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Great Divide: Canada

After years of ogling at maps and photos of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route — daydreaming of narrow dirt roads winding through broad mountain valleys and over high rocky passes, imagining the sound of knobby rubber floating over lightly-traveled gravel, yearning for the cadence of a more simple life upon a saddle —  I finally hit trail on August 4 outside of Canmore, Alberta.

Just above Canmore on my way to connecting with the Divide.

With snowmelt from a late, wet winter overfilling many rivers and creeks in the Rockies I was forced to reroute from the traditional singletrack start in Banff and instead picked up route after cresting the pass to Spray Lakes out of Canmore. From there it was 50 miles of well-maintained dirt road through the beautiful Spray valley up and over the first Divide crossing at Elk Pass into British Columbia.

A day along the Elk River and a short stretch of pavement through the town of Sparwood brought me to the slopes of Flathead Pass, a gateway to the type of remote backcountry riding I’d been dreaming of. With nearly 100 miles of uninhabited dirt road spanning the Flathead and Wigwam River valleys to the border of Montana, this three-day stretch will go down as a highlight.

Blue skies and smooth dirt along Spray Lakes.

The ridge of the Great Divide frames the route through British Columbia

Try as I might, I still haven't seen a big cat in the wild. A late day swim followed by a warm campfire made for comfortable camping at Blue Lake, threats of vicious wildlife aside.

Creek bed or dirt road? Either way, descending Flathead Pass provided a welcome diversion with slightly more technical riding and a few creek crossings.

I'd been chasing three sets of tracks since crossing into BC and finally caught these guys along the Flathead River. Dave, Jim, and Bruce (from left to right) are riding buddies back home in western Massachusetts.

It was nearly 20 years ago when Jim caught wind of Adventure Cycling's plans to develop a long distance mountain bike route along the crest of the Rockies. Bruce and Dave joined him for the beginning of his Divide thru-ride, Bruce along until Whitefish, MT and Dave through Butte, MT.

The map showed singletrack. We found a 1-mile muddy bushwhack straight uphill.

Exhausted after pushing uphill -- twice. Working in pairs to hike our bikes up the muddy slope was a plus.

Dave topping out Galton Pass, a brutal 7-mile climb on the heels of our hike-a-bike.

Headed for home. Back on pavement to the border after a brake-burning descent off of Galton Pass. Pleasure riding with you guys!

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Live from the Great Divide

Not so much live but here’s a little video sample/test post of what I’ve been riding for the past week, from Banff, Alberta south, through the Kananaskis Valley into British Columbia’s Flathead and Wigwam River valleys before descending Galton Pass back into the US of A.

I have a full post on the way, highlighting my first week on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. So far the riding has been a spectacular mix of fire roads through quiet river valleys and over mountainous passes with the occasional stretch of singletrack, and a vertical, muddy, 1/2-mile hike-a-bike thrown in for good measure. I’ve been blown away by the quality of riding and hear it only gets better!

The Canadian Rockies

I’ve been a little slack on the blog front lately, mostly in favor of the welcome company of a riding buddy and a string of extremely generous Warmshowers hosts. Here’s a quick recap of the past two weeks:

Well over 700 kilometres of British Columbia pavement stood between my last rest day in Smithers and my entrance into the Canadian Rockies at Jasper, Alberta.

Luckily I was joined by Salva. A self-proclaimed half Don Quixote, half Little Prince gypsy traveler from Grenada, Spain, Salva has been traveling the world by bicycle since 2006. As a teacher who spent every free holiday exploring the ends of the Earth on his bike, he was finally "fed up with coming home, having a return ticket" booked before he left.

The hospitality of kind Canadian souls propelled us through "the wettest summer in decades," as every local was quick to point out. Curtis and Bonnie Culp's farm along the Fraser River in Dunster was a highlight. Here Curtis waits patiently for Hummingbirds to feed on the irresistible nectar.

At just the right moment, he releases the net.

With a gentle touch the birds are corralled for a brief trip to the 'lab.'

Nestled in the fertile Robson valley, the Culp's farm sits amidst a major migratory path of the Rufous Hummingbird. With up to 250 winged visitors per day (consuming over 2 gallons of sugar-water nectar daily!), Curtis decided to help with a Cornell University research study documenting these beautiful birds.

