September 5th, 2021

on the res

into the prairies picture post

It was really hard to trim this set down. I have dozens of photos that are just blue on top, yellow on the bottom, and i love all of them. This post covers the Fernie to Milk River leg.



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I am currently in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, hopefully i'll get you all a text update tonight or tomorrow morning. Can't promise more photos before the next pit stop because there are too many awesome ones to go through. You might've noticed i snuck a couple extra in this set already.
on the res

Milk River → Foremost → Cypress Hills → Maple Creek

Yesterday i was too wiped out to write anything. I know a lot of my LJ friends are following along my journey, and i feel bad it's a bit of a one way street, because the truth is when i get in, i barely have time or energy to write my own story, much less read anyone else's. I haven't watched any shows, listened to any podcasts, read any "long read" magazine style articles, or even made it through a single Kindle book. I briefly scan the news headlines each day, but then it's on to more important stuff like checking the wind and weather forecast, and checking maps and local websites to find a good route and a destination that hopefully has services.

I think it's a good thing, to just be consumed with the day to day challenges of getting from A to B, making sure i have enough food and water and a place to sleep. It's a simple life. It's what i like most about traveling, the actual traveling aspect. When you stop for a while, then it's not as pure any more. Eventually - no matter how beautiful the place - it just ends up becoming the same old routine. But constant traveling, that's when i really feel alive and free.

All that said, i do need another pause. I need to call the tax office again because they are still charging me over a grand for contributing to a retirement fund last year when technically i wasn't a resident of Canada (even though i was living in Canada), and i also need to find a large enough city that will let me early vote in the elections, even though i am a thousand miles from my on-paper "home". Also, i need to launder clothes. And charge my laptop and power bank.

God that all sounds boring as hell.

Let's talk about Writing-on-Stone. That's the other part of the Milk River region i wanted to see - a provincial park best known for hoodoos and petroglyphs. I cycled there from Milk River (the town) along a bunch of gravel back roads that let me zig zag across the river twice before getting there. I think i was lucky to arrive before the Labor Day rush, because i can only imagine how obnoxious it would be with a million tourists everywhere.

The hoodoos are awesome. Incredible. Amazing. I don't have enough words. It's my favorite national/provincial park i have been to since visiting Badlands in South Dakota. There is a huge section open to the public where people can free roam around the hoodoos, sneaking between crevasses and climbing on top of them. This is the part that would be terrible with more people than were already there - it kinda ruins the mystique of these sacred land formations to have screaming kids and laughing tourists charging through. Still, it was fun to sneak through a narrow opening and pop my head up, then sneak into the bushes and pop out somewhere totally different. Much as i find kids annoying to my own enjoyment of the place, it would be a perfect spot to bring kids so they can have a real adventure in a unique landscape.

After the free roam area there is a short hike that takes you through the archaeological area where you aren't supposed to go off trail (although obviously some people do). That section was a lot quieter and people gave the place a bit more respect. The vistas were awesome, looking south to the Sweet Grass Hills in Montana, seeing the erosion of the coulees and the Milk River itself, the hoodoos, the native prairie. I swiped a couple of chokecherries off the trees as i passed to taste some of the food the Blackfoot would have eaten when traveling the area. It's really magical, sort of an oasis in the prairie.

I originally planned to "do" the hike in an hour and jet (it's only 2.5km each way), but i ended up spending 3 hours in the park and the visitor center, i loved it so much. I wish i could've stayed to see the hoodoos at sunset, or sunrise, or to do a back country hike, which entails wading across the river and fully self-navigated trailless hiking in the prairie, but there were no camping slots available. Like Badlands, this is a place i hope to return to someday.

I headed out to Foremost up a back road that took me through some whole ass prairie grazing land. No fences after crossing the cattle guard. I saw a prairie dog pop his head out and run across the road into a hole. I am not much of a fan of wildlife, but even i have to concede that prairie dogs are hella cute. I wish they were still as numerous in the prairies as chipmunks are in the mountains.

