A Matter of Dust: 10 Days on the Great Divide
Last summer, Canadian photographer Pat Valade headed out on his first extended bikepacking trip, a 10-day stint along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Here, he shares images from the ride and recaps some of the lessons he learned while forgetting about his day-to-day worries and settling into life along the trail…
Words and photos by Pat Valade (@bikestachevalade)
We’d been talking about this trip for months. Well, in truth, I was talking about it and Geoff was actually planning it. The distinction between the two became all too clear as I ran around my apartment the day before departure, seemingly only able to stuff small bags into larger ones, haphazardly lashing them to every conceivable place on my bike. I was joining my longtime friend on the first leg of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), from Banff to Missoula, before he continued on to finish the whole thing.
Despite the fact that the GDMBR is a commonly travelled route, I was quite surprised to find myself on it. I’d grown up mountain biking on the dry, hot trails of interior British Columbia, but I largely left riding behind when I left home and headed to the coast for art school. I swapped big tires and gears for a single speed that quickly found itself living amongst empty beer cans on my porch in Vancouver. Riding bikes slipped off the radar, at least until I moved in with a 6’5” graphic designer who had a penchant for drop bars and fine steel bikes.
Geoff and I were good friends before we lived together, and from what I can remember he was always bombing around the streets of Vancouver on the type of narrow-tubed vintage steel road bike all too common for university students seeking affordable transportation. That poor bike met its untimely end at the entrance to an alley, under the bumper of a Mercedes. A fancier bike joined my neglected single speed on the porch, and soon Geoff and his partner were off for the classic Pacific Coast tour from Vancouver down the West Coast to the sunny beaches of California. Road touring held little interest to me, although I know it’s the logical first step into a lifetime of bikes and eventually bikepacking.
By chance, during an excursion to work on an art project far up the Fraser Valley, I came across a roadside garage sale that had two shiny bikes on display: one a generic road bike and the other a gravel bike with larger, knobbier tires. A light bulb switched on in my brain and I drove as quickly as possible to the closest ATM. Not long after, I was driving home with a nearly new steel gravel bike in my trunk and visions of British Columbia’s never-ending logging roads in my mind.
I learned a lot from my first trips on that bike. Specifically, I learned how to overpack, how to underpack, how to run out of water, and how much pizza you need to carry to get through five hours of hike-a-bike on overgrown trails. I also learned that you should always carry a first aid kit, but in a pinch, toilet paper, a tight cycling cap, and whiskey can help stem the bleeding from a small-to-medium sized head wound. Geoff was a constant companion on these trips, a source of enthusiasm, and a participant in many ill-conceived excursions. We’ve spent a lot of time riding, planning for future excursions, and slowly piecing together bikes, gear, and experiences.
Bike trips that take you away from the day-to-day comforts of your normal life are a real way to test a friendship. It becomes increasingly clear who is willing to put up with the discomfort, the lack of water, and occasional poor planning. It also quickly becomes clear who enjoys these small, what some might call negative side effects of riding bikes, and takes them in stride, turning them into fodder for later stories.
And then there were the fires. The summer of 2017 was one of the most notable wildfire seasons in recent memory. Fires consumed more than 1.2 million hectares in British Columbia and Alberta, with large fires burning south of the border in the US as well. The total cost of fire suppression reached over $568 million in British Columbia alone. These fires inevitably led to multiple road closures along the GDMBR. Luckily, we only encountered one detour on our way into Missoula, but the smoky skies and wild colours were a constant reminder of the devastation taking place not far away.
I have rarely felt anything similar to the unbridled enthusiasm that we experienced in our short time on the Great Divide. As we pedalled the first kilometres of trails and forest service roads, we had to keep ourselves from stopping at every turn, every vista. The Canadian Rockies are always an impressive sight, but to be able to roll through them slowly, savoring every pedal stroke, made the experience infinitely more meaningful than if we’d been cruising down the highway in our car. Beyond following the rough line on our GPS, we were intentional about not planning and organizing every single moment of the trip. Rolling through landscapes like those along the GDMBR naturally leads to situations you don’t encounter in everyday life, and embracing the unknown (while a trope of travel) is a necessary by-product of a bike trip like ours.
We had a tendency to enjoy riding well into the evening, something that got us into trouble on a viciously steep hike-a-bike over a mountain pass. We were lucky to be offered to stay in a half-complete snowmobilers cabin at the top of the pass, which we reached long past midnight. It was physically exhausting, but as usual we laughed at the things we think are fun, and feasted on chili and cheesy bread. We were getting into a rhythm at this point, and everything clicked.
I can pick out these specific moments of the ride when I look through photos, but the feeling of our trip really comes through in bursts. I can feel the kicked-up grit from logging trucks stuck on my front teeth and the sun burning the tops of my arms. I can feel the burning in my legs and in my shoulders from a steep hike-a-bikes. I remember vividly the sense of complete exhilaration and childlike wonder at traveling under my own power with a great friend in a picture-perfect landscape.
Once you forget about the equipment and the nagging, day-to-day worries of everyday life, the simplicity of the bike trip shines through. With a little money and a lot of time, the possibilities of bicycle travel are limitless. Something I’ve really come to appreciate about using a bicycle to travel through new places is that at some point, you have no option but to finally forget about the fallibility of every part on your frame, your emails, and just really take in what’s going on around you (though the habit of worrying takes a few days of riding and camping to finally get rid of). You’re going to have to pedal no matter what, so you might as well enjoy it while you can.
About Pat Valade
Pat Valade is a photographer based on the West Coast of British Columbia. He grew up riding mountain bikes in the dry interior of the province, and now mostly just rides bikes in the rain. You can often find him getting lost on some trail, on skis, on the end of a rope, or consuming an ill-advised amount of coffee and pastries while running around with a camera. Find Pat on Instagram @bikestachevalade.