Archive for July, 2009

Like an ant crawling slowly over a giant machine

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Shortly after we left Banff National Park, we saw our first oil derrick pumping away. It looked quite pretty with its multi-coloured paint, so we stopped and took a photo. Little did I know just how much oil and gas infrastructure we would pass by in the following days.

Our first oil derrick

It was the ride from Rocky Mountain House to Lacombe which first gave me a flavor for the scope of the industry. It seemed every few minutes we would pass by another oil derrick, pumping station or processing plant. Then I started noticing the pipelines. Little signs by the roadside indicated the type of pipeline and owner. We never seemed to be out of sight of one. After a few hours of this, I started to feel like it was all part of one giant machine, and we were ants crawling slowly across. There was farm and ranch land everywhere, surrounding and covering all this infrastructure, but it felt like a thin covering, partially concealing the giant machine.

Approaching a processing plant, with flare stacks
Processing plant, flare stacks and nearby fields

Every so often, we would get a whiff of petrochemicals, either the complex scent of hydrocarbons or the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulphide from sour gas. Not exactly pleasant, and protests by locals and farmers against the sour gas wells have been ongoing for years. Lately there have been a number of bombings of sour gas processing equipment and pipelines, especially in British Columbia.

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Warning signs for a Sour Gas facility

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Derricks and signs for the pipelines under the road

In the ensuing days, we saw more and more, sometimes pipelines, sometimes oil transport trucks, but never out of sight of something for more than a few minutes. Occasionally we came across some new construction, either the scar of a recently constructed pipeline snaking across the fields, or active construction on a new plant or well. Even when we entered Saskatchewan the machine stretched on around us, with storage tanks, steam injection systems and more wellheads and pipelines.

pipeline construction, recently closed up
Recently constructed pipeline

Another Sour Gas facility - note the windsock
Another Sour Gas Facility. The windsock is so workers know which way to run if any of the alarms go off, since un-perfumed Natural Gas is odourless

In Western Saskatchewan, oil and gas exploration and construction is helping to keep the small towns alive, as fewer and fewer farmers are needed to work the land. As part of our farm tour, Clem showed us the nearby oil and gas infrastructure, including a new natural gas-powered generating station, which will be used to power the large Enbridge pumping station as well feed power into the grid for the surrounding area. He also pointed out that crops actually grow better on top of a pipeline, so you can see where the pipeline goes, even years after construction. We had noticed the distinct lines, but assumed they must be due to different crops or recent construction. People have hypothesized that the heat from the pipeline may help get the crops an early start, or the turning over of the earth leaves the soil in better condition.

natural gas electrical generating station
Natural gas powered electrical generating station under construction

One thing we had not noticed was the underground natural gas storage facilities. These are massive salt cavern formations where gas is pumped underground until it is needed. I wonder how many other bits of this giant machine we missed?

huge storage tanks
Huge oil storage tanks, much easier to notice than the underground salt caverns

It is a massive amount of infrastructure, all pumping non-renewable resources east and south to the voracious appetites of Eastern Canada and the United States. All this to give us the gasoline to fuel our cars and the natural gas to power our electrical plants and heat our homes. I hesitate to think what the area around the Tar Sands must look like! I found the engineering for this huge machine to be fascinating, but it is also scary to think of all the things which could go wrong.

Even if nothing goes wrong, we’re behaving as if there is a limitless supply of this stuff, and the quantities we’re using are huge. Throughout our travels, we saw how people in other countries – especially the less developed ones – conserve the energy they have (people actually unplug TVs and appliances when they are not in use – they drive small cars and use public transport). Now that we’ve returned to Canada, we see so much waste it is no wonder our energy use and carbon footprint are so high. It is easy to wonder at the lack of sustainability in a typical Canadian lifestyle, and we wonder how our lifestyle will change when we get back home and become “normal” again.

An adventure in Kerrobert

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Just for fun, this post has been written in a completely different style, inspired by a famous Canadian storyteller … can you guess who?

While my husband and I were riding our recumbent bicycles – the funny looking kind where you lay back like in an easy chair only you still need to pedal – around the world and across Canada – that is a different story, which is much too long to tell now – we stopped in a little town in Central Saskatchewan for lunch. Kerrobert, spelled K-E-R-R-O-B-E-R-T but pronounced KRAW-BET, has a booming population of 1001. It was the first “big” town we came across since leaving Alberta and is the center of activity in the area, with a grocery store, bakery slash cafe, hotel, and library. It was the library that drew our attention. You see, it is the library where, no matter how small the town is, anywhere in Canada, you can find computers with access to the Internet. So, it was the library we were seeking when we arrived in Kerrobert.

We rode up to the library on our funny looking recumbent bicycles at 1 pm. Unfortunately the library was not open until 2 pm, so we had to find a way to occupy ourselves for an hour first. We decided to go and find a picnic table and have lunch. As we discussed our options, we were met on the street by the “Walking Lady”. She was an older lady, who said to us “I had a bicycle, but now I walk … I’m going to walk” as she walked away from us.

Seeing us stopped, a gentleman from Compeer – a small town at the Alberta border marked by great towers of hay bales, that we dubbed straw henge – stopped to say hi. He had seen us riding a few times in the last couple of days and commiserated over the poor condition of highway 51 – which is dramatically emphasized when leaving the really nice roads in Alberta. When you reach the border, the road immediately deteriorates – first it changes to unlined chipseal and then to pavement with lane wide pot holes and 15 centimeter grooves – which felt more like riding on a mountain biking trail than a highway – amusing for a while but definitely reduces how far we can ride in a day. He told us that highway 51 was once listed as “the worst highway in Canada” but has since lost that label because it is “under repair” – although we had not seen any evidence of said repair. He encouraged us to write a letter to Bill Boyd, the MLA for the area letting him know our thoughts on the state of that road.

