Canada. That’s a looong way, ayyyyyyy. Accent joke for the Hosers.
I’ve ridden bikes for about 40 years, but almost entirely off-road. I used to think that when the time came (i.e. kids left home and the career starts to seriously wind down) I’d use my off-road skills to ride the wilds of Romania or Bulgaria or maybe expedition into the Sahara. But now that the time has come, I’ve had visions of something more, for want of a better word, ‘cruisey’. What I didn’t want to do was trade one of my dirt bikes in for one of the latest uber powerful and equally costly adventure bikes. After all, I might not like road riding at all.
A solution appeared at NEC Live in the form of the Rocky Mountain Adventure Bike Touring Company, run by Alan and Lisa who offer guided tours of the Canadian wilderness and ticked several boxes. For a start, I’ve been to Canada a couple of times and I love it. Then there was the bike – a CB500X Honda.
Riding in such a vast place, you might think it’d feel lonely at times. Paul says the very opposite is true when you’re a biker in Maple country.
I’m short, about 5ft 6in, and the compact 500X was fine with me. Indeed, its size was a positive benefit. Next was the riding. Alan and Lisa offer different tours for different riders, from a week of pure road riding to a true adventure, wild camping way up in the Arctic Circle. I chose a middle way, which involved a week of mixed tarmac and dirt back roads with equally mixed accommodation of camping, cabins and a hotel. As the clincher, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as I expected – I got the green light from home, and booked it.
We started at Nordegg, with the first day billed as a quiet one after a briefing from Alan on local road rules and etiquette – and general guidance on dealing with unexpected wildlife encounters (bears in particular) – we were off for a gentle three hours or so exploring the roads and trails around the town, which is a historic mining settlement.
I think for most riders on these tours (i.e. those with a road riding background) the big issue would be getting used to riding on dirt roads, whereas in my case it was getting used to a 200kg bike on the road and managing that weight when at slow speed with limited contact with the ground. The CB500X may be compact by road bike standards, but the bikes in Alan and Lisa’s fleet have Rally Raid suspension upgrades, which add a couple of inches to the seat height, making them a stretch for riders like me. After an hour or two’s acclimatisation though, I was ready to crack on with the tour.
MONDAY – NORDEGG TO BANFF
Day 2 and we headed south on the aptly named ‘forestry trunk road’ for the first big scenic day, winding our way through the Alberta foothills. My first impressions were that the roads were in surprisingly good condition considering how severe the winter is in these parts.
Some sections were freshly graded, making for markedly slower and more tricky going, but we still managed just over 200 miles, most of it on dirt roads.
The Banff area is as stunning as you’d expect if you checked out any tourist brochure, and as a tourist destination, it is strategically located, nestled in a stunning spot in the mountains surrounded by towering walls of rock. Emerging dusty and thirsty from a day on the road, we headed straight for our accommodation and took a quick dip in its outdoor hot spa pools (with a complementary million-dollar view of the surrounding mountains) before going into town for tapas.
TUESDAY – BANFF TO FIELD
This was a big – and as it turned out, very hot – day on tarmac. The mornings were cool, but not really chill, and then the day warmed steadily as it went on, hitting the mid-20s in the afternoon – we steadily de-layered to suit. We were in the spectacular national park, and Alan warned me as we passed the entry point that there was little chance of big wildlife given the high levels of traffic so close to Banff.
About two minutes later, in a classic twist of fate, we saw black bear snuffling beside the road, no more than 30 or 40 metres from us.
We got to Field late in the day, staying at the
Kicking Horse campground, a picture of riverside sites, secluded spots under the trees, and open meadow options. We stayed under the trees, where each site has a built-in fireplace, and being North America, bulk firewood was supplied at a very reasonable rate. What more could you want? In fact, this night of camping was a highlight of the trip for me. The location was stunning, beneath the towering Cathedral Crags and Mt Stephen. The campfire was welcoming and the night air cool – the essence of an adventure ride in the mountains of Canada.
WEDNESDAY – FIELD TO NORDEGG
I got up early to bag some pictures in the morning light and by 10am we had breakfasted, packed up and were on the road again, this time heading for the Icefields Parkway, listed as one of the great scenic drives in the world, and I was about to find out why.
