70.84 Miles; 2,838 Feet of Gain; St. Mary, MT to Waterton Lake
The evening before while in St. Mary, Janna and I had received two critical pieces of information pertaining to this day to come. 1) The original border crossing to Waterton Lakes was closed indefinitely. 2) A massive early summer snow storm was coming to bear upon the area starting tomorrow. The storm would whip winds, with directionality heralding form the north, northwest - our exact direction of travel. We should expect 40 mph headwinds with 60 mph gusts, plummeting temperatures with highs in the low 30s, torrential rain, and snow dropping several inches at our destination.
In response, we spent the evening scouting a new border crossing further east out on the plains at Carway Crossing, out towards Cardston, Alberta. The crossing was absolutely open there, but the change in travel would add some 30 miles to our day's riding. In addition, it would take us further onto the open plains and more-so into the brunt of the winter storm. With no topography to provide an windblock, we would need to expect some tough riding. So we went to bed early, far before sun's rest. And we woke early, to move as much tarmac beneath our wheels as possible before blue sky crumbled to gray and snow.
At morning crack, my eyes opened. Frost crisped our shelter's walls. Yesterday's dapper warmth was replaced by low pressure and front's cold. I plunged my arms and legs into pants and down jacket before leaving the Eolus. The morning's first breath caught my own in sharp inhale. The sky was blue and subtle. No wind was here. But it was coming. We quickly packed our gear, nestled in layers, and struck out alongside St. Mary Lake. It's blues mirrored the sky in frequency. Our direction headed north - right where cirrus clouds riding the head of the front began streaking high in the atmosphere. Golden hour seemed to stretch as grasslands punctuated by aspen lined the route. Every blade was new-birth green, stretching towards the sun and well-watered by the wet spring.
Eventually, St. Mary receded and we reentered the Blackfeet Nation near Babb. The Rockies to our lefts pushed further away. Grasslands swallowed us as sea. The clouds became shapeless and smeared. The blue skies twinkled out. Grass began to ripple. A yawning wind pressed against our faces. I felt unsure of what the day would bring; how it would end and what state we would be.
But that grass. Its vibrance seemed unmatched. As the last houses on the open plains kept to the Rockies, we turned around to see the mountains receding behind and the unhoused prairies stretching all around. And then low-slung cumulus wafts came sprinting across the plains. The sky darkened and a hand of atmosphere clutched my front and shoved me back. The storm nacently was hatching. We arrived at Carway Border Crossing on the border between Montana, USA and Alberta, Canada.
The wind was ironing our garments to our skins. We approached the entry station, talked to the crossing officer, and went and hid behind an outdoor wall. The wind was building exponentially by the minute. Quickly we pulled out every piece of rain gear and prepared to take on the brunt of rain and wind. I snapped a quick last photo or two of the "Welcome to Alberta - Wild Rose Country" signs. Within 15 minutes of continuing out on the prairie on relatively flat terrain, the shear force of headwind had slowed our momentum to 3-4 mph - a speed I could nearly walk faster than. Then, to our left, I saw a blanketing wall of water approaching, slamming from the sky. We jumped off the bikes and slid down a shallow embankment next to the highway as a surge of 180 degree rain sluiced parallel to the ground. Temperatures dropped immediately to the mid-30s and hail came raging on. From this point on I couldn't take any photos because of how drenched the conditions were and the need to keep all my fingers constantly covered in protective gear. All photos from this point forward are from hours later after the worst of the storm had past.
Janna and I decided to get back on our bikes and keep moving. We needed the metabolic heat that the wind, sleet, and rain were sapping from our bodies. We also needed to move forward because our reduced speed threatened to arrive us significantly late into the night. I was so thankful for the intense rain layers we brought for the Northern Rockies.
We remounted our bikes and pedaled like machines into the heart of a prairie thunderhead. Gales and gusts knocked me nearly over repeatedly. My left side was coated in a sheen of ice as graupel and sleet hit my body perpendicular. My right was incomprehensibly bone dry. I could see frost outlining my sunglasses that I wore solely to keep the weather out of my eyes. My core shivered. My muscles responded. I kept biking at an absurdly slow rate. Machines - rhythmic and unintelligent - moving and unyielding. That's what we were in those hours. The heart of the storm roared over and around us at one point, making it seem twilight. I saw a small country road, pulled over, turned my back to the striking air, and tried to keep putting food in my mouth to keep that metabolic engine going. Hours went by, the powerwash at 30 degrees kept raging against our bodies.
