Ducky's Banff Trip

Kaitlin Duck Sherwood


I went to Banff, Alberta on a package bicycle camping tour, organized by Backroads, Inc. We spent six days biking from Banff to Jasper. The chase van+trailer carried our luggage, tents, sleeping bags, food, water, and the occasional tired biker (i.e., me). We had to set up our own tents and make our sack lunches, but our three guides prepared the breakfasts and dinners and did all the dishes.

I had five objectives before I left:

  1. Avoid damaging my body (in particular the hip I sprained).
  2. Practice camping for my New Zealand bike trip and see what I need to do to prepare.
  3. Get some good exercise.
  4. Make friends and meet people.
  5. See lots of pointy mountains and trees.


The bikes that they rented were really nice. They had wide tires (like mountain bikes) but with smooth treads. On the occasional rough pavement or when I dorked and rode off the road, this was a very welcome feature.

The bikes had really smooth indexed shifting with 18 gears. We had a back rack, a front handlebar bag, and a mirror. We were also all issued reflective triangles to wear on our backs. It was quite a sight to see a line of bikers in front of me, all with triangles on their butts. It was sort of like being in a wierd derivation of Hell's Angels!


A number of people have expressed curiosity about the makeup of the campers:
  • Steve (retired geologist) + Maureen (drama prof), Susan (forget), Helen (plastic surgeon), Bellingham WA
  • Rona (AIDS administration*), Dan (legislative aide to Virginia senator), DC
  • Elizibeth (vet), Baltimore, Margret (World Health Org administration*), Boston (sister of Eliz)
  • Lenny (gastrointestinal doctor), Eric (8th grade), Orinda CA
  • Ruby (print advertising producer), NYC
  • Sandy (pediatric resident), DC
  • Mara (librarian), Belmont CA
  • Jane (art broker), SF CA
  • Rick (lawyer) + Kathryn (sales supervisor), Denver
  • Stuart (jewelry biz exec) + Cindy (mom), Dallas (on a tandem!)
  • [*] When I say "administration", I'm not sure what they do but I believe it is non-scientific.

    All you single men, take note! Nine single women and only one single man! (Not counting the 13-year-old, that is.) I asked one of the guides about it, and she thinks that women are more concerned about safety and thus more interested in a group tour than men.

    The four from Bellingham were all "grown-ups". Jane, Lenny, Kathryn, Rick, and Stuart were all probably ten years older than me. Everyone else was in the amorphous "my age" category (30), more or less. I might have been the youngest (aside from Eric, of course), hard to tell.

    Most of the people were near major life changes: The Bellinghamers were retired or coming close, Elizibeth and Margret had just finished vet school and grad school, Sandy was in in the middle of residency, Jane needs to get out of the art field before she goes broke, Rick&Kathryn just moved to Denver, and Stuart&Cindy are pregnant. And that is just the stuff I know about. I don't know if this kind of trip attracts people in transistion, or if people are usually in transition and we just don't think about it!

    We also had three guides: Jeannie, Tami, and Shelly. Shelly was from BC and Jeannie and Tami were from the east San Francisco Bay region.


    I flew into Vancouver and wandered around. The hotel people told me to take a bus ($2) instead of a taxi ($30) to downtown. The bus took about an hour each way, oh well.

    I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery and discovered Emily Carr, a neat Canadian artist who is sort of a cross between O'Keefe and Van Gogh. My hip was complaining a little, so instead of walking around more, I blew some money on an hour-long tour of the city in a 1936 Model A convertible with a very chatty ex-P.E. teacher. I need to go back to Vancouver, very nice place. (Note - I've been told that Model A's were only produced through '31, so I don't know if it was a plain Ford or an earlier Model A.)


    I flew into Calgary, walked outside and said, "uh-oh". I waited around for half an hour, got on a bus, and rode to Banff past rolling prarie.

    I got off the bus in Banff and said, "oh SHIT!".

    It was COLD.

    After having been in hot hot hot California for so long and in hot hot hot Boston and in hot hot hot Montreal, I didn't really believe them when they said it might be cold in Banff in early September. I had brought one pair of sweats and decided that if my legs were gonna get wet, they were gonna get wet, oh well.

