Riding down the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route had been on my bucket list for a long time. In the summer of 2017 the stars aligned and I was able to get a month and a half off of work. I decided I was going to head out and see how far I got even if I was going to do this thing by myself, much to my mother’s chagrin (“But your a girl! It’s not safe!”). As a way to keep myself busy and process the day I started laying in my tent and typing on my phone a daily wrap up before bed. There is very little route or gear information but more of an honest telling of the highs and lows of a long hard bike tour with all the honest feels from the perspective of woman going out on her own.
Day 0: Seattle/Banff
Zero sleep the night before, I almost miss my flight because of falling asleep at the gate. This is a surprise to no one. I arrive in Banff. It’s expensive and very touristy. I meet up with a lady for a beer/not beer (I don’t drink), whom I met from bikepacking.com. It feels like an internet date. She seems cool though and we decide to go out on a second date. That second date being the first couple days of the divide.
Day 1: Banff to somewhere on trail.
We get going at 11 and are totally stoked! We keep repeating “OMG! we are doing this!”. Almost instantly you get into beautiful scenery. We run into a woman who was just finishing it from south to north. She looked super buff and her bike was covered in dust. She was my hero.
6 miles in Cali’s derailleur hanger breaks. Amazingly she has a spare. She is way more prepared then I am. We spend about two hours replacing it to finally realize once we got it on that the derailleur was bent anyway. Still at least we got it rideable and did not have to walk back to Banff. Turns out we weren’t “doing it”. Went back to Banff get it replaced. Head back out again at about 4pm. The sky is gorgeous and the mountains are amazing. It’s my favorite type of riding, periodically super rocky double track. I find that super fun and engaging. I am stoked on what I am comfortable riding over. We only make it another 10 miles before it gets dark and we decide to just set up camp at the side of the trail. We hang our bear bags a million miles from our tents and the whole night my brain can’t decide if it should stay awake to listen for bears or sleep. We are also on an incline. It’s terrible and very uncomfortable but at least we got out there.
Day 2: somewhere on trail to Canyon Creek Campground.
After a terrible nights sleep we wake up and have breakfast and get our shit together. It takes forever as we have somehow created totally anarchy at our camp. We go 30 feet around a corner and find a beautiful meadow that would have been a million times better to camp in. Whatever, we get over it in a hot second because holy crap it’s pretty!!! Despite Cali being able to be my child with it only being slightly scandalous she is really rad, smart, and funny. We start out on a wide bike trail, then move to a gravel road, then to double track along a lake to single track through forest. It starts to become apparent that we are going at two different paces. She has three months to do this and is not in any hurry while I have half that time and have been riding pretty hard this summer. For a long time during the day I am struggling between accomplishing a goal or having someone to share the experience with. At a break we talk about this difference, decide to separate, and hug goodbye. After we say goodbye I feel way more sad then I thought I would. I start off towards the impending lonely unknown. Jesus, talk about a two day relationship microcosm. Oh and there starts to be bear poop freaking everywhere! After awhile I get into a groove of biking and listening to music. I don’t go anywhere near my mileage goal as it’s just slow going through the technical stuff it but it’s amazing riding. I roll into camp pitch black and go immediately to sleep.
Day 3: Canyon Creek to Elkton.
My first day of riding alone. I really need to figure out a more efficient way to pack up in the morning but it’s REALLY hard when things are jammed into every tiny nook you have. Day starts off on pavement. Ten miles in on there is a trading post where I charge everything and start my ritual of eating ice cream at lunch. The nice thing about in real life being no sugar (for the most part) is holy crap it gives me a jolt of energy. According to the map once I get up Elk Pass it will be a sweet down hill, turns out that is a giant lie. I get on Elk Pass trail go for awhile and miss my turn. Decide to hike through a foot trail to get back on the route instead of back track. Terrible decision, took forever. It’s only my third day of riding and things are starting to fall apart. The dust and constant banging around on washboards/rocks should not be underestimated. The top of Elk Pass is lovely. Time for my sweet decent for about 20 miles. Turns out, sure it’s a lower elevation over all, but mostly you are going up and down major hills. At the end of all day riding I am getting really fried, lonely, and frankly bored. Why the shit am I doing this? I pull over where there is a view of a field. Decide to try to soak it in and eat a cliff bar. In that field off in a distance I see an Elk. I move more toward the edge and 6 white tail deer jump out. Goddamn nature. Yeah this is why I am doing this. I get to Elkford and once again pull into camp when it is pitch black. I bike around and see a cluster of 10 other cyclists in the camp. All different types of people and bikes. Apparently camp is where you meet other people and exchange war stories. God that felt good after a grueling day. Oh and bathrooms had cell reception AND electricity.
Day 4: Elkford to Fernie.
