Weaving, braided, knotted.
Ends frayed and fused by flame.
Sewn through the mountains,
This route is all but tame.
Intrepid, attuned, patient.
A quilted mindset to stay warm.
Emotions entwined in flowing rivers.
Fording fears and crossing storms.
Majestic, dynamic, humbling.
Raw wisdom embroidered deep.
Up every peak, around every bend,
In my mind, this route I'll keep.
Oh boy. Where do I begin with this one?
I originally signed up solo for the Alberta Rockies 700, a self-supported bikepacking event, intending to set off with the Grand Depart racers, harnessing the group’s excitement but ultimately riding at a leisurely pace. The solo adventure turned into a reunion bikepack when I somehow convinced two Ontario friends to join me. Actually, it was rather easy since we were all so naïve. We thought the AR700 would be challenging and fun like the BT700 but with more climbing and a wilderness component. We weren’t wrong on those factors but the route features and its sections of remoteness, paired with smoke from forest fires and intense weather, proved to be a combination that didn’t have us always beaming with delight. There were moments where emotions were running high and our mental fortitude was dwindling. Thankfully we were able to also find moments of strength and bravery to tread on.
For 2021, the AR700 was a figure 8, leaving counterclockwise from Canmore, looping through Coleman and back up through Fernie. The route totalled 688 km and 10,160 m of climbing.
Day 1 - Shale: 1. Taryn: 0.
We arrived at Rebound Cycles the morning of the Grand Depart to see a large gathering of cyclists; a sight I haven’t seen in ages and instantly resulted in a feeling of giddiness. There were upwards of 100 people scattered about - riders, racers, friends and family. In addition to my friends Lise and Stephen who I’d be riding with, I got to say hello to a couple of other friends - Sarah, Kyle, Theo, Jocelyn and Mike. Awesome to see so many familiar faces for my first bikepack out west! We also met Lise's friend, Phil, who would be joining us if our paces aligned. Soon after hellos it was time for a group photo and then we were off.
I could feel myself getting swept up in the race cues as we went through our first bit of neighbourhood. Steve O. rolled up beside me and we chatted briefly about his killer yo-yo on the BC Epic and whether his legs would wake up for this. I wished him luck as I knew he'd be too speedy for me to see him again. Shortly thereafter, a couple of riders were bottlenecked at the steep descent into the trail paralleling the Smith Dorrien Spray Trail. This resulted in me pausing and subsequently dismounting to drag my bike down the hill, yelling in embarrassment. During the following stretch I was talking to one rider who was using the Grand Depart as a send off for his first overnighter - pretty rad!
I regrouped with my friends and then it was time to climb our first pass! Nothing like being less than 5 kilometres in and hitting the elevation. It was a fun climb with lots of riders still buzzing around. Then it was time to jump on the Goat Creek Trail and follow an offshoot southbound for some wide open meadow riding. We popped back out onto the Smith Dorrien Trail, paralleling the Spray Lakes Reservoir, for some nice and easy pedalling. Such a contrast to what was to come.
A group of ten or so cyclists were taking a break at the steep entrance to the High Rockies Trail. Another rider, Trish, came along while we were eating and climbed the slope with ease. “Well, I guess I’m riding it now”, I thought. Once refuelled, I circled back on the road to get some momentum and went up the hill with grace. The rest of the trail was a different story.
I quite enjoy underbiking, however the off-camber shale sections on this trail gave me a mini panic attack. There was one point where I was scared of unclipping with my right foot that I instead chose to just topple to the left into the bank…and was stuck clipped in. Phil came back to rescue me! We were on the High Rockies Trail for 25 km or so before coming upon the Blackshale Creek Suspension Bridge. After Stephen's swift bike across, I decided I’d try and ride it too. Thankfully this task proved to be easier than I thought. This was the home stretch to the Boulton Creek Trading Post.
Several cyclists who had passed me on the singletrack were here having a late lunch, enjoying the bikepacking atmosphere. Again, I got giddy seeing fully-loaded bikes all lined up at the bike rack. We had a quick bite and then were on our way up the Whiskey Jack Trail. With full stomachs and full water bladders/bottles, we were met with a steep climb off the bat. And then a few more which were technical in nature. I actually quite enjoyed this section since it was wide and there were multiple lines to grind up.
