Highway 7 is my preferred route out of Vancouver. This past summer was a doozy when it came to wildfires in British Columbia, especially where I was planning to ride in the Cariboo. So, when plans changed, I took a more regional ride with the intent of exploring the secondary road that led me to Hope, British Columbia.
Wes Taylor and I had spent the day on our Kawasaki KLR650s weaving our way along the pleasant twists and turns of Highway 3A and 31 between Nelson and Kaslo. The sun was out, the riding easy and we enjoyed the introduction to our three-day adventure together.
We were walking along 4th Street in Kaslo returning from dinner and having seen the National Historic Site of the SS Moyie when I breached the subject of the day ahead.
“I think the road runs out at Meadow Creek.”
While most motorcyclists fancied the twists of Highway 31A east of Kaslo, to New Denver, Wes and I were taking the less beaten track: Highway 31 north to Meadow Creek and beyond. Most travel brochures stopped describing tourist destinations north of Meadow Creek. I suspected this was because the asphalt ran out north of the small community.
“What do you think we’ll be dealing with past there?” Wes asked.
“I’ve heard it’s a well-graded road but gravel,” I offered. I had a few other anecdotal bits of information to add, but it would be new ground. Our moods turned thoughtful as we walked towards the Kaslo Motel.
After returning from breakfast the next day, Wes and I set about packing up our KLRs in preparation for the ride ahead. There was a motorcycle parked next to ours, a BMW R1200GS. We soon met its owner; Dave from Nevada.
As it turns