Little Elbow to Mount Romulus -- A Girl's Adventure with Grammy

When I think back to the things I did with my grandmother, my memories are of baking cookies, playing cards, or listening to her read the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. My grandchildren, I think, will have much different recollections of their time spent with me.

This past September, Katie, my 11-year-old granddaughter, and I set off on our first “bikepacking” trip, a 12-kilometer trek up the Little Elbow/Tombstone Pass to the Mount Romulus backcountry campground in Kananaskis Country, Alberta. Inspired by an article that ran in Adventure Cyclist magazine a couple of years ago, I thought this would be the perfect adventure for us. It’s a wide, double-track trail that winds along the Elbow River and past Nihahi Ridge, with gorgeous views along the way of Mount Fullerton, Mount Remus, Mount Romulus, and Tombstone Mountain.

I have ridden the full 40-kilometer Elbow Loop a number of times over the years, and thought the fairly easy trail up to Romulus would be very doable by a young, novice rider. I wanted a route that would be challenging but not too difficult, and for the reward to be worth the effort to achieve it. Just to be sure, I rode the trail again earlier in the year, this time trying to visualize what the experience would be like for Katie.

I bought a used Chariot bike trailer to carry our gear, allowing Katie to ride as light as possible. I booked a campsite for the family in the Little Elbow Campground (our starting point), and secured a backcountry permit online for a one-night stay at Mount Romulus.

The week before our trip, I called Katie and gave her a list of things to pack: Warm clothes, sleeping bag, Therm-a-Rest pad, pillow, hoodie, jacket, shorts, long pants, spare socks and underwear, headlamp, helmet, gloves, and bike. She arrived at Little Elbow on Friday night with everything packed in a pink “Disney Princess” hard-sided suitcase. (Note to self: Even though it is still warm in Alberta in September, the nights in the mountains are generally close to or below freezing. Check the child’s packing against the list. Needless to say, there was nothing warm or spare in that suitcase. Luckily, I had brought extras.) 

We set off at 11 a.m., me pulling the fully loaded Chariot. Four kilometers in, we crossed the bridge over Nihahi Creek. Looming ahead was our first big challenge -- a seriously steep hill, strewn with loose rocks of all sizes. I suggested we break for a bit, have some water and an energy chew in preparation. (Those chews turned out to be magical -- whenever the energy level or the spirit took a dive, these little jelly numbers instantly recharged Katie’s batteries.)

It was a long, hard push, but we made it to the top, took another break, and then carried on. Katie was very tentative about the downhills at first, but with each one her confidence grew, and soon she was riding them and even tackling the creek crossings without hesitation.

We counted the big uphills. When we had cleared the third one, I confided there might be one more; I wasn’t quite sure. There was, and when she saw it, she sighed and said, “I don’t think I can make it, Grammy.”

“How about a couple of energy chews, and then we’ll try it?”

She reluctantly agreed -- and we made it. I got to the top just ahead of Katie and spotted the sign to the campsite. “Katie,” I shouted. “We’re here!” We had done it in just under two and a half hours.

The access trail to the camp was downhill. Just as we reached the turnoff to the hikers’ sites, Katie’s wheel hit a rut and she went down, hard, on her hip. It hurt, she said, but she was able to laugh off the irony of falling just meters from our final destination.

The campsite was wonderful -- seven sites designated for equestrian campers, and seven for hikers and bikers. The wood pile was fully stocked, and there was even an axe! Although we were the only ones there, we picked the site farthest from the trail, set up the tent, and gathered wood for our evening campfire. We spent a lazy, sunny afternoon kicking back by the river and visiting with the horses at the other end of the campground, hitched and waiting for their owners to collect them.

Katie hobnobbing with our 'neigh'bors.

For those accustomed to the constant and/or easily available entertainment offered by computer video games and TV, the outdoors is more of a do-it-yourself environment. Katie and I invented a game of “rock checkers,” collecting dark- and light-colored flat stones and then placing them on a “board” made of twigs.

Because we were the only ones there, we took turns laughing as loudly as we could and shouting at the top of our lungs, until we doubled over giggling. Freedom started to feel pretty good!

Supper consisted of wieners roasted over the fire, with chili and buns, and marshmallows for dessert. We sang songs and told jokes by the fire until it got dark, when we pulled out the cell phone’s Sky Tracker app to check out the constellations in the sky above. It was Katie who suggested we go to bed. She was tired.

Next morning we awoke at seven. It was still cold and we quickly packed up, working fast to hit the trail by eight and start pedaling to warm up. My motivation was the thought of a hot cup of coffee. As much as Katie would have liked to go faster, the big rocky downhills were too daunting to tackle with frozen fingers. So she walked them, sniffling, worried she would never regain the feeling in her fingers. The lowest point came when, with only 4 kilometers to go, she crashed in a creek crossing.

Katie in the creek -- on purpose, in this case.

Spurred on by the thought of breakfast, Katie reluctantly got back on the bike and, with what amounted to a second wind, powered her way to the Little Elbow Campground. As we pedaled in, we were greeted by a standing ovation and high fives from Mom, Dad, and little brother TJ. For me? A cup of hot coffee and a wonderful, warm feeling inside.

Katie, we did it!

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: Don't miss the gorgeous views of the northern night sky.

Favorite local bike shop: Bow Cycle in Calgary.

7 responses so far ↓

Bob Holder - Jan 15, 2013 at 5:00 PM

Great story. It was a wonderful introduction to bicycle touring for Katie. I wish that I had a grandparent like you when I was a kid!

Doug D - Mar 20, 2013 at 8:16 AM

Awesome, I took my family there for July 1 long weekend. It is a gorgeous spot and a great experience for kids. It took us more like 4 hours to bike in though.

Barb K - Mar 20, 2013 at 10:08 AM

Doug, we are thinking of going again this year. Maybe we'll meet up there!

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