I had at first imagined that this report might become some sort of father and son (in-law) schtick regaling the intimacies of how a shared adventure brought two men together, binding them forever in the bonds of bro-dom … . Right. You can thank Justin and his camera for saving you from that. Instead the journey became a more mercifully light-hearted and laconic affair, sprinkled with the sporadic pictorial documentation of a man’s search for gnard comfort.
Seriously. The application of nut butter is no mean feat. One must consider the timing – first you notice a slight chaffe, but since you want to keep riding you ignore the itch. Soon however the itch rounds the corner into the heat, your mind turns more intently upon the problem, but the real issue remains denial – I’ll stand on the pedals for a half km or so and air things out and I’ll be fine – which is true, for a time.
The longer the chaffing goes on the more likely you are to become obsessed with it. With changing position on the saddle, with rising and falling, with stopping for a “navigational update.” You can never be too sure. You squint. You narrow your eyes. You scan and scan. You hope you’re doing the right thing.
Finally the heat rises into the burn that clarifies, that erases away all pretenses, that stops you with its urgency – you get off the bike, fumble through your gear for that wondrous vial, peal and stretch the lycra out, lean forward and reach in to smear on the comfort.
Ah! Ahh! Ahhh! Ohhh!
There is no pain you are receding … how much gnard comfort does a man need? We’re reaching for the dark side of the moon here. We’re heading for the wall. Perhaps Leo and Roger would enjoy this tale of the two boys – one Dutch Mennonite and one Dutch Indonesian – riding long and on the run and running like hell. We’re all mixed up in the end. It’s our punishment – we keep riding west and north and west and south and west and west before we turn south and east – the ride must go on.
Despite the discomfort the ride was mercurial! The gravel roads up there are generally fantastic, the views spectacular, and the hills, though they are work, are a welcome change from the flat-language-uninspired empty spaces of Menno-land.
When OM Challenge #2 was announced Justin Wolters and I said we should attempt it together. He cycles in Winnipeg, I cycle out near Altona, so we don’t ride together often. It seemed that we were due for some time in the saddle together (each on our own saddles, of course) with Justin snapping the pics and me poring over the route.
We had decided to head straight north from Neepawa to the East Gate, betting on the help of a west wind of some sort to push us home from Deep Lake on our last day. For the most part our bet paid off. Then after we declared our date with Muerto we heard the concerns about the wetness of some of the backcountry trails in the Park, in particular the Tilson Lake Trail.
Hal sent along an alternate route drafted by Pete McAdams that doubled back from Whitewater Lake to Lake Audy to access the Park via gravel roads, either coming in from, or heading out to Deep Lake. This seemed like a reasonable Plan B, and as it rained at least an inch in Riding Mountain on the Thursday and Friday, it started to look like the only reasonable option.
The reality is that once you’re on the road you’re reminded that maps, paper and online, go stale and roads keep changing over time. Even gps will not always save you – though once, on our last day, the gps on Justin’s phone confirmed, as did my compass, that we were indeed heading in the wrong direction. So for the most part my first cue sheet stayed folded and out of sight and we tried to match the signs with the Backroads Map which, for the vast majority of the time, proved reliable.
(Actually, the only thing that buggered up its reliability was my arrogant assertions that “the signs must be wrong” or “somebody’s effed with the signs!” You have to watch yourself in the last hours of a long ride – you are super likely to make super stupid decisions. If you’re not sure get out your compass. A real compass – the ones with a needle floating in magic liquid. Yes, I would recommend a compass for this trip. I’ve linked to a cue sheet that represents the route that we actually followed, but I’m worried that even that may be misinterpreted so caveat emptor to the user.)
Our first encounter with the difference between the road and the map happened during the first three miles up Rd 86W. This is not an all-weather (gravel) road all the way. Two of first three miles were dirt, but passable, though there were low and wet sections. When we got to the 4th mile it looked less promising so we turned west and followed the gravel, which pretty much tells the tale. The cue sheet and the map are guides, but the road has the final say.
There were other great dirt roads that we travelled, but if wet they would not be passable and you’d be riding around.
After stopping for a great burger at 3 PM in The White Rabbit Cafe (take the pill!) in Kelwood, we got to the North Gate by 4:30 PM and then turned onto the Burl’s and Bittersweet trailhead to find the Reeve’s Ravine Trailhead.
We didn’t know what to expect of Reeve’s Ravine, so we stashed our panniers at the trailhead and road it without them (and when we returned we had received a written “friendly reminder” from a parkie reminding us not to leave gear unattended. (Notice the Parkie’s (Freudian?) language slip – “Unattended Bear” – which I assume was to be “Gear” (has airport security stretched its evil policy-hand this far???).
The trail is great if you love a combination of difficult and narrow single-track (if you’ve done the Tinker trails, it’s like that but longer and harder) with a LOT of steep climbing and descending (my computer got as high as 17% up and 14% down) and spectacular vistas. It would take a hella good rider (and a pretty solid steed) to do it safely with a fully loaded bike. It is a dirt-surface technical single-track with lots of climbing and hairpin switchbacks (and lots of roots and shit like that too). If you want to experience something like it (with not as much climbing) try the Tinker Creek trails south of Morden and Winkler.We were glad we had stashed the gear and taken the parkie’s warning. I hope to come back and do the trail again, sans any gear at all!
