My last multi-day bikepacking race was three years ago and I now have the jitters as we line up at the start for a photo. Steady riding throughout the winter and spring of this year has left me with some base level of fitness. And a few multi-day trips in the spring at fast touring speed has given me some mental preparation. But now I have deep doubts.
That slight discomfort in my beleaguered left knee – impending failure or simply stiffness? That shortness of breath on steep hills the day before – muscle atrophy or a bit of over-training.
The race is the inaugural BC Epic 1000, one of those mountain bike events you rarely hear about because it is unsponsored, self-supported, and only loosely organized. Someone throws out a route (along with a GPS track), a time to show up at the start line, and off you go. Fourteen of us showed up for the BC Epic 1000. 1000 is the race distance. In kilometers.
A liked the theme of this route from the start. It follows mainly trails converted out of abandoned railroad grades across southern British Columbia, starting from Merritt and ending in Fernie. It is convoluted in its course because southern British Columbia has convoluted geography. The old railroads were constructed to tie east with west and the mountain ranges and deep glacial valleys trend north to south. It was an epic effort by the railroad construction crews working against the grain. Now, with the ghostly tunnels and trestles as reminders, it was our epic.
Here is a map of the route:
The race was organized by Lennard of Kamloops. He did more than the minimum to make it go smoothly and be a social success. In fact, a handful of us stayed at his house the night before the start, ate pizza, and swapped stories. Marilie cooked us an expansive breakfast as their odd scotty dog swept the dining room floor with its belly. And, finally, it was time. A few generous Kamloopian mountain bike fanatics shuttled us off to Merritt.
Lennard delivers some last minute encouragement and a reminder we are on our own. No one has ridden this route in its entirety. Lots of unknown unknowns to trip us up.
We start off on paved roads through a lush valley of pastures and forest and wouldn’t you know it, I’m off the back of the pack after only a half hour. I settle in for the long haul and think about not getting lost and how to peddle for 18 hours or more a day without collapsing in a heap. I have 5 to 6 days in mind for this race.
I get lost transitioning from the road to the rail trail but find the ATV track after doing my 5 minute rest. My grand strategy is to ride an hour and then spend 5 minutes doing chores. The chore break will force me to stretch, get weight off of pressure points, and keep me from neglecting the obvious like drinking, eating, and peeing. I’ve also allocated a 15 minute break for gathering up food late morning and another in early evening. I figure a few additional short breaks of the unanticipated type will also intrude into pedaling time.
I’m only to happy for a break after the first hour on the Kettle Valley Rail Trail. ATV riders have rototilled the gravel surface into dips and humps. Coarse gravel litters the surface. Fortunately, the day is early and most of the ATV crowd are still nursing their Friday night hangovers. We have the trail mostly to ourselves.
After going over the first pass and into an area of extended wetlands, I catch up with Sam and we ride for awhile. I notice he is more relaxed than me, even though, as he says, this is his first multi-day race. He is on a full-suspension bike and I have a rigid frame and fork – of course he is more relaxed. I’m suffering from the bumps and fall back after a while in order to find relief from the jostling. I’m thinking I brought the wrong bike.
I see Sam alongside the trail with a front wheel in his hand. Sharp metal buried in the trail has ripped a large chunk out of his tire. The hole is bigger than his thumb, which is now slathered with sealant. I’ve never tried to boot a hole that big. I offer encouragement and better luck. I scour the trail ahead for metal bits as I ride off.
Princeton is 112 km into the race and I arrive about noon. I do a quick Subway stop and order the highest calorie foot-long on the menu board. I’m out of there within my 15 minute allotment. I like Princeton – compact, clean, and unpretentious. Riding out of town, grassland and flowers replace the morning’s tunnel of trees. I run into Peter and we start the 500 meters of elevation gain to the next pass.
