Banff, Canada to Seeley Lake, Montana - 469 miles
Day One - Banff to Chester Lake Trailhead - 43 miles
I didn’t sleep at all well and was tired when the alarm went off. Still, we all got ourselves down to the kitchen in the Banff YWCA (where we were staying) and ate a huge amount of cereal and yoghurt.
Ollie went into town to get his bike bag sent on to Phoenix and Marco and I finished off sorting the bikes out, and Marco grabbed a few minutes more sleep.
After some last minute repairs to Ollie’s trailer, we finally set off from the YWCA towards the start of the trail, just a couple of minutes away. We were met by Robin and his family at the trailhead and they took some photos of us looking nervous and excited as we set off on this epic journey. I know that I had expended a lot of nervous energy in getting to this point and as we pulled away from the car park, I let out a whoop of excitement - very unlike me!
Marco and I had ridden the first 12 miles in reverse a few days earlier and so we knew a little bit about the first part of the trail. We hadn’t been going long before first Ollie had a problem with his bike and then Marco had more trouble with his front tyre. The flat took us a long time to get fixed, as the tyres were particularly hard to get back on to the rims.
We eventually got going again and made our way toward the Spray Lakes Reservoir. We reached the car park as it started to rain. Even under the grey clouds, the scenery was amazing - the reservoir was pretty low, but there was nobody else around and very quickly, we got the sense of being alone in the wild; a feeling we would get used to over the coming weeks.
After a section of singletrack through the forest, things slowed down quite a lot. Both Ollie and I were tiring and the long, steady inclines on the gravel road often had us pushing. It soon became clear that we weren’t going to reach our target of Boulton Creek that day and so we made camp next to a public car park for the night. We got the tents up and got some tea and food on the go, before making it an early night. Overall, a bit of a frustrating day - we started late and made slow progress, I crawled into my sleeping bag hoping for a better day tomorrow.
Day Two - Chester Lake Trailhead to Elkford - 66 miles - 109 miles total
We woke up and got the wet tents packed away fairly quickly before munching down a couple of cereal bars and hitting the gravel road once again. It was very cold, but felt good to get on the road so early in the morning. Our progress was halted within about ten minutes though, as Ollie picked up a puncture.
Back on the road, we made good progress and apart from a few smallish climbs the trail seemed mostly downhill. A small section on the pavement followed and then we took a winding paved trail towards Boulton Creek. We had great views over the Kananaskis Lakes and the sun was shining - all was feeling good with the world.
We rode in to the Boulton Creek Trading Post just on 9am, as the store was opening. We ate a huge amount of muesli and bought supplies for the day ahead, as we wouldn’t pass any more stores until Elkford, where we planned on spending the night.
Next came the biggest challenge to date; Elk Pass. It was to be our first crossing of the Continental Divide, and the first real climb of the trip. The bonus was that from the top, it would be all downhill to Elkford, another 45 miles away.
The climb wasn’t too bad, apart from a few steep sections, one of which was completely unrideable (of course Marco aka the Mountain Goat made it up without pushing). The view from the top was spectacular, although was slightly spoiled by the power lines that ran through a clearing in the trees, right across the top of the pass.
Coming down from the pass proved to be a little tricky - it was pretty steep and muddy, and there was even a little bit of snow left at the side of the trail. We could see a load of tyre marks from the racers that had passed through a week before us still left in the mud.
The sun was still shining and the day was starting to get a bit on the warm side as we continued on our way. Somewhere along the way, Ollie got another flat and ended up falling off. Marco and I were up ahead and didn’t hear anything untoward and so carried on. A short while later, I looked to see where Ollie was and when he didn’t come into view, I unhitched the trailer and rode back to offer some help.
We got the flat fixed and got back on the trail. Fittingly, we stopped for a late lunch at Weary Creek, where Marco fixed Ollie’s gears, Ollie filtered water for us all and I made the sandwiches. We still had 30 miles to go to get to Elkford, but we knew that the daylight would easily last long enough for us to make it there.
The map suggested that the route was steadily downhill, but the road was a lot more undulating than that. With practice, it was possible to get a huge amount of speed on the downhills and then carry that on up and over the uphill sections. I was starting to get the hang of it, but Marco would often cruise past on the climbing sections.
The other main feature of the road to Elkford was the amount of potholes covering the road. It was often impossible to weave a path through them and so we ended up bumping our way through them, which made things pretty uncomfortable to say the least.
