As self-supported and unofficial bikepacking events go, this race took minimal to a new level. A web site gave a start date and route track. A Facebook page provided a way for those who were interested to organize themselves. That was about it.
A last minute flurry of posts suggested that some riders were starting in Fernie and others in Cranbrook. Furthermore, some were starting on Friday and others on Saturday and the start time varied from 6 to 7 AM. I wasn’t interested in lining up at the start line with only the company of myself so I joined a discussion thread of three others who felt the same.
We show up at the Aquatic Center in Fernie on Saturday at 7 AM and proclaim ourselves a group of starters.
Megan and Amy are excited to meet each other because few women do these sort of events. Tony is the third rider and has arrived with Amy from Bozeman, Montana. Megan is from Canmore, Alberta. I look around and am now certain that I will be clinching the 60+ age bracket.
The race route starting in Fernie divides into three sections. First, the mountains to the southeast; next, the rolling hills of the Kootenay River valley to the south and southwest; and finally, the rugged mountains to the northwest. The route is five hundred kilometers and has 5600 m of climbing. And despite the title, is known to have a scarcity of gravel surface.
I had ridden the southeast mountains and a bit of the rolling country to the south but none of us have much idea about what the entire route is about. But we share two goals; finish as fast as we can and have fun doing it.
Fresh legs and storytelling get us up the 660-meter climb to the first pass without much notice. I notice the fast pace but figure that things will settle down after a few hours. I don’t want to fall back because I find I really like being with them. I usually ride alone – not out of choice but because the community of endurance mountain bike riders is kind of scarce in my neck of the woods. Or perhaps in most people’s woods.
We drop into the mining area of Corbin with its stark and massive mountaintop coal removal, duck into the neglected road to the south, and climb to Flathead Pass. The road doesn’t look like it has been graded since three out of four us were born.
South of the pass the road gets even more ragged and we bump along for miles at a slow pace. Sometimes, we just give in to walking.
Few people live in the Flathead basin since the border crossing to the south was closed in the 1990s. Mainly, it is the domain of a sparse band of weekend warriors bumping about aimlessly on ATVs. So, we are surprised to come across a couple who were just out for a morning stroll on their bikes. They have a summer cabin up the way and a main house in Nelson.
We are only 75 km into our ride and aiming for two more high passes and the halfway point of the route – they are on their way back to the cabin for a cooked lunch and a nap. Being them is looking better than being us. But we press on.
The 2500-meter peaks bordering the Flathead give us views that make the miles go down easy. And now we have real gravel to grind on.
The Flathead is known for its healthy black and grizzly bear population. Lesser known, is the tech-savvy sasquatch community. That is a laptop computer, right?
We start the climb up to Cabin Pass and notice that Tony has fallen off the back. I’m hoping it is just a temporary thing since he has been such good company. Amy drops back to talk with him about a contingency plan for the remainder of the race and then sprints back to us.
We reach 1700 meters and then start the long descent to the Wigwam River. The horizon turns fuzzy and we realize that our day of comfortable weather is coming to an end. We get drenched for an half hour. This is a blow to me because I had a goal of getting through an entire year without riding in the rain. Living in a dry part of the state and judiciously selecting the time of day to ride each day had kept me dry. Now, my feet are wet and the clock is reset.
We recoup at the bridge and the sun emerges. Our food bags get lighter. Amy and Megan still haven’t run out of things to talk about, even after 150 km of hard riding. Their enthusiasm keeps me motivated to match their pace.
The road system in the Wigwam basin doesn’t connect with roads to the west except via a 1.5 km section of trail. It is a rude sort of trail – excessively steep and unmaintained. We push, carry, and grind our bikes up the hill.
We then get back to pedalling and top out at Galton Pass, the highest point of the day. A drop of 1000 meters into the dusk gets us to the highway but not in time for the Grassmere store to be open. No ice cream for the likes of us.
The route takes us through forested rolling hills as we follow the pink route line on the GPS. Our lights don’t reveal much to each side of the gravel roads so we turn when the GPS dictates. The night is getting long and we haven’t yet quite reached the halfway point. Not that conquering the entire first half of the route the first day is particularly important.
The conversation falls off and we drift along void of thoughts other than finding a suitable place to halt. I mention riding on an abandoned road in Kikomun Provincial Park during the BC Epic 1000 race last month and we make that our destination. We ride around the locked gate at midnight and sleep in the road, 240 contorted kilometers from Fernie.
We haven’t yet talked much about the racing aspects of this race. We’ve ridden all day together at a pace that seems ambitious for each of us. Yet we are still together. And then, again without much coordination, we get up at 5 AM, pack our bikes in silence, and ride off shoulder to shoulder into the cold.