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Straw Henge

We still had no lunch, but fortunately another feature in small towns in Saskatchewan (and indeed, across Canada) is the hockey arena – and behind the hockey arena was a nice little park with a picnic table – exactly what we needed to make our lunch. We made a quick noodle soup for lunch and as we were cleaning up the “Walking Lady” came by again. She was still walking, but had lost her way. We pointed her back in the direction of downtown and off she went walking again.

After lunch we made our way back to the library – now the way I say that it sounds like it might have been a journey, but it wasn’t really – it was a small town after all, so our way back to the library was only a trek of a few hundred meters.

Happily, the library was now open – it was a small one room library – kind of what you might expect for a town of 1001 people, but not really accounting for all the folks in the outlying areas that also use the library. We asked about computers and Internet and were pointed to a couple of old and really slow machines – like the kind we used back in the 90’s – just good enough to check email but not much else. They did have wireless, so we tried to connect our computer only to learn that it didn’t work. Now don’t get me wrong, we are grateful for the Canadian Government for the program that ensured that all public libraries in Canada have free Internet access, but it would also be nice if they also occasionally ensured that the computers were updated too – anyway the wireless did not work, so my geeky husband – and I mean that in the most affectionate and loving way – offered to be of service and try to fix the wireless. Unfortunately, after much poking and prodding, we still had no wireless.

Of course, while we were working on the computers people would come into the library – mostly curious kids and mothers with their young children. Each time someone new entered, we overheard – in the hushed library type voice – “Did you see those bikes out there? Cool!” It wasn’t long before my husband was talking to the librarian and a few of the folks visiting the library about our journey cycling across Canada and travelling around the world without airplanes – as I said before, that is a much longer story. Curious about us, the friendly librarian, whom we later learned was named Chandra, invited us to her place for dinner and to spend the night.

My husband came to tell me about the offer of hospitality while I was slowly updating our blog using a library computer. We had to discuss the idea because we wanted to be in Saskatoon on Thursday in preparation for a friend’s wedding and it was already Tuesday. Stopping in Kerrobert would mean the next two days would be long cycling days – but how could we possibly turn down this offer – this was why we were travelling by bicycle – because it gives us the chance to meet real people and take advantage of serendipity when it happens. The whole idea of spending a night in what was likely to be a real farm house was just too cool for us to turn down.

So we hopped on our bikes and headed out to Chandra’s place – now this was a little bit more of a journey, as farm houses are generally out at the farms, which means they are not in town. Once we turned off the main highway, the road turned to dirt which slowed us down. The issue with slowing down on this particular day was that the mosquitoes were ferocious. We couldn’t stop for 5 seconds without being swarmed. Forty-five minutes and 15 kilometers later, we were pulling up to the farm that we hoped to be hers – there were no signs, but it was the only farm anywhere near where we thought she had directed us. Knocking on the door, we were quickly greeted by Chandra’s son and then Chandra and Lois – the assistant librarian, whom we also had briefly met at the library.

We were quickly ushered into the house and safety from the voracious mosquitoes. Upon arrival, we were shown a room that would be ours for the night! We were utterly delighted – you see, we normally sleep in our tent and were expecting a place on the lawn to setup for the night, so a bed was a welcome luxury. Before dinner we enjoyed a warm shower with fluffy cotton towels – a welcome luxury, since is too bulky and doesn’t dry fast enough, but quick-dry microfiber not just does have that same welcome home feeling!

Clean, warm, and content, we sat down around a large wooden table to a wonderful home-cooked meal – a salad made with lettuce and dill from Chandra’s garden, sausage made by a local farmer using his secret recipe, and ice cream with a perfectly tart home-made berry sauce.

Throughout dinner and dessert – which lasted for several hours – we shared stories about our travels and our lives. Chandra, in addition to being the local librarian, is also a busy mother of three boys, and she manages the books for the family’s 2000 acre organic farm. We were fascinated by the farm – neither of us having spent any time on a real farm before. We had visited our local organic CSA but it was more like a large garden – this was a real production farm.

As we chatted, we learned that Lois is a woman of many hats. Not only is she the assistant librarian, she is also the Pastor for the Superb Mennonite Church. Now it isn’t necessarily that the church is superb, although it might be, but that the church is located in the tiny town of Superb, which we thought only had a grain elevator, so we were surprised to learn that it also had a Mennonite church with an active Congregation. However, it doesn’t have a library, which is why Lois was at the library in Kerrobert when we stopped by.

In the morning we awoke to the smell of fresh coffee and a wonderful breakfast of eggs, fruit, and toast. The toast was amazing – Chandra ground the flour herself to make the freshest and fullest home-baked truly whole wheat bread we have ever tasted – it was a special treat to know that the wheat was actually grown on the farm and processed in the kitchen of the farmhouse – one could call it the 3-mile diet!

Before we left, we accepted the offer of a tour of the farm, narrated by Chandra’s husband Clem, who does most of the farming, ably assisted by the three boys. Fortunately this was done in the family minivan and not on our bikes or it would have taken us all day – the roads surrounding the farm are all gravel grid access roads, some in better condition than others – and we would have been eaten alive as the mosquitoes were still out in force. We saw the awesome and scary large machines used to seed, till, chop, and process the crops – and were impressed that the boys start driving the machines in their early teens – the cabs are air conditioned, so they spend their time tilling or combining in cool comfort listening to their ipods… until things get clogged up, then they need to hop out into the sweltering heat and fix it. Apparently they learned quickly to drive slowly and avoid problems.

