Bikepacking Gaspesie: Days 6-9

We’re cycling around the Gaspésie Peninsula, the Eastern-most part of Quebec. It’s about 900km and we’ve been promised terrible weather, many hills, and excellent craft beer.

Report on Days 1-3

Report on Days 4-6

Day 7Coin du Banc to Pabos

62.5km, 600m ascent

There comes a point in every long bike ride when you start entertaining the idea of a bit of blood doping. For us, this point was day 7.

The day began with a steep but beautiful climb out of Coin du Banc, weaving through striking red rock cliffs. It was this climb that prompted Steph to start day dreaming about EPO. Sadly, all we had was Dairy Milk.

On the other side of the mountain was the beautiful seaside town of Percé, so named for a big rock which has a hole in it (it’s Percéed, so to speak). The lighting wasn’t ideal for photos, so here’s a professional’s effort:

It’s a lovely chunk of rock with a bloody great hole in it

We had a nice time chewing on croissants, reading our books, and gazing out to sea in the sunshine.

We could afford to take our time because the rest of the day’s cycling was pretty straightforward. In fact, it was flat as a pancake, as acted out by my charming assistant:

After the initial climb, the rest of the day’s cycling was flat. You know, like a pancake.

This was lucky, because about 30 minutes after leaving Percé we came across the very microbrewery whose beers we’d been enjoying throughout the trip, Pit Caribou. Naturally, we had to stop for a beer and another swim.

We continued along the coast rather sanguinely until the heavens opened, and we took shelter at a cantine where Steph ate a colossal quantity of food.

The weather stabilized in the evening, and we reached our campsite at about 4pm in glorious sunshine. This was the first sustained warmth we’d had since the trip began, so we spread out all of our belongings on the grass and then joined them.

Dehumidification at scale

As evening gathered we nipped into the nearby town of Chandler to do some shopping. The next 2 days were to be spent in the backcountry, so we stocked up on grub. We also managed to find a 375ml plastic bottle of Canadian Club whisky, which was a cause for great celebration because we couldn’t really afford the weight of any beer on the next leg of our trip.

We returned to the campsite to cook sweet potatoes in the fire. Thus ensued a languid evening during which we didn’t study the route for the next day.

This was an error.

Day 8Pabos to Middle of Nowhere

65km, 1260m ascent

In my planning, I had cheerfully named the destination for Day 8 “the middle of nowhere”. This turned out to be much truer than we’d appreciated.

The day was already scorching by 9am, but we set off in high spirits, carrying what we thought was an insane amount of snacks. The ride got off to a slightly dodgy start when I realized that my planned route actually started 10km away, so we had a bit more to do than anticipated.

Two days worth of goodies. Note the whisky lurking in the bottle left hand corner of the picture.

After a few km, we hit a road barrier which signified the end of the paved road. Things were still pretty smooth – compacted gravel – so this didn’t cause us undue concern.

The end of the road; the start of the adventure.

However, things rapidly worsened. As a helpfully placed map soon informed us, we weren’t travelling on gravel roads, as we’d anticipated, but on trails intended for snowmobiles and ATVs. You know, things with massive fucking tyres.

Our destination on this cross-peninsula adventure was Murdochville (kind of in the middle, near the top). The route was entirely ATV/snowmobile trails.

Thus commenced a fairly intense morning of steep ascent punctuated with lots of rolling hills, all on a mixture of rubble and mud. It was manageable for me on a gravel bike with 35mm tyres but pretty sketchy for Steph on a carbon road bike with only 25mm of rubber on the road. There was some walking. A bit of swearing. And so much sweating.

The landscape was beautiful in places, and it felt great to be off the beaten track (although arguably we would have appreciated a bit more beating of this track). The side of the track was fringed with trees and berry bushes which looked like reassuringly tasty alternatives to a couple of increasingly lean bikers for any neighbourhood bears.

These turned out to be some of the best roads we’d experience in the next 24 hours.

As the sun reached its zenith, we finally crested the first of the two big hills of the day and started the descent towards the river where we intended to eat lunch. With the increase in steepness came a degradation in surface. The technical term for riding a skinny-tyred bike on unsuitable terrain is “underbiking”. Steph had been doing this all morning, but I joined her as the terrain worsened. If I was now underbiking, Steph was now in the classification beyond underbiking, which I think is called “making a mistake”.

We’d drunk all of our water, which was beginning to make us feel little edgy. As we bounced our way down the track, I caught glimpses of what looked like a dry riverbed below us. Whilst half of my brain focused on not getting killed, the other half started wondering what it would like to be stranded 40km from civilization with no water, and words like “rescue”, “emergency”, and “phone coverage” started bouncing around inside my head.

I was therefore pretty relieved when we came across some water. It might have been described as a “waterfall” but perhaps more accurately deemed a “waterdribble”. We weren’t bothered, and happily filled up every receptacle we had.

As it turned out, we needn’t have bothered, because when we did get down to the river, it was nothing short of paradisiacal.

After a couple of swims and a big lunch, we steeled ourselves for the afternoon’s riding.

Given the scarcity of water, we knew we had to reach our destination (another river) to be sure of resupply, but the difficulty of the terrain meant we had to walk much of the afternoon. It didn’t take as long as we’d feared, however, and we reached our campsite before sunset.

The remoteness also paid off – I met a moose around 5pm. I was daydreaming about machine learning and whistling Abba and he was enjoying his tea. Each of us looked at each other in puzzlement for a few seconds – I was thinking “that’s a funny looking horse”, and he was probably thinking “mate you could do with a hardtail or perhaps even a full suspension rig on this kind of terrain” – before he galloped off down the hill.

The only people we saw on the trail were occasional ATVs. There were signs of life, however – mostly signs advertising hides for hunting. We saw promises of orignal (moose), chevreux (goats), and cerf (deer), but no mention of ours (bears), which was reassuring.

We found a place to pitch right on the river, and settled down to enjoy our Canadian Club. As the sun set, the iron bridge over the river gently ticked as it cooled down. We slept well.

Day 9Middle of Nowhere to Murdochville Gaspé

~80km, ~1200m ascent [Komoot lost us for a while]

We spent a lovely early morning fortifying ourselves with croissants and coffee for what we knew would be a gruelling day ahead. There might have been a dram of whisky consumed too.