    Jeannie was at the meeting point (the Banff train station) with all of the bikes (and food, yay!), so as soon as I ascertained that my bike fit me ok, I took her vague directions and scurried into town to buy some tights and raingear and gloves. I rolled onto Banff Ave expecting to see a general store with a hitching post in front of it, a post office, a school, and a church, silly me. What I found was six or eight blocks of teeming tourists and teeming tourist stores. It was really quite amazing. I also remember thinking that it was odd that there were so many tourists there in the middle of winter. (That is how cold I was!)

    After walking the strip once and not seeing the place Jeannie had recommended, I went back to the train station, got the info packages, "route rap" (i.e. directions to the campground), and better directions, and went back and bought some cold-weather gear, then off to the Tunnel Mountain Campground.


    On my way into camp, I passed a HUGE bull elk, eating RIGHT at the opposite side of the road. He was quite a magnificent specimen, with a full rack and everything. I felt a little uncomfortable being so close to him, but then I figured that he was basically a just a large deer and therefore a coward. I rode quietly by so as not to scare him away, and he mostly ignored me.

    About a 400m later, I roll up to the campground toll-booth-ish info hut, and see a big sign saying something like, "WARNING! IT IS RUTTING SEASON AND MALE ELK ARE NOW EXTREMELY AGGRESSIVE! KEEP YOUR DISTANCE!!!" Oh great. I could have been shiskebabed and didn't even know it. Oh well, at least I didn't stop to try to feed it.

    At the campground I found that I am tenting with Mara Matsumara, the librarian from Belmont (who works in Mountain View close to where I lived). I also discovered that contacts and camping are a strange mix. There are bathrooms at this campground, but I have to go a ways in the dark (and I don't see well at night) to find the tent. I have a flashlight, but it is only good for illuminating the nearest five feet, oh well. It took me a while to find my tent.

    Day total: about 9 klicks.


    I did not sleep well at all. I probably got a sum total of about four hours of sleep. I was not happy. AND I was cold. We did have exceptionally yummy pancakes for breakfast, however.

    I rode past a (huge) buffalo pen (no buffalo visible, unfortunately), up hills and down hills, mostly on Bow Valley Parkway (Route 1A). I was a little cold but mostly ok, and took a van shuttle starting at 20 km just to be careful. I rode by Castle Mountain, Storm Mountain, Protection Mountain, and lots of trees. We camped that night and the next at Lake Louise Campground.

    The most exciting part of the ride was crossing a bridge that was made of pipes that were about eight inches wide and had about eight inches between them - just the right length to catch feet if you weren't careful. One Canadian tells me that those are called "cattle-stops"; another called it a "cattle gate". The bridge didn't go over much of anything; I'm told that the Parks department uses them to restrict the movements of the large mammals. I walked over the bridge - if you caught your wheel sideways, it could be REAL exciting.

    There was also a hike up to some falls that day at Johnston Canyon. I got a really strange feeling of deja vu until I realized that my friends Jeff and Anne had shown me photos of exactly these falls.

    I had been riding with Ruby, and I remember hiking up far enough to see one set of impressive waterfalls and getting some guy to take our photos. He turned out to be yet another computer geek from Silicon Valley!

    Day total: about 50 km.


    Moraine Lake

    I took a van shuttle the 13 km to Lake Moraine and was glad I did. The road was narrow, the pavement wasn't great, and it went straight UP. When I got there I was tired, and my hip was whispering to me, so I walked along a (level) path around the lake and ate lunch by the mouth of a creek. Very nice.

    The water was a very strange, almost Caribbean color: take the color that swimming pools are painted and add a touch of green and a little white. You'd swear it was a color not found in nature, but the color actually comes from glacial silt which is suspended in the water three to five feet below the surface.

