Here’s the plan: We’re on a ride down the Continental Divide from Banff, Alberta, and taking a month to camp, hike, sight-see and putter around, disconnected from the world news. We’re checking out curious side roads, getting lost, wet and dirty, visiting tiny towns, and engaging with local personalities.
The purpose may not always be clear, but the intention is to live differently from everyday life. As a Digital Nomad who travels constantly, I generally stay with friends and family, couch-surf, or find house-sitting gigs. This is a camping trip with a friend, Molly Nelson, a farmer from Maine who is riding her Yamaha TW200 – the “Ratty Pigeon.” I’m on a Kawasaki 250 Super Sherpa. We’ll meet up in Montana with Michelle Lamphere and her newly-acquired Yamaha XT250 – she’s coming from her home in South Dakota and taking time off to wander dirt roads with us.
And when you’ve finished reading this first part of the adventure, read the second part here.
Before the “official” Divide leg of our trip started, Molly and I decided to get our feet wet by crossing a pass that offered a convenient shortcut from Kootenay Lake to Kimberly. We had no idea it was one of Canada’s highest dirt passes at more than 2,000 metres above sea level (6,800 feet).
It’s about 85 kilometres long and the twisty gravel road has some gnarly bits. It was exhilarating taking this pass – a real taste of the adventure to come. We took lots of pictures, and a few pucker moments later we popped out in Kimberly, hungry, thirsty and completely exhausted. We parked the bikes at a tourist centre and went for sushi, but ate too much and could barely keep our heads up. Why so tired? It wasn’t until the next day we realized how high the pass was and that the elevation was denying oxygen to our brains.
Skinny dipping in a glacier-fed pond by moonlight, then drying by the fire, certainly invigorated the blood vessels once again. That night, we pitched our tents in an RV park next to a lady named Gordana, with her teeny tiny dog.
GETTING TO THE BORDER
The two of us began the “official” journey from Canmore, riding onto the Smith Dorian Trail that passes through the Three Sisters mountains. It started out beautifully with a climb up into the mountains, but became unpleasant when the road turned to thick, freshly-laid gravel.
“I don’t like this shit,” exclaimed Molly. I concurred, and we wobbled our front tires through the crap. With our wheels in the more firmly-packed ruts, our packed bikes had to pick our way through the amazing scenery. We reached Hwy. 40, which has the highest elevation of any highway in the country at 7,310 feet. The thin air made the Super Sherpa gulp for breath, but the bike functioned very well in third gear. It was cold – frosty even – and a joyous Harley rider had both arms in the air in a triumphant bellow when he passed us. The mountains seemed endless, with swift-flowing rivers and gravel river-beds, wildlife and meadows, coming and going behind rows of trees.
We stayed that night with friends in Pincher’s Creek, and in the morning, dressed for rain and wind and set out onto the Crow’s Nest Pass. We found a great dirt road to the border with winding tracks, rocks, mountains, sunshine, rain and deer around seemingly every corner.
“Where are you headed?” asked the U.S. border guard. When I said Mexico, he stepped back a bit and offered the garage to park our bikes inside if we wanted to get out of the rain and use the washrooms. But we carried on to find better weather and when the skies cleared, we stopped and slept for a while on our jackets on the ground, spreading out anything that needed to dry.
We decided to carry on to Eureka, and found an in-town tent park on a river.
“Where are you ladies from?” A tall white-haired man with blue eyes had pulled up in a truck and came over to chat. He stood too close when talking but we had a grand time discussing the local area and our trip along the Divide. He offered us some honey his buddy had just given him. Molly asked if she could get a picture. “Sure,” he said. “Want me to get my gun and my hat?”
THE WILD WEST
It was raining again the next morning, and when we left Eureka, we headed back into the hills to ride the dirt. Fantastic yet rough roads, bear poop, more deer and simply amazing views. We made a wrong turn (not the first time) and ended up popping out in a tiny town called Olney. A couple of guys saw us filling up with gas and walked over to chat. After a short conversation about bikes, we asked where the nearest campsite was.
“Well, we may have a spot for you,” they said. “Follow us.” We drove a short distance, crossed some railroad tracks, opened a large gate and were instantly sent back 40 years. The damp forest roadside, covered in the brightest green moss, opened up to an abandoned girl-scout camp. The dining hall, bunk cabins, footpaths to the lake and even outhouses were a picture straight out of my childhood. Ryan and Kody Church are developing the property for use as an outdoor conference centre called “The Stillwater Hideaway.”
That night we were treated to a sweet campfire, and serenaded with some emotional tunes sung to an acoustic guitar. We tented in the Whitefish State Campground next door.