After surviving this single-track we headed back to Hwy 19 to “launch” ourselves up 3 kms of 8% grade gravel. At this point I might rhapsodize on the merits of riding a 29er! I bought mine this Spring and I just love it – it’s been the most tranformative bike purchase of my life! I can’t imagine riding Reeve’s Ravine or doing all of the climbing on a loaded cross or a touring bike, so I’d really really really suggest a 29er (and at least a mtn bike). A 29er rolls well over almost all terrain. It’s both a safe and delicious choice.
There’s a lot of climbing on this route. By the end of trip my computer registered a total altitude up of 2632 m, with an average grade of 3% and a max of 17%, likely at Reeve’s Ravine – a couple of the gravel road climbs registered as high as 10 to 14% (when I could look down to catch a glimpse of the readout) and 5 to 8% grade was not uncommon. Since we came in from the East, we climbed into the Park for 3 kms at an average of 8%. (It would have been an awesome descent if you went the other way!)
We spent our first night at Whirlpool Lake which was fully populated by mosquitos by 8:45 PM when we got there. We managed to find a spot to set-up the tent. (The cost of camping is $15.70. It’s self-registration and you can pay using your credit card! (Just fill out the handy form! And if you’ve memorized your numbers you don’t even have to bring the card along!)
Day 1 ride time and distance: 7 hours 30 mins; 106 kms.
By 8:15 AM we were packed up and on the road. We headed to Wasagaming for breakfast (The White House Bakery) and any information from we could get from the parkies. Our concerns were confirmed. The Tilson Trail was quite wet so we checked in with the warden at Wasagaming who said that they’d just had another inch of rain in the last few days and that those trails had not been recently maintained – which means that passes through swamps had not be corduroyed (which they usually are). He said that on normal years people do mtn bike the trails, but he thought that on a fully-loaded bike the swamps would be really difficult – so this trail isn’t only more wet than usual, it usually involves swamp and marsh of some kind. Further, when I said we intended to head to the Central Backcountry Trail via the Lake Audy Road he said that you cannot ride a bike through the Bison enclosure. This is against the Park law because Bison (apparently) can outrun a bike.
To manage this we rode the south quarter of the Clear Lake South Shore Trail (which we entered from the Visitor’s Centre downtown) and then took Reid Road to the 354 (all gravel) which we could take to the southern entrance to Lake Audy.
Filtering water at Lake Audy (the MSR Waterworks water filter was necessary, if you’re not caching water along the way).
To further impede our progress, once we got there we found couldn’t take the Lake Audy North Shore Trail, because it was closed due to bears being in the area. We biked up to the southern entrance of the Bison enclosure, thinking we might take our chances, where we found that, right at the road entrance to the enclosure there is a trail that skirts the outside fence of the enclosure (the warden had said that there is a trail that goes around the enclosure from the north side, but he didn’t advise riding it as there are two bison loose and they don’t know where they are!). We took this trail along the fence (turn left immediately at the south entrance to the enclosure) and within 2 minutes we saw a bear inside the fence of the enclosure! This trail got us onto the Central Backcountry Trail.
Riding the trail along the Bison Enclosure (bear in the bush on right – forgive us for not stopping to take a picture – we did bring along a can of bear-spray just to comfort ourselves).
Typical condition of the Central Backcountry Trail.
All of this led us to Whitewater Lake, which was a bit of a disappointment, as there was no whitewater, indeed hardly any water at all, except this swamp (from which we filtered more water).
After this we doubled back for 2 kms at which point we decided to try the Long Lake Trail (14 kms) which heads south and leaves the Park. That worked well, although there were three spots where this trail was flooded, but quite passable, one by walking the bike, and the other two were ridable. The trail was recently mowed (6 inches high grass) but still remarkably tiring to ride for 14 kms.
From here we found our way, via gravel, to Deep Lake Station, and then 3 kms north to the beautiful Deep Lake Campground. (Thanks to the old couple living near Seech who gave us access to a water hose when we didn’t want to take the time to filter water.)
Deep Lake Station; Deep Lake Campground
Ride time and distance thus far: 16 hours 32 mins; 258 kms (Day 2: 9 hours 2 mins; 152 kms).
We left Deep Lake by 9:30 AM doing another dance of gravel and dirt roads south. (Note that though at one point a sign will tell you that the road is closed, don’t be deterred because your bike can handle it. Keep riding.) When got to Rossburn the TCT started as a gravel based path, but as it left Rossburn the gravel disappeared and the trail was simply a mowed grass path that was not easy to ride.
The Trans-Canada Trail at its goodest, heading in to Rossburn.
We decided against the trail after Rossburn due to the predominance of a mowed high-grass trail (like the Long Lake Trail). Using the Backroads map we noodled our way along the rolling countryside on a variety of roads. (They only downside to this was that there was a paucity of small towns in which to re-fuel and find water – also it was the August long weekend holiday Monday. Thanks to the woman living near Ozerna, who gave us access to a water hose.)
Our total distance was 449 kms (though we made a few route decisions that were not the most efficient) and the total ride time was 26 hours and 50 minutes (Day 3: 10 hours 18 mins; 191 kms). A great trip. Gnards a little sorer and maybe a little tougher. As the sun set and the moon rose a steak and cheese sub and a coke never tasted so good. (Alas, no beer available on a holiday Monday.)