We toured and learned to recognize wheat, barley, and flax – all a little short this year due to the shortage of rain early in the season – but there is still hope that the heads will fill and the crops will still produce at least 50% of their normal growth. We stopped to see the lentils, which were still really small and can be difficult to harvest because they are so low to the ground, and peas – a favourite of ours and fortunately some were just right for picking as a yummy afternoon snack. In the days to come, we would be extra thankful for our tour as we now could recognize the fields of grains as we rode by – the flax being particularly beautiful with its blue blossoms often giving the impression of a lake ahead rather than a field of grain.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and our bikes, the open road, and Saskatoon were calling us. We said our good-byes but will always remember the generosity of one particular librarian in Kerrobert Saskatchewan!

Major to Kerrobert, 55km, 3h 15 min

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Grain elevator in Suberb Saskatchewan.

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Scott picking some yummy organic peas.

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Clem, Becky, and Chandra in front of a giant tractor.

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Becky, Scott, and the family dog giving a demonstration of the bikes.

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Saskatchewan didn’t welcome us, but the people did!

Monday, July 27th, 2009

When we finally crossed the border into Saskatchewan, we were disappointed at the lack of a “Welcome to Saskatchewan” sign. This is the second time in recent memory that we were looking for a photo op that turned out to not exist! Oh well. Although we did not get a formal “Welcome to Saskatchewan”, it did not take long for us to notice how much friendlier the people were. In less than an hour, someone pulled up to talk to us while we were riding, and another person pulled over when we were stopped to make sure we were OK. It was almost like we entered a whole new country!

The other immediate difference was the road. You could see the provincial boundary based on how the nice road turned to crap once we hit Saskatchewan. One of the locals told us that Highway 51 was once listed as the worst highway in Canada. It no longer has that honour only because it is now “under repair”. Unfortunately however, the repair work was very minimal when we passed. There were places where the road was down to one lane because the other lane had eroded so badly and other places there the grooves were ten to fifteen cm deep. We figure it is likely to cause anything without a high clearance to bottom out.

Not exactly a great road
At least they admit it isn’t a great road.

We had hoped to make it to Kerrobert for our first night in Saskatchewan, but the road conditions and the north wind put an end to that plan. We also got a bit stuck because there were no services along the highway between Consort and Major – and it being a Sunday, most of the stores in Consort were closed. We pulled into Major at 7 pm very short on water. There were a few farmsteads close to the road where we probably could have got some, but we held out hoping for The only thing open in Major was the “OK Kafe” and the attached “OK Tavern”. We stopped into the Kafe and Jerry, the owner, made us a two wonderful hamburgers – perhaps the best burger in Saskatchewan, and certainly the best one we’ve had in ages! His brother owns a feed lot only 3 km from Major and they pasture a few of the best cattle for personal use – and use in the OK Kafe. It was wonderful to taste some real grass-fed beef again.

Another couple who entered the restaurant offered to give us a ride to Kerrobert given the late hour. We declined hoping to find a closer place to camp, and continue with our goal of riding all the way across Canada. Later, Jerry kindly offered a spot in the yard behind the cafe and allowed us to use the showers at the OK Inn (next to the cafe). Given that we were beat and there was no way we could make Kerrobert before dark, we happily accepted his offer. We were delighted at such hospitality our first night in Saskachewan, and enjoyed a delicious breakfast the next morning too.

Jerry and Becky in front of the OK Kafe
Jerry and Becky in front of the OK Kafe

If you’re ever passing through Major, stop in and say hi to Jerry – tell him the folks from Ottawa on the funny bikes sent you.

121 km, 6h 45 min – killer north wind and bad road in Sask

One of 6 or 7 Alberta commandments, displayed at the border
One of 6 or 7 “Alberta Commandments” displayed at the border. Others include: “Think Safety – safe driving starts wtih you!”, “Speed fines double when workers present”, “Alberta Checkstop: What are you willing to lose”, “60 kph limit when passing stopped emergency vehicles”

Part of a map of the farms and owners in the Major area
Part of a map of the farms and owners in the Major area. Each square is a quarter-section; a half-mile by a half-mile or 160 acres. Most farmers will farm at least a few quarter-sections, although they may not be adjacent.

Grain Elevator in Major
The Grain Elevator in Major – a fixture in almost all prairie towns

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Is that easier than doin’ it regular?

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Since we were riding through Bentley we made a brief stop at the Bentley Bike Shop. Someone we talked to on the Icefields Parkway mentioned that the Bentley Bike Store sold recumbents and trikes. Upon entering with our loaded bikes, we had a nice chat with the folks at the store, but declined the chance to testdrive the various bikes and trikes they had in stock. Scott used that opportunity to have his headset looked at, and in the end decided to replace the bearings, even though they weren’t nearly as bad as Becky’s. The shop is family run and we had a chance to meet one of the sons and his mother. If you live in Alberta and are looking for a ‘bent, this might be the shop for you!

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The folks at the Bentley bicycle shop.

Riding along highway 12 has turned out to be wonderful. Once the highway turned a little south (just past Alix) the road flattened out, allowing us to pick up our pace considerably. Most of the highway has had a shoulder wide enough for us to ride beside each other, so we spend our days actually talking to one another! In addition, all the drivers have been great – even waiting to pass us when there was no shoulder and we were riding on the road. We wonder if this is because of the local familiarity with slow moving vehicle signs which are also displayed on farm vehicles. So far, there have been enough services nicely spaced to ensure that we haven’t gone hungry or without a campsite (although, be aware many of the grocery stores in the small towns are closed Sundays and some on Mondays too). It does look like the last stretch from Veteran to Saskatchewan might not have too many campsites – we’ll see.