Shortly after commencing, we sustained our first puncture of the trip.

We felt a little aggrieved at this, because the roads were actually considerably better than the day before. It was a “pinch puncture” – caused by the inner tube getting pinched by the rim of the wheel. This is usually caused by insufficient tyre pressure on rocky terrain.

We replaced the tube, whilst coming to terms with the fact that the puncture repair kit we’d bought from Canadian Tyre didn’t look like it could patch a mosquito bite. We had 2 spare tubes for Steph’s bike and one for mine, so we were still fairly relaxed.

Shortly afterwards, however, we met a couple of guys on an ATV, who told us that the way ahead was blocked by landslide and was impossible to cross. This was a potentially big issue because, as I think I’ve mentioned, we were in the middle of bloody nowhere.

We talked through our options with them. The nearest town was Gaspé, which they reckoned to be about 50km away. They offered us some water and then grimly wished us best of luck. We continued to investigate the landslide. They hadn’t been exaggerating.

The landscape having firmly rejected our choice of destination, we turned around and headed back to Gaspé.

This wasn’t an entirely trivial undertaking, however. The trails were once again vicious, and after 10km, Steph sustained another puncture.

This was again a pinch, which probably resulted from insufficient pumping in the last repair, thus contributing a dose of self-loathing to an already frothy cocktail of fatigue, exasperation, and uncertainty. We duly replaced the tube, pumped until our forearms bulged, and took stock of our supplies.

We had stuff for lunch, but no other meals, having anticipated being in town by nightfall. However, thanks to our snack stockpiling, we had about 3000kcal of food left (~1000 of these were from cheese curds, a Quebecois delicacy to which Steph has become very attached). We reasoned that this should probably see us through the night if we did get into further trouble.

The afternoon was a slog, but every painful kilometre meant one less to walk if Steph got another puncture. The terrain was hilly and close, with endless ups and downs to negotiate. We were now descending extremely carefully for the sake of Steph’s tyres, so the downhills became almost as slow as the uphills.

After 40km of this, we finally rejoined a road. I think Steph had never been so pleased to see a JCB.

The dirt road continued for a kilometre before transitioning to actual asphalt, which I will never take for granted again. Like the end of a piece of wool in the minotaur’s labyrinth, the yellow lines beckoned us back to civilization.

Luxury is an asphalt road with painted lines.

We were as zonked as we’d ever been. We skimmed along at what seemed impossibly high speeds until we found a depanneur to buy some things for dinner. We then pitched our tent in a halte municipal (lay by) and Steph went into a sort of fugue state from which she had to be gently coaxed with orangina.

I could tell she was utterly spent because Steph usually can’t resist the urge to play in a playground, but she didn’t even try the slide.

It turned out to be another rather lovely camping spot, with a gorgeous sunset over the marsh which we barely had time to appreciate before we passed out.


Bikepacking Gaspésie: Days 4- 6

We’re cycling around the Gaspésie Peninsula, the Eastern-most part of Quebec. It’s about 900km and we’ve been promised terrible weather, many hills, and excellent craft beer.

Report on Days 1-3

Day 4: Grande Vallée to Forillon

110km, 1860m ascent

With an elevation profile that looked like a Great White’s grin, we knew this day was going to be A Whopper.

Full details on Komoot (all of the days are there).

The weather continued to add to our hardship, providing wind and rain to batter us back down the hills we were grinding up. The landscape was pleasant, if a little sparse- there was a 40km stretch without any shops. We did, however, pass the lighthouse which was the recipient of Marconi’s Transatlantic broadcast in 1904. This was pleasing, as we’d seen its counterpart in Mullion, Cornwall many times.

We’d covered 65km and the majority of the climbing by about 2pm, which coincided with a very welcoming microbrewery named Frontibus, in Cap Au Renard. We were forced to shelve our principles and buy pulled pork sandwiches, because the only vegetarian option on the menu sounded frightfully lightweight (cheese and crackers). We also sunk a couple of pretty good IPAs, which left Steph rather drowsy.

After some slow service and a bit of chitchat with a fellow cyclist it was suddenly 3.30, and we realised we had better be on our way. Some 20km later we arrived at the entrance to the Forillon national park, and received very precise instructions from a lovely lady about how to get from there to our campsite, one of several in the expansive park.

Like morons, we ignored these instructions entirely, trusting instead our navigation app Komoot. Komoot has historically done a very good job finding nice routes- and I highly recommend it- but boy did it screw up this time.

We were initially surprised that Komoot had opted for a road with a 15% gradient, but in retrospect this seems like a deliberate warmup. Shortly after we were directed up an unequivocally labelled hiking trail.

Unfortunately our retreat options were rather limited at this point, involving a 10km detour. As it turns out, this would have been a great investment. Instead we ended up pushing our bikes up this staggeringly steep and very rocky footpath for a good 45 minutes before blessedly things flattened out a bit and we were able to ride the last 2km.

We finally arrived at our campsite at about 7pm, after by far the most brutal day of the tour yet. Sadly we didn’t have anything to eat so I had to then do a quick 10km round trip to find some dinner which we could barely keep our eyes open long enough to eat.

Day 5: Rest Day at Forillon

Mindful of the enormity of day 4, we’d scheduled a rest day for day 5. The only agenda items were lounging around in the sun and eating some more excellent Turtle cookies (which I’d been forced to concede made for a pretty good breakfast the day before).

Sadly the weather failed to comply with our plans, the dawn breaking damply over a day which would progress from moist to sodden over the next few hours. On the upside, the national park had phenomenal facilities, which a beautifully airy indoor space, all pine and glass, for us to lay around in and eat cupasoup.

Day 6: Forillon to Coin du Banc

96km, 920m ascent

Leaving Forillon early, we made it into Gaspé -the regional capital- for elevenses (for the non-British, please see Paddington Bear). We dropped by Cafe des Artistes, where Steph bought a muffin the size of her face, and stocked up on food. Much to our surprise and delight, we found some Beyond Meat sausages in the local Provigo.

We had lunch in a lovely meadow overlooking the bay, and pedalled on towards our campsite in the small town of Coin du Banc.

