Archive for the ‘Alberta’ Category

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.

Sour Gas processing - dangerous
Warning signs for a Sour Gas facility

derricks and pipeline signs
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.

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


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!

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!

Particularly bad just-add-water dinner.

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.

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
Stettler to Veteran 127 km, 6h – very flat and a helpful wind

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

Dale trying out Becky’s bike.

One of the TCP guys showing off on his bike.


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!


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.


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


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


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


At a pullout midway down Sunwapta Pass


Our bikes look out over the North Saskatchewan River.


Scott fixing Becky’s flat


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


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


Lyn and Wayne on their tandem


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


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

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

Becky riding into the park.

Beautiful views.

Athabasca River with some more beautiful mountains.

Trees growing out of rocks.

The Becky sitting on a rock shot!


Beautiful waterfall.

Climbing Sunwapta Pass.

Yay! We made it.

View from the Wilcox campsite.