Snowbound at the Stowasis

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With the Canadian winter closing in, Lisa Morris heads out on one last ride. Images by Jason Spafford

The thought of halting our big trip in Alberta, Canada (or anywhere come to that), was utterly untenable. Approaching three years of maintaining a steady momentum on the road, why would we stop now?

Yet staying a few nights in late summer at a friend’s place, affectionately dubbed the ‘Stowasis’, merged rapidly into a fortnight, which fused at equal speed into the autumn.

The birds were busy in the trees and the air gave promise of warm days to come. Five months later and through the inexhaustible dictates of the warmest hospitality and the coldest winter we’ve experienced, we stalled the motorcycling.

Jason at the stowasis
Jason at the ‘Stowasis’

While preferring the way of life that travelling brings, what if we could fulfil our wants and needs by parking the bikes and sinking into place? Seize new opportunities and not just forge fast friendships but build meaningful history boot.

Fortunately, that is exactly what happened, courtesy of the motorcycling community in Canmore’s buzzing corner of the province.

Speaking of meaningful relationships, Pearl, my beloved F 650 GS springs to mind. She executed the ride from the southernmost tip of Argentina to the most northern navigable road in Alaska graciously. All 50,000 miles of it through 21 countries.

At 15 years of age, she rarely missed a beat, remained happy to be nursed on occasion and threw her all into teaching me to let go.

That said, there comes a time when you take stock with your head over your heart and arrive at a new place past the tipping point. Upon reaching a natural pause, coupled with our desire to undertake more technical terrain, I decided to change my motorcycle.

Embracing less is more, where size does matter, traitorous as I felt, I had outgrown my first big bike.

Chasing trails before winter
Chasing the trails before the winter sets in

Cue Mr. Jangles, a Suzuki DR650 bought for a song. Much taller than I’m used to (factory lowered Pearl offered the ground clearance of a piece of paper by comparison), what an unadulterated joy this bike is to take off the pavement. “Well suck my pants and call me Noreen!” nailed Stephen Fry.

My DR650 glides effortlessly over gravel, its weight shifts with the agility of a break-dancer and it transformed my confidence in the loose stuff. Behaving like a pup chomping at the bit in the dirt, I couldn’t be happier whizzing my maracas off astride this dandy little DR. Where has this bike been my whole life?

Bold as it sounds, DR650s are probably one of the best-kept secrets among moto-travellers. It’s practically child’s play in the saddle; requiring less input from me, instilling a sense of sureness up on the pegs and freeing me up to feel free as a bird.

And I admit, at around 45kg lighter (just shy of my body weight) the DR is infinitely easier to ride off-road. Especially compared to my hefty old girl, who weighed in at 240kg laden with luggage.

Like an instructor with a slow pupil, Jason was right all along about keeping my load to the bare bones.

St pauls anglican church
St Pauls Anglican Church built 1893

The autumn leaves began to spiral down, each descent unique and never to be repeated. A million voyagers left their invisible trails in the air, the harbingers of winter. In his usual ‘No time to lose’ approach, Jason launched into adventurising my Suzuki as his new winter project.

Upgrading the suspension, adding a bigger tank, installing new plastics, rejetting the carburettor, opening up the airbox, fitting a lighter exhaust, as well as a nifty digital display.

Fitting a taller windscreen alongside bigger handguard shields offering unparalleled wind protection, pannier racks for my saddlebags, and a lowered custom seat thanks to a local wonder woman in Calgary.

On top, we invested in the lowering links which incredibly, still gave me more ground clearance than Jason’s F800GS, and that’s one tall bike.

Managing to christen the DR before the snowfall, we squeezed in day-long sorties throughout Kananaskis Country and east over to Drumheller in the badlands of Alberta.

The ultimate at-one-with-the-bike ride happened on the Powderface Trail in Bragg Creek, still part of Kananaskis Country.

A beautifully twisted 21-mile gravel rollercoaster ride urging you to get your yah-yahs out at every turn. One of our last riding jaunts before winter descended with full force.

Despite the burning cold, Alberta’s winter wonderland will bestow plenty of bright days upon you. One, in particular, favoured crisp air and a sky so blue you could drown in it. The early sun gilded everything, drawing a thin line of fire along the edge of the Canadian Rockies.

The snow-flecked with a sea of glitter that caught the morning sun with the most incredible shimmer.

Not all motorcycling has to stop
Not all Motorcycling has to stop in a Canadian winter

Deep into the glacial snap, the raw itch for a ride got the better of us. Keeping it local, we took our time and ventured up the snowbound Spray Lakes road on the outskirts of Canmore.

After an enjoyable 20 miles into the trail, we continued to push our luck and made our way over the white stuff which was punctuated with patches of light gravel.

Upon reaching the second reservoir, a truck driver waved us over with a heightened sense of urgency. Without delay, he pointed out that the stretch ahead was particularly treacherous. Just more gravelly snow, no? We’d been warned.

