Lost in the Labyrinth

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I had an idea. I wasn’t the first to have it, and I’m sure I won’t be the last to act on it. I had a few extra days before the start of the Alberta Rockies 700 bikepacking event in Coleman, Alberta. At the last minute, I had decided to ride an additional 230km to a 700km event, through the Rocky Mountains, taking a cue from Lael Wilcox and ride to the event to get a feel for the landscape I was about to spend 4 days in. I was already 100km into the pre-event ride and I was loving every moment – that is, until I took a wrong turn amongst the labyrinth of forestry roads that crossed the South-Eastern Rockies of British Columbia.

Earlier in the week I was visiting British Columbia from Montreal, Quebec, so I had all my gear pre-planned and well-thought-out. I hadn’t originally planned to do the pre-ride, but I had packed in such a way that two extra nights wouldn’t matter, aside from needing to add more food. So, the night before, I sketched out a meal plan that would add two additional days of sustenance to the four days of food that I had previously arranged. With this plan, I could carry six day’s worth of food, or easily stretch it out to ten in case of an emergency. Amongst other things, I packed meals that included Mexican rice with avocado; burritos; penne cooked in a salty chicken broth; oats with dried fruit and trail mix; and of course, lots of peanut butter, jerky, and cheese. With a proper plan, you can have much tastier meals than the freeze-dried variety at a fraction of the price. While it does take a little more effort to think things through and prepare in advance, I would argue that it’s ultimately worth it.

I quickly did some research on local trails from BC to Alberta, checked google maps to see what the best path might be, and assembled a route. This is where I made my initial mistake. I should have taken a step further and researched more detailed Forestry Service maps of the area, but google maps made it look pretty simple: follow the main forestry road with a few slight lefts and rights, and I would be on the other side of the mountain range in two days. The first day would be about 150 km, tapering off to 80km the next day in order to hopefully relax in Coleman the night before the event began. I hadn’t brought a GPS (the AR700 race route is so straight forward that it wasn’t necessary), so I printed out my cues and attached them to my cockpit.

The route started near Canal Flats, just up from where I was staying. It was a perfect bluebird sky, and I couldn’t have been more stoked. I quickly bid adieu to the pavement and turned off onto the gravel road where Whiteswan Lake Forest Service Road began. The climb was gradual and winding from the valley below. Luckily, about 20km after I hit gravel I had arrived at Lussier Hot Springs. Rocks had been stacked around the four different natural pools: each one of varying temperature, depending on how far it was from the source in the stone wall. I took a dip in the hottest pool and quickly ran into the glacier fed river beside it. After repeating this about two or three times, my body was tingling and I was ready for another 100km.

The views were spectacular once I reached the turquoise waters of Whiteswan Lake. So far, google map’s directions were spot on and easy to navigate. Winding around rivers and steep cliffs made things more interesting. After a roller-coaster ride of climbs and accents, the landscape turned from thick bush to sparse, blackened timber. Previous years of extensive forest fires and clear-cut logging had ravaged the land and precious shade was nowhere to be found. Logging roads were branching off everywhere without signage. Random forks in the road started appearing. This wasn’t showing up at all on the google map. I started to get a little apprehensive about my route, but I wasn’t too worried, as I could always backtrack towards civilisation.

After about 50 km small camps started popping up – some very well established. Then I figured it out. These weren’t just any campers: they were mushroom hunters! After the previous year’s extensive fires, morels were popping up everywhere, and it was big business. People spend months in the bush working long hours hauling in large panniers over many kilometers to get the big payload. I tried to stop and talk to a few people to see if I was on the right track. Some were extremely friendly and asked about my trip, while others were obviously trying to keep their mushroom hunting spots a well-guarded secret. People were showing me their payload; some of the blond morels were as big as my head! The last couple I spoke to were just returning from fifty days in the bush and were curious as to where I was headed. They looked at me a bit oddly when I mentioned where I was going, especially alone this late in the day. They didn’t have any maps or extensive knowledge of the area, so they wished me luck and I was on my way.

The heat was getting unbearable at such a high elevation and my water supplies were getting low. I kept checking my cues and it seemed like I was on the right track. I passed a road maintenance crew fixing a washed-out bridge. They seemed busy, so I didn’t stop for directions. Another 5km down the logging road, there was no more road at all. It just stopped and turned into a single-track trail. Normally I would be thrilled at this, but it wasn’t the route I was looking for. I quickly decided to turn around and ask the maintenance crew for directions. Surely, I thought, they would know the area. Turns out they did. One of them started laughing when I told him where I was going. “You missed the turn-off at least 30km back,” he chuckled. “Go back to the East Fork Trail and take the right fork; you took the middle fork.”

