Through Wind, Rain, and Mountain Passes

By Tooker Gomberg, Banff, Alberta.

Cyclist’s fuel, mountain wildlife, and cool clean water.

Never before have I felt self-conscious about my weight. But everybody seems to be commenting: “Quite a load you have there,” or “Lots of stuff, eh?”.

Yes, we’re loaded down. I suppose it builds character, or muscles, or something.

And it takes lots of stuff to travel around the world. Clothes and food, a tent and sleeping bags, stove and pots, tools and spare tubes.

To tell stories we brought a computer, video camera, and various cables, batteries and electronic paraphernalia.

So we’re a bit on the plump side. It just means that we have to eat a bit more porridge in the morning.

It’s porridge that fuels us most mornings. Cycling from Jasper to Banff we had to share the road with masses of recreational vehicles and tourist buses (fueled by gasoline or diesel and belching fumes). But thankfully we found safety in the wide, paved shoulder. The stunning scenery and the occasional bracing dip in a freezing mountain lake made the noise and the stress of the traffic bearable.

Not so for the bears. With increased development, traffic, and the accompanying food and garbage, the mountain parks are becoming more deadly for them. This year’s failed berry crop has tempted black bears and grizzlies to come closer to human activity, resulting in them being shot or relocated in high numbers. Even the national parks are no longer safe for the indigenous wildlife. And they don’t have many other places to go.

One thing about mountains – you have to climb them. We slowly grunted up the Sunwapta Pass, and paused for rice and coffee at the Brewster restaurant at the top by the Columbia Icefields. We also cursed how they had turned a large chunk of the mountain into a monster parking lot accommodating a hundred or more tour buses whose fumes seem to blacken the glacier itself.

Of course, there is a downside of mountains too, and it is exhilarating. We flew down the other side of the pass hitting a record speed of 73 k/h. All the uphill sweating was worthwhile.

After another long and slow ascent, this time up the Bow Pass, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of Peyto Lake and a panorama of where we had come from. We could see the snaking highway far below, and 50 km or more off in the distance. Our legs had taken us a long way, and we had each hauled 120 pounds or more of gear up the mountain. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished by working at it slowly but surely, bit by bit.

To get to Banff we had to take the Trans-Canada for a few kilometers. Buffeted by tandem trucks and speeding cars, we could not ignore the road littered with dead dragonflies and butterflies. We were reminded of how deadly highways are to animals and other living things; in the U.S. cars kill more animals than vivisection, hunting and executions at pounds combined.

Too bad the government has decided to twin the highway, making it easier for more trucks and RV’s to speed through the mountains. A huge toll will be paid by dead animals, and degradation of the national parks will increase.

After a few weeks of sleeping on a foamy pad in a tent, we savoured the comfort of a friend’s futon and the luscious tingle of a hot shower in Banff. One good way to appreciate what you take for granted is to live without it for a while.

Like being warm and dry. As we approached the Bow Valley provincial campground in Kananaskis Country we were greeted by a huge downpour, and got soaked to the skin. But our sleeping bags were dry and we slept soundly.

Not that we can complain about water. Water kept us cool when we dipped in for a swim. Water quenched our thirst as we inched up the grades. Water helped grow the food we relied upon for sustenance.

After one more mountain pass in Kananaskis (the highest in Canada) we rolled out of the green mountain valleys into dry prairie foothills. Water became harder to come by, and was polluted by cow pies. No longer could we count on finding natural, roadside sources of clean, drinkable water.

We had traversed three mountain passes and battled some hefty winds. With some luck and wind at our back we’d be crossing the border in a few days.

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