Kananaskis Country, Highwood Pass, the Benchlands--and a bear - Over the hills and far away - CycleBlaze

June 26, 2016 to June 27, 2016

Kananaskis Country, Highwood Pass, the Benchlands--and a bear

Canmore to Lougheed Provincial Park, Highwood Junction, and Longview

East from Canmore, and South to Kananaskis Country

After breakfast, I rode eastwards along 1A towards the junction with Highway 40, which would take us south to Kananaskis.  Osi the Raven attracted a cheerful comment along the way:  At a stoplight near the edge of town, a young guy in his 20’s passed by in front of me on his mountain bike. He gave me a thumbs-up and a “Sweet rig, man!” I returned his thumbs-up, along with a grin and a “Thanks!”

Yesterday's strong tailwind continued, so I covered the 25 kms or so in little more than an hour.  I paused for a mid-morning snack while I waited for Andrew, who had been running errands in Canmore.  We navigated a brief section of the TCH, thankful for its broad paved shoulders, and in bright sunshine headed south on the 40 into Kananaskis country.

First views of Kananaskis
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We reached the Information Centre for Kananaskis at noon, and stopped to eat lunch on a nicely shaded patch of grass. A fit-looking guy, maybe in his late fifties, wandered up to say hello.  It turned out to be a hugely helpful chance encounter.  He was from Calgary, a touring cyclist but on four wheels that day, and asked us where we were headed.  I said we were going south on 40 over Highwood Pass, and then Andrew would  head east towards Longview, and from there across the Prairies to Winnipeg; while I was planning to take the Forestry Trunk Road south towards Crownest Pass, continuing from there to Waterton Lakes and Montana.

He advised me against taking the Forestry Road, saying that it was still in rough shape from the catastrophic floods of 2013, and had a lot of logging trucks as well. He suggested that 122 south from Longview was a better bet for a cyclist, a good ride with spectacular views. Longview was a 100 km ride from Lougheed Park, and had a good campground as well.

We thanked him for his advice and adjusted our plans.  We were heading for the campground in Lougheed Provincial Park that evening. Tomorrow, we'd continue south over the Pass, and then turn east towards Longview.   (As it turned out, our visitor's suggested route, the 122 south from Longview, would be one of the best rides of my journey.)

Riding south after lunch, I remembered the splendour of the mountain landscapes from a previous visit, but I had forgotten the extraordinary skyscapes. The peaks are some distance west of the road here:

Looking S and W of Canmore
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As the weather turned warm, we faced a brisk headwind, and the route included plenty of hills in the 5 - 6% range.  We made slowish time over the 60-some kms to the Park.  A mid-afternoon stop at the Fortress Junction service centre, just before the climb towards the Park, gave a visitor an insight into the changing face of Calgary.  There wasn't much food for a cyclist, but there was a bit of sociology to chew on:  About fifteen Harleys pulled into the parking lot, their bad-ass riders sporting all the standard b-a gear and comportment (oily leathers, shiny studding, bulging tummies, lighted cigarettes -- the latter, happily, after the engines had been turned off) and the standard specs of b-a bikes (straight-through pipes, ape-hanger bars, maladjusted carbs requiring constant revving to avoid stallout).  When they removed their helmets, I saw that they were apparently of South Asian descent.  So much for my stereotypes of b-a bikers as white guys...

Nearing Lougheed Provincial Park in late afternoon, looking back N
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As the climb steepened, Andrew pushed on ahead.  I reached the Park after 5, to find the Visitor Centre closed, and no Andrew to be seen.  The road to Canyon Creek campground was just around the bend, however, so I headed there for the night.  There were just a handful of sites booked--this was the first weekend of the season--so I enjoyed a quiet and sunny evening.  With very few other campers around, I spent some time chatting with the couple managing the campground.  They had spent many years with the Park, and expected to retire before long.  I asked where home was for them, and learned that she had come from a small village just north of Peterborough, Ontario -- where I had gone to high school!  This was starting to get a bit spooky...

(I never did reconnect with Andrew.  There are several campgrounds in the Park, and he must have chosen another one. Safe journey, mate!)

I slept well that night, comforted by the fact that the insistently buzzing mozzies were outside my tent.

Highwood Pass, and the bear

I made an early start the next day, leaving my campsite at 7:30.  Highwood Pass was 25 kms beyond the Park, and I expected a demanding climb--at 2206 metres, the Pass is the highest paved road in Canada.

The landscape is magical, especially on a fresh clear summer morning:

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The climb unfolds at a fairly constant 6%, and yesterday's headwind was still blowing.  There are two steps, and a plateau at Little Highwood, the midway point, allows a rider time to pause, refresh and ponder.  There was very little traffic, although the hiking trailheads had a fair number of parked vehicles.  Just past Little Highwood, an oncoming pickup slowed, and the driver flagged me down. "Just wanted to tell you that there's a bear up ahead, a kilometre or so." "Thanks very much," I said. "What colour?" "Brown," he said. "OK," I said, "and thanks for the heads-up!" 

