Canadian Express | Icefields Parkway with iPod

Canada / Icefields
I was on one of those rides that lull you into a warm blanket of supreme contentment-a midsummer sun beaming on your helmet, blue sky above punctuated by a few drifting white clouds, the mechanical rhythm of an unstressed V-twin turning minimal revs underneath you in third gear. Tunes are humming out of the bike's fairing and on either side of the road, waterfalls weep from the surrounding mountains that rise up from every bend. Picture postcard, anyone?

Then I rounded the corner and-BAM-the scenery shifted . Hard.

Reverie, interrupted.

Technically, a massive, white glacier is filling up my visor, but in softer terms, it's a barren, beautiful scene. My mind struggles to process the infinite landscape, and as I get closer, I notice the details within the vastness. The glacial surface reveals random lakes, twisted moraines, shadowy crevasses, and holes in the ice created by swirling dust.

But the most powerful pull on my eyeballs is the eerie blue lacing the iceflow-a cool, menacing color ripped straight from a Pantone swatch. Unlike the super-saturated hue of many lakes in the Canadian Rockies, the stunning, ethereal blue of the Athabasca Glacier isn't caused by mineral content - it's from the lack thereof. Air and other impurities that reflect white and gray tones have been squeezed out of the crystals inside the glacier, leaving wavelengths of light to reflect only the blue spectrum.

Or so I've been told. All I know for sure is that, in the presence of the Columbia Icefields, I feel pretty damn insignificant.

Getting Sorted
I'm exploring the Icefields Parkway halfway between Banff and Jasper, in Alberta, Canada. This little jaunt had been organized by Best Western Hotels and Harley Canada with the intent of promoting BW's image and reputation with bikers. You wouldn't think a hotel chain and a motorcycle manufacturer staging a tour together would make much marketing sense, but it's a stroke of genius. Think about it: the world's largest hotel chain and the planet's biggest bike maker. Both have captive audiences, and both have needs the other can fulfill-Harley, with its army of travelers in search of accommodations, and Best Western, with thousands of hotels around the continent, looking to fill rooms. Best Western's new-ish loyalty program is called Ride Rewards, and it caters to motorcyclists around North America. The hotel chain offers 1300+ "rider friendly" hotels that provide free rider-specific services (such as wipe-down towels at check-in). And even though Harley is a sponsor, the program is open to all riders and bikes.

The BW and HD media tour has become a yearly tradition, and this year the ride would be in Western Canada, specifically in the Canadian Rockies. It all gets off to an inauspicious start, alas, with a vicious downpour greeting our arrival at Edmonton International. Days earlier, the city had been pelted by golf ball-size hail, denting cars and flooding streets everywhere. Play melancholy for me baby, I thought , and as if on cue, Neil Young oozes out of the hotel lobby's sound system, pointing out that "it didn't mean that much to him if it didn't mean that much to me."

Leaving The Concrete
Next morning, the skies clear up enough for us to pick up rides at the Heritage Harley-Davidson dealership in Edmonton, which has a full spread of late-model Hogs to choose from. Everything from a current Street Glide to a CVO Fat Bob is on offer, so I make myself comfy on a 2010 bagger (interested riders should note that Heritage rents bikes as well).

For the first leg of our tour, we'd be running from Edmonton to Jasper, 244 miles of 'mostly boring slab'-or so the local Canucks that had insinuated themselves into the trip told me.

They weren't lying. The drone west on Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway 16 from Edmonton to Edson is dead-straight, and, consequently, deadly boring. As if to confirm, Joni Mitchell warbles out of the Harley's Harmon Kardon speakers, " I am on a lonely road and I am traveling. Traveling, traveling, traveling..."

They weren't lying. The drone west on Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway 16 from Edmonton to Edson is dead-straight, and, consequently, deadly boring. As if to confirm, Joni Mitchell warbles out of the Harley's Harmon Kardon speakers, " I am on a lonely road and I am traveling. Traveling, traveling, traveling..."

Yea, thanks Joni. I get it.