We rolled in to Elkford at around 5:30, and knowing that there was a big climb out of town, decided to camp for the night. We ate pizza that evening and went to bed in the rain once again, at least we’d all had a shower though, making us feel a bit better.
Day Three - Elkford to Baynes Lake - 78 miles - 187 miles total
We got up early, had breakfast and packed up pretty quickly before a short ride through the town took us to the foot of a big long climb. Thankfully, it was along the road which made things easier. I had to stop to remove a few layers of clothing part the way up, but apart from that rode steadily up to the top. The summit was bathed in sunlight and once we’d all regrouped, we said farewell to Marco, who was going to try a new section of the route that the racers had used. Ollie and I would continue on the current route and we arranged to meet the next day across the border in Eureka.
The road took us through a mining area and then we began a long steady descent down towards the town of Sparwood, home to the largest truck in the world. Here we met Marco again; he was eating and so we had a coffee and a sandwich before going our separate ways once more.
For Ollie and I that meant a section along the highway - a section that gave me my first flat of the trip to the BOB trailer. We stopped at the roadside and got it fixed before setting off again towards Fernie, some 18 miles away.
In Fernie, we stopped for a quick sandwich before heading back onto the gravel roads to follow the Elk River to the small town of Elko where we stopped for an ice cream before finishing the day 10 miles further south in Baynes Lake.
We set up camp in the local campground, ate dehydrated food and reflected on our longest day so far. It was strange to think that this would be our last night in Canada - tomorrow we would cross the border.
Day Four - Baynes Lake to Eureka - 36 miles - 223 miles total
I had a very average sleep and woke to the sound of rain on the tent - not a great way to wake up! I had been struggling to sleep as my ribs were still causing me quite a lot of pain every time I tried to turn over. Each time I moved, I would wake myself up and just turning myself over from inside the sleeping bag, in the confines of the small tent, was a major effort.
Anyway, Ollie and I got the tent packed away fairly quickly, ate some breakfast and packed our bags under the shelter of a nearby RV. Before we left, I decided to double check my trailer tyre to make sure it was still well inflated. It turned out that it needed a bit more air in, and so I used Ollie’s pump to pump it up.
I’d been pumping for a while when I realised that there was no air in the tube at all - weird. I checked the valve and tried again, with the same result. Annoyed (and wet), I tried another tube but that did the same. I guessed that it must be the pump that was at fault, but that didn’t seem to make sense either.
As luck would have it, another camper was just getting up and I asked if he happened to have a bicycle pump. He said he could go one better and produced an electric pump which had the tyre inflated in next to no time.
Back on the road, this meant that we had to get through the day without a pump between us, as Marco had taken the other one with him. It was still raining, and a cold wind was blowing as we rode the first section on the paved road.
We turned off the pavement and onto the softest road we’s encountered so far. The sandy surface seemed to grip the tyres and sucked them down, making progress pretty slow and miserable. On we carried though and eventually we came across the downhill paved section into Grasmere. A good chance for a rest you might think, but this road was a mystery to us. Despite being paved and downhill, it was impossible to coast down. The surface friction was too great for that, so we had to pedal downhill - very annoying.
I amused the Grasmere locals (a rough bunch) by throwing a packet of peanuts all over the shop floor and then it was time to ride along the highway for the final seven miles to the US border crossing at Roosville.
Apart from encountering a grumpy border guard, we crossed into the US without too much trouble and, cold and wet, rode the few miles along the undulating road to the town of Eureka, where we were to meet up with Marco.
Ollie had checked his progress the night before and seen that he was on schedule to make it on time into Eureka and so we settled into a local restaurant for some food and to await his arrival. We had to wait all day and into the evening before he arrived, having encountered bad weather and poor tracks along his route.
When he finally rode into town, we had dinner ready for him and we shared tales from the trail before falling asleep in the local motel.
Day Five - Eureka to Upper Whitefish Lake - 68 miles - 291 miles total
We had a good hearty breakfast in Eureka and then set out to climb another big pass - the Whitefish Divide. Once again, the road was good and the weather was fine as we set out and we all seemed to be in good shape. Marco was feeling a little tired after his adventures the day before, and I think we were all a little bit apprehensive of the climb ahead.
Just before the real climbing started, I had a problem with my BOB tyre again and stopped to get it fixed. I whistled and shouted to the others, but they didn’t hear me and so I fixed the flat myself, keeping a good look out for bears as I did so!