The high mountains to the north are purplish blue in the dawn, as is the water of Koocanusa Reservoir. We ride over the bridge and lament that the marina is closed and so our access to coffee and ice cream. Our food resupply is 60 km down the road in Cranbrook. We stop in a sunny spot and dig deep into our food bags but aren’t finding much to get excited about.
We descend into Cranbrook and head for the TH. Tim Horton’s is Canada’s response to the blandness of McDonalds. Tim is everywhere in Canada and the menu has a consistently high calorie to dollar ratio. We anticipate no other food stops until the finish line so I order four egg/sausage/cheese muffin sandwiches and a cinnamon roll, or about 2500 calories. All for $14.
The route heads through dips and rises created by the glaciers that once originated in the high peaks to the north. North is our destination and we try to guess which of the impossibly steep valleys ahead is our route.
We cross the Kootenay River for the last time at Fort Steele and start climbing up Wildhorse River canyon. Peaks of the Hughes Range, some 2500 meters high, rim the valley. The lower slopes of the valley were once aggressively logged and mined but the condition of the beat up main road suggests that everyone eventually gave up on that thought. We share the road with a few weekend four-wheeler recreationists but eventually it becomes too rough for even them. Pretty rough for us too.
Not to waste time, Megan combines hike-a-biking with eating a Tim Horton’s sandwich.
The more we climb the better the views.
We flop over to the north side of 1950-meter Wildhorse Pass and find more fantastic high peaks ahead. And the same egregious conditions of other abandoned logging roads in this region. We bump down the hill and I find my mood also heading downward. The heat, the jostling, my failure to stay hydrated is taking a toll. I drop back for an hour to nurse my wounds. Even when the route turns onto a proper road with a smooth surface I’m short on enthusiasm.
We reunite at a bridge and I get enough water and Tim Horton’s miracle sandwiches in me to make a difference. The smooth road along Whiteswan Lake and the cooling temperature all work in my favor. I’m again a happy camper.
We begin the 650-meter climb up Blackfoot Creek at dusk. Blackfoot Creek and its border guards, the Van Nostrand Range to the west and Quinn Range to the east, don’t tolerate logging roads much. Avalanches off the 3000-meter peaks take out chunks of the road and bury them with rocks and trees. The stream eats at the road where it gets too close and spits it out downstream. We walk the sections that have washed out and try to keep our feet dry for the cold night ahead. We end up with very wet feet.
A patch of wild raspberries short of the pass catches our attention and we plop down for a minute of picking and plotting. None of us want to spend a second night out so we think of how to get through the next 70 km without falling asleep at the wheel or ending up as bear food. Amy and Megan are still finding lots to talk about so that solves two problems. The talking seems to keep them alert and I find their talk entertaining. Hard to fall asleep with that going on. The talking also alerts the bears that we are around.
They get their bear spray in a place easy to reach and we head off into the darkness – to my right is Amy yelling, “hey bear” and to my left is Megan yelling the same. It is too dark to take pictures so we ride non-stop and fast down the hill.
Some of the rocks in the road start moving and I close my eyes to erase the hallucination. I open them and again see moving rocks. Only they are hopping. And the rocks, in focus, are actually frogs. We weave in and out of frogs with the intention of sparing their lives but there are dozens of them. A few rabbits join the fray and dart just ahead of our wheels. We were expecting bears but we may, in the end, be felled by these frogs and rabbits. Entering an active logging operation, it all stops.
We leave the Bull River behind and one more pass separates us from Fernie. It is already midnight. With Sulphur Creek raging below we head up a neglected road plastered to the steep canyon walls. Like magic, a second wind takes hold and I’m feeling strong like I did the first hour of the first day. My fuzzy brain interprets this as elation.
We stop at the pass and the temperature is crazy cold. Amy has been hauling around a heavy down jacket and hasn’t yet used it. She says she doesn’t need it for the descent so I offer to get it down the hill for her. I’m bundled up and ready to fly.
The final 15 km becomes a dream sequence of moonlight, motion, and sound. For two days my thoughts were focussed on getting to the finish line in the shortest amount of time. Now, I want the race to continue with the finish line always moving ahead to the next mountain range.
We enter Fernie at 2:30 AM and roll through a deserted downtown and pull into the Aquatic Center parking lot. No cheering crowd greets us. We try to get our tired brains around how to take a victory picture but end up with this:
Our official time is 43 hours and 30 minutes. We jointly took first place in our start group. There were no second or third placers. Oh, and Tony was victorious in his own way. He battled a terrible case of saddle sores but made it to Galton Pass the first night. He got back to Fernie on his own the next day by riding a paved route.
We started as strangers and ended as racer friends. What could be a better finish than that?