What’s Vipassana ? & an unexpected return to the Rockies

A Vipassana retreat is hard. Rules are quite strict for the duration of the course. No speaking, no access to your phone, no communication, gender segregation, no sexual activity, no physical exercise whatsoever except walking laps in the courtyard of the foundation, and not even access to any kind of reading material. The idea is to stay clear of any kind of distraction to focus the mind on meditation. While some rules were easy enough for me, I was expecting the no reading material to be the hardest. Turned out, after a few days what I was really craving for was physical exercise, like at least pull-ups or gym. But I did complete the course, though I still found it was difficult to concentrate even at the end.

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A sitting buddha statue in the same position you are expected to meditate in during Vipassana. Meditating is often not as easy as it seems, though….Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All you do for 10 days is meditate following a Buddhist technique, punctuated by breakfast and lunch breaks (no dinner, it’s only a snack around 5pm). Meals provided are vegetarian, and it was generally easy enough for me to look for vegan and gluten-free options in what they served. My main interest in following this course was to try to learn to meditate in the best way possible, and I was also interested to see how I would feel after one week without having my mind distracted by any else than my own thoughts. I’m definitely glad I was able to have that experience, even though I found it pretty hard. Everyone has their own experience, and there is a lot to say about Vipassana, so if you are interested, check out this: https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index .

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Alaska is maybe not that far from southern Alberta, but well, you can pretty much go anywhere from there…
After Vipassana, I ended back in Calgary. Want to know how?

Just before starting my Vipassana course, I heard from Ian who had booked a plane ticket to Calgary. Weeks before, we have talked of maybe meeting up somewhere near Jasper to do parts of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (going from Banff/Jasper, through the US following the Continental Divide to the Mexican border) together, but not having heard anything from him in a while I had decided on my own I would most likely be cycling directly south from Youngstown, perhaps detouring through the South Dakota badlands.

We couldn’t communicate much as he only had internet very sporadically at that time, and a few days later I was in Vipassana with no means of communicating. I ended up deciding to get a lift to Calgary from a fellow Vipassana student, when at the end of the course we broke the silence. At least I would get to a town with services and internet, out of the wind before the end of the day, and was well placed to join if we do decided to do the GDMBR with Ian, as well as for other alternatives. Before I reached Calgary, we managed to touch-base with Ian and his Calgary Warmshower host was going to give him a lift to Jasper later that day… Not an offer I could refuse myself.

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And that’s how I ended up spending the day after the end of my course in two cars, ultimately getting to Jasper at the end of the day, with Ian and two other cyclists also staying with his Warmshower host at that time, Paul and Kelly. They themselves were new to bike travelling but had managed to get cheap second-hand bought-in-the-80s-and-never-used mountain bikes sleeping in someone’s garage, put some racks and panniers on, and off on a cheap bike adventure they were. They were also going on the Divide, but they ended up cycling to Banff on the Icefields Parkway before starting the GDMBR there. We decided to start on the GDMBR extension from Jasper area. Not the best decision we ever did, but we had an adventure !

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Getting muddy on the GDMBR extension…more on this below
From Jasper we first went to Hinton via the Yellowhead highway. In Hinton we stopped at a Warmshowers host to have time to finalize preparations which we had not had time to deal with given how last minute those plan changes were. I got rid of a few pieces of gear in Jasper, and I notably got rid of my cycling helmet, which is why from now on you’ll always see me sporting a pink helmet on pictures (my climbing helmet). If you are planning a cyclotouring and climbing adventure though I can give you some personal recommendations of helmets I have heard of since who might be more suited for such a polyvalent use.

On the Yellowhead highway we were lucky enough to see a lot of animals. Elks, mountains goats and groundhogs among others.

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Elks
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Young mountain goat
IMG_3282[1].JPGAfter Hinton, we went through Cadomin which is the alternative to Robb road (usually the road used for the Divide, but closed before of forest fires. That should have rang a bell. Why? Erm… well, let’s see.

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First the road was okay but not super scenic compared to the area.

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Ready for row of pines trees for kilometers on end ? Here you are
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Cadomin All-Canadian small general store. Pretty good services given the remote location.
Then it turned into gravel as we expected, and got … well not scenic at all. The coal trucks were fun to see, though.

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Welcome to coal and gas backcountry.
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Look at the electric lines for an idea of the scale of these monsters!
Then we got rain.

