ROUND PRAIRIE, AB (15 June 2019) As I completed packing up, I looked around and noticed of the dozen or so tents pitched last evening, only one or two remained. It consistently took me longer than most to get going in the morning. This was largely due to lingering in the sleeping bag in the mornings. In addition, I always took some time in the morning to enjoy oatmeal and coffee before the packing up. No cooking was required and the oatmeal was ready to eat first thing in the morning. It is simply just combined with water the night before and placed in the bear bag. Time instead of heat does the work and to my surprise, ambient temperature oatmeal and coffee is delicious when bike touring.
The Canadian section of the Tour Divide differs slightly from the official Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) published by the Adventure Cycling Association. Unique to the Tour Divide race route is the the hike up to Koko Claims which is not on the GDMBR. To get to Koko Claims we took a trail called Crossing Creek over a mountain from Round Prairie. It was a beast of a climb and was too steep and too rocky to bike. According to my Strava record from the day, it took me three hours from Round Prairie to the Koko Claims cabin at the top. This is just over six miles or 10k roughly. It's another 4 miles to the bottom which took about an hour including stops to filter water and more walking due to a few rough sketchy sections. In all it took four hours to go ten and a half miles.
Having trained specifically for the hike to Koko Claims by doing hill repeats with the loaded bicycle on my back, I thought I was prepared. Even so, my back wasn't nearly strong enough to carry the bike over miles of jagged rocks up a steep incline. Resorting to wrestling my bike up and over the rocks my progress slowed and soon Mikki and Larry caught me from behind. These guys would become friends in the days ahead but at the time I was preoccupied with completing what appeared to be an impossible climb. As I stood panting from the effort, I watched Mikki and Larry vigorously pushing on their handlebars and quite effectively at wrestling their bikes over the rocks and up the climb.
On the downside of the mountain I would meet Doug, John and a couple of others. We did well riding fully loaded bicycles down a rough rocky decline. Doug and I were slightly ahead of the others when the route crossed another creek and became a well maintained gravel road. It seemed like a happy moment until I realized we were off course. Just prior to the creek there was a turn down an extremely rough single track. We turned around, joined the others and headed down the single track. Like the others I soon found myself pushing the bike again, this time on the downhill for safety's sake. However, it was hard to avoid getting my legs scratched up by the pedals on the bike when the bike lurched over large rocks on the steep decline.
It looked like four us might be pedaling together to Fernie today but I soon discovered that riding with others was uncomfortable. The main problem for me was pacing. I very much enjoyed rolling along with a certain effort, pressing too hard drags me down and pressing too lightly on the pedals makes me restless. There is also the problem of stopping. Everyone must stop from time to time for numerous reasons. Along this route one needs to stop to filter water, relive oneself, transfer water from storage into a usable container, navigate and eat. The later two can be accomplished while rolling but not always and in my case I ate mostly sandwiches which were stored away so I had to stop to eat. All of this could be accommodated of course but it was preferable to be unburdened by these considerations.
Although I didn't know it at the time, I would see John Schilling on the road to Fernie. He created a wonderful blog of his journey on the Tour Divide. It's worth reading plus he took lots of pictures. One of the many pictures he took was that of a handmade sign stating, "Mexico this way." John also describes the joy of receiving an apple on the climb before Fernie. I recall having a short conversation with the apple granting young man as he prepared to climb a rock wall next to the road we pedaled. He knew all about the Tour Divide and seemed pleased to contribute an apple to the cause and was in no rush to begin climbing rocks. The climb we enjoyed stood between us and the highway leading to Fernie. It was lined with tall trees and embroidered with an occasional rushing stream and seemed like a fitting way to end a long day bikepacking.
