Day 3: Jasper BC to Fernie, AB, 363+ miles
There are only so many ways to describe beautiful scenery. It gets more difficult when it starts out stunning on Day 1, progresses to breathtaking on Day 2, and then, on Day 3… words fail. At a gas stop nestled in the mountains I asked my riding companion, “How can we possibly explain this?” At some point, neither language nor images can capture the experience.
We’d sent the night in Jasper, BC, a lovely European-like resort and tourist town. It had started to rain and the temperature was dropping. Many riders were concerned about the weather the following day. I asked a chatty local what she thought. “Oh, it always snows here.” But she said it would probably melt quickly and not accumulate on the road. As far as I was concerned, that was no worse than rain.
The Helix was still a bit erratic. It wouldn’t idle and the exhaust was popping a bit. I’d checked out all the hoses and vacuum controls, connections and fittings, inspected the exhaust. Nothing. The other option was to pull apart the carburetor but since it would run but not idle, it could (probably) make it through another day. It was okay once going; I just needed to give it some throttle to keep from stalling at stops.
Nothing serious, but a tad worrisome when headed up into near-freezing temps with long stretches of road between gas stations, no cell or other service. Other riders were in worse shape after the beating some of the scooters took on the previous day’s gravel and dirt.
Our riding group of four left together just after 7am. It was immediately apparent that I wasn’t wearing enough gear for the cold. As we ascended into the forest, the temperatures dropped. But rising up and winding into the mountain passes, we were treated the the sight of the sun coming up over the eastern peaks, shining through the clouds, illuminating the opposite faces. It was glorious, in the full sense of the word, a reminder that world we usually live in, full of mundane concerns and confusion and first-world problems, is also full of sublime beauty.
This route was the first time we stopped just to take photos, times and scores be damned. Some things are much more important.
As we climbed, our group scattered along Hwy. 93 and the distances between us grew. By then, the cold was really setting in, chilling my bones, numbing my fingers. I was doing what I could to stay warm, including dancing around in my seat to keep my blood flowing and holding the throttle open by resting my elbow on my Cramp Buster (a small paddle that helps relieve wrist strain) and putting my hand behind the windshield, flexing it. Eventually, I pulled over at an overlook to don more gear, pulling my hood up over my head, putting on glove liners and cinching my wrist cuffs and waist drawstrings to block out any air. Tourists who’d stopped to photograph the icefield watched me curiously, as if I was a bear in the distance.
The Icefield Parkway, as this section of the highway is called, is indeed bordered in parts by glaciers and sprawling sheets of ice. It’s a popular tourist destination and as the morning progressed, we started seeing more buses and cars along the route — all potential delays.
At about 4800ft. elevation, we crossed the snow line and the trees and ground were covered in a light dusting. A little higher and we entered the cloud bank; the cold intensified. For the next few hours, we continued south, rising and falling between 4500 and 6500 feet, in and out of the clouds, but persistently cold.
There were wet patches on the road and I became concerned about ice. My strategy then was to follow a local (in an old Corolla wagon with right-hand drive) who seemed to know the road and was taking at a good pace. He was good at avoiding possible trouble spots and I figured would hit any ice before I did.
As I exited the forest, I realized that I was on my own and had made an error by not studying and annotating my maps. The GPS would get me from place to place but not indicate why I was there or whether I could skip a destination. (Is it a checkpoint, which I need to hit, or a gas stop, which is optional, or just a waypoint to help with navigation?) Luckily, a friend on his MP3 passed me and I knew he was intimately familiar with the maps; he’d designed the route.
Soon after I passed Lake Louise, my GPS started telling me to turn around. I had skipped the previous destination — a gas stop — but it still instructed me to make a u-turn. My friend was pressing on. I pulled over to check my maps and, after some thought, turned around. It was a costly error. I should have continued forward. By the time I’d figured this out and was back in the right direction, I’d lost half an hour. The benefit was that I’d taken some time to stand in the sun, not moving, and get warmed up before riding out again.
Fortunately, there were some twisty downhill roads ahead. This is where my riding experience really comes in handy; I hoped to make up for some of that time. Another miscalculation; being able to cut through the tight curves is dependent on not having trucks and RVs in the way. It’s also not conducive to passing on two-lane highways — too many blind corners and I try to avoid crossing the double-yellow lines. Not riding like a jerk, passing on the shoulder and so on, is more important than my score to me. Still, I was able to open up on some of the curves. Unfortunately, any time I hoped to regain was lost when I hit construction delays.
In the end, I dropped a few places in the rankings. The competition is now tighter than the first two days.
Honestly, it’s interesting but I don’t care. I had one of the best days of riding in my life, a day I’ll never be able to replicate. That’s worth much more than my ranking. We crossed the 1,000 mile mark, making this the most I’ve ever ridden in three days.
And there are still seven days ahead of us.
At the hotel, I consulted with my Helix guru Mike Smith and we worked out the issues with the scoot — sort of. I had checked all the hoses and the plug and the problem just disappeared. I changed the oil, ran my checks and now it’s back to running well. In the parking lot, others were having to do much more work, replacing tires, blown gaskets, repairing leaks and trying to find a Vespa GT variator within 24 hours. Some teams didn’t pull into the parking lot until 11pm. Now, at 12:30pm, a P200 is getting an engine swap after seizing.
Tomorrow, we’re headed back to the USA, destination Helena, MT. We may be in for more cold, though nothing as cold as today, and afternoon rain.