I’ve never been much of a mountain biker, I just don’t possess the technical ability, never mind the fitness, to really enjoy the challenge of sticky mud, gnarly roots and jaggedy rocks along twisty, undulating trails. All too often I end up flat on my ass, staring at the sky, feet still clipped in to SPDs. The sad truth is I’m just a roadie. I dabble at MTB, CX and Track, but I’ve always been most happy on the road.
I also like numbers. For years I’ve used heart rate monitors, and more recently I’ve been exploring power meters. I’m by no means a slave to the numbers, I just find it interesting to play with the data and try to understand it all. When you have limited time to train, you need to make sure you are getting value from short sessions – is my rationale.
But when I packed my bag for my vacation in Canada I didn’t even bother with any proper cycling kit, never mind the HR strap. A pair of baggy shorts, an old t-shirt and a pair of trainers was about as technical as my sports apparel would be for this trip.
Preparation for this particular bike ride began after arrival in Jasper, not something I’d normally recommend, but my head was in holiday mode and I just wanted to go with whatever was thrown my way. I’d checked-in to my hotel and headed in to town early evening, in search of sustenance. The free wifi of The Jasper Brewing Company enabled me to search online and establish there were three potential bike rentals in the town. As I was enjoying my first pint of local favourite brew “Rockhopper” I overheard two guys on the next table discussing bears – a subject I was more than curious about. One put forward the time-old theory that if encountered by a bear, all you need do is play dead – just lie still on the ground and he will leave you alone as long as he perceives no threat. The other guy scoffed at this theory. “Well, that might work with some bears, but you better be sure he’s not a Grizzly, cos if the Grizzly finds you layin on the floor he’s gonna make sure you aint just playin’ dead”, was his hypothesis. Yikes.
Later, back at the hotel, the receptionist confirmed Jasper Source for Sports would be her first choice for bike hire, and a quick check on the map revealed it was the sports store nearest to the hotel too. Result. Not only that but it was also just around the corner from the Bear’s Paw Bakery – which looked like an excellent place to grab pre-ride breakfast.
Next morning that’s where I headed first to load-up on fresh coffee and even fresher pastries. The queue was out the door such was the popularity of this homely establishment, which seemed to be frequented by as many locals as tourists. The food all looked so delicious I picked-up some sandwiches for lunch too.
Next stop was the sports store, and open 9 ’till 9 it was ideal for a day rental. At $40 per day it’s maybe not the cheapest, but I found their assistant, Jordan, to be very knowledgable and helpful. Included in the deal he threw in use of a good Bell helmet, a saddle pack with spare & repair kit, a pump and a lock. The bike itself was a decent looking GIANT, which seemed new this season and well maintained. Jordan also provided a free local map which had information on every trail in the area. He added to this some advice based on my stated ability and what I wanted to get out of my day. He was really professional and within a few minutes of arriving in the shop we were adjusting the saddle height of my new ride for the day and I was pedalling off towards Patricia Lake, after filling my bidon from their water tap.
The trails in Jasper are quite varied. There are a number of “secondary” roads that are normally closed to motorised traffic. They make idea trails for the novice as are typically flat, wide and open. The surface can be a little loose, but generally they don’t present too much of a challenge to the less skilled bike handlers amongst us. If a bit of gravel is enough to put you off there are also plenty of Tarmac bike paths to stick to. I was interested to see the “share the trails” logo dotted around the place. As a frequent road user I’m more familiar with the “share the road” campaign. I’m happy to report no Trail Rage incidents with horse riders or hikers this time out.
I started with a little meander up the Trail marked “2”. This involved a slight incline and some modest single track – but you virtually hug the road all the way up to the lake. For a non native with a bear phobia this was a reassuring start to the ride. All the trails are well marked with a little yellow diamond shaped sign, similar to those found on all the highways in North America.
The climb up to Lake Patricia was steady but the incline was not too challenging for anyone who rides a bike regularly. Jordan’s prediction that the sun would soon burn off the mid morning cloud was spot-on and after a few minutes the long sleeves were stowed in the backpack and there they stayed for the rest of the day. Despite the temperature dropping to just 4C overnight, and the early morning cloud magically concealing the towering mountains that surround Jasper, the day was blossoming in to something stunning beautiful. Perfect for a bike ride of a lifetime.
The first view of Patricia Lake was something to behold indeed and not for the first time I realised I had my head in the clouds – only this time literally. As if the calm, clear water, reflecting the dramatic rocky peaks and vibrant evergreens were not enough to sooth the soul, a thin cottonwool layer of cloud hovered mysteriously above the lake. I’d only been in the saddle a few minutes but already I was forced to stop and retreive my camera from my backpack to grab some pictures. Jordan had warned me, your ride will take a bit longer than you expect “you’re gonna wanna stop and take pictures”. The boy was not wrong.
