Riding the Rockies, Valley of the Ten Peaks, Banff, Alperta, Canada

Biking the Canadian Rockies

Story by Carol Canter with photos by Jack Heyman and Carol Canter.

Revisiting a family trip of a lifetime 30 years later

Riding the Rockies, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Our Bike the Rockies adventure

“As we pass this stick around the group,” Kathryn Gardner intoned, holding aloft a small pine branch, “we’ll introduce ourselves and share our fears. Later in the trip, we’ll burn the stick and watch our fears go up in smoke.”

We had just finished dinner at Two Jack Lakeside Campground in Banff, 150 miles north of the Montana border in Alberta, Canada. It was the first evening of a six-day family bike trip through the Canadian Rockies, and already we had been riding since four o’clock that afternoon. Gathered around the tables along with my husband Jack, ten-year-old daughter Nicole, and me were four guides and seven other families. Kathryn, a guide, passed her “fear stick” around the group. Nine-year-old Adam confessed he was afraid of mosquito bites. David, 18, of being eaten by a bear before starting college in two weeks. Eli, 12, feared biking off the edge of a cliff. As I listened to others, adults and children alike, express their deepest fears, I laughed and felt lighter. Clearly, I wasn’t alone with nightmarish visions of losing control down a steep mountain road, coming face-to-face with a grizzly, or watching Nicole veer out into traffic.

The outfitters running the tour, a company based in Berkeley, California called Backroads, had said this was a popular family trip for scenery and wildlife. I was skeptical of the “family” part until they assured me we’d be riding mostly on wide roads between — not over — the mountains. I trusted them because they have been running bike trips since 1979. But the photographs in their catalogs, which I had been drooling over for years, really sold me. As I pictured our family pedaling against those backdrops of majestic peaks, I could almost taste the mountain air. I had only been waiting until I felt Nicole was old enough for the adventure.

Day One: We arrived in Banff early in the day of the fear-stick-dinner. We brought only clothes and enthusiasm to the trip; Backroads provided the rest, including top-dollar rented touring bikes. By four o’clock, we had filled our water bottles, packed gorp, fruit, and cookies into our handlebar bags, and got our “Route Rap” on what lay ahead: an “easy” ten miles to Two Jack Lakeside Campground outside Banff.

Bike the Rockies, Jack Lake, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Two Jack Lake, Alberta, Canada

Jack, Nicole, and I, the least experienced bikers, soon fell to the rear, where Jack and I remained for most of the trip. Our head guide, Phil, rode “sweep,” encouraging us up our first big hill on Tunnel Mountain.

Nicole and I ran out of steam regardless and had to walk our bikes part of the way. The downhill was more humbling still; Nicole, her small hands sore from constantly pumping the brakes, got scared. When the road flattened out by the Hoodoos Overlook, we regrouped and gaped at the forest of strange formations carved by glaciers from silt and clay.

Bike the Rockies, Crowfoot Glacier, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Crowfoot Glacier

We enjoyed riding the next few miles together until Nicole and several other tired children opted to ride the rest of the way in the Backroads van. Jack and I pedaled on, past the haunting sound of bagpipes flowing from a cadet camp, and were then escorted by a small herd of goats along the shoreline of neon-blue Lake Minnewanka.

Bike the Rockies, Elk at Two Jack Lake, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Elk at Two Jack Lake

Nicole and some of her new friends had just finished a short dip as we rode up to Two Jack Lake. An elk grazed by the shoreline, his antlers outlined against the fiery dusk. I was tired and happy: For the first time, I began to believe I could ride more than ten miles a day.

We slept in tents that night after a flurry of concern when asked to stash even our toothpaste and cosmetics in the van. “This is wild animal country,” Steve, another guide, advised. “It’s best to keep an immaculate tent.” The precaution was to deter not only bears but also squirrels and chipmunks, who search aggressively for food.

Day Two:The kids were shuttled ahead to the forested Bow River Parkway to avoid the busy Trans Canada Highway. It was a relief for most parents to ride alone; we could relax knowing the kids were under supervision. The kids preferred it, too — the guides were much cooler, almost superhuman. They were never cranky, always knew what lay ahead, and could produce a cookie at the very moment a kid was considering giving up.

Bike the Rockies, Johnston Canyon, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Johnston Canyon

We regrouped at Johnston Canyon, twenty miles on, for lunch. The day was glorious, and everyone felt exhilarated. Even so, by the time we reached Silverton Falls, our next stop, Nicole was fading. The day grew hot; we were told to drink constantly and then some. We hiked in to inspect the falls, where we bathed our feet in an icy stream and lay on a bed of moss to massage our heads in the flowing water.

Nicole revived, but she and I rode the van the last eleven miles to Lake Louise Campground, where our group settled in for the next two nights. Jack rode the rest of the route, having learned that biking was far easier on his knees than hiking.

Lake Louise was bathed in golden light. The kids played football and soccer and took turns cranking an ice cream maker.

The bonding had begun, crossing age groups and family lines. Nicole and nine-year-old Gabriella took four-year-old Carolina under their wing, leading her by the hand to wash up and tell her stories. In turn, Emily and sisters Abbey and Becca, fifteen and twelve, had begun riding with Nicole and giving her strokes for keeping up. Everyone loved eight-year-old Ben’s fierce drive and rascal charm. Long-haired Brian seemed sullen initially but became everyone’s friend, mentoring the younger boys and engaging the adults in dialogue. An esprit de corps was beginning to draw out the best in everyone, even the reluctant kids who felt dragged along by overenthusiastic parents.

