But travelling the Icefields Parkway by motorized vehicle is cheating. The full experience of the Parkway is best achieved by bicycle. And that is what I did in late August of this year, with my eldest son Jamie (he accepted happily) and my youngest son, Liam (he accepted forcibly). My wife Jane’s cousin John organized our trip and brought along his son Myles, same age as Liam and an old school chum, Gerry, who has ridden often with John over the years.
John engaged Mountain Madness Tours for the trip and arranged for our rental bikes. The operator of Mountain Madness Tours is Ben Johnson, an entrepreneurial Aussie who has worked out the kinks of doing the Icefields Parkway and was an uplifting presence throughout the trip. He has coined artful names for various dodgy parts of the Parkway which include Big Bump (you can guess what this was … very steep); the Kicka, translated as Kicker in North American lingo, which represents an unexpected increase in incline at the end of a very long hill (no one liked this … ugh!); and Whoopsies, for numerous unexpected inclines after a nice long descent (we really liked those … not).
We did the Icefields Parkway in just shy of three days, then pushed on to Canmore, AB where John has a nice place with proximity to his play in the mountains (west) and his work in Calgary (east). In all, the bike trip was a four day event, spanning a distance of 320 km (200 miles). Our group also included Sean and Kayleigh, a young power couple from Stratford, Ontario, who rarely relinquished the lead in our trip; Brent (he used a hybrid bike!) and Katherine from Rossland, BC; and Ellaine from Edmonton, who as a TV journalist was scoping out the sites for the upcoming Tour de Alberta.
Ben picked our group up in Canmore on August 21. The plan was to drive up to Jasper, 320 km away, offload our bikes and start back from there on a ~ 50 km bike ride back to Sunwapta Falls (first leg in the afternoon) along the Parkway. As we approached the higher elevations of the Parkway on our way to Jasper we were met with snow squalls. Some of us first noticed this by remarking on snow accumulation on the grilles of vehicles coming the opposite direction. Soon it was evident that snow accumulation was happening. A silence fell on our tour group … road bikes with thin tires are not optimal in snowy conditions, especially for downhill excursions. This was made evident when we passed another bicycle tour group where most of the group had claimed defeat by the conditions and had already boarded their bus … except for one lone cyclist with a grim look on his face whose body language spoke of a determination to finish this leg on his bike, even if it killed him … which was likely.
Luckily for us, the snow changed to rain as we descended to Jasper and eventually stopped as we pulled into the town. It was 5°C (41°F) … on August 21st. I had left Boston the day before under sunny, humid conditions of 32°C (90°F)!
We rode about 30 km down the Parkway before our first stop at Athabasca Falls where we got our first glimpse of Ben’s treats available at our rest stops: cashews and dried mangos were my favorites. Athabasca Falls is a class 5 waterfall, with a drop of 80 ft (24 m) and a width of 60 ft (18 m). It is pretty impressive:
About 10 km from the Falls, the Athabasca river heads south. Before we parted company, we took a group shot with the river and mountains as background.
Overnight, the weather cleared and we woke to ice covering our bike seats. Brilliant sunshine did little to warm us but did offer spectacular views.
Day 2 was to be our longest day on the bike covering 100 km of terrain, which included a sharp incline of average 8.5% grade to the Columbia Icefield which Ben gleefully called the “Big Bump”; and a harrowing long decent of about the same grade over about 3.5 km where one can reach 80 kph (50 mph), if you have the nerve and lay off your brakes! I like to think of this stretch as the “Deadly Drop.” In between the two is the Columbia Icefield, which is magnificent.
Once on our bikes again after lunch, we faced a slight incline over a few km before we came to the Deadly Drop. Cycling on the verge of the Parkway at this point is difficult as the asphalt is split periodically every 10 feet or so due to the extremes of temperature. The constant striking of our front wheels on the split pavement is jarring over time at normal speed, but at the speed one can attain on the Deadly Drop, the split pavement is a hazard that can lead to a serious crash. The only real solution for attaining downhill speed is to drive your bike on the actual highway, where road crews spend their time fixing the problem. It is best not to do this half-hearted and creep slightly onto the highway, but to assume the road completely so vehicles will not be tempted to pass you with on-coming traffic in evidence! So I found myself plunging down the Deadly Drop, centered on the downhill lane of the highway, as my speed crept up, and up and up. My hands were blocks of wood where circulation had already been driven out by the cold and the death-like grasp I assumed on the handlebars. I had no speedometer, but no vehicles attempted to pass me! The Deadly Drop ends in a distinctive loop in the highway as evident in the blow up of Google Maps below and the death-like grip on the handle bars can be released.
We reconvened as a group just past the loop for a great team photo.
At the end of the day, most riders were a bit short of 100 km total ride for the day, so they did three circumferences of the hotel parking lot to make up the difference!
This day marked our leaving Jasper National Park and entry into Banff National Park. We started the day with an easy decline to the Saskatchewan River Crossing, then an uphill climb of about 4 km past Mt Murchison, which was the site of a wildfire the previous year requiring evacuation of the hotel staff.
The morning ride was a continual gain in elevation on our way to a long 7 km ascent of about 4.5% average grade to the highest point of the Icefields Parkway. Ben had warned us at the first pit stop that this long ascent was capped by a “Kicker” (or “Kicka” in his Australian twang) of increased grade just before topping out.
As we each topped out over the Kicka, Ben directed us to a “bonus round” consisting of a further short climb of about 100 m or so to a viewpoint of Peyto Lake.
During the early going, the air was as remarkably clear as the day before, but as the day wore on, wildfire smoke from BC started to encroach and limit views. One can see this encroachment to the right in the picture of Peyto Lake above. Our way from the Bonus Round was all downhill to the headwaters of the Bow River at Bow Lake, where we had our lunch.
The day ended with about 30 km of rolling terrain. Ben described the small hills we had to climb as “Whoopsies.” Just north of our destination in Lake Louise, we said goodbye to the Icefields Parkway where it joined the Trans-Canada highway. In just a few km, we were at our hotel. What with the Kicka, the Bonus Round and the Whoopsies, my boys were glad to get into the hot tub asap.
Our route on the last day of our tour was along the Bow Valley Parkway all the way to Banff where we would meet my boys’ great uncle Bill, who at 80 yrs old would join our group for the remainder of the ride to Canmore on the Legacy Trail. The smoke and particulates from the distant wildfires were worse and essentially choked out the mountain views on this last day.
In the final tallying of elevation change, we climbed 2.6 km and descended 2.3 km, vertically.
This article was written by Peter Banks. The photos are courtesy of Peter Banks and Mountain Madness Tours / Ben Johnson.