The thought of halting our trip was completely untenable. Coming up to three years in maintaining a steady momentum, why would we stop now? Yet staying a few nights over late summer at Nevil and Michelle’s place merged rapidly into a fortnight, which fused at equal speed into a few weeks, that somehow extended into autumn with: “Well, you might as well stay until spring. The weather’s going to catch you out any day now, and I think it’d be fun for you to spend winter here with us in Alberta.” The birds were busy in the trees, and the air still gave promise of warm if not mild days to come. Five months later and through the inexhaustible dictates of the warmest hospitality—notwithstanding the coldest winter we’ve experienced to date—we’ve become strong contenders for the “Longest lodger” status at the Stowasis.
Motivated foremost by the fact that travelling invites much and more in the way of constant stimuli; facilitating a myriad of firsts and fresh experiences; waking with a daily excitement towards paying it forward and the unknown. But what if we could aspire to fulfill those wants and needs by kicking the side-stands down for a period, and really sinking into a place? Realign the trip with a short-term base at our disposal. To seize an opportunity to not just forge fast friendships with people, but to build a meaningful history with them. Fortuitously, that is exactly what transpired, courtesy of the motorcycling community in this buzzing corner of the province.
Oh Pearl, my beloved Pearl. She executed the ride from the bottom of the planet to the top. Graciously: from the southernmost tip of Argentina to the top of Alaska, having run out of road going north. All 50,000 miles of it through 21 countries. At 15 years of age, she rarely missed a beat, remained happy to be nurse-maided on occasion and threw her all into teaching me to let go.
That said—cherishing Pearl the way I do—there comes a time when you take stock, size things up with head over heart and arrive at a new place. Journey past the tipping point. Upon reaching this natural pause in the trip, coupled with our desire to undertake more technical terrain, warranted the necessity to embrace Less is more. And let’s not forget: Size does matter. Especially off road. Namely, I had outgrown my first big bike.
Cue Mr Jangles, a Suzuki DR650 bought for a song. Much taller than I’m used to—factory lowered Pearl offered the ground clearance of a piece of paper by comparison—what an unadulterated joy this motorcycle is to take off the pavement. Rolling into my life during my 36th birthday celebration, our initial encounter kick-started well (some BIG shoes to fill there): bonding well with him around Canmore.
“Well suck my pants and call me Noreen!” nailed Stephen Fry—Mr Jangles glides effortlessly over gravel, weight shifts with the agility of a break-dancer and has transformed my confidence off road. Behaving like a pup chomping at the bit in the dirt, I couldn’t be happier whizzing my maracas off astride this dandy little DR. Where has this bike been my whole life?
Bold as it sounds, DR650s are mayhap one of the best-kept secrets among moto-travellers. It’s almost child’s play in the saddle; requiring less input from me, instilling a sense of sureness up on the pegs and freeing me up to feel free as a bird. And I admit, at around 100 pounds lighter, Mr Jangles is infinitely easier to ride off road than my hefty old Pearl (weighing in at 530 pounds laden with luggage). Like an instructor with a slow pupil, Jason was right all along: better keep my load to the bare essentials to keep reaping those glorious benefits. One point for Gryffindor.
Leaves spiralled down, each descent unique and never to be repeated. A million voyagers left their invisible trails in the air, the harbingers of winter. In his usual No time to lose approach, Jason launched into the adventurising of Mr Jangles as his new indoor project: upgrading the suspension, adding a bigger tank, installing new plastics, rejetting the carburetor, opening up the air box, fitting a lighter exhaust, as well as a nifty digital display. Fitting a smoked windscreen alongside bigger hand guard shields offering up unparalleled wind protection, compatible pannier racks for my saddlebags, and a lowered custom seat thanks to a local wonder woman in Calgary.
On top, we invested in the lowering links which incredibly, still give me more ground clearance than Jason’s F800GS and that’s one tall bike. With the finishing touch of installing cruiser pegs, my feet are itchy once again to get back in the saddle. All good things come to those that…
While I managed to christen the motorcycle before the snowfall, squeezing in daylong sorties throughout Kananaskis Country and east over to Drumheller in the badlands of Alberta, the ultimate at-one-with-the-bike ride happened on the Powderface Trail in Bragg Creek, still part of Kananaskis Country. A beautifully twisted 21-mile gravel rollercoaster ride urging you to get your yah-yahs out at every turn. And some. One of our last riding jaunts in satisfying temperatures before the dominion of winter descended with full force.
Despite the burning cold, Alberta’s winter wonderland will bestow plenty of bright days upon you. One in particular favoured crisp air like iced tea and a sky so blue you could drown in it. The early sun gilded everything, drawing a thin line of fire along the edge of the mountains. The snow flecked with a sea of glitter that caught the morning sun with the most incredible shimmer—all our itchy feet needed to win over.
Keeping the ride local, we ventured cautiously up the snowbound Spray Lakes road, on the outskirts of Canmore. An enjoyable 20 miles into the trail, we gingerly made our way over the white stuff punctuated with patches of light gravel—enough to instill the confidence to keep pushing our luck, at least. Upon reaching the second reservoir, a truck driver hailed us over, his waving hand indicating a sense of urgency. Without delay, he proceeded to point out that the stretch ahead was particularly treacherous with more snow and ice. We’d been warned.