Our first night without Becky’s parents was spent camping at the basic lower campsite at the Mitchener Campground in Lacombe ($15). The attendant allowed us to use the showers in the upper RV campsite; however, it was a fair walk from the lower site. The sites were situated in a depression around a pond and field with very little privacy. Since it was a weekend, the campground was surprisingly busy with lots of kids playing in the field and play structure.

In the morning, we were picked up by a friend of Scott’s from high school, David Jeffery, and brought home for a lovely breakfast. Scott had not seen David since they left high school – so almost 20 years. It was great to visit with him, catch up, and meet his wife and newborn daughter. His parents are also in Lacombe, so we had a brief visit with them before they left for church. It was especially nice to see his mother, since she worked with Scott’s mother for many years before retiring.

Our second night we camped at the Lion’s Club campground ($8) in Stettler. Many small towns in Alberta have some form of community campground. Some even have services for RVs. The one in Stettler had everything including free showers. The campground operated on an honour system with no attendant – you just put your fee in the envelope and put it in the slot. Since we did not have a vehicle, we picked a spot in the overflow area consisting of a field with picnic tables strategically placed to be shaded by some small trees. It was rather pleasant.

Our third night we again camped at a the Lion’s Club campground ($7), this time in Veteran. The small campground had a nice cooking shelter, pit toilets, and full hook-ups for RVs. Half of the campground was filled with fifth-wheel RV trailers who are here for the season. We later learned they are a crew of welders and fitters working for putting in a new pipeline between the Alberta Oilsands and Oklahoma. With the downturn in the economy, there was some question as to how much longer the project would be running. Between that and a number of engineering screw-ups outside their control, they definitely seemed to have a lot of spare time on their hands while they waited for a decision to be made. Since it was Sunday night, it was breakfast night. This seemed strange until they explained. Since they all start work so early, they don’t get an opportunity to eat a large breakfast,
so one night a week they cook up a large breakfast feast instead of normal dinner fare. Our just-add-water rations for the night (Alpineaire beef stroganoff and Natural High BBQ chicken and rice) turned out to be much less appetizing (actually they were exceptionally bad)! Fortunately, they had some leftovers, so Becky enjoyed some pancakes with real maple syrup and some yummy fully salt bacon!

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Particularly bad just-add-water dinner.

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A great breakfast feast for supper – good thing they had some leftovers!

As the land flattened out, we were struck by the beauty of the deep green fields with the bright yellow accents provided by the fields of canola. At our first sight of the bright yellow fields, Becky was reminded of her family’s semi-annual trek from Kitimat to southern Ontario. The yellow fields will always represent the prairies in her mind. As we have moved east and a little south, we noticed the transition between very deep green with bright yellow accents to brown. The eastern part of central Alberta is experiencing a drought, such that the first hay crop failed and the second is threatening to do the same.

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Scott riding infront of a field of canola.

Next to the campground in Veteran is an auction house. Every Monday, cattle are auctioned off. According to the folks we talked with, the drought in Alberta has increased the price of hay by so much, many farmers are actively culling their herds, and selling more cattle than they normally would. Since we arrived on Sunday, we had the pleasure of hearing the cattle to be auctioned off arriving and trumpetting their distress throughout the night. We were both amazed at just how much the cows sound like out of tune trumpets sounding off. Surprisingly enough, we were both still able to get a decent night’s sleep.

Riding into Coronation, an older guy in a pickup with a camper on back and a strong ranch accent, yells out his window to Becky:

“Is that easier than doin’ it regular?”

Becky replies:

“It’s certainly comfortable!”

That one certainly provided us with a chuckle!

We are finding our interactions with Albertans to be mixed. Several times we have entered stores or restaurants to cold expressions, odd stares, and poor service – this usually occurs when we stopped in restaurants or at corner stores in the small towns we are in at lunch time. Yet, when people approach us to talk about our bikes or our trip they are very friendly. To Becky, it almost feels like we are in another country. We are finding that we don’t understand people’s behaviours and often find ourselves leaving towns saying “That was really odd”.

Rocky Mountain House to Lacombe 96 km, 5h 50 min – surprisingly hilly
Lacombe to Stettler 91 km, 5h 30 min – uphill for the first hour out of
Lacombe
Stettler to Veteran 127 km, 6h – very flat and a helpful wind

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Cows climbing all over these man-made hills in the middle of the pastur.

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Dale trying out Becky’s bike.

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One of the TCP guys showing off on his bike.

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Rocky Mountain House

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

The ride from the hell hotel to Rocky Mountain House was mostly downhill – a 400m loss in elevation with a nice tailwind. After about an hour of riding, we met up with another cyclist, Jon from Colorado, who was riding a mountain
bike and towing a bob trailer (a single wheeled trailer). Jon was up visiting his fiancé who was a guide in the park. Scott enjoyed talking to him for an hour or so while we rode towards Nordegg. It was interesting to learn how energy audits and household energy efficiency improvement efforts work in Colorado. Becky found that she was happier going at her own pace rather than trying to keep up with Jon and Scott through the hills.

