I Biked Across the Canadian Rockies to Build a Photo Portfolio

I decided a while ago that for my high school graduation and summer trip, I was going to photograph the Canadian Rockies. I started pursuing landscape photography seriously a little over a year ago and wanted to build a photography portfolio.

I had mostly been shooting cityscapes locally around my home in Toronto and wanted more than anything to visit Banff and Jasper National Parks, and include them in my new website.

The biggest hurdle that stood in my way, however, was my ability to drive, or rather the lack thereof. At 17 years old, I did not have a full driving license yet, nor did I own a car. Furthermore, no rental company was going to rent a car to anyone under 21, let alone a minor.

I decided, however, that I was going to solve this problem by finding an alternative mode of transportation, and I realized it was there all along – my bicycle. Lots of people travel long-distance by means of bike-packing, and it was genuinely fun to cycle to my destinations. The question then was if cycling the Canadian Rockies for me was possible.

For the few months leading up to my trip, I started training myself relentlessly. I cycled a lot more than I normally did and even went on a few weekend century cycling trips around Ontario.

In June 2017, right after graduating from high school, I hopped on a bus and traveled halfway across Canada in what had to be my greatest practice of patience, ever.

The plan was simple. I would spend a week at each of the towns within the national parks — Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper — and a week overall cycling the course between them – a grueling 300km over constantly changing and steep terrain along the Icefields Parkway. The 300km was broken up into manageable segments, with end points at locations I had mapped out for me to photograph.

The sights along the way were simply gorgeous. It’s true what they say, that the Icefields Parkway is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. It’s true that I would have loved to drive it, but that wasn’t an option, so I peddled.

I’ll admit that cycling while carrying all my gear was difficult, especially over some of the steeper uphills. I had on me a one-camera-one-lens set up — a Fujifilm X-T2 and an XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR LM — a case of LEE filters, a tripod, miscellaneous accessories, and my Microsoft Surface Pro 4, all housed in my Peak Design Everyday Backpack.

Besides all that being all the photography gear I own, minimalism was key for my trip. I also had my camping equipment and supplies attached to my bicycle in the form of panniers. Any unnecessary weight would have only served as a hindrance while traveling on my own steam.

One of the biggest problems was managing both my photography and my cycling. Despite having broken up my trip into manageable segments, the steep terrain and long distances made it difficult to do hikes immediately afterward. The various youth wilderness hostels that dotted the route made it easier to manage both strenuous activities.

In addition to the wilderness hostels, I also camped at various spots along the way. It was refreshing to stay outdoors after years of living within city limits.

Honeymoon Lake – the view right next to one of my campsites.

This trip gave me a newfound appreciation for what landscape photographers do. Despite the rain and sun, it gave me nothing but satisfaction to be able to view the amazing vistas upon completion of a hike up a steep climb.

I arrived in Jasper on the 21st of July. I am immensely proud of the fact that I did it my way. I think that having one’s independence while traveling is essential as the more people on a trip, the more compromise is required. Traveling on my own steam allowed me to do things without having to rely on others or bend my schedule. I could stay out as late or wake up as early as I wanted to catch the sunrise, all without needing to work with or around others, and that was greatly beneficial in building my portfolio.

Throughout the trip, I met a lot of people who were surprised when I told them I was only a teenager. I think it was surprising for them because most teenagers I know don’t think about going on a bike-packing adventure. Indeed, most of the people I met on the road who were bike-packing as well were actually retired!

In my eyes, my trip was a great success. I accomplished something last month that a few years ago I would never have even dreamed of. I just want to say that I hope my story inspired you to take a leap of faith on that trip you were planning, but are holding back for some reason. I never let my age hold me back from bike-packing and photographing the Canadian Rockies because I didn’t want something as trivial as my age to keep me from pursuing what I am passionate about.

For now, I hope that this will only be the first of many adventures to come!

About the author: Ethan Chin is a 17-year-old landscape and travel photographer based in Toronto, Canada. You can find more of his work and writing on his website, blog, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.