I tried to gravel the whole way, but one road was just too much for me. It had just been newly graded, which means deep, loose gravel and my bike kept sinking into it. I was too exhausted at this point to go another 30km expending twice as much energy to go half as fast, so i went back onto the highway for the last push across the deep coulee south of town.

The campsite at Foremost is basically a workers' camp. It's all RVs, and it seems mostly construction workers. I met two of them at the bar (they were the only two people in the bar). They were putting up windmills, lamenting the fact that oil and gas jobs had gone away. I said "but now you're putting up windmills, so there's still work", "yeah, there's still work, but i still think we need more oil". It's bizarre, a sort of cultural belief that isn't really founded on anything other than a sort of vague tribalism.

N was from Manitoba but moved to Alberta for work, his wife and kid live in Calgary while he parks his caravan wherever the company send him to work for weeks or months long stretches with rarely enough time to head home. This weekend he has 3 days so will head back, leaving his trailer here in the campsite to return to next week.

N was interested in hearing about my bike tour ("you're a braver man than me") and ended up buying my meal and drinks. I finally got the burger i was looking for to celebrate being in Alberta. Of course, it wasn't a gourmet burger, it was just a simple greasy spoon burger made by the proprietor in the back while i chatted to a construction worker and nodded to the truck drivers who came in to piss and then left again, but perhaps that's the perfect Alberta burger.

N gave me tips on how to get to Cypress Hills too. He reckons go up to Medicine Hat then down the main road, to maximize sealed roads and give me time to recover in the big city. The guy in the RV parked next to me reckons follow the highway to Manyberries, then ask a local there if they can put my bike in their truck and fast forward me past some of the really loose gravel on the southerly route. The advice of the guy in Fernie was different again - blast through Etzikom, don't side trip to Orion, go up the winding road to Michel Reservoir, then left on Eagle Butte. To be honest, that still sounds like the most scenic route.

Either way, i do have to go. Everyone i have spoken to has said "if you liked Writing-on-Stone you'll love Cypress Hills" and "you can't miss it". Somehow i doubt a mountain with trees on it is going to beat out prairie badlands for me, but i'll keep an open mind. If i do find a campsite up there, i am anticipating another sad morning with condensation-ridden gear, waking up in the dark like a fucking mushroom.

Speaking of mushrooms, a hobo gave me a magic mushroom a while back which is still in my coffee pouch. I never know what to do with these gifted psychedelics. A friend gave me a tab of acid when i left Europe to take when i find the perfect place on my journey, but eventually i had to cross a border to countries that do not look lightly on drugs, so i flushed it. If i go to the US i may end up doing the same with this mushroom. I know a lot of people associate psychedelics with camping and hiking and having vision quests in the wilderness or whatever, but for me doing anything like that outside of a rave environment feels weird. I've tried it once or twice and it's kinda tedious without music and lights to really transport you. That sort of "inner voyage" thing seems pointless to me, it feels so fake, like you get this dumb druggy sensation of being "transformed" or "awakened", but it ultimately doesn't mean anything because you weren't doing anything interesting to begin with. It seems much more worthwhile to do psychedelics in an environment that is already packed to the gills with optical illusions and clever production tricks and fantastic art that takes you to another planet before you even did anything, then it's part of a shared ritual. It becomes special because it was already special, if that makes sense.

Of course, thanks to COVID, i won't be seeing a gig like that anywhere in Canada for a while. And, let's be honest, Canada rarely had them anyway.

Maybe i will eat the mushroom while feeling like a mushroom on the mountain. But seeing as it's over 100km to get there, no services along the way, and an uphill gravel road, i will probably be too wiped out for it anyway. Refer the start of this entry.