We pass towns with colorful names-Carrot Creek, Bickerdike, Marlboro-and not much else. The Street Glide humming beneath me is the perfect tool for the job with its big fairing to break up the gusts, and from the radio, Triumph (bonus points if you remember the 1970s era hard rockers) implored me to "Lay It On the Line". I couldn't guess if they meant it figuratively or literally, so I upshifted and rolled on the throttle. Then I wonder: I'm in Canada, but does that mean everything I hear on the local station radio has to be Canuck-ian?

Turns out 35% of it does. I found out some Canadian Commission ruled years ago that by the end of the 20th century radio stations would have to play 35% Canadian content, leading to an explosion of Canadian pop musicians in the 21s t century. This was going to be a lonnng ride...

Canadian domination of the airwaves notwithstanding, we were only too happy to break free of the steppes, finally feeling the land rumble and swell underneath. The Rockies were starting to take shape and once we passed Hinton, the highway entered the foothills and we shook some of the more nasty-looking thunderheads we'd been flirting with all day.

At about this point, Trans Canada 16 bends to the south, and the mountains come out in force. We cruise through the entrance to Jasper National Park and are soon shadowing a river as the Trans Canada Highway makes a beeline south for the town of Jasper.

Rolling into town, we have just enough time to take in a popular tourist diversion-the Jasper Tramway. It is the longest and highest guided aerial tram in Canada. The Tram jams you into a small metal car, then hauls you over Jasper National Park's alpine tundra, up the side of a mountain. At the top, you get fantastic views of six mountain ranges, glacial-fed lakes, the Athabasca river and the scenic mountain town of Jasper. The trip to the Upper Station at 7472 feet above sea level takes seven minutes, and you're snapping photos like a madman the whole way.

And at the gift shop at the forested base of the tram, damned if I didn't hear a Joni Mitchell tune: " they took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum"

But I digress. Check-in comes at long last at the Jasper Inn and Suites, where we riders all receive a welcome pack: a water bottle wrapped in a small chamois towel and a pack of tar-off towelettes to wipe the bike down with. Seems Best Western really takes this Ride Rewards thing seriously.

Jasper is an old railroad town that still has its share of engines chugging through. Back in the day, a trip over the Canadian Rockies wasn't a slam dunk by for the old trains, which needed to climb the Continental Divide at a 4.5 percent grade known as The Big Hill. Eventually the Canadian Pacific Railway built the Spiral Tunnels, which reduced the steep grade to 2.2 percent by allowing the trains to curl over themselves.

We settled in for a hearty dinner at the Jasper Brewing Company (word to the wise: Alberta's beer selection is less than vast), where I was serenaded by Celine Dion. Sigh.

The Lake And The Fields
We were to start our run to Banff first thing the next morning, but a brief detour to Maligne Lake, a couple of klicks south of the Jasper town site, eats up some time. We have no regrets, however; Maligne is a delight and the views don't disappoint, including eye-fulls of nearby Mount Robson which, at 13,000 feet, is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.

Exiting Jasper behind schedule , we finally turn on to Highway 93. I tap the gear lever into second as the muscular Canadian Rockies rise into jagged peaks on either side of the roadway. This, ladies and germs, is the renowned Icefields Parkway-a ribbon of blacktop running between two of the most magnificent mountain ranges I've ever had the pleasure to encounter. It didn't hurt that on the same stretch, we chance upon some caribou crossing the river (outside Jasper) as well as a bear cub ambling farther down in the bushes, prompting a near traffic jam.

Highway 93 begins its run at Jasper and tucks into the main ranges of the Rockies as it squiggles south to Banff, reaching 10,000 feet at one point. This 143-mile wonder is one spectacular journey-mile for mile, it packs an awful amount of scenery into a trip that you can make in a day.

It's also known as the Promenade des Glaciers, since there are more than 200 glaciers along the winding route. We roll into one of the pullouts to eat our lunch overlooking the Athabasca River, framed by a spectacular view of Mt Fryatt and the icefield behind it. A simple turkey sandwich never tasted so good.

