All posts by nineonesix-guiding

A teacher trying to Divide

Miles Davis, All Blues
Miles Davis, All Blues

Friday 12th of July

I had a long lie then prepared a strong coffee with my stove and GSI JavaDrip.  Curtis was not awake yet so the coffee was quietly shared with the lonely guy we had got speaking to last night.  He was staying at the campground whilst trying to find work in Whitefish. Poor guy couldn’t really afford much financially or emotionally and all he wanted to do was see his family.  In between sips or sentences he just zoned out and I just let him. No judgements, no sympathy just listen. Lots of family and friends will agree that this is not how Jim usually operates but it was starting to feel like the Great Divide was changing how I thought…for now at least.  Little did I know that by the end of today it would have done this a lot.

Time to ‘get down the road’!  Weather forecasts were suggesting some storms coming in that would swell rivers, turn gravel to peanut butter and soak folk on bikes.  As a Scot the last point did not bother me too much but the first two, in a big place like Montana, filled me with dread. The ACA map was carefully studied over another coffee and some of my remaining broken, squashed, re-solidified and crumbly trail food from the bottom of feed bags.  Columbia Falls was chosen as my location for resupply then second breakfast. I was also looking forward to navigating the intricate series of seemingly perpendicular roads and trails that headed east to Columbia Falls and then south to Flathead Lake. Here I was going to take Highway 83 and simply push as far south as I could despite the weather, hence the phrase ‘ get down the road’.

Curtis appeared.  He was in R & R mode with a plan to catch up with some friends in town that we missed last night.  Curtis was then going to recce the area to see what it might be like to work in the area as an ER specialist.  Even after only a day or so in his company I knew that he would be a calm, decisive and understanding person in that environment.  We wished one another luck and agreed that we might meet up later on the Divide…

beautiful rural views south of Whitefish
beautiful rural views south of Whitefish

I got to Columbia Falls quickly but did not resupply very quickly.  The sheer size and choice of products in the supermarket had me going round and round in circles.  By the time I was finished the second breakfast could not come any sooner. But I had to wait and by now it was nearly 80 degrees.  The Montana Coffee Traders cafe I chose near the river was absolutely rammed with people, probably because it was Friday. I placed my order then went back to my veranda seat to repack my bike and have a blether with a couple of locals.

Starting my collection of Fire Station photos for Rachel.
Starting my collection of Fire Station photos for Rachel.

Fuelled up I really enjoyed winding my way south on the gravel country roads that headed towards Swan River and Ferndale.  What a joy to ride my bike, take in the views and not a lot else. By the time I got to Echo Lake I was starting to feel the heat and needed to cool off and get some more food inside me.  I pulled in by the lake and found a wee path to put my bike before I headed down to the water for my first skinny dip in years. Maybe since my honeymoon on the island of Corsica in a mountain lake surrounded by snow.  Once in the water and swimming about I realised that I might actually be right in front of someone’s garden so my eventual retreat from the water would have been hilarious for anyone to witness.

Echo Lake
Echo Lake

At Swan River I was able to speak to Rachel on the phone.  That made me feel very happy. She said that most of her family were there which was nice to hear.  On the way into Ferndale I stopped by some roadside, homemade lemonade from two week boys. It was cool to speak to them and their family and get an idea of what it’s like here.  Just as I was leaving a Swiss rider came by. I shouted to him that he must stop and have some of their delicious lemonade. He shouted back that he needed to get cash first. I hope he turned back. 

The lemonade was great boys!
The lemonade was great boys!

The run down to Swan Lake was pretty cruisey and then I looked at my GPS to see that it was still a long way to the State Park. Anyway it got done as you do. When I got there I was disappointed to find it absolutely packed out with RVs.  The lady warden on her caddy wagon could not really have been any less helpful to me when I asked if there were any pitches left. She said there was no room. That’s because there were great big flipping RVs everywhere. As a parting shot she said that there was a place about a quarter mile away who sometimes let folk like you camp…

I headed to the gate, turned left and sure enough pretty soon came to The Laughing Horse Lodge.  At the reception I asked if I could camp here over beside the one (small) campervan, the white canvas tent and the portaloo.  The lady explained politely that the campervan was where some of the staff slept and that the canvas tent was for yoga sessions.  She then asked me to wait here and she would go and ask Kathleen, the owner if she could help. At that some point I became a bit more aware of my surroundings, the guests coming in the door and my appearance.  Right on queue the forecast storms appeared to be arriving and I started to prepare for the worst. I could not have been any more wrong! Kathleen dressed in cool chef uniform and headscarf greeted me with a lovely smile and told me of course I could stay.  She went on to tell me that I can sue the yoga tent to save me the hassle of pitching in the rain. Kathleen then took me through to the dining area, already filling with well-dressed guests and pointed to the ‘Staff Only’ door. ‘You just head in there Jim. Help yourself to towels, have a shower do your laundry just make yourself at home.’  I was starting to fill up with emotion as within 20 minutes I had gone from being turned away for how I looked to being welcomed by a complete stranger. ‘I need to offer you something for all of this. Would $20 be alright?’ Kathleen’s reply was not to be silly come and have dinner if you want to.

