The longest MTB route in the world – Great Divide – Part 1 – Banff to Eureka –the Canadian Section.
Many years ago I added this trail to my bucket list. There are 4500 KM (2774 miles) and 60,000 vertical meters from Banff, always along the Continental Divide, to the Mexican border.
The route traverses British Columbia and Alberta on the Canadian side and Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico on the US side.
In between, the trail crosses the continental divide 32 times and meanders along the Rocky Mountains through vastly different landscapes and types of vegetation.
By the way, the distance is the same as from Lisbon, Portugal, to Moscow.
Most of the route passes through wilderness areas – exactly my kind of thing!
A few crazy cyclists ride the trail every year as a self-supported race. The record is a sensational 12 days. Totally utopian dimensions for me. I will take considerably more time and enjoy the trip.
The bike packed with maps, a bear bell, bear spray and a long cord to hang my food in a tree, I headed out. I had already sent my front panniers to the USA to have less weight to make my trip a bit easier.
The density of bears in some areas along the trail is high, but my curiosity was, as always, greater than the fear I had. But honestly, once you get underway and find yourself in the middle of the action, now and then it can become a bit creepy, but more about that later.
I was less than one kilometer from Banff when I finally found peace and silence in a natural atmosphere where I didn’t have to share the road with people thundering past me. Finally no more noise and no more cautious driving, where I had to fear that someone might run over me. The trail almost belonged to me alone. And I love that feeling completely.
A few hikers crossed my path, and a few other Great Divide cyclists either passed me or I passed them. Overall, it was only a handful of people, people like myself. Really nice fellas.
The path snaked beautifully through the forest, along small streams and amazing mountains. The scenery was not really different than before, but I could once again sit on the trail and pee wherever I wanted, marvel at the flowers and chirping birds, and eat my food in the fresh air of the forest. I could absorb the stillness into myself and finally enjoy life again. It was wonderful.
My sense of freedom returned, my passion awoke, and I felt so good that my whole body was doing cheerful somersaults on the inside.
My stamina was on the upswing, and I wanted to ride, experience things, dance and enjoy life again. I bounced on the pedals back and forth, screaming out to the world, how cool it is out here.
I had 4500 kilometers ahead of me and it was a great feeling, because I knew the trail would keep me busy for a while. What more could my heart ask for?
I had actually become a little worried during the past few weeks and asked myself frequently if I had lost the passion of travel, but with every kilometer on the trail, I realized that “my world” is simply different from those who ride on a normal highway. I want to experience the lonely corners of the earth – in nature – and hear the ants crawling.
It was exactly the way I had always imagined Canada to be. Lonely and far away from everything, although, during the first few days, the trail still passed close to residential areas.
As a child I always dreamed of living in a cabin in the woods, somewhere in Canada, where the moose walk past and look through the window – a place where you could build a fire in the fireplace in the winter and enjoy a campfire in front of the cabin in the summer – a kind of drop-out cottage – best of all a tree-house, with a rope ladder for access.
But that’s not really what I would like to have today. Honestly, I like the desert much better and that’s exactly where my path was leading, even if it is still a few thousand kilometers away.
It was raining, as is so often the case in Canada. There were hardly any mosquitoes, which is rather unusual for the season. It wasn’t really warm – only about 10-15 degrees Celsius and grey skies accompanied me every day.
Many years ago, Adventure Cycling worked out this route, and they put it onto 7 paper maps. It was a mega project that must certainly have been a huge effort.
The maps are not especially good, and the explanations are not always the best either. “At 37.4 km, turn left and ride uphill.”
Ok, sometimes my speedometer showed that I was already much further, but sometimes it showed less. I was always busy correcting the KM-counter and it took some time to find the right trail.
There is too little on the map to really see any details. A GPS here definitely has some advantages; this is the first time I have to admit that a GPS would be handy to have.
Sometimes, I also wondered, which direction an emergency exit would make the most sense. With this map, I had absolutely no idea where the shortest route to a main road could be found.