Google had suggested that there was nowhere within 25km of Coin du Banc to buy groceries, so we stopped at a tiny dépanneur en route for dinner supplies. Sadly there were no respectable drinks options, so we ended up buying some Molson Dry. Steph promptly fell down the front steps of the shop (cycling cleats can be awkward, and she’s clumsy), smashing open a can and forcing us to drink one. This was decried by my fairer half as tasting “like piss”, and we later gave it to some guys with VW vans and windsurfing boards who seemed a bit embarrassed to be associated with such drivel.

Luckily we did find a depanneur much closer to our campsite, with an excellent NEIPA from the local Pit Caribou brewery. Our evening was further enhanced by tantalizing views of the eponymous “pierced rock” of Percé, the next town along, and a nice chap giving us a spare gas canister and thus easing our fears of not being able to drink any tea for the rest of them trip.

Bikepacking Gaspésie : Days 1-3

We’re cycling around the Gaspésie Peninsula, the Eastern-most part of Quebec. It’s about 900km and we’ve been promised terrible weather, many hills, and excellent craft beer.

I’m pleased to report the first quarter of the trip has delivered on all 3.

Day 0: Montreal to Matane

We had considered cycling to Gaspésie from Montreal, but we realized that we had no way to get back again. All of the public transport is closed and nobody likes us enough to drive 2000km to ferry us home.

Instead, on Saturday 25th we drove to the fairly nondescript town of Matane, 600km East of Montreal, accompanied by the riveting and gloriously British Complete BBC John Le Carré Radio Collection. We were reluctant to leave the car upon arriving, because the audiobook was engrossing and the weather was horrific. Mustering a bit of stiff upper lip, we pitched our tent in gale force winds. The first of many Québécois to take pity on us this trip was a 12 year old in a hoody (the son of the proprietor, presumably), who ran out to tell us we could pitch our tent under the children’s playframe to prevent it blowing away. We glibly declined, partly from pride and partly from miscomprehension, and went into town to find a pub.

Beers at La Fabrique, Matane

Matane, according to Google, had only one good pub. Everybody else visiting the town had also heard of Google, and the pub was accordingly stuffed. We stood outside for an hour waiting for the COVID-queue to dissipate, but were gratifyingly stuffed with mussels and salmon when we left later that night, placing bets whether our tent would still be there. Steph won the bet, and the tent remained standing and passably dry. On with the trip.

Day 1: Matane to Cap Chat

74km, 700m ascent

We arose to find the wind had died down and the rain had stopped. Delighted, we made a pilgrimage to the Church of Canada aka Tim Hortons to give thanks and keep the Canadian gods smiling upon us.

We enjoyed a very tranquil and swift 3 hours cycling in beautiful weather. We might have benefited from the tailwind we’d heard aided those completing the loop clockwise, or, more likely, we might just have been really good at cycling that day.

We hadn’t booked a campsite for the evening but we chanced upon an excellent ice cream shop and restaurant with views over the estuary. This offered a bird’s eye view of several enticing spots to pitch a tent, and so we opted for a “semi wild” camp amongst the reeds and the waders.

Day 2: Cap Chat to Mont St Pierre

70km, 590m ascent
I’m not really sure what Steph is doing here, but I can confidently state that her mouth is full of muffin.

We survived our night of illicit camping unpunished, although we did endure the unnerving experience of somebody repeatedly flying a drone over our heads. Breakfast was muffins, strawberries, and some cookies from the local petrol station.

We cycled for about 45 minutes before getting to St Anne des Monts, where we fell in behind an older cyclist. A few miles down the road I noticed that he peeled off and headed to a very discreet little bakery called “Pain Quotidien”. After a quick council we decided that a good cyclist never eschews a bakery, so we doubled back to check it out.

Unfortunately, upon scrutiny the “Pain Quotidien” wasn’t really Quotidien at all, but open exclusively on Saturdays (this illustrates a cultural kinship between Québécois and British- both enjoy a sense of irony which leaves most of North America pretty befuddled).

Happily, however, the old boy we’d been cycling behind popped out in his Lycra nursing an enormous cat. We mentioned we were looking for a cup of coffee and he insisted we come in for one – and so, we met Mario.

Mario ushered us into his bakery, which consisted of a front of house – with blackboards, a mechanical bread slicer, and some tables- and the bakery itself. The bakery’s rear wall was dominated by three large windows offering lovely views of the St Laurent. The other 3 consisted of ovens, counters and sinks, and a chest freezer in which Mario immediately started burrowing to find us something to eat.

In the course of our (French, fast, 50% comprehension) conversation, it became clear that Mario had worked in Montreal, where he did something with trade delegations. He learned to bake from a Belgian, possibly in Belgium. The Belgian taught him all sort of fancy tricks, with which he now delighted the people of St Anne each Saturday. Friday involved sleeping in the afternoon and then rising at midnight to get the show on the road, baking the tarts and croissants whose dough he had made during the week.

At this point he realized that he did have something to feed us after all, and conjured a pair of clafoutis (rather like a crème brûlée but not bruleed). These he fired in our direction across the polished kneading table like a saloon bartender, followed by a jar of fruit-jewelled sweet cream.

The astute reader will no doubt be objecting that we ate a substantial breakfast of cookies and muffins less than an hour earlier. Cometh the hour, cometh the Willis, dispatching the clafoutis and ploughing into the cream whilst I was still grappling with the word “clafoutis”.

Eventually we had to leave Mario’s spectacular hospitality, accompanied by exhortations to return and the offer of accomodation whenever we passed by next. We think that the return leg of our trip will take us via his shop on a Saturday, so we’ll be able to taste the bread. He also confided that he has been known to bake “pain liquide” (i.e. beer), so we hope to be able to report back on that too, if we can still see afterwards.

The second half of the day was also filled with excitement. We arrived in the small town of Mont St Pierre in the early afternoon, and dived in for a swim in the rather prehistoric bay, encircled by impressive igneous cliffs and crisscrossed by paragliders.

We were soon joined by our friends Alexandra and Julien, who had set off from Montreal some 4 weeks ago and were doing the whole thing by bike (they’d already done ~1700km). Unfortunately Alex’s rear derailleur had just broken, so she’d cycled most of the day on one gear. They were nonetheless in good spirits and we spent some time admiring their super light tarp setup (admittedly slightly undermined by the fact they also had a tent), and swapping notes on local beers.