Like a great big hug! The Laughing Horse Lodge.
Like a great big hug! The Laughing Horse Lodge.

In between showers I was treated to the sounds of mellow jazz from the dining room as I optimistically tried to dry my now clean riding gear.  As my dinner time approached I gave up and reminded myself that my riding gear was soon going to get wet in the morning anyway.

A friendly waitress showed me to a table right in the middle of all the other guests.  I had a perfect view of the jazz duo as they played chilled out tunes on a double bass and glockenspiel.  I felt like a king as I alternated between mouthfuls of succulent local beef, sipping a local beer and writing my journal.  As I walked past the musicians to go to the bathroom I whispered ‘I don’t suppose you are allowed to play any Miles’ are you?’  When I came back to my seat they announced ‘All Blues’ by special request!  

The jazz duo at The Laughing Horse Lodge
The jazz duo at The Laughing Horse Lodge

What a day.  What a place.  What people. Thank you.

Whitefish to The Laughing Horse Lodge 61 miles, 1973 feet of ascent, 8  hours (6  hours riding + 2 hours stopped)

A teacher trying to Divide

Junction of FR 114 & FR 486

Thursday 11th of July

I woke at 6:00am, promptly packed away my sleeping kit, got dressed and headed across the road one more time to the gas station to use the toilet.  The campground was rammed with tents but as I had suspected there was not a lot of movement at that time in the morning. A group of 3 road cyclists got packed up very efficiently and were on the road well before me.  I set off with a damp tent at 7:00am and headed across to the wee bridge over the river. After crossing the bridge, I noticed Curtis camped down by the river, he waved so I turned around and had a quick blether with him.  I explained that today was going to be my first 100 mile day. He was not quite sure about his plans and said that he might camp at Red Meadow Lake at the top of the second big climb. Curtis and I had got on pretty well together on the ride to Eureka so we promised to keep a look out for one another on the trail.

After the navigation adventures yesterday I was determined not to mess up today.  I didn’t as the ACA map, the purple line on my GPS ( I was in the US now!) and my cue sheet all combined to safely take me to the bottom of the Whitefish Divide.  As I rode along Grave Creek Road with its’ interesting cabins for bikers and the homesteads I found myself trying to make sense of the route through Whitefish Divide.  The trees were too dense to see the road so instead I looked to the natural valleys and passes all of which looked possible! My study of the morning’s climb was strangely interrupted when a stoned local, on a full suss bike joined me for a quarter mile or so on Highway 114.  Random encounters such as this were all making my time on the Great Divide an amazing experience, one that I will probably never forget. Hwy 114 was now heading almost due north and was climbing all the time – this was it the start of the climb to Whitefish Divide.

It was a great feeling to watch my altimeter steadily climb as the miles passed and to know that all the months of training had paid off.  The deliberately punishing after school loops of The Burma Road from home, the multi-day loops with deliberate easy option-real option points on day 2 or 3 (designed to train the mind as well as the legs) and of course  the rides around Abernethy & Glenmore Forest as fast as I could in all conditions, day or night. In one year I had gone from riding distances in a week that used to be accumulated in a month!  

The Whitefish Divide climb was steady on gravel and not actually too steep.  A lot of trucks and CanAms drove past me so I was not too stressed about grizzlies at this point, despite what the map said.  As I approached the summit my senses were almost overloaded with the size of the slopes and the sheer number of trees everywhere – trees that I was convinced might have a bear behind them.  At the summit there was a pickup so I stopped to speak to them. The father and son were from Montana and were driving over Whitefish and I think then on towards Polebridge. Dad tried to convince me that I wouldn’t encounter any bears unless I really got ‘high up in the brush’…

at the top of Whtiefish Divide

The descent down to Tuchuck Campground was exhilarating and my smile was so big it almost hurt.  At the campground there was a Forest Service pickup truck so I stopped nearby to have my sandwich from Eureka gas station, some granola bars and generally just enjoy the simplicity of what I needed to do…’Eat, Sleep, Ride-Repeat’.  I didn’t stay too long and as I turned back onto Forest Road 114 there was Curtis, quietly having his lunch. Curtis still wasn’t too sure about riding all the way to Whitefish so I didn’t hang around. To be honest I am not surprised as this nutter had ridden from Banff to Fernie the week before non-stop, so maybe he needed a rest?

