THE DIRT ORCAS GLACIERS BEFORE THEY’RE GONE TOUR
An 18 Day Adventure Motorcycle Ride from Eastern Iowa to British Columbia
By Paul Strubell of Dirt Orcas – 7/28/17
Last winter I started to strongly consider the effects of global warming on our wildlife and the environment at large. I looked at a photos of various glaciers I had seen on my previous trips to Alaska and Glacier National Park and was shocked to see the obvious reduction in their size just 15 years later. At this point I started to hatch the plan for the Glaciers Before They Are Gone motorcycle trip. A 5500 mile ride from Fairfield, IA to Hyder, Alaska. I would incorporate as many National Parks, National Forest, Glaciers, trails, hikes, and exciting dual sport rides as I could. The trip did not go exactly as planned but it went well for the most part.
I have made a timeline of my daily distances and destinations and also created a trip log so to speak of what I did each day. See below.
Day 1 – Fairfield Iowa to Badlands National Park, Cedar Pass Campground, 670 miles
Day 2 – Badlands to Teddy Roosevelt National Park, Cottonwood Campground, 315 Miles
Day 3 – Teddy Roosevelt to Lewis and Clark National Forest, Aspen campground, 406 miles
Day 4 – Lewis and Clark NF to Glacier National Park, Two Medicine Campground by way of Saint Mary’s, 281 Miles
Day 5 – off
Day 6 – Glacier to Calgary, 148 Miles and an Oil Change
Day 7 – Calgary to Yoho National park, Monarch Campground, 117 Miles
Day 8 – off
Day 9 – Yoho to Jasper National Park, Jonas Creek Campground, 161 miles
Day 10- Riding icefields Parkway, 124 miles
Day 11 – Jasper NP to Moraine Lake, 85 Miles, Banff to Calgary 125 miles
Day 12 – Calgary to Flathead National Forest, 274 miles
Day 13 – Flathead NF to Holland Lake Lodge, Condon MT, 56 miles
Day 14 – wedding day
Day 15 – Condon to Broadus, MT, 583 Miles
Day 16 – Broadus, MT to Lewis and Clark State Park in Onawa, IA 615 Miles
Day 17 – Lewis and Clark State Park to Fairfield, IA, 285 Miles
Day One – I departed about 7:30am, knowing I had a long day ahead of me. It was an uneventful day on the bike albeit a long one. South Dakota is always windy and strong cross winds create challenging miles when riding at the high speed of the interstate. I was surprised to see my bikes computer reporting 45mpg because I am used to getting about 65 MPG. I guess running the engine at 5000 rpm and hauling all my gear reduces it that much. I arrived to Cedar Pass campground in Badlands national park to sour news. The Park Ranger at the main gate reported the campground was full and I would need to travel another 53 miles through the park, at 35 MPH, to go to the other campground on the parks west side. The idea of a few more hours on the bike was not a welcome one. I tucked into the visitor center, grabbed a snack, and asked another ranger about camping. Same news. I jumped back on the bike to head out. Following a hunch I decided to pull though the Cedar Pass Campground anyway, just to see if there was maybe a camp of adventure riders who I could join or an available spot. Third times the charm I guess. The campground attendant was sympathetic to my long day and allowed me to set up a tent in the group campground. It was a windy night but I tied down the tent well and had a nice night’s sleep. The Family from Chicago next to me did not fare as well and all ended up sleeping in their car after the wind blew their tent to pieces.
Day Two – Got suited up and broke the zipper on my motorcycle jacket. I Velcro the top and bottom and leave the zipper in the middle of the coat for the next 15 days. I headed out early and snapped some pictures of Badlands National Park with the morning sun. As I pressed on North to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I felt a temperature difference of 62 degrees in the morning, to over 100 degrees at mid-day. The open spaces of the Dakota’s were amazing and I had the roads all to myself. I thought I had arrived for the day at my destination but it was only the Painted Valley Visitors Center and not the parks entrance or campground. Another few miles down the road and I secured a spot for the night. I even spotted a few big horn sheep on the ride in. I washed away the heat of the day in the Little Missouri River and spent the evening talking with a fellow adventure rider, Restless Dan.
Day Three – Despite the heat of the day, the night was cool. Caught the buffalo moving across the plains on my way out of the park. I was reading Stephen Ambrose’s fantastic book, Undaunted Courage. The story of the Lewis and Clark expedition and it was difficult not to feel the weight of their journey and the ghosts of great civilizations who had previously been in the places I passed through. The West is an open expanse with a dense history still palpable on it landscape. I arrived at Lewis and Clark National Forest to a quiet camp. I hiked a bit and showered in the natural waterfall with the place to myself. I took advantage of the quite night and available firewood and made my first fire of the trip.
