Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump

3 August – Day 12

Calgary, Alberta, Canada to Whitefish, Montana, USA (via Fernie, Alberta)

Distance: 502kms

In year 12 English, I had to study Karen Blixen’s/Isak Dinesen’s classic “Out of Africa.” I absolutely hated it. It drove me bananas that I had to battle through three of four pages of verbose, flowery prose when the message was essentially ‘the green trees on the plains were swaying in the wind.’

And yet – I can now sort of understand where the author was coming from… I, too, could write paragraphs (although probably not pages!!) in an attempt to capture the fiercely awesome beauty of the Canadian Rockies. The luminescence of mountains literally oozing jet black coal from pulsing, exposed veins. The verdant green of the trees, the plains, the prairies. The purple and orange and red and yellow of the mountain flowers, framed by green, everywhere green. And blue. Blue sky. Made all the more striking by the warm, glowing sunshine that bathes everything in gentle light.

So – enough about that. Truth be told, I’m almost mountained-out. The scenery is so spectacular, constantly outdoing itself, I’m almost – almost – starting to take it for granted.

Suffice to say that Fernie is on my ‘visit again’ list.

We crossed back into the US today – our second bike border crossing on the trip so far. It was actually faster/easier than I expected it to be! I really thought the Customs person would want to go through all the bike import paperwork etc , but after looking at our passports and confirming that we had neither guns, nor $10k cash nor tobacco, he waved us through. And that was that! Back in the US.

Adrian had been talking about ‘Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump’ for a while, and we were able to work the route so that we could stop in on our way past. Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump is a World Heritage site and it exceeded my expectations. It’s literally a ‘buffalo jump’ – ie a place where Native Americans herded buffalo so that they jumped/fell off a cliff. The whole herd. One after another. Straight over the edge, head smashed in. Apparently buffalo don’t have very good eyesight, and the cliff was up a short rise… so by the time the lead buffalo saw the cliff, her momentum (the lead was always female) – and that of the herd pushing behind her – was unstoppable… so they all went over the edge. The Native Americans believed that if a buffalo survived and escaped the jump, she’d warn other buffalo thus ameliorating any chance of future buffalo jump success (from the Native Americans’ perspective, presumably not from that of the buffalo!) – so any survivors had to be killed – either clubbed or speared to death – at the bottom of the jump.

Following the buffalo jump, the road turned to gravel. Lots of soft, loose gravel. It was the motorbiking equivalent of strapping on a pair of aluminium-soled shoes and then going on a 50km hike on ice. Very challenging for Adrian and unfun for me.

Anyway, we made it through – and finally arrived in White Fish, where we found a campsite close to the town centre. It was only our second night of camping so far this trip!

Ice on the Icefields Parkway

bridge crossing to Prince's Island Park Calgary

Prince’s Island Park, Calgary

2 August – Day 11

Calgary, Alberta

Distance: 0kms

Calgary! Such a blissful morning spent sitting in a café in downtown Calgary… after my previous coffee experiences, I did my research this time and was not disappointed: thanks to my googling skills, I landed at a place that served both a “cappuccino” (see this previous blog post) and, a “traditional cappuccino” …with the latter causing my tastebuds to sing in ecstasy. Finally! It turns out that “traditional cappuccino” is a synonym for “high quality Australian flat white.” Yay!

Meanwhile, in man biker land, Adrian was at Anderwerks bike mechanic shop washing his bike and just generally doing man biker things ahead of the bike being serviced.

He arrived downtown about lunch and we spent most of the afternoon just walking around the city. It obviously gets very cold in Calgary: they have a network of skywalks connecting various building so you can effectively walk around the entire downtown area without having to go outside. So we spent a while getting lost in the maze of skywalks and just doing as the locals do.

After a minibreak in Prince’s Island Park, we walked the 5 kms back to the bike shop. Yes, another ‘walking as a method of commuting’ (with the result that Adrian is now committed to not walking, at all, for the next two days!) We were pushing to get back there before they closed (at 6pm on a Friday on the eve of a long weekend)… and made it with ten minutes to spare.