across to the peaks of Glacier National Park

FR 114 curved south meeting FR 486 and the North Fork Road.  The peaks of Glacier National Park were sharp, snow covered and spectacular.  The riding was not too difficult, just steady so I was able to take in their shape, their scale and the beautiful way that the midday sun shone on them.  I didn’t completely forget about navigation as at the junction of FR 486 and FR 115 I had to turn west and begin the climb to the second big pass of the day at Red Meadow Lake.  Just before the junction I had noticed a community center and was reading about local events as I rode past when suddenly I became aware of another rider behind me…Curtis was right on my tail with a huge grin.  When I asked him how long he had been there he said 15 minutes! Either he was winding me up or I had really got into the zone on this ride. We both rode side by side and started the usual sort of conversation about our lives back home, our partners, family and our jobs.  As the grade increased we’d take turns at being up front as we steadily climbed alongside the Red Meadow Creek in the building heat. Any stops for water were short because of the mosquitos. The last half mile was pretty brutal and I was absolutely determined not to stop, or put a foot down.  At times this did mean I was moving very slowly but I was pedalling, not pushing. A left hand bend, then a right hand bend and finally there was Red Meadow Lake in all its splendour with tall trees all around, massive slopes either side and importantly picnic benches. This was our high point for the day so Curtis and I relished in this knowledge.  We filtered water to top off our bottles, had the last of our food and started to discuss our plans when we hit town. Pizza and beer was the unanimous decision.  

The whooping, swooping descent to Whitefish begins!

The descent was incredible.  I will never ever forget the whopping, swooping yell from Curtis as he screamed down the first of those hills.  No matter how hard I pedalled my 36/26 front with 11-42 cassette I could not catch him on the steeper sections. The 30 miles into town were either flat or downhill it was just so much fun riding alongside then pulling away from one another for a bit before catching up.  The gravel road was in good shape but I had learned after one almost over the bars moment to take care with the sun, or shade hiding any small potholes.

Whitefish Lake from East Lakeshore Drive

The pavement of East Lakeshore Drive arrived too soon after nearly 70 miles of gravel but the views through the trees to the lake made up for it.  At one pull in we stopped to take photos and I am sure that Curtis said he had seen a snake. Typical, even when out of the forest this ride is going to keep us on our toes.  

The first eating place that we saw was called ‘The Taphouse’.  We pulled in, ordered beer, pizza and side orders of salad then headed to a seat outside.  The food and drink just finished off one of the most memorable and enjoyable days I’ve had on my bike so far.  The challenge, the scenery, the sounds and the company were unforgettable. Talking of sounds…the State Park campground that we detoured to was right next to a railway line.  We both immediately quoted the line from The Blues Brothers about ‘How often does the train go past?’

What a day!

Eureka to Whitefish Lake State Park Campground,

100 miles, 6267 feet of ascent, 12 hours (10 hours riding + 2 hours stopped)

A teacher trying to Divide

Riding across the Border with Curtis.

Wednesday July 10th

I left at about 7.00am to head for my first ‘A & W’ $10 breakfast.  The diner, the food and the other customers did not disappoint. There was enough peace and quiet to spread out my map and plan out the day.  The coffee, toast and full ‘Canadian’ breakfast put fuel in the tank. The three truckers in the booth beside me were happy to make conversation as well as keep an eye on my stuff when I went to the bathroom.  I had no regrets about chickening out from Flathead but still wanted to ride as much of the back trails and singletrack as I could. One of the local truckers gave me good directions to clear Fernie and Highway 3 in order to get onto the two track of the alternate.

The road gradually climbed up and out with views of the ski hill across the valley.  I smiled when I passed a sign warning of bear activity in the area; then smiled even more when a couple of local women out walking said ‘Good Luck in Flathead!’  Eventually the road became gravel and I arrived at a Y-junction with one way going up and one way going down. I had only brought the US 50K map SD cards so was using some sort of basemap for Canada along with my Adventure Cycling Association ‘Canada Section’ paper map.  The junction now gave me a third good reason to stop. Since dipping my toe into the water of long distance and multi-day riding I had always tried to not stop unless I had at least two real reasons, eg. eat something I couldn’t eat on the move, check navigation in detail, apply sunblock or fix some annoying mechanical.  In order to fix my ‘bag-buzz’ I propped my BigBro against a stone wall in order to completely remove my Terrapin holster and drybag.  Basically I had too much kit, which was going to be addressed at a US Post Office today but for now I repacked my drybag and reconnected the holster to my seat which had been slightly raised…  At the same time I drank more water and had a granola bar to keep energy levels up. I hate going down in the wrong direction only to have to come back up. I’d always rather climb up too much so that at least you can use gravity to correct things. A bit messed up I know but it works for me ok? A bit like always climbing on the crest of an alpine ridge in order to see what is ahead unless you definitely know to traverse on the sides.  So down I headed and as soon as I hit the bottom of the section of trail there was a crap path alongside the railway line, or an undulating, muddy trail following power lines. The muddy trail got really steep and eventually I had to push my bike up beside the power lines. This route just didn’t feel right according to the ACA narratives…

I got a bit tired of riding up and down here.

