It is a day of trail riding — Cowboy, Kananaskis and Smith Dorrien Trails — though perhaps not like you think. Along the way, we enjoy Canadian cuisine and majestic mountains.
Before departing our first campsite, we vote on whether to continue straight north on the gravel road that brought us here — a shorter distance but still a couple hours — or bail out a bit east to a highway for some easy cruising. (Ironically to us, the gravel road is here labeled a “highway” and the highway is called “Cowboy Trail.”)
Forest roads are usually the obvious choice but this one is just wide, dusty gravel so we decide to bail. Once we turn east, the gravel turns to asphalt sooner than I expected from the map.
“Old Man River,” Brenna reads with a laugh while we’re stopped at the intersection with the Cowboy Trail highway. A sign here tells the name of a creek we’ve been following.
I am not sure why it’s funny. I doubt she knows the old song (which isn’t funny anyway). Maybe she’s thinking of her own situation, riding along with middle-aged men who’ve finally found their namesake river.
We are on Cowboy Trail for more than an hour, a mellow, well manicured two-lane highway bisecting pastoral lands of tall grass and occasional groves of birch or aspen with leaves that glitter in the sun. It’s lovely.
Food and gas are rising priorities as we come upon rustic Longview, the first town we’ve seen since yesterday. It’s good timing.
We pull into the gravel lot gas station at the edge of town. Visible security monitors within and bars on all the windows seem curious for such a small place. I wonder why they need so much security.
Jeremy and Joel aren’t very hungry yet but Brenna and I are so we agree on some lunch here in Longview. I think it will be a ways before we have another option.
We pull out of the gas station, peering left and right for eateries before finding ourselves suddenly heading out the other end of town. With few choices, we loop around and park at one place where we saw people at a table.
Milquetoast décor made us skeptical but the food that arrives, in spite of its simple presentation, is delicious — fresh bread, meat cooked as we hoped, and nicely seasoned. And of course we get some poutine.
We are served by a young man who’s probably enrolled at the high school across the street and part of the family who owns this place. He seems to be vying for the Dick’s Last Resort schtick (customer put-downs) which maybe isn’t a good fit here. Lucky for him, we’re affable guys.
From Longview, we turn west onto the seasonal Kananaskis Trail (which is, yes, a highway). Mountains grow taller and clouds darker with each passing kilometer.
“That’s where we would have come out,” I say to Brenna in the intercom, pointing left to a gravel road blurring by, that leads back to last night’s campsite. I’m glad we took the highway.
“Stop saying that!” Brenna insists after I exclaim, “oh wow,” for maybe the tenth time.
We are getting into bigger and bigger mountains, their titanic rendings displayed broadly across canted, gnarled tones pushed skyward.
“I’ll try,” I answer.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the brothers?” Brenna asks. I can’t help but notice she has taken to calling her uncles “the brothers.”
“I watch for them in the mirror,” I explain. “We’ll stop if we don’t see them for a while.”
“Okay,” she allows.
We pass several marked trailheads along the Kananaskis Trail. As tempting as it is to stop and hike up some of these crags, I know we need to stay on the road to reach our campsite before dark. Hiking time will come later.
We turn off Kananaskis Trail to Smith Dorrien Trail, which climbs still higher and is closed more of the year.
I have taken a pile of pictures while cruise control kept us speeding down the highway but the greens and teals of Spillway Lake against an evergreen and granite backdrop demand a stop. “The brothers” seem to agree.
Shortly after Spillway Lake, Smith Dorrien Trail devolves to gravel. It’s wide and dusty and there’s a good bit of traffic, surprisingly, so I keep the camera stowed.
I am glad when I see the first sprinkles on the windscreen. Some rain to settle the dust would be great. Brenna is excited for it too.
“Oh, yea!” she says when drops begin to hit her visor.
I twist the throttle to speed up, knowing the wet road will be more tractable and to help windstream the rain around us. We pass around one car then another and another.
Rain and gravel end not long before the Three Sisters Parkway descent — a twisting two-lane highway — out of the mountains and down to the resort town of Canmore.
As we’ve come nearer to Canmore, it’s looked more like Yellowstone with lines of cars stopped along the road and cameras pointed at everything, especially the tame mountain goats.
Brenna and I pull to the side of a street in Canmore to await my brothers then together we ramp onto the big highway north to Banff. We’re almost there!
Rain begins to fall again as we reach the exit ramp to our campground, Two Jack Main, where I reserved one of the 380 (you read that right) campsites.
We hustle to set up our tents between showers then take advantage of the wood stove and sink in the shared shelter not far away.
Only a few weeks ago, a young New Jersey family camping somewhere nearby, here in Banff, was attacked inside their tent in the night by a wolf.¹ I thought Brenna would be alarmed to hear of it, which is why I told her right away, but she never had any concern. I try again ...
“I don’t think the wolves will bother us,” I say to her.
We are near the campground entrance and main woodpile which lets us walk to collect wood instead of driving. That’s handy.
“Do you want to go explore?” I ask Brenna once everything is set up.
“Yeah,” she answers.
Sites in the lakeside campground were all taken when I reserved about six months ago so I picked our site as the nearest second choice. We don’t find the trails I expect in the woods between campgrounds but it’s easy walking through the trees. (We do eventually find trails near the other campground.)
Brenna and I emerge from the woods at the end of the other campground that has the so-called oTENTiks which are canvas A-frames on wood floors with a little deck. Those would be nice during the rain, especially with their sweet lake views.
We look around only a few minutes before Brenna wants to turn back through the woods. The breaks between showers are shrinking as evening wears on. It’s almost steady rain now.
Jeremy and Joel are holed up under the tarp when we get back. There’s just enough room for the four of us underneath to sit and enjoy hot meals produced from our JetBoils while peals of thunder mark each minute.
When we’re done eating, Jeremy endures a final drenching to re-engineer string angles so water doesn’t pool anywhere on the tarp and become a worry in the night. Thanks bro!
As Murphy’s Law requires, I began having a headache and congestion a few days ago that I’ve tried to manage with Ibuprofen and reasonable sleep but this afternoon I’m feeling worse.
“I’m gonna go to bed early and see if I can feel better,” I announce to the others. I hate to miss fireside time but it will be rough going if I get any sicker.
“We’re not going to be quiet,” Joel cautions with a smile.
“Oh, I know,” I answer. The fire has precedence.
“Can we listen to a story?” Brenna wonders.
“You bet,” I answer.
So her and I brush our teeth, don our long underwear (but don’t call it that!) and hunker down under the sound of pattering rain and diminishing thunder to begin a story podcast that will carry us away to morning.
Suddenly I’m aware of yelling and bright lights. I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep. The flicker of fire is gone. It feels like the deepest part of night. I realize in a moment that it’s a group arriving, hollering back-and-forth to get parked, which for incomprehensible reasons isn’t going well.
The yelling and sweep of headlights seem to go on and on.