After Saskatchewan Crossing, the Icefields Parkway started to climb again, and although the scenery remained magnificent, I had less time to appreciate it, as the riding became more challenging with every mile. After about three hours of riding I was about halfway to my destination — the small resort town of Jasper, situated high in the Rocky Mountains. I did take a few minutes to snap some pictures of the Weeping Wall, a wet cliff of limestone that is among the most famous ice climbs in Canada when its flow is frozen. On this summer day, though, runoff cascaded from various points along its furrowed brow, painting dark streaks upon its 984′ face. Riding close to the ridge on my right, I focused on nailing my lines amid the blind curves and sharp rises, as the forest thinned and the temperature dropped. A raindrop splashed on the windshield.
I rounded another curve and a massive cliff rose straight up in front of me. Just as it seemed I was headed directly into it, a broad arc to the left became a hairpin to the right, which straightened into a steep climb up the side of the mountain. Between the wall of rock on the left and the sheer drop on my right I was so intent on the ride — as well as the road, peppered with gravel — that I cursed when I blew past a turnoff to a viewpoint with only a moment to steal a glance toward the valley. Thankfully, another turnout near the crest of the mountain gave me a bit more warning and an even more majestic vista. I pulled in and stopped with a grin as wide as the valley, and my map proved what I already suspected: I was perched near the summit of the 6,677′ Sunwapta Pass. This is the second highest point in the parkway and the boundary between Banff and Jasper national parks. I killed the motor and smoked a cigarette, admiring the ribbon of road I’d just traced through the deep valley. I was standing at the treeline — everything above was gray rock or snow white. This was the start of the Alpine zone, on the verge of the famed Columbia Icefield.
The largest ice cap south of the Arctic Circle, the Columbia Icefield covers 130 square miles — an area about the size of Atlanta. It reaches depths of nearly 2,000′, feeds eight major glaciers, and includes watersheds for three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic. At the Columbia Icefield Centre, a bustling complex with a parking lot full of cars and tour busses, visitors can check out interactive displays at the museum or just grab a snack and warm up. You can also book a guided glacier hike or, better, sign up for a tour via the Brewster Ice Explorer, a 90-minute expedition where groups are driven out onto the ice field in a six-wheel, all-terrain bus, then allowed to get out and walk on it. Word has it you can actually feel the ice moving beneath your feet. Not having the time to experience this tour would become the only real regret of my entire trip.
Disappointed but undaunted, I parked across the highway at the foot of Athabasca Glacier, a long, broad thumb of ice that slowly drips down between Mount Athabasca and Mount Andromeda, and walked up the footpath to its base. The most visited glacier in North America, in the last 125 years the Athabasca has lost more than half its volume. As I strode, markers showed where the literal tip of the iceberg used to be, demonstrating how fast the glacier is eroding. It was shocking to see, especially as the years got closer together while the markers remained the same distance apart.
I hiked as far as the trail allowed. Two picture-seeking tourists flaunted the manifest caution signs, one hopping up onto the ice as the other snapped photos. People have died here, the signs made clear, by disappearing into hidden crevasses while sauntering onto the glacier’s unstable edge. Idiots.
Beyond The Ice Field
Back on the road, the parkway continued north, and the landscape once again turned forested as I rode away from the frozen Alpine Zone. Following the flood plains of the Sunwapta River, the road leveled off and seemed to be gradually veering away from the sharp crags and dark clouds of the mountains to the west. The sun broke through once more. The riding was far more relaxed now, with little traffic (most of the tourists seemed to turn around after the Columbia Icefield), and more than once I kicked the bike into neutral, rolled to a stop on the shoulder, and, leaving the bike running, sauntered out to the middle of the road for a snapshot or two. Turnouts along this stretch spotlighted the mighty Mount Kitchener and Mount Christie. A spur to Sunwapta Falls, whose rustic resort is open only from May to October, appeared on the left. I soon arrived at the Goats and Glaciers Viewpoint, where mountain goats often enjoy a nearby mineral lick. The shelf looks back down to the mountains and glaciers of the Athabasca Valley I’d just ridden through. But no goats came out for dinner on this waning summer afternoon. The shadows were lengthening noticeably as the sun dropped in the sky. I motored on. I was cruising along a tranquil two-lane road through pastoral, plain-spotted forest. The most technical part of the ride seemed to be over, as did the threat of rain; now it was simply a race against the sun to make it to Jasper before dark. Before long I reached the junction with Highway 93A, the old road to Jasper. I took this left, and immediately turned left again into the parking lot for Athabasca Falls. Remembering how I’d almost bypassed the pristine beauty of Lake Louise, I owed it to myself to make time for one more stop.
Typical of my experience thus far, each view along the Icefields Parkway seemed eager to outdo the next, and Athabasca Falls were no exception. A network of waterfalls, the area is lined by a paved, well-maintained trail; iron railings prevent overeager sightseers from venturing too close to the edge. The water, dark blue now, flows through huge crevasses in the brown rock, spouting rainbow plumes of mist into the air. I was struck by a solitary sensation; standing here in the woods, leaning against the barrier, I could see no one and hear no sound above the din of the thundering water. Fifteen minutes later, I was at the end of the trail. My rented V Star was the only vehicle in the parking lot. It was still daylight, but the sun was fully behind the mountains now. I quickly geared up and headed for Jasper, double time.
