Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada, Part I

As the plane began its final descent, the Great Plains disappeared into the shimmering horizon behind me, while in front, the gleaming white peaks of the Rocky Mountains soared ever higher. The sky was blue and brilliant on this June morning, but, to my right, cauliflower thunderheads billowed high into the stratosphere, while the mountaintops of the snowcapped cordillera were veiled in a leaden blur. I let out a deep breath and turned my attention downward, to the sunny lowlands.

I came to Canada to cover an AMA Superbike race; what I left with was something spectacular.

The plan was to rent a bike in Calgary and ride straight up the spine of the Great Divide, past the renowned ski resort of Banff, Alberta, and hook up to the legendary Icefields Parkway. It’s a winding 142-mile two-lane, surrounded by national parkland and tucked in on either side by majestic waterfalls, pristine forest, and looming glaciers. I intended to stay one night in a town called Jasper, then turn around and ride back the next morning; like all good motorcycle runs, in its opposite direction the parkway was said to be a completely different experience. My journey would begin at an elevation of 3,438′; before it was over, it would take me to upward of 7,000 and down again, twice. The ride promised to be challenging and the scenery magnificent, but here’s the thing: this was my first solo motorcycle trip. I could taste the excitement, but it was salted with anxiety.

As the plane touched down, the thrill of adventure won out. I’d never been to Canada, let alone Alberta, and I was excited to meet its people, see its wilderness, and discover this land they call Wild Rose Country.

Calgarian Goulash
I was pleasantly impressed by Calgary. It’s a clean, vibrant city, full of fresh air and smiling faces. Modern high-rises mark the modest but active downtown area, and the C-Train, the nifty light-rail system (which, I learned, is completely green; it’s powered by wind farms 100km away) keeps the neighborhoods and suburbs connected. Colorful rafts filled with floating summer revelers dotted the crystal blue Bow River that bisects the city. Calgary looked and felt like a typical Midwestern metropolis, which I deemed strange — but then I remembered that I was about three hours north of the US border, and not very far removed from the Midwest at all.

I checked out downtown Calgary for a while, but cut my sightseeing short at dusk and ended up at a dive bar near my hotel, eating Buffalo wings, watching football, and enjoying karaoke night with the locals. Turns out, the Canadian versions of all three are remarkably similar to the ones I am used to.

Into The Wild
The sun was merciless the next morning as I stared at a sign that read “Banff Trail,” waiting for the commuter rail to take me downtown. I was standing on the platform, wearing jeans and boots and carrying my helmet, my leather jacket slung over one arm and a cup of coffee in my hand, all of which made it difficult to wipe the sweat from my brow, let alone clear out the karaoke cobwebs. Had I sung the night before? I didn’t think so, but my throat was sore. What was the name of that dude who bought me all those drinks anyway? Couldn’t remember that either, but I had met two guys named Gordon, something I knew would never happen stateside. And what was up with that petite girl whose version of Let the Bodies Hit the Floor was scarier than Drowning Pool’s?

The one who sang Billie Holliday was far better. My head was far too foggy and numb to feel any real pain, and for that I was supremely grateful. Soon, the train arrived and I was gliding into town.
In a painless process, Vicky and the nice folks at All Season Rental Adventures hooked me up with a burgundy 2007 V-Star 1100 with leather saddlebags and a windshield. I rode around town for a bit, getting used to the, ahem, foreign V-Star; the only discernable difference was the km/h speedometer. It didn’t take long until I felt comfortable enough to approach the onramp to the
Crowchild Trail (what we Americans call freeways, Canadians refer to as trails). It was Friday, and the Superbike finals weren’t until Sunday, but I wanted to stop by Race City and introduce myself to the promoter.

Home to dirt, drag, and road courses for all kinds of vehicles, Race City, on Calgary’s south side, has been around since the ’70s and is one of the few race venues in North America that exists fully within a city’s limits. Unfortunately, this distinction carries a significant amount of bureaucratic baggage; Sunday’s races were the last scheduled Superbike event for the venerable track, as the city of Calgary had decided that the land on which Race City sits was far too valuable and told the track to vacate the premises by the end of 2009. (At press time, lawsuits had been filed, and the city had diplomatically offered to extend the facility’s lease to 2015, with a yearly rent increase to $1,080,000 — from $37,000.) After a quick tour of the grounds and some sage Icefields Parkway riding advice from Tim Johnson of Fast Track Promotions (“Do not pass any gas stations without filling up!”), I said bye until Sunday, and rode back to the freeway — um, trail.