We poked out onto Kananaskis Trail and braced ourselves for a steady climb on pavement. I’ve heard all the rage about climbing Highwood Pass on road bikes; never thought my first go at it would be fully loaded on wide tires. I stopped a couple of times to stretch and take photos. All-in-all, probably the easiest part of the entire AR700 route.
It was a breezy downhill to Strawberry Creek Campground, where several other riders decided to lay their heads as well. After riding 125 km and 2,250 m of elevation, we were happy to wash up, put some food in our bellies and get some rest.
Day 2 - Smoke and Dust
We’re not a quick group to rise and pedal, that’s for sure. We set our alarms for 5:30 am, aiming for a 7 am rollout. After force feeding ourselves with oatmeal we were ready for whatever the day had in store. Turns out, the day had 60 some odd kilometres of washboard gravel on the menu for brunch. The smoke from forest fires was now thick and cars continually swooshed by, leaving us in a cloud of dust. A fellow 500 km rider had noted that today would be one of the easiest days, with little elevation. When lunch rolled around, it was clear that we were not having the same meal. Instead of bee-lining to Coleman, the 700 km route had us going on the Dutch Creek Connector.
We traded in the washboard gravel for rocky climbs. Throughout the day, I was the last one up the hills, taking my time, pedalling at a high cadence to prevent any knee inflammation. It was easy to go slow and take in all the sights; this area was so beautiful. Late in the day there was some worry amongst the group that we wouldn’t make it to Coleman in time for dinner, so on the last climb out of this section, I decided to put in a big effort to make it quickly to the top. I forgot that I could actually climb hills with haste; a mental nod I needed for future days of riding. Atop this climb was one of the prettiest views on the route: wildflowers lining the gravel road with the Seven Sisters and Crowsnest Mountains in the background.
We began our technical descent, weaving around rocks at high speed, back down to civilization. We passed a campground with excitement, knowing that dinner would soon be ours. And then… we turned off of the main gravel road onto an ATV track. At first I was rather thrilled at the corridor. It had a “choose your own adventure” feel; tracks braided amongst each other. Then we hit a bowl, a very steep bowl. Stephen, our technical terrain guru of the group, thought he saw a line down. We all stood in awe (videotaping naturally) as he made his way down, fishtailing in the sand. In case it wasn’t clear, he waved his arms in a big motion at the bottom while calling out “DO NOT RIDE. NOT SAFE”. It was actually difficult to even walk it with a fully loaded bike. Team effort here. We dragged our bikes up the other side of the bowl and looked back at the sunset hovering above the brim. “What the heck.”
Shortly after we popped out onto pavement and were relieved to see the town of Coleman. I had done some map recon prior to the trip and knew that we were making our way to Rum Runner Pub (open until 10 pm!). We got comfortable out on the patio as the sun set, eating a leisurely dinner with all the fixings. I didn’t pipe up too much as the group decided they wanted to sleep in a motel that night instead of continuing on and stealth camping or trekking 30 km in the dark to Lynx Creek Campground. When your friends fly in from another province, you do as they please!
At the end of Day 2, we had rounded out 130 km and 1,950 m of vertical. Time for some sleep!
Day 3 - Let’s Push Our Bikes Up a Mountain
We got out the door by 7 am or so with the goal of grabbing breakfast and being ready for the grocery store to open at 8 am. We did a sweep of the aisles and grabbed what we needed for the next two days, knowing that our next town was 155 km away. Not the healthiest of fuel, but enough to get us by.
We started our day climbing out of the valley, along the gravel edition of Crowsnest Pass. A mere 450 m elevation. This area had an eerie beauty to it, having been wiped out by a forest fire some time ago. (I remember thinking to myself that I’d like to learn environmental indicators for forest fire timelines.) The top of this pass was anti-climatic. The views were better on the way up compared to the top marked with a Texas gate. We began our descent; nice and smooth compared to the day prior!