No sooner was I on my merry way again humming happily and distracted by the rich otherness of the place, the trees either side of me peered down with cautious amity. In a relaxed state of mindless bliss, my eyes were repeatedly drawn to the sunlight filtering through the trees dappling the forest with lacy shadows. My wheels continued to crunch contentedly over compacted snow, when there was a sudden clunk and crash of motorcycle as I came abruptly off.
My mind somersaulted in a spectacular parabola of emotions, I emitted a shocked little grunt before I began to slide an impressive way down the Spray Lakes road. Spinning with Mr Jangles a perfect 180 during the blunder and somehow managing to face the way home again. One less thing, I suppose.
Meanwhile, Jason heard me go down over the intercom, doing the very thing he persistently warned me not to: slammed on his anchors. Ironically, the ensuing damage was greater to his bike, than to mine. Ouch.
Careering down the road, I distinctly recall thinking: Ooh, I don’t mind this sliding business at hand…my gear’s doing its job—that’s good. No abrasion injuries here! Just a shame my shoulder’s giving me a little jip. Finally, I stopped skidding and stopped in a heap with my bike. The sky had gone grey as wool. Thinking about sustaining any grave injury was like touching a sore tooth; my inclination was to mentally shy away from the image.
Hot on my heels, Jason leapt off his bike. Swift as a shadow. Having come off himself, he abandoned the bike on its side with the engine still on and back wheels turning—the scene seemed to pull Jason after me like iron to true north. Promptly obeying the dictates of the hairs on my neck: “Just give me a moment, Jase. I’m a bit winded but I’m alright.”
Beset with a shoulder that had just taken a beating, I didn’t exactly spring to my feet as much as I wanted to, if not just to defend the sanctity of my pride. Recovering my equanimity and air of happy go lucky would take longer. “Get up. Anytime today, Lisa,” jeered the uncomfortably rational part of my mind. Motivated by the twin forces of concern for my physical state as well as my bike’s were sufficient to set me in motion.
I stood for a moment swaying slightly in the breeze that swept down the road. The forest whispered to itself, the faint thud of falling snow on the leaves blending with the subdued rustle and rub of leaf and branches. Within minutes of being helped to an upright position, hobbling towards my bike and dusting myself off, over walked two young male mountain guides. One of whom confidently relayed a possession of medical knowledge, politely insisting to check me over. Always a silver lining.
My clear blue-eyed medic eyed me sharply for a moment, head cocked to one side like an elderly kestrel but appeared finally to decide that my assurances to being seriously unharmed were genuine. I had a sudden impulse to grin like a Cheshire cat but resisted and instead, murmured something inconsequential. A few further prods and anatomical pokes later, eyes trained on mine for the slightest reaction, I was released from his gallant clutches to face the ride back.
Twinkling with concerned chivalry, I nodded back my gratitude to which he waved it off as though the doing of service is pleasure in itself, and called it a day. Knowing I’d cut it a wee bit close to the bone, I thought of building a small, warm fire out of a hot toddy that would burn soothingly in my stomach, obscuring the self-induced pains.
After eating like a wolf at dinner, comforted by a sense of restored well-being, weariness dragged at my back and my left shoulder ached. Stretched out on the uneasy verge of sleep, I essayed my arms upward, and felt the unpleasant pull of tired torn muscles. Game and set to winter-riding but not yet match.
I swam up out of a sleepy haze the next morning and awoke as a smudged oval in a nimbus of sleep-snarled red hair, rioting all over my head. My rotator cuff injury would heal soon enough, to my mind I was off the hook pretty lightly. At the end of the biking season for us—at least without changing the tyres for studded knobbly ones—activities opened up to go snow-stomping all over Canmore and Lake Louise, ice-skating on frozen lakes and arcing boiling water over oneself in minus stupid (-20C although it has plunged to -30C on occasion).
Seeking out a resident gang of sparring elk, a pair of moose making their way across Moose Meadows (unheard of in these parts I’m reliably informed), and glimpsing two bobcats shoot into the forest fulfilled the inner wildlife junkie in us both.
The bears are in torpor now (a deep sleep), so they command slightly less caution on foot in the Canadian Rocky wilderness. That said, the odd one will still surface now and again if it’s roused by hearing a loud noise, is moved or touched. It’s a misconception that bears “hibernate” through the winter. Every finger and toe crossed, we’re still on high alert every time we see “WOLF WARNING” digitally displayed on the Trans-Canada Highway. Now that would be the wildlife cherry on the frosted cake.
That of course, and embracing the joyous company of bikers over glasses of garagaritas at the Stowasis, Christmas in Canmore with the Stows, the Motorcycle Show and New Year’s Eve in Calgary and house parties galore over the festive period. Steaming bowls of lentil stew, healthy measures of ruby red port and platters of strong cheeses filled me with a cozy warmth this winter, a buttress against the fiercely cold mist of the night outdoors.