Cows are crossing the path and we wait for the traffic jam to clear. A couple of guys on horses and a border collie with OCD make short work of getting cows from right pasture to left. We start to thread our way through the green mine field left behind by the cows but I’m blocked again, this time by one of the horses. A guy in a tan cowboy hat reaches down and says, “take this bag of fudge; I have plenty at home”. I smile a thanks and think that if this is a typical Canadian thing then I’m applying for immigration as soon as I get home.
I follow the Kettle Valley Rail Trail as it drops at a lazy gradient towards the south end of Okanagan Lake. A mountain lion steps out in front of me and stops. I’m downwind and he looking away from me, not realizing that he has company. My tires crunch and he leaps off the trail and is out of sight in one bound. I wish I had legs like that.
First stop once leaving the woods is Summerland. It an elevated valley above the lake with a patchwork of orchards and fine houses. The ripe cherries taunt me but I decide not to steal.
The sun drops below the horizon as I roll into Penticton, British Columbia’s take on Waikiki. I’m immediately entrained in a bumper-to-bumper parade of hot rods and drunks. The banner across the entrance to the city park along the lake shoreline indicates that I have arrived just in time for the annual Peach City Beach Cruise. Lucky me.
I scurry through the east end of town looking for food but find mostly sit-down restaurants and liquor stores. I stop at a pizza place and they make me a medium. I ask for it in a plastic bag to go and try to explain that I’ll be eating it down the road but am on a bike. Puzzled, the server hands me a pizza in a box. I dig out a ziplock bag in my pack and stuff the oozing mess into it.
The rail trail out of town climbs through vineyards and expensive houses. I want to get far away from the noise in order to sleep. I ride into the darkness and find a picnic bench set up on the foundation of an old water tower, the kind that once provided water to the steam locomotives. I call it a day at 235 km. The stars blink faintly as I lay in my sleeping bag with my plastic bag, slowly squeezing pizza into my mouth.
I get up before dawn and start stuffing my stuff into their designated stuff sacks. Someone whizzes by in the dark. I can’t make out who it is. The numerous tire tracks in the trail indicate that I’m not among the frontrunners.
The trail climbs and winds through Rock Oven Regional Park which has a collection of stone and rock ovens built between 1911 and 1915 by immigrant workers who constructed the Kettle Valley Railway. The rock ovens served as ovens to bake bread and feed the workers. No fresh bread for me – just leftover pizza. The climb continues at maximum railroad gradient which is about 2.5 percent for the trains of that era.
Troy sneaks up behind me as I lean nearly asleep on the aero bars. I’m surprised to find him behind rather than ahead of me. He explains that he hasn’t been able to eat much during the last 24 hours because of nausea. He looks like he is struggling but then pulls ahead.
The air is cold and damp as I peak out near Chute Lake. The heavy rains just previous to the weekend had soaked the place and the mosquitoes are hungry. It was a good choice not to ride long into the night and end up here to sleep. But now I get to deal with the puddles. Miles and miles of puddles. The worst span the trail and my feet get soaked at the bottom of each rotation as I muddle through. Evil thoughts of the idiots on ATVs who created these deep puddles flood my mind. What I really need is coffee.
I look up and it is Troy heading back down the hill. He has weighed his option of continuing on to Grand Forks with going back to Kamloops before his body imploded. He probably picked the wise option but I was sorry to see him out of the race.
And then the sun comes out and I enter Myra-Belleview Provincial Park. No more puddles and the surface is smooth. The 12 km of railroad grade through Myra Canyon turns spectacular. Over a dozen trestles and tunnels were needed to get the railroad through this deep canyon. It is now a tourist attraction. A truck with trailer pulls into the parking lot with a dozen bikes to rent to the Sunday visitors. I continue on and again find myself muddling with puddles near Hydraulic Lake.
Back to tree tunnels for a few more hours and then I detour out to the Beaverdell store. And then exit the store with over a pound of chocolate chip ice cream balanced on a sugar cone. Heaven comes to those who wait. The two liter bottle of Coke also feeds my high and I’m back spinning on the trail.