I was a bit disoriented, which I really hate, so I pedaled the kilometers shown and followed the red line through the dense forest, somehow without rhyme or reason, and actually completely out of accordance with my normal procedure. But regardless, I somehow always found the right path anyway.
The first days passed and I was surprised how many cyclists were underway. Most of them were only doing part of the trail, not cycling the whole length of it. I saw a large group of 15 cyclists over and over again; also, I saw two couples and two racers who started in the south a month ago.
I oriented myself in my daily cycling using the book “Cycling the Great Divide” which divides the trail into 70 daily legs. But I quickly realized that I could cycle significantly further, because the trail was easier than I first thought it would be. Up to this point, the difficulty of this trail has nothing in common when compared to the Arizona Trail, which had literally taken me to my limit 8 months ago.
Initially, there were many single trails, but it soon went further on forest roads.
The first supermarket was in Elkford, where I met other cyclists who were just as hungry as I, because I could have eaten everything in the whole store at once. Water, however, was available on every corner – one stream after another. Filters or a tablet to disinfect the water is the motto here. In North America, the danger of giardia is present.
I met Dan and Brian, who fed me in the evening and they couldn’t believe how much I could eat at one time. I spent the night in a dugout of a baseball field. They make super places to camp. No one sees you and often they are out of town – perfect.
Shortly after leaving Elkford, I stopped suddenly in front of a sign: Wash out!
“Super!”. The road was washed away. After long consideration, I decided to ford the river. Crossing the first section was not a problem, but the second ford turned out to be a bit tricky; the panniers were 80% immersed in the water and I could hardly keep the bicycle or even myself under control.
Whew! That was close. I left the water wet with perspiration, unfortunately, with soaking wet shoes once again.
There were more tricky sections further on the trail beginning in Sparwood. Two options from there, the wimp variation that runs pretty much on the normal road, or the official race track, that passes through the so-called Serengeti of North America.
It is known as the Serengeti because the amount of wildlife there is significantly greater than elsewhere.
Of course, I headed for the Serengeti, but because I’m also somewhat of a wimp, I camped the first night in Corbin in a small, almost abandoned mining town, to feel safer than camping alone in the wilderness and sharing the forest with the Grizzly bears.
The next two days were simply sensational. At every turn, although I had not yet seen one, I spoke aloud again and again with the Grizzlies. Just a week earlier, a MTB biker was killed in Montana by a Grizzly because he accidentally raced into one; I wanted to make doubly sure that, if one were there, he would definitely hear me far enough in advance.
It had rained a lot, as always. The road was muddy, but the fresh tracks in the mud were all the more exciting. All kinds of animals had been running along here recently and I attempted to guess when I saw each track which animal could have made it. I have a small booklet with animal tracks that I can use to get a good idea as to which animal it might be.
I have to admit, it was indeed a bit scary.
The road kept getting worse. Water ran along the trail; large stones adorned the route and the isolation of the wilderness became more and more evident – something that I truly love.
A racing cyclist came darting towards me, who had no time for a chat; although, he must have already been on day 30, obviously, far away from any finalist placing on any kind of “podium.”
With an American couple and a 65 year-old racer from Wyoming, I shared the only self-service hut on this section of the trail. There were bunk beds, a fireplace and a beam in the forest, that was perfect for hanging food that would be safe from the bears.
As he slept, the elderly gentleman “sawed wood” loudly all night long and left the other three of us no room for sleep. He left the hut at 5 a.m., even though he had arrived at the hut at 9 p.m. the previous night. He had been on the trail for 30 days and must have had those long days almost every day. Impressive for his advanced age.
Several vertical meters lay ahead of me and again I crossed bear tracks. Inwardly, I knew it will not be long until I ran into a grizzly.
A short time later he stood right in front of me – a fine specimen – a beautiful animal. His fur glistened in all shades of brown and I was so fascinated that I would have enjoyed experiencing the moment in slow motion.
He saw me at once, looked into my eyes, turned away from me and ran up the bank into the forest. Everything happened much too quickly, but I was grateful for the encounter and I was also grateful that he had been more afraid of me than I of him.
