We pulled over when the sweeping asphalt road turned to gravel because we needed a plan. Mike Holton and I, riding a pair of KLR 650s, had gotten off to a late start leaving Cochrane, Alberta (just west of Calgary), and we had many kilometres to ride if we hoped to reach Nordegg, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, before sundown.
Ahead of us lay the Forestry Trunk Road, nearly 250 kilometres of gravel that bucks and weaves through a landscape seemingly plucked from a Travel Alberta brochure – rolling pastures, rocky streams, hazy mountains in the distance, and then a twisting track that brings you right up into them. The ride ahead would be great, if we had time.
Mike took off his helmet.
“I don’t know, man,” he said. “It’s a bit late. I’m not sure if I’m feeling this.”
Mike had only decided to join me at the very last minute, and he hadn’t been riding much this summer. He rushed to throw his gear together. He rushed to meet me. And we were in a rush now. He could feel it.
“It’s important to listen to your guts, man,” I said. “Doing the math, we have to average about 80 kilometres an hour – and it’s all gravel – to get to the campground in Nordegg by 8:30. Sundown is about 9:00, so there’s not much room for any kind of problem or delay.” With that, I subtly implied that we didn’t have much time for discussion, either.
Just then a logging truck appeared from around the bend, hauling fast toward us and pulling a train of dust. That didn’t inspire confidence.
“I don’t know how busy this road will be, or what shape it’s in.” I paused and turned away from the road as the truck rumbled by. “It’s usually pretty good, but it might be freshly graded and loose in spots.” (Fun fact: Alberta has an unlimited budget for gravel on its roads. At least, that’s what my friend Bryan Bayley keeps telling everyone, and I believe him.)
In the end, Mike chose to return home. Live to ride another day. And he was right. Always listen to your gut.
As for me, after bidding Mike goodbye and wiping the dust off my sunglasses and visor, I charged ahead. My instincts told me that this would be fun.
The Forestry Trunk Road is a bit of a misnomer. It’s the road of many names, in a way. The stretch that connects Cochrane, via Waiparous Village, to Nordegg, is colloquially called the Trunk Road, but you’d be forgiven if you called it Highway 40, or the 734. The name doesn’t matter. If you stay on a main gravel track, keep trending north, you’ve got it. Anyway, there are signs to guide you at every junction.
Fortunately, on this clear fall day, the road was in great condition. I stayed hard on the throttle, easily tracing the smooth wheel tracks of vehicles that had gone before me, with the occasional wiggle from the rear end as I sidled from one rut to another. One more logging truck approached, momentarily clouding my vision with dust, but that was it. It was a weekday evening; summer vacation had ended for most kids and, therefore, for most parents. After that, I had the road to myself.
For the next two hours, I did manage to keep pace with the 80 kilometre-per-hour average, in spite of having to crawl in first gear for some tight, loose corners. In the flats, with good visibility, I could really open it up.
It occurred to me that I was riding the perfect machine for my age and ability. Sure, there were times when I asked for more power than the KLR could deliver (its 37 horses wheezing from the strain), and sometimes I longed for more speed, but if I had it I’d use it. The KLR is a self-limiting machine, and it’ll cruise at 120 kilometres per hour on gravel if need be. Good enough for this ride. Good enough for me.
Even so, in my haste, I made a few errors in judgment, drifting wide on a corner or two. No harm done. Back on the throttle to race the sun. Another corner wide, this time drawing the bike to a standstill on the roadside after a long skid with my rear tire. I didn’t have the best rubber for gravel, actually, and this was a good reminder.
Now riding at a more modest pace, a few thoughts coalesced in my brain. Looking around, I could see the odd camper pulled over to the side of the road on nice, level ground to spend the night. Some of these sites had creeks running right beside them and, in the golden light of late afternoon, they all looked peaceful, featuring unobstructed mountain views to the West. Why should I continue to hurry, only to reach a potentially crowded campground where I’d have to pay? Why not just pull over here, maybe 50 kilometres shy of my destination, and camp for free? I had snacks and water for supper. For the morning I had instant coffee and a stove. I had my tent. I had my guitar. And I had whiskey, too.
But it was another more somber thought that compelled me to pull over sooner rather than later. You see, it was only a couple of summers ago that a friend, founder and Editor of Canada Moto Guide, Rob Harris, was killed while riding a gravel road in Eastern Canada. He wasn’t rushing, as I was. He wasn’t being reckless, as I was. But it still happened.
Just as Mike had done a few hours ago when he turned around, I listened to my gut now. I found a double track trail that dropped steeply into a flat meadow, perfect for camping and out of sight of the road. There was even a fire ring, embers still smoldering from the night before, but otherwise no sign of life. A shallow creek flowed past the site, bending around another reminder of our own mortality. There, at the side of the creek, someone had used a chainsaw to carve out a wooden memorial to an unnamed soul – the years presumably marking out dates of birth and death. After setting up camp, it was there, beside the marker, that I strung my hammock, tuned my guitar, and played “Childhood’s End.”
There was no hurry the next morning. I made coffee, took a refreshing dip in the creek, broke camp and continued north. A bridge carried me across Ram River and, yes, there were Bighorn Sheep, including a few rams, on the bank. They scrambled up a ridge as I motored past. Here I found a provincial campground as well. In hindsight, there was no reason to make such haste along the Trunk Road. A short hike took me to a wooden staircase and viewpoint overlooking Ram Falls, then back on the bike. Another bridge spanned the icy blue water of the North Saskatchewan River and then, after a few steep switchbacks, the road straightened out and delivered me to the David Thompson Highway, just a short distance from Nordegg.
When I used to live near Nordegg, nearly 20 years ago, it only had one little gas station. Now it has twice as many. There’s a liquor store in a log cabin, a community hall, and a bar/restaurant attached to the singular hotel. I’ve never been in the hotel itself, but I’ve been in the bar. It’s okay. It’s especially fine if you’re adept at disarming bottle-wielding rig pigs from Newfoundland. Perhaps I’m generalizing. And I’m sure things have improved in the past 20 years. I had dinner in the restaurant, and it was fantastic.
Still, taking every precaution, I decided to camp at the nearby Fish Lake Provincial Campground. I could have made it home that same afternoon, all the way to Canmore via the Icefields Parkway to the TransCanada. Or I could have taken Highway 22 back to Cochrane to complete the loop, just three hours away. (If one had the gumption and got an earlier start, the entire loop could be done in one day, home for supper.) Instead, I set up camp and I took a hike to the back of the lake. Then I cracked a beer and had a fire.
After all, I was in no hurry.
Jeremy Kroeker is the author of Motorcycle Therapy: A Canadian Adventure in Central America, and Through Dust and Darkness: A Motorcycle Journey of Fear and Faith in the Middle East. With his motorcycle, he has traveled to 30 countries while managing to do at least one outrageously stupid thing in every one. He has evaded police in Egypt, tasted teargas in Israel, scrambled through minefields in Bosnia and Lebanon, and wrangled a venomous snake in Austria. One time he got a sliver in El Salvador.