In Nordegg we enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the cafe in the museum. They had homemade soups and sandwiches on homemade bread. To top it off, they had home-baked pies with some of the best vanilla ice cream we can remember. Mom and Dad caught up with us at lunch to let us know where we would be staying in Rocky Mountain House – it is definitely handy having someone to scout out the road ahead for you! As Scott described the bus-sized RV towing the Hummer which had passed us earlier in the day, Dad’s response was “Did you see the giant black carbon footprints it left?” We thought nothing of it beyond a cute turn of phrase, but Jon was quite impressed. He helps homeowners and builders make more energy-efficient homes, and seeing Carbon Footprint being used in casual conversation made him very happy.

At Nordegg Jon turned south onto a 170 km logging road to Canmore and we continued on to Rocky Mountain House. It is a slightly strange name, since we couldn’t actually see the Rockies. The name comes from its origin as a fur trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a pretty little town with all the necessary amenities including a great bike shop – which we were very happy to discover.

When Scott rode Becky’s bike in Kitimat, he noticed that her bike had a tendency to want to go straight. It was like there was a portion of the turning arc where it wasn’t smooth and caused the bike to prefer a straight line. By the time we arrived in Jasper this tendency was even more extreme, and it only got worse as we rode through the Rockies. It became a problem when Becky found it unsettling while carrying an unbalanced load, fortunately she was able to give the extra front pannier back to Scott. After a bit of research we learned that this was called “index steering”.

When we arrived in Rocky Mountain House, Scott pulled apart the headset of Becky’s bike and we discovered that three of the ball bearings in the lower bearing race had shattered (or so we guessed from the metal shards and the missing balls). We did not have the necessary replacement parts, so decided to take a rest day in Rocky Mountain House, and use Mom and Dad’s van to transport the bike to the local bike shop (Rocky Mountain Bike and Board) – we hoped they could either sell us the correct part or do an emergency repair. Fortunately, the guy at the local bike shop took pity on us and managed to fit the repair into his schedule. For $30 of labour and $6 in parts, Becky received a nicely lubed and smooth running headset. When she first got back on the bike, she found that going back to normally responsive steering meant it was a challenge to ride in a straight line!

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Becky’s headset with missing bearings.

From Rocky Mountain House, Becky’s parents returned home, having seen us through the Rockies. We were so grateful for their help and all the wonderful meals Mom made – we were definitely well fed. We were also glad to be heading east with enough time that we could still reach Saskatoon in time for Jodi and Cameron’s wedding on August 1st. If we had to carry all our weight through the Rockies, we don’t think we would have made it. On the flip side, we were also glad to be out on our own again. We find that we have more chance encounters with interesting people when our bikes are fully loaded and people wonder if we need help.

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Our first Alberta oil rig – and a nice colourful one too.

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Staying out of the sun proved to be challenging – notice the shelter mom and dad created with the boat trailer, umbrella, and our nice orange tarp!

135 km, 6h 40 min

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It’s all downhill from here

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Our day began with a short climb to the summit of the Sunwapta pass, the highest point on our journey at 2080 meters. We were quite disappointed when we arrived at the summit and there was no sign – we had planned one of our favourite “us and background” pictures with us and the sign. We got a lame picture of the “Do not feed the animals” sign instead.

Once we hit the summit, we had a great downhill ride (with a few minor ups) to Saskatchewan crossing – where the Icefields Parkway crosses the Saskatchewan river. We grabbed an expensive and mediocre lunch there, all made better by the wonderful ice cream cone for dessert.

We turned off the Icefields Parkway at Saskatchewan Crossing and followed Highway 11 towards Rocky Mountain House. We immediately noticed less traffic, and the shoulders were really wide and in much better condition than the Parkway. In many places we could safely ride beside each other and actually have a conversation :).

About 30 minutes into our ride on highway 11, on a nice fast downhill Becky heard a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. Last time she heard that sound, she had picked up a staple in the rear tire and it was rubbing the fender with each wheel rotation, but it was easily removed without any permanent damage. This time, she wasn’t so lucky. When she stopped, she could still hear the wooshing sound and could see a shard of glass sticking out of her front tire. So, after roughly 14000 km Becky experienced her first flat tire. It took us more than a few minutes to patch the tire and get everything put back together, but in the end it was not nearly as painful as we had feared.

Back on the road again, Wayne and Lynn from California caught up to us riding their tandem. We enjoyed a short visit with them while they were out for an afternoon ride. We did not at all envy them when they needed to turn back into a headwind and the hills leading back to their car at Saskatchewan Crossing.

For the night, Mom and Dad got a suite in the hotel at the David Thompson Resort on Highway 11 about 45 km from Saskatchewan Crossing, which meant we would sleep indoors for the night. Our first sign that things were not going well was an expensive and mediocre dinner at the restaurant. The food would have been OK if it was reasonably priced, but the $19 pasta really tasted like it should have been a $9 (or $6) pasta. Over a hundred dollars later (for the four of us) we were very unimpressed.

The room cost a small fortune by our standards (over $200) and turned out to have almost no ventilation and no air conditioning. There was only one small window in the back bedroom and none of the front windows opened. It was a hot sunny day, so the room had heated up like a furnace, and it was impossible to cool it down, even with the door wide open letting the bugs in. In addition, there was a machinery room below us, containing the hot water pump for the entire building. The pump turned on with a loud thunk and a hiss every 30 to 90 seconds. It was most annoying and made sleep almost impossible. It was so bad, that Dad moved out and slept in the RV and he can usually sleep through anything. We talked to the desk staff about moving to another room, but got nowhere. Our strong recommendation is to drive by the David Thompson Resort and save yourself both money and lost sleep!

94 km, 4h 30 min

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At a pullout midway down Sunwapta Pass

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Our bikes look out over the North Saskatchewan River.

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Scott fixing Becky’s flat

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Quite the hole from a little piece of glass. It must have hit just the wrong way.