    I then rode 11 km straight DOWN. WHEEE! I was surprised to find how demanding riding downhill can be. Because the pavement wasn't great and I didn't want to pummel my posterior, AND because you get better balance that way, I had my weight on my feet and not my tail... and was tightly tucked, so my thighs were acting like giant shock absorbers... for 11 km. Fortunately, it didn't take very long! :-)

    Lake Louise

    I then rode 2 km straight up to Lake Louise, where a great hike was promised us up to Agnes Teahouse. Okay, I can deal with that.

    Except this turned out to be 4 km straight up.

    I'm so buff. I'm so buff. I was about ready to die when I got to the top. I'm so buff. I'm so f*cking buff. Apparently the workers LIVE up there and the supplies get packed in by horse. That is how steep the trail was. I did have cookies and a wonderful peach drink at the top.

    Agnes Lake also apparently is untainted. Someone asked for a glass of water and they gave her an empty cup. "The water is safe here", they said. It looked neat, but I decided with my IgA deficiency I ought not to risk the water, even if they said it was safe.

    [I realized later that I *had* risked the water, that the peach drink was undoubtedly made from concentrate. Oh well! It did not seem to disagree with me.]

    Chateau Lake Louise

    I then decided to hustle down the trail so that I had some hope of not being left behind by the more macho studly members of the pack. Halfway down the 4 km plummet, I realized I had to pee. The trail was so steep and had so many switchbacks that there really wasn't a private place to jump off to... so I practically ran down the trail to get to Chateau Lake Louise.

    Once I got there, I could not find a friggin' restroom. All I could find were these idiotic boutiques selling all kinds of stupid expensive stuff. Finally, I found a restroom.

    When I came out and turned the corner, I practically ran into a hat tree covered with berets. I was able to find three berets in colors I didn't have at one of the charming little boutiques selling interesting and exotic wares.

    At that point we whizzed four km straight down to the campground.

    Day total: 17 km.


    I spent the whole way in the van, as I tweaked my hip getting out of the tent. *sigh* It was a beautiful day and a beautiful ride, oh well. At least Shelly, who is a total riot, was driving the van.

    We spent the night at the Rampart Creek Campground.

    Day total: zilch.


    It started raining at breakfast. It was cold. Cold and wet. Cold and clammy. This was the big day, too, the day we took on Sunwapta Pass. This was the climb that we had been worrying about all week.

    I had decided already that I was going to ride to Weeping Wall and shuttle past Sunwapta Pass. I was feeling the need for exercise after a day of being in the van.... so I set off.

    The Meaning of "Cold"

    Now, I am sure that there have been times in my life when I was more miserable, but I am hard pressed to think of when.

    I couldn't find the long-fingered gloves I had been wearing under my cycling gloves, so my fingers were freezing. They were so cold that I put them as close together as possible on the handlebars - so that the handlebar bag would block the wind.

    My legs were soaked. I had elected to take the "breathable and hightly water repellent and cheaper" rain pants instead of the "not breathable and totally water proof" rain pants. I don't know if they were wet from sweat, wet from rain getting through, or wet from rain IN the rain pants, but my legs were freezing. (I had tights on underneath or I would have just died then and there.)

    I had on my ski jacket (among other things) which was keeping my upper body dry from the elements... but on uphills I would sweat and get all wet and open my jacket... and on downhills I would wind-whip all that sweat and just freeze.

    My socks were soaked and my feet were approaching numbness. My body moved, but it sure wasn't happy about it.

    Weeping Wall

    When I got to Weeping Wall, the van had not shown up yet, so I went another 2 km to the start of the Sunwapta pass climb - just to keep warm! Still no sign of the van, so I turned around and rode back to Weeping Wall, where a crowd was beginning to form. The van pulled in shortly and a very large number of people piled in. The only topic of conversation for the next hour was how cold we were.

    Bridal Veil Falls

    At Bridal Veil Falls, Tami and some of the campers went off on the hike while the rest of us cranked up the heat in the van and tried to dry off. By the time Tami got back, I had my spare (wool) socks on and was feeling partially human again.

