The Posted Roads and Bumpy Tracks of the Divide
Fancy a technically easy though highly rewarding entry into the world of Adventure motorcycling? The Great Divide has it all.
Because we live on a planet of seven billion people hurtling through space at over 100,000 kmh it is an occasional relief to slow down, escape the masses and ride gravel roads far from civilization. For that, few experiences are better than the potted roads and bumpy tracks that follow the North American Continental Divide. Since I had a couple of months with an empty diary last summer, I shipped the little Suzuki DRZ400S I call ‘Crazy’ from Halifax to Calgary, where we would begin our assault of the Great Divide.
It occurred to me as I traveled via passenger jet to Alberta for my pre-appointed reunion with Crazy that I had already climbed the height of Mount Everest but the route I had planned for the Continental Divide would present, at its height, only a fraction of the total elevation gain I had encountered in Nepal. Sorry, but I am getting ahead of myself.
What route, you ask? Well, the Continental Divide is an imaginary line that extends from the Bering Strait in the north, to the Strait of Magellan in the south, and follows the Rocky and Andes Mountains. Generally rain falling west of the Divide eventually flows into the Pacific, to the east into the Atlantic and in the northern reaches into the Arctic Ocean.
In North America a route has been designed that follows the Divide as practicably as possible. Following this route we would cross the spine of the Rockies 30 times, while riding in a southerly direction for 4,418km from Banff, Alberta to Antelope Wells on the New Mexico/Mexico border and more importantly the hard black stuff would comprise only 10 per cent of it. The rest would be gravel roads, logging tracks and ATV trails.
I say “we” since my friend Camilla, with a slightly twisted arm, had agreed to join me with Bumble Bee her yellow Kawasaki KLR650. She blames the repetitive over rotation of her throttle-hand to that twisted arm though I suspect that she had acquired her need for speed at an early age. From the trip’s conception to its kick-off was just one month so planning simply received a cursory nod. Hence we found ourselves sat on packing crates in a Calgary basement making a list of the things we had forgotten and would need to be rectified before hitting the trail the following day.
At the top of the list was to replace a very sad looking set of headstock bearings on Crazy and acquire a forgotten spare inner tube for Camilla’s rear tire. Oops! How we would rue that lapse! I should have followed the 7Ps and for those who are unfamiliar with them: ‘Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.’
A quick visit to the local Suzuki dealer soon found Crazy with a set of after-market bearings. Next we were at the Banff trailhead with thrumming bikes and an excited feeling in our stomachs. A quick check of the route on the GPS, select first gear, a few revs, let out the clutch and we were off—or maybe not. We hadn’t traveled one metre before a sign announced that the area was closed to all traffic due to a damaged bridge. A not-so-quick detour by pavement and we were back on track only to be dashed by yet another sign, this time announcing that the trail was closed owing to bear activity. More pavement took us back on route and to yet another sign announcing that the trail was closed to minimize disturbance to wildlife.
There are times when losses need to be cut, and this was one of those times. We made the executive decision to ride pavement straight to the US Border at Roosville, Montana. We had now been riding for a whole day and had not yet left paved surfaces, though we had crossed the Continental Divide for the first time. Only 29 crossings to go! Road signs advising road closures would dog us the duration of the ride.
The USA and dirt at last, though some of it proved quite challenging. In truth, my off-road experience was only slightly better than Camilla’s whose lay somewhere between none and zero. But Montana provided us with the best campsite of the whole trail and was found after another detour since motorized vehicles were banned from all state parks. We were now learning to take the online acquired GPS route with a pinch of salt. It had supposedly been adapted from the original bicycle route to avoid areas where motorcycles were banned—i.e. national and state parks—and we were realizing that the author could not possibly have ridden these parts of the route. Time to step off my soapbox and return to the campsite.
It was remote, though with lots of wood, wildlife and trees flattened by avalanches. Overnight, the “Demon of Red Meadow Road” haunted us. At least that is what we thought until dawn revealed a huge, noisy bull moose foraging in the lake shallows with his rack full of aquatic vegetation.
Early into a ride is often when any number of 7P-type bike defects will materialize. It is amazing how many items are shaken loose during hours of riding on gravel including battery connections, mirrors and even luggage racks. All to be expected and to ensure that there was no unintentional weight shedding the Blue Loctite was removed from deep in a pannier to a new position in my pocket. Bumble Bee had so much Loctite that she should have been renamed Sapphire.
We made a quick foray into Idaho where rain and diesel equaled a friction coefficient of zero between rubber and asphalt. Simple physics could have predicted scuffed body armour, a sore hand, expletives and a leaking water container. The lack of water meant that night’s dishes had to be done in Mother Nature’s sink. The following morning paw prints showed the puddle was a favourite place for bears to visit at night sample aperitifs of puddle water with a slight hint of chili con carne. Hence, until entering New Mexico, bear spray and I became the best of friends.