By early afternoon, we rolled into Cardston, Alberta. City streets opened around us and we, without discussion, agreed that finding a place indoors to get some food was a must. We arrived at Heuse Tacos - a little restaurant with fish tacos downtown. We locked up our bikes in the rain and snow and walked in. The place was idyllic - it was only its second open day and the family running it welcomed us to stay for several hours to warm up, eat copies calories, and dry ourselves. We did so sans protest. I ate tater tots and fish tacos, and then went back for more. All that food warmed us up, and the rain began to relent outside. The temperatures stayed firmly around 35-37 degrees, but precipitation had decreased to a mild drizzle. I ran across the street to a Canadian bank to exchange currency. After, we biked to large grocery, bought more food to eat right there in the cold, and then got pumped out to head directly west straight to the Rocky Mountains we could no longer see.
Now the prairie was even more green. That hosing wash lit up the grass and the foliage thrust forth to snap the sun's light. The side of the highway was wet, but the rain became intermittent. I snapped a few pictures of gray cumulus churning over neon green. It was utterly fantastic. Janna and I rode into the headwinds that seemed ever-so-less at the angles we now faced them. I kept stopping to take pictures of the green hillsides rolling out with the filtered storm light casting upon them. Silhouettes of the Rockies grew on the horizon; their massive roots visible below cloud line while heads cast high, pallid, and indistinct in the snow-bronzed clouds. For a few tantalizing seconds, the sun pierced a halo blue amid the rage of gray and sun burst forth. But the temperatures were still cold. And the distant mountains had a distinct layer of new snow resting on their flanks.
Early evening came crawling on, but due to the northern latitude, the sun would stay out well past 11 pm. More blue cracked in the roll clouds. We dipped down towards the flanks and foothills of the Rockies. Rivers sucking on the runoff raged around us into the distant plains pregnant with silt and whitecapping as they went. Trees began to appear in the lees of hill-folds. I began to keep my eyes pealed for large wildlife. We stop at a lonely gas station empty of customers to shake the cold and catch a restroom. We need to keep going, it's almost 9 pm. The storms begins to break up in earnest. The wind abates. The long golden hour of the north begins to preen. And we arrive at the front signs to Waterton Lakes National Park.
It seems that we have arrived at the most remarkable hour of light, cloud, peak, and grass - everything contrasts sharply and my breath is taken back at the beauty. It feels utterly wild. Herds of ungulates graze on open plains while shards of mountains rise from the neon flatlands. Alder and willow grow in the drainages, lining the waterways. Lower Waterton Lake swallows the land around us at 9:30 pm. I am taken still by the delicate snow on mountainsides, freshly fallen. By the warmth of light hitting us. By the still air now surrounding us. It is mixture green and white.
After checking in at the entrance ranger station which is staffed until 11:30 pm on these long northern day-nights, we ride down a bike path. I look to my right and stop suddenly. On a hillside next to us, about 50-75 yards away, is a mother grizzly bear with two cubs. It's my first view of a wild grizzly bear, let alone one with twins. They forage in the tall, lush grasses (I eye my bear spray in wait). We head to the opposite side of the road, watch for a few minutes, and then ride further into the gorgeous splayed valley as mountainside swallows the road. I am awed by the beauty of it all.
We arrive at the manned campground station at 10:00 pm and are directed to our reserved campsite, which turns out to be adjacent to a large field near a river tumbling into Waterton Lakes. We setup the shelter, amazed to be here despite a tough day. And to add to the sweetness of it all, the bathroom/shower facilities here are the best I've ever seen in my life. Literally, the public showers have granite countertops, unlimited hot water, and seem cleaner than my personal shower at home (or even a hotel!). We let the warmth of hot water steam our blood and return movement to hand muscles. We eat at 11:30 pm just as the last glows of day fade from the horizon.