Nearly ten hours after leaving Round Prairie and only 58 miles later, I arrived in Fernie. Feeling depleted I scanned the jarringly busy streets ahead for a place to eat. Ahead I saw three bikepackers making their way to a frontage road and assumed they had similar desires and followed them a few blocks. When they turned off into a residential section, I made a hasty retreat to the McDonalds I noticed when first arriving in town. As the bike was carefully leaned against the building, Mark Carter emerged from the restaurant. Being concerned about food for resupply I asked Mark if there was anything available at McDonalds that packs well. He kindly informed me that the Egg McMuffin keeps and packs well. It turned out he was correct and this knowledge allowed me to make this my only stop in Fernie.
When I sat down at a table in McDonalds I wasn't sure I would go much further today. It's after 5 P.M. but this time of year that still leaves almost five hours of daylight in British Columbia, Canada. Only one thing was certain, I would not decide until after I had eaten. Surprisingly, after scarfing down more food than I thought possible and packing away a few Egg McMuffins for later, pressing on really did feel like the thing to do. The miles heading out of Fernie rolled over easily and there was a lightness and joy in the clear air. The early evening sun ignited spots of green and rock at the base of jagged topped mountains standing tall in front of me under partly cloudy skies. As pedaling drew me closer to an unknown location of dispersed camping in a Canadian forest it seemed perfect to just be there enjoying the moment.
Dispersed camping is when you camp legally anywhere other than a designated campground. Most Crown land in Canada and national forests in the U.S. allow dispersed camping and have rules which govern how your camp should be situated and how you keep your camp (see sidebar). At the end of first day I dispersed camped with a group of people at Round Prairie. On this, the second night, a dispersed site perched high above the Flathead River was also shared by others.
Not long after the sun dropped low behind and the shade of tall trees cooled the air, I saw Bonnie walking up the long gravel climb. I was happy to see her again having met her the evening prior. She was relaxed and confidently walking making progress while daylight still burned. We shared a greeting and recalled she posted on Facebook that her goal for this day was Butts Cabin which is on the other side of the long mountain pass we were climbing. Just ahead was Mark who gave me advice on Egg McMuffins earlier. He was riding slowly up the gravel road which was in good shape but contained large rocks embedded in the surface making it bumpy but easily rideable. I proceeded to catch Mark and we started riding together sharing a few things about ourselves. He clearly was more experienced at bikepacking so I was pleased we made many of the same gear choices. Besides the dynamo hub, Nox rim wheels, tires and overall setup we both carried a Urasack bag which is used to protect your food from bears.
After Mark and I topped the pass we talked about where to camp for the night. Butts Cabin is popular choice among Tour Divide riders and we decided that it would be fully occupied now that evening has descended. Mark suggested we camp just outside of the cabin, while I thought that area would be a scent magnet for bears. Just when I suggested we make camp at a roadside pulloff, we came upon Justin setting up camp. We asked if we could join him and before we knew it we had an impromptu campground including Bonnie, Justin, Mark and me. Not long after we were all snug in our tents and bivy sacks, a thunderstorm rolled through. For me this was a very satisfying end to the day. I could have easily stopped in Fernie for the day having felt spent. After I ate in Fernie, however, I decided to make better use of the long Canadian days and roll out of town to camp who knew where. It was therefore, a joyful happenstance to come upon Bonnie, Justin and Mark. These moments of happenstance are magical and a big part of what makes the Tour Divide so special.
Things to know
Ride With GPS Tour Divide Route (copy) Be aware that the Tour Divide Race route differs from the Adventure Cycling Great Divide Route in several places. I don't know what the differences are because I only researched the Tour Divide Routes.
Camping opportunities are plentiful on the route because it frequently travels through public lands or very remote areas. There are also numerous campgrounds along the route. I dispersed camped both nights in Canada. For dispersed camping rules see, Dispersed Camping in U.S. National Forests and Leave No Trace Canada.
Flowing water is plentiful in Canada. I filtered all of my water but others just filled their bottles from clear running streams. I carried two and two thirds liters in Canada and Montana.
Day 2 Round Prairie to Flathead River just shy of Butts Cabin, 103 miles, 8,332 ft climbing, 15:10 hours (12:23 moving)