On my merry way again and distracted by the rich beauty enveloping us, the trees on either side of me peered down with cautious amity. In a fairly relaxed state of mindless bliss, my eyes were repeatedly drawn to the sunlight filtering through the trees dappling the forest with lacy shadows.

No drama ensued, life was good. The bike’s wheels continued to crunch contentedly over compacted snow when there was a sudden clunk and crash of a motorcycle.

Stall able to crack a smile
Still able to crack a smile

My mind somersaulted in a spectacular parabola of emotions. I emitted a shocked little grunt before sliding an impressive way down the Spray Lakes road. Spinning with my new DR650 a perfect 180 during the blunder, and somehow managing to face the way home again.

Finally, the skidding came to a halt, and I stopped in a heap with my bike. The sky had gone grey as wool. Thinking about sustaining any grave injury was like touching a sore tooth; I inclined to shy away from the image.

Hot on my heels, Jason leapt off his bike. Having come off himself, he abandoned his bike on its side with the engine on and back wheels still turning. The scene seemed to pull Jason after me like iron to true north. Promptly obeying the instructions of the hairs on my neck: “Just give me a moment, Jase. I’m a bit winded, but I’m alright.”

Beset with a shoulder that had just taken a beating, I didn’t exactly spring to my feet as much as I wanted to, if not just to defend the sanctity of my pride. Recovering some composure, an air of happy go lucky would take longer.

‘Get up. Anytime today, Lisa’, jeered the uncomfortably rational part of my mind. Motivated by the twin forces of concern for my physical state as much as my bike’s, I was set in motion.

I stood for a moment swaying slightly in the breeze that swept down the road. The forest whispered to itself, the faint thud of falling snow on the leaves blended with the subdued rustle and rub of leaf and branches.

Within minutes of regaining an upright position, hobbling towards my bike and dusting myself off, over walked two young male mountain guides. One of whom confidently relayed possession of medical training, and politely insisted on checking me over. Always a silver lining.

My medic eyed me sharply for a moment, head cocked to one side like an elderly kestrel, but appeared finally to decide that my assurances to being seriously unharmed were genuine. I had a sudden impulse to grin like a Cheshire cat but resisted and instead, murmured something inconsequential.

A few further prods and anatomical pokes later, eyes trained on mine for the slightest reaction, I was released from his gallant clutches to face the ride back.

Bike gear useful for more than riding
Bike gear is useful for more than just riding

I nodded back my gratitude to which he waved it off as though the doing of the service was pleasure in itself and called it a day. After eating like a wolf at dinner, comforted by a sense of restored well-being, weariness dragged at my back where my left shoulder ached.

Stretched out on the uneasy verge of sleep, I reached my arms upward and felt the unpleasant pull of torn muscles. Game and set to winter-riding in Canada.

Swimming out of a sleepy haze the next morning, I awoke as a smudged oval in a cloud of sleep-snarled red hair, rioting all over my head. My rotator cuff injury would heal soon enough, to my mind I was let off lightly.

At the end of the biking season for us, opportunities opened up to go ice-skating on frozen lakes, arc boiling water over oneself in minus stupid, and to give ice-riding on inch-long studded knobblies a go.

Lung burn from jogging in -30C, facial hair icicles and experiencing the hot aches from desperately frigid fingers added to the fun. A novelty for us Brits!

Epic Views
Epic views punctuate any ride in the Canadian Rockies

Fortunately, overwinter, the bears are in torpor. Deep bear slumber commands slightly less caution on foot in the Canadian Rockies wilderness. That said, the odd one will still surface now and again if it’s roused by hearing a loud enough noise, is moved or touched.

It’s a misconception that bears hibernate through the winter. Every frozen finger and toe crossed, we stayed on high alert each time we saw ‘WOLF WARNING’ displayed on the Trans-Canada Highway. Seeing them would be the wildlife cherry on the frosted cake.

While wolves eluded us all winter and we were forced to stay out of the saddle, we found consoling solace in embracing the warm company of bikers. Over glasses of ‘garagaritas’ at the Stowasis, spending Christmas in Canmore and attending the Motorcycle Show in Calgary.

Wandering the aisles at the show perusing all things adventure bikes, Ewan McGregor, anonymous in plain sight and a green beanie, popped over to Suzuki’s prized exhibits. Showcased as the centrepiece, Ewan made a beeline for Twiggy, our host’s DR650, having clocked around the world mileage.

And commented that a DR would be the way to go on a future trip through South America. Heck, yeah!

That, coupled with steaming bowls of caribou stew, healthy measures of ruby red port and platters of strong cheese-filled me with a cosy warmth throughout winter, a buttress against the brutal cold of Canada.

Canada_Caribou antlers
Souveniers, Canada Style