I left Calgary via Trans-Canada Highway 1, more than ready for a long day in the saddle. It was now midmorning, and the cobwebs were being blown away by the wind and the cc. Alone. Solo. No other riders to keep track of, and no passengers to tend to. Heck, in case of trouble, I didn’t even know anyone that I could call — it was all up to me. Racing west toward the Rockies and drunk with pioneer spirit, I peeked over my left shoulder, twisted the throttle, and passed a semi as the suburbs faded behind me. Seventy miles to Banff.

Shortly after the Olympic ski jump facility, the four-lane super-slab split as the urban freew-… er, trail became a rural, divided highway. The V-Star eagerly scaled the foothills, its saddle warming as the road rushed under my wheels, and the Trans-Canada settled into a course parallel with a swift, pellucid river, following a path carved by millions of years of runoff. This was the Bow River, the same one that I’d seen flowing through the city the day before, now nearly as green as blue. Once fully in the mountains, the temperature dropped noticeably. The highway curved north, and I blew by Kananaskis, Dead Man’s Flats (not much there), and Canmore. It wasn’t long before I reached the entrance to Banff National Park.

I was gaining serious altitude now. Forest-covered mountains shot up on either side of me, so high their faces turned to slate. No vegetation could grow in that thin, cold air. It was about this time that I spotted my first glacier, just a small finger of white jutting out from between two peaks on my left. I was rapt by the vista; so engrossed, in fact, that I completely missed the turnoff to the town of Banff. I pulled to the side of the highway and recalibrated. Banff was home to a renowned ski resort and mineral hot springs, and supposedly the quaintest of towns, but I figured I could hit it tomorrow on my way back, when I planned to get an earlier start. Lake Louise was only about 20 miles farther, so I shrugged, punched the shifter down to first, and pulled away. There was a moderate amount of traffic here, both recreational and commercial, and everyone stayed at or around the national park speed limit of 90 km/h, about 55 mph. I kicked back with the flow of traffic, and let the stunning view and aroma of crisp pine take me away.

Just north of Banff is the southern terminus of the bucolic Bow Valley Parkway, aka 1A, a 36-mile two-lane bypass that parallels Highway 1 but hugs the opposite shore of the turquoise river, and features campgrounds, picnic areas, and occasional turnoffs with interpretive displays that highlight the natural wonders of the area, wildlife, forest, history, etc. Interesting stuff, but noting the hour (it was now early afternoon), I decided the best move would be to keep making time on the main road, ride the Bow Valley Parkway tomorrow from the other end, and save today’s sightseeing minutes for a quick stop at Lake Louise, where I’d need to gas up anyway since I’d already burned Banff.

Ten minutes later, I took the exit to Lake Louise. I filled up, bought a Red Bull and a granola bar, and took the five-mile ride up to the lake. The parking lot was nearly full, with tourist busses crammed into each nook and foreign languages wafting from every cranny, and as I removed my helmet I wondered if this detour would be worth it. I was, to paraphrase John Wayne, burnin’ daylight.

My concern was quickly replaced by awe. Cradled by the mountains and backdropped by the immense Victoria Glacier, Lake Louise is one of those iconic places you’ve seen even if you think you haven’t. Sometimes called the most-photographed landmark in the Canadian Rockies, at 6,183′ the turquoise lake is marvelously placid and reflective, but it was the glacier above that held my gaze. On this partly cloudy day, its sheer ice face would glow a vivid blue/green whenever direct sun would brightly illuminate its white, snow-capped surface, and then darken to a battleship gray as clouds rolled overhead. I must have stood there for 10 minutes, watching the color of its face change. Right then and there, I made a deal with myself to stop at every turnout and scenic overlook this ride would have to offer, daylight be damned. I took a few more snaps of the lake and the glacier and trekked back to the parking area. I zipped on a hoodie underneath my leather and made for the on-ramp to the Trans-Canada westbound. In about a minute, I came to a fork in the road. Trans-Canada 1 veered west, toward Vancouver; I stayed to the right, and headed north on Highway 93, aka the Icefields Parkway.