Day Four – I shifted gears from heading mostly west and pointed my bike north. The scenery began to pick up as I was winding my way through the foothills of the Rockies. It was great fun riding state hwy 89 around Glacier National park. A road I only had to ride because I overshot my destination and arrived at Saint Mary’s entry point to Glacier about 30 miles North of where I intended to camp at Two Medicine Lake. Still, I was able to secure a spot and still have time for a 4 hour hike. The altitude starts to hit hard as I hiked above tree line. I return to the campground for a sunset (11PM) swim in the river. It’s cold but feels great to be clean. I over do it at the General Store because I was covering up my dehydration with food. I wasn’t able to drink enough water today. As I settle in to my tent for the night, I can’t help but try to drown out the screaming single mother who is threatening to beat her kids if they do not go to sleep. I think about how the moose and beaver feel about this noise. I am harboring thoughts on the type of people who stay at National Parks vs National Forest campgrounds: The Parks have the unrivaled scenery, but with that comes the scene. It makes you question what your goal is when visiting the outdoors. Do you want to take postcard type pictures and see epic mountains or do you want peace and quiet? I reflect on the many native tribes that called this place home before it became a park. The Blackfoot and The Sioux. I marvel at all the options for RV’s and trailers to fit people’s needs and personal style.
Day Five – I am up early and decide to take a big hike to Dawson Pass. The terrain is all through bear country and the altitude is proving difficult for this flat lander. No animals in sight as the temps are unusually warm. I dip in a mountain lake and head back for a late buffalo chili lunch and then a welcome siesta. I make my way into East Glacier for cell service and grab a healthy dinner. I badly needed a few veggies in my diet after 4 days of road food. I had a great Cobb salad with jerk chicken at the Island Grill. I head back to camp and immediately out on another hike hoping to see some large animals. No luck, but I chatted with homie from Louisiana for an hour. We spoke about the National Parks we had visited. We watched beavers float around in the lake. I hike back to camp and take another river bath to wash away the sweat, sunblock, and bug spray away. I was a beautiful evening. Temps dip into the low 50’s.
Day Six – I packed up camp and motored North to Calgary. The boarder crossing in Carway was uneventful. I was conscious that I was in need of an oil change and found Calgary to have many options. I had a great experience at Blackfoot Motorrad. Then I was able to connect with my step dad’s old friend Bob for a chat about hiking Banff and Jasper. I learn that it is the 150th birthday of Canada and that all the National Parks are free this year. I also learn that because of this tourism is at its peak and I will not be able to easily find a camp site in any of the parks. Bob saves the day and invites me to stay with him as I am still two hours from Banff and it’s nearly 4 O’clock. We visit the aquatic center and I am able to do laundry at his place. The kindness of strangers will always make you humble.
Day Seven – I get on the road early and head west to camp search in Yoho National Park in British Columbia. Bob recommends I try this first as it is less popular than Banff or Jasper. I grabbed a spot in Monarch campground by 10 AM. With the entire day in front of me I decide to hike up to Emerald lake and Emerald Basin. Terrific hike and I swam in the deep blue /green water. I grabbed dinner at the Truffle Pig in Field, BC. I highly recommend this place if you are in the area. I fueled up the bike and saw a fellow GS rider making dinner on the picnic table and chatting on the phone, seeming a little distressed. Knowing all the campgrounds in the Parks to be full, I assume he has nowhere to go and invited him to join me at my camp. His name was Mike and he makes pool cues for a living. He was on a month and a half long ride trying to visit all the Provinces of Canada. I also had the pleasure of meeting Chris and Shelly and talked about Trump and their beautiful VW Westfalia.
Day Eight – Mike takes off early but not before we talk about bikes and gear. I spend the day hiking Takawakka Falls and Angels Landing Falls in Yoho National Park. I have a great close encounter with a Mountain Goat. Eat at Truffle Pig again. So good. I gas up again after just riding around exploring the side roads near Field and Yoho. I pick up a can of soup and head back to camp for moss lounger and reading. Meals are a bit of an issue in these places. On the bike you are limited by how much you can carry but you are also limited by having food that can keep while left in a bear proof box at the camp. I met a couple who bought his GS from Gina’s BMW of Iowa City but now lives in California. We had parked right next to each other in Field, British Columbia.
