Rocky Mountain Headwind: Touring the Icefields Parkway

A year ago, Taylor and I returned from our big bike tour extravaganza from Vernon, BC, to Monterey, CA. You know, the one that showed us that it all, in fact, goes, boys. To commemorate, I have decided to recount the only bike tour I managed to go on this summer – on my own, not coastal, and definitely not as long.



It’s 2:00pm, pouring rain, and I’m sitting in my car. My bike is packed, ready to embark on the journey ahead. But I’m not too down to hop on it just yet. Assuming this is just a shower, I’d rather wait it out to avoid my gear getting soaked right of the bat.

But it’s already mid-afternoon and I still have to ride 75 kilometres.

Okay. You know what? Screw it. I have to go. I’m not made out of sugar, anyway; I’m not going to melt away in the rain. Neither will my bike. Let’s get this show on the road, fellas.

By ‘show,’ I mean a 3-day solo bike tour that I was able to squeeze into my summer otherwise packed with work and two-footed mountain adventures. The road I am referring to is the famous Icefields Parkway, arguably the most scenic highway in the world, stretching 230km between Jasper and Lake Louise, Alberta. It follows the Athabasca River upstream toward its source and namesake glacier, before cresting Sunwapta Pass, thus entering Banff National Park. From there, it passes by the Saskatchewan River Crossing, the Waterfowl Lakes, ascends Bow Pass, before following the Bow River downstream all the way to Lake Louise.

It is the busy and bustling town of Jasper that I am leaving behind as I finally start pedalling (in the rain). However, about half an hour in, I escape the grip of the dark and heavy clouds conglomerating above the mountain town. The sun even shines through breaches and openings clawing their way through the curtain of grey. I quickly take my Gore-Tex off.

I just ride. The repetitive circling motion of my legs resembles meditation as I slowly make my way deeper into the Rockies. The Athabasca Valley is wide. The mountains on either side are far away, pushed apart by millennia of long-gone, ancestral glaciers gnawing at the limestone. I hardly notice that I am travelling upstream.

However – there is a steady wind that is now blowing in my face. Right. Air often likes to travel down valleys, following geography’s general fall line. It’s not just a breeze coming from deep within the mountains to meet the bare skin on my arms and legs; it is a strong, steady airflow.

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Not pictured: the cold wind. I couldn’t get him to pose for the camera.

Considering the time of day, distance I have yet to travel and overall chilly weather, I find myself getting annoyed at the latter’s un-cooperative behaviour. My initial average speed of 25km/h quickly drops. As I stop at the Goats and Glaciers viewpoint to, well, look at those two things and take a very late lunch break, the peel of my avocado almost gets blown away. I reluctantly put my Gore-Tex back on to shield me from the wind.

I am feeling pretty tired by the time I make it to Sunwapta Falls Resort. It is around 5:30pm and I have yet to cycle another 30 kilometres or so in ever slightly increasing headwinds. I fill up my water bottles and contemplate my existence for a bit. The simple fact that I left Jasper so late has me feeling sluggish. If I had started to ride in the morning, I would already be chilling at the Jason Creek Campground. Still having a considerable amount to go in the later afternoon in these kind of cold-ish, unpleasant conditions makes it seem harder than it actually is. But, there’s nothing else to do than to keep pedalling.

So I pedal.

It is around 7:45pm when I finally make it to the campground. After setting up my slightly overkill shelter (I only own a 4-season, 2-person heavy orange caterpillar of a tent), I decide to cook up some quinoa for dinner. Well, it turns out that my stove is still so dirty and clogged from all the gasoline that I’ve used as fuel on my big tour, that it either sputters at full, steel-beam-melting heat (while randomly dying after a few minutes), or not at all. The quinoa turns out terrible. Oops, my bad. I guess I really need to clean it.

The following day starts in the single-digit temperature range. The weather is still gloomier than what one would like to expect from the month of June. However, I know that mountain weather is a different kind of beast – elusive, spirited, and merciless. It’s not like I have not packed accordingly. A little bit of sunshine would just be a nice treat for the lonely, bear-spray-carrying cyclist.

However, once I get back on the road at 10am, I am instantly reminded that, just like the previous day, headwinds are far more bothersome than overcast skies and slightly uncomfortable temperatures. The Jason Creek Campground is a little less than 30 kilometres downstream from the Columbia Icefield. As my (wind-and-elevation-induced, snail-like) approaching of the latter will make me gain more and more elevation, I suspect it will only get windier. Furthermore, the cooling effect glaciers have over the surrounding air, thus sending it down valleys as it becomes heavier and more dense (ever heard of katabatic winds?) will only exacerbate this effect.

If the weather is already against me, it forces me at least to ride slowly through one of the most majestic mountain ranges on the planet. The valley, while considerably narrowing as I approach the headwaters of the Athabasca, still has a flat bottom, while striated rock formations jut out almost vertically on either side, showcasing Nature’s creativity. The Athabasca itself is more of a meandering stream as it slaloms in between beds of bare gravel and pebbles, reminders of the water’s full extent during the Spring snowmelt.

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Back there, shrouded in a bit of cloud: Mount Athabasca.

Shortly before the Stutfield Glacier viewpoint, the road starts climbing.The short stretch until Tangle Falls becomes a true test of character, being the first really steep ascent I have to tackle. Until now, I have only very gradually and slowly been gaining elevation – so much so that it was almost unnoticeable. The Parkway grinds its way up and along a rock wall, while the river is squeezing its way through a narrow and deep canyon below. So, like the road, I grind my way up, too.

