Porcupine Hills: 4 days of Up & Over

DAY 1 - Bring the Heat


artist rendering of mobile cosmodrome control module

Cosmonauts Gary, Mark & Bob docked at the Willow Creek Launch Facility at 1301 hours on Friday, Sept 2.  Bike loading preparations began immediately in 32 degree prairie heat. After 6 hands performed bungee cord adjustments on Gary's load, we set off on the first 65 kms leg. The landscape began to rise and fall as the wide Flying E gravel road pointed mostly west.  

Willow Creek basin

A quick stop for water at Chain Lakes was a welcome relief from the relentless heat. Gary discovered that the soles of his 20 year old shoes had delaminated and were held on by the cleats only. Problem solving is one of Gary's specialities and he quickly tied his extra long laces around the soles of his shoe. Somehow he rode and walked all 4 days with this jury-rigged setup. 
The heat of the day was upon us as we headed north on Highway 22 towards the next left turn into the hills. The high speed highway traffic was unnerving but the paved road surface was joyful. 
altered bovine warning signage

A beautious shaft of heavenly light to distract the cosmonauts from the choking traffic dust

At 1800 hours rush hour for RV and bikepacking campers began in earnest. A dead calm day, with 32C degree temperatures and recreational panic gripping all travellers on this road, conspired to make for challenging cycling conditions. The cosmonauts dispatched the 13 kms of rolling road (spiced with steep undulations) with alacrity. But it was an ugly hour of regular trailer traffic. We established base camp at Indian Graves, ate and slept soundly. 
artist rendering of stuffing tent into stuff sack

DAY 2 - Mountain Madness

The next morning, the cosmonauts got off to a late start. Water needed to be filtered, shoes needed to be tied and oatmeal needed to be eaten. This leg of the journey began almost immediately with a steep and unrelenting climb. For some it was a brutally long walk uphill pushing a push bike. The scene at the top of the pass was stunning however. 
looking east from Windy Peak
Cosmonaut Mark hydrates while Cosmonaut Gary rides away into the deep BG

Over the pass at Hailstone Butte, the road swept down. High speeds on all types and sizes of gravel were the order of the day. We stopped at Cataract Creek to filter water and drink mightily. Many have quenched their thirst here in the hopes of combatting the development of cloudy eyes. We pressed on to a logging road closed to traffic. The road began as double track smoothness and slowly disintegrated into bovine madness.  The cosmonauts crossed deep creek cuts and navigated single track chewed to hell by cattle. The herd felt they were being herded and kept up a fear-filled 2 mile lope. Poor trail quality, fresh cow shit and dumb cattle became tedious and annoying.

spoor of a rabid dog like creature
forest fire smoke obscuring Mt Farquhar (possibly)

As the light began to disappear, the cosmonauts decided to establish camp beside a 4 foot wide creek. After consulting various devices the moving water turned out to be a very small version of the Oldman River. We had crossed over into the Oldman drainage.

DAY 3 - Through the GAP to flatness

Camp was struck and we were on the road at 1100 hours

With the Oldman River on our right, we began a steady descent to Forestry Road 40. This was the easy day and although dusty and hot, it was a joy to follow the Oldman to the Gap. 
Cosmonauts with BC's Tornado Mountain in the BG
selfie at Oldman falls

The Livingstone Gap was a breezy & dusty affair. RV and sightseeing traffic was steady. We rolled eastward to the MayCroft Campground.  Situated on the banks of the Oldman beside Highway 22, the treeless site offered zero shade from the relentless sun. Picking my way down to the river's edge I witnessed a small snake swallowing a slightly larger fish gulp by gulp.  Fascinating and disgusting in equal measure, the fish's outline was obvious when the snake swam away into the water. My much anticipated wash-up and foot soak was tempered somewhat by the reptilian luncheon I had witnessed. A windy night in an improperly staked tent followed. 
Maycroft view

Oldman River looking west

DAY 4 - Over the Porcupine Spine

Waking up after a breezy night on the banks of the Oldman River at Maycroft, the party set a 0900 hrs launch goal.  I ate a heroically named Cuban Coconut Beef with Rice (a dinner for breakfast -see Day 2). Mark and Gary enjoyed their more traditional oatmeal repasts. 


The cosmonauts crossed the highway and headed east and north to the West Sharples Road.  The spectacular views of mountains to the west and the Porcupine Hills to the east was a highlight of the trip.  The lighter bags and the anticipation of the steep climb over the Porcupines lifted the spirits of the riders.                                          

the steady rise into the hills
looking west on West Sharples Road

The climb over the hills had been dubbed Shit Kicker hill for its relentless rise (6% average, 11% at its steepest).  The cosmonauts ground their way up through poplar, spruce and pine. The road wound its way past cattle and their fertilizer over 5 kilometres. We stopped for a bit of lunch and water before carrying on along the spine of the Porcupine to the descent back to the prairie. 