I approach a concrete barrier designed to keep the ATVs off the trail. It is the only one I’ve seen that appears to be working. I start to thread my way through the gap and then realize at the last moment that the space is narrower than my bars. I hit the ground hard – butt plant on one rock, shoulder on another, and head grind against yet another. I moan and prop myself up slowly. The damage assessment indicates only a bruise on the one buttock, the skin missing from shoulder is dispensable, and the helmet has prevented any threat to a future modeling career. But the pain in my rib – how did that happen?
I get back on my horse and keep on riding.
The trail drops down to the Kettle River and there begins the trail of a hundred gates. Now traversing agricultural land, a gate greets me at each property line. And it is no longer a gravel path but a hummocky thread through the tall grass. It is late in the afternoon and I’m getting tired. My rib hurts.
I fuel up at the town of Midway, which has not much more than a convenience store. But also here is where the Kettle Valley Rail Trail turns into the Columbia and Western Rail Trail. The later is more recent which means that the outhouses aren’t yet shot up to hell and the surface is smooth gravel once again. And the interpretative signs are actually quite good.
Up the canyon a way comes Greenwood. The smelter at the edge of town is now silent and I assume the mines are also vacated. The jobs are long gone but the people remain. It reminds me of towns in Oregon after the timber companies have cut all the trees that could pay their way to the sawmill and then moved on. The remnant population the companies leave behind somehow makes it in spite of the lack of jobs.
Further up the canyon a handwritten sign carefully explains that because people have left the gate open too many times and the llamas got out, she has decided to lock it with a padlock. So there. The note also indicates that you could either climb over the gate or ride a detour on the highway. Not to be deprived a llama sighting, I continue down the trail. Sure enough, llamas. In fact, so many llamas that it qualifies as llama hoarding. No wonder they had bolted through the open gate; the grass is grazed to the dirt line.
I wince as I throw my bike over the high gate. Llamas race around me and I try to remember what I know about llama trampling. I can’t think of anything so I ride through the poo ignoring my companions and wince again as I throw my bike over the gate at the far end of the property. I continue the ride to the pass at Eholt, where the route turns familiar.
Three weeks previous, I had ridden a section of the race route; just to know what I was getting myself into. It turned out to be quite a good trip. From Christina Lake I rode the rail trail to Castlegar, although with a bypass around the long Bulldog Tunnel. The tunnel suffered a partial collapse the week previous and I had told Lennard that I would check out the official detour. The detour turned out to be a real pain. From Castlegar, I continued on the race route to the town of Trail and then headed up the hill on a rail trail to Rossland. And then it was up and over two high passes on the little used Old Rossland Cascade Highway to get back to Christina Lake. An out-and-back day trip west from Christina Lake on the last day had gotten me as far as this pass at Eholt.
I head off down the hill into the dusk with the aim of finding a dry spot void of mosquitoes. I approach a tunnel entrance and a herd of bighorn sheep tumble out. Apparently, bighorn sheep like to sleep in tunnels. Later, I pass a sign nailed to a tree that promises a goat sighting but now I was more interested in sleep than wildlife.
I enter a section where the railroad grade has been blasted from the face of a high cliff. The site is dry and the rocks radiate heat after the warm day. I decide that 243 kilometers is good for day two. I lay out my sleeping bag, negotiate a position where my rib doesn’t hurt, and descend into three hours of deep, wonderful sleep.
I get up before dawn and bump on down the trail towards Grand Forks. I liked Grand Forks when I went through a few weeks ago. Good coffee, a farmers market, and friendly people. But now I enter in early morning and all that is open is the convenience store. The attendant is chasing a deer away from the front door with a broom, which would seem odd if I had already had my coffee. But, I hadn’t and it didn’t.
The 25 kilometers from Grand Forks to Christina Lake are without effort. Flat and smooth, the trail follows the Kettle River through forests and farmland, crosses the river at the rapids, and then a final time heading into Christina Lake.
From my previous visit, I had pegged Christina Lake as a low rent tourist and retirement town. The coffee shop was good though. And the scenery mighty fine. Gladstone Provincial Park wraps around the north half of the lake and much further beyond that.