    Columbia Icefields

    When we got to the Columbia Icefields, I got out and looked around the Visitor Center. The icefields were impressive. From the Visitor's Center, I could see tour busses at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier, looking like tiny letters that had fallen off of a white page of ice. Inside the Visitor Center, there was a model of the whole icefield, where the Athabasca Glacier was no bigger than a large wart on the pinky of the hand that was the whole icefields.

    There are snow-coach tours where they take you out onto the icefield and show you the "geological features" resulting from water erosion, collapse, streaming, etc. I would have liked to have gone on the tour, but I also wanted to get in some more riding and didn't have the two hours to spare.

    My Competetive Nature

    Besides, I wanted to enter the coasting contest.

    Tami had told us the rules: no pedalling after the Tangle Creek Falls. When you finally come to a stop, write your initials in rocks at the side of the road.

    So at the icefields, I took my leave of the van. (It was COLD COLD COLD, at least in part from the huge cold sink of the glacier, but at least by now the rain had stopped.)


    I rode up to a bit before Tangle Creek Falls, put my beret back on under my helment, zipped my coat, tipped my head back to take a drink... and saw about five mountain sheep right above me on the rocks! Wow! Awesome! I completely forgot about putting my sunglasses back on. (This was a BAD move.)

    Down, Down, Down

    And then I was off! I hit Tangle Creek Falls at a good clip and kept coasting. And coasting. And coasting. The wind was whipping my eyes so hard that they were tearing. It was so cold that I was a little worried that my tears would freeze! And still I coasted. (I will admit to getting going so fast a few times that I applied brakes.) And coasted. I then came to a flatter area. And coasted. My arms were getting tired at this point, and I was starting to slow down, so I folded my arms and lay them across the handlebars. [NOTE: There was a very wide shoulder, so it was not as dangerous as it sounds.] And I coasted. I was going so slowly at this point that it was a little dull. And I coasted. I was now going so slowly that I had to concentrate on my balance else I fall off. And I coasted. I finally hit a bit more of downhill and was able to pick up a bit more speed before hitting another flatter stretch. And I coasted. And I coasted. My legs were getting so tired from crouching in the same position that I would occasionally pedal backwards to loosen them up. And I coasted. There was a curve ahead and then enough of a down slope to pick up some speed. And I coasted. I finally lost my concentration and wobbled enough that I had to stop. Had I made it another 200 m, I would have probably gone another 2 km, oh well.

    We measured it later in the van and I had gone about 10 kilometers without pedaling once.

    Endless Chain Ridge

    After that, the weather cleared up and the rest of the ride was beautiful! It was sunny & warm, the trees were all green & sparkling, the clouds threw neat shadows on Endless Chain Ridge, and my body moved like it was supposed to. It was clearly the best riding day for me. The contrast between morning and afternoon rides could not have been more stark.

    I let the van pick me up after about 35 km not because I was fatigued but because there were frost cracks in the pavement about 8 feet apart and I was getting tired of the whumpa whumpa whumpa on my arms, legs, and derriere.

    That night we stayed at a motel. Aaaaaaaaah. I believe that beds are a wonderful invention.

    Day total: 60 km


    This was the final day, and I had to be in Jasper by 12:30 at the latest to shower and catch the van to the bus depot to go back to Banff. (Backroads can take some people in the van, but it was already fully booked.) This meant that if I wanted to do the whole ride, I had to really hustle my little behind.

    I went the 24 km from the lodge to Athabasca Falls in 65 minutes. I know that world-class marathoners run twice as far at a faster clip, but I consoled myself by saying that they don't usually have to go over as many hills as I did. I really knocked myself out, and got to the falls 15 minutes before Tami had said we ought to get there if we were going the whole way. But I was too wiped out to face another 30 km at that clip, and I did NOT want to miss the bus.

    Athabasca Falls

    Besides, Athabasca Falls was quite nice. Not only did frighteningly large amounts of water flow by in frighteningly short timespans, there were a number of old channels that you could walk down. You could see where the river had dug potholes, see the stratification in the rocks, and wander down canyons.

    I took the van to Jasper, showered, and started a book while leaning comfortably against the pile of luggage. I finished the book on the bus to Banff.