Day Nine – I pack up and hit the road by 8AM. The ride up Icefields Parkway through Banff and Jasper is perfect. I think I am starting my trip west and heading over to the Pacific Ocean and Alaska today. The sun’s rays create temperature changes from 60* to the mid 40’s on the ride. I pass the historic Colombia Icefields. I stop for lunch and have a tuna sandwich. I ride the rest of the way up Icefields and into the town of Jasper to fuel up. Heavy smoke from wildfires in BC is clouding the view of everything not ground level. I am told I cannot ride west due to the fires. I would need to go north to the Yukon and down or back to Vancouver and then up the coast to get to Prince Rupert. I do not have time for either and am forced to remain in Jasper for the night. Not having a campground, I race back down to my previous site and find it is still available. Good thing I hadn’t thrown away the tag on the post as it appeared to still be reserved for the day. I make hot dogs and have a fire with my camp neighbors Bob and Tyler that night. Good folks.
Day Ten – Now with extra days on my hands, I decide to ride back up to Jasper. I spent the day stopping at every roadside pullout and overlook along the Parkway. My favorite was the small trail up to Horseshoe Lake. So picturesque and I was completely alone. I jumped in the pristine water off the 30’ cliffs. I saw two black bear along the road. After arriving back at camp for a snack, I napped and made a fire. I was able to keep my hot dogs fresh by stashing them in a Ziplock back in the creek near camp. The water was about 45* and acted as the perfect cooler / bear suppressant for the dogs and a couple soda’s. I had a very relaxing evening and tried to get to bed early.
Day Eleven – A mysterious Spaniard tried to hang a hammock in my campsite about 11:30PM as the sun was going down. He was a BMW R1200GSA rider. In my broken Spanish I explained he should pay me half the money for the site if he would like to crash in my trees for the night. I also explained that he should move his bike out of the road so the RV’s could get by. He moved his bike and his hammock across the road and avoided paying me and the country of Canada. I wake at 5:45Am and have a chilly ride to Moraine Lake to meet my friend Bob from Calgary for a hike. We stash my stuff in his car and hit the trails to Sentinel Pass. A great hike. The best I’ve done. He packs a great lunch and is terrific company. We track back to Calgary. I buy him dinner and we retire to his house.
Day Twelve – A leisurely day. I say thank you and goodbye to Bob. He is a true gem. I ride to back into the USA and pick up Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park. Then carve out a backcountry spot in Flathead National Forest near Swan Lake, MT. Nice solo spot on a clear creek. I hang my food in the trees for the last time on this ride. About one hour from Holland Lake Lodge for the wedding.
Day Thirteen – I have a short but nice ride to Holland Lake Campground for wedding location. I meet with old friends and make some new ones and we hike to a nearby waterfall. Wedding photogs send up the drones. Swimming. Rehearsal has great appetizers and dinner. I sleep well.
Day Fourteen – I rise late as I was hoping to start padding my rest before the ride back to Iowa. I wake up and immediately swim in Holland Lake to knock out the cobwebs from the previous night’s beers. I spend the afternoon relaxing in the water and prepping for wedding. The wedding was sensational. Great Drinks, food, speeches, and dancing. I retire to my tent with a full belly and heart.
Day Fifteen – I woke up and headed to the lake to swim. Then to the lodge for goodbye breakfast. I hit the road and made it to Billings in short order. Billings was my goal for the day because I had gotten a late departure and wanted to stay close to campgrounds or hotels near my direct route home. I was feeling pretty good and decided it was too early to stop for the day. Google sent me through The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation instead of along 90 through Wyoming. A beautiful ride but the Reservation offers no places to stay. With a terrible storm in the area and my energy running low I started looking for a place to hang my hat for the night. I chatted with locals about camping in their town. An unusual request based on the reactions. They said to go to the horse track and I could pitch a tent in or near the stables there. It sounds like a reasonable option to get out of the winds, but I never saw the horse track and just continued on. The next reasonable place to stay would be Custer National Forest about an hour away. Super T-storms created dark clouds, wind, rain, and even a fresh wildfire there as I was driving along. Camping was no longer an option with the grass and trees on fire and wind blowing so hard. Made it to the little town of Broadus, MT and posted up in a motel to avoid the 55mph winds and rain. Slept fine with AC blasting.
Day Sixteen – On road by 7:45am. A long uneventful day in the saddle. The bike was wonderful the entire trip but the heat and wind of this day made me long for my old R1200gs which was more comfortable on the interstate and had a better windshield. After a 10 hour day in the saddle I found camp in Iowa at 7:25pm. Fittingly at Lewis and Clark State Park in Onawa, Iowa. Perfect way to conclude the trip with all their influence abound on nearly every river crossing and town I passed through. I picked out a nice spot and hit the showers. Slept well with the Missouri River singing in the distance.
Day Seventeen – I packed up camp and hit the road for home. The final stretch. I arrive just after lunch and spent the afternoon decompressing. After you have been on a bike for over two weeks, sleeping on the ground, and hanging your food in trees to avoid bears, it takes a minute to adapt into your old ways.