I quickly decided to put some distance between us; I didn’t even trust myself to photograph the giant paw print he had left, something I wanted later to kick myself in the bum for not doing.
Shortly afterwards, a black bear peeked at me from behind a tree. He looked so cute, with his sweet, long snout, standing on his hind legs, his ears pointed upward while peering at me; but in the end, he took off. Those were simply priceless moments!
The day was long, but certainly the most beautiful in Canada. The landscape was gigantic. The Wigwam Passage lay before me – a brutally steep slope, which is notorious among the pannier cyclists, because it is really difficult to get everything up the slope.
I discovered two wolves in the thicket that kept looking back again at me to make sure I wouldn’t hurt them.
There were more deer than elsewhere, also a moose with its calf from the current year. But, as always, everything happened too quickly to get it on camera.
Later, many trees lay across the trail and I began to lose steam, but I wanted to make it to the border by the end of the day, so I kept pedaling until I finally reached the last summit for the day and from there I lost immediately 3,000 feet of altitude in one ride to the border.
It was a great departure from a country, which had given me a few frustrations, but for that section of the Canadian trail, I was incredibly grateful. And, of course, for Haida Gwaii. And all the nice people I have met – especially Catherine and Nicole.
“When do you plan to leave the US again?” asked the US border official in a brisk tone of voice.
“I can’t really tell you, because I’m traveling on a pushbike and have no exact itinerary.”
“Well, then you get 90 days, but no more,” he said.
“No, please, I have a visa that allows me to stay 6 months, and I need that much time to see everything I want to see” I replied in a super friendly voice.
“Then show me a plane ticket, a bus ticket or other evidence that you will leave the US again.” he added nastily.
I said “I will not work in the US, nor will I settle down or do something wrong. I had to buy an expensive visa for $ 170 because I traveled through Iran. Your country is beautiful and 3 months are not enough to see what I would like to see. I would like to ask you to give me 6 months.” trying to save the situation.
“First, you were 3 months in the US; then you entered Mexico and immediately entered the US again for another 3 months; you were only 3 months in Canada and now you want to stay another six months? Where then is your home?” he spewed at me.
“In Germany,” I replied.
“You haven’t been in Germany for 3 years, so that is no longer your home. Where is your home? “He snapped at me.
“I’m sure if you were to ever leave the USA for 3 years, you would continue to say that the United States is YOUR home. Germany is my home!” I added.
His boss gave him a wink and then he went to the back room, leaving me standing like something that was ordered, but not picked up. 15 minutes later he came back, and continuing to act like a hardliner, but he then gave me six months!
Welcome to Montana. It was only a stone’s throw to Eureka, and the wind swept across the flat farmland. I was super excited to be back in the US again and went to sleep that night dead-tired.
The next morning, as I wanted to cross the road from the supermarket in Eureka back onto the highway and had to wait at a stop sign for the crossing traffic, the unfathomable happened – something that was statistically long overdue.
A 4×4 pickup rolled over me. Realizing that I was lying under the hood of a huge vehicle and an extremely large wheel came to a stop right next to my leg, but at the same time crushing my bicycle, I jumped up and everything else happened to me almost like in a movie.
Thank you Heike, you are a good writer of the lonely and wonderful solitude of wilderness touring.You are also much braver them most of us keen cyclists.Its good too that you can face a grizzly and he is more scared then you.I will try to follow your journeys of the super bike gal.
Thank you 🙂 Happy adventures for you……Cheers Heike
I’m a US citizen and I am treated so rudely by CBP every time I cross in to the US from Canada, you would think that *I* am the threat. I have had my trunk inspected. I even was pulled over for a thorough search of my car another time, for 30 minutes, and I still had driving to do to get to the airport. No explanation given for why I got “the treatment”. And other just nasty encounters where I am treated like a potential criminal. So, not surprised, but disappointed by your nasty border agent.
Thanks for sharing your experiences!
I wonder sometimes why they are trained to be so harsh on people?
The internet is full of those stories and I know about a few Germans who said they never visit the US again, because they don’t want to be treated that badly!
It is sad, and doesn’t represent the super friendly American people at all!
Best greetings Heike