“Expect mountain scenery on a grand scale on this drive through the heart of the Rockies. Writhing its way through two national parks,” (I’m quoting from traveller.com.au), “between Lake Louise and Jasper via Banff, this is a ravishingly photogenic stretch of road, with glaciers, waterfalls, lakes and lots of rocky peaks.”
We covered the southern section this time, stopping at Lake Louise, the famous one from tourist brochures. You know the one – a stunning emerald lake set in a bowl in the mountains, with a stunningly expensive hotel (complete with matching emerald roof ) in the foreground. Mind you, the nearby and relatively unknown Moraine Lake is even more stunning, and not by a small margin in my view. Louise’s fame makes it one of the big tourist attractions, and it was a full-on scrum, so we picked our way through the mass of cars and RVs to get away from the madding crowd. We headed north on the Parkway for a fantastic afternoon of riding. Hot weather, clear skies and perfect vistas, with the only gridlock caused by two black bears idling on the roadside.
At Saskatchewan River Crossing we turned east to return to our base at Nordegg for a 30-minute blast on big open roads with virtually no traffic, bar the odd Harley powering its way back towards the Parkway.
THURSDAY – NORDEGG TO JASPER
We were back on the dirt today, with 100 miles in the plan, much of it northbound on the forestry trunk road. This included some of the widest dirt roads I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen some big ones in New Zealand and Australia – for an exhilarating blast through the hills and forest.
Alan put me into the lead for much of the dirt sections so he could get some marketing video, and off we went. The little CB with its Rally Raid suspension cruised very comfortably at 75mph across the dirt and gravel, slowing down when visibility was more limited. When we finally got back to tarmac and stopped to refuel and hydrate, both Alan and I were grinning like a couple of overgrown schoolboys – that’s what I count as a good day out!
We camped that night at the Hinton/Jasper KOA campsite, in cabins this time rather than under canvas, and it was very hot and oppressively humid, more like Florida than the Rocky Mountains. Dark, threatening clouds loomed and were a sure sign that the weather was about to pack it in. So rather than riding to Miette Hot Pools that evening, we chickened out and took the support truck. This turned out to be an inspired choice as just as we exited the pool the warm and humid conditions finally delivered the inevitable result, and thunderstorms rolled in, bringing lightning and a downpour of almost biblical proportions.
FRIDAY – JASPER TO NORDEGG
Our final riding day dawned cool and rainy, the only wet riding day on the tour. Warmed and fed from a hot brunch in Jasper, we headed south on the Icefields Parkway, visiting the spectacular Athabasca falls before riding on and upwards to the Columbia ice fields for a chilly stop by the snout of a glacier. It was too cold to stop at one of the traditional tourist viewpoints on the other side of the valley, but we did take in a part of the mountainside that was apparently normally dry but had come alive with waterfalls. It’s the ‘glass half full’ side of a night of heavy rain!
We saw three significant landslips that afternoon, which are important to bear in mind if travelling in these parts on your own. Even main highways can be closed without warning due to weather damage at any time of the year. On the previous tour, faced with a blocked-off road, Alan had the option of waiting for possibly days for it to be reopened, or taking an 500-mile detour with his tour group. They went for the latter. We didn’t see anything quite that epic, and headed back to Nordegg from the Saskatchewan River crossing. Next morning, and time for my flight home, I woke to snow...
ABOVE LEFT: Not a bad place for a selfie. That’s Kicking Horse River, with Mt Stephen in the background.
BELOW: Mountains dwarfed the RVs, or was it the other way round?
BELOW: Tour guide Alan used the knobbly-tyred Africa Twin.
ABOVE: Hidden Ridge Resort... they weren’t roughing it all the time.
The dirt road bridges are reassuringly robust. Familiarisation ride with Alan – hydro lake in the background.
Tour was blessed with good weather – it snowed on the last morning!
Seasoned off-roader Paul wasn’t fazed by the dirt roads.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: Paul Muysert ABOVE: Dirt roads were well graded and not difficult – this is the forestry trunk road.
RIGHT: Base camp at Nordegg, provided by a massive backup vehicle and a piggyback RV.
RIGHT: Can you spot the wandering bear? LEFT: This valley wall, normally relatively dry, comes alive with waterfalls after the rain.
ABOVE: Athabasca falls just south of Jasper. In full flow following the very heavy rain overnight.
BELOW: Stopped by the Icefield Parkway. Scenery like this goes on for over 120 miles.