It wasn’t long before I crossed a bridge and rode over the river. I rolled past the southbound Jasper National Park gate, and soon I saw a sign indicating I was entering the town of Jasper. I rolled past a couple of motels and two campgrounds, and had to suddenly brake at a traffic light — the first I’d encountered since I left Calgary that morning. I rode past Trans-Canada 16, and the road curved right. The main drag through Jasper is lined with shops and restaurants. It was nearly dark, and the streetlights were on. I saw a sign, made a left, and looked up at the old Athabasca Hotel.
The Athabasca is a throwback to the days when mining was Jasper’s main source of income and inhabitants. Jasper is mainly a ski resort now, and the Atha-B is one of the few budget hotels in town, catering mainly to the ski and snowboard crowd. The inn is extremely biker friendly, with a hospitable staff, and boasts a slightly upscale diner as well as an Irish pub/restaurant called O’Shea’s. There are certainly more upscale lodging options in Jasper, with boutique hotels sprinkled throughout the mountains on the outskirts of town, but I chose the Athabasca mainly because of its central location; after a long day in the saddle, I knew the last thing I’d want to do was remount the V Star and ride to dinner. I was smack dab in the center of Jasper. Besides, a hot shower and a firm bed is all I truly need. Venturing upstairs to my room after checking in, my eyebrows were dubiously raised as I carried my bags and gear down the long, hostel-type white hallway — but once I entered my room, my fears subsided. It was small, but recently remodeled and surprisingly plush, with a new bed and a small window overlooking the town square.
It was fully dark by the time I moved the V Star to the lighted, camera-protected parking area in the alley behind the hotel, nudging it between a Gold Wing with a trailer and a fully dressed Road King. I made it to Jasper by nightfall, with nary a problem, and I joyfully whistled as I secured the rental bike. I won’t regale you with tales of my debauchery that night. Okay, enough posturing: truth be told, after a burger and a couple of beers at a local brewpub I was bushed, and headed back to the Atha-B for a nightcap at O’Shea’s and a solid night’s sleep. For as much as I wanted to “blow up” Jasper, tomorrow I had to ride the Icefields Parkway all over again.
Saturday morning came bright and early, and I strolled outside in brilliant, summer-morning sun. In winter, Jasper is all about the snow, but there seemed to be plenty of summertime recreation options, too; in addition to numerous souvenir shops I noticed kayak, bike, and even motorcycle rental outlets. A blueberry muffin and a strong cup of coffee later (okay, two), it was time to gas up and begin the trek back to Calgary, Alberta.
First, however, I took a worthwhile 30-mile detour to Maligne Lake. Maligne Valley Road follows the Maligne River and winds past the turnoff for Maligne Canyon, where the rushing river takes a furious path through deep channels in the rock. The lake itself provides a placid counterpoint to the tumultuous stream. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent, or you can take a 90-minute narrated tour. Considering everything I’d passed up the day before, however, I spun the V Star around and headed back to the Icefields Parkway, eager to see what I’d missed on the ride up.
As a rule, I generally avoid backtracking, but the run down the hill from Jasper was just as epic as the ride up. As reported, it was technically different but equally as challenging. Gravity made the ride an entirely new experience, particularly on the Sunwapta Pass, where I had to brake for the big hairpin at the end of the hill, rather than accelerate out of the tight turn in order to pull myself up the steep face.
I did the run on Saturday, and weekend traffic meant I needed to be more aware — and more patient. Motorcyclists were abundant, but so were snap-happy tourists in their dawdling RVs, knotting up the two-lane and slow to turn out. I did see a herd of mountain goats. But then again, so did everyone else, and the cluster of traffic that clogged the middle of the road for the photo op was beyond dangerous. I power-walked the V Star past the tourists (quickly and guiltily snapping a few quick pics of the beasts myself) and motored on.
As for as what I’d passed up the day before, the Bow Valley Parkway was an extremely pleasant detour, but don’t take it if you’re in a hurry. It hugs the side of the valley and has campgrounds, monuments, hiking trails, and numerous other speed bumps; and the Alpine-esque ski town of Banff is a picturesque and charming as its reputation purports; I wished I could’ve stayed longer. As it was, I made it back to Calgary by dusk.
Wild Rose Country
After my run up the Icefields Parkway and back, it was going to take a lot for Race City to impress me on my last day in Calgary, but the Parts Canada Superbike Race blew me away. The power, the scream of the motor, the speed — what a rush! This was my first real motorcycle road race, and I’ll say it right now: it’s something every biker should experience. I left hoping the owners would find a way to keep Race City in business for years to come. (Note: this year’s race is on June 26-27; check www.CalgarySuperbike.com.)
Sitting in the back seat of a taxi that evening, headed to the airport, I was exhausted — and sad. My adventure was over. From the gracious hospitality of its people to the bucolic scenery of its wilderness, everything about my Alberta weekend had left me exasperated and fulfilled. All alone, with no one else to count on and nothing to fall back to, I had taken on the ride of a lifetime, and I’d nailed it. I was proud of myself. I’d emerged unscathed from a place where even the roses are wild. RB — By Jon Langston
Rocky Mountain Highs
Columbia Icefield Centre,
Jasper Brewing Co.
Sunwapta Falls Resort
The Athabasca Hotel/O’Shea’s
The Crossing Resort/Icefields Parkway Motel