By the top of cabin pass, we’ve climbed 1,800m for the day- a respectable amount even for hiking. We camp just under the pass, in the shade of snow covered peaks. Tomorrow promises even more elevation gain.
A guy in truck with a dirty ball cap and a brown wiener dog riding shotgun passes us in the morning. It shocks us: the road is rough and washed out and we’d expected no-one. He’s out here to work on protecting the brook trout in the Wigwam river, and it’s hard to begrudge him our solitude for that noble task. We spend the morning leapfrogging him and his dog as we leave the main dirt road for an overgrown ATV track. It’s wild and gorgeous- willows smack my legs, reminding me of last summer. We climb and drop like a roller coaster, before merging onto singletrack that climbs straight up. Steve pushes his bike back then comes back for mine: 50lbs is too heavy for me on the steep grade, and without him, I’d have to strip the gear from my bike and take it up piecemeal. The singletrack mellows into an old road that climbs a kilometre. Up here, thunderstorms ring us, and bear grass waves, white cotton candy tufts on long stalks. We drop quickly, racing the thunder, losing a thousand metres of elevation. The down hurts almost as much as the 2,600m of elevation gain: more than we did In a single day last summer. We find a campsite five km from the border. I’m so tired I fall trying the get my leg over my bike. Nothing is hurt except my pride, but I am utterly exhausted.