Well… sort of. As it turned out, Adrian wheel locked the bike outside the workshop after he washed it… then pocketed the keys and brought them with him into town. As we’re phoneless, the guys at the workshop couldn’t call him to get him to come back. It apparently took 4-5 of the mechanics to physically lift our 400kg bike into the shop and up onto a workbench. They did what they could without keys.. and then they did the rest once we were actually back at the shop. After closing time. Did I mention it was after 6pm Friday on the eve of a long weekend? Seriously, to any other riders going through North America out there, this is the place to get your bike serviced or fixed in Calgary: http://www.anderwerks.com/.

1 August – Day 10

Jasper, Alberta to Calgary, Alberta
Distance: 414kms

Scenery along Icefields Parkway with motorbike in foreground

Icefields Parkway – so beautiful!

Today was the day we rode the road Adrian was most looking forward to: the Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park. the Icefields Parkway is a 232km road through the Canadian Rocky Mountains National Park. Our route from Jasper included the Columbia Icefields, Peyto Lake, Lake Louise and Banff. Wow. Just wow. I feel a bit like I’m running out of superlatives to describe amazing natural beauty!!

We had lovely weather – at least at first – which made an already gorgeous place even more stunning. It was a beautiful road, past multiple glaciers, sheer and scraggy mountain faces, sub-Alpine and Alpine topography, glacial lakes and more.

Shadows on the road of Loz and Adie

Us on the Icefields Parkway

And then – it hailed! It was the first time I’ve been hailed on while riding a motorbike. It’s not necessarily an experience I need to repeat, but in its own way it was very appropriate: ice on the Icefields Parkway.

We made it into Calgary by about 3pm and rode straight to the place where Adrian wanted to get his motorbike serviced (he’s already, in three or so weeks, done about 10,000kms!!!) and booked it in for the following day. Or rather, they were able to squeeze it in; they were actually booked out already.

… And then it was a walk from the motel to downtown Calgary for dinner. It was lovely being amongst the hustle and bustle of a city again after a couple of weeks of small towns. We found a mostly vegetarian restaurant for dinner that also happened to have a jazz/blues open mike night which was great! I think we were the only non-locals there, the food was excellent and the jazz was good and/or at least the singers were giving it all they had. As someone not particularly renowned for her singing voice (although my sisters may beg to differ!), I have full respect for people who get up and give it a red hot go.

There’s a bear in there…

31 July – Day 9

Jasper, Alberta

Adrian with six small glasses of beer

Adrian doing some beer sampling at Jasper Brewing

Distance: 0kms

The weather couldn’t have been better… warm and sunny with a sparkling blue sky; the kind of day that just smells like summer. It was a day full of that lovely feeling that your skin is being gently kissed by the sun. Not burned, just tenderly embraced.

We decided to walk from town to the start of the Jasper Tramway (a cable car going up to the top of Whistler mountain)… or rather we negotiated and then agreed that we’d walk there and bus it back. Although Adrian likes bushwalking, and will happily go for a hike, I don’t think he’s particularly fond of walking as a form of commuting. Whereas I love it!

According to the map, it was only 5kms. Easy! Except… the map lied. Or possibly, we misread the map. It was about 8kms I’d say, with about 5 of those straight uphill, on a road with no verge, meaning we had to step into the bushes any time a car came past. Did I mention that it was a gorgeous summer’s day, so we had the sun beaming down on us for all 8kms?!

And then there was a bear incident. Well, a sort of incident. Which made me wonder why I’d even considered walking up to the start of the tramway in the first place. Anyway, we were trotting along at a reasonable pace when we saw cars start to pull over up ahead, 50 metres or so in front of us. That can only mean one thing in Jasper National Park: native wildlife has been spotted. Sometimes it’s a bison, or a goat, or a caribou. Or, a bear. We reached the first car, and the driver wound down his window to tell us “So a black bear just crossed the road. Just up there, 20 yards that-a-way. We thought you should know. Be careful.” My first though was to check if there was room in the car, in case we needed to jump in. However it was chock full of kids. However the car behind it, which we walked past next, only had two adults in the front seats so there was plenty of room if necessary. Just at that moment, the black bear crossed back across the road no more than 20 m from where we were standing. As Adrian helpfully pointed out, he was at least three times further away from the last bear when I kept telling him to get back on the bike. Yeah, thanks.