On the east side of the Porcupines, the temperature was higher and the roads have been well tended with new deep gravel. The cosmonauts powered on returning to the mobile cosmodrome that was docked at the Willow Creek Campground. 
old school house with caragana bower
Mark, Bob & Gary (left to right)


The Range 22 - in brief

On July 22, 2022 the mobile Cosmodrome was pressed into action for the third running of The Range, a 128km gravel race event.  The team, Catherine, George and Bob drove down to Claresholm, AB to camp in the Centennial Campground. Handily, this happened to be the Start/Finish area for the race.  Saturday was busy at the parking lot as many drivers of Audis. Mercedes, BMWs and lesser vehicular brands, laden with fresh gravel bike equipment, prepared for the 0900 hrs start. 230 riders took part in 2 distances, 80 kms and the full 128 test. 
the start

People quickly settled into their paces over the first 25 kms. I stopped for a natural break and a tree foto and was passed by at least 25 people.  I knew I needed ride consevatively (slowly) to maintain my energy for the long road to come.  At the suggestion of marathon and ultra-man contestants, I wore a camelback (2 liter water bladder on my back) as well as carried 1.5 litres on the bike.  There was a water/feed station every 40 kms.  I certainly used all the water over the middle 40 kms.  Recent rains had made the grass lush and long.  The temperature was not temperate. It was freaking hot. 

dry section on the approach to the hills

one of 4 water crossings

There was a huge climb of 5 kms at 8 % which I and other back markers were forced to walk.  I felt I could have ridden some of it but did not want to "burn all my matches" before the final 40kms.  That climb probably added at least 1.25 hours to my time. Walking speed allowed hoards of horse flies to feast on exposed skin. They did not succeed taking any chunks out of me but not for lack of trying. 
 The course followed a ridge line with exits to East or West Sharples Creek road. Signs directed us to cross private land with breathtaking views and a crazy steep road climb and descent.  The forest and frequent views of the valleys were stunning from what I could see through my perspiration infused glasses. 

ridge line road

looking northwest

I husbanded my resources for the final push home.  I continued to ride slowly and steadily, narrowly beating the time cut by 3 minutes.  Cyclists were required to cover 80 kms in 5 hours.  If not, they/them are pulled from the race and they/them forgo the last feed station.  I wasn't paying attention to the time so I was surprised it was such a close run thing.  I wanted to take more snaps but I felt that, although I was not running last, I was awfully close to being the last rider on course.  A red fox and a mountain blue bird showed themselves on a steep downhill section.  The wild flowers were blooming but momentum overrode fotography

the route cut across private land

In hindsight, I may have stopped too often. I am hopeful that sentiment will be proven wrong when I see more fotographic results.  I used my fone and a small MINOX 35mm camera.  The analog fotos won't be available for a while.  Over the last 3o kms, across the rolling, dry and windy prairie, I felt I had some reserves left to take the fight all the way home.  In fact, the most heartening part of the day was passing 4 cyclists on those rolling roads.  3 of the people I passed were obviously cooked. They had dead eyes and uttered one syllable responses to my "Howsit going?".  I gave one guy an energy bar. Perhaps they had not hydrated enough or not eaten sufficiently.  I knew that look--I've had it and it ain't fun.  The last guy I passed was faster on the smooth surfaces and bits of tarmac, but my power on gravel was superior in the end.  I passed and dropped him like a pair of dirty underpants.  That moment in itself was enough to justify the long walk up the 5 km hill.  

this cloud did not hang around for long

I was surprised to arrive in 7 hours and 52 minutes (3.5 hours after the winner).  My Garmin device read only 6 hours. I thought I had performed kind of fantastic speed until I realized that the Garmin records motion only when actually cycling.  Walking speeds are not recorded.   I received a hero's welcome from Catherine and George.  I was a bit cross eyed, hungry and had endured some cramping in the last 10 kms.  I am proud I finished all 128 gravel kms of The Range, enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery in Alberta along the way.  

done and completely dusted

the overall winning cyclist walks her team's mascot on Sunday morning


the Coal Loop Day 3 - Sprint to Hinton

The Wild Horse campsite, south of Cadomin, was a lovely place until big coal came in and reimagined the valley.  The campsite is a nice place if you face west towards Jasper.  Performing the sun salutation is still possible while gazing at piles of displaced rock and reworked landscape. 