Alex looks way too happy for somebody who has been cycling around here on a fixie.

Day 3: Mont St Pierre to Grande Vallée

64km, 860m ascent

The day dawned grey and drizzly, a state that persisted until the evening when it yielded to torrential rain.

This made for a challenging day’s cycling, exacerbated by a massive bloody hill. Alex and Julien had warned us about this, so after a very damp morning of wind and salt spray, we indulged in a substantial lunch at the foot of the big ascent.

The morale boosting effect of lunch was slightly attenuated by meeting a load of other cyclists, all of whom were a lot skinnier than we were and had fancier kit than us. We, however, still had the John Le Carré audiobook, and thus armed we ground our way to the top without too much angst.

The descent was super, bringing us into Grande Vallée over 10 or so winding kilometres. There we pitched our tent in the last remaining spot at Au Soleil Couchant, nestled amonst RVs, and scuttled off to the local supermarket for some sweet potatoes to bake in our campfire.

Arriving home, the aforementioned torrential rain began. As the heavens laughed, our neighbors took pity on us poor bedraggled bikepackers, furnishing us with camp chairs, an electric heater (for the tent- we didn’t use it) and, most significantly, a gazebo to shelter us and the fire from the downpour.

This idyllic scene of brotherly love was only slightly marred by the wind breaking two of the struts of the gazebo we’d been leant. Embarrassingly, we were already in bed at the point when a different neighbour had to yell for our help to grapple with the increasingly airborne gazebo. We scrambled to offer ineffective aid. The next day we returned the tent with many downcrested looks, mumbled apologies, and a small bottle of Valpolicella we’d been too tired to drink the night before.

Thanks for reading. Days 4-6 coming soon. Sneak preview: lots of hills, some more rain, and yes, more beer.

#5: Mountaineering in the Bugaboos : part I

If this post seems a little terse, know this: I wrote a rather long version and WordPress promptly lost it, and my enervated second attempt is shorter.

The Bugaboos are a rather ferocious array of sheer granite spires located in the Purcell range of mountains, about 4 hours away from Canmore. Heavily glaciated, the dark rock pinnacles explode from a snowfield that is present throughout the year. This high contrast landscape is a veritable mountaineers’ playground, providing innumerable opportunities for stunning alpine and rock climbing (and, as emphasised by our parents, to hurt oneself).

Wisely, we’d opted to employ a team of guides to prevent us doing just that. Yamnuska Mountain Adventures run… well… you get the idea. We were doing their Intro to Alpine Rock, a 6 day smorgasbord of rock climbing, glacial travelling, and some serious ascents.

These contraptions prevent porcupines nibbling the tyres

The adventure began at the carpark, where we deployed copious wire and rocks to fend off the porcupines, which have an inexplicable fetish for rubber. We then carried all of our gear and food for the trip up to the hut from which we would be based, the Conrad Kain. The 2.5 hour hike was initially wooded; as we broke the tree line, we caught our first glimpse of the stunningly sculptural glaciers which shape the Bugaboos.

The Conrad Kain hut is named for a pioneering mountain guide who completed various first ascents in the rockies and the New Zealand alps with commendable panache, a badass hat, and a pipe. I don’t know whether this was de rigeur for the day, or whether he was a tad eccentric.

They don’t make ’em like this any more

Inside, the hut was superbly appointed, with a good kitchen, running water, and  electricity courtesy of a hydro generator in a nearby glacial stream. Our guides were true connoisseurs of the freeze-dried meal, and given that we’d carried all of our food up, the nosh was remarkably varied and tasty. Feeding began some 15 minutes after staggering through the door, with appetisers (‘appies’) and soup providing a quick fuel injection which was usually followed by a much needed nap before dinner proper.

Spying the green roof from the top of a peak was a bittersweet experience: nice to know where home is, but inevitably upsetting how bloody far away it is.

Our first outing was a relaxed outing up a route called Lions Way. Rising at 6am, we hitched ourselves to a charming Japanese guide named Takeshi (yes, like the chap with the castle). His enthusiasm, which imbued a charming variety of catchphrases (‘for sure’,’sooo nice’, ‘it was AWESOME’), combined with some superb granite, made for a delightful climb. The descent included some glissading – sliding on your arse whilst attempting to control your passage with an ice axe – jolly good fun.

Crescent Tower, with the Lions Way crudely marked in red

The next day promised stiffer challenges. We were tackling the west ridge of the Pigeon, a gripping alpine climb and one of North America’s 50 Classics. When the guides proposed a 3am wake up for a 4am departure, I genuinely thought they were joking.

They were not. Alpine ascents are best completed early, before the day warms up and snow and ice starts to melt. Moving on warm snow is sticky, slow, and hot, not to mention the increased risk of avalanche.

And so, bleary eyed, we set off at 4am, hoping to avoid being shat upon by the Pigeon. We mounted the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col as the sun rose, roped together in case of a tumble. The views were spectacular.

The climb itself was a satisfying blend of scrambling (essentially very involved walking with lots of exposure [i.e. lots of thin air on either side]) and classic pitched climbing. The climbing was rendered slightly more complicated by the fact that we were wearing chunky mountaineering boots. Learning to trust their (actually quite formidable) grip was a bracing experience, but the rock was once again magnificent and the setting breathtaking.


This particularly sharp ridge section had to be tackled au cheval; the closest I’ve come to riding a horse since I was 7.

We’re the coloured specks near the centre of the image


Steph making it look easy

Rappelling and pretending not to mind that I’m leaning backwards into the void

The following day was a relaxed one: an outing up the East Post- an easy scramble near the hut- and an afternoon of skills training. This covered various useful things such as how to climb a rope to get out of a crevasse, and some more technical climbing tidbits that I won’t bore you with here.

Which meant that at the evening planning session, we were feeling sufficiently well-rested to contemplate tackling a more ambitious ascents: the Kain route up Bugaboo spire. To find out whether we made it up (and down), you’ll have to read the next post. I leave you with a quote from Conrad Kain himself:

“Without hesitation I say that the ascent of Bugaboo Spire offers as many thrills and difficulties as any of the aiguilles in the Alps which I have climbed.”