View from the summit of Mt Whistler, Jasper

View atop Whistler Mountain, Jasper

The bear disappeared into the bushes, the cars drove off and we continued on our merry way… although for me it was slightly less merry, given that all I could think about was if/where/when we’d see the next bear. And we were only 2km in at this point – so there was still a loooong way to go.

Anyway, we made it up to the tramway without any other bear sightings, rode the tramway up the 1,000m to the almost-summit and then walked about another 1.5kms to the summit. It was beautiful! Jasper really is a gorgeous, albeit tourist-filled, town.

We ended up lunching atop the mountain before slowly making our way back down the mountain into town – by tramway then by bus.

I finished the day with a 1.5 hour yin yoga class at the Jasper yoga studio – bliss after a long day of walking and a week of sitting on a motorbike.

Mud… and bad coffee!

30 July – Day 8

Grand Prarie, Alberta to Jasper, Alberta

Distance: 380kms

We had a late start today because we were tired and then decided to walk to a café for brekky. Although – I don’t think it’s reasonable to call a shop that sells pastries/muffins and warm brown water or super milky drinks with a sniff of coffee in them a café. To me, ‘café’ implies “the coffee here is good.” And I’ve not had a good coffee experience here yet! I am getting close to the point of going coffee-free for the rest of the trip, it’s just too disappointing to see a good looking espresso machine and be all excited… and end up with a limp frothy milkshake.

Close up of back pannier of r1200 GSA covered in mud

Oh so muddy… the back of my motorbike jacket also looks like this!

The roads weren’t very interesting, and we were both looking forward to Jasper!


29 July – Day 7

Fort Nelson, British Columbia to Grande Prairie, Alberta

Distance: 584kms

It rained pretty much all day today! Luckily however, the wet weather gear held up again – and we resolved Adrian’s leaky glove issue, so he also stayed dry. Nothing to report really as we spent most of the day on the bike.

Luck of the Irish

Along the Alaska Highway - Stone Mountain Provincial Park

Along the Alaska Highway – Stone Mountain Provincial Park

28 July – Day 6

Liard Hot Springs, British Columbia to Fort Nelson, British Columbia

Distance: 320kms

Today was a lovely day spent riding with our new Irish friends. I love the Irish. They’re my people, so I guess that makes sense. And it was nice riding in a bit of a BMW R1200 GSA convoy for the day! We had a late start, and lots of stops along the way for pictures – the scenery really is getting better and better… as is the native wildlife! I think today we tallied up a caribou, mountain goats and a bison herd. There was also lots of roadwork. Given that there is such a limited number of snow-free months in this part of town, over summer the place goes CRAZY with road works. And they have a strange system when it comes to traffic management at roadwork sites…

A bison crossing a road in front of a BMWR1200 GSA

A bison crossing the road in front of Lesley, one of the Irish riders we were with.

Imagine you’re an F1 driver. You’re racing in Monaco. It’s the grand prix (I’m not sure if the grand prix is an F1 race… but we’re playing make believe, so just go with me on this…). It’s been raining. Another car crashed. So the pace car is out. You’re following it, single file, with all the other cars still in the race lined up behind you. You’re doing 40km/hour. On the corners, it’s  20km/h….

That’s pretty much what happens at road work sites here. There’s a “pilot car” which goes back and forth to either end of the road works – sometimes up to 10kms – and then escorts one direction through, before turning around and letting the other direction through. And so on. Which means that if you just miss the pilot car, you can wait up to 20 minutes for it to return to escort you through. All pretty funny really, given that the road condition through some of the ‘roadworks’ sites is actually better than the road more generally! It also makes for a slow trip. It meant lots of man biker time for Adrian and the Irish lads though, while Eileen and I did our own thing!