Back to the junction where by now there was a truck and another tourist from New Zealand.  I explained what I was trying to do and he offered to help with his 4G mapping. Eventually I decided to head on the upper track which turned out to be the right one, kind of…as it led down to the power lines.  The next section was steep but rideable which I enjoyed as it was a challenge and at last I seemed to be heading in the right direction. I was close to Lodgepole River Road and then according to my map I would ride southwest to Elko.  After a couple of miles I passed another kiosk (Canadian for noticeboard) which again confirmed I was still on track. Then it all stopped making sense. Perhaps I still hadn’t really got my head around the scale of the ACA maps. Maybe my Garmin basemap was lacking the detail I needed.  After some reflection I decided that the reason was much simpler than that – I had messed up my navigation! So I doubled back to the kiosk, rode the bridge across the Elk River and hit Highway 3 promising myself not to waste any more time or energy.

The highway was not that bad, nor the scenery.  I exchanged friendly waves with northbound riders as the miles ticked by.  By the time I got to Elko I was into a great touring rhythm and making good time.  My drive to get over the Border was strong so I turned due south on Highway 93 which was going to take me all the way to Roosville and then Eureka.

Highway 93 did the trick!

By now the rain that was forecast began to fall but this did not make any difference to me as I was comfortable, happy and moving well.

Just north of Grassmere I caught up with three other riders who judging by their loaded bikes were also going south.  At the cafe/store there we all stopped to resupply and say hello properly. Two riders from Idaho were on a four or five day trip while Curtis who was on his own had a lot more time at his disposal.  We all shared the same feeling of being so, so grateful to be riding our bikes with all our other responsibilities left at home. Rain, or no rain we had somewhere to be so after a lunch of snack bars and soda we hit the road again.

At the Border we regrouped and joined the line as it slowly crept nearer and nearer to Montana.  I couldn’t resist texting my friend in San Francisco to tell him that this was his last chance to get the black helicopters despatched to Roosville!  I was given the full welcome so I do wonder if Brett did tell them to check the Scottish guys Visa and papers!

Campsite at Eureka before everyone arrived.

Eureka came quickly, only 10 miles down the road.  I can’t remember who told me but there was free camping at the Town Hall across from the gas station and the river.  The catch was that some sprinklers came on at 7:00am and some at 8:00am. I pitched my tent well away from the sprinklers I could see and close to a bench where I could prop my bike.  I then took a quick ride back up into town to post home some of the extra clothes that I had taken, eg. a windstopper gilet, a long sleeved top and a plastic ground sheet. Even in Eureka PO folk were interested and friendly about a Scottish rider passing through.

Having lightened my load a little I decided that it was time to have dinner.  It was fun to head back up the hill on an unloaded bike to find a place to eat.  For dinner I joined some other riders who were doing a short three day ride from Whitefish where they had rented bikes and a shuttle.

‘Huckleberry burger’ caught my eye.  This was a generous burger with salad, sauces, chips and importantly a slice of huckleberry ice cream!  One of the best burgers I have ever had, my dinner companions even took a photo of it!

When I arrived back at the campground the place was mobbed with lots more riders from Whitefish.  I noticed that Curtis, one of the guys I had met in the afternoon had taken himself away from the main pitch and down by the river.  For a brief moment I considered moving to somewhere quieter but also wanted to experience being part of the friendly, excited buzz of bikepackers. After resupplying and using the gas station toilet for a wash I turned in for the night and sleep came quickly.  

 

Tomorrow was going to be my first 100 mile day, I needed a rest.

 

Fernie to Eureka, 63 miles, 2400 feet of ascent, 11 hours ( 6 hours riding + 2 stopped)

A teacher trying to Divide

Tuesday July 9th

All night it had been trying to get into the hut, I hardly slept a wink.  Sometimes the banging noise that I made with my Sigg water bottle seemed to work for twenty minutes or so, other times it made no difference at all.  When dawn finally arrived I didn’t waste much time in getting out of my sleeping bag, a brew on and my gear stowed back into my bike bags. I should have known by the state of the hut that there were bound to be rodents but my fear of bears had affected my judgement.

outside the Tobermory Cabin in the morning
outside the Tobermory Cabin in the morning

I quickly got into a rhythm of cruising on the aero bars on the flat sections of the trail and made good progress.  At one point I had to ride through a group of horses who did not seem bothered by a cyclist one bit. I thought to myself that there can’t be any bears around here if there were horses about, so that helped me relax. 

Horses who were not bothered about me.
Horses who were not bothered about me.