~Conrad Kain, 1883-1944


#6: Walking the northover ridge

You have not missed blog #5. It simply has not been written yet. 

After 6 days of mountaineering in the Purcell mountains and a ‘rest day’ spent mountain biking and bouldering in the town of Canmore, we donned our walking boots for one more trip into the backcountry. I admit that this was the result of some slightly overzealous planning. Our legs/feet/arms were pretty tired from biking/walking/climbing and the prospect of a 40km walk didn’t appeal quite as much as it did when I was sat on a sofa in Cambridge. The campsites were booked however and we had not yet used our bear spray so there was no room to wiggle out of it. We repacked our backpacks, drove down to Kannaskis in our trusty VW Jetta and pitched our little tent in a typically enormous Canadian campsite.

A plot on a Canadian campsite. Our own sites always looked a little odd without the boat, marquee, gazebo, RV, caravan and pick up truck. 

The walk started with an easy tramp around Upper Kananaskis lake. The water in many of the glacial lakes in the Rockies is a startlingly light blue. Apparently that’s because the water is full of very light rock dust which is formed when glaciers scrape over rocks. The fine dust stays suspended and reflects light. Kinda cool. At this point the path was wide and we passed lots of other people so, although it looked like an ideal place for bears to live, we felt confident that they would stay off the path.

IMG_4506Archy was very pleased to have found a way to bring together his love of the wilderness and his taste for kebabs: the portable donner (or rather donair, a Canadian variant).

At MEC in Vancouver we had invested in a GPS (inspired by some misadventures in the foggy Welsh hills). In Canmore we had deliberated over whether we should buy a map of the area we were walking in. We felt that we had read so many blog posts about it that we might manage without one and then we could save a huge $13. Luckily sense prevailed and we did buy one. The combination of map and GPS resulted in remarkably successful (for us) navigation throughout the trip. The combination first came in handy when identifying a tiny trail leading off from the lake which turned out to be our route into the hills. A short way along said path there was a sign warning us about bears, wildfires and lack of signal to call 999. Very encouraging.

IMG_4516Archy is just about managing a smile here but in fact we were both pretty distracted by the prospect of being mauled by a lurking bear, then being unable to call an ambulance and promptly being cremated by forest fire.

The path wound upwards through dense pine trees whose lower branches were hung with stringy lichen. Trudging through this rather Jurassic forest put us on high alert for possible cougar, bear, and velociraptor attacks. Fortunately the jingling of our bear bells and our intermittent whistling and singing – we broke out all of the bear-related songs in our repertoire to make our status as friend-not-food crystal clear- sufficed to keep wildlife out of our way. We emerged from the forest sweaty but unharmed.

IMG_4512Phew – out of bear country. The relief soon faded when we realized that meant a grinding trudge up a never ending scree slope. No wonder the bears don’t bother venturing up here. 

An unfamiliarity with 1:50 000 scale maps and an overestimation of our speed saw us expecting geographical features long before we saw them. The scree eventually gave way to much milder terrain however and we ended up in a wild flower meadow. From there it was an enjoyable wander through low trees, streams and rocky meadows to Aster lake – our campsite for the night.


Day 2

Most people do this walk in 3 days and they do the same first day that we did. So we had rather a long way to go on day 2. Aware of this we got moving early next morning. So did the flies.

IMG_4525A view best enjoyed from this photo. The same stillness that yielded that delightful reflection also meant that the air was thick with mosquitos. I was so busy swatting them off my face that I nearly fell into the lake.

fullsizeoutput_d9A marmot – for a while we thought it might be a wolverine but alas it was not.

Back in Canmore we had tried to buy some ‘micro spikes’. These are like mini crampons that you put on your boots when crossing ice and snow. The man in the shop had assured us that there wouldn’t be much snow and so we hadn’t bothered buying any. This started to look like a bad idea as we climbed because there was in fact quite a lot of snow. Luckily it was pretty soft and in fact it was much easier terrain to cross than the surrounding scree. The approach to the ridge was steep and covered in harder snow. From our vantage at the bottom we could not see the ridge proper but we could see the cornices on its downwind slope. It crossed our minds that we might need to turn around and we cursed ourselves for not having bought the micro spikes (lesson: always buy more gear) and brought an ice axe (lesson: always bring the gear you already have). 6 days of being taught how to walk on glaciers definitely came in handy as Archy kicked steps up the slope and I scrambled up in his footsteps. The ridge was in fact clear of snow with only the snow build-up on the leeward slope remaining and so we could venture on.

IMG_4546The Northover ridge for which the walk is named.

Halfway along the ridge we passed a few people going the other way which reassured us that the way down was passable. One of those individuals was running the circuit with a small day pack on. This seemed mental at the time but once we had gone down the scree slope that he came up it seemed completely unbelievable.

IMG_4563Top of the world

As we started to descend the ridge we came across the Park Ranger. He seemed friendly enough but the pistol tucked into his hip belt suggested that you wouldn’t want him to catch you feeding the wildlife. The scree on the descent was steeper than on the way up but luckily was interspersed with more snow patches. Time to crack out another recently acquired skill – glissading. This is a fancy word that means sitting on your bum and sliding down the snow. You are meant to use an ice axe to control your speed but we used our walking poles. This worked but did result in a rather bent walking pole.

A brief look at the map had suggested to me that the next lake we reached would be at basically the same altitude as the car park. Expecting an wide easy path home from here we allowed ourselves to stop for a swim. In hindsight we didn’t really have time to do this because there was actually a really long way left to go and lots more descending to do. But who has ever regretted a swim? It was actually one of the best wild swims I have ever had. Great setting, perfect temperature water and hot sun to dry off in afterwards. Cue the customary picture of Archy’s bootie.

IMG_4574You are welcome.

IMG_4518Giant trees here in Canada.

As I mentioned there was then hours more walking to do with some of it down steep, loose ground. It was actually a bit hard. Our legs were very tired and our feet starting to hurt. We had to consume a bit of chocolate and sing a few songs but we did get back to the car eventually and were pretty happy to do so. Back at the campsite we gulped down a bottle of pop* and a magnum each and felt much restored.

Alas the bear spray was still unused.

