Icefields Parkway- Biking Jasper to Canmore

This isn’t a run story. Running is my first love and favourite way to get out and experience the world, but last weekend I found adventure on my road bike and it was every bit as incredible. My husband Kirk, and our friends Tania and Thomas and I had been dreaming about riding highway 93 from Jasper to Canmore for a while now, and even though the logistics of it felt a bit overwhelming, we decided we needed to go for it.

Guys, biking is a lot more complicated then running. Trail running requires shoes (best if they are filthy), some snacks and an InReach if you’re hitting the backcountry. Your most complicated ‘gear’ is your body and that is constantly being built and maintained through training so that when it’s time to go, you just gotta start running. Biking is so much more complicated. Pannier rack mishaps, a broken derailleur hanger, a loose chain, sticky gears, poorly wrapped handle bars and the wrong wheels on the wrong bike all went wrong before we even got going. Thankfully Kirk and Thomas know a thing or two about bikes and they had them all working just fine by Friday afternoon. So off we went in two vehicles to Canmore where we left one truck, before piling into another to get a preview of Highway 93 on our drive north to Jasper. We were lucky enough to get bluebird skies, followed by a stunning sunset, over the road we would get very familiar with over the next two days.

A quick picture at the ‘Welcome to Jasper’ sign and a minute to switch mine and Tania’s wheels back to their rightful owners, and we were off. Ever since my accident on Mount Northover, both Tania and I have struggled with ‘pre-adventure anxiety’. It manifests through over-planning and over-packing for Tania, and numbing out or intense fear over the ‘what ifs’ for me. I had been struggling with a lot of thoughts of what could go wrong, how a bike malfunction or road imperfection would send you flying with pretty high consequence, and I’ve had to work pretty hard to not dwell on that and just commit to enjoying the experience. Each time, Tania and I talk each other through those feelings and have come to learn that once we get going, everything relaxes and we are reminded of the outrageous beauty that is out there and the incredible gift it is that we get to experience it.

Once we were through town and on the road it took no time at all for me to be feeling great and cruising along. Kirk is by far the strongest rider out of the four of us and he spent the whole time out in front, rolling along at a much slower pace then he normally would. He insists he is more then happy just to be out there with us, but I hope that he gets a chance to do a faster trip with his friends one day so he can test those limits.

The rolling hills are pretty consistent the whole way through the trip. It feels like you are either always working hard up a hill, or cruising down with a big dumb smile on your face. I’m sure some of it was flat, but it didn’t seem like it to me. We weren’t out there to set any records, so we made sure to enjoy all the pretty things along the way with a stop at Athabasca falls and lunch at Poboktan Creek. Shortly before lunch, Tania and I saw the boys stop up ahead, turn and start waving. I thought they were just being friendly…but then Thomas turned around on the highway and rode back to point out a curious cinnamon bear sniffing in our direction about twenty feet off the side of the road. Talk about incentive to keep hustling.

“Heya bear, you don’t worry about us and we wont worry about you. Deal?” Ok. All good. That’s the second bear I’ve seen biking this year and I’m ok if that never happens again.

(To be clear, I was biking. Not the bear. The bear was just doing bear things. A biking bear sounds amazing though and I’d be ok if I saw that).

Then came the grind of a lifetime up to the Icefield Skywalk with a 7km hill that had me in my lowest gear working hard to keep a steady cadence, barely looking up to appreciate Tangle Creek falls as we passed. The descent was worth all the work as we were rewarded with speeds of over 80km/hr (Kirk hit 90km/hr) passing cars on the shoulder and being lasered radared by good-humoured cops who yelled the results to us as we passed.

I admit, that required a new level of courage I haven’t tested much on a road bike. I could feel my body tense as thoughts of losing control pestered the corners of my mind. In such an adrenaline-fueled situation, my attention becomes hyper-focused only on the stimuli that matter. The road in front of me, my hands gripping the bars (ready to brake if needed) and the cars beside me. At the start of the hill, I could sense a coach bus full of tourists heading back to the Columbia Icefields on my tail and hoped they wouldn’t attempt to pass me. But of course, it did. Frighteningly close and alarmingly fast.

The hill ends with a sweeping turn, giving a stunning view of a glacial field and we all paused at the bottom of the hill, grinning and basking in the intensity of feeling incredibly alive.

Back on the road, brutal head winds and increasing smoke threatened to dampen our spirits as we pushed towards the Columbia Icefield. Another stop to admire the glacier, fill our water bottles and give a few pep talks was enough to encourage us to push through the last 50km with another stop at Parker Ridge cause ya know, outhouse. (Which thankfully there are a ridiculous amount of along this highway!)