The morning's temp was a brisk -3C
So yeah.  It was cold

My decision to drive the Gary wagon back to Hinton allowed Gary to rip up the road. Both Mark and Gary were unencumbered by camping loads making their bikes delightfully light. The last leg to Hinton from Cadomin is 60 kms with about 47 on pavement.  I had lots of time to document the area. Unfortunately, the 35mm film I brought split in the cold while loading and I was left with ifone photography. 

Parallel roads for heavy truck transport (left) and recreation (right)

looking south from the edge of Cadomin hamlet 

Mark and Gary hit the gas on the exit from Cadomin. The Sunday traffic was minimal as churchgoers must have taken a different route to worship.  We passed Luscar, a mine celebrating its 100th birthday.  

Luscar, AB in all its industrial splendour
the sky was angry that day but did not open 

One positive of the tremendous landscaping efforts after coal extraction is that many ungulates find grass to eat on the lovely new hills and in the delicate dales. There was little time for sight seeing however.  The cyclists were highly motivated by the cold temperature and smooth roads. 


And so ended the excursion around the Coal Loop.  An epic pedal failure was salvaged by adopting a Drive & Bike-a-bit regimen.  Gary got some riding between driving to campsites.  I got to rest on day 3 and Mark got most of the pedalling he needed to maintain his training program.  Important lessons were learned and noted:
  1. Marshmallows are always popular with the kids but bring more than 4
  2. Higher elevation snow conditions are variable at the end of May 
  3. Wild horses shit on communal piles
  4. Kinder Kopjes are exhausting after 5 hours
  5. Bring a warmer coat
  6. GF coconut cookies are great travellers
a tempting road not taken


The Coal Loop Day 2 - the Cardinal divide.

With the previous evening's marshmallow festivities a distant memory, we started the day in sunshine and lollipops.  Rolling out about 1030 hrs, we prepared ourselves for an 80 kms day over the Cardinal Divide.

Mark and Gary at the start of the road to Smallboy Camp, an Alexis First Nation community who claim the Cardinal River valley as a natural area

Kinder kopjes (Dutch for baby head referring to the rock distribution)

Gary turned around after 25 kms to head back to his vehicle for the drive to the next campsite. He would eventually ride to from there to head us off at the pass.  Mark and I continued over rolling foothills with the snow pack on the distant mountains always ahead of us.  

Accident scene reenactment / post lunch nap time on a pleasant grassy area.

We picked our way along the ever deteriorating road headed NW, as it slowly becoming a horse and ATV trail.  It was hard work.  The surface was made up of rocks of various sizes that proved to be quite jarring to the hands and shoulders.  We started to see hoof marks along the edges of the road; the first indications of the wild horse population we had heard of.  The ride was smoother when following the horses' route. Of course they are smarter than us and would find the easiest way to travel. 
Mustang with his family unit

Mark and I were in awe of the many large piles of horse shit on the road.  We could not make sense of their size.  The largest was 3 feet in diameter and 1.5 feet high.  Much heated discussion resulted in a couple of theories.  These feral horses could be eating an incredibly effective laxative OR they are 3 to 4 times larger than a normal horse. Initial contact with the family unit provoked the mustang to muster a short charge towards us.  I stopped to allow the horses to clear the road. Before he moved off the mustang voided himself on an existing pile.  Suddenly the pile size conundrum was resolved.  The horses mark their territory by crapping on any handy pile of shit.  This fact has been confirmed by Jeremy, Cosmonaut at the Forest Heights Cosmodrome whose experience with horses, both wild and tame, is legendary.  

The slow and steady climb to the pass over Cardinal Divide ended when we met snow and the 3 km 12% incline.  
We were lucky to follow an ATV track which had broken the trail before us

The snow became deeper as we neared the top. I expected some snow but not the waist deep drifts we encountered. The view at the top was glorious.  
plenty of snow at higher elevations

Bob breaks trail

front range with dramatical sky

Mark picks his way across the top of the pass

Snow continued to obstruct the road heading down from the pass and we continued to hike-a-bike for 0.5 kms. We met Gary as he climbed up to meet us. He had ridden 14 kms from our camp at Wildhorse Creek.  The industrialization of the Cadomin valley was evident almost immediately after crossing the divide.  Coal mining had completely changed the once treed valley.  Large sweeping smooth hills of displaced rock lined both sides of the road.  
tunnel under the mining activity

close to camp with wet feet and the warmth of success

fireside Mark

With an arduous day 2 behind us, I made the decision to drive the vehicle back to Hinton. Gary and Mark would ride the last 60 kms mostly paved section sans baggage.