Into the Blue
Four Unforgettable Days in the Canadian Rockies
The big ram regarded me warily with brilliant, copper-colored eyes as I crept toward him. How close could I get with my camera, I wondered, before he either ran away or charged me with his thick, long, curling horns? Judging by the placid demeanor of his “family,” however, I didn’t have too much to worry about. I don’t think I’d ever encountered such friendly wildlife as the beautiful bighorn sheep that local H.O.G.® members Tim Mabley, Greg Heenan, and I met at a pullover next to Medicine Lake in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. I didn’t see anybody feeding them – there were signs all over warning that it’s both illegal and dangerous. But as tame as they were, I have to think they’ve consumed their share of “people food.”
“I’m afraid I’ve become something of a ‘wildlife snob,’” Tim confessed, explaining that the sight of bears or elk or caribou or mountain sheep along the road just doesn’t faze him much anymore. I, on the other hand, was downright giddy.
“This is amazing!” I gushed. “And I don’t just mean the sheep. I mean the mountains, this road, this weather, this lake ... everything!”
“Yeah, this is really the ‘must-ride’ road when you come to Jasper,” Tim agreed. And we weren’t even halfway to Lake Maligne yet.
Lake Maligne (pronounced muh-LEEN) is the largest lake in Jasper National Park. It’s best known for Spirit Island, which Greg said is one of the most photographed spots in the Canadian Rockies. You can’t see it from the road or even the Visitors Center, however. To get a glimpse you have to book passage on one of the tour boats (the only motorized craft allowed on the lake) or rent a kayak, canoe, or rowboat at the boathouse (built in 1928) and paddle to the far end of the lake.
For bikers, of course, the ride to the lake is the main attraction.
From Jasper, we followed Maligne Lake Road first to Medicine Lake, which in the still morning air reflected the surrounding mountains with mirror-like brilliance. I forgot all about that when we saw the ram and his kin, however.
After exchanging a few pleasantries with these friendly creatures, we rode another 20 kilometers (12 miles) to Lake Maligne, down yet another road that offers fresh spectacle around every enticing turn. We stopped at the lake to eat lunch and watch the paddlers make their way toward Spirit Island.
Lunch was about $50 CDN for the three of us – things were expensive around there, partly due to a poor exchange rate at thetime. But the view we enjoyed was priceless.
I had arrived in Canada two days earlier, picking up a rental bike at Calgary Harley-Davidson before heading to Banff. Accompanying me to this beautiful Alpine village were local H.O.G. members Jim Oaks, Jim Lambert, and Wayne Dry, who had graciously agreed to show me around.
After a good night’s sleep in Banff, the crew took me through what locals call the “Golden Triangle,” a loop that runs through Banff, Radium Hot Springs, and Golden. We bundled up for the start of the ride, as temperatures were hovering in the single digits Celsius (high 40s Fahrenheit) under mostly cloudy skies. By the time we hit Golden, however, we had shed all of our cold-weather gear.
The route begins with a ride up the Bow Valley Parkway (a.k.a. Highway 1A) toward Lake Louise. This is a truly fun stretch of road, winding up and down through forested areas, occasionally splitting widely into essentially two separate one-lane highways.
At Castle Mountain, we hung a left on Highway 93 and headed south toward Radium Hot Springs on another 105 kilometers (62 miles) of spectacular road. The ride from there to Golden was tame by comparison, as Highway 95 straightens out and heads northwest through a long valley. But it was still quite scenic.
Turning back toward Banff in Golden, however, the “spectacular” quotient rose considerably. In fact, Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, offered probably the day’s most majestic mountains. Trouble is, as a major highway, it also offered the most traffic. And I was a little surprised there weren’t more scenic vistas to stop at and enjoy.
At Lake Louise we headed back toward Banff on the Bow Valley Parkway, which (like all great mountain roads) looked completely different going the other direction. The light had improved, as well, offering a better look at some of the same mountains we’d seen earlier that morning.
That evening, I rode to the top of Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Gondola. With the sun not yet set behind the mountains (it was almost 9PM!), I wolfed down a ridiculously expensive sandwich while enjoying an impossibly beautiful eagle’s-eye view of Banff.
I’ll admit I was skeptical. Paying $38 CDN and delaying my riding by two hours to stand on a bunch of ice for 30 minutes didn’t seem like the best use of my time. But everybody I talked to said, “Oh, you gotta do it!” So I did it. And I have to say it was much cooler than I expected.
The “bunch of ice” in question is the Athabasca Glacier, which flows from the vast Columbia Icefield located about halfway between Saskatchewan River Crossing and Jasper. Paying customers are taken by bus to the base of the glacier, where they then board a specialized six-wheeled “Ice Explorer” to take them onto the heart of the glacier.
I didn’t expect the experience to feel quite so “otherworldly.” You really do get the feeling you’re standing in some primeval landscape – or perhaps making your way to the North Pole – with fellow travelers from around the world dressed, for the most part, quite inappropriately for arctic exploration.
Nor did I expect the ice to feel quite so “alive.” Small rivulets and rushing streams run down the glacier at various points, carrying what is said to be the purest water in the world. (Yes, I had a drink. It tasted like water. Very cold water.) And it was very weird to think that the ice is continuously sliding down into the valley, at the rate of about 15 meters (about 50 feet) per year.
The ice is up to 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) thick at points, and I kept expecting a giant crevasse to open up and swallow me whole. I and my fellow adventurers, however, all survived to explore another day.
The glacier excursion was hardly the highlight of Icefields Parkway, however. That would be the scenery. I’ve been on roads that are as beautiful – Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park comes to mind. But this one is different. It’s just kilometer after kilometer of incredible scenery. It feels endless because you’re not just crossing the mountains, you’re riding straight up the heart of one of the most beautiful ranges in the world.
I’ve never experienced anything like it. Maybe it really is the most spectacular journey in the world – or close to it.