Then onto some unremarkable gravel and ATV track which spit us out onto some sweet pavement. Everyone else took turns pulling while I hung on for dear life, questioning my value-add to the group. Thankfully this segment wasn’t overly long and we hit Castle Mountain Resort for a water top up.
After a short gravel segment, we entered some rough trail, weaving us closer to the Middle Kootenay Pass trailhead. The first bit of this trail was a comical Type 2 adventure. A trail just on the cusp of being not rideable but a fun challenge to try, interspersed with a couple metres of hike-a-bike here and there. (Stephen was already out of sight, no doubt dominating this section). Then came a plateau with a vista; our last reprieve for a while.
P.C. Lise Munsie
Boy did this section get rocky and steep. Much like a dry creek bed up the side of a mountain. 18 percent grade at one point! I found myself struggling to keep up. I was aching, worried about a pinched nerve flaring up and falling significantly behind. I sat down in the middle of the rocky path and cried. It was a release I'd be longing for since moving to BC, that just hadn't come. So I sat down and let it out. It didn't take long before I saw the tall trees reflected in my sunglasses, which edged a smile across my face. I stood up, took my seat bag off my bike and made it into a waist pack. I filled my bear sack with goods, also tying it to my waist. I dumped my water bladder contents. Finally, a manageable bike load to heave up the mountain. One step at a time, I began making my way up. Soon enough, my friends backtracked and offered their help but by this point I was just too determined.
Although proud of my determination to make it to the top under my own will, I should have taken the help. We were not racing. We were here as a team, to make it through the route the best we could. When I was about to crest the false summit, I was greeted by the boys. Lise had got cold waiting and needed to head down as she was shivering and couldn’t get warm.
One could only have hoped for a glorious descent after the hours of hell up this mountain pass. Instead we were greeted with a sketchy sandy descent at the top, followed by several kilometres of riding through overgrown bushes in bear territory. We were worried about Lise so we still rode most of it whilst getting slashed by branches and leaves.
We found her waiting near a river with a steep climb on the other side. Thank goodness. I was pretty beside myself at this point and burst out into tears, still upset that she could have been injured while I slowly made progress up the mountain. We all crossed the river, and another, with varying tactics: tip-toeing across rocks and wading barefoot. I found the cold water to be rather refreshing on my swollen feet. (Side note: my left foot had a giant bruise on it this entire trip because I accidentally smashed my foot into the corner of a wall the morning of the Grand Depart while doing physio exercises… oops.) A while after river crossings, Lise and I saw our only bear of the trip. A fairly small black bear, so startled it skidded across the gravel road.
P.C. Lise Munsie
We were finally out of what we deemed the worst part of the route (so far). We crossed the North Fork Flathead River, via a bridge, and found ourselves at Butt’s Cabin which we had little desire to sleep in. We decided our game plan would be to backtrack to the river, filter some water, cook dinner and then ride a couple of hours in the dark to get ahead of the rain. Well, we accomplished the first three tasks. The fourth proved to be a little more than I could give. Physically, I was still in great shape and could ride for hours. Mentally and emotionally, I was quite drained. I have very patient and understanding friends. And so after riding an hour or so in the dark, making it a total of 100 km and 2,000 m in elevation gain for the day, we collectively decided to make camp on the side of the road… in grizzly bear country.
Day 4 - Moister than an Oyster
I don’t know if I’ve actually convinced myself that I’m not panicked about bears or I was just truly exhausted, but I slept well that night other than fighting with the perfect sleeping temperature (I think the answer is wear the layers to bed; keep the sleeping bag open and zip up as it gets colder - the opposite of what I did). None of us wanted to get out of our tents/ hammocks in the morning. We did not want to face the rain. Stephen’s hammock tarp proved to be the perfect morning hideaway. Again - oatmeal stuffed down our gullets. We had a brief discussion of waiting out the rain but decided that it was not likely to ease up. And so we packed up in the pouring rain, temperatures in the single digits, and straddled our bikes.