I settle into the extended climb to the next pass. The rock faces, trestles, and tunnels keep the morning interesting. So do the flowers.
The climb tops out at the old Farron siding site and then begins a long, fast descent down to the Bulldog tunnel.
The Bulldog tunnel is over 900 meters long. As Lennard said at the beginning of the race, “the tunnel is officially closed because of the collapsed timbers at the east portal and the detour is the official route, but those who choose to use the tunnel won’t be relegated”. I see tire tracks heading into the tunnel entrance and I follow.
Emerging from the tunnel, I follow the trail, now perched high above Upper Arrow Lake (which is the dammed Columbia River), through lush cedar forest. It abruptly ends at the Castlegar pulp mill.
I endure a bit of pavement riding into town, where I top off on water and Coke. Monster diesel pickups, a majority black, rumble through town, providing further evidence that this is a mill town.
The route abandons its railroad heritage at Castlegar and heads off to the east bank of the Columbia River. The next stop is the town of Trail but getting there along the east bank is a maze. An interesting maze. Paved and dirt roads eventually lead to a trail etched into steep slopes above the river. Minimally maintained, the trail pitches abruptly up and down. The trail begs to be ridden but bucks me off whenever I dare relax. Knowing that my car is far away in Kimberley and that I have no plan B to get to my car if I were to be injured, I take it easy and walk a lot.
Civilization comes abruptly at the outskirts of Trail. Nice houses on the east side of the river face against the huge Trail smelter on the west bank. It growls. It menaces. It pollutes. It provides jobs.
I don’t need to stop in Trail for food but when I pass the Safeway I see Allen outside the store with bandages in his hand. He looks a bit beat up. He tells me about falling and leaving some skin behind. His right brake lever looks wonky from the fall. Moreover, his saddle sores are at crisis stage. He is heading across the river to a motel where he says Franck is holed up and trying to recover from some injuries. Allens says that he will patch himself up and then decide what to do next.
The highway out of Trail is hot and noisy and I settle in for the long grind up to Salmo. Fortunately, it is all smooth pavement so my rib is no longer being jarred. Darkness sets in as I reach Salmo and I need to decide whether to stop or ride on. Salmo has only a Subway and a convenience store for food at this hour so I hit them up before they close. The route north out of Salmo to Nelson is a railroad grade converted to trail. It follows a river and, from what I can tell coming into Salmo, the trail will be wet from recent rains with lots of mosquitos. I argue against getting a motel room and lose.
Only 205 km for the day but some of those were hard-earned, I reason. And I am finally clean.
My start in the morning gets delayed until dawn – such is the danger of motel rooms when racing. The morning is surprisingly cool and I cycle with all my clothes on through the mist-laden vegetation. Over the pass, past Cottonwood Lake, and I’m dropping down to Nelson.
I had heard that Nelson is British Columbia’s trendiest small town so I am counting on a good cup of coffee. Rolling through the old part of town I find what I need – a coffee shop even Northwest Portland would approve of. I could live in a place like this. If they would have me. If I could learn how to be hip.
I stumble around the edge of town trying to find a grocery store and end up wasting time. The route ahead involves catching a ferry across Kootenay Lake and I don’t want to nearly miss one and then have to wait an extra hour. I scoot along the 30 km of pavement to Balfour only to see the ferry pulling out of the dock. I sit down on a bench and sort through my bags for all the things that have been missing the last three days.
After an hour, I ride onto the ferry and they direct me to park next to the two motorcycle guys. I guess they think we have something in common. Motorcycle guy #1 pulls out a selfie stick, attaches his smart phone, smoothes out his helmet hair, and spends the next 15 minutes taking pictures of himself and his $50,000 bike with the mountains as a backdrop. I retreat to the back of the ferry where the gulls hang out.