-o-

Cypress Hills fucking sucks. It's freezing cold because the trees block out all the sun and i think there are more people in my campsite than all three of the previous towns i overnighted in. This reminds me very much of Yosemite, which is one of my most hated places in America after Lake Tahoe. Shitty scenery, millions of people, and massively overrated to the point that everyone constantly nags you to go, then you go and literally everything about it fucking sucks, but you're expected to act all awestruck because otherwise it'll hurt their feelings. Fuck Yosemite and fuck Cypress Hills too.

Its incredibly annoying because the ride up here was so peaceful. The dude in Fernie was right on the money when he said it'd be a great ride. Gravel pretty much all the way - some of it very loose and difficult to pedal through - and completely isolated. After leaving Etzikom i think i saw like 4 cars until i got to the park. It was just farms and prairie, leading into some rolling hills getting closer to the park. There was one ridiculous climb up Thelma Rd, comparable to the steepest, shittiest bits of that logging road out of Kelowna. After something like 85km cycling in the hot, beating sun with no shade at all, i was in no shape to attempt it. I got off and pushed.

Etzikom was a nice surprise too. It's a tiny town with a dead grain elevator because the train doesn't go there any more, and a museum. I wish i had had more time to check out the museum because it looked like exactly the kind of weird small town museum full of grandma's knickknacks that i love, but after getting stuck at Writing-on-Stone i didn't let myself get distracted. I did, however, get some coffee and pie, and talked with the museum staff, since no one else was there.

They informed me that what i saw yesterday might have been a gopher, although there are prairie dogs here too. Then they proceeded to discuss their preferred ways of killing gophers, since they are a pest around people's homes and gardens (although i suppose not in the grazing sections where i saw one). Then they got into the other pests, apparently there is a shrew problem at the moment. It reminded me of a bit of last night's bar conversation - "the only good rattlesnake as a dead rattlesnake". It's illegal to kill rattlesnakes in Canada. I don't think it's illegal to kill gophers.

I shared with them that from the moment i woke up this morning i was in tears and my nose would not stop running. I think it must be hay fever from the wheat dust around the silos and grain elevators. One rancher said that's pretty common during the canola harvest, but not so common this time of year. I know it must be related to the crops, because it gets less bad when i cycle past a long stretch of grazing land, or when i am inside.

Okay, so there is one good thing about Cypress Hills, my eyes and nose have stopped running.

I am a bit worried about getting through Saskatchewan since that's a whole lot more crops and very little ranch land.

Anyway, yes, Etzikom museum, highly recommended, for the pie and conversation at least. They suggested if i didn't want to go along the dirt road i could turn north at Orion and see Red Rock Coulee, which is another badlands, and i'm sad i missed it, but it would've been too far out of my way to see it and loop back.

God this fucking campsite is infernal. Shitheads in their RVs running their gennies nonstop. Kids screaming. It's more annoying than a family campsite because of the scale and lack of hosts around to tell people to shut up. This campsite is like a small city, and there are 5 or 6 of them within a km of here. All fully booked. There is no office, no walk-in. I had to call the central Alberta park reservations hotline to make a reservation for one of the three spots that was left. At least there is phone signal here, although i suppose that's part of what makes it popular. Ugh take me back to the working man's prairie town campsite, lordy.

I am down to 2L of water and this campsite doesn't have any. The full hookup RV campsites down the hill do, but i am too tired to bike down the hill to refill and bike back up again. I know i need a liter for breakfast (two coffees, one porridge, dishes/brush teeth) and the other liter will be for overnight and backup.

God i hope these fuckers turn their gennie off soon. I am going to eat and then try figure out where to go tomorrow. Due east is the dead zone of campsites and services in Saskatchewan, so i need to do another long ride while also figuring out how to head out of here down a road or trail that is hopefully interesting and not packed with the millions of people camped here.

-o-

Cypress Hills got better the further away i got from the campsites. People were running generators all night, flaunting the restrictions. Some idiots decided to blast country music and sing along till God knows how late, but fortunately i fell asleep soundly enough to wake up, pack up and blast out of there shortly after 8am.

