Even though its name suggests a forbidding trail more suited to snowmobiles than motorcycles, the Icefields Parkway had been on my "must do" list for a long time. Often conjuring illusions of Everest - with vast swaths of snow, vertical walls of ice, and crevasses wide enough to swallow a tour bus - and, because it's there, I had to ride it last September.
The reality is different, though no less spectacular. Like massive battlements, the towering ridges to one side throw a crenellated pattern of shadow across the road. Triangular peaks rear on the other, heaped together like planetary building blocks. Which I suppose they are. Between them, the Parkway runs, a ribbon of concrete that slides lazily along the valley floor. It's a miraculous landscape, sprawling some 150 miles against the backbone of one of the world's largest ranges, although the valley itself never rises above 7,000 feet.
I confess to mixed feelings about the ride. Unforgettable images from the last trip to Jasper troubled me. One glance in my mirror and I see my friend Dave overcook a bend and ride his Tiger down a ravine to its demolition and his busted right arm. Lucky fellow. That same evening we stood somberly in a Jasper bar while the wall-mounted tv endlessly flashed the jarring tapes of airliners diving into glass and concrete towers. Over and over, numbed, my mind played REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It." September 11, 2001...
Jasper's Tekarra Lodge resort sits on a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Athabasca and Miette Rivers. A wood fire kept our log cabin toasty through the night. Out in the cold morning light, the Trophy and the Tiger beckoned like a couple of mute, metal, hunting dogs. Mike and I rose and sat a while, watching the lazy Miette merge with the swift, churning Athabasca 50 feet below. An old bull elk, ambling out of the mist, wandered between the trees. Time to move.
We had two days to get to Radium Hot Springs, 250 miles south in the Rocky Mountain trench, and I wanted to revisit some familiar sites first. Fifty miles west is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, 13,000-ft. Mount Robson, just beyond Yellowhead Pass. Then, a 30-mile detour would take us to postcard-perfect Maligne Lake.
The 3,700-ft. Yellowhead crossing was somewhat disappointing. Although the sun struggled to crest the surrounding peaks, the temperature remained in the thirties. Under a deep-blue morning sky, frost bleached the grass in the shadows. With the Trophy whirring away, we left swampy moose marshes behind and followed the railroad west on Highway 16, the sun glinting off Yellowhead Lake.
Mt. Robson is tough to miss. The surrounding valleys make its towering bulk even more impressive and its snowy peak is rarely free of cloud. It dominates a skyline that's filled to the edges with Canadian crags. At the visitor center parking lot, we decided to tag along with a group of Triumph riders on a tour and linked up with them again over the next few days.
Back to Jasper, we stopped at the Ranger post for validation - a park pass is compulsory if you're taking the Icefields Parkway. Though the Yellowhead Highway is fast and technically undemanding, wildlife can - and does - frequently appear. Signboards record the toll of elk and deer, many mown down by the semi-trucks that cruise the Yellowhead, which connects the prairies with Canada's Pacific ports.