The Kootenay Gravel Grinder

It was 6.50am on Saturday morning, and Alex and I were at the 7-Eleven in Fernie grabbing a spare pair of lithium batteries for the Spot Tracker (Spoiler: The batteries we bought were alkaline instead of lithium, and I just realised that it might not have been me who made this mistake). I had no idea how old the batteries in the Spot were, and I was about to go and line up to … race? take part in? ride? the Kootenay Gravel Grinder.

Race details had been kind of sparse, and organisation levels minimal. There was originally a 7am grand depart from the clock tower in Cochrane but then it turned out the Cochrane folks wanted to leave on Friday, so they decided to start then instead. So someone decided to leave Fernie on Friday as well. And I decided to join the small crew who were planning to have a petit depart on Saturday at 7am in Fernie, rather than joining the one guy who was leaving Fernie at 6am, or the guy who still left Cochrane at 7am on the day of the original grand depart. There were maybe eight to ten of us out there riding at approximately the same time, and everything was as clear as mud.

All I knew was that I wanted to be at the Fernie Aquatic Centre at 7am, and I’d like to have my Spot tracker working, because I might be riding on my own in the wilds of British Columbia for a couple of days. When I got to the Aquatic Centre three other bikepackers awaited. Two knew each other, the third was on his own. And so Alex took our pre-race photo, and we set off. And then started to get to know each other.

Amy and Tony lived in Bozeman, Montana. Amy spent her summers in Antarctica at the McMurdo station, and this was her second bike-packing race, after doing the Idaho Smoke and Fire previously. Tony was studying snow science engineering sort of stuff. And Chip was a hydrologist from Spokane, WA, who had raced the Tour Divide northbound, and toured it southbound, among many other bike races and tours – he rounded out our group.

We all settled into a pretty similar speed. It was actually pretty interesting. We were just being sociable at first, and I felt like my legs had more to give, but it seemed like a good idea to conserve energy for now. This would be my biggest effort ever if I pulled it off. It turned out we all had similar time goals – to finish within two days. And it was great fun socialising and getting to know other bikepackers.

We stopped for lunch on a bridge and chatted to a friendly couple with bikes, who had a cabin nearby. Well, mostly Amy chatted to them – this was a theme of the trip. Amy is excellent at chatting. As I lay my bike down on the bridge, I eyed the big gaps and thought how easy it would be for something to fall down there, and that I should be careful. And then my Nuun tablets fell out of my seat bag and rolled into the river. Damn.

We’d gone up and over one pass to hit the Corbin mine road, then Flathead Pass seemed completely non-eventful. Well, the descent was rocky, but what flows as a river in June when the Tour Dividers ride through was fairly manageable in July. I did manage to crash once though, on a completely flat and easy section, getting distracted staring at the mountains and letting my back tire wash out.

Cabin Pass was more interesting. I remember hitting Butts Cabin… and after leaving Butts Cabin we lost Tony, who had just been falling further and further behind. Earlier in the day we’d been debating whether we could make it to the general store in Grasmere, which closes at 9pm. We told Tony that we’d buy him a Pepsi and leave it behind the store. I’d previously assumed it would be too far to make it there by closing though, and even the initial optimism of the others faded away as the day went on.

Next up after Butts Cabin was The Wall, an infamous connector created so the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route could be routed through this area instead of taking a more boring and direct route from Fernie to Roosville. I’d heard so much about it, it was fascinating to actually experience in person.

As we pedalled up Galton Pass it started to rain. Light at first, then heavy rain. This isn’t what the weather forecast said! It was all lies! I mentally shook my fist at the heavens and hoped that the rain would at least be as short-lived as the forecast predicted. I wondered whether it was a good idea to have left my proper rain coat at home – I had gambled on the forecast and brought only my super light shell jacket. But the rain did eventually let up, although not before we’d gotten fairly saturated. Wet gloves, wet feet, muddy backs. Oh well, it was warm at least.

There was a good little climb to the top of Galton, but not wildly hard (not as steep as Sulphur Mountain, and not too rocky). It was nice to have Chip along, with his route knowledge (and his generally calm, reassuring presence) – and interesting to hear his thoughts on how this section through the Flathead, which is part of the Tour Divide route, compares to the rest of the Tour Divide route.

Then we were at the top of the pass, still happily pedalling together. We briefly snacked, were attacked by mosquitos, descended. Amy fastest with her suspension, me just behind, and Chip a little further back, but not by much.

We’d seen no bears the whole way through the Flathead. Although we’d given them plenty of warning of our presence, so any sensible bear would have easily cleared out of the way.

At the bottom of the pass we put on our lights, and rode into the dusk along the highway. The Grasmere General Store was closed. But with fast rolling sealed roads and easy gravel, we made it to Kikomun Creek Provincial Park campground around midnight, and found a spot to settle in until dawn. We decided to set alarms for 5am, and then set up in our bivies.