A friend of Kirk’s who was familiar with the area gave us some good intel to stop at an unmarked roadside pull out to peer down a canyon that puts Maligne, Johnson and Grotto Canyons all to shame. A river disappears entirely from view down a drop that must be nearly 100 ft. You can barely see the bottom if you lean over the precarious rock overhead, but you can definitely feel the spray and hear the roar from deep below. There is a worn-out bridge stamped 1938 leading to an abandoned road, but other then that the place is left entirely wild.

The best treasures always are.

We rolled into the Saskatchewan Crossing hotel around 8pm, with 7.5 hours of moving time and 160 km done. Opting to stay at the hotel instead of camping was worth the extra cost for the convenience of being able to travel light. I didn’t have panniers on my bike so Kirk carried all our gear (I carried bear spray!) and not having to worry about packing food for dinner was worth it. Also, that burger and beer at the pub tasted amazing. Another perk of riding is that you aren’t plagued with the same stomach issues that can make eating difficult with long runs. No calorie deficiencies on this trip!

We were disappointed to wake to even thicker smoke the next morning. Our eyes, throats and lungs were already feeling the effects from the day before, and now views were completely obscured and breathing felt even harder. The sun was a muted red glow through the haze and temperatures felt cooler then they otherwise would have. Are smoky summers our new way of life? I understand they are part of the cycle of destruction and regrowth, but this last dry season has me wondering if this is our unpleasant new normal. I think its time we all biked more and drove less…

The first few minutes of sore butt on day 2 were quickly forgotten as we started peddling up the never-ending grind and our quads were protesting too loud to notice any other pain. There is about 30 km of slow grind uphill to get to the Bow Valley pass. First, a stop at Mistaya Canyon. Kirk and I had just been there a few weeks prior, so we stayed with the bikes and worked on our Insta-worthy poses while Thomas and Tania hiked down to see the canyon. I’m pretty sure we got the better pictures.

What a relief to get to the top of the Bow Valley and see the elevation profile of nearly all descent towards Lake Louise. The morning had felt a bit demoralizing with such a long grind and thick smoke, and even our steady diet of candy was barely enough to keep us motivated. But things got pretty fun after that as we decided it was time to perfect our drafting skills. I tucked in behind Kirk and we could maintain a much higher pace because he didn’t have to wait for me and I could keep up in his wind tunnel.  We picked up Tania a few times and the three of us made for a pretty great team. Thomas wasn’t too keen on staying on our train and was happy to do his own thing. His loss, cause it made the stretch before lunch an absolute blast. Party train is always worth joining.

Lunch stop at Lake Louis and we were off again for the next stretch, this time on Highway 1A to Banff. It’s the more scenic route with less traffic (the road is closed to vehicles entirely past Johnson Canyon) and nicer road then Highway 1. However, it also has much more elevation. We had ridden 1A from Banff to Louise and back earlier this spring and knew what we were in for, and all agreed it was totally worth the extra work. More drafting made that 60km speed by and the skies even started to clear a bit and give us some nicer views to enjoy.

More candy and a water refill in Banff and we were down to the home stretch. By this time we were all feeling pretty beat up and ready to be done; the heat, smoke and busy Legacy Trail along the noisy highway made the last hour my least favourite of the whole trip. Quick stop for a final photo at the Canmore sign and we rolled back to the truck we had left two days prior.

On the drive back, we commented how different the road looked from a truck. The rise and fall of the road looks less daunting, yet far less exhilarating. Weirdly, I didn’t even feel the same. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but it’s true. I wasn’t the same. An experience like that kicks my beautifully neuroplastic brain into overdrive and changes it. The connections between my fear centre (telling me to stay home because steep mountains and cracks in the pavement are dangerous), and my pre-frontal cortex (that knows that life is short and I want to see beautiful mountains and laugh with friends and ride fast down hills while I’m here) are re-wired ever so slightly. Reinforcing that its worth it to push past the overwhelming logistics and middle of the night anxiety to get out there and try new things.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to take this trip and that there were no injuries or accidents and highly recommend that anyone with a bike and a sense of adventure get out and ride Jasper to Canmore. It’s 327km, 3400m elevation of incredible scenery that makes the sore butt and burning quads totally worth it.

One thought on “Icefields Parkway- Biking Jasper to Canmore

  1. Looks like it was a lot of fun. Any outdoor activity is always great, be it biking, running, or plain and simple walking. The pictures are amazing. You did pass through some lovely places.

    Like

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