Arriving in Wyoming we thought that being so close to the geysers of Yellowstone Park was an opportunity not to be ignored. Entering the park, it was hard to believe that Wyoming is America’s least populated state as carload after carload of tourists jostled for the best view of Old Faithful.
“Run away!” was at the front of our minds and run we did straight to the nearest national forest where construction signs told us the road would be closed for repairs from 0900-1700 but, hey-ho, it was now 1800! Unfortunately we missed the sign saying the road would be closed ALL weekend and tomorrow was a Saturday.
Following a sidetrack we were rewarded with another great campsite and so followed the nightly routine: set up tents, eat food, grab food bag, walk downwind for 100 metres, find sturdy overhanging branch, throw stick, hold onto rope (it is important to tie rope to stick before throwing), haul food bag into tree, retrace steps to tents, toast feet by the fire and put the world right between sips of beer.
The next morning we had not gone one kilometre before we encountered workers digging a trench across the road but being perfect gentlemen they filled in a metre-wide section so we could get across. What great guys! This happened three more times before we got out of the national forest, grateful for not being stuck the whole weekend.
Colorado might mean The Colour Red but it should mean The Big Beautiful Place, Great Campsites and Stunning Views. A couple of days into the state and just outside Breckenridge ski resort we started to climb and climb again and then climb some more until we could go no higher. We had arrived at Boreas Pass, where still stands the house and outbuildings used years ago by the supervisor of a small team responsible for maintaining the section of railway over the pass. The days were bright and sunny (though nights were cold) and the view could only have been better if we had pitched our tents on the International Space Station.
At 3,502 metres (11,500 feet) and with a cloudless sky the temperature quickly fell below zero, which made for frosty mornings. It also meant the river crossings were rather chilly and for some reason I was always volunteered to wade the crossing before we rode it. We managed to camp every day when in Colorado and each site offered a stunning view. On previous road trips Camilla’s usual campsite was a Four-Star hotel, whereas now she looked forward to each night campsite with eager anticipation. The only proviso was that there had to be either a river or a lake in which to bathe—those Cape Bretoners are a hardy bunch!
As we neared New Mexico, the temperatures steadily climbed. Great if you are a lizard but not so great if you are a human wearing full riding kit and on a machine that makes heat as a bi-product of its propulsive force.
Most of our time was now spent riding through deserts while dodging intense thunderstorms that seemed to spring up everywhere. At this point it is worth mentioning the sand, which is incredibly fine. So fine in fact that when subjected to a downpour from one of those thunderstorms, the grains become suspended in water much the same way as they are in quicksand. This was less than ideal and the result was an inch or so of extremely slippery mud that forced us to get up on the pegs to maintain stability.
It was as though we were on man-sized eels careering down a Black Diamond ski run at Whistler. The bikes slithered around so even the best off-road riders would have had trouble staying aboard—and we were not the best. Camilla suffered a stunning get-off at speed while on the pegs and the Bee managed a complete 360-degree maneuver with Camilla still hanging on! The sheer volume of water had detrimental effects on road conditions. Washouts were now common as was deep sand and rock-strewn trails, though somehow but we managed to reach our target destination each day.
Through it all Crazy and Bee just kept ploughing on without skipping a beat.
That is, until the end of New Mexico when we were within an hour or so of civilization. Following a rest stop we were strapping on armour when I noticed that Camilla’s rear tire was flat. It was at this point that the words of a motorcycling friend came to mind, our discussion of punctures, why you needed to know how to be able to fix one and her belief that a passerby or the CAA would come to your rescue. Not possible when you have not seen a vehicle all day, the nearest habitation is at least 15 km away and a cell phone signal was more rare than rocking horse excrement. We had overcome hundreds of kilometres of rough terrain only to have my repair skills now tested by an errant fencing nail. A lapse in planning meant that we did not have a spare inner tube and a poor repair meant that the patch only held overnight. The following day air from the tire was not where it should have been and thankfully Camilla insisted on calling CAA to get us out of the guano.
The remainder of the route continued to be hot, wet, remote, and slippery but fantastic fun and ended with us riding 40 km of pavement to Antelope Wells, a border crossing into Mexico.
I assumed the border agents had been told to cheer us along like spectators at a marathon. The countryside was swarming with them though it turns out that they were there to act on intelligence of a drug shipment coming in from Mexico.
Camilla’s throttle hand was healing and we rode in formation to the finish like a pair of Snowbirds in Tutor jets. The border was closed for the day so we stood outside the gate, with smiles all round while taking the requisite photographs and sipping from the bottle of very warm champagne I had stowed in the bottom of a saddlebag.
The finish was a bittersweet mix of accomplishment and burning desire for more adventure. With stunning scenery and only three weeks in duration the Great Divide Trail is technically easy, yet still has its challenges. I highly recommend this route to all who fancy a simple introduction into non-asphalt Adventure motorcycling though I would suggest riding in the cooler and drier month of June.
by David Allen Canadian Biker Issue #312