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Controlled burns just outside the park – Alberta trying to control the spread of the mountain pine beetle.

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Lyn and Wayne on their tandem

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Becky looking out over Abraham Lake, between Saskatchewan River Crossing and Nordegg

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Icefields Parkway – Take 2

Monday, July 20th, 2009

The Yellowhead pass proved to be a non-event. Our campsite at Mount Robson Lucerne turned out to be less than 20 m below the top of the pass – not much of a climb. The road was mostly downhill from the pass into Jasper, so we had a nice relaxing morning ride.

We arrived in Jasper looking for a place for lunch and Internet. Jasper was a complete zoo, reminding us a lot of Whistler or Banff. Much more touristy than Scott remembers from his last visit in 1996. It is definitely a tourist resort type town, and the part we saw didn’t feel at all like a place where people live. There were tourists and RVs everywhere. Anyplace we could find with Internet charged for it – so eventually we settled on a small breakfast and pizza/pasta/burger place that only charged $3 for unlimited wireless access (better than $2 for 20 minutes, which is what the others were charging). Given that the next few days will be free of services including Internet, we decided it was wise to do one last check on things.

Back in 2003, we rode the Icefields parkway as part of a tour with the “Tour de Canada” company. You can read the journal here. It was interesting to be able to ride at least a portion of that route again, and experience it from a completely different perspective.

Immediately upon entering highway 93 – the Icefields Parkway – we saw other cyclists. Throughout our ride on the parkway, we would see cyclists with and without gear, young and old, going north and south, riding all or a portion of the parkway. There are either really wide shoulders or passing lanes throughout the parkway, making it great for cycling; however, the conditions of the road is not great. From our previous trip, we don’t remember the road and shoulder being all cracked and bumpy, but it certainly is that way now.

We rode right past Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls: they were both surrounded by throngs of tourists. Every time we pass by the tourist attractions in a rush to get to our night’s destination, we wonder if we have lost our focus and are concentrating too much on mileage and not enough on seeing what there is to see. That being said, we have both seen Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls several times already.

The climb up to the Columbia Icefields Visitor Center (the hardest part of the Sunwapta pass) was definitely a long hill. Becky remembers huffing and puffing up the hill the last time, so she was happy that she could slowly make her way up in low gear without too much struggle. Scott was happily
spinning up the hill in low gear and singing to himself. It seems that the climb we did in Malaysia and Thailand really did set the tone for hills, and made most other climbs seem minor in comparison.

As we passed particular spots on the Parkway were we took pictures on our last trip, we tried to take a new photo of the same thing. Several times this proved to be a challenge, as we were at the various locations at a different time of day, so the sun was often blocking the shot we wanted.

Last time, we stayed in hostels. This time, we decided hostels were too expensive for us ($27 per person per night), so we camped. So each day, Becky’s parents went on ahead and ensured we got a nice campsite. The first night we stayed at the Mount Kerkeslin campsite. It was in a nicely wooded area, and the pit toilets were newly constructed and smelled of new cedar. The second night we camped at the Wilcox campsite at the top of the Sunwapta pass – the campsite is actually higher than the pass itself! It had spectacular views and was definitely our prettiest campsite so far.

We were surprised by how cold it was in the mornings. We certainly did not remember that from our last trip – we guess that staying in hostels and having breakfast indoors meant that we missed the cold mornings. Once the sun rose over the mountain peaks, the temperature increased dramatically, and we had bright sunny days.

77 km 4h 30 min Mount Robson Lucerne to Kerkeslin Campground Icefields Parkway Alberta
74 km 5h 40 min Kerkeslin campground to Wilcox creek campground Icefields Parkway Alberta

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Yay! We made it … and not such a bad climb afterall.

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Becky riding into the park.

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Beautiful views.

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Athabasca River with some more beautiful mountains.

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Trees growing out of rocks.

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The Becky sitting on a rock shot!

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Beautiful waterfall.

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Climbing Sunwapta Pass.

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Yay! We made it.

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View from the Wilcox campsite.

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Beautiful British Columbia – The Best Place on Earth

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

In B.C. they have recently changed the licence plate motto and other provincial propaganda from “Beautiful British Columbia” to “British Columbia – The Best Place on Earth”. We certainly agree it’s beautiful, but we struggle a bit more with “The Best Place on Earth”. Did that come from one of those “best place to live” surveys or something? Our guess is that it is associated with the 2010 Winter Olympics publicity. So far, our vote for Best Place on Earth is still Hawaii! (or maybe Thailand, or Turkey, or B.C. or …)

After leaving McBride, the first town we passed near was Tete Jaune Cache (named after a fur trader with yellow hair). Similar to Cape Breton, the locals bastardize the French name and call it “Tee John”.

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Yay! 1000 km on the Yellowhead since Prince Rupert.

Once we turned the corner at Tete Jaune Cache, the landscape changed dramatically. We were no longer in the plains and valleys of central BC, and were now entering the Rocky Mountains. Luckily, the weather stayed clear long enough for us to enjoy a spectacular view of Mount Robson.

It was clear enough for us to get a peek at the peak of Mount Robson!
It was clear enough for us to get a peek at the peak of Mount Robson

Dark clouds surrounded us for much of our climb, but fortunately we didn’t get too wet. Our rain gear did a good job of keeping us warm too, and the combination of cloud and sun made for some dramatic views and spectacular rainbows. Becky’s rose-coloured lenses allowed her to spot rainbows when they were very faint, and we enjoyed watching both double rainbows and chorded rainbows as we rode. The photos we took are pretty, but don’t do them justice.