Conquering The Icefields
Almost immediately, the Rockies exploded skyward. Upswept, muscular crags capped with snow surrounded me; vast, strapping peaks with ponderous fingers of ice nestled between. To my right, the woods huddled up to the highway, and to the left, a turquoise river fed by meltwaters from the glaciers above spawned lakes in long, green meadows. Above, green gave way to slate, the forest thinning as it crept up the mountainsides. The sky was now gray; the sun had ceased its cameo appearances, and I was thankful for my hoodie. Traffic was far more sparse up here in the forest; gone were the tractor-trailers — commercial traffic is illegal on the parkway — as well as most of the minivans. The road ambled upward.

About the Icefields Parkway: completed in 1940, it skirts the largest ice fields in North America (south of Alaska). Mainly a two-lane road with frequent passing lanes, over the years its hairpins have been tamed and its grades shaved, due to increased RV traffic. The climate in winter is extreme, and as a result there are no services along the route from November to March — no fuel, no food, nothing. The parkway is completely contained within Banff and Jasper national parks, so strict park rules (including speed limits) apply. The mountains here are teeming with wildlife, including mountain goats, elk, bighorn sheep, caribou, and an abundance of bears and birds. They are also laced with hiking trails and dotted with campgrounds. And judging by the amount of bikes

I encountered, it’s obvious I wasn’t the only rider who’d heard that the Icefields Parkway is a fine motorcycling road.

After passing Hector and Herbert lakes, I pulled into a turnout at Bow Lake to take in the awesome Crowfoot Glacier, so named because it resembles a bird’s foot — at least, it used to. The glacier once had three “toes”; unfortunately, the lower one has melted away. The glacier’s “ankle” arches back over Crowfoot Mountain, while the two remaining toes cling to the scabrous cliffs above the lake. I remounted and rode to the turnout’s north end, where I glimpsed the ferocious 400′ Bow Glacier Falls before merging back onto the parkway. Still gaining altitude, before long I reached Bow Lake. There’s a picnic area at the south end, while the north side is home to the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, a 25-room, log-and-stone hotel built in 1950. Next up was Bow Summit, at 6,849′ the highest point along the parkway.

Twenty minutes later, after a broad, sweeping right turn I found myself on a downhill grade for the first time since I left Calgary. Traversing a long, low bridge over the North Saskatchewan River, I stopped at the viewpoint at stunning Howse Pass. The clouds were breaking up now, and as the sun peeked through, it cast patchwork shadows on the valley. The wide, shallow stream glowed gemlike against its gravelly bed; legend has it that fording the North Saskatchewan was a significant hurdle for early settlers, as horses and gear were often lost during what came to be known simply as “The Crossing.”

Today, The Crossing Resort boasts the only gas station along the parkway, so no matter what your gauge says — and no matter the cost per liter — it’s imperative to stop here and fill up. There’s also a gift shop and a restaurant/bar, so naturally there were a dozen or more bikes in the parking lot. I pulled in and took my place in line for gas. After paying nearly $16 for a little over half a tank of fuel, I splurged on a sandwich and a respite. I picked up decent cellphone reception here and discovered a couple of other perks: if you happen to be tired or just running out of daylight, the hotel at The Crossing has some of the most reasonable rates on the parkway; and if you unexpectedly need to bail out of the Icefields, it’s easy to exit the national parks here without backtracking by heading east on Route 11. I was halfway home. RB – By Jon Langston

(For part two click here.)

All Season Rental Adventures, 403/204-1771, www.AllSeasonMotorsports.ca

Banff National Park, www.PC.GC.ca/PN-NP/AB/Banff

Fast Track Promotions, www.CalgarySuperbike.com

Icefields Parkway, www.IcefieldsParkway.ca

Jasper National Park, www.PC.GC.ca/PN-NP/AB/Jasper

Lake Louise Tourism, 877/482-6555, www.LakeLouise.com

Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, 403/522-2167, www.Num-Ti-Jah.com

Race City, 403/272-7223, www.RaceCity.com

The Crossing Resort/Icefields Parkway Motel, 403/761-7000, www.TheCrossingResort.com

About Johnny Panhead

Comments

  1. Atta girl.

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