* Fizzy soft drinks, in this case Pepsi and San Pellogrino


#4: Kayaking the Broken Group Islands


From Ucluelet on Vancouver Island we took a ferry to the Broken Group Islands, a cluster of densely forested islands off the North Coast of Vancouver Island that provide calm waters and a series of backcountry campsites.

Bunging our possessions into large plastic crates and boarding the ferry, we encountered our first vigorous proponent of the Canadian ‘eh’ (insert at the end of sentence for emphasis). This chap, Len, ran a senior singles club which seemed to be a great excuse for taking circular boat trips and getting slightly drunk, an inspiring use of one’s retirement if ever there was one. He lectured us on a variety of topics from Trump’s presidency (‘the problem is, he’s an asshole’) to the famous people who had stayed in various hotels in Banff (he seemed less interested in the mountains).

Upon arrival at the Kayak rental place (Sechart Lodge), we received a hilariously curt safety briefing which more or less amounted to ‘try not to fall in’. The girls running the show didn’t really seem very worried about us, advising us not to buy a map because it was a bit bulky. Unsure how we had given the inaccurate impression that we knew what we were doing but rather enjoying this misplaced confidence, we played along and simply took a picture of the crude map on the wall.


The wonderful thing about kayaking is that you can transport quite heavy things with ease. In our case, this meant bringing quite a lot of booze. The less wonderful thing about kayaking is that you can end up drifting off to, say, Japan, in which case you might regret bringing quite so much beer and not that much water. Fortunately our choice of beverage was not called into question, and we spent two charming nights drinking IPA and admiring sunsets.

Sunset at Gibraltar Island


As we were coming to expect from British Columbia, there were various warnings about bears, cougars, and wolves. These sufficed to make the sound of squirrels in the middle of night incredibly menacing, whilst once again failing to materialise into anything large and slavering.

We did, however, see a great number of bald eagles. These snowy-headed fellows were jolly impressive and very hard to take pictures of. They also seemed to have difficulty standing up to conspiracies (yes, I believe that’s the collective noun) of ravens, who we saw repeatedly mobbing them for the best fish-watching branches (at least, I assume that’s what distinguished those particular branches).

There’s a bald eagle just above the prow of my boat, but it’s bloody hard to see. If you want to see one, probably just Google it.


Dress smart, think smart

This unimpressive red bag is actually an ingenious beer-cooling device, safely secured to a rock with some climbing gear (money well spent)

Lunchtime on Gilbert island


After our second night, which we spent on Turret Island, we faced a relatively long paddle back to the lodge for our 10.30am drop-off. After 3 hours of fairly continuous paddling, we celebrated with a breakfast beer and hopped on the ferry back.

If you’ve had a wet bum for 3 hours by 10.30am, you deserve a beer

Arriving back in Vancouver Island, we spent a gorgeous afternoon at Greenpoint campsite, situated on the Long Beach Unit. In a typical bit of Canadian skullduggery, this area is in fact a Long Beach. Hunched under a driftwood shelter that somebody had thoughtfully built on the beach, we practiced some knots and planned our route East towards the Rockies, where there were several mountains in need of climbing.

Steph happy as larry thinking about knots on the beach

Somebody on the confusingly named ‘Long Beach’

#3: Vancouver Island

From Vancouver we caught the ferry (not a sky ferry this time, just a ferry) to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia situated in the South of Vancouver Island. For those of you who, like me, were unaware that there was a massive island off the coast of Vancouver, it looks something like this:

Even the parking lots are upbeat in British Columbia

Victoria is a pleasant, if slightly dozy town, a state perhaps induced by the excellent variety of local craft beers. We enjoyed a selection of these at a ‘British Style Pub’ called the Garrick’s Head. This was British-style in the sense that the focus was on heavy drinking, but un-British in the sense that people talked to each other and nobody got in a fight. We enjoyed the bartender’s tirade against Calgary, and enjoyed even more the lady at the bar next to us turning out to be from Calgary. We also had some very sour beer that our friend Laurence would have adored but was a bit much for Steph.

Steph learned this face from her father, whose aversion to sour things is somewhat legendary

We were staying in a hostel which provided dinner and breakfast and evidently also had a fairly relaxed position on substance abuse; when we came in, a very stoned man was trying to hand over his entire wallet and passport in exchange for a hairdryer (innocent as I am, I have no idea how this relates to drug use). The following morning Archy had a very modest breakfast whilst Steph gorged on eggs, toast, and waffles, a decision that was duly vindicated in several hours time when Archy got very hungry in the park and had a small sulk because he couldn’t find an ice cream. This was attenuated by the first swim of the trip (I’m embarrassed to admit to my mother that it took us this long), after which we saltily tramped back into town for some unbelievable tacos.

Artfully arrayed tacos from La Taqueria in Victoria

The weather here has been scorching, with a reliable rhythm of slightly overcast mornings and blazing afternoons. Feeling the heat, we tried a concoction called Nitro Cold Brew coffee, which tastes like Guinness, costs about twice as much, and doesn’t make you even a little bit drunk.


We then set off for Ucluelet, a town about halfway up the coast of the island and a promising base for outdoor adventures. Along the way, we swung through Cowichan bay. Steph had read somewhere that there was an excellent farmers market here at which we planned to stock up for a picnic dinner. Lacking any more information, we instead found a strip of extraordinarily expensive food shops. We marched out of the cheese shop after being told a brie was $15 (about £9), only to traipse back in later after confronting the dire state of North American dairy in the local supermarket. Perhaps dazed by the heat, we then sleepwalked into parting with $18 for an (unseen) ‘picnic hamper’ which consisted of a small chunk of swiss cheese, a gerkin, a tiny pot of mustard and about 10 slices of salami and ham. To compound matters, the ladies running the shop cheerfully told us whilst wrapping our cheese that they’d never shop on this strip, it was a complete scam, and that we should try the local farmers’ market down the road.


Blood boiling, we navigated to the farmer’s market (confusingly located just outside town, directly on the freeway), and soothed our fevered brows with large and excellently priced ice creams. Still struggling to see the funny side, we purchased the very same brie for $8, and stocked up on some strawberries so pungent that they fragranced the car for several days.