I was testing my theory about it being warm enough to not use a sleeping bag – while simultaneously testing my new bivy, a Helium OR like Jackie’s. It was not warm enough. I slept a little, then woke up, cold. I put on all the clothes I could find, and wrapped something around my feet. That got me warm enough to sleep some more. Then my alarm went off at 5am. I was cold, and happy to get moving, quickly packing up and getting my things together. Chip was doing the same, and although Amy may have preferred to have some quality snooze button time, she too started to emerge into the dawn. Even though we started to get things together fairly quickly, it was still 5.30am before we started pedalling.

It was easy riding at first, as we dropped down to Lake Kookanusa and marvelled at the sunrise. We climbed on easy gravel, then flew downhill on more smooth easy gravel into Cranbrook. I pulled ahead a little, but then waited. Having company was more fun than not having company, and this scarcely felt like a race. There didn’t seem to be any point in deliberately trying to drop my companions, who were proving to be great fun to ride with.

We took photos at the Cranbrook clock tower, then I dragged them to Tim Horton’s, where we baffled the people behind the counter with the vast amounts of food we consumed and purchased to take with us. Then onwards to stop at a convenience store to stock up a little more before our final ascent into the wilderness. I got a salty caramel Haagen Daasz to eat as we rolled out of town.

Out of Cochrane, and onto dodgy semi rail trail and random roads, through an irrigation area where I dropped my phone attempting to take one handed photos. It looked fine, completely undamaged, but wouldn’t turn on. Argh!

In Fort Steele we stopped so Amy and Chip could get batteries and water, and I sat in the shade of a tree, trying to get my phone to turn on. Nope, nothing.

Then uphill, on gravel. Then the gravel turned into rocks, and the day got hotter and hotter, and the sun beat down, and I started to worry about just how much trail we had ahead of us, and was there any way we could make it? Was I going to die of heat stroke? Would my water run out? My legs felt strong, but my butt was terribly sad. It hurt to sit. Eventually it went numb. Most of the problem was swollen and irritated sit bones.

I stood and pedalled, I sat and pedalled. I rode away from the others, but then stopped at waterfalls along the way to douse myself in water. Men driving trucks stopped to chat to me, then passed on the news to Amy and Rooster that I was dripping with sweat. I was not dripping with sweat, I was dripping with freshly killed waterfall!

I felt lonely out on my own, and decided to stop and eat some of my Tim Horton’s panini. I wasn’t very hungry, but I felt like I probably needed more calories. My tongue was feeling sore and abraded – too many bars, too much rough and sugary food. I longed for soft, simple food, and wished I had another Tim Horton’s sausage biscuit. Or five. And then Amy and Chip appeared. I cheered them! I realised that I definitely didn’t want to break away and go out on my own, although I’d been toying with the idea. I was enjoying riding with them too much, and there was nothing to really gain by heading out alone – sure, I might finish sooner, but I would lose the shared experience.

And so we climbed. The end of that pass is a hike-a-bike. Rough, steep. But then the descent begins. First on ATV trails – oh so much fun. My only wrong turn happened here, although I caught it in less than 100m. Then onto wide open road that got more wide and open, and we passed the Top of the World Provincial Park and from there it was simple coasting. Almost effortless, except for the need to pay attention and avoid the darned potholes. I slipped into my biggest gear, dropped to the aerobars and churned. Amy was close behind me, stopping to take photos then catching up again. Chip was further back, struggling, and going through a rough patch.

We stopped at the bottom of the road, at a river, then regrouped before moving on to Lussier River to refill our water bottles and cool off a little. Then there was a slight climb into Whiteswan Provincial Park. It was gorgeously easy riding, so smooth. Riding next to the lake was lovely and cool, the breeze was wonderful. It was starting to get later too, and the lower sun helped.

Then we turned off and started to climb. A gorgeous winding forestry road that climbs up above the river, looking down to a beautiful valley, stunning peaks everywhere. I was enjoying the cooler air and easy terrain, although it was here that Amy started her ‘accidental’ attempts to nobble the only other female competition and knock me down the hill at the side of the road. This was a cut throat competition, and there could only be one winner!

And then descent, and we finally started to go south, towards Fernie. But it was getting late, and there was a long way to go.

Moving on, I tried not to think about it the distance ahead, but started the mental countdown once we had 100km to go. One by one I checked them off. Tried not to think about it. Accidentally checked the number on my gps. It hadn’t changed in minutes. Doomed, we won’t get there forever! Climbing on a steep rough road, what’s going on? My half-hearted route research beforehand had given me only the vaguest idea of the elevation profile up ahead, and what I could remember didn’t seem to match what was happening. Gradual but persistent climbing, and rough, so rough. Sitting hurts. Standing is hard work. Washouts, piles of avalanche debris, flood damage of all sorts. We climb. Streams to cross. We get wet feet pedalling through them.

We stopped for dinner near sunset, and supplemented our bars and food with delicious, perfectly ripe wild raspberries. The valley is amazing and beautiful, and felt so terribly remote, despite being so near civilisation. We hadn’t seen anyone since Whiteswan, and that seemed a long time ago. We could be lost here forever as the world ends.