The scale of the trail was still blowing me away, on some of the undulating sections it was hard for me to tell whether it was two miles, or ten miles to the next landmark. As I got nearer and nearer to the road to Elkford I started to pass more and more vehicles.  As I approached one truck the driver flashed his lights and the passenger waved out the window… it was Ryan and Ramsay! Incredible to think that only two days into the ride I was meeting folk I already knew. They had managed to get spares for the fishing kit and find a motel for the evening.  My Canadian fishermen friends were pretty impressed with my progress for the day which gave me another boost. Before I reached Elkford I had two enjoyable stops : one to collect and filter fresh water through my Sawyer and the other to simply enjoy sitting at the side of a lovely meadow. Slowly but surely I could feel myself tuning into my own rhythm on the trail : ride, eat, ride, drink, stop to take in the view and then ride again.  I felt so, so lucky to be able to do this at last.

As I approached Elkford the road turned to pavement and I passed more and more houses and ranches.  In the middle of town I found a truck stop/grill which was perfect for my needs. The women working there were really friendly, their food was hot and tasty and the coffee of course free flowing.  I phoned home and got to speak with Rachel and Eoghain. It was a great feeling to be able to tell her that it was going well as Rachel had given me so much support and trust to do this. I also told her about the grizzly cub.  Eoghain was quite interested in the encounter too but then quickly moved on to ask me if I had experienced any mechanicals yet! I loaded up on snack bars, sandwiches and Coke then headed outside to pack them on the bike.

my Brother Cycles BigBro 29er
my Brother Cycles BigBro 29er

Over the last year and a half I had found what sort of bike luggage worked for me.  To maximise carrying capacity in my frame triangle I had gone back to my old Alpkit Stingray frame bag where I stored my repair kits, stove, a small first aid kit and spare batteries. My Revelate Sweetroll was where I kept my sleeping kit: tent, sleeping bag and air bed. Around that I had a Wildcat Gear Lion harness and Lioness bag which stored important stuff like passport, phone, wallet, maps and extra food during the day.  I really liked how easy it was to remove when resupplying and how well it fitted another product such as the Sweetroll. Finally on the seat post was a Wildcat Cheetah pouch and at the other end of the top tube an Alpkit Fuel Pod which were perfect for storing bars, sweets and any other food that took my fancy. Whilst bent over repacking a dry bag I heard the throaty rasp of a chopper approach, then park up beside me. When I stood up to say hello, I was greeted by a silver haired rider who was resplendent from head to toe in immaculate brown leathers.  In no time at all Quincy had introduced himself; he had lived and worked in Elkford for 37 in the mines as a sparky. At one time he had the biggest house plot in the town. Now he was retired and on a road trip. Quincy was having trouble with the electrics on his chopper and headed into the grill to borrow some WD40 which did the trick – I am sure 37 years ago he was fixing mining machinery with the same panache. Quincy suggested that with the weather they had just experienced in the area I was best to take Highway 43 to Sparwood, who was I to argue. We wished one another well and shook hands before swinging a leg over our rigs and hitting the road.

Quincy
Quincy

Highway 43 was really chilled, lots more homesteads and farmland to enjoy while I cranked out the miles to Sparwood. 

on Lower Elk River Road
on Lower Elk River Road

Sure enough on Lower Elk River Road who passed me but Quincy, we smiled and waved at one another. By now I was starting to feel like a local!  That soon stopped when I pulled into Sparwood…yes I had an appointment with the Terex 33-19 Titan!  

the Terex 33-19 Titan
the Terex 33-19 Titan!

By now the 70-80 degree heat was really starting to get to me and it was a relief to get inside a gas station to buy some more food and at least two cans of Coke.  I was disappointed with my decision not to head into the Flathead but after yesterday’s encounter I just did not feel confident riding in a valley that is sometimes referred to as the ‘Grizzly Zoo’.  The twenty miles on Highway 3 did not take much effort, or time and I was soon checking into the luxury of the RV/Campground at Fernie. Tomorrow the US border.

 

Tobermory Cabin to Fernie, 83 miles, 2544 feet of ascent, 11 hours ( 7 ¾ hours riding + 3 ¼ stopped)

A teacher trying to Divide

Monday July 8th

The Elk Road

I woke up at 6:30am, put on my riding clothes, packed everything else in my Wildcat Lioness handlebar bag then headed downstairs for another mega-breakfast at Samesun hostel.  My planned route for the day had been prepared months, perhaps even close to two years ago which meant I could almost recite from memory the key points on the way; Spray River Trail, Goat Creek Trail, Goat Pond, Smith-Dorian, Spray River Road, Boulton Creek Stores, Elk Pass and the Tobermory Cabin.  At last it was happening, before leaving the hostel one of the lovely staff kindly offered to take my photo and I was not refusing – I’m about to ride The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route! There was also no way I was getting lost on day one so I had already recced the first few miles the day before, just to get tuned into the trail and how accurate the cues were on the map and my own notes.  On the Goat Creek Trail I caught up with four riders who were also heading south. We shared our excitement about riding this famous trail as well as our nerves about bears. On the first wee hill their big bags seemed to get the better of them and I slowly started to pull away towards the Goat Creek Trail.