Blinded and bound by a soft cotton cloak, the hummingbirds are relaxed long enough for a quick measurement and tagged with the smallest of bracelets.

Flying north to Alaska each spring, the male birds pass through before the females to find safe breeding grounds. As the migration south was just underway, Curtis was tagging mostly females during my stay. Part of a North American Rufous network, birds tagged at the Culp farm have been spotted as far south as Texas, and the research indicates they spend their winters in Central America.

Salva carefully cradles the 3.5-gram female before she darted off in a wing-flapping flash.

After tagging a few birds, Curtis took us up the hill to scan through images on his motion-detected camera in the woods. With 175 acres of farmland and pristine forest, the Culps have regular visitors including grizzly and black bears, cougars, moose, white-tailed deer, wolves, wolverines, and this friendly little ground squirrel.

Genuinely warm and generous, Bonnie and Curtis welcome any and all cyclists. At the Dunster turnoff on the Yellowhead, cross the Fraser and follow the Lilac signs. Watch out though, Bonnie will charm you with her quick wit and fill you with homemade beer and pancakes with fresh berries, whipped cream and syrup--you'll never want to leave!

Farewell to friends in Jasper. I hope to reconnect with Salva and Bob further south.

Solo once again on the Icefields Parkway. Rolling through Jasper and Banff National Parks on a busy, 3-day weekend isn't a recipe for quiet enjoyment. The RV traffic seems to thin out by early evening, though, and battling for a slice of pavement gives way to the sound of wind funneling through the jagged, glaciated valleys in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.

Indian Paintbrush bursting through a thicket of 'Hippy on a Stick.' The parks are truly magnificent. Bring your backpacking gear and spend time exploring the endless backcountry, load the camper with charcoal and grill and settle in to a day-hiking/road-riding base camp, or join the ranks of the loaded touring cyclists passing through. Either way, there's something for everyone.

I was high-tailing it to Banff to catch up with Scott Felter, Mr. Porcelain Rocket himself. He was prepping for a week of backcountry hiking with his girlfriend, Naomi, and her father, Bob, and I was eager to hit town before they left. A consummate bikepacker, mountain biker, general bike geek, Scott knew just what I needed out of a 'rest day': good food, rippin' Banff singletrack, cold beer and more good food, multiple juicy burgers and endless Southern-style potato salad!

Scott at work on a quick late-night addition to my setup. The man works some serious magic.

Just south of Banff I caught up with my Canadian Backroads co-workers in Canmore (Emily, Felicia, Sarah, Jake and Antione) for a couple more days of 'rest' and relaxation.

With perfect weather we had the 1500+ metre hike to ourselves.

Jake making it official. On top of the Middle Sister with Elsa, 360-degree views and all.

Gnome Sherpa would be proud.

From Canmore, I hook up with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, 2,700 miles of dirt passing through Alberta, BC, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, all the way to the border of Mexico. I’m trading pavement for dirt, guard rails for fresh mountain streams, motorized traffic for the tranquility of high mountain passes and wide open spaces.

Super, Natural British Columbia

With a little help from the Alaska Marine Highway, and 7 days of rest, I’ve made my way to the little mountain hamlet of Smithers, British Columbia. Legs fatigued from a day and a half of heavy lifting on a ‘construction site,’ I decided to take today to recover. My guilt over riding only 3 of the last 11 days is quickly being washed away with the relentless morning rain.

A week off the bike in Southeast Alaska left me with restless legs, ready for the road east as my ferry pulled into Prince Rupert. I was also anticipating the freedom of traveling solo once again.

Riding in a group has its obvious advantages: the camaraderie of a shared journey, endless upbeat energy, split costs for camping, stories around an open campfire. It was tough to part ways after such an incredible week, with a group that bonded so quickly and traveled together so well. On the other hand, I find that traveling alone allows for a more whimsical flow to each day. I decide when the day begins, how far I’ll ride, where to eat and make camp–if I decide to ride at all.

A solo rider is also far more approachable than a menacing mob of misfits. Doors open with less hesitation, conversations with locals are more frequent, meals are shared without fear of the hungry hoard cleaning out the camper cooler. Invitations to stay with Warmshowers.org hosts (a CouchSurfing for cycle tourists) are also far more likely when alone.

