For nearly 1,500 kilometres, Alberta’s Forestry Trunk Road winds north in relative obscurity between mountains and foothills. It’s a lightly-traveled pipeline into some of the province’s most beautiful back country, says Frank Simon, and an adventure that every serious dual purpose rider should consider.
Nestled between the foothills of Alberta and the rugged snow-capped eastern slopes of Canada’s Rocky Mountains lies a little-known, narrow ribbon of accessible gravel highway stretching for nearly 1,500 kilometres. Desolate, beautiful, sometimes unforgiving, the Alberta Forestry Trunk Road, alternately known as Highways 40, 940, and 734, winds its way from Coleman in the south to near Grande Prairie in the north. Each year, summer or winter, tens of thousands cross it at several major junctions, never realizing what lies in either direction, oblivious to the vast beauty that this province has to offer anyone with a spirit of exploration and adventure.
Built decades ago to allow access to Alberta’s richly diverse mountain forested districts, the FTR continues as the only real route to many of the province’s most productive logging, oil and gas, fishing and hunting grounds. Thinly populated, rarely seen by motorcyclists, the incredible variety of terrain and topography beckons the dual purpose rider. Almost magical, it’s no wonder indigenous peoples chose the area as revered places to hunt, trap and fish.
Riding the FTR from south to north puts the sun advantageously at your back, and here you can expect virtually any weather or road condition at any time. You’ll be riding in the lee of the Rockies where you may encounter blistering summer heat, choking dust, mud-caked roads, even snow and ice, sometimes all on the very same day.
My long-time riding partner Deb, who has followed me through the twists and turns of the Cabot Trail, the deserts of Baja and the wilds of Los Angeles, joins me on the first leg, which begins at quaint little Coleman, near BC’s southeast border. Like its neighbouring towns, Frank, Blairmore, Hillcrest and Bellevue, Coleman sprang up along the Crowsnest Pass in the late 1800s when the newly arriving steam locomotives demanded the area’s rich black coal seams. The iron rails had been pushing across the prairies since the last spike was driven in 1885 by Lord Strathcona himself, and the west was being opened up inch by inch, mile by mile. Settlers were arriving by the trainload.
Here, the FTR climbs and falls lazily, undulating like a young, newly awakened prairie rattlesnake experiencing the first warmth of summer. My intent is to travel as far north on the FTR as time and weather conditions allow this late into September. Deb, however, will be with me only on this short southern leg. Our identical, reliable big bore singles, chugged their way north as we crossed crystal clear, rocky streams and rivers, full of the promise of an early morning strike on a nymph or lure resembling whatever the meal of the day was to a fighting cutthroat trout.
Rocky Mountain sheep generally make formidable roadblocks, but on this still, sun-drenched day near Fortress Junction, along the Kananaskis Trail, they provided a glorious photo opportunity. Determined to take a bite out of my bug-splattered Cordura saddlebag, a rather large specimen nearly succeeded in toppling my XT 600 from its sidestand. I had a split second to decide: do I abandon my Pentax, or save the falling bike? Happily, I was able to save both from a horizontal, crashing trip to the road’s surface.
The otherwise perfect day grew frigid though as we crossed over the 7,239-foot (2,206-m) Highwood Pass, the highest rideable pass in Alberta. Our electric vests were turned to the on-position to keep out the chill.
I’M ON MY OWN THE NEXT DAY, ON THE FTR WEST OF COCHRANE. Gophers hop, skip and skedaddle across the rough, winding paved surface toward the village of Waiparous. Here I am reminded of a previous ride, where Deb had overcooked the downhill left-hander, locking the front disc on the sand-covered roadway, laying the big blue XT down in a 30-metre slide highlighted by a spectacular shower of amber sparks. I thought she was going over the bank that day, into the icy waters of the Ghost River. Fortunately the only damage was a bent shift lever and some hurt pride. Thank the engineer who came up with flexible turn signals.
The day was still sunny, but there was a definite hint of fall coming to my late-September ride. A cool chill permeated my MSR jacket and required the welcome heat from my vest. As I ride past the 103-year-old Bar C Ranch, one of the oldest in Alberta, I remember the long-ago summer that I brought my daughters here for a truly western Canadian experience of horsebacking across the meadows of the 40,000-acre ranch, wagon rides and camp fires. Memories, the essence of any riding experience.
From here on in there are few vehicles, as only serious backroaders venture along these stretches. I gas up at Mountain Aire Lodge, being careful not to pump diesel fuel into the XT’s 13-litre tank. Just past the lodge, the Ya Ha Tinda—the only federally operated working horse ranch in Canada—can be reached by taking the left fork. Twenty kilometres of rough riding to the end of the road (literally, you can’t ride any farther into the Rockies from here) and you come to the famous federal government facility where horses used by Parks Canada wardens are bred. A short walk from the dead end are the Bighorn Falls from where, on a clear day, you might see several hundred elk wandering the Red Deer River valley in the distance.