    After a layover and dinner with Sandy in Banff, I got back to Calgary at about 9 PM, and promptly retired.

    A pleasant side effect of taking the bus instead of the Backroads van transfer to Banff was that I got to repose in comfort, while some people who van'd to Banff and then picked up the bus said that 15 people in the van was too many.

    Day total: 24 km.


    I woke up to an alarm at 5:44 AM, Calgary time. That's 4:44 AM Pacific time. Despite being very happy at being in a bed once again, I roused myself, checked out, caught a 6 AM shuttle to the airport, and got on a 7:30 flight to Vancouver. The pilot told us after we boarded that there was fog in Vancouver, and that we would try to figure out if we should go or not. After not very much sitting around, I guess the pilot got bored and decided to go for it.

    One hourish to Vancouver. Holding pattern. Holding pattern. (I was half-asleep and/or reading, so I didn't mind much.) The pilot came on and told us that we only had about 40 minutes of fuel left, and that we would attempt a landing, but if we didn't have adequate visibility, we'd abort and go to Kelowna.


    So we tried, failed, and aborted and went to beautiful scenic Kelowna. They let us off the plane for half an hour while they refueled, and then we tried again. About half the plane (and the crew) was continuing on to SFO, so we tried to get a petition going to take this plane to SFO, but for some silly reason they weren't buying it. They also wouldn't give us extra frequent flyer miles for going to Kelowna, but graciously decided not to charge us for the flight to Kelowna.

    Naturally, I left Mom's work number on the plane, so couldn't call to tell her that I wouldn't be in until later. I wasn't expecting her to pick me up anyways, since she would be working. I didn't have to be back home until 7 PM the next day, so I was in no hurry and kind of enjoying the tour of British Columbia.]

    Canada is a Fine Place

    Let me also note here that Canadian Airlines is the nicest airline I have ever flown with. (No, I've never flown KLM, Lufthansa, or SAS.) They had legroom for days and the food was actually quite good. (And they gave us juice and cookies on the way to Kelowna!) This seemed typical of Canada.

    Canada is much more "nurturing" than the US. They do that "extra bit" as a matter of course and trust people more. For example, we never never never locked the bikes, even "in town". For example, I asked a cashier where the post office was, and when he told me he gave me some money and asked me to mail a package for him when I bought my stamps. For example, when we went to the public showers at Lake Louise Village (which were combined with a laundromat - clean everything in one stop!), the guy had us all toss our wet towels into a dryer no extra charge. The country had a very friendly feeling to it. End of digression.


    Ok, so we went back to try for Vancouver. This time I was at a window, and I was sure we were going to die when we went into the fogbank. We are talking cotton candy here, with visibility to match. I've been on enough airplanes lately to think that I have a sense of how far from the runway we are based on the engine activity, and I could tell we were REALLY low while still in the soup. I was sure we were going to die when suddenly we came out of the clouds, everything was clear, and the runway was RIGHT THERE. I tell ya, modern technology is wonderful.

    So I got booked onto a 3 PM flight. I left a message on Mom's voicemail at work telling her I'd get in at about 5:30 and IF she felt like picking me up it would be nice.

    Well, because of the fog and all, the 3 PM flight had extra people on it. I didn't have to be back until 7 PM tonight, so I took the bump for a round-trip trip to basically anywhere in Canada and a few places in the US. I called Mom at work and left a message on her voicemail telling her I wouldn't get in until about 10 PM, and IF she felt like picking me up etc etc etc. Boy, she sure had a lot of meetings or something that day.


    I ended up "adopting" a Chinese grandmother from SF who had gotten bumped involuntarially. She was none too pleased about it, either. "I pay all money, why this happen?" She was somewhat mollified when she finally understood that she'd get a free ticket out of it, however. So we kicked about the airport together, I helped her through customs again, she bought me drinks, etc. :-) She wants me to come up to San Francisco for dim sum sometime.


    Finally, at about 6 PM, I remembered that it was Labor Day, and that Mom wouldn't have been at work to get all my messages. The dear sweet woman had already been to the airport twice that day, but still came to pick me up at 10 when my flight finally got it..... AND had already put milk, juice, and bread in my fridge for me! Give that mother a raise!