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Rain+dirt/gravel= mud everywhere.
And then we got smoke…

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By the time we got to Nordegg we were hungry, wet, and not at all enthusiastic about having just cycled through hundred of kilometers along coal mines and identical pine trees. The other half of the extension looked like it was going to be the same.

So we decided to follow the highway 93 to Saskatchewan river crossing, hop on the Icefields parkway down to Banff and go back on the Divide from there onwards, the section of the Divide from Banff to the Canadian border meant to be the most scenic of the entire route according to several cyclists.

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A coyote along the 93.
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Getting smoky out there.
By the end of the section on the 93, we were heavily smoked in. The Icefields Parkway got all white on both sides for a while. It got slightly better one afternoon, and this is what the respite was looking like :

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Still pretty, but not nearly as beautiful as we had seen it from the car during our lift up to Jasper.

In the process, I had contacted Toivo, the WS host I stayed with initially in Canmore during my first passage. We stayed with him again and initially were looking at cleaning our very muddy bikes, get some more route info and get going and cycle to the US border and beyond, through the GDMBR, before probably taking the scenic Going-into-the-Sun highway in Montana and then getting to Yellowstone via the highway or the Divide.

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We did look the wildfire forecast before though.

600 wildfires in south BC. A few in Alberta. A lot in Montana. Going into the Sun was… closed because of a wildfire directly alongside it. The wind was blowing consistently west to east, blanketing South BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana in smoke. You couldn’t see past your nose in smoked-in areas obviously, and well it’s not very healthy to breathe.

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End of August wildfire smoke map accross North America. Red/orange represents the worst quality of air.                                                                       Source: http://googlemapsmania.blogspot.com/2018/08/wildfire-smoke-air-quality-maps.html

We spent a few days talking, wondering what to do with Ian. It didn’t look like it was going to get better in the next 2 to 3 weeks, and we weren’t looking after cyclotouring in an area covered in smoke, because, well, you can’t see anything of the scenery and it’s not healthy.

While pondering, we enjoyed a day off going up and down Sulfur Mountain in Banff. This cute mantled ground squirrel amused us, unfortunately I didn’t get any picture from the top of Sulfur mountain. It was all white !

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Squirrel at the bottom of the first tree bordering the trail, on the left side.
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We ended up deciding to get to Yellowstone directly which was more or less beyond the smoke, but buses were nonexistent in this area (Greyhound has discontinued most useful routes in the US apart between major city hubs, and trying to take a bike on a Greyhound will give you a headache anyway), flights to airports directly near Yellowstone were expensive, and we looked at killing a couple weeks first to wait until the end of summer season to get to Yellowstone. Yellowstone is very busy and full of tourists in season up to labor day, beginning of September. We looked at flying to Rapid City in South Dakota, where I’ll most likely end up one day as there is a hell of a lot of climbing nearby (Black hills, Devils Tower) and the Badlands. Flying to Boise, Idaho, was much, much cheaper though. Southern Idaho seemed like an interesting region to explore as well. Good climbing too, some scenic cycling routes in the State and Boise picked our curiosity.

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Getting bikes boxes ready for the flight.

And that’s how we ended up back in Calgary!

And on a plane to Boise.

Flying above the smoke was surreal.

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TIPS:

  • Best to avoid starting the GDMBR, or being in the Pacific North West area and around in August, because of the likelihood of heavy forest fires at that time of the year. Mid-July is frequently reported as one of the best starting times for the GDMBR, but not later. That said, there is no “no smoke warranty”. Sometimes, you get big forest fires in June or July.
  • I’d definitely recommend riding the Icefields Parkway over the GDMBR extension, especially if you haven’t been to that area before. It’s much more scenic, you can see loads of wildlife, and it’s a nice flowing ride, even though you have to watch out for cars stopping to take pictures of wildlife anytime. Yes, it can get busy and touristy, and it’s pretty much impossible to stealth (see my previous post about camping in the big National Parks in Canada), but with careful planning it’s definitely worth it.
  • Further on that, if you get on the Icefields Parkway, load up on food beforehand in Rocky Mountain House/Jasper/Lake Louise as the food available to buy at the outposts (especially Saskatchewan River Crossing) is scarce and ridiculously expensive, catering for the busloads of tourists who get stuck with very little competition around.
  • Alaskan airlines is a great airline to fly with bikes in North America. Bikes go as checked luggage (50USD for each piece of checked luggage as of 2018), cheap airfares, and good connections.

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