Sure enough, after 500 metres or so, I rounded a bend, and slightly below me, maybe 800 metres away, there were 5 or 6 vehicles lined up in my lane, all stopped.  This is the Standard Wildlife Sighting Formation, and sure enough, I saw a grizzly just ahead of the cars and trucks, on the right-hand side of the road.  The bear was big, but rangy, and I reckoned it was a young male adult.  I eased off the pedals, and continued slowly towards the vehicles.  Before I reached them, the bear walked slowly across the road in front of them, and disappeared into the bush on the left side of the road.  With the excitement over, the cars and trucks broke their SWSF and drove away.

I continued towards the area, the road beginning a slight upgrade.  When I was perhaps a hundred metres from the spot where the bear had crossed the road, he re-emerged from the bush on my left.  I slowed down, and he crossed the road about 50 metres in front of me. He was a big young guy, strong, but almost lanky--clearly he still had some growing to do--but his coat was a lustrous golden brown.  He really was a very handsome dude, and he rolled across the road with long unhurried easy strides--imagine a walking lope.  As he moved rightwards, I eased the bike to my left -- if he was going into the bush on the right, I wanted to be well clear of his exit route.  If he noticed me, he gave no sign of it.  I rang my bell to say, "OK, Mr. Bear, just letting you know that I'm here, and that I know you're there." He paid no attention, and just disappeared into the bush on the right-hand side of the road.  Perhaps the fact that I was downwind helped to avoid any reaction on his part, or maybe he just thought that I was no threat to him.

I had seen grizzlies in the wild before, on a hiking trip in Yukon years ago, but they were at a distance of 800 metres or more.  Never had I seen a bear in the wild at such close quarters, with no-one else around.  I was thrilled, but also surprisingly calm, perhaps because I wasn't surprised:  the truck driver had given me a heads-up, and I had seen Mr. Bear a few minutes earlier, when he crossed the road the first time.  All that said, I watched him carefully, and didn't bother rummaging for my camera.

After that, the view from the pass could have been an anti-climax, but it wasn't.  The last 3 or 4 kms were the now-standard first-gear slog, but the view from the top was superb, much better than from either Sunwapta or Bow Pass:

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I stopped for a late-morning snack, and considered the privilege of a life that lets me visit the high places of the world, and see bears up close.  This was not quite the solitude of the hills, though:  I had paused beside a trail, and all-of-a-sudden along that trail came about 20 men and women d'un certain âge, clad in hiking gear.  Of course a conversation ensued--several, in fact.  They were a walkers' club from Calgary, and this was one of their weekly hikes.  They were tickled to see an age-mate on a bike atop the Pass, and we shared mutual congratulations and best wishes on doing what we loved to do.  A thirty-ish ranger was their guide, and she was cheerful about her work and her charges. "Hard to beat a day like today," she said. "Imagine getting paid for this!"

From the Pass, there followed a splendid monster 30-km descent to Highwood Junction, where the Forestry Road meets the 40. Despite the strong headwind, I covered the distance in 75 minutes.  After a stop at the store for a late lunch, I continued east towards Longview.  The road looped northwards as I left the hill country, and with the wind now behind me, I sailed along in 12th, 13th, and even top gear.   I reached Longview a little after 4 PM, having covered the 40 kms from Highwood Junction in less than 90 minutes :)

Longview is a small crossroads community at the junction of the 40 and the 122. It sits on a slight rise of land, and there are, well, long views in all directions.  The municipal campground is in the southwest corner of the intersection--impossible to miss--and is a wonderful spot.  On my visit, the grass was thick and soft, the air was warm and the sky was clear.  The manager, Jamie, was welcoming, and she ran a clean, well-organized campground.  The showers and laundry facilities worked as they should, and a gentle late-afternoon breeze ensured that my clothes dried quickly on the line.  For all this, a cyclist pays $15.

Wait--there's more.  I went into the gas-station store next door and restocked on foodstuffs.  As I walked back to my campsite, a tall fellow, a little older than me, came up and said hello.  He introduced himself as Ken, from Colorado, a cyclist himself and a Warmshowers host.  He and his wife, Pat, were in a small RV (about the size of a cube van), parked 50 metres from my tent.  They were en route to Banff and Jasper, which I had just left.  Bless them, they invited me to join them for beer and burritos, for which I thanked them warmly, and we spent a delightful three hours together.  For Ken, this trip would complete one he had started in the early 1960s:  after high school near Washington, DC, he and a buddy decided to make a road trip to Jasper. "We made it about as far as Waterton Lakes, just across the border into Alberta, and then our old car gave up.  I never did get back here, and now here I am, at 77, a lifetime after my first try."  I told him that the West does that sort of thing to you--I was completing a wish I'd made in  1972.

He was intrigued by my Raven, and especially the Rohloff hub, not having seen one of those.  He said he understood the need to make these trips "at our age": he had through-hiked the Appalachian Trail at 61.  To me, that was a serious accomplishment indeed, a grade or two of difficulty higher than what I was doing.  I said to Ken that we could make our journeys only with the love and support of an understanding spouse, and Pat beamed  :)

There would have been a fine sunset, I'm sure, but it was scheduled for 10:45, and I was fast asleep by 9:30.

Today's ride: 203 km (126 miles)
Total: 610 km (379 miles)

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