For having thought we were most of the way down the mountain, we really were not. It was difficult to keep our numb hands on our handlebars and brakes, at the ready for any rocks in our path. And this went on for hours; cold, wet, miserable hours. Even in the pouring rain though, this area was gorgeous. As we made our way down the slope, the Wigwam River ribboning alongside us was absolutely breathtaking. Then… we came across a mudslide. The road had washed out and water that looked like chocolate milk was gushing down. If you looked up high, you saw a bank spurting water with rocks falling. We hightailed it past there, wondering what else this route could possibly throw at us.
As we closed in on Elko, we veered off of the fire service road onto some singletrack. My favourite part of the route; somewhere I’d love to ride again in better conditions. The trail went through a meadow that had a sense of calm to it, despite the hoards of bear poop mashed on the trail. Knowing that we were closing in on civilization, we joked that we were the heroes of this route. That the race leaders didn’t have it as tough as they finished before the bad weather rolled in. (Of course everyone has their advantages and disadvantages based on pace.)
We found pavement and headed towards town, taking shelter in a postal box stand for a few minutes while we looked up where the Elko Motel & Campground was. We had planned to stay here, warm up and dry our gear. We arrived to the property to find no attendee, cabins occupied by long-term renters and camping spots occupied by long-term RVers. We were quite upset that the one motel marked on the route essentially did not exist. Rather dangerous for those relying on it.
Fortunately there was a gas station next door that had the kindest owners. They took pity on our situation and set us up at a table with chairs. Our home now for the better part of the day. Blankets, sweaters and wool socks were also for sale. We paid our fare in miscellaneous purchases, trying to warm up while we figured out what was next. We were too cold and wet to fathom biking another 40 km to Fernie in this weather. Safety was our number one priority now, not finishing the route in its authenticity. We ended up getting a cab and a shuttle from a friend of a friend to a hotel in Fernie.
What a relief. We were dry. We were warm. We even did laundry. We somehow all came to the conclusion that we would go for it tomorrow. That the 65 km and 875 m of vertical in the frigid rain had not broken our spirits. And just like that, we had a knock on the door. Our Funky Goat pizza was being delivered by none other than a bikepacker. He saw our gear strewn across the room and instantly knew what was going on. His take on the term ‘adventure’ sounded on par with what we had experienced thus far. Phew. We’re not the only crazy ones. So we went to bed with alarms set, once again ready to take on what came our way.
Day 5 - That’s a Wrap
Or so I thought. I slept like a rock throughout the night only to wake to my alarm, alarming me that something was wrong. I hastily went to the bathroom, came out and said “guys, if this keeps up, I’m out”. And so began the great purge. While my friends were downstairs having breakfast, I was stuck at the helm of the porcelain rocket (see what I did there?). At first I wondered if this was my body giving up. But by the time they came back up, I had nothing but vile left to purge. I couldn’t even keep water down without throwing up. I had clearly eaten or drank something foreign that my body was rejecting with urgency. Rather frustrating since we filtered all of our water! (Whatever got me, got me good. I was sick for five days straight.)
Lise decided to stay with me while the boys continued on their journey. Logistically this made the most sense. It would be too difficult to get four people and four bikes back to Canmore. Fortunately for us, my friend Mike had scratched the day before and was picked up by his dad. When we told him about the state I was in he did not hesitate to come get us. He had said he'd be waiting for me at the finish line... just didn't specify which one!
The boys finished up the route on Day 6. Lise was there to greet them with big smiles!
And well done to all the riders and racers who signed up for such a beast of a route. The few times that I had cell service and was able to dot check on Trackleaders, I was left in awe. Some very strong and inspirational riders out there. Theo Kelsey-Verdecchia took the win, finishing the route in 53 hours, 23 minutes, with Kyle Messier and Meaghan Hackinen rolling in close behind.
This wasn’t how I wanted the AR700 to go but sometimes things are out of your control. I still made it 420 km and climbed over 7,075 m in elevation. And I learned a lot! By experiencing the terrain and weather. By tackling the route with friends. By chatting with other racers about their gear and tactics.
Despite this route being absolutely ridiculous, it is gorgeous and I find myself wanting to finish it in its entirety in the future. I do hope for a stronger stomach, and less smoke and rain though!