Hot springs – and an introduction to man biker chat

27 July – Day 5

Whitehorse, Yukon to Liard Hot Springs, British Columbia

Distance: 646kms

We hadn’t intended on travelling this far today – however we got going early, and there was literally nothing but a self service petrol station (ie no staff, no shop – just a pump where you paid directly by credit card) and an “RV park” for the gargantum motorhomes towing four wheel drives towing trailers towing quadbikes that we frequently overtake. Some of them are honestly as big as a State Transit (or Action!) bus… a long way from the humble caravan.

The road from Whitehorse to Liard was pretty good – “interesting riding” according to Adrian, with enough twists and turns and gravel patches to keep him entertained. From my perspective, the scenery was just beautiful. We’re almost sort of starting to enter the Rockies now, and landscape is breathtaking.

Adrian taking a photo of a bear on the road

Get back on the bike Adrian!!!!

And… we’ve had our first bear sighting. First and second actually. Just munching on wildflowers by the side of the road, like a kangaroo would nibble on grass on the verge (usually just prior to, sadly, transitioning from roo to roadkill). The bears- black bears – were  actually smaller than I expected… although that said, I was still happy to take my pics from on the bike, in an ‘engine on’ ready for going position. Not Adrian though, oh no – he wanted a much closer look as per the picture!! Through our intercom, he was getting “Adrian, get back on the bike. Adrian, get back on the bike. Adrian, get back on the bike” on repeat.

We arrived at Liard Hot Springs about 10 minutes before a massive thunderstorm hit – so it was very good timing on our part (or that of the weather). After the long day on the bike, and with the storm imminent, we splurged on a room in the lodge… and it was lovely! Nice hot showers with one of those adjustable and detachable shower heads and fluffy white towels. Very luxurious.

Sulphur hot springs in Liard

Liard Hot Springs – so nice! Heaps of mozzies though – we pretty much had to jump straight in.

Liard isn’t so much a town as a hot spring with a lodge built about a 1km walk away. So other than the hot springs, there isn’t much to do in Liard. After the storm passed, we walked down to the springs… wow! So nice… and in the middle of nowhere.

Our stroll back to the lodge was interrupted by this yell of ‘Hey, Aussie!’ It turns out that an Irish couple and their friend, who are also travelling on BMW R1200 GSAs around Alaska and the US, had heard about us from the airbnb couple Adrian had stayed with on his first night in Anchorage. They’d stayed with the same couple the night after Adrian, and the couple had told them that a really tall Aussie guy was riding his bike to Patagonia with his girlfriend, who arrived in a couple of weeks.

It was the first time I’d spoken with another couple on the road – it was nice for some female biker company! We’ve met quite a few solo (though not necessarily single – the majority have left wives at home) male bikers so far this trip. Without exception, they have been interesting/friendly/lovely guys.

Also (almost) without exception – and I’m talking about maybe twice a day – the man-biker to man-biker exchange has gone something like this:

  1. Opening statement usually admiring the other’s bike and finding out where they’ve come from / where they’re heading to.
  2. Quick, admiring walk around each bike – focussing brieflyon any customisations.
  3. Slow, informative, educative, interested walk around each bike – looking at any customisations in closer detail while discussing the how/why of each customisation, alternative customisations considered and discounted and the experience-to-date with the chosen option.
  4. Side remark about Adrian’s height.
  5. Discussion about the bikes while standing near them, occasionally pointing out something on the bike. Could include different types of tyres, windshields, fuel qualities, seats, light protectors, where to get the bike serviced, previous motorbike trips etc.
  6. Discussion about the roads so far.
  7. Concluding remarks about the bike, and the giving of good wishes for the road ahead.

So yeah, although I’m really enjoying the biking, I’m not quite hard core enough to get into the bike chit chat – so this was great to have someone else to talk with while the men did their man biker chat thing!