Bike the Rockies, Johnston Canyon, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Johnston Canyon

Several parents told me they chose the camping trip for its relaxed pace. Without the kids, they said, they would have opted for the comfort and privacy of inns. But they would have missed seeing the kids huddled around the fire, coyote howls in the distance, as Phil told them of a “wolf man who steals children away” before quieting their fears with s’mores.

Day Three: Given over to a round trip into the mountains, our third day was short on mileage but long on beauty. I was feeling far more confident as a cyclist than on day one. Since Nicole and most of the other kids were shuttled to and from mountaintop Moraine Lake to avoid the steep hills, I began experimenting with speed, with letting go, versus white-knuckle braking. Nicole was disappointed with so little biking, although she loved the three-mile midday hike through the mountains. By the time Jack and I joined her, she and the other kids were splashing around in Lake Louise, which we had been told was too cold for a swim. The glacier-fed waters are, in fact, near freezing, but the kids plunged in anyway, holding hands against the heart-stopping chill.

Bike the Rockies, Moraine Lake, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Children’s nature playground on Moraine Lake

Day Four. The sunshine of days one through three had cooled behind clouds. Red Indian paintbrush, purple fireweed, and white yarrow offered a delicate contrast to the rugged scope of the Rockies. Shiny black magpies noisily spread their wings; tiny brooks trickled over mossy rocks. I forgot my sore joints and felt like I was floating.

Jack and I biked eighty-one kilometers, about 50 miles — farther than I ever dreamed. We followed the Icefields Parkway, held by experienced bikers to be one of the world’s finest roads. The shoulders were wide, the uphills gradual with flat stretches to break up the grind. To conquer the climbs, I was learning to maintain a zen attitude about being in the moment and at one with the beauty surrounding me. (Counting in kilometers helped, too.)

Lunch by Bow Lake provided the energy boost we needed for a final four-mile climb to Bow Summit, elevation 6,787 feet, and the high point of the day’s ride. A photo of Jack and me beaming there recalls this milestone. As if to christen the moment, it began raining. We wondered about Nicole, who had begun the day’s trip from here with the rest of the children. When Phil, twenty-two miles later, welcomed us as drenched warriors into the van, he disclosed that Nicole had ridden all the way to camp despite the rain. That was twenty-eight miles of riding, six of them in the downpour. Nicole and her friends had pedaled into camp, we were told, yelling “Polar bears, polar bears!”

After fifty miles of riding, camping in the rain was not a welcome adventure. Still, Steve turned out an incomparable lasagna, and the red wine warmed our spirits. We dined in a wooden shelter and lingered there as long as possible, preferring the camaraderie to our damp tents. That night, we burned the fear stick, proudly aware that our fears had vanished, pedaled away day-by-day, mile-by-mile, ache-by-ache. I slept uneasily, the night thick with thunder and lightning. The morning dawned wet and unpromising despite the guide’s sunny spirits and warm coffee cake.

Bike the Rockies, Valley of the Ten Peaks, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Valley of the Ten Peaks

Day Five. A long ride lay ahead, fifty-four miles that would bring us through the Sunwapta Pass and down to the Sunwapta Falls Resort, where we would lodge indoors for our last night. We began gamely, but the hills eventually got the better of us. At the Icefields Visitors Centre, we took shelter from the cold. Three days earlier, we had record heat; today, the thermometer plummeted, and we viewed Athabasca Glacier under dark clouds. At this hydrological apex from which water flows to three oceans — the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic — Jack and I lost all interest in riding. The hot baths at Sunwapta Falls Resort beckoned. Nicole stunned us by announcing her intention to go on: “I’ve got a burst of energy, and I don’t want to waste it in the van. A tingle inside says, “Be a hero — you may never be back.” With an elflike hat under her helmet and a ragtag costume of warm clothing, she rode off into the wind.

Bike the Rockies, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Downhill above the clouds

At dinner, we were a new group, all showered and shampooed. Casting admiring glances at one another, we glimpsed how each might look in our other, non-biking life, and our spirits were high over a candlelight dinner.

Bike the Rockies, Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Peyto Lake

Day Six. Our final day dawned clear and crisp. We posed for group portraits near Sunwapta Falls, then set out for Jasper, thirty-four miles away. This was the best biking: few cars, gentle terrain, postcard lakes. We rode above the clouds and on downhills; the wind tickled my skin.

After lingering at Athabasca Falls, we three fell back to our rear-guard position: Nicole and I together, with Jack a few hundred yards ahead. Just as the deserted road flattened out after a fast downhill, a black bear ambled out of the woods in front of Nicole and me, crossed the road, and disappeared into the brush. It was the very way I would have choreographed it — close, so very close, and then gone. Jack had a different perspective; checking on Nicole and me in his mirror, he was shocked to see the circle fill up with black fur.

Our breathless arrival at lunch was a chance to share the story. The trip was drawing to a close, with Jasper just twelve miles away. We mounted our bicycles for the homestretch and savored each mile. The teens did bike tricks, and eight-year-old Ben passed me going up the steepest hill of the day. Outside Jasper, two elk approached Nicole and me, coming closer than the bear.

After swimming and a Jacuzzi session in Jasper, we rode back to Banff, our starting point six days earlier, in a van. We were awed by our accomplishments as we retraced the route we had biked. Jack had logged 166 miles, 140 for me and 115 for Nicole. We had forged an intimacy with the Rockies that would last a lifetime. Before we said goodbye to him, Ben told us, “This was the best time I ever had on a bike, and the scenery was nothing like at home. More than just a trip, it seemed like a journey.”

IF YOU GO: Useful travel information can be found at TravelAlberta.com; Backroads website is https://www.backroads.com; additional information for destinations can be found for the following:  Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, Two Jack Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Jasper Icefields Parkway, Peyto Lake, and Johnston Canyon.

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