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The International Writers Magazine: Travel Safe?

Real Adventure Travel
Joel Palenychka

If you want a traveling adventure then travel with an adventurer. Who, or what, defines an adventurer? Simple: an Adventurer is that one person either too unafraid, too stubborn, or just plain too... uncomplicated... to not choose the adventurous path.

Sometimes you just need to go with the dumb choice and see what happens.

Scott and I have often said we'd like to take a day ride together through Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada, otherwise known as K-country, to visit my wife Ronya on one of her tours. Ronya works as a paramedic deep in the mountains on a two-on, four-off rotation that has her situated in some of the richest mountain scenery for 48 hours straight. I've been out there a number of times to visit her while she's working but I've only ever taken two routes: either straight out on the number 1 or south through Turner Valley and Black Diamond. Both routes circle around K-country to the well paved, well maintained, and well traveled highway 40.

For this ride, however, Scott wanted something different. He decided we would take a route straight through the middle of K-country, a route that would take us across to highway 40 directly. I had often tried to find such a route on my ordinary provincial map but never could. I assumed Scott had a solid idea of the route we would take. At least he seemed to.

We started the trip heading straight south out of Calgary but instead of going all the way to Turner Valley we turned west down the 22x towards Bragg Creek, where we got to see how the rich country folk live with farms straight out of a Norman Rockwell paintings. I'd slept in that morning and the quick start meant I hadn't had time to get in my morning coffee. Lucky for both of us Bragg Creek is rich with cafes and wineries, including one location that was a pleasant combination of both.

Fortified by caffeine and some idle banter we took highway 758 out of Bragg Creek following along the very creek for which the town is named. There were a lot of locals out enjoying the gorgeous day as well, with entire families camped out by the river. I was amused by one teen dragging out an inflatable shark nearly as big as she was.

The 758 eventually lead us to highway 66 which continued westward and straight into the park. A few more kilometers past the park's entryway and we were passing the iron bar gate that locks the road off for half the year. The area is a major migration route for wildlife during fall and spring months, and is just plain impassible in winter, so it gets locked down between December 1 and June 15 every year.

It's worth the wait. The area is far less travelled and therefore far less travel-worn than the usual camping areas. And there were plenty of camps along that highway, every one of them marked with a "no vacancy" sign. The whole park was filled to capacity, although we hardly saw anyone. The forest is lush and thick, and the actual campgrounds are well off the main road.

The 66 eventually came to an end at little campground next to Forget Me Not pond. The highway actually transformed into a gravel road at that point while the remaining pavement branched to the left into the campground parking. Faced with the end of paved road we pulled into the parking lot and Scott asked if I had a map. It didn't occur to me at the time to wonder why he didn't have a map himself, I just assumed he had a good idea of where he was going already and hadn't bothered to bring one.

My map didn't turn out to be much help anyway as it didn't have highway 66 or the subsequent gravel road printed on it. Scott tossed it back to me, lit another cigarette, and said "Heck with it, we'll go back and take Powderface Trail."

I hadn't actually noted the name of the gravel road we'd passed so I thought he was talking about some other paved road further back. It wasn't until he signaled for the left hand turn that I realized what he was talking about.
A little stunned at this turn of events I beeped my horn to try and get his attention, most especially to point out the three by twelve foot sign he was passing, but he either didn't hear me or didn't care. He just churned his way around the first bend, gravel spewing out from his rear wheels. The sign, I wanted to point out, said:

I was sure he had seen it. It was large and white with clearly printed black letters, all capitalized. You couldn't miss it.
So, in my trusting naivete, I decided he must have known something I didn't, and churned my own way around the corner.

Truth was, Scott didn't know any more than I did. He honestly had no way of knowing where the road would lead, or if it was even passable. He just figured we'd give it a try.

It wasn't until we were past the first turn that we found out that Powderface Trail did indeed lead somewhere, to highway 68, and would do so in 34 kilometers. From there we'd be able to take 68 to 40 and the station where my wife worked.
Which would be no problem except this was my first time ever riding on a gravel road. It's something I've deliberately avoided in fact. I've heard horror stories of people laying down on gravel during turns. Scott even had a joke about it: "What's the difference between gravel and ball bearings? Ball bearings don't hurt as much when you fall on them."
Needless to say I was a little scared, and a little tense.

But I did it. I made it through the whole trek, and what's more I enjoyed just about every second of it. I won't lie, there were a few sketchy moments where I felt the front tire skidding out a bit that spiked my adrenaline, but for the most part I enjoyed the ride.

More than enjoyed it, in fact. I was concerned that my bike would not be suited to rough travel, but in truth it felt like my little Suzuki 550 GS was made for rough gravel roads.

I never shifted higher than second. Most of the time the bike simply rumbled it's way around the curves, uphill and down. The throttle gave me just enough control to make it up the hills without spinning my wheels and enough friction to slow me down the hills without sliding.

I had a thought during my ride: My bike was made in 1978, the year in which I turned thirteen. The perfect year for a young boy to receive a newborn pup were his parent's so inclined. Years later that pup would grow into a solid, reliable watch dog, strong and true. A few decades, though, and the loyal dog would be old, well past his prime, and possibly a little unsure of his usefulness.

