A Matter of Dust: 10 Days on the Great Divide

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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.

Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

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.

Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

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.

Our trip on the GDMBR officially began as we were filling up on coffee, haphazardly strapping our bikes onto a rack, and piling into Geoff’s parents’ minivan, setting off down the road from Vancouver to Banff. One night spent in a mosquito-infested cabin outside of Golden later and suddenly we were there. It was a simultaneously exciting and confusing experience. After all of our talk, we were finally standing in the middle of the trail outside Banff. Cell phones off, out-of-office email responders on, and nothing but the rattle of steel bikes and the occasional yell to ward off bears to fill the silence of the vast landscape. This was going to be my first trip longer than a few days on a bike, which was probably evident through my incessant paranoia of bent wheels, flat tires, and lost parts. I was constantly spinning my wheels to see if they were still true after every pothole and large rock I encountered.
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

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.

Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
One of the most memorable days came after climbing out of a town called Fernie and heading toward Cabin Pass. We climbed countless feet on busy, active logging roads, feeling completely insignificant as these loaded behemoths sped past us. Still, we kept climbing. After a descent we stopped for an extended lunch break by a river, bathed, did laundry, and had lunch. As we rode into the fading light of the evening, the landscape took on a different form, flooded with orange and pink, colours like something out of a surrealist painting. There was nothing to disturb the silence except the slow crunch of gravel under our tires. That night, we didn’t even need to discuss where to camp. We pulled into a meadow beneath a towering peak and there was an unspoken agreement that we’d found a nearly perfect place to spend the night.

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.

  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
  • Pat Valade, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

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.

Pat Valade

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.

20 Comments
  • Great story and photos Pat – well done! :)

  • Pat Valade

    Thanks Miles! Feels great to have something up on this legend of a site!

  • I second Miles’ sentiment… lovely photos!

  • Erik Stuhlmacher

    Great read! Hope to ride with you lads in the not so distant future!

  • mikeetheviking

    Great storytelling and photography!

  • Garret Schmidt

    Really loved this – mark of a good story is feeling like you want to bikepack after you read it! Can there be MORE pictures please??? :D

  • Chris Pollack

    “You’re going to have to pedal no matter what, so you might as well enjoy it while you can.”

    Learning this more and more each time i go out for a day, or 2, or 3. Chill out, have fun, let things happen, and enjoy whatever comes your way.

    Awesome write up!! Beautiful photos too.

  • Geoff Campbell

    Such a rad story my dude! Thanks for bringing back all these swell memories. It makes me very happy that you re-fell in love with bikes <3

  • Joshua Torrans

    Wow, I have thought this many times and its nice to see it in writing! Thank you for sharing, this site is a great lifeline when we can’t be pedaling.

  • Pat Valade

    Thanks Logan!

  • Pat Valade

    Thanks for reading, there’s more floating around somewhere!

  • Pat Valade

    It’s my go to when I can’t ride a bike!

  • Pat Valade

    Thanks brotha!

  • Pat Valade

    Cheers Chris!

  • Pat Valade

    Thanks Mike !

  • Pat Valade

    Let’s make it happen! Sunshine cost summer trip?

  • The Lonely Mailbox

    Great story. It has got me really excited as I am heading over from Aus to ride the GDMBR in a months time. Also awesome photos.

  • Christopher Johnson

    Pat is much more than a photographer. He is a skilled writer/storyteller. Thanks for the stoke, Pat!

  • Pat Valade

    Hope you have a great ride out there!

  • Pat Valade

    Cheers Christopher! Always happy to help.