I decided to try to do some mountain biking since i was in the park anyway. That was a poor decision. In BC there are tons of mountain bike trails, there are even mountain bike repair stations up on the hill, with all kinds of bike tools attached to a stand where you can hang up your bike to work on it. I foolishly assumed that Alberta would be pretty much the same, where basically all trails are dual-use for hiking and mountain biking. Especially when i saw the green circle, blue square, black diamond ratings, i figured that was for mountain bikes.

It wasn't.

I went down a green circle (easy) trail, which was an easy walk but a little tough for a loaded tour bike to get over in parts. Then i went down a blue square (intermediate) trail that was marked for Nordic skiing. I figured if you can ski a trail, surely you can mountain bike it? I could. It was the Spruce Coulee trail. What i didn't realize is that halfway through the trail it just ends, and converts into Spruce Coulee East trail, which is most assuredly not for skiing. It was singletrack, and featured some very steep climbs and drops, boulders and tree roots across the trail. I had to get off and push in several places, and made very slow progress through others. Eventually i popped out at one of those weird wiggly gate things that you can only walk through but you can't fit a bike through. Would've been nice if they'd put that at the other side too. I stood my bike up on its back wheel and shimmied through.

I think i burned my whole day's worth of calories on that seemingly simple 8km stretch.

Anyway, then i tried another trail, got halfway down the hill and got stuck with another pedestrians only wiggly gate thing. For fuck's sake! Pushed it back up the hill again, went down a different hill, and got on the Trans Canada Trail, which is the trail i had been following on-and-off in BC, along the rail trails and logging roads.

In Cypress Hills it's fucking singletrack. But, thankfully, it was mostly through the high brushlands and not the forest, because at least there are no tree roots to fuck you up. Honestly, trees are just shit all round. Unfortunately, the high brushlands were also inhabited by cows who created their own trails, and i ended up following a cow trail the wrong way and to get back on the actual trail i pushed my bike up a hill, into a bush, under a fucking tree, through more trees, cobwebs, undergrowth, thorns, squished 27 cow pats, got a splinter, arrived back on the trail and resolved to check my phone's GPS position a little more regularly from then on.

But. You guys. When i got into the groove of the high plains cycling, it was divine. There was an especially awesome part where after a long ass climb there were just several clicks along a plateau, then it was a steep singletrack downhill with a cliff on one side and amazing views of the trees and the mountains. It was all worth it. It was so fucking awesome.

Shortly after getting back down to the lake, i hit the gravel road heading over to the Saskatchewan side. I resolved to eat lunch in Saskatchewan. I got there sooner than expected, and the difference between the two parks was stark. The trees on the Saskatchewan side have all that thick undergrowth that the forests in BC also have - exactly the kind of undergrowth that makes me a little nervous of critters, but also a mark of the wilderness. The Alberta side all the trees were planted at regular intervals with no undergrowth, like a polite European forest. Crossing into Saskatchewan i got the impression that the Alberta side was like Disneyland for people who like to sit around campfires singing along to country music, whereas the Saskatchewan side was for serious hunters, anglers and otherwise rugged outdoorsmen. The road was dirt, not gravel. Hoofprints. Occasionally a truck rolled past. The men had moustaches and cowboy hats, but they all waved howdy. One guy pulled over and asked if i needed water.

If you ever see an exhausted-looking hitchhiker or stopped cyclist by the side of the road, this is one of the best things you can say (if you aren't going to offer them a ride). Offering water shows compassion for the tough work of traveling outside mostly on your own steam. And, if they're low, it might be exactly what they need to keep them going till the next ride comes along or to keep them hydrated over that last hill.

I didn't need water. But - after eating lunch and dipping my hands and washing my face in possibly the last creek i will see that drains into the Mississippi - i tackled the mountain out of Cypress Hills (Saskatchewan side). It's basically crossing the continental divide northwards. It wasn't all that much of a climb, truth be told, but the grade was about 10% and the gravel was in very fucking poor shape. Trucks were driving over there at a snail's pace to avoid slipping. So i walked it in the beating sun. Fucking, hard work. Got to the top and it was another beautiful high prairie plateau. Just stunning. Worth every drop of sweat.

