As the summer weekends flashed past, I’d almost given up hope of squeezing in a Cottonwood ride. It seemed like every day off work was solidly packed with other commitments, and other adventures. When plans to go down to B.C for a weekend fell through, there was a suddenly a big beautiful gap just looking to be filled with an epic ride.
The Cottonwood trail is an 83 km hiking route from Mush Lake Road (across from Dezadeash Lake) to Kathleen Lake. The trail includes about 2400 m of climbing, spread out over 2 passes; the Dalton Pass and Cottonwood Pass. It’s a long day, but can be well worth the scenary. Here’s a guide to the ride:
Start the ride with the unmistakable sound of rain falling on your 2 man tent.
Go to Kathleen Lake Lodge, which opens up at 7 am, for a pre-ride feast of bacon, eggs, hashbrowns and coffee. Meal is usually served with a side of: “You guys are crazy – but I hope you have fun”.
Park the car at Mush Lake Road and begin the pre-ride routine of dressing, undressing and redressing. After exploring all routes of procrastination, start riding.
Fly down the Mush Lake Road . Believe (falsely) that this will be a quick ride. At some point, wonder what you are going to order at Frosty Freeze – banana or chocolate milkshake? Then hit the Cottonwood trail sign, and a double track path that goes up, up, up.
After 5 steady kilometers of climbing, pull out that piece of pie you ordered from the Kathleen Lake Lodge. It may have suffered in your bag, but you aren’t finished climbing, it’s pissing rain and it’s cold – a squishy pie is the best thing you’ll have.
The unrelating climb is replaced by some fun up and down through the pass. It will feel like fall, but everything will be bright and green; with the occasional patch of lupins. Your camera will be wet, but it makes it look like a cool instagram, so that’s okay.
Cross the first big river. Holy crap is it ever cold! To figure out which path to take, watch all your friends cross and assess whose shorts got the least wet – follow them. On the other side surrender to the elements and try to warm up. There’s no way to get dry, but it’s better to be a warm wet before starting a descent.
Watch the steam come off everyone’s shorts, this will be highly amusing – especially when you’re mildly delusional from not eating enough. Eat more food.
Things are looking up, you are warmer – and starting to enjoy some sections of singletrack descent. Don’t worry, your delusions of all downhill will be shattered by a steep hike a bike. Be careful on this steep climb, your shoes will fall off at least twice, and you will somehow get your bike caught in between two trees on your back and be temporarily stuck.
You are through the second pass and onto the best part of the trail – Cottonwood Valley. The only problem is that everything is so beautiful that you will want to stop every kilometer for more pictures.
Fireweed is as high as the bike, which means most of the time you will watch your friends helmet heads bob float above tall green stalks. You will then hit the fields of fire (weed); bright oranges and reds will distract you, and you will probably almost endo because you are staring at the colors instead of watching for rocks.. As you slowly lose elevation, each field will get redder and redder – you are coming back to fall.
You are now into long stretches of meadow, and although the short grass makes for long views – you will get that funny feeling that you’re being watched from afar.
You will turn onto a mining road – look up and to the left, you can see the relics of Johobo mine up in the mountain side. This would be a fast and furious section, but there are several downed trees that slow down the ride. After crawling under the 10th tree, you’ll tell yourself that you are going to start doing yoga again. It’s a lie.
Down you land at Louise Lake – and she’s a beauty! There’s still lots of downed trees, but Parks Canada seems to have some interest in having them cleared for next year. Although they are a nuisance, they aren’t so bad as to ruin the ride.
Time to cross Victoria Creek again – thankfully she’s warmed up a bit since the last time. Although it’s fast and flowing, at least it’s not an ice bath. One of you “friends” will throw rocks to splash you while you cross – maybe it’s time to find new friends.
First encounter with Kathleen Lake – a new rock slide means a short walk through the lake. The trail along the lakeside is in bad shape, but it’s brief. If you get too cranky, just look left, because the view is spectacular. There’s lots of flattened rocks to skip in the water and the odometer suggests that you’re getting close to the end.
Goat Creek crossing – the final river to ford. Where’s my beer?
One last look at a beautiful lake – it’s hike-a-bike time. If you are wearing clipless, bring sandals/running shoes. The final 6 km of the trail will be a tough hike over a rock glacier, and then through a maze of un-rideable trails and downed trees. When you hit this section, you will have some false hope that there is still time to get to Frosty Freeze before it closes. It’s time to let the dream die – you will spend almost 2 hours slipping on roots, sliding down hills with your bike still attached to you, and generally cursing your existence. You will ask yourself: Why didn’t I just get a boat pick-up? (a completely viable option – just call Ron Chambers – he’s in the book in Haines Junction). Then you will try to convince yourself that this makes you more hardcore. Then you will trip on a root and want to cry.
All done. You may have missed Frosty Freeze, but as long as there’s a bag of chips and a cider somewhere, it’s all good. Spend your anniversary doing this every year.