We put our lights on, as the sky finally darkened. We yelled for bears as we start flying downhill on a rough gravel road. Well, Amy and I yelled for bears. We informed Chip that his cries are too feeble, so we would protect him with our fierce Amazonian bear yells. He didn’t have bear spray either, saying he’d never had any trouble. Neither have I, but I feel compelled to carry bear spray and bear bangers, just in case. Either way, we didn’t see a bear for the entire ride. I think we were making so much noise between us all that any bears could easily get out of our way.

Frogs were a different matter. All over the road, they hopped and walked, all sizes of frogs. We tried to dodge them. Along with the potholes. Amy got a moth down her shirt, and for a moment we were all laughing hysterically in the darkness as she tried to get it out.

But anyway, we descended through frogs. After climbing for so many hours, we got to descend for hours. As it got later and later there was talk of stopping and setting up camp for the night. But I’m in favour of continuing – Alex has said he might have to work tomorrow, and I’d rather just get to Fernie and then sleep, rather than having another cold night’s sleep here. I guess my cold bivy setup might be good in some ways, it certainly encourages me to keep moving.

Finally we were into logging terrain. The road got smoother and smoother, wider and wider. Less claustrophobic and overgrown. And then we turned off our road and started climbing up the final pass into Fernie, towards Hartley Lake. Both Amy and Chip’s GPSs were registering more kilometres ridden than mine, and so Amy had been optimistic we were nearly there. But we were not nearly there. We had the final pass to climb over, but we were only 30km from Fernie now! But 30km is a long way when it’s after midnight, you’ve been riding since 5.30am, and you’ve already ridden 230km of rough road that day.

We rode on. The pass was not so bad. Climb, descend, it rolled up and down, taunting us. The last few kilometres to the pass were brutal and steep, but because they were the last, it seemed ok. We were all so tired that we wavered all over the road, sleep drunk and unable to keep a straight line. And then we were at the top. Was this really the top? Yes. Warm layers on. And we descended, concentrating fiercely. Onto pavement. Rear lights on. Down low and hammering on the flat, on this easy sealed road. Fast, fast.

And we go through town, and drunk people wearing crazy hats yell at us. Where is our welcoming committee, our legion of fans? There is no-one. Just us. We arrive at the Fernie Leisure Centre once again, and take photos. It is 2.33am on Monday morning. 43.5 hours since we began. Or 1 day and 19.5 hours.

We go back to Katya’s house, I tell Chip and Amy then can sleep in her side yard. We waver to and fro, so tired. I go inside, use a wet towel to get the worst of the mud and muck off me, then collapse into bed. My heart pounds, I breathe fast and heavy. It feels like sleep won’t ever come, but then it’s morning.

We eat breakfast at Mugshots together the next morning. I’m ravenous, but vaguely nauseous, with a sore tongue. We all catch up, and find out that Tony cut the race short and so arrived in Fernie before us. It was a great ride.

And thanks to Amy and Chip for all the photos. We’ve ordered some parts to try and see if we can get my phone turn back on and try and retrieve my photos,┬ábut nothing is guaranteed, they may be lost forever.

Oh, and you can read Chip’s lovely story telling of the ride here.

5 thoughts on “The Kootenay Gravel Grinder”

  1. 269km/4100m is a very impressive day in the saddle! Well done.
    I enjoyed the ride write up as well. I hope you get yor phone sorted so you can retreive your photos.

    1. Thanks Dave – it was a pretty rough 269km in parts too! And I’m still holding out some hope for the photos – my IT gadget repair man is going to try a couple of possible fixes.

  2. Great ride! That would be a 3 day ride for me. ;)

    My go to saddle for LD riding is the Selle Anatomica. I don’t wear padded shorts or use any lotions and potions with it. My longest day was 300kms on it and I was fine.

    1. Yeah, I’d heard lots of great things about the Selle Anatomica – I’d used mine a bit, and hadn’t loved it, but decided to throw it on for this ride. We don’t get along. My preference is to not use padded shorts or potions either – I got through my 10,000km tour around Europe fine with just my Brooks saddle and wearing random clothes. I switched back to my Specialized saddle for my recent 500km of ridiculousness 10 days ago, and found it was better than the Selle Anatomica – I still had issues with swelling in the flesh around my sit bones, but they took longer to kick in, and in general the saddle felt better. I am beginning to suspect that the main issue is needing more long days in the saddle to get my body used to such treatment, and the best solution is more time in the saddle. But I’m still tossing up what my best saddle option is, and if I can find something that will work better for me! My old Brooks is a sprung version that won’t work with a seat bag, but I’m contemplating getting a new one.

      1. I use B17’s a lot and they work great as well. Not as well as the SA for me, but close enough. I don’t find any functional butt interface difference between the B17 and the sprung version. I also don’t notice any benefit to the springs from a comfort point of view and I’m 190lbs without gear.

        One sure fire solution to saddle issues is to ride singletrack tours! When you are only sitting down half the day you don’t need to find “the perfect” saddle. When you are gravel grinding a great saddle to butt interface is key!

        My butt doesn’t toughen up with extended riding so if I am going to be sitting a lot I have to nail the saddle choice.

        Good luck. Once you get a great saddle setup for bikepacking it makes everything else better. :)

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