And then the ride down, lordy. I haven't been down such a steep sealed road since living in China. It was just hairpins all the way down. So fast. And then up highway 271 to Maple Creek, endless rolling hills of bright yellow grass and sage. It felt even more desolate than Alberta, because there were no powerlines anywhere, barely even a ranch house. The few there are were way off the main road, and miles and miles apart. No car to be seen. Little prairie mice were scuttling over the road like it was their own personal superhighway, popping in and out of holes on the sides.

The closer i got to Maple Creek, the more the wind kicked up. Westerly. Crosswind. Ugh. Brutal.

But i made it. I made it to what i thought was going to be a big town pitstop, like with a proper grocery store, maybe at least Starbucks so i could get more instant coffee. Boy did i underestimate. This place is bigger than Milk River and Foremost, but smaller than Pincher Creek. Oops. I got a motel anyway because i really needed to charge all my stuff overnight and not just steal a quick mini-charge from an outlet in the campsite bathroom (and some campsites i stay at don't even have outlets). I also took my clothes to the laundromat, which will make me feel less grody on the road.

Oh! I got frybread! Completely out of the blue, i went to a local diner and saw that their salads had bannock as the side bread. So i got their "special" salad, which came with walnuts and cranberries and maple dressing. And bannock! Frybread! For the benefit of those of you who haven't had it, it's sort of like a donut but not sweet, or sort of like a pretzel but with a crispier outside. Since this was a pretty sweet salad it ended up feeling a bit donut-y to me, but i think it'd taste better savory. Of course, everything tastes better savory, doesn't it?

After the salad and bannock, i put my clothes in the dryer, then went to the bar for a beer and a poutine. Today was very hard work, probably about 8 hours of cycling all up, and a few of those hours were intense. I still feel like i haven't eaten enough. I can see my ribs in the mirror. But tomorrow the sole grocery store in town doesn't open till noon because it's Labor Day, so i'll be filling up at a gas station again. I have discovered honey roasted peanuts have less sodium than regular salted and other stupid-flavored peanuts, so they are now a backup option. I still have a rice krispie cube that i bought somewhere for emergency calories. Plus probably another couple meals worth of quick oats. I also have dried apricots, sunflower seeds and desiccated coconut, all of which i found in the baking section at a poorly-stocked prairie store. And tortillas. I'm finding ways to adapt to what's available. Gods, i might have to start drinking Nescafé! The horror!

If i was going to be boring, tomorrow i would go up to the Trans Canada Highway and cycle to Swift Current, which (i checked) is actually a decent-sized town, with a shopping mall and so on. But i don't wanna. Where i really want to go is Grasslands National Park, which is one of the few places in Canada where they have released buffalo back into the wild. It is extremely remote, way down south near the Montana border again. The other place i'd like to go is the Great Sand Hills which is "only" about 100km north of here, in the middle of fucking nowhere.

Right now we are finding ourselves in the great prairie conundrum. Everywhere interesting to go is very fucking far away, and not on a convenient eastbound path for me. And most of the places do not have nearby settlements, or if they do, the settlements are like... a couple hundred people at best. Maybe a gas station, possibly. I can understand why cyclists - and even drivers - just blast through Saskatchewan without doing any sightseeing. You have to really want to go off-piste, and be pretty self-sufficient when you get there. It'd be great for an RVer.

I might try Shaunavon, which is about 100km away and see how it feels. It's a larger small prairie town, which is not saying very much. If i am brave i can continue to Val Marie and maybe do a loop to Grasslands and back. But otherwise, fuck, i don't know how to get east outta there. I can always escape north to Swift Current anyways and "waste" a day not progressing east. I just don't want to go on the highway, it seems like such a boring way to go.

Whatever. I need to sleep.