Luckily, it is not a very long ascent, and I instantly get rewarded with about a kilometre and a half of thrilling descent, endorphins and adrenaline rushing through my veins, before finally entering the kingdom of the Columbia Icefield. Terrain flattens out as the road travels through an area left smooth and flat by the retreating of the various glaciers that jut out from the icefield, like giant tongues of blue ice and crevasses. Reduced to using my granny gears as I truck along, going single-digit speed, for the last kilometres before hitting the toe of the Athabasca Glacier and the giant visitor centre, I pass by what is commonly referred to as a ‘Bear Jam’ – a marvelous display of Homo Sapiens’ herd-like behaviour, brought about by the noticing of exotic wildlife. As I bike by, I scan the surrounding talus slopes to get a glimpse of what all these people are looking at. Sure enough, a black bear sow and her two tiny cubs are wandering through the bushes, maybe a hundred meters above the valley floor. I do not stop, though. After all, I’m using a mode of transportation that offers little, if any, protection from anything with claws wanting to protect its young.

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After a long lunch break spent sitting outside in the wind, sipping on a most outrageously overpriced cup of coffee, it’s time to leave not only the Athabasca Glacier, but the entire Jasper National Park, behind. As soon as I tackle the last little bit of elevation before the successive Wilcox and Sunwapta Passes, the wind shifts by 180 degrees, as if wanting to reward me for my effort thus far. What a relief! I speed along the plateau between the two high points, and cross the boundary into Banff National Park. With the wind finally at my back and only elevation to lose until Rampart Creek, I am not riding a bike anymore – I am flying.

I make it to the campground in the early afternoon. I sit around my dinner (a re-hydrated meal this time, my stove being only good to get water boiling) all muffled up to keep the swaths of mosquitoes at bay. After putting every item that could possibly give off any kind of bear-attracting smell into a food locker, I crawl into my sleeping bag for a super early night. After biking only 65 kilometres today, I have a lot of ground to cover before getting to Lake Louise in time to catch the bus back to Jasper.

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The grin is large because I am about to send it down the mountain.

I wake up to my alarm and the sound of rain gently pitter-pattering against my orange tent. Seeing how it is extremely uncomfortable out, and very early, I just quickly pack my bike, shoving my wet shelter into its stuff sack, and get on the road without eating a single bite. Clad in all my rain gear, I absent-mindedly pedal along the wet highway (and into the wind again), mountaintops hiding in somber cotton-candy clouds.

At the Saskatchewan Crossing, I grab some hot water from the convenience store (pretty convenient that I don’t have to lose time boiling it myself) to make oatmeal and finally get some fuel into the system. From there, it is once more time to travel up the valley, toward Bow Summit.

As the weather is questionable in its friendliness, the road is empty. I suddenly feel extremely small: a solo female cyclist travelling slowly through bear country, amidst towering, frozen giants of stone, rushing rivers, cold lakes, and sprawling glaciers. I can feel Nature’s domination over Man in this place, quiet in these early hours. While certainly unnerving to that part of my brain constantly longing for comfort, shelter, and warmth, I find myself awash with this soothing, humbling feeling of oneness with the world around me.

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As I pass the gorgeous Waterfowl Lakes and their surrounding peaks, dusted with snow akin to a chocolate cake sprinkled with powdered sugar, I become confident that, thanks to my early start, I will make it to Lake Louise with ample time to spare before hopping on the bus to get back to the starting line. This is only reinforced when I finally top out on Bow Summit after a difficult, steep, and headwind-battling climb where I have to stop and catch my breath every five minutes. But, hey, guess what comes after reaching the top of the hill?

Right – it’s time to send! Leaning low over my handlebars, I simply ignore the cold that immediately seeps into my hands, feet, and nose, and just sprint all the way to Bow Lake. After a little lunch break, I hop back in the saddle, now eager to tackle the remaining 40 kilometres – mostly downhill. I imagine myself reaching speeds exceeding 50km/h.

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Great is the relief knowing that it’s all downhill from Bow Lake.

Once again, though, to stick with the main theme of this bike tour, wind direction and intensity queer my pitch. I find myself battling a steady wind and am working hard to keep my speed up, even if gravity is working in my favour. Luckily, though, I still reach those high speeds I was dreaming of in a few sections – including one very specific spot where I zoom past a black bear feeding right next to the road. By the time we both notice our close encounter, I am already far gone.

Around Hector Lake, it starts to pour. It is as if the weather wants to purposefully remind me of this one fateful bike ride a few years back, where my then-roommate Matt and I tried to bike from Lake Louise to the Rampart Creek Hostel – only to be turned around after roughly 25 kilometres as a storm rolled in, leaving us soaked to the bone and shivering. My gear and I have become more cold- and waterproof since then.

I reach Lake Louise in the early afternoon after a whopping 93 kilometres of pedalling. There, the skies decide to clear up, finally letting me bask in warm rays of sunlight.



I made it;  230 kilometres in 3 days, (almost) perpetual headwind, chilly and overcast weather, big mountain passes, spectacular scenery, a too-heavy tent, a malfunctioning stove, lots of bread, peanut butter and Clif Bars, and yet another great learning experience.  

As I was waiting for the bus back to Jasper, I was left wondering, though, how I had deserved these slaps in the face from Mother Nature (as far as the headwind and overall weather is concerned). Well, you don’t really deserve anything, ever, as far as the land and mountains are concerned. Whatever happens within them, happens. They don’t care about your biking, sightseeing, camping, climbing, skiing, hiking, driving, or vacation plans. If you find yourself out there in overall sub-optimal conditions, you just have to accept them, deal with them, and enjoy it all regardless. Work with what you are given. Always make the best out of everything, as frustration is the nemesis of our adventurous souls. But you can choose to not let it consume you and live with passion regardless.

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