The sign to the Lucerne campground from the Mount Robson visitor centre said 42 km; unfortunately for us that turned out to be incorrect. We were surprised because the GPS, mile-by-mile cue sheet, and the park sign indicated roughly the same location for the campsite. Everything said it should be around 57 km from “Tee John”, but it was 10 km further, and included a bonus 100m climb! The distance was actually 52 km from the visitor centre, and since we were pacing ourselves for a 120 km day, we were completely drained by the time we arrived.

This was our last full day of riding in BC. The campsite is only 10 km from the BC Alberta Border and the continental divide. Tomorrow we tackle the Yellowhead pass and enter “Wild Rose Country” (the Alberta motto).

Riding north up Vancouver Island and then across BC feels like a huge accomplishment, especially for Becky. The 1820 km is not that huge compared to our total distance travelled, but perhaps it feels more real and significant because this is familiar ground. Becky has driven this route many times over the years, and never once thought she might cycle it. We also rode from Victoria to the Northern BC/Alberta border and we managed to not spend a single night in a hotel or B&B – a first for us. We did spend several nights indoors while visiting with friends and family, and spent 17 nights camping including four nights free camping.

This rainbow almost looks like the Northern Lights jumping out of the sky
This rainbow almost looked like the Northern Lights jumping out of the sky.

132 km, 7h 45 min – McBride to Mount Robson Lucerne Campground

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Bear highway

Friday, July 17th, 2009

We have dubbed the section of highway from Prince George to McBride “bear highway” as each day we saw at least one bear as we rode. Fortunately, none of them jumped out on the road too close to us – although, at one point a small black bear jumped out and ran cross the road just after a semi had passed us. We saw the semi slow down suddenly and switch lanes to avoid it. Fortunately, there was no oncoming traffic, so both bear and semi remained unharmed.

For our first night out of Prince George we camped at Purden Lake Provincial Park ($15 plus tax). Since the ride day was short – we arrived at 4 pm – we enjoyed a brief dip in the not-too-warm lake and hung out in the day use area. If the campsite were to fill up, we could set our tent up in the day use area; however, we noticed that many people had left food remnants on the ground around their picnic tables. We decided this was not an optimal place to camp in bear country, so after supper, we packed up and headed out to a campsite. We tried our food hanging techniques, but multiple attempts left us with food hanging within 8 feet (2.2 metres) of the ground. Not exactly regulation, but fortunately no nocturnal critters came to bother us.

In the morning, we left the provincial park and headed up to the Purden Lake RV resort so that we could contact Becky’s parents, who were considering re-joining us. We enjoyed a second breakfast of toast (from delicious whole-wheat home-made bread!) while syncing email and making a couple of Internet phone calls. GSM mobile phones (Fido/Rogers) have no coverage here so we couldn’t use ours, but apparently CDMA (Telus/Bell) still do. We learned that the RV resort also charged $15 for tenting, and their home-cooked food looked yummy. It is a couple of kilometres further up the road, but also closer to the road – the provincial park was about three kilometres off the highway. Depending on what you are looking for, the Purden Lake RV resort might be a better choice. Just look for the fire truck.

Shortly before our planned lunch stop at the Slim Creek rest area, Becky’s parents caught up to us. We quickly took that opportunity to unload some of our weight – with the plan of being on our own for 3+ days without services, we were carrying a lot of heavy food.

The Slim Creek rest area is a nice spot, but a little too close to the highway for camping. Also, technically camping is not permitted, but cycle tourists have been welcomed there in the past. Since it was early in the day, we decided to head for the Goat River rest area for the night. Since it too does not permit camping, Becky’s parents decided to head for an RV resort further up the road, and we would catch up to them the next day. We reloaded with a minimal amount of food (just enough for dinner and breakfast) and were on our own again.

As the kilometres were adding up and just our legs were getting tired, we saw a camping sign – the Lasalle Lake Recreation Area. There was a long, curving gravel road down to the site, so we were debating whether or not to go down – when Anne, John, and Isaac appeared. We were expecting them to pass us at some point on their way to vacation in Calgary, but their timing was impeccable! We gladly accepted their offering of drinking water and John gave Becky a ride down to check out the campsite. The road down was steep, but it was not too long and the camping area was lovely. Since John has been to the Goat River rest area, we gladly accepted his advice that this was a much better camp site. Apparently, there are only two accessible lakes between Prince George and McBride – Purden Lake and Lasalle Lake so it was only fitting that we stayed at both.

For the first time on our trip, we used the free firewood to have a campfire. Unfortunately, our fire starter was among the stuff we left with Becky’s parents – so Becky recalled some of her childhood fire starting tricks, and with the nice dry cedar and some “old man’s beard” fungus that grows on pine trees, she was able to get a nice fire going. We then hopped in the lake for a quick dip – to our surprise the lake was actually quite warm which made for a pleasant swim. After a long day riding, fire starting, and swimming, it was 9:30 pm before we sat down to dinner (oops).

Howard, Val and Julian (grandparents and grandson) from McBride were camping in the area near us. We talked to them briefly and learned that a bear had been seen in the area the night before – so we had to find a secure way to store our food overnight. After our experience trying to hang food in Purden Lake, we looked for another option. Fortunately, Scott discovered that the back of the bear-proof garbage bins can be opened. From behind, you can access an area underneath the garbage bags – and since this was not a very busy campsite the bin was very clean. We tucked our food bags and toiletries into there for the night, and slept soundly.

The next day dawned clear and beautiful, with a spectacular view across the lake, which put us in good spirits for our planned ride to the western boundary of Mount Robson Provincial Park. The first 7 km downhill to Goat River was great, and the big climb up Goat River hill didn’t dampen our spirits, but shortly afterwards strong headwinds began to sap our enthusiasm.