We ate our picnic, about which we now had very conflicted feelings, in the garden of our hostel in Ucluelet, Surf’s Inn. This was pleasant but peculiarly populated with silent people who sat around in the common room with the lights off. The next morning we enjoyed a beautiful coastal run, dipping in and out of the rainforest and flirting with the Pacific’s edge. Along the way we encountered a few wolf warnings which sadly didn’t materialise into a wolf, possibly because Steph was sweating enough to make her unappetising to even the most ravenous carnivore. We remedied this with another dip in the sea, somewhat marred by the large quantities of rotting seaweed, which did at least improve Steph’s odour.

10km worth of sweat proved a potent wolf repellent

Things were pretty peaceful in Tofino, just up the road, so much so that the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion runs a dedicated bingo night. We headed to a sushi restaurant, took the best seats in town, and drank a small quantity of beer over a period of about 2 hours whilst playing banagrams, which Steph almost won. Eventually our sense of English awkwardness interposed before Canadian decency was exhausted, and we wandered out to find somebody’s wallet on the pavement. This prompted a visit to the local police station, who were no more industrious than their military pals: the office was open 9am-4pm and closed completely on weekends. Crime here is presumably non-existent, or at least confined to polite office hours. Anyway, we picked up the phone mounted outside the station, which a sign instructed us to use during out-of-hours, and I announced in my most law-abiding English accent that we’d like to hand in a wallet. The lady on the other end audibly sighed. After ascertaining that there was no post-box at the station, she put us on hold for 5 minutes, at which point we hung up and went to dinner.

We wondered whether the lovely ladies of the RCL might also be up for a game of travel scrabble

Cracking views across the bay in Tofino

We had dinner with some English friends of ours, House and George, who happened to be holidaying in BC at the time. The restaurant (called Shelter), was very good, but one of the things that they were apparently offering shelter from was light, because we dined in almost complete darkness. Rather too frequently for our taste, an overly-enthusiastic waitress would emerge from the shadows to ask us how everything was going – the sentence ‘how were your first bites?’ had Steph grinding her teeth. Unfortunately she turned out to be extremely kind and gave us lots of advice about living in Montreal, which made us feel a little guilty and once again overwhelmed by the ineluctable niceness of people here.

This was taken outside; the interior of the restuarant was even darker

The following morning we revisited the police office and with a refreshing lack of formality simply handed over the wallet, to which the officer affixed a post-it and that was that. We then hopped aboard a ferry run by Lady Rose Marine, from whom we were renting kayaks to explore the Broken Group Islands, and set off for a bit of remote adventure amidst the bald eagles and bears (spoiler: there were no bears).

We load up on nutrients for our days at sea (at the Common Load bakery, thanks Peter S for the tip-off)

#2: Vancouver

We arrived in downtown Vancouver via the SkyTrain or, as English people would call it, the train. Our hostel, C&N Backpackers, smelled strongly of fish sauce and was presided over by a Poseidon-iike figure named Joe, who had an enormous beard, was very helpful, and seemed like he’d be world-class at Dungeons & Dragons. He pointed out a variety of interesting things to do, including a visit to the homeless-heroine-addict-riddled-but-completely-safe region of Chinatown.

We opted instead for a pilgrimage to the famed Canadian outdoor store (Mountain Equipment Collective, or MEC.CA if you go by the URL). Here followed several delirious hours lost in a world of bear repellents, £5k kayaks, and technical sports bras, from which we emerged dazed but happy and ready for the adventures to come. In particular, we were now toting the MSR Hubba Hubba tent, which is not actually a sex palace but a very lightweight backpacking tent gifted by my parents (thanks ma and pa).

Our new tent. I should explain the shorts: I left my running shorts in Montreal so I’ve been running around in these ludicrous lycra panty things. The stripes help me go faster.

We then mooched down to the water which was, as everybody has said, ridiculously lush. With a local craft beer in hand, we lounged at the azure water’s edge and felt smug. And subsequently missed the closing time of the place we intended to dine (Go Fish). In doing so, we encountered our first hostile Canadian, who chopped off the queue just in front of us. As a result we had to settle for a different venue’s selection of scallops, clams, mussels, and cod. We dealt with this hardship stoically.
After a night’s sleep from which we awoke smelling faintly like Pad Thai, we rented some bikes and headed to Stanley Park, the enormous rainforest park which protrudes into the bay on the Northern lip of Vancouver. We had a smashing 10k run as the day warmed up, which became a 15k run for Archy when it turned out that his bike had stopped working and so he also had to run to breakfast. After coffee and cashew-nut granola at a coffee shop so painfully cool it sold sweatshirts with its logo on, we wandered around town before heading home via the aforementioned homeless-heroine-addict-riddled-but-completely-safe region of Chinatown, which was as good as its name.

Vancouver sushi: $20 for 42 pieces, some cut from a whole salmon in front of your eyes

After some ridiculously cheap and delicious sushi, we went for a delightful SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) in the harbour. This involves standing on an over-sized surfboard, paddling using an elongated paddle. and trying to look cool. We accomplished the first two parts, and as there aren’t any photos I can state unequivocally that we also achieved the third objective. It’s a pretty amazing way to see downtown Vancouver from the water, and highly recommended: there’s also a bit of property browsing to be done at the water’s edge, where some lucky devils have floating holiday homes.

More or less how I looked SUPping


The following day we did some more running to burn off the smorgasbord of fried fish we’d consumed the night before (this time in taco form), and had breakfast at an amazing place which served ‘the yam of your dreams’ (sweet potato stuffed with pulled pork). Steph had also read that it was Vancouver’s first living wage restaurant, and that tipping was prohibited. She adhered to this dictum despite the large tip jar on the counter and the prompt from the card machine to add a tip. Which was a bit of a shame, because the waiter was delightful. This fake news really is terrible stuff.

A little training ahead of our climbing trip in the Rockies

Our stay in Vancouver complete, we headed to the airport to pick up our car. Despite warnings from the mountaineering company with whom we’re doing some climbing in the Rockies, we opted for the smallest car we could find. We then rebuffed further upselling from the Thrifty salesman, who tried to persuade us that we needed an SUV (he said ‘it might be a good idea if you’re heading into the mountains’, what he meant was ‘you’ll look like a pussy in this tiny car’). After cavalierly declining a whole raft of extra safety features, some of which sounded really quite handy (like ‘roadside assistance’), we headed out to the car, which was in fact fairly large and totally adequate- basically a VW Passat. That being said, the prevalence of a particularly gargantuan form of SUV by the name of Ram (‘hard hitting by name, hard hitting by nature’) did make us feel a fraction vulnerable every time one appeared in the rearview mirror.