With a whole day of riding ahead the stop was brief. I jumped back on the trail and headed up towards Pyramid Lake via the Pyramid Trail. Again hugging the road you never felt too remote from “the real world”, but the tranquility and calmness was refreshing after the long drive I’d had the previous day. The Trail was not too technical at all, so it was very easy to just enjoy turning the legs and taking-in the magnificent unspoilt scenery.
Pyramid Trail follows the lake edge pretty closely, then as you near the end you hit this quaint little wooden bridge over a small outlet from the lake. Again it was impossible not to stop, get out the camera and just take-in the magnificent view of Pyramid Mountain.
Next I headed-up the Pyramid Fire Road. As its name suggests this is quite a wide track. There’s a bit of loose stuff under wheel and the gradient kicked-up a bit in places. Again though nothing too arduous. Any effort expended on the climb was more than adequately repaid with the reward of the view from a little lookout on the right hand side towards the top of the road.
Now I look back at these beautiful photos and think that they struggle to do justice to the sheer scale of the surroundings. All you can see in every direction are massive imposing mountains, and what must be millions and millions of evergreen fir trees…as well as the various bodies of water – of increasingly curious and contrasting shades of green.
The descent back down the Pyramid Fire road was rapid, and led to my first encounter with other humans since leaving the lakeside. I was sharing the trail with a couple of hikers and then a couple of fellow MTB’ers were making their way up to where I’d just been. I resisted the temptation to reassure them that their climbing efforts would all be duly rewarded in good time with the spectacular vista I had just witnessed.
There was also an abundance of wildlife. The recent humid weather had brought out the mosquitos – but thankfully there were plenty of friendly dragonfly who were feasting on the pests. One dragonfly joined me for a while, alongside my front wheel on the descent. He seemed to be racing me, before he sped off in search no doubt of second breakfast. The birds were out in force too, chirping merrily at the trail side and seemingly also enjoying the sunshine. Two butterflies fluttered playfully by and a squirrel popped out of the roadside greenery to say hello, then returned to munching his nuts. Thankfully though, still no bears.
At the foot of the Pyramid Fire Road I picked up the “2i” trail, which was also posted as “moderate” on the free map I still had in my pocket. It started simple enough but there were some twisty and steep sections where my ‘moderate’ handling skills forced me to put a foot down or walk a little. The trail snaked around and soon the sound of running water could be heard below. Eventually the trail dropped down to a little wooden bridge which took me safely across to the other side of a creek.
Here the trail joins the “2h” and I took the right hand fork to turn back Westwards and in the direction of Katrine Lake. The trail was again tight with a number of sharpish inclines dotted with exposed roots and rocks. I found it quite challenging, but I suspect a more accomplished “fat-wheeler” would have had it for breakfast. Just as I was starting to yearn for the comforting hiss of skinny bald tyres on smooth grey tarmcadam I was disarmed by the sight of Katrine Lake coming in to view through the trees.
The incredible emerald coloured lake was simply enchanting – I can’t think of another way to describe it. The only sound was the occasional buzz of the dragonflies hovering close to the lake surface – no doubt also thinking this lake made the perfect lunch stop. I propped up the bike on a rock and removed my lid, hanging it on the bars, before retrieving my Bear’s Paw sandwiches from my backpack. The tranquility of this secluded spot has to be experienced to be believed. You might imagine for a moment that you could be alone in this wilderness, this world even.
Back on the trail I continued along the “2h” and soon joined the “2b” – again towards Pyramid Lake. The trail here was manageable on the whole and generally downhill. The rocks appeared to be a little larger and more frequent than before, but I was in no hurry at all and was enjoying the challenge of the terrain after refuelling at Katrine.
It was about here that my imagination really began to take over and my mind drifted back to the bear conversation I’d overheard in the pub the previous night. At times this city boy began to feel quite isolated – deep in the woods and seemingly eons from civilization. I suddenly remembered – Bear Spray! I’d been told – by Canadians – never to venture in to the woods without this. It’s a form or pepper spray which apparently you are supposed to spray in the eyes of a bear if you should stumble across one. Then – run. Fast. But I didn’t have any bear spray. I wouldn’t even know where to get it from. I reassured myself that my new best friend – Jordan – was so super-efficient, there is no way he would ever have let me cycle off in to the woods without bear spray if there was any real chance of a grizzly encounter. However, it was still playing on my mind and tormenting my tiny brain. It’s remarkable how, through the trees, the silhouette of the roots of an upended tree can resemble the outline of a predatory bear waiting to eat you. My pace quickened a little. Emerging from the narrow trail and out from the trees I was suddenly rewarded with another spectacular view of Pyramid Lake – this time from a shaded, elevated vantage point.