But give that old dog a dire situation, a chance in which to prove himself and to show the young pups How It Was Done In The Day, and the rough and confident rumbling growl you'd hear from his chest would sound very much like my Suzuki.
It was not spry, it was adept. It was not nimble, it was steady. It did not prance, it prowled. It did not force, but flowed. It was firm, sure, and direct. It knew what it was doing and it did not falter. Not once.

After the trip Scott asked if I'd ever ridden on gravel before. I admitted I hadn't. He apologized and admitted he'd wished he'd asked sooner. He would have given me some advice on how to handle it. Primary among the gems would have been "don't fight the bike, let it do it's thing."

I was fortunate enough to figure that out on my own. I quickly learned to let the bike right itself when the rear tire started to slide. The temptation to hit the brakes was strong, but I knew from my training that braking on gravel while sliding would only complete the tragedy, not avert it. I also kept to a steady, slow acceleration and deceleration. Essentially, it simply becomes important to avoid any sudden movements.
As you might with any old and loyal watchdog.

The road was glorious. Alternating between being bracketed so tightly by trees that you felt as if you were winding your way through a tunnel, to wide open plateaus that left you breathless. Switchbacks and tight turns abound, with little room to pass any oncoming traffic. Luckily, there is very little other traffic on that road.

There were a dozen or so parked cars, campers enjoying their weekend in the back woods, and about a handful of mountain bikers forever pumping their way uphill. Mindful of keeping both hands on my grips I gave them a quick wiggle of the fingers from my left hand. They did the same back. I guess that's the back-roads rider equivalent of a hearty wave.
We also passed one fellow with a dirt bike who was taking a bit of a rest. He gave us a big smile and a wave. I wondered if he thought we were nuts going down that road on street bikes.

More modern street bikes, I theorized, probably would have problems with that road. Sport bikes would be too high strung... energetic pups too eager to be kept under control, their back ends wagging with unbridled enthusiasm. One twitch of the throttle and the bike would be skittering off sideways with the rider sliding behind it. And while the laid back cruisers would probably handle the measured pace required I couldn't help but imagine the riders whining "My chrome! My paint job!" as the gravel pelted their showy purebreds.

We arrived at highway 68 in under an hour or so and took a short break to stretch our limbs, congratulate ourselves and, in my case, drain off some adrenaline. I doffed my jacket to cool down a bit and noted how my it was now an uneven tan in color. I remarked to Scott on how that was the dirtiest my jacket had been to date. He afforded me some congratulations for this.

Highway 68 was gravel as well, wider, better graded, and in some ways a little scarier than Powderface Trail. It's suggested speed limit is 80 km, more in keeping with what you'd expect from an open road, but I don't think we managed the limit more than three or four times. We kept to a stately 60 km for most of it, still watching the curves for drifts of gravel and sticking to the well worn tire tracks as much as possible. When we finally reached the paved highway 40 the chance to open up the throttle and race to the relatively heady speed of 90 km was a relief.

We visited with my wife for an hour or so, Scott getting his first tour of the station and all it's gear, before continuing down the road. Scott and I stopped in at the Delta hotel in Kananaskis village for a quick lunch at their deli, noshing on a couple of the best ham sandwiches I'd ever tasted. Tourism runs year 'round at the hotel and we saw plenty of hikers and other nature lovers coming and going.

Well sated we continued on down the road towards Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, stopping to fill up at the only gas station available on highway 40. I was pleasantly surprised to note how their exclusivity hadn't prompted them to jack their prices sky high. I'm sure they could have charged double if they'd wanted to.

While filling up our tanks we chatted with a number of other riders out enjoying the day. A few of them were curious about our "antique" bikes and had numerous questions, many of which I simply couldn't answer. "It rides well enough for me" was about the best I could offer them. Scott's old BMW R80 was of particular interest because of it's unusual side mounted piston configuration.

After a bit more banter and camaraderie Scott and I set off once again, fully intending on checking out Peter Lougheed park. Unfortunately we missed the initial turnoff and, while debating whether or not to turn back to it, storm clouds began to loom. We decided it would be more prudent to simply head back for the city.

The 40 lead us down to Longview, known locally for its phenomenal beef jerky, where we had another brief rest stop. We used the gas station's squeegees to clean the road debris from our helmets. Scott took the moment to point out that it was very evident which of us had the wind screen. His jacket was covered with numerous bug hits. Between his bug guts and my mud layer it was a toss up which of us looked rougher.

The distinction was soon moot, however, as we encountered an intense thunder and hail storm shortly after gassing up in Turner Valley. We tried waiting it out at the intersection of the 22 and 22x, and gave it another go when the rain stopped. Unfortunately we very quickly caught up with it again and found ourselves pelted by hail at 110 kmh. Resigned to our fate we decided to just tough it out and muscled our way home. Twenty minutes later we were pulling into my driveway, soaked through and through.
But at least our jackets were clean.

© Joel Palenychka September 2008

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