At 11.5 miles there was a kiosk (Canadian for noticeboard with maps) which showed the ‘normal route’ to Goat Pond and what appeared to be a singletrack alternate which looped around to the same point.  I could see the singletrack, it looked very inviting so I took it. Within a few hundred yards of descent on a lovely swoopy, trail I encountered piles of very fresh bear scat and an overpowering smell that I had never experienced before.  I hope I don’t experience it again. Inexperience and fear made me keep on the descent which cleared the trees and the scat to emerge near a water intake building, a bridge and a continuation of this trail up and across the hill side. As I climbed up on this more closed in trail I started to make more and more of my ‘bear calls’.  Despite being very alone I was still self-conscious about calling ‘Hey Bear’, instead I made a sort of throaty noise that probably wouldn’t have moved on a squirrel, let alone a Grizzly.

I had just crested a high point on this trail and it looked like it was going to start making the descent to join up with the main trail again.  Then it happened. Less than two hundred yards or so right on the trail was a Grizzly cub. I knew it was a Grizzly because of its’ ear shape, As part of my preparation for the ride I had read and re-read Stephen Herrero’s book, Bear Attacks, their causes and avoidance.  Time slowed right down for me. Where was its’ mother? What should I do? Get the safety off your bear spray. The cub and I locked eyes. The cub’s ears started to twitch. Was he starting to get stressed by me? At any point I expected the mother to quite rightly come smashing out of the bush to take me out with one ferocious swipe of her claws, then crush my neck with her powerful jaws.  I decided not to make any noise. I chose to move backwards with my bike on the trail whilst constantly scanning the bush for the cub’s mother. Once the cub was out of sight I did not feel any better. I kept retreating as quietly as I possibly could. After a quarter mile or so I decided to get on the bike and head back to the junction at the kiosk. Of course this meant going back through the overgrown section of trail with the bear scat.  I got there quickly and then jumped off my bike and pretty much ran up the hill pushing it as I thought this was faster than winching back up the steep singletrack. When I arrived back at the kiosk the riders I had passed earlier were just arriving. I explained to them what had just happened and funnily enough they chose to take the direct route to Smith-Dorian.  Even writing this three months later it still freaks me out what might have happened if I had not seen the cub and ridden, downhill right towards it.  I felt stupid. I had got into a bad situation through inexperience. What worried me more was that I did not have the skills to determine how to avoid repeating this further down the trail.  To be completely honest I might have even considered turning back for a few seconds. Fortunately, I started to take a more rational approach to it all and swore not to take any more ‘interesting alternates’.

Spray Lakes Reservoir
Spray Lakes Reservoir

Thankfully the ride from the Smith-Dorian/Spray Lakes Road junction to Boulton Creek stores was open and on gravel.  I was able to forget about the encounter, get the pedals turning and cover the miles all whilst looking at the most spectacular scenery all around m- except for one really funny experience.  The gravel road went on for miles and miles, I was really enjoying the fitness that I had built up for this trip and the headspace that I had for the scenery, especially some of the long straights.  Whilst grinding it out on one of the straights I saw something dark in the middle of the road. The closer I got to it, the more I started to think that it was a bear! I stopped, took out Al’s camera and tried to zoom in to see if it was really a bear or not.  That didn’t work so I decided to stay put until it moved on. It didn’t move. It didn’t move when a car went past. That’s because it was a fallen over traffic cone as I found out when I finally rode up to it!

Smith-Dorian Spray Road
Smith-Dorain Spray Road

I stopped at Sawmill Picnic area to prepare some noodles, a granola bar and some coffee from my GSI Outdoors java drip to finish off.  When I got to Boulton Creek I prowled around the store to get some bars, some instant Idahoan Potato mash and a ‘pen’ for the mosquito bites which everyone seems to keep quiet about when they talk about the Great Divide.

on the Elk Pass climb

It was only ten miles over Elk Pass, the only crossing of the Continental Divide in Canada, to the Tobermory Cabin so I didn’t hang about at Boulton Creek too long.  The plan was to stay in the cabin if there was space, otherwise camp at Riverside BC Forest Service Recreation Site. When I arrived at the cabin there was a pickup there and two hunters having a beer whilst they messed about with some fishing gear in the back of the truck.  Apart from the kiosk at Goat Creek Trail and Boulton Creek I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day so it was nice to find out how someone else’s day had been. Ryan and Ramsay were two local guys who had planned to be up at the Tobermory Cabin to fish, drink, catch up and drink for a few days.  One of their fishing reels was broken so they were unsure of whether to head into town to get it fixed or to stay and presumably finish the bottle of Crown Royal that was being waved in my direction. I thanked them very much but explained that this might not be a good plan if I was going to make it further down the trail.  When the guys realised that I had only left Banff in the morning they appeared surprised as most folks take a couple of days. They felt that if I had made that effort I deserved to have the cabin to myself and they would head into town to get a new fishing reel, find a motel and drink some more. I thought that this was a pretty cool thing for them to do.  Ryan and Ramsay prepared a quick early dinner on the fire pit, threw some essentials into the back of the truck and left me to it. I thanked them again and waved goodbye. They had assured me that I wouldn’t be visited by any bears but that did not stop me from doing everything I could to lock the door from the inside. The guys told me they would be back in the morning so they left most of their gear in the cabin for me to keep an eye on.  The interior of the cabin was pretty dirty but at least I wasn’t outside in a tent waiting for the Grizzly mother and her cub to come and say hello again.