It was after this break that we hit upon the massive (yet receding) Athabasca Glacier, a part of the Columbia Icefields. The biggest non-polar icefield in the world, the Colmbia Icefields feed at least 6 major glaciers. The most accessible is Athabasca, a four mile tongue of ice flowing to within a mile of the Icefields Parkway. Because of easy access from the highway, its status as the most-visited Glacier in North America is practically guaranteed not to change. At a visitor center across from the glacier, adventurous travelers can board massive busses-called Snocoaches-outfitted with special tires that allow them to scale the glacier. Seeing the Athabasca up close underscores the huge loss it would be if these massive ice flows were to disappear from our world.

Still buzzing from the glacier, I climb back aboard the Street Glide and rejoin the highway as it continues its winding way through mountain bowls. You can't help but be overwhelmed by the scale around you; the thin thread of asphalt and the vehicles on it pale next to these looming planets. Soon afterward, Highway 93 dumps into the Trans Canada Highway once again, although this time it's Highway 1.

A couple of miles south of that junction is our next stop. We roll into legendary Lake Louise and promptly realize that, of course one of the most photographed bodies of water on the planet would be packed with tourists in the high season. Even amongst the masses, postcard vistas abound, with lazy canoes trolling the supernaturally blue waters, and snow ringed cliff faces surrounding the tranquil scene. The soaring background is dominated by Mount Victoria Glacier, which skulks like a monstrous cape overlooking the lake, giving the water its emerald color.

By contrast, the eastern shore is ruled by the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a luxury resort hotel built in the early 20th century by the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Fairmont is a bit over the top, but if you can afford it, the view is unparalleled.

After Louise we head toward the ski-resort environs of Banff, where it all started in the late 1800s with the discovery of a bubbling hot spring. The desire to protect it from development begot Canada's first national park, Banff. Banff National Park and its 2564 square miles of mountains, glaciers, forests, meadows and rivers turns 125 years old this year and is a glowing example of environmental stewardship and protection.

By the time we end our day in Banff, we all feel as wrecked as the Edmund Fitzgerald, to paraphrase Canadian singer-songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot. We check in to the Best Western Siding 29 Hotel, which offers accommodations most bikers would give their, uh, left hand to collapse into.

When we corner senior BW marketing VP Ron Pohl (who is an avid rider) over a post-ride brewski in Banff, he fesses up: " we want all bikers to think of Best Western as the go-to accommodation when on a ride. Indeed, Pohl, says the new Ride Rewards promotion is working like a charm.

In Banff, you can choose from mountain castles, campgrounds, art galleries, fine dining and any number of four-seasons outdoor activities. As such, it wears its resort-town status on its sleeve: lots of visitors with plenty of upscale shops.

The highlight is a generous dinner at The Bison Restaurant & Lounge, where we dig into some serious protein. This being Alberta, beef is what's on the menu. Bison rules in western Alberta, and the tenderloin, the waiter says, is so tender he wouldn't be bringing out a knife. And so it is-my fork goes through it like butter.

The final day is still a riding day, but it's at a leisurely pace as we depart Banff for Calgary to drop our bikes at Kanes Harley-Davidson. With Styx wailing in my iPod, to come sail away, we make time on Trans Canada Highway 1 east to Calgary-a straight stretch of highway that funnels us from point A to point B, just like Day One's route out of Edmonton.

As Leonard Cohen once said, "We're all on one road, and we're only passing through." Me


Harley-Davidson Canada

Heritage Harley-Davidson/Buell
1616 Calgary Trail
SW Edmonton, Alberta

Kanes Harley-Davidson
914 11 Street Southeast
Calgary, Alberta, T2G 3E8

Travel Alberta tourism site

Icefields Parkway info

(top)The Icefields Parkway starts out unassumingly, but builds up a scenic head of steam by the time you hit the Athabasca River. (below)
Glacier-encrusted cliffs compete with wandering wildlife for your attention. Our advice? Keep your eyes on the road.
The Jasper Tramway combines epic mountain views with an undeniably claustrophobic ride to 7,472 feet.
The well documented Lake Louise as seen from the well-to-do Fairmont Chateau.
Even on the Trans Canada Highway, the soaring Rocky background occasionally travels with you.