I got back on the bike as Marco came back around the corner and we started the climb together, as Ollie had carried on ahead. This was a tough old climb, and the last three miles or so were particularly steep, but we all made it up there and had some lunch at the top. Unfortunately, lunch was ‘plastic’ cheese sandwiches - utterly disgusting!
After lunch we had the prospect of 20 miles downhill to look forward to and whilst it wasn’t strictly all down hill, it was a great section of the route as we all sped along together, occasionally coming out of the trees to get a great view of the mountains around us.
Of course, after the long downhill came a long uphill and it was one that had me exhausted. I plugged in my ipod for a little extra assistance, but the positive impact didn’t last long and I was soon dropped off the back of the other two. The last section up to Red Meadow lake nearly finished me off, but as the sun began to go down, I arrived at the lake side and took a good long rest.
As it was starting to get cold, we rode a steep downhill section to Upper Whitefish Lake, where we camped for the night. The highlight of the evening was watching Marco and Ollie trying to get all of our food suspended in a nearby tree. It took a few attempts, but they got it up there in the end!
Day Six - Upper Whitefish Lake to Swan Lake - 90 miles - 381 miles total
It was a chilly start to the day, but we had our first breakfast, packed up and headed on out to the road to try and get warm. The first 25 miles were downhill (apart from a couple of uphill sections) and we made good time as we approached the beautiful Whitefish Lake. Early in the morning, as the sun was just climbing over the surrounding hills, was a perfect time to see it.
We continued our descent into Whitefish and with some difficulty found a place for a second breakfast before heading to the bike shop to get Ollie’s bike fixed up a bit. Whilst Ollie waited at the shop, Marco and I hit the library and got some emails sent and a blog update done before Ollie rejoined us and we hit the road again.
A short section of paved road took us to Columbia Falls where we did some grocery shopping before zig-zagging our way out of town and on towards Swan River and Ferndale.
The road to Ferndale had been mainly flat, but we knew that was about to change. We were now into the evening and the temperature was dropping a little from the intensity we’d experienced earlier in the afternoon. This was something I’d read about and had been looking forward to doing - biking in the evening. I wasn’t looking forward to the climbing though. About six miles of mosquito filled trail took us to the top and from there we knew we would have a good downhill on the other side.
At the bottom we stopped to have a think about where to camp for the night, but were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes and so decided to head off the trail a short way to camp in the small settlement of Swan River.
We rode the last section into town as the sun was setting over the lake and arrived at the campground when it was almost dark. We quickly pitched the tents and headed to the local bar for some burgers and beer, accompanied by a couple of locals - an amusing night was had by all, I think.
Day Seven - Swan Lake to Seeley Lake - 88 miles - 469 miles total
I’d been feeling great all the previous day and even riding into Swan Lake, I’d felt like I could carry on further, so it was quite a shock and a worry when I woke up feeling very tired indeed. Within ten minutes of being on the bike, I knew that I was going to struggle. Just riding back up the road seemed like hard work. My ribs were aching and my back was sore, and I was getting shooting pains in my lower back every time I pushed hard on the pedals. Today was going to be a battle.
We spent the morning in the forest on gravel roads - thankfully, the mosquitoes seemed to have moved elsewhere, so that was one less thing to be bothered by. We spent the whole day climbing too, which didn’t help me out too much.
By mid afternoon, we were approaching the biggest climb of the day, Richmond Peak. First we had to get up to Lake Clearwater which required a fairly steep climb and a good long section of singletrack through the forest. For a while, I forgot about the tiredness and pain and actually enjoyed the riding.
Richmond Peak itself wasn’t too bad - a long but steady climb over a good surface. It was testing but once again, the sun was going down and riding was getting a bit more comfortable. Once at the top however, we were faced with about four miles of really tough singletrack riding. Trees had fallen across the track and large rocks blocked our way, making progress painfully slow, especially with the trailers that needed to be hauled over or around the obstacles.
Finally, the trail opened out and we began what should have been an easy ten miles downhill into Seeley Lake. Unfortunately for us, the road was really sandy - I nearly came off a couple of times. Progress slowed again, and the light was beginning to fade. I had nothing left and could barely keep the pedals turning.
We arrived in Seeley Lake in complete darkness and found a campground, but got the terrible news that none of the restaurants were still open. It was time to eat the emergency rations! Luckily, Ollie and Marco were not as tired as I was and they organised the cooking of pasta and sauce before we all crawled into our tents for a well earned sleep. It had been a hard first week….