The Tobermory Cabin

My plan for tomorrow was to ride into Elkford for a second breakfast before pushing onto Sparwood where the decision to head into the Flathead Valley and ‘the bear zoo’ had to be made.  I was in bed before dark and absolutely buzzing to have got day 1 under my belt and finally be riding the Divide.

Banff to Tobermory Cabin, 70 miles, 5448 feet of ascent, 11 hours  

A teacher trying to Divide.

Saturday July 6th 

Not enough room in the big car for all of the family as well as my boxed bike and holdall.  The door of my daughter’s room wasn’t sanded and the grass not cut as promised. Mixed feelings as I said goodbye to my family and later on at the airport – my wife.  I guess that is the right way to feel though. At the airport it was a great coincidence to meet Dunc who I had ridden a Scottish coast to coast with four years ago. To celebrate both turning 50 we had mountain biked 250 miles from Aberdeen, through the Cairngorm mountains to Lochaber and then up the Great Glen to Kirkhill, near Inverness on our first ‘proper’ bikepacking trip.  We agreed to ride a route that was as new to us both as possible and with as much offroad riding as we could find. The journey was a fun challenge but at the end of it I knew that I wanted to try something further and even harder. That is why I am now flying down to London and then out to Calgary, with finally a shuttle bus to Banff to attempt to ride 2745 miles with over 200,000 feet of ascent through two Canadian provinces and five US states all the way to the Mexican border.  For the last year and a half I have been obsessed with riding my bike, planning how to ride The Great Divide Mountain BIke Route, weighing kit, riding my bike and did I say riding my bike?  

A big thanks to Celia and Morag at school for helping me upcycle a pencil case and document wallet into my spares bag and tool roll!
The gear grid, I didn’t know I would be posting stuff home so early.

For the last two or three days, maybe more if you ask my family and friends I have been in that limbo between leaving the real world and spending a self indulgent month on my solo ride.  In many respects a similar feelings to the ones I have experienced in the build up to my mountaineering assessments at nearby Glenmore Lodge – there finally comes a point where enough is enough and you just want to get it started.  Throughout there has been no doubt in my mind that I am fortunate to have a family who support and understand why I am attempting this.

The flight from London to Calgary was long but I did get to see Thunder Road and Bohemian Rhapsody, they helped with my strategy of not sleeping until I go to the Samesun hostel in Banff.  This did mean that when I was deposited at Calgary airport that night I was a wee bit slower than normal. That did not excuse the rude desk staff and driver of the Banff Airporter shuttle from respectively ignoring me, then impatiently grabbing my bike box and slamming it onto a trolley without my help.  By the way, I am still waiting for the promised refund on the repair costs of my damaged rotor before I even turned a wheel. The driver’s pleasantries to other passengers seemed a little hollow after this. I got a warm and friendly welcome at Samesun hostel in Banff and finally crashed out in a room called ‘Bear’.  The staff there were mostly all young enough to be my kids but they all greeted me with the same hospitality, interest then amazement at what I hoped to do. The breakfast of coffee, pancakes, granola and fruit was one of the best I have ever had in a hostel.  

Sunday July 7th

The whole of the next day was devoted to building up my bike on the front porch of the hostel and packing my kit into an assortment of bar roll, frame bag, seat bag and various pods or drybags.  One of my main worries about the ride was the possibility of encounters with bears, especially Grizzlies in the northern section.  The girl who sold me my bear spray did her best to put me at ease but this was difficult as so far my most exciting wildlife encounters have been mice in bothies or a nose to nose encounter with a fox in The Fisherfields back home!  

I got ripped off enough in Banff so I was not paying for a bear spray holster.
I got ripped off enough in Banff so I was not paying for a bear spray holster.

Fortunately my nerves started to settle  as I cruised down Banff main street on my fully loaded bike rocking my bear spray in a homemade holster.  Later I joined Paul and his two buddies for dinner in an overpriced bar/diner downtown. We talked excitedly about what it was going to be like on the trail before having an early night.  These guys had loads of bikepacking and riding experience in the States so it made me a little twitchy to be planning on much longer days than them. They were talking about staying at a lodge near Spray Lake whilst I was going to ride to Tobermory Cabin.  

No more waiting I set off in the morning.

