Summer Sendoff: A Fernie Bikepacking Trip

The Vitals

Date: August 30 – September 3, 2020

Location: Fernie, BC

Distance: ~270 km

Partner: Brittany

Resources: Ride with GPS Route

Photos: Brittany

The Trip

Labour day is the traditional end to the summer season. The days are usually warm, but not hot, and you can put all the fitness you gained in a summer of activity to good use. Back in January we had planned to ride a route in Idaho with four other people during this last week of summer but with certain worldwide circumstances, we rode just two of us in our home province.

Wigwam flats

In typical fashion, Brittany had found a route she was excited about in the southeast corner of BC with a brief excursion into Alberta. We kept the drive stress-free and meandered our way across southern BC on the delightfully twisty Highway 3 to the town of Yahk where we slept at Canuck Cr. recreational site. In the morning there was frost on the car and a moose on the road.

Day 1: Fernie to Lodgepole Cr.

Our first day featured a relaxed start time of 3:00 pm as we pedalled out of Fernie south on the Elk Valley Trail under sunny skies. We were losing a fair amount of elevation but a wind in the valley meant it wasn’t free mileage.

Butt’s Cabin

At Elko, we turned away from the main roads and climbed up to Wigwam flats, a yellow, grassy plain on the side of Mt. Broadwood. The air was hot and dry and you could smell the tree resin in the still air. We followed the trail across the flats before a descent to Lodgepole Creek, passing just two fly fisherman. We had planned to continue to the Ram-Wigwam Recreation site 15 km further, but a nice spot by the creek and the fading day made an easy choice. We ate dinner as Mt. Broadwood became shrouded in black clouds.

South from Butt’s Cabin

Day 2: Lodgepole to Butt’s Cabin

It rained overnight but we slept well. The rain petered out around 7:00 and we were able to make breakfast and pack up under the grey skies. We began to ride through old forest fires before reaching the start of the climb up Cabin Pass. One of the fly fisherman told us it was a long slog but the road was never very steep.

Rain came and went and we spotted our first black bear as it sped off the road into the woods having seen us first. We passed near Inverted Peak but could scarcely see its lower rocky faces through the layers of cloud.

Looking north up the Flathead river

A long descent brought us to an active logging road that we followed for 2 km to Butt’s Cabin, another recreation site. With a picnic table, stacked firewood, and an outhouse, we were home for the night. We stored our food in the cabin and dried out our tent while building a small fire.

Our sleep was considerably worse as many large trucks drove by in the night. As we ate breakfast we saw large pieces of equipment loaded on transport trucks and wondered if they had been moving locations over night.

Old bridge on a road that choked out soon after

Day 3: Butt’s Cabin to Lynx Cr.

After one more kilometer on the active logging road, we left to cross the Flathead river and started heading towards Middle Kootenay Pass which would bring us over the continental divide and into Alberta. This valley extends into Montana and has the highest density of grizzly bears in interior North America.

After a river ford and a separate rickety bridge crossing, the road choked out and we spent a few kilometers pushing our bikes through thick alders and thimbleberries. Noise doesn’t penetrate very far in the bush so we had to be loud as we passed through this prime feeding territory. We didn’t want to dawdle, but we made time to eat handfuls of berries as we passed particularly laden bushes.

Looking back down the valley. You can see some of the overgrown road as a lighter band of green on the left.

The wind had picked up since last night and it was ripping along at the top of the pass. We stopped for some photos but started the steep and loose descent before we got too cold.

Top of Middle Kootenay Pass in the wind

After about an hour we reached Castle Mountain Resort. There were people around but no businesses so we couldn’t take a break inside for a hot drink. Instead, we continued on the paved road at 30 – 40 km/h with the wind behind us. We had to make one stop when we saw our second black bear. This one was headed down to the road and we saw it first. We stopped to shout and it stood up on its hind legs to get a better look at us. I had taken out my bear spray, just in case, when it dropped back down on all fours and returned to the protection of the forest.

Welcome to Alberta. Crossing the continental divide.

After less than 10 km on pavement, we left for the gravel roads that run through Castle Provincial Park. There was a bit of traffic and things were dusty. We planned on camping at one of the free designated camp sites but the first we came across provided no protection from the wind and was pretty ugly. On our way to the next free spot we were passing by the Lynx Creek pay sites and stopped to examine them. They offered nice shady trees, picnic tables, and a beautiful swimming area on the Carbondale River. We paid the fees and went down for a swim.

Well-deserved swim in the Carbondale River and the least racy photo Brittany gave me to use.

Day 4: Lynx Cr. to Leach Cr.

Another day dawned with continued wind. Our first 10 km were straight into it, sometimes in our lowest gear on flat ground. Brittany had to put a foot down to stop from falling over in one big gust.

Over time, the road we were following arced north and then east over a small pass through a logging-scarred landscape. We flew down the long descent to Brookmere, now more sheltered on the lee side of the pass.

Heavy winds for the next 10 km
Crowsnest Mountain from an old logging area south of highway 3.

Dark clouds were gathering again as we did a small grocery shop in Blairmore. A few kilometers further west along a pedestrian path we reached the town of Coleman and stopped at a restaurant for lunch. As we ate we watched the stiff west wind swing into a stiff east wind and paint the window with horizontal rain drops.

When we remounted, we were the beneficiaries of the wind change as it pushed us west along highway 3. At Crowsnest Lake we saw a few sheep and soon thereafter we got off the highway for good.

Moody weather

Twice we got off route and were turned back by “No Trespassing” signs for the Tent Mountain mine but we eventually got through this section on ATV trails which ended with some hideous logging block riding and a few big drops from the dark sky.

Fortunately, our camp site was another winner at the end of a dead-end road after another shallow creek crossing. Near our site was a huge swath of cut trees for a gas pipeline which gave some views to some distant mountains. The creek from which we drew our water had a few cow patties in it and I may have picked up a bug as my stomach is still aching two weeks later.

Last evening camp

Day 5: Leach Cr. to Fernie

The last day was very short. We climbed gently for about 10 km before a 20 km descent into town. Along the descent we passed through the ghost town of Coal Creek but actually didn’t see any old structures from the road. We did see that all of the dust and dirt had changed from brown to black in this area. We stopped for lunch just outside of Fernie but made it quick as it turned out we were next to the rifle range. The crack of guns wasn’t the kind of restful ambiance we had grown accustomed to over the previous days.

Goodbye summer

This trip was almost certainly our most successful bikepacking trip. We aimed much lower than on others with an average of only 55 km per day but there was a welcome amount of adversity in the form of a little bit of wind, a fair bit of elevation gained each day, and occasional rain showers. I also brought one of my journals from our bikepacking sabbatical and we spent a little time each evening in the wayback machine reliving some of our days riding in New Zealand, Korea, and Japan. In the right circumstance, your memory can really transport you back to another time and you can relive the feelings and sensations you had at that time. In these surroundings and with the journal providing a physical link to that time, I found our evenings to be a powerful reminder of how special our year-long trip had been.