Newsletter - 2004 Archive

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Highwood Fall Classic: A 300 km Brevet in Alberta's Kananaskis Country
by E.W. (Wim) Kok
Brevet Organizer Peace Region

If there is one brevet randonneurs ought to seriously consider, it is the Highwood Fall Classic in SW Alberta. This 310 km round trip organized by the Alberta Randonneurs (Note 1) starts in Cochrane and rolls westward along Hwy 1A to about 7 km shy of Exshaw, then connects with Hwy 40 south to enter mountain paradise. The route steadily climbs, including a 12 km uphill crawl to the Highwood Pass, then down to Highwood House. Here the route turns NE to Longview, from where there are only 100 km left for the return via Black Diamond, Turner Valley and Bragg Creek to Cochrane.

The scenery is in one word sparkling; the landscape provides an incredible contrast and diversity: plains and mountain ranges, valleys and passes, the alpine, forests, wilderness, farm and ranch land. One thing to consider before undertaking this ride: the fickleness of the wind. Mountain breezes, valley winds, turbulence, tail winds, headwinds, side winds, gusts, uphill winds, you name it and you'll wind up with or against them, notwithstanding your preferences. The route offers a lot of variety in terms of the human and natural landscape. Contrasts, sudden changes yet seamless in their transition. Having traveled, hiked and camped in what is affectionately known as Kananaskis Country, I've had an eye on this brevet for awhile.

Sunday September 5, 2004 I started from the Cochrane Husky gas station in the dark, did four left turns- I don't know if these are politically correct in Alberta - but they got me onto #1A west. Soon first daylight cast the long shadow of the lone rider. That same daylight threw a red morning glow on the alpine snow, collected by the mountains in days past. Meanwhile I moved through a gentle landscape, glacially sculpted and shaped. On my right I noted a drumlin, compelled to rest forever since its abandonment by retreating ice way back when. Suddenly -- I must have startled it -- a whitetail deer challenged me, sped on my left, effortlessly cleared one fence like an Olympic hurdler, crossed in front of me, graciously cleared yet another fence in similar fashion, then abruptly stopped to look back and see who was victorious. No match.

Occasionally the road crossed a coulee filled with a trickle of running water and cool crisp air. The wind picked up, a headwind judging by gas plant flares pointing east, and my slowing pace going west. Two squad cars with howling sirens screamed past, rudely disturbing the morning peace. In the distance a wall came ever closer, the Rocky Mountains. At the junction with 1X the choice was: 'turn south or continue west'. While the route sheet appeared ambiguous, the route map was clear. (Note ) Not being familiar with the route, I ignored the map and ended up in Exshaw, a bit too far west. Indeed, a map at a gas station confirmed that I should have turned onto 1X. This was painful, because the extra 7 clicks (downhill/headwind) to Exshaw were slower than the 7 km uphill/tail wind back track. C'est la vie d'un randonneur. Once reconnected, I took 1X along Seebe, as of August 31/04 Canada's newest ghost town, latest victim of corporate decision-making. The 4 km stretch with a westerly breeze along the Trans Canada Highway going east, made up for lost time. Checked in at Control # 1: Barrier Lake Visitor Centre (Km 67), took a brief break and continued up Hwy 40. The winds were now trying to conquer me sideways. For the first 10 km past Control # 2: Fortress Junction (Km 105) I could maintain a good pace. This felt promising. Then the ride became a matter of mind and matter over grade and gravity. In plain English: the going got tough. The grade steepened, the temperature dropped. Ah, those lapse rates can explain it all. It was near freezing, which meant snow in the mountains. Skies darkened with clouds showing their winter fluffiness. After all it had snowed in days before; the white powder draped the mountain peaks to elevations where birds of prey were soaring. I tried the same, but the ride turned into a crawl. These majestic mountains were imposing; I tried the same, too, but felt more like tiny Wim (with due apologies to Charles Dickens) scaling the ascent to the Highwood Pass (7,220 feet/2,209 m above sea level). This road is after all known as Canada's highest paved road, and is only open from June 15 to November 30 every year.

After I conquered the pass it was downhill all the way, literally that is. No wildlife signs, but lots of signs: wildlife. There was one dead elk, victim of collision. Along the road Alberta beef grazing on the range; on the road their pies resting. Dodging them became quite an art. Come to think of it mudguards could indeed be multi-purpose. (Hmmm, cow-pie-guards?) Even more artful was negotiating the many Texas-gates at high speed on the down hill section: try and aim for the metal strips on them. Well, if you miss the strip, the consequence a posterior sense of being hit by a hail of shotgun pellets. Not that I ever had that experience, but I successfully avoided that option. The posterior was grateful, I think.

At Highwood Junction (House) the route went NE under a new name, while Hwy 40 turns south and turned gravelly connecting with Coleman (Crowsnest Pass). Took ten minutes rest, a quick bite and a strong coffee for the next 45 km to Longview. A stiff breeze chased me along at 35+ kph. Wings, wings and more wings! Great ride with rangelands on my left, Highwood River on my right. The scenery became distinctively foothills-like, mindful of images out of Western movies. Would Eastwood hang out here somewhere, I wondered, expecting him to show any moment just anywhere, guns blazing? How about Ian Thyssen with a few peaceful cowboy songs? Started humming a few of his tunes, though, but to no avail. Meanwhile, I kept an eye on the sky and noted changes in the cloud patterns. Seemed the tailwind would not last that much longer, and sure enough, with five clicks to go, the tailwind died and resurrected itself into a fierce headwind. Notwithstanding that, the 45 km to Longview only took 1h:15m.

At the Longview Steakhouse (Control # 3: Km 210) I soaked up two bowls of soup and inhaled an open ham sandwich. After this recovery I was ready for the 17 km roller-coaster leg to Black Diamond, a quaint little town, great espresso bar/ice cream parlour (Control #4: Km 227). Then westward to Turner Valley, to be followed by a route which repeatedly turned north and west until the turnoff on Rd 763 to Bragg Creek. While the early morning wall promised steady climbing, now a new, more ominous wall loomed promising a different challenge: dark storm clouds. Not long after I had turned north onto Rd 762, all hell broke loose: pelting rain, hailstones and overhead thunderclaps. If you've ever seen a randonneur hastening his body into rain gear with the speed of lightning, this was my moment in the rain. Nobody watched. As the storm unleashed its forces, I continued to Control #5: Bragg Creek (Km 279: 20:11pm.) Another short break, then the final leg back to Cochrane. Expecting a downhill section, the reality was a flat one with a few inclinations. Road signs indicating distances were totally off, as if Alberta Highways had arbitrarily and randomly placed signposts without any regard for distance. I plodded along in the dark, no sign of Cochrane anywhere, but suddenly there it was. At 21.25 pm I pulled into the final control: Km 310. Total distance was 325 km on account of my early morning error inn 15:25. Great ride. High(wood)ly recommended for anyone wishing a change of scene. Be prepared for the wind's fickleness.

Note 1 for map and route sheet see:

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November 29, 2004