Learn Winter Mountain Skills, Cairngorm Mountains, February 2019

Denise, Dimple, Jen, Julia, Molly and Rachel had all booked on a muchbetteradventures Learn Winter Mountain Skills trip to learn how to plan, prepare kit and travel safely in the mountains during winter.  Unfortunately winter had once again decided to reset a wee bit so I had to call upon my local knowledge and flexible approach to make things work!  By the end of the two days we had a strong team of 6, ready to take some steps of their own into the Winter Mountains.

At our briefing in Kinross House B & B, Grantown on Spey one of the first things I told the group was that we were ‘going for it’ on day 1 as this was the best weather window.  I didn’t sense any reservations from my team only complete trust in my decision and of course the excitement of an adventure the next day.  We then discussed the planning that goes on when travelling in the winter mountains – weather forecasts, avalanche reports, reliable local information and your own gut instinct are all mixed together to choose a route.  To help get across the preparations required each member of the team were given a piece of group kit in addition to their own personal equipment.  These six items were: two spare insulated jackets, an 8 person group shelter, a snow shovel, some tea/coffee/cups/spare head torch and finally a stove. I left the team to allocate these items themselves as I’d already sensed good spirit and cooperation.

We had a beautiful drive from Grantown on Spey through the busy town of Aviemore, collecting boots & crampons on the way, to arrive at the Cairngorm Mountain carpark ready for an ascent of one of the highest mountains in the UK…  Cairn Gorm 1245m.  As soon as we left the car I asked each member of the group to take us to a significant point on our journey into Coire Cas where I planned to do winter skills.  Change in direction, slope aspect and steepness of terrain were all considered as we moved steadily and surely up through the Ski Area.

Many other instructional parties had the same plan but despite there being close to 50 people using the east slopes of Coire Cas the atmosphere was friendly.  My team quickly became confident at moving up/down and across the snow slopes using their boots and ice axes for support.  The next step was to make sure that a slip did not become a slide so we practiced self-belay.  By the end of the session everyone knew what to do if their name was shouted out!  Now the self-arrest…  the snow was not hard, or steep enough to give a realistic bite but this was our best chance so everyone practiced the classic ‘sitting down’ self arrest then moved into the head first scenario with the need for a strong and flexible core.

We left Coire Cas after lunch and headed up into the strengthening wind to 1141m.  The 30+mph wind provided a great opportunity to illustrate how hard it is to communicate and navigate but my group were well up for this, as they had been all morning on the snow slopes.  We leapfrogged from rocks to snow patches and were soon at the summit of Cairn Gorm enjoying views across the Strath and all the way to the Moray Firth.  Someone remarked that it seemed a long way down compared to how far we went up – I think that was something to do with the amount of naviagtions/route finding and self-arrest that you did on the way up!

I was delighted for everyone that the change of plan to work with the conditions instead of against them paid off.  To celebrate we had a wonderful dinner in The High Street Merchants, Grantown on Spey

Sunday was going to be a challenge but I had a hunch that my team were up for it…

We were not the only groups seeking shelter from the 50mph winds that morning.  Ciste Gully was broken and uninspiring so I decided to take my group across to Coire Laogh Mor in the search of some firmer snow for cramponing.  Once again straight from the car park each team member was asked to navigate to ‘somewhere interesting’.  Flat sections, descending sections, traverses were all used to get us to a sheltered location where the 8 person group shelter was at last erected.  We had tea, coffee and tablet in this life-saving shelter and enjoyed the crack as well as discussing what procedures to take in the event of an emergency.

Next the pressure mounted to get established in the corrie and onto some ‘useful’ snow.  My group did a great job here and we found a deeper snow slope to try digging snow profiles using an ice axe and then more easily, with a snow shovel.  The snow pack confirmed what we all had read…  thawing!  At last there was a section of snow that would at least allow crampons to be used although not actually needed.  We made steps without them first to try and compact the snow a little which worked.

As forecast the rain set in later in the afternoon so it was time to move out and importantly move into the strengthening winds.  I asked members of the team to route find out of Coire Laogh Mor across to the ridge above Ciste Gully.  The closer we got to the ridge the stronger the wind got.  Instead of ‘ducking down’ on the lee slopes I felt I owed it to my group to let them see how much they could take.  Some might be quick to question an MIC deliberately letting his clients get exposed to 50mph winds and more on the path on a broad ridge.  I believed that my team deserved the right to see how awful that can be.  Yes someone might have fallen over but that can happen on a flat path in calm and clear conditions right?  So on we went into the full force of the winds.  This strong team even took time to relocate themselves at a notch on the ridge.

After the notch things got pretty full on and I did at this point decide to take the team into the lee side of the ridge.  Not so we could scuttle off that way but so I could ‘ask’ them to sort out kit, pace and teamwork in order to come off the hill as a tight, supportive and capable group.

I am delighted to say that they did and I am proud of what they all achieved despite being pushed at times right to the edge.

Dimple, Jen, Julia, Molly, Rachel and Denise it has been a pleasure and I hope that your future adventures in the mountains are as rewarding for you, as this one was for me?