Giddyup, Whitehorse

Dam wall with fish ladder for salmon

This is a fish ladder – who knew? Whitehorse, Yukon

25-26 July – Days 3 and 4

Beaver Creek, Yukon to Whitehorse, Yukon

Distance: 446kms then 0kms

Whitehorse is the biggest city in the state of Yukon. We’ve decided to stay here for two nights and have a day off the bike which will be nice. Whitehorse has a good vibe to it and I was looking forward to having a bit of a look around… including at the 5km walking track around the Yukon River that starts and ends downtown.

After getting soaked on the way here (again! – Adrian was literally pouring water out of his gloves when we stopped for a break/hot drink/chance to warm up), we were definitely heading for a motel of some kind rather than a campsite. There were quite a few hotels in town, and quite a few of those had motorbikes parked out the front. We picked one that looked good (and had a heap of bikes out front – including one group of four or six bikes from China travelling with a support vehicle, complete with spare tyres on the roof racks!!) – and it was booked out. As was the second one we checked. Third time lucky though, and we’ve got ourselves a nice albeit older motel in the downtown area.

Half the population of Yukon live in Whitehorse – so it’s definitely a regional centre, with all the things that go along with that… like nice cafes, and an interesting gallery etc! We didn’t do too much that first afternoon other than walk the four or so blocks of the city to check it out before finding a Mexican place for dinner… we figured we may as well start getting our tastebuds in; we’ll be in Mexico before we know it! We then went to a bar that was having an open mike night. It seemed like there were heaps of locals there – and we got to hear some Yukon ukulele and country singing. Actually, it was pretty good.

Today we’ve moseyed around… if you can use ‘mosey’ to include a 10+km walk along the Yukon River up to the Whitehouse Dam wall. The most interesting thing about the dam is the fish ladder build alongside the wall so salmon can swim upstream and ‘climb’ over the dam wall to get to their spawning grounds. We’re a week too early for the salmon – it was still impressive though. We also made time to personally inspect and test the two best looking cafes in town.

Adrian has also put a coat of silicone on the inside of each pannier… it turned out the heavy rain on the way here didn’t just drench us and wash the bike; it also saturated the contents of one of our panniers. BMW pannier fail.

24 July… From the US to Canada

24 July – Day 2

Lauren doing yoga next to the tent and BMW GSA1200

Camping and yoga in Valdez Alaska

Valdez, Alaska to Beaver Creek, Yukon (Canada)

Distance: 583kms

Valdez was a great stop. Perfect weather for camping, no bears and only a few mozzies. Like everywhere, we met some interesting people at the campsite… like Phil, a recently retired 70-yr old American on an epic ride across and around Canada and the US – including considering an ‘iron butt’ challenge which involves riding to all four corners of the US in 50 hours. His blog is here: http://ptarman1.com/.

Valdez is an Alaskan town on the edge of the Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez tanker, which ran aground in 1989, was named after this town – it’s a major oil port; the Alaskan oil pipeline ends here. Even today, 20+ years after the spill, some species are yet to fully recover… and on the worst-affected areas of the coastline, you only need to use a regular shovel to dig down 15 or so cm to reach crude oil. It’s all pretty sad, really.

From Valdez we headed north up to Tok, the last “major” Alaskan town before the border. We had planned on stopping in Tok for the rest of the day, camping there overnight, but the weather was lovely, it was only 3pm and Tok was two horses short of a two horse town.. So we decided to keep going, push across the Canadian border and aim for Beaver Creek in Yukon, Canada.

Along the way, fellow travellers had been telling us that the weather changes at the Canadian border – and it always rains. And they were right! About ten minutes north of the border it started to sprinkle. And sprinkle. And sprinkle. And then rain. Really rain. Beaver Creek was just over the border, so we checked in to one of those slasher motels you see in the movies… you know, two storeys, long narrow building, angle car parking out the front, bright flickering fluorescent lights along the walkway, the incessant buzz of one of those blue light mosquito buzzers, empty ‘restaurant’ off the reception area etc etc. Still, it was dry, quiet, comfortable and had hot water – which is pretty much all that was required!