From this lookout point it was a short snaking drop back down to the road, where my inner bear-terror subsided and once again other humans were spotted. I headed back down the main road, enjoying the lakeside views all the way, and stopped by Patricia Lake to top up my bidon with water. I’d had my fill of technical woodland singletrack for the moment and now headed up to the “8” trail via another secondary road, where the wide open spaces reassured me I would be able to spot any marauding bears from safe distance.
Driving through the National Parks in the Canadian Rockies I often asked myself the question – how many trees are there in Canada? I could not begin to imagine – suffice to say, its a shit load. It’s hardly surprising then when one falls over. I encountered a couple of these on the road to Cabin Lake. I had seen many more fallen trees throughout the day – that had at one time blocked the trail, but the others had all had their mid-section chainsawed away to ensure the trail remained clear. I guess the trusty lumberjack or forest ranger was elsewhere today. Nonetheless it was easily negotiated. Cabin Lake was a different colour again – offering another contrast to this constantly breathtaking scenery.
I was tempted to take in the full “Saturday Night Loop” – a trail that links six small lakes, but I was keen also to get back down in to Jasper and across to the other side of the railroad and explore the Athabasca River, and the glacial lakes that lie alongside. So I span around and headed back down the trail.
From Jasper town centre you can pick up a good cycle path that runs adjacent to the railroad and south towards the edge of town. After taking a couple of left turns you soon find yourself alongside the icy-blue waters of the awe-inspiring Athabasca River. The water here is an incredible grey-green colour and I saw a number of small boats and kayaks dotted around, with a few people sunbathing on the little sandy riverside beaches.
A very short distance further and Lake Beauvert reveals it’s magnificence. The water here looked so incredibly clear and pure.
Across this body of water lay the Jasper Park Lodge and golf club. The lush green fairways were a major contrast to the sun parched grasses of the rest of the park. The setting felt like perfection, with the only sound the occasional whir of the electric golf carts zipping by and the ‘ping’ of golf club against ball. There were a few more bikers on this side of the river, where the cycle ways are flat and smooth.
I continued North and stopped by Lake Annette and Edith Lake. Both had lots of young families playing in the water. Eventually I found my way back to the Athabasca River and across this wooden plank bridge to pick-up the “13” route and head south wards back to the centre of Jasper.
Trail “13” rises sharply from the road and a couple switchbacks see you gain height rapidly. The narrow track opens out to reveal the adjacent railroad on the right hand side, and the Yellowhead Highway below to the left.
As I arrived back to the outskirts of Jasper town, after a full day on the bike, the time was well after 6pm and the clouds were once again congregating overhead. Although, there was never a hint of rain, they seemed poised to en-cloak the mountains again, like a giant fluffy white blanket, hiding the rocky peaks from view. I decided to shower at the hotel before riding back to Source for Sports, saving me the walk. The bike was returned with minimal fuss and within a few minutes I was back at the Jasper Brewing Company, refuelling after a long day in the saddle. The food here was simple, but delicious, and I managed to work my way through all their craft beers on the menu too. This is what holidays are all about…play hard, then play harder!
The staff were really friendly too and when my server (who’s mother as it happens is from Ormskirk – just 30 km from my house) asked if I’d like dessert I said I think I’ll stay with beer. She said, “I’ve got just the thing for you”, and disappeared off with a cheeky, knowing grin. She returned a couple of minutes later with a ‘Stout Float’: namely a pint of dark stout ale, with a shot of espresso vodka, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream nestling neatly on top. And a spoon. Perfect end to the perfect day.
As I said at the start, I’ll never make much of a mountain biker, but it was such a refreshing change to ride by the numbers of the MTB trails rather than the HRM that guides me when out training on the road. And what a place to do it, absolutely stunning environment. I’m blessed to live in a great location in the UK, with relatively close access to North Wales, the Cumbrian Lake District and the Peak District, where there are some decent hills to ride and really scenic countryside. But the scale and beauty of the Jasper National Park really is something else and if you ever get the chance to spend a day or two riding the trails go and see Jordan, he’ll fix you up in no time. As for the bears, maybe they were all on vacation too. Whilst it would have been very cool to see one, my day was epic enough without the added drama of a furry encounter.