I start off the day chit chatting with the cyclists there. A group from Ireland, a couple from Portland (he is only doing partial and she is doing the whole thing) and three dudes from San Diego. They are all doing the Fernie alternate route (35 miles shorter w less elevation). I succumb to peer pressure and also decide do the alternate. Mostly because there is a bike shop there. The center spindle of my pedals stick out just enough to have that as a pressure point and make my feet numb about three hours into a ride. Different pedals!!!
A lot of people are just going straight down the highway since a bridge is washed out on the official route. I decide to follow bikepacking.coms track and end up doing a bunch of silly very pretty up a giant hill single track before finishing up with a grueling slog on highway. I get to Fernie and post up in the hostel where I am clearly the oldest there with a bunch of MTB bums. Cali pulls up out of nowhere to the same hostel. How the fuck did she get here so fast looking so fresh faced? Turns out she went all highway the whole way.
Day 5: Fernie to Baynes Lake.
The day of errands. Turns out when I am in civilization I kinda over do it thinking I will never be in civilization again. Wake up, go to bike store, get pedals with no pressure points, go to outdoor store to replace headlight, go to grocery store and load up on food, go to library and download a gpx track I accidentally deleted. Go back to grocery store when I decide Fuck it I really do not want to deal with fancy coffee and buy instant packets. At second time at grocery store run into Curtis, Jeff, and Chris (?) from camp on day 3. Yay! We compare notes on the routes we took to avoid the washed out bridge. I showed them pics of my single track and they were impressed. They had heard that you could still get across the bridge so they went that way. Apparently you technically could BUT to get through it they had to pass the bikes up to each other one by one along an embankment. They got way more hardcore points then I. They tell me that they are gonna camp at Baynes Lake it want to join them. Turns out you get this roving community of people that are doing this route the same time you are. It’s pretty amazing. I finish my errands and decide that yeah, even though it’s close I do want to join them at the Lake. Its OK riding. I took only one photo all day of what turned out to be my standard gas station lunch. It’s really nice for once getting to camp when it’s light out and having lounge around time with people who are doing this stupid thing too.
Day 6: Baynes Lake to Grave Creek Campground (so goth).
I wake up at 8am. I am thinking “man I am going to get an early start. Look at me!”. I crawl out of the tent and the dudes are already packed up and starting to roll out. Damn now that’s an early start. The start of the day is pretty miserable. The headwind was the most intense I had experienced. It literally stopped my bike from moving. Oh but then AMERICA FUCK YEAH!!!!. Border officer did not high five me though I could see in his eyes he wanted to.
Got in to Eureka. It was a cute one strip town. Felt more authentic then the resort towns along the route but also not a dying small town. Ran into Curtis, Jeff, and Chris(?) again. Then we ran into a group deemed the Grads and Dads. They did the “official” route, not the Fernie alternate and frankly looked like shit. It made me super jealous. This is also when we all saw our first and so far only B.O.B. Trailer!!!! A couple that was going South to North had one. They were even carrying a spare wheel!!!! A whole wheel!! We all went and grabbed some dinner and chatted.
They were all gonna camp there. I had some energy and was still starry eyed about making it all they way to Antelope Wells (that dream has since died) so I decided to go on another 15 miles. First I stop at the last grocery store in what I expect to be three days. I go back and forth in there twice and buy way too much food and duct tape. I am always convinced that I am somehow simultaneously going to starve to death AND carry way too much food. I have always been that way but apparently going solo really ramps that up. Going on was a terrible decision as it was yet another night of pulling into camp at 10pm. Though the hour before I got a lot of great light over fields. Including one field that literally had at least 25 deer in. I had never seen so many deer jumping along with me. I saw so many deer it didn’t even amuse me anymore to say “Oh dear!” in a South Dakotan accent.
Day 7: Grave Creek Campground to Red Meadow Lake.
Wake up tear down then head back a mile or so to the last bar I saw where I sit outside, eat my oatmeal, and charge all my shit. My phone, my battery pack, my Garmin, and a bit of my tablet. Mainly I am super paranoid about navigation. I need ALL the back up navigation.
I deem myself fully prepared and head out. I start slowly climbing up to Whitefish Divide. It’s miserable as far as constant elevation but gorgeous. It’s a whole different world in just one day. You run on top for a bit and then go so fast down hill forever. Once you finish that descent you hit Tachunk Campground where you should not be allowed to make any decisions for 30 minutes. Clearly you are still high from adrenaline and judgement cannot be trusted. My foolish judgement told me that I could make it to the next campground Red Meadow Lake. It was only another 30 miles or so. Easy peasy. My brain did not think about the fact that this was over yet another peak. I mean sure I did make it so I guess I was right but that last 10 miles took 3 hours. It was brutal. I was going an average of 2.5 miles an hour due to a giant incline and running on empty. Of course it’s right before dark when I pull into camp.