Even with an exceptionally friendly Canadian behind the wheel, these things are scary

Our trip now takes us to Vancouver Island, the large and wild landmass off the coast of Vancouver. Here we’re doing a little touring and then some kayaking, in the hope of spotting a few whales and perhaps putting our newly purchased bear spray to good use…

#1: Departure

Having completed a small farewell tour of England, which involved getting drunk with nearly everybody we said goodbye to, we were in a somewhat ragged state by the time the day of departure arrived. After a late night disassembling bikes and stuffing rucksacks full of carabiners, we shovelled everything into the back of a Uber XL, the driver of which was so impressed at the quantity of our luggage that he took several photos. The early morning drive to Victoria station showed London in an unusually tranquil state. With much grunting and sweating, we successfully caught a train to Gatwick, where we disposed of our 100kg+ of check-in luggage (2 x bikes, 4 x bags) and headed to Pret for a little recovery.

This was rather poignant, as I have in fact left my faithful Beary at home

The prospect of 7 hours airborne sleep had been sustaining us for several weeks, and we flopped into our plane seats with relief. Slumber was delayed, however, by a welcoming salvo from the cannons of Canadian hospitality, in the shape of Elsa, a Montreal native who was sitting next to us.


It’s worth pausing here to say that I’m thoroughly habituated to London levels of friendliness, which I’ve found perfectly acceptable. Nobody spits at you, you only get kicked in the shins if you’re on the wrong side of the escalator, and I’ve only occasionally been abused on public transport. Various people had told us that Canadians were friendly, so we were confident of similar levels of conviviality here. After 24 hours, I can confirm that Canadians really are FRIENDLY, in a way that makes Londoners seem about as welcoming as an ice bucket challenge.


Elsa was an early harbinger of this storm of congeniality, providing us with advice on where to find the best outdoor swimming pools in Montreal, how to equip our bikes for use in the winter, and an analysis of the respective social structures of England and Canada. This culminated in her giving us her address so that we could organise cycle trips with her bike-mad husband.


Buoyed by this warm welcome, we approached immigration with slightly less trepidation than we’d had 24hrs ago. Steph is here on a scheme called International Experience Canada, which grants 18-30 year olds 1-2 year working holiday permits (i.e. you can work for anybody, or not work at all). These are exceedingly oversubscrived if you’re British, because Britain’s been giving 18-30 year olds a fairly rough ride over the last 5 years. Steph, however, possesses a Danish passport thanks to the sagacity of her Danish mother, who thought it might be useful to have dual citizenship. This decision was immediately validated by Steph losing her British passport (but that’s another story). Anyway; I’ve got a job with a company called ElementAI, who had sorted everything out for me, obtaining a C10 exception (an expedited visa for people who are in scarce supply and are likely to contribute to the economy). This was granted with unusual speed, perhaps because they’d raised $135 million CAD the week before.


The immigration officer gave me a rough ride, making it fairly clear to me that if he’d been in charge he wouldn’t be doling out C10’s to such whippersnappers, but softened when we got onto the subject of Montreal cuisine and London’s famously grey weather. Element’s immigration lawyer had done a magnificent job explaining why we were going to put Canada on the map for AI and make Google and Facebook look like chumps, which all seemed to go down rather well (on the subject of America, he opined ‘the problem with the USA is that it’s full of Americans’). He concluded by asking me whether I would be able to make his computer run any faster, which I confidently and untruthfully declared that I certainly would. And with that, we were in.


We were a little surprised to find that Lizzy had followed us to Canada

We caught another taxi from the airport, and were immediately ensnared in the collar of traffic which chokes Montreal at rush hour. Our driver had recently moved from Florida, and took a fairly dim view of the high level of Canadian taxation and the excessive provision of public services, all of which sounded jolly good to us. The outskirts are very North American: huge highways and sparsely populated industrial hinterland, which made me slightly anxious. However, things started to look up as we entered Outremont, a highly Francophone region presided over by enormous houses in a variety of slightly eccentric colonial styles, set back from the road and shielded by trees. Mehdi, our driver, was telling us how creaky all of these old houses were and how we were much better off in some of the new build condos. We told him that as Europeans we much preferred old things that didn’t work properly, and he told us that in that case we were in the right spot. As we entered the Plateau region (where we’ve got a flat from July 10th- Aug 28th) the sight of a church spire straight out of Paris confirmed that we’d made a good choice.


Element’s office is on St Laurent Boulevard, one of the main commercial arteries running through Montreal’s centre. We were welcomed there by Manel (the HR manager who had hand-held me through the process of getting the job and helped with the innumerable questions I’d had about emigration, and attaining a somewhat angelic status), and the office manager Camille, who spirited away our bags. The office was incredible – spacious and open-plan, with a view of the metropolis on one side and the leafy Mont Royal (the eponymous hill at the centre of Montreal) from the other. I’d like to say that our arrival heralded a small party, but we got the distinct impression that people tended to congregate in the kitchen and have a glass of wine at about 5.30 anyway, which is a GOOD SIGN. Either way, we met a handful of my colleagues, who continued the rich vein of geniality we’d found ourselves in since boarding the plane, peppering us with local advice and recruiting Steph to join the ultimate frisbee team.


The beer fridge at Element AI. The logo is for the Canadiens,  who I am reliably and objectively informed are the best ice hockey team 

After some local barleywine (a sort of sweet, extremely strong beer), the jet lag hit us at about 8pm (1am GMT), and we wove our way home via an excellent vegan café (cleverly disguised as a normal restaurant, which duped us, but it was tasty nonetheless). Merrily boarding the bus we were confronted with the issue of not having a local transport card, which looked set to be an issue until the conductor printed us tickets for free and welcomed us to Montreal (seriously, these people). After a slightly deranged night’s sleep, with body clocks reeling, we’re now on the plane to Vancouver. This is the start of a 3 week trip on the West coast / in the rockies before we return and I start work on July 17th.


Steph begins to doubt that whether our meal contains animal products