    The reason I didn't spend more time in Canada was that I had a night class on the evening of Day Eight. I arrived home to discover that the class had been cancelled and all class dates have been shifted back one week. #$(#)$!@$*#(%@)#*% *#$&(*

    So Was It A Success?

    Avoid Damaging My Body

    I succeeded in this, but at a price. I had sprained my hip in March, and it had been very slow to heal. I am also not a class 1 bike racer, so I had decided ahead of time to take the maximum wimp factor routes w/van shuttles. Furthermore, on Day 4 my tent-mate was sleeping on the side with the flap, and I didn't want to step on her or wake her up, so I ended up doing this funny sideways crouching leap through the tent flap.... and felt my hip go PING! To be safe, I elected to take the van the whole way that day, which was really a shame because it was one of the nicest days.

    Prepare for Camping in New Zealand

    I guess this was a success: I learned that camping on the cold hard ground hurts. Not "uncomfortable" - "uncomfortable" is sitting in an airplane for seven hours. This HURT, perhaps in part because of a car accident a few years back. (I was sleeping on a simple 1/2" foam pad and I have been told that I should get a ThermaRest(TM).)

    I also discovered that summer in Canada in the mountains (and perhaps by extension, summer in New Zealand in the mountains) can be COLD! I did not pack appropriately, and even after buying more appropriate gear in Banff, still froze.

    [Postscript: after actually taking the bike trip around New Zealand, I can say that not once did I end up camping, nor did I learn how to pack to avoid being cold!]

    Get Some Good Exercise

    Because of objective #1, I didn't ride as much as I had thought: about 9 km on Day 1,
    50 km on Day 2,
    17 km on Day 3 (+ 8 km hiking),
    0 on Day 4,
    60 km on Day 5, and
    25 km on Day 6.
    I also did way more downhills than uphills, so the numbers are a little deceptive. (10 km = 6 miles). (Days 1 and 6 were abbreviated days.)

    Make Friends and Meet People

    I ended up holding myself away from the group for a number of reasons:

  • I was tired&grouchy from not sleeping well.
  • One, then two, then three of the people got colds. I ended up doing this little dance around the campground trying to be sociable without being anywhere near any of the sick people, and it eventually became untenable.
  • I was excessively, painfully, stinkily flatulant. I don't know why - the food wasn't that different from what I normally eat. The only things I can think of were that I was pumping a LOT more food through my digestive tract than I normally do (to make sure I had enough energy to make it up the hills) and we were at high altitude (meaning the pressure difference between inside me and outside me was greater?). [Postscript: my doctor thinks maybe I picked up a touch of giardia from somewhere.]
  • Because of objective #1, I didn't sweat and bleed through all the bonding miles with the pack like everyone else did.
  • There were four people besides myself who did not come with a friend or affection unit, and it was quite striking how much less the "singles" mingled. I don't know how much was self-selection (introverts might not have had any friends to bring) and how much was group dynamics, but it was REALLY interesting to see it play out.

    See lots of pointy mountains and trees

    The scenery was just gorgeous. Pointy mountains, trees trees trees trees, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, elk, sheep, ravens, etc etc etc. If you like trees, this is a definite stop on your world tour.

    I clearly realized my goals for first, second, and fifth priorities, but the third and fourth were less successful. I *am* happy that I went, but because of my personal physiology, I think I would probably not do it again.


    Two days before I left, I broke my cardinal rule of travelling and bought clothes for the trip. Lots of clothes for the trip. Nice tight spandex shorts and jersys and a BRIGHT YELLOW long-sleeved light goretexish jacket/jersy.

    I was truly amazed at just how incredibly sexy these clothes made me - to bumblebees! They saw my bright yellow jersy and decided that I was a flower that needed pollinating!


    You may reproduce this document in whole or in part without my permission provided that you do not receive money for it, you do not alter it, and you attribute the author.

    Thanks to Drew Paterson for giving me a number of corrections on Banff-area geography!