Riding the Rails to the Rockies

By Tooker Gomberg, Jasper, Alberta.

Music, ducks, and late night riding…

Yes, we kind of cheated. We didn’t ride our bikes all the way from Edmonton to Jasper. The train helped us out.

Then again, we never said we were going to cycle all the way around the world. For one thing, cycling across the oceans is out of the question. So what’s a ride on the rails once in a while?

We intend to avoid airplanes and automobiles, relying on bicycles, our feet, trains and boats. We may even, on occasion, hitch a ride on a camel or a donkey.

The train trip to Jasper was easy. We flagged it down in Evansburg (110 km. west of Edmonton), the baggage car door slid open, and we hoisted our bikes and gear up on board. In no time flat the train was chugging along down the track.

Travelling by train is so civilized. People walk around and chat, everyone seems relaxed, the view from the dome car is spectacular, and meeting other travellers is easy.

And train travel is ecological. Only boats, blimps, and bicycles move people around more efficiently.

For moving freight across the prairies, trains are the kindest to the planet. One CN worker told me that a freight can be as long as 111 cars, and may carry 17,000 tonnes. That’s a lot of stuff. But don’t try to suddenly stop a freight train if there is something (say, some wayward freight cars) on the tracks. It takes a few miles to come to a complete halt.

En route to Jasper we saw trains full of sulphur scrubbed from Alberta’s coal fired power plants. It was being sent overseas to be made into fertilizer and gunpowder. It is good that the sulphur is not going up the power plant stack, contributing to acid rain, but we could probably do with a lot less gunpowder.

One thing you miss while cycling all day is good music. Sure, humming and singing helps pass the time. I keep trying to remember the words to every Pete Seeger tune I ever heard.

We stoked up on live music at the Jasper Heritage Folk Festival. The Red Elvises (formerly Limpopo) pumped out Siberian surf rock complete with slide mandolin and wailing clarinet. They urged people to dance: “it’s the rockin’ mountains!”

We pedalled to our favourite Jasper haunt – the Maligne Canyon Hostel. Nestled by the Maligne River, it often hosts (along with travellers) roaming elk and other large ungulates. Its charm comes from its simplicity – water from the river, propane lamps, peace and quiet.

We learned from the hostel managers about the plight of the Harlequin ducks, a local casualty of tourism pressures. This tiny, rarely seen duck nests in the Maligne River. Sadly, commercial rafting over the last few years has put its survival at risk. Only one lonely duck was spotted this year. In the struggle between profit and nature, we all know which most often prevails. But in our national parks, couldn’t nature be given the edge?

The beauty and the ecosystem of Jasper is also being threatened in other ways. Hotels are expanding. Commercial activity is growing. The call of the loons is drowned by the roar of motor boats on Pyramid Lake. There is even a proposal for a major coal mine along the eastern edge of the park. Our mountain national parks – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – deserve more respect.

They also need more direction signs. One afternoon, we tried to cycle from town to the hostel along a mountain trail, and got lost somewhere on Signal Mountain. After a few hours it got dark. Earlier in the day we had been told that there were bears in the area. So we sang out loud to avoid any encounters, and to buoy our spirits. Eventually we fumbled our way back to a road. Well past midnight, under a starry sky, we rolled into the hostel tired and relieved.

Our late night riding taught us that traffic nearly disappears after sunset. So the next night after picking up a few supplies and some extensive dawdling in Jasper, we didn’t feel too badly about leaving at sunset. We were finally on our way towards Banff and beyond.

When we arrived at the next campground at 1 a.m. having travelled just 50 km., we were beginning to earn a reputation as the slow cyclists. That’s fine. What’s the rush?

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