The dizzy activity surrounding Nelson is lost once I roll off the ferry and onto the east shore of Kootenay Lake. A hilly paved road takes me to Gray Creek and the start of the steepest part of the race. For 17 km a dirt road climbs 1500 m to a pass and then, just as abruptly, falls off the back side to the St. Marys River drainage. I remind myself that riding uphill is the same as riding flat ground only at a lower gear. But when I put my bike in the lowest gear it isn’t feeling much like that at all.
The race is starting to take a toll. My legs won’t relax and the sustained effort is causing my legs to cramp. Nothing seems fluid as I start into the third hour of climbing. I begin to walk the pitches greater than 15 percent. The scenery is a welcome distraction. Snow-covered peaks crowd me on both sides as I get closer to the pass. And suddenly, no more up.
I rummage in the food bag for something special to celebrate the occasion and find only the usual. Oh well, all the downhill coming up will be sweet, I tell myself. I head down the hill and it isn’t sweet. A deranged grader operator has recently taken to the road and rearranged the boulders and dirt into rib-jarring patterns. I descend slowly watching all that potential energy getting eaten up by the brake pads. I ride another hour before the surface becomes smooth enough to ride fast.
I see few people on this road but towards dusk a pickup with a horse trailer passes me in a rush. My heart thumps when I see the side door swing wide open as he takes the next turn. That unlatched metal door would have swung into my head if he had not been passing me on a straight section of road. I follow the river eastward towards Kimberley dreaming of a world with no motor vehicles.
Before the race I got to see some of Kimberley as I waited for Allen to get off work. Allen lives in Kimberley and we shared a ride to Kamloops to start the race. Kimberley was once a mining town that turned ski town and is again looking for new inspiration. I think they are off to a good start. The walking mall in the old downtown section is being remodeled and is starting to look more like Nelson and less like faux Bavaria. And any place with a farmers’ market has a rosy future.
The race route winds through a large area of community forest owned by the town of Kimberley. I start up a dirt track through the forest and debate whether to pull up there underneath a tree and call it a day. My legs are fried after the brutal descent and my bruised rib isn’t happy. The tingling in the bottom of my feet is something new.
I promise myself at least a few hours of inactivity and find a position that doesn’t hurt my rib. I sleep for only two hours and am wake at 2 AM. I start packing and am excited by the prospect of finishing up. As I remember from the notes, it should be an easy day.
I can’t get the track to the GPS to appear on the screen and I’m unsure of the route. I continue down the dirt track and find most intersections have a “Great Trail” indicator and settle on following them. The Great Trail is a route across Canada that is roughly the race route that we are following. It is uniquely Canadian to have created this trail system across their country. And uniquely great in my mind.
I roll into Kimberley about 3 AM and find the start of the paved rail trail that connects Kimberley to Cranbrook. I head into the darkness at a fast downhill clip. Dawn illuminates the high Rocky Mountain peaks to the east and the St. Mary River to the southwest. These are free miles. No effort involved.
I swoop into Cranbrook and spot my new favorite Canadian fast food joint – Tim Hortons! More good tasting calories than a biker could hope for. I get a bag of breakfast egg muffin thingys, coffee, and a pile of pastries. I’m in and out in 15 minutes.
The last piece of rail trail of the race is the Isadore Canyon Trail leading northeast out of Cranbrook. I hop on board. Leaving the short piece of Isadore Canyon Trail, the route wanders about on gravel roads, paved roads, and dirt. It roughly follows the Kootenay River valley.
Rolling hills along pavement meld into a dirt road along the west shore of Koocanusa Reservoir. The dam on the Kootenay River that creates this reservoir is far downstream near Libby, Montana and backs up water far into Canada. 120 km of grand, flowing river turned into flaccid, turquoise backwater. I wonder what Canada got out of the deal?
A bridge across the reservoir takes me through the surprisingly pleasant Kikomun Creek Provincial Park. Here, the dense stands of trees – a relic of decades of fire suppression – have been beat back with chain saws and the land nurtured to grow brush and flowers. It is the vegetation favored by bighorn sheep, elk, and deer.
