A new continent, and a new camp spot

In January I moved to Canada. A short sentence makes it sound simple, and I suppose in the end it was. All the umming and ahhing, and then the paperwork, and the tickets, and the plans, and finding somewhere to live boiled down to a day or so of actual movement. Despite all the preparation, plane travel makes the act itself feel a little bit banal. Hop on, endure inevitable screaming child, doze a bit, eat crappy airline food, hop off. Done. New country. New Continent. New chapter.I’m not sure that I even know what the impetus was for moving, but something, somewhere said that the time was right for a change. With the open Canadian work permit only available until you’re 30, and with there being an awful lot of map that I would like to at least like to take a glance at over there, the destination country seemed an obvious enough choice. At least partly, I felt a need to spend a full winter somewhere snowy, having dipped a toe into northern Sweden last winter and become enchanted by the transformations of real seasons that just don’t really happen in the UK. I think that a lot of the things me and Annie end up doing come as a result of making the rash decision to commit yourself to something, and then being forced to work out the practicalities and see it through later on, if only to save face. Unfortunately, Annie was a little later than me in applying for her permit, and her name didn’t come out of the hypothetical hat as quickly. She won’t be joining me out here until August.

The criteria for somewhere to live were pretty helpful in the end: cold, snowy, good fat biking network and reasonably easy travel to an international airport. I don’t plan on getting a vehicle in the short term, but I am planning to race the Arizona Trail race and Colorado Trail Race this year, as well as a quick trip to Alaska in match for the White Mountains 100. The Bow Valley, and Canmore in particular, came out on top of that list pretty quickly, being an easy distance form Calgary, and so in late January I stepped out of a taxi, with a rucksack, duffle bag and bike bag, hoping that beneath the doormat there really was a key to the door in front of me, where I’d agreed to rent a room.

Thankfully there was, and I’ve spent my first month in Canada getting used to to life in the cold, making friends with the bike shop in town and exploring the local fatbiking potential. And training. Around the same time that I started making concrete plans to move, I made the decision to dedicate some real time and effort to structured training for ultra-distance mountain bike racing, and scratch an itch that had been developing for a while now. It came about after meeting Kurt Refsnider and Kaitlyn Boyle during her successful world 24-hour bid at Nevis Range in October, and Kurt agreed to help me out through his UltraMTB consultancy coaching programme. It’s been a brilliant bit of focus and structure to what otherwise could have been a disorientating and stressful few weeks, and the challenges of working hard when it’s -20 and snowing outside have been a whole adventure in themselves..

I’ve also learned that, mercifully, Yorkshire Tea can be found in the supermarket (the availability of palatable tea could have been a bit of a deal breaker), ‘cold’ is when you can;t leave any skin at all exposed for more than a minute or two, and that Canadians are just as bad at driving in the snow as Brits, which is a weird one. The hill I’ve chosen for interval sessions seems like a crash hot spot, and I’ve counted four on one corner alone. It adds interest to the intervals, anyway.

The Spray Lakes – only just outside town, but all to yourself on a quiet day.
The frozen creek that tempts you into the hills, right from the edge of town.
Cougar prints along the trail.

I already knew that Canmore had a pretty vibrant bikepacking and general outdoor good-times scene, so I was super happy to meet Megan, an Aussie turned Canmoron that I had chatted to through the wonders of social media. Internet friends don’t count though, so I was flattered to be invited along for a couple of rides, as well as a wee camp-out with Megan and Sarah last week, a few kilometres up the frozen creek that runs through town. You only have to travel a couple of hundred metres up the creek bed before the ice-shattered walls close in, wonky spruce trees leer down from above, and it suddenly becomes inescapable that this is a very different place to anywhere I’ve been before. It was a beautiful night, clear and still enough to feel the need to whisper. We pedalled along up the bumpy trail, skiting about on the overflow ice but thankfully avoiding wet feet, until a natural stopping point bin an area of permitted camping (which in itself is a crazy idea to me).

It was about -18 degrees, although the weather was still friendly, which was welcome because I had left the tent at home with Annie and I was using my bivvy bag. A few years ago the idea of camping in temperatures that low was a huge and daunting one, before Annie and me toured in Iceland in March 2016, but having now spent two weeks camping in Lapland last March, it struck me with a satisfied smile how comfortable I felt using kit to stay comfortable in those conditions. After some standard camp chat, cake, rubbing of hands and stamping of feet, we hit the sleeping bags for some sleep, and wondered when the forecast snow would blow in.

In the middle of the night, was the answer to that one, as I was woken by nostrils full of snow and the need to zip up the bivvy bag until only a quickly iced-up air hole was left. Still, it was as comfortable as any other bivvy I’ve done (i.e. not quite comfy enough) and I got back to sleep until it was time to roll out, pack up and get down to café in town for some breakfast. The ride out was way too quick, way too fun and ended with my first breakfast burrito, which I now promise to eat whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Early morning up the creek.

As well as being some much-needed fun in itself, it got me thinking about the act of heading out, even for a 12-hour over-nighter, and the vivid experience of simply sleeping outside and carrying the required gear, even if it’s only for a short distance. Looking back at trips me and Annie have done, we’ve often said to each other that it’s the camp spots that linger freshest in the mind’s eye. It’s the same with planning a new adventure too: I tend to jump to a mental image of what it will be like to be living, sleeping, cooking, resting in a new place, as if the journey and the daytime activity is kind of secondary to the immersion that only stopping and camping can give. Anyway, the feelings I associate with a night out were very welcome — the next day i felt a lot more content with the idea that I ‘live’ here now, as if the night of half-dozing and rolling to shake off the snow had done a better job of restoring me than the best night’s sleep in my new bed could have.

Just a thought. I hear the temperatures have been in double figures for a week now back at home, so get yourself outside for a night!

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