I take the right fork today, crossing the blue-green waters of the Red Deer River, stopping at the hilltop for a view of the valley—the Rockies are awe-inspiring from this vantage point. Down below I see white water kayakers bobbing like discarded wine corks in the turbulent river. Overnighting in the hamlet of Nordegg, at a quaint Tudor cabin absolutely made for romance, with only an XT 600 for company, I’m somewhat dismayed to be traveling alone … again.
THE MORNING BROUGHT FROST TO MY BIKE. MY BAJA MULTI-USE VEST-mounted thermometer is reading 0C. If I’da had a windshield, I’da bin scrapin’. No question of which way the switch of my heated vest would be positioned. With a cold front moving in from the Yukon, I had on every available piece of gear I could handle, including my XT matching blue balaclava. I stopped to hug my cylinder several times during the morning. With both of us being single, I needed all the warmth I could get.
The FTR opens up into a comparative LA freeway here, and I ride for miles at 110 kmh, with only the occasional pothole to contend with. Unlike I-5 however, there’s not another vehicle in sight, nobody, nada. I was totally alone and would be for much of the day. Once past the Brazeau River I came to an obscure T-intersection, the Grave Flats Road. One hundred and thirty kilometres into the mountains, riding west, lies the former glory mining town of Cadomin. That is if you don’t ride off the road here in a scenic overload mind warp. It is a must ride for anyone on a dualie. The ride up to the Cardinal Divide viewpoint is narrow, rough and drop-dead gorgeous, but from there the Athabasca flows north to the Arctic Ocean while the North Saskatchewan runs to Hudson’s Bay. I stopped briefly to chat and share treats with some kids in the tiny community of Mountain Park, located mid-route, on the Alexis Cardinal Native Reserve. Like kids everywhere it seems, they’re fascinated by motorcycles.
You could very easily spend a week riding the many forestry roads or trails in this vicinity. Alternately, you might consider booking into a Hinton hotel and riding yourself silly in the Golden Triangle of Hinton-Robb-Edson. It’s certainly worth a side-trip into Robb to view the Old Robb Hotel. The historic building is one of the very few wooden structures from the early days still standing. Most succumbed to fire long ago.
On my visit that day, the restaurant was closed; there didn’t seem to be anyone about, but the town sparked another memory.
It was near the town of Robb, during a long-ago high school camping trip where we learned to build green-bough lean-tos and read a compass, that I had my first of many up-close and personal encounters with bears. It was on a Sunday morning, just as crisp as this one, that a curious black bear wandered into our campsite, ransacked our temporary homes and literally tore through everything we had with those two-inch claws. No amount of noise-making, stick throwing or honking of car horns deterred the bear as it sat on its haunches, patiently devouring whatever happened to be available. In his destructive way, that bear taught us one of the most valuable lessons of the weekend—never store food in your shelter.
I SHIVERED THROUGH LUNCH IN HINTON, HUGGING THE COFFEE cup through its lucky seventh top-up, pondering my fate, as it were. Talk in the near empty eatery was of snow in nearby Jasper Park and along the mountains right up to Dawson Creek, BC. Not a dusting of snow but a forecasted five to 10 centimetres of the road-slicking stuff. The temperature had been fairly warm throughout midday, but it was rapidly dropping. By the next day, it was to be somewhere in the vicinity of -10C. Why don’t I do these rides in July? I asked myself. Maybe Providence would smile on me and keep the winter at bay for just a few more days, was my futile hope.
Deciding to quit the seventh refill in mid-cup, I paid the bill, then wandered outside to swing my leg over the saddle. Wouldn’t you know it? My Prexport hooked the saddlebag, and over we went, right there in the parking lot, with cafeteria staff looking out the window at this intrepid but partially frozen Canadian biker. Soft saddlebags cushioned the blow to the bike, not my ego.
While hefting the XT off the ground, I noticed my chain adjuster loose on the axle. This would have ended in a likely spill had I not caught it in time. I chose to view this as a warning, and after making the required adjustment with frozen fingers, stopped at the bike shop down the street, fitted a replacement cotter pin, picked up another pair of gloves and decided discretion to be the better part of valour. I was now two days and 600 kilometres from home, but if I continued my northward direction I’d soon be 900 kilometres from the heat of my own digs. This, I decided, might end with the XT over-wintering at a friend’s garage in Grande Prairie. Since I was heading to Baja in two weeks time, I decided to wind my way back south to Calgary, playing on the backroads as I went.
Following the FTR southeast, I eventually wound my way out of the foothills into prairie country. An overnight stay in Calmar only succeeded in delaying the inevitable as rain, sleet and snow chased me all the way into Calgary. I cannot remember many rides colder than that one. With a red open-face helmet, blue jacket and ghost white body parts, I must have resembled a multi-coloured popsicle. All of which were pruned, as the wet penetrated everything, down to my skin.
The only thought in my mind, literally, the one and only thought, was that in two weeks I’d be riding along the Sea of Cortez on my DT 50. Bright sunshine, 30C days, and 60-cent Coronas. This day however, the last thing on my mind was a mucho fria cerveza.
- Frank Simon, May 2007 Canadian Biker