Ten kilometres outside of McBride, Becky’s parents caught up to us to let us know they had setup camp at the RV Park just east of McBride. They had gone to check our planned campsite near Tete Jaune Cache the previous night, and were not impressed – no laundry, no showers, no Internet. We were happy for the change in plans, as we were both tired after a long day followed by a day of headwinds. Now we could look forward to a stop shortly after lunch.

With the strong headwind, we were riding in close formation – Becky drafting off of Scott when we saw a logging truck. He stopped at a cross road and waited to enter the highway. Scott nodded to the driver, and got a nod back. Then Becky waved to the driver. When Scott saw the driver wave back to Becky, Scott interpreted it as a request to stop. Of course, Becky just saw it as a return of her wave. Scott stopped suddenly and CRASH – Becky smacked into the back of Scott! Oops. After over a year riding together, this was the first time we crashed into each other. Fortunately, no damage was done to either us or our bikes.

We spent the night at the Beaverview RV Park in McBride (www.beaverviewpark.com) ($19 plus tax). We were told that cyclists often stop here, as it makes for two nicely spaced days into Jasper. Also, they are the only place in the area with hot showers (free) and laundry – both of which we needed after two days of camping without services. The free Wi-Fi internet was a nice bonus too. The staff were very friendly and we enjoyed an afternoon of showering, doing laundry, lazing about, and napping. As an added bonus, Becky’s Mom and Dad cooked up the best steak dinner we have had in many months.

Prince George to Purden Lake Provincial Park 68 km 4 h 30 min
Purden Lake Provincial Park to Lasalle Lake Recreational Site 111 km, 6h 30 min
Lasalle Lake Recreation Site to McBride, 53 km 3h 15 min – strong headwinds

Purden Lake
Purden Lake

An outhouse surprise - a flush toilet!
An outhouse surprise – a flush toilet!

One several bears we saw on the highway
One several bears we saw on the highway

Up close and personal with a bear (fortunately stuffed)
Up close and personal with a bear (fortunately stuffed)

John, Issac and Anne - our saviours!
John, Issac and Anne – our saviours!

Setting up camp at Lasalle Lake
Setting up camp at Lasalle Lake

Becky contemplating the view over Lasalle Lake
Becky contemplating the view over Lasalle Lake

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Quintessentially Canadian

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

As we explored Prince George over the past two days, we decided that we this was a stereotypical Canadian experience. The people we met, the things we did, and everything we learned about the Prince George area reminded us of what it was to be Canadian.

Our welcoming committee, waiting at the end of the street for us
Our welcoming committee, waiting at the end of a typical Prince George street for us.

When we arrived at Garth’s place, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Garth’s mother Sue and her partner Vic were also visiting. They stopped by as part of a seven-week cross Canada road trip. It was neat to talk to them about their adventures in Eastern Canada and reminisce about our time their last summer.

On Monday morning Garth gave us a brief tour of Prince George with the necessary stops at the Terra Cognita offices and city hall. We even had an opportunity to shake hands with the Mayor. Boy do we feel special :). For many years, Prince George industry has been centered around forestry and the paper mill, but is now in transition, like many places in Canada. It is moving to a service-oriented community, with less reliance on natural resources. Now the largest single employers are the University of Northern BC and the Northern Health Alliance. Logging and wood related industries remain an important part of the economy, but they are no longer the only industry in town.

We also had a chance to visit with Scott’s godmother, Karen. She has lived in Prince George for over 25 years, so it was interesting to hear her perspectives on the changes to the city. We were joined for dessert by Karen’s youngest godson Issac and his parents. It was an amusing coincidence to learn that Issac’s father was one of the chainsaw carvers we saw while in Campbell River. John had worked in a sawmill for many years, but when recovering from an injury he took up carving. Now he creates carvings in various sizes, from small soapstone carvings to huge chunks of cedar. His carving came in second place at the Campbell River competition, which is pretty impressive – there were carvers from all over North America competing.

Karen and two of her god-families

On our last night here, Scott joined Sue and the kids at Timbits soccer – a tradition throughout Canada every summer. Prince George has a very impressive soccer complex, with tens of fields, from full size down to the ultra-mini fields used for the teams of 4-year-old kids. (Tim Hortons also sponsors Timbits hockey in the winter, as well as other minor sports)

Timbits Soccer

Looking out over Prince George from the university, we could see the mill, the hockey rinks, the soccer fields, the river and the trees everywhere. Some of these were in other cities we’ve visited, but the total effect is something we’ve only seen in Canada.

Looking down at Prince George from the road to the University

While we were in Prince George, we also heard from Becky’s Mom in Kitimat. The results of the tests she had done in Kitimat were in. These were for some chronic but cyclic intestinal distress she’s been having, and we were concerned that she might have picked up a parasite somewhere. The doctor wanted here to see someone to review the results and discuss next steps. It wasn’t really urgent, but there was not going to be another opportunity for several weeks, so we took an extra rest day and spent the morning in emergency (the only way to see a doctor during business hours in Prince George if you are not a regular patient). The results from Kitimat and further tests here proved to be inconclusive and the advice from the doctor here was to look into it further when we get home. We’ll try not to need any more doctors visits until then!

Leaving Prince George, we experienced one more quintessentially Canadian experience – a bear crossed the road in front of us. Fortunately, it was not that close and it paid no attention to us. So now we have seen deer, foxes, beavers, eagles, moose, and bears!
Bear crossing the road in front of our bikes