The brush is my undoing though. The GPS track leads me along a well-defined skid trail and then leads off into the brush. I look for Lennard’s tracks to help me out. I had been following his tire tracks for several days so I not only know what pattern to look for but, now, they are the only ones on the route. I guess I’m in second place. Now, how did that happen?
His tire tracks lead off one direction and then return. I decide that the GPS track is wrong and that Lennard was also making it up as he went. I make up something too and I end up at a lake with a swimming beach. I thread my way among the beer bellies and too-white-skin of the beach crowd. I try to appear inconspicuous. I stop and zoom out on the GPS and find that I’m way off track. I head south in search of a trail that would intersect that pink line on the display. I eventually find myself back on the route – underneath the power lines – and realize that the GPS track was correct after all. If I had just walked my bike through the brush 45 minutes ago following the GPS I would be well on my way. So it goes.
The route finally decides that its southeast meanderings are getting old and takes a turn northward, towards Fernie, and the finish line. I cross the Elk River at Elko expecting an easy coast into Fernie. But the chunky ATV track up around the south slope of Mt. Broadwood is slow and hot. Nevertheless, the scenery is fantastic. The path meanders along a high bench at the base of the mountains through prime winter range for bighorn sheep and elk.
I find a spring and give myself a good dousing. I now realize that another pass is between me and Fernie and I settle in for the grind. Chunky road gives way to smooth gravel and I begin the long drop into town.
A green pickup approaches and skids to a halt. It is Doug, a mountain biker from Fernie. He greets me by name and explains that he had been stalking me and the others via the internet using our Spot tracks. He offer me a Coke is immediately my best friend. He explains to me that he is off to intercept Franck in the same manner, which is the first time I realize that Franck is close behind me. So, time to get moving and act like I’m a racer rather than a tourist.
A coal train rumbles along the edge of town and blocks my progress for five minutes and I look behind for Franck. I swoop into town, up to the finely restored City Hall building, and the finish line. And there is Lennard and a dozen others cheering. Their enthusiasm nearly brings me to tears.
After the obligatory picture we hang out waiting for Franck. The audience grows. When he rolls in I count six nations represented among finished riders and supporters – France, Namibia, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and the United States. It pains me to realize that Canada welcomes diversity and my country is going in the opposite direction.
Franck rolls in with fist clenched in the air and takes a lap around the building. The crowd roars.
I’m hustled off to Peter and Wendy’s for a much-needed shower and then we return to City Hall to see Allen come in. And now the women’s mountain bike club are among the cheerleaders, having delayed the start of their Wednesday evening group ride to see the ragged racers stumble in. Allen is standing on his pedals as he rolls into the parking lot, a sign that his saddle sores are still raging. But he is smiling.
Dusk settles in and Athena takes charge of Allen and me. She wrangles up two large pizzas, folds us into the van, and then tells us to start eating. We drive off towards Kimberley in a daze. Arriving at Athena and Allen’s house, they offer me a bed for the night so I don’t have to drive home that night.
Why do we do it? Why trade five days (4 days 7 hours 32 minutes in my case) of loafing around home for a lot of discomfort? Certainly, it is more than proving to ourselves that we aren’t dead yet.
I like to think that the appeal is that it is a tightly wrapped and intense package of the physical, spiritual, and social. And I really need that from time to time.
Exploring my physical upper limits to exertion is exciting and unexpected. I can do much more than I think I can when shoved into a race setting. The extreme exertion alters my brain chemistry and floods my body with intense feeling. And I really do want to be in this world feeling to the fullest.
Also, the pursuit of the race, especially in a place as beautiful as southern British Columbia, feeds my soul. The pace is fast and some details go by in a blur, but the rapid fire images of mountains, water, and wildlife gives me hope for the natural world. Not all has been lost in this conquest of nature over the last two centuries. And that is especially true in Canada.
Finally, in spite of the inherent solitude of the multi-day mountain biker in a sparse field of racers, I find the social aspects of these events to be powerful. We meet as strangers and finish as friends. We become part of a secret society that no one else can fully understand – the tribe who experienced the inaugural BC Epic 1000.