Bear poop, everywhere. When you’re riding a small bike, loaded with gear, through a high-elevation, rocky, narrow mountain pass in the rain, there isn’t much room to get around it if a bear has crossed your path. This sounds like a scary thought, but really, we’ve both been giddy with the exhilaration of it all. In fact, the risk of slipping on the poop was a greater concern than running across a bear.
The road that led down to Little Prickly Pear Creek was magical; the evening light turned the Montana landscape into an artist’s canvas. We spent too much time taking photos and enjoying the scenery, but the camping areas seemed poorly situated and damp. It was getting dark, so we decided to pull into a ranch and ask the owners if they would mind us camping on their land. The long driveway over meadows and across a bridge led us to an abandoned home. On our way out, we were stopped to contemplate our next move when Molly spotted fresh bear tracks just outside the gate.
Not far away, there was a tall man standing next to his truck, scouting elk. He had a huge smile, but looked incredulous when Molly rode over to ask about a place to camp. Jim not only introduced himself but announced, “This is your lucky day, I have a cabin just up the road. You are both welcome to stay there!”
All through the mountains in Canada, and now in Montana, we were concerned about bears. I had just taken a bear awareness seminar at the Horizons Unlimited CanWest 2016 in Nakusp, B.C., and left it feeling prepared, but probably more aware of the dangers than I wanted to be. Nevil Stow did an amazing job with his presentation, employing a volunteer from the audience to act the part of a stomping, huffing, agitated bear, while he did the typical tourist thing and tried to open his bear spray, read the label and figure out how to use it. Nevil’s use of imagery, including bears in tents and angry mama grizzlies, was enough to make me second-guess this whole riding-the-Rockies thing. In the end, though, armed with bear spray, a loud air horn, food storage advice, and bear avoidance skills, I felt ready. One of the biggest rules, of course, is: “The picture isn’t worth it!”
As we were following Jim to his cabin, his truck stopped suddenly to let a bear and two cubs pass in front of him. Directly behind him, my camera was hanging off my neck and I managed to jab the Super Sherpa into Neutral and grab a couple of photos. What a spectacular sight. One of the cubs could not make it up the bank, and after slipping several times, made its way down the road. We held up traffic until the cub found its way up at an easier spot and reunited with mom and sibling. With my heart pounding, I rode up beside the mother; she reared up, took a sniff and carried on in the woods. So beautiful. So scary. I guess the picture was worth it this time.
Now here we are at Bannack State Park, close to the Idaho border. Molly and I started to set up camp when the unmistakable sound of Harley-Davidsons rumbled into the campground. The riders rolled in right next to our spot on their pristine, shiny hogs. They’d come about 150 miles to be at this campground for a very special weekend.
Two-Bit introduced himself and his gang, “The Vigilantes.” Many moons ago in the 10,000-strong mining town of Bannack, Montana, a thief and murderer pulled into town by the name of Henry Plumer. Apparently, he was elected sheriff of Bannack in 1863 but was soon accused of being the leader of a “road agent” gang of outlaws known as the “Innocents”. The local chapter of Masons, dedicated to all that is good, decided to form a vigilante group to deal with the problem of Sheriff Plumer. It so happened that we’d set up camp in the place where the vigilantes had made their stand against their arch-enemy.
Our quiet spot was overtaken by big biker dudes in leather vests with clearly-marked colours of the Vigilante gang. We announced we weren’t being rude, but proceeded to build a barrier around our site on the river. We moved the gigantic picnic table between them and us, and Molly parked the Ratty Pigeon to set a polite boundary. Soon, with the Vigilantes’ welcoming fire, we were introduced to each member of the biker gang, and told the story of the rogue sheriff.
This weekend is a special one for this group, because it involved the initiation of a new member into another level of the Masonic hold, a ceremony rarely seen by anyone outside the group. Part of the initiation involves role-playing the legend of the masonic vigilante group that rid the town of the corrupt and evil sheriff. Two-Bit, who was acting as the sheriff, asked if we were game to participate in this secret and important ceremony for their new member, Groot. His part was to play the outlaw Wild Bill Graves, who had to prove his allegiance by robbing people in the town – or in this case, the campground.
Before long, a gruff yet apologetic voice spoke close to my ear; I felt a point press against my neck and a large, strong arm on my shoulder. “Hand over what you got,” said the voice. As I reached into my pocket, he swung another arm over to Molly sitting next to me and demanded the contents of her pockets as well.
The gruff voice broke into a chuckle, and Molly and I ceremoniously handed over my toonie and her American dollar bill. Our guts split with laughter as he took his bounty and headed back to the RV Camp Headquarters to hand over his bounty to the sheriff.
So much seems to have happened already and we haven’t even met up yet with Michelle. Read the rest of our story here as we ride south to Mexico.