Content and photos by Colin Sproule Kananskis Country is an expansive park system just west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. A plethora of trail systems, backcountry campgrounds, and wildland areas where random camping is permitted, make Kananaskis excellent bikepacking territory. The large area of parks covers terrain ranging from the rolling foothills, into the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains. Some may find the Kananaskis name familiar because the Canadian portion of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route passes directly through K-Country. The route passes through the upper and lower Kananaskis Lakes, which are connected to the Kananaskis River for which the area was named. In the summer of 2013, Southern Alberta experienced catastrophic flooding triggered by heavy rainfall. In addition to towns and cities that experienced extensive destruction, many of the recreational and parks areas were left with unimaginable landscape changes. Subsequently many trails and roads have been temporarily closed, diverted or wiped out completely. sheep valley bikepacking My partner and I spent the summer of 2013 touring around Northern and Western British Columbia. We watched the damage from afar, and not until this summer did I truly have the chance to experience the damage first hand outside of the urban areas. Timing finally lined up among work and other trips to get a few nights out in K-country, as long as I could get myself out there without a car. I finished work at 5:00 on Sunday, jumped on my Fargo and took the city train as far west as it will take you (69th Street). From here it’s highway riding, nothing exciting. I made my way out past Bragg Creek arriving at the McLean Creek Campground after dark. Riding on the highway with 2.25″ mountain tires always feels slow, but I made decent time apart from a flat in my front tire after running over a large piece of metal just outside of the city. After a great sleep I packed up and headed back out on the highway for about 10km until I arrived at the Prairie Creek Trailhead. From here on I would abandon pavement, thankfully. I happily jumped onto the singletrack and got going. There were a lot of ups and downs, and some challenging bits. It has been some time since I have ridden anything technical, let alone loaded with gear, but I managed to avoid crashing. It was nice to work hard while it was still early enough to be cool out. sheep valley bikepacking I thought I would continue from Prairie Creek Trail to Ford Creek Trail, but the last section of Prairie Creek was muddy and was made worse with many horse and cow tracks. After some pushing and sinking, I decided to bail out to Powderface Trail – a gravel access road. I cruised the mostly downhill section towards the highway enjoying the speed. Just before reconnecting with the highway there is a small turnoff that brings you on a mellow trail right into Little Elbow campground. Always nice to stay off the pavement, plus I saw a coyote! I refilled my bottles at the Little Elbow Campground and got going on the Little Elbow Trail. The Little and Big Elbow Trails are a large mountain biking loop on double track (sometimes wider). In the past this loop would typically be done in a long day, or broken up by staying at the Tombstone backcountry campground. I would be staying at Tombstone, but continuing south down another trail instead of completing the loop. sheep valley bikepacking From the get-go you can see where they’ve initiated maintenance to restore the trail from last years flood damage, a very daunting task. The double track is fantastic where it is still in good shape, fast wide and forgiving. However, the further along the trail you go, the more wash outs and slides become present. There was a lot of hike-a-bike this day. Wading through water, climbing into and out of big eroded areas. Tiring stuff! After working mostly uphill all day I arrived at the Tombstone backcountry campground. A quaint little spot with a nice view. I took a dip in the river, cooked my dinner and spent the evening wandering around, reading and then watching the sunset. sheep valley bikepacking sheep valley bikepacking The next morning I headed southeast on the Sheep Trail to meet my partner Keely at the Bluerock Campground (I didn’t have to bike back to Calgary, yay!). The Sheep Trail was once an old gravel highway, though you’d barley know it apart from a couple bridges and maps still showing it as a road. While my initial hopes had been that Sheep Trail would be in better shape than Little Elbow, it quickly became obvious that this would not be the case. Following the river most of the way the trail had even more wash outs and a few sections where I decided to simply walk or ride in streams as the trail was nowhere to be found. It is strange to follow along on topo maps that are simply no longer accurate. The rivers bend in new ways and streams wriggle out from where the once did not. sheep valley bikepacking On foot, this terrain would be no problem (and I saw a few backpackers who confirmed this), but it was exhausting wading, climbing up and down and pushing through all sorts of varied terrain with a bike. Even some bushwhacking was in order. At one point I was pushing through a dense, mature vegetation, where the entire forest floor was one slow moving flood area. A very surreal moment. sheep valley bikepacking Abut 6km from my endpoint at Bluerock, I blew out my front tire again. I put in my spare only to discover the valve was faulty and the tire would not hold air. My only option now was to patch the original tube right beside my previous patch. Not great but I ate chocolate to pass the time as glue dried. sheep valley bikepacking After only a short downhill section my tire blew out again. I re-patched it and discovered that the o-ring on my hand pump had decided to finally die. I put in as much air as possible and rode a bit until the patch blew itself again. Boo. At this point the trail was far enough off the river and the views nice enough that I walked the last 3km or so, and simply enjoyed being outside. This brought back strangely fond memories of a day on the Great Divide where I had over 9 flats due to goathead thorns. Thank god we don’t have those here in Alberta. After over 8000km of combined touring with my little pump and zero maintenance despite constant screaming for lubrication, all I can do is be happy it made it this long. I’ll try to revive the poor little fellow if possible. When I arrived at Bluerock, Keely met me at the trailhead and whisked me back to a campsite where we made dinner, had a fire, and hung out with our friend Jaime and her 2 month daughter Mira. I’m a lucky man! Overall, I had fun and consider it a great trip despite getting my ass kicked by the terrain. For anyone considering following a similar path, I can’t say I recommend it for the riding, though the scenery is lovely and it was very quiet out there. I would maybe consider a route further from river beds for the near future. Always check in with parks incase of closures and pack light, you’ll be shouldering your bike plenty.  

2 Comments

  1. One of the reason’s bikepacking is a great addition to one’s quiver of exploration tools. Fun too.

  2. Jan Bennett

    Unfortunately, it appears that the RideWithGPS link has been made private. Does anyone have a link to this route?

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