How far is the lodge?” asks Jim. “Seven or eight miles,” I reply. “Can your chair make it there and back?” asks he, a little too concerned, methinks.
“I think so, I’ve done it before,” I say, reassuringly.
“There is that hill with switch-backs you know,” he says, not feeling reassured.
“I mean, what could possibly go wrong?” I say.
“Oh not much, just getting stuck down hill, miles from camp, late at night, in grizzly country, with about 400 pounds of dead weight on wheels,” Jim points out, sounding like someone who has had to push one of these things at one time or another.
“True … but a vehicle could rescue us if need be …” I offer.
Jim laughs. He is getting accustomed to anticipating what can go wrong when a member of the party must rely on electric-mechanical items for mobility. It is one of the harsh realities of wheelchair life, and as our equipment ages and declines, the chance of something breaking down rises — inevitably at the farthest point in the journey.
We gaze around at the amazing scenery while waiting for our wives at the trailhead. I never get tired of the Rocky Mountains. You can stare at them over and over and still find something new. Sometimes you’ll see a bear, an elk, a deer, or even a waterfall.
My wife and I and friends are camping in the Rocky Mountains for a couple of weeks in September to celebrate our wedding anniversaries. This area is a favorite of my wife’s, and mine, and we even got married on this trail … oh … would you believe a year or two ago? It also has a special connection as my grandfather and grandmother operated a coal hauling business nearby in the 1950s, and my mother and her brother were here with their parents as kids. There are miles of paved bicycle paths to explore, and today we are choosing to tour to the Kananaskis Lodge, eight miles away. The sun is shining on the mountains towering above us, bordering the valley. Cool crisp air with a sweet hint of the fermenting vegetation so characteristic of our autumns fills our lungs. I love it!
Grizzly Bears, Bees and Banter
One of the things I truly enjoy is exploring trails. My first criterion when choosing an electric wheelchair was top speed. I wanted to participate in bike rides without the hassle of needing to be transferred into a faster unit. I find that less dicker-factor means more fun, more often. My chair does about 8.5 mph and can last up to 25 miles or so, just fast enough for bike rides. I do know from experience that as batteries age, the range is drastically reduced, and I’ve even been begrudgingly towed home by another wheelchair user after such a miscalculation.
Since we are in grizzly bear country, Jim has equipped us with pepper spray and loud horns. Many people also carry bear bells. If you make noise, the bears will hear and most likely avoid you. Of course there is the obligatory pre-ride bear-encounter bantering.
“Do you know the difference between grizzly-bear poop and black-bear poop?” I ask.
“Grizzly poop has bells in it and smells like pepper,” laughs Jim. “Those bells are really just dinner bells to bears.”
“You don’t have to be the fastest … you just don’t want to be the slowest,” I say.
“I guess we know who that’ll be.” Jim looks at me.
“That’s not nice to speak of the girls like that,” I tease, looking sideways at my wife.
She counters: “I’ve even heard one friend tell her husband with a laugh, ‘I can run faster healthy than you can with a knife stuck in your leg.’”
All kidding aside, you do want to be prepared for an encounter. Although these bears probably see a lot of people, there are rare instances when they become aggressive, and with their speed, you want your pepper spray and noisemakers handy. On a drive earlier in the season, we had close encounters with grizzlies on three separate occasions, but were fortunate to be in a vehicle.
And off we go, zooming down the trail, weaving among the pine trees, occasionally cha-chinging the bell on the handlebars. It is downhill for miles and I struggle to keep up. “Slow-poke” comments are duly noted. At one point we stop to admire the vast expanse of the mountains silhouetted against the blue sky, a fast moving river snaking down the valley, crashing past. The next instant we notice a honeybee fly up to a yellow flower. Upon closer inspection there were many flowers covered by equal numbers of bees. It was a fascinating world to observe, one that busily carries on unnoticed most of the time. The beauty of their world was equal to the vast mountain expanse around us, a real eye opener. We observed for several minutes, got some great shots, and were on our way.
Soon we were on a steep incline, complete with switchbacks. This is where the guy in the wheelchair gets even, and therefore must fully exploit the advantage. I easily zoom past and wait at the next rest stop. Not wanting to overdo it, I keep the heckling to no more than necessary.
“Nice hill, eh? What took so long? How come your face is red?” I say with my best innocent look.
Some of the responses are beyond PG-13, but suffice it to say that they seem to take exception to my mocking. Oh well, off I zoom up the trail whilst they soak up oxygen and perspire profusely.
Soon we are at the top, taking in the sights of the lodge. There are spectacular hotels, restaurants, pubs, and shops. In the center is a crystal clear pond, a waterfall, and trout swimming around. Then just down the path is the spectacular lookout where my wife and I were wed so many years ago. It will always be a special place to us.
And the ride back will be just as memorable.