Excerpt: Grit, Gravel and Gear by Dhruv Bogra
Dhruv Bogra’s inspirational account of cycling from the Arctic to the Andes combines acute observation of the societies he encounters with a deep introspection of his own life. This excerpt from Chapter 8, Pedaling Amidst Icefields, details his journey through the spectacular Canadian RockiesUpdated: Jul 27, 2019 15:10 IST
I had planned to cover the Icefields Parkway in five days, though many cyclists reach Lake Louise on the third day. I hoped to spend as much time as I could in this beautiful part of Canada and also enjoy the fine weather that I hoped would last through the week.
It was a cold morning with a clear, sunny sky after weeks of bad weather, the window to sunny days was open for another four days. The two girls from Quebec overtook me in a couple of hours. Hélène and I talked for a while as we rode along the Athabasca River on our right flank. “How do you feel about cycling alone?” she asked. “It is actually fun cycling by yourself. There is so much more to absorb, to think. I can cycle at my own pace, stop to take pictures when I want to, and am the master of my time and journey. If I had been travelling with someone else, I would have to do a lot of adjustment which would dilute the quality of the experience. Yes, having a partner would take care of the loneliness and uncertainty that grips me at times, and it’s also easier to distribute the gear between two riders, including common items such as a repair kits, tent, cooking stove, cameras and fuel. All these reduce the overall weight per rider,” I told her. She seemed to be thinking about what I said, and then said that she and Émilie were inseparable. They really enjoyed each other’s company. I felt they were lucky to have each other. Both were pretty and tall with blonde hair, their long legs, pedalling hard, and chatting in youthful exuberance as they rode. Hélène was a faster rider and Émilie would usually be a mile behind her. And I was a fair distance behind Émilie!
After cycling through spectacular and magnificent mountains and glaciers, I reached Beauty Creek Wilderness Hostel, late in the evening just as the sun was dipping below the mountain top. The air had suddenly turned really cold, a bright blue sky was now a dark grey, the mountains looming over the road, looking daunting and stark. The snow was now the colour of chalk with a swatch of warm orange falling across it. This is the most enchanting time of the day in the mountains. The symphony of orange, red and blue hues from the setting sun streaked across the skies!
A small path led to the hostel, a cloister of two large wooden cabins built along the creek, residing behind a thick cluster of balsam poplar and aspen trees. A fire crackled in the garden, ringed by stones. Hunched around it were some travellers, who called out asking me to join them. They were an elderly Australian couple who were cycling in Canada for the summer and a young French backpacker. She was hitchhiking her way to Vancouver. As soon as I sat down they offered me herbal tea from a thermos. It was hot and delicious with a hint of apple and clove. After I had stacked away my bicycle and my gear, the lady who managed the hostel came out and led me to my bunk bed. It was a small wooden cabin with a thin wooden partition made of plywood separating the rooms allotted for men and women. Each bed had a clean blanket, pillow, fresh sheets and towel. I was grateful that the cabin was heated. The air was permeated with the smell of wood. The kitchen was in the other cabin and the place where everyone would congregate to cook and exchange stories. A large but warm room, with stoves, pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, cupboards filled with utensils and crockery and basic foods such as sugar, coffee and pasta, left behind by other travellers. It is an unwritten code, to leave behind spare food packets for others to consume. I made some pasta and added dry salami and cheese to it. That was my dinner.
The lady who managed the hostel had made some potato soup which she shared with me. After some banter over dinner I headed off to the warmth of the bunk bed. The rooms were heated with a boiler, with the pipes running below the floor or through the walls, but there was no electricity provided and the rooms were dark. I had to use my headlamp to move around. I lay listening to the sound of the creek in the dark. It was a full moon night, and the icy peaks shone like silverware, the crevasses and jagged edges illuminated, the shadows flirting with the light. My thoughts wandered like most nights to the woman I had fallen in love with. Our love was still young, fresh out of the oven, that it was still warm like a delicious apple pie. Our online romance which had started in Smithers, had jumped to calls on WhatsApp when I had Wi-Fi connectivity in Jasper. The brewing bond and friendship with Fay inspired me, made me feel stronger, more creative, the joy gushing inside me like a brook. The loneliness of the journey melted away and even pedalling had become lighter! The distance made my heart ache with longing, but I knew it would be many months before we would ever meet. Was it unreal to experience emotion for someone we have never met? Such thoughts often crossed my mind as I sank into deep sleep.
The ascent to the mountain stared at me. It was a 600-metre climb to the top of the mountain, and then a 500-metre descent to the Columbia Icefield. The grades were 10-12 per cent in some sections, and I grunted and groaned, barely clocking 6-7 kilometres per hour. The morning sun got quite sharp by 11 a.m. and it was ironical to feel hot when surrounded by glaciers and tall icy peaks. The road twisted and turned climbing the mountain like a coiled rope. The mountains were a carpet of trees, green, yellow, burgundy and a rust red, their peaks cloaked with snow. From steep rockfaces, waterfalls hurtled like raging streams, frothy, skimming around boulders to the valley below. I could see the blue glint of rivers and the topaz-like sparkle of a mountain lake. Two hours later I rode onto the summit at 2,073 metres, the highest elevation I had cycled to on the tour, and from thereon it was a breezy descent to the valley below.
On my right lay the Glacier Skywalk that overlooks the gorgeous Sunwapta Valley. My wheels whirred on the road rolling through some of the most beautiful and picturesque mountains in the world. The highlight of the Icefields Parkway is the Columbia Icefield. It is the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains, occupying 325 square kilometres. The massive Athabasca Glacier used to be close to the highway, until just about 40 years ago, but had receded a fair distance due to rising global temperatures. I could see it, on my right flank, cascading down the mountain like a massive frozen river. On it, I could see specks of black, and I soon realised they were tourists on the glacier, taking trips on the huge Ice Explorer, a multi-terrain vehicle operated by a tours company. The Athabasca Glacier is 10,000 years old and is one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world. I was astounded by the sheer size of the glacier and its proximity to the highway and I dismounted wheeling my bike onto the rocky terrain, trying to get closer to it. But such is the expanse of the glacier, that it was farther than it looked. I soon reached a point beyond which I could not take Quest, so I laid her down and continued my hike to get closer to the glacier, all this while walking over logs to cross small streams. Around me, the overwhelming Athabasca range mountains, rose lofty and craggy, draped with snow that was as white as vanilla ice cream. It was a cold afternoon even though the sun was very strong. The grandeur was arresting and the insignificance of man in the face of nature struck me again. I thought to myself, how we hurry through our lives living and toiling like ants each day, without stopping to find time to really explore the world around us.