My heart sunk. I would have to do another 30km back to the turn-off; all told, I had just made a sixty-kilometer mistake. I didn’t find this nearly as humorous as he did, but I thanked him nonetheless and jumped back on my bike: heading back in the direction I came from, adrenalin pumping. About 5km back down the road I ran into another lovely mushroom-hunting couple. They waved me down from their loaded-down and muddy minivan. They were on their lunch break and had spare cookies, ice-cold orange juice, and water. They also had some detailed maps of the area showing all the logging roads and trails. It was a complete labyrinth; no wonder I was lost. With some entertaining conversation, my spirits were lifted and I was off again.

Finally, I arrived back at the turn-off. Funnily enough, I remembered stopping at this fork earlier and had taken photos. Oh well. That’s what adventure is all about: getting lost and finding your way. It was 7pm and I still had a huge pass to get over, and I had already done 150km of gravel and poorly maintained logging roads. The previous week’s rains had washed a lot of the road away and it was slow going. Luckily, with the sun getting lower, the temperature was cooling off at least. I started to get into my element. The golden hour had arrived. I love the peaceful serenity of cycling in the evening hours. Animals start popping their heads out of the dark hollows. Long shadows from the pine and fir trees roll across the road in spellbinding patterns. I stopped a few times – just to take in the majestic views and breathe it all in. It’s moments like these that I find to make cycling an unbeatable experience: travelling under your own power along unknown roads with all your senses guiding you along the way.

Finally, I reached the pinnacle of the pass. I looked down at my phone. It was about 9:30pm, and the light was still bright enough to ride without lights. I decided to keep pushing on, as the downhill section was ahead! Half an hour into it, though, I was exhausted, and realized making camp would be a better idea – but not before getting some roadside information from some loggers enjoying a beer. “This road ends up at Fernie, on the Crowsnest Highway, right?” I asked them, after some initial banter. “Of course. Just follow it all the way down and you’re home free,” they confirmed, before offering me a couple of much-needed cold beers. I think they could tell how thankful I was by the huge smile on my face. We exchanged handshakes and I was on my way.

Just down the road I found a nice meadow with a river flowing swiftly alongside. Not only was I about to set up camp and make some burritos, but I also had some cold beers to accompany my dinner. Life was good. After a few minutes of cooking, the rice and beans were ready, avocado sliced, and tortilla resting on a rock ready to be filled and rolled. It was a perfect meal after a long, 180km day. With my stomach satisfied and perhaps a little beer buzz, I retired to my bed roll and easily drifted off to sleep.

My alarm went off at 5am. The morning came too soon. The sun hadn’t risen yet so I quickly pulled on my damp jersey and bib shorts, adding some knee warmers and a jacket, I started my MSR pocket rocket up and boiled water for coffee and oats. While sipping my coffee I started to get a bit worried. Was I going to be too worn-out before the AR700 even started? I was sunburnt from the day before and also a bit dehydrated, but once I was up and walking around, I wasn’t feeling too bad. With the sun’s first rays now peeking over the mountaintops, I was back on the road. At least it was downhill, so I could ease into pedalling. I had about 100km to go, and was a bit behind schedule because of the wrong turn, but the last part of the route was on paved highway, so I didn’t think I’d be too late rolling into Coleman.

I had hardly seen another car or logging truck for many hours and it was a bit unsettling. I should hit the highway soon, I thought, civilisation must be close. I started to see power lines. Finally, I came out of a clearing and I could see the highway at the bottom of the valley. But it didn’t look like Fernie below me. In fact, all I could see nearby was a pulp and paper mill. I pulled out my phone. Luckily, it a few bars showing, so I quickly opened google maps. I was indeed on the Crowsnest Highway, but in a little town called Jaffray. I was 50km away from Fernie and another 65km after that to Coleman! I couldn’t believe I had taken a wrong turn again. At least I was out of the labyrinth and knew exactly where I was instead of wandering aimlessly. I took a deep breath, hunkered down, and stuck to the shoulder of the highway. After a couple of hours of digging deep into my energy reserves, I was finally getting close to Fernie. I took a break by the side of the road and started to question my decision to take the long way to Coleman. I had a change of plan: I would hitchhike the last 65km to Coleman. I stuck my thumb out and put on my biggest, friendliest smile. After 15 minutes of patiently waiting a truck slowed down and stopped. I ran towards him like he was my saviour. We greeted each other, and I explained my situation to him. He was more than sympathetic, and helped me throw my bike into the back of the truck. Less than an hour later, I was in Coleman: chugging down a cold coke at the local gas station. I had made it 280km on one wild ride. Very sunburned and completely exhausted, I found a shady park and rested my weary body. After this experience, I knew I would be ready for whatever the AR700 threw at me.

Note: I went on to ride the AR700 successfully and at the front of the pack for close to 550km. At that point, I had some major mechanical problems and regrettably had to pull out – but I’ll save that story for another occasion.