Overall, I’ve found that riding solo allows me to connect with local people and places on a much deeper level. But that’s not to say I don’t get lonely. Long, uninspiring stretches of quiet, wet road can sink even the highest of spirits. Upon landing in Prince Rupert with fresh legs, I charged 150km along the Skeena River on the Yellowhead Highway with blue skies overhead. The high of beautiful, effortless riding and my sense of freedom on the open road didn’t last long.

Rain returned the following day. The freedom I felt just one day before was slowly being overtaken by loneliness. I recognized this transition while riding (another benefit to solo travel is the time it affords for processing) and remembered the feelings from my first week on the road. Adjusting to the solo life isn’t easy, but I’m gradually learning to balance the emotions and appreciate the challenges involved. Gaining perspective often takes time. Sometimes it magically appears around the corner.

Late that rainy night, Thom Henley magically appeared around a corner. That chance encounter was a reminder of why I’m once again on the road alone, embracing each day as it comes — open to Soaring Spirits, and otherwise.

Oh, the temptations of rest days. In Skagway, it was quarts of ice cream and Season 1 of Mad Men, with a run and workout thrown in for good measure!

Monkey in the middle. Blue skies and free beer on the ferry to Juneau.

I spent 4 days in Juneau, mostly relaxing in town, spending time with friends Mari and Dan, who I trained with at Backroads.

When not on a cafe couch, I was swimming in Auke Lake and grilling with an incredible group of friends. Dan sells tours on the docks as passengers file off one cruise ship after another and was able to arrange an incredible whale-watching tour. I've spent plenty of time viewing humpbacks in SE AK but never while bubble-net feeding. Typically solitary creatures, for a brief few weeks during the summer--and only in SE AK--groups of up to 30 humpback whales gather and begin herding schools of fish to the surface with air bubbles from below. In an amazing display of synchronized aquatics they all reappear at the surface, heads bobbing out of the water, in a feeding frenzy. The little ones typically pass the time nearby, breaching and showing off their whale tails.

I hopped the next ferry from Juneau, along the inside passage, to Prince Rupert, BC. With a 30-hour ride ahead of us, passengers adventurous enough to sleep outside under the solarium quickly became close friends. Looking for some early morning refreshment as we neared Petersburg, Mira, Taira and I spotted this empty dock ...

...as our launching pad.

You can't spend too much time thinking about how cold it will be...

It wasn't as bad as we expected. All three of us even took a second plunge.

Sisters originally from Oregon, and more recently Ketchikan, they're riding a single motorcycle from school in Fairbanks, AK to San Diego, CA. From there, Taira is off to Puerto RIco to study abroad and Mira is entertaining the idea of riding back, solo.

We passed the hours on deck practicing yoga, reading aloud from Spanish-written books, and taking in the surrounding beauty.

Being back on the bike felt like a million bucks. Blue sky broke through the clouds and a gentle breeze followed me inland along the Skeena RIver.

With towering granite cliffs and snow-capped peaks behind every sloping ridge, the stretch of highway along the Skeena River attracted a crowd. Though light by most standards, I wasn't accustomed to normal levels of passing traffic. And most of those vehicles were large trucks carrying fishing boats. The second longest river in BC sees plenty of recreational use but remains a significant source of life for native communities. Aside from boasting one of the largest salmon runs in Canada, the Skeena has long been an important transportation artery, from passage on the river to the Canada National Railway and more recently, the highway. It's also possible the river has greater historical significance than conventional archaeology suggests: First Nations lore tells of pre-Ice Age settlements along the Skeena.

As the sun disappeared behind the clouds, so to did my perspective on solo travel. While cleaning up after a roadside dinner though, I was greeted by Thom Henley. Curious as to where I'd sleep that night, he suggested I pitch my tent at his camp a few kilometers down the road....

With a name like 'Soaring Spirits,' there was no way I could turn down his offer. Thom Henley runs "'International Rediscovery Camps' in over a dozen countries around the world. Founded on Native principles, these camps allow kids to reconnect with local cultural traditions and gain an appreciation for the natural world, while teaching respect for the self and others.

Before I could set my bike down I was welcomed inside for a warm cup of tea and a plate of salmon with curried vegetables, straight from the garden. The following morning Patch, pictured at the open window, was at it again. Fresh eggs, pancakes, toast with homemade strawberry rhubarb jam and all the fresh berries I could eat.

Just a day prior to my arrival, Wade Charlie, a longtime friend of Thom's from the Kwakwaka'wakw nation, brought back 67 salmon from a brief afternoon on the Skeena. While the generator hummed day and night keeping the freezers cold, these were being prepped for the pressure cooker.

After breakfast I took a walk through the camp, in complete awe of the surrounding landscape: the Skeena River and Frog mountain framing the north border of the property, dense Poplar and Cedar forests east and west and the Seven Sisters mountain range to the south.

Despite the long break just days before, I was compelled to lend a hand that morning. Wade's son Eli, 13, is hard at work measuring support beams while Walter digs a hole for a 12-foot cedar piling.

The project? With 67 fresh sockeye salmon to move, construction of a smokehouse was made a priority. With an emphasis on tradition, most materials were sourced locally--on property, if possible. The design was based on a traditional longhouse and called for 12-foot yellow cedar pilings, which we later stripped to the sap ring and burned, to preserve the buried portion of the wood.

A few modern touches to speed things along. Wade Charlie was quite the character: jack of all trades, his true passion lies with passing on the traditions of his people, which he finds are slowly being swallowed by Western culture. He's currently earning his Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization at the University of Victoria and, once fluent in his native Kwak'wala, hopes to begin teaching his outdoor education courses using the native language.

A hard-earned spot on the rocker! Elijah,17, was there as a carpenter's apprentice. He's saving money to someday join the ranks of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The one morning I planned on spending in camp turned into two! My warm, dry home for the two nights at Soaring Spirits. I was in the Frog Clan tent.

Experiences like this don't come along everyday. It was truly inspirational. (And dark; this was the first night I needed a headlamp)

Without a timeline to stick to for the near future I would have stayed for the first smoking -- perhaps longer. After one more morning on the job, though, I said goodbye to new friends and was on the road to Smithers, BC.

Open fertile pastures have been a nice change of scenery from the heavily forested land west of Smithers. I bet Photoshop could really bring out the double.

It doesn't get much better than this!

Larger Than Life: AK to Yukon, and back

Solitude has reigned supreme during the first three weeks of my ride. From the vast wind-swept North Slope to a snowy Brooks Range teeming with wildlife, south to the giant, glaciated peaks of the Alaska Range giving way to broad, braided rivers of silt, this 1,000-mile stretch has offered a peaceful quietness ideal for settling into the rhythms of everyday life on the road.

Upon landing in Tok, 90 miles shy of the Yukon border and serving as the gateway to Alaska on the ALCAN, that tone quickly changed. I ran into seven other adventurous cyclists ready for a day off and eager to ride as a group. Over a shared campfire we hashed plans for the following week that would surely be anything but quiet.

Andy calls Yosemite National Park his home, living just outside of the park and teaching for the Yosemite Institute when not climbing, Telemarking or bike touring. Check him out at: http://lazymanadventures.wordpress.com/

Mario, the 'Grandpa' of the group of four from Guadalajara. His nickname was spot-on. Wise beyond his years, this globetrotter had stories from far and wide.

Lou, the philosopher. Always up for a challenge, this crazy Swiss from Mexico quietly earned Swiss Machine status by charging up a mile-long gravel hill, off route, on a dare. I still owe you a beer, Lou!

Alejandro, contemplating the crushing defeat from the previous night's game of Pente. Don't be fooled by his quiet demeanor, this guy can hammer on a bike!

The life of the party, Pablo was always there to crack a good joke. Could use a little work on those salesman techniques, though. Check these guys out at: http://proyectopanamericano1.blogspot.com/

Lang, always smiling, from Daegu, Korea, has worked as a translator in China and is on his way to Toronto for a year of work and to study English.

One tough dude, Kanetomo, a truck driver from Japan is on a 5-year world tour. Hope to see you down the road!

Enough with the pasta and canned tuna! With Three Bears Grocery in Tok as our last hope for honest shopping for the week we made good use of the grill: marinated steak, sweet potatoes and grilled veggies, washed down with 'Glacier Fresh' Kokanee and gallons of ice cream made for the perfect rest day feast.

One for the road!

It's hard to resist the temptations of town. Fast Eddie's quickly became our favorite hangout in town. We filled up with one final breakfast as we headed into the emptiness of Yukon, stomachs heavy with syrupy, never-over-buttered pancakes.

There's never a dull moment traveling with such a large group. Although our paces differed we often chose to ride together, sharing laughs and stories of home, quickly becoming close friends.

A sunny 4th of July lunch on the porch of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge visitor center, just shy of the Canadian border. As the lone Americans, Andy and I struck a patriotic chord with our rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Little did we know we'd draw a crowd; a standing ovation was in order and with it came leftover pizza from a couple traveling north by RV. Eight hungry cyclists vying for a slice made for quite the sight.

Rising gas prices have kept traffic light this summer. These prices paled in comparison to those just across the border. No complaints from our perch in the saddle.

Long, cold winters wreak havoc on the roads up north. With a short window of warm weather and 24-hours of daylight, it's all hands on deck for road crews during the summer. The first 200 kilometers of road in Canada were under construction and we were "forced" to hop a ride with pilot cars on two occasions.

Finishing the day with a 12-k shuttle!

With stoves blasting away and gear strewn about, the idea of "stealth camping" is lost on a group of eight. Lang adds the perfect touch to his meal under the warm shelter at Lake Creek.

Strength in numbers. Another benefit to group riding is the respect we receive from passing vehicles. Friendly honks and waves greeted us in a way a solo cyclist rarely experiences. Or maybe it's just that friendly Canadian spirit...

The relatively casual riding through the Tanana River valley from Tok into Canada came to an end as we edged closer to the Saint Elias Mountains and battled headwinds into Destruction Bay.

The fierce headwinds were worst along the shores of Kluane Lake. We took to riding in a group, swinging leads at the front and hiding in each others slipstream, when possible. The distracting views of the surrounding snow-capped peaks caused a couple hair-raising fender benders, just to keep things interesting.

I'll take headwinds with blue skies over heavy clouds any day. With the exception of a couple overnight showers the sun found its way through the clouds each day.

Climbing out of the lake before descending to Haines Junction on our last day as a group of eight.

Mario says "thumbs up" to the 10-kilometer descent ahead.

And the descent continues.

Moth balls to keep bears away at night? If I had a nickel for every story or warning of lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) I've heard in the last month.... Pablo was a believer, though. And who am I to argue; we made it out alive after he littered our camp with them on the bear-friendly trail along the Dezadeash RIver.

No farewell is complete without a push-up pyramid -- but not recommended for large groups! LTD!

After a week of amazing fun my group shrank from eight-large to two, as Andy and I weren't done exploring Alaska. We headed south on the Haines Highway while the other six continued east on the ALCAN towards Whitehorse.

Aside from the usual mid-morning armada of migratory RVs, we had the road to ourselves. The 150 miles from Haines Jct, YT, through a slice of British Columbia and back into Alaska is --by far -- the most scenic stretch of road riding I've encountered in North America. Our first day on the Haines Highway was without a cloud. We were greeted by stunning scenery at every turn, eagerly charging over each pass to see what the next valley revealed.

With 80 miles remaining to the coast, a marine layer crept in overnight blanketing the peaks of Three Guardsmen Pass.

A dedicated Telemark skier, Andy was lost in imaginary free-heeled turns from the porch of this ski hut/cyclist shelter along the Haines.

One final climb before zipping back into Alaska.

The REAL reason for riding the Haines Highway to SE Alaska: Mosey's Cantina in Haines, AK, hands down the best Mexican food in all of Alaska.

Gone was the cloudy weather from earlier in the day. Clear blue skies are a rare sight in SE Alaska and we celebrated with pints on the Fast Ferry to Skagway!

What does it mean!?!

Andy and I finished this stretch in Skagway, AK, at the end of the northern most fjord on the Inside Passage. We were quickly welcomed in by the tight-knit outdoor community and didn’t want to leave.

But as the bittersweet ‘Shooting Star Syndrome’ would have it, Andy was bound for Whitehorse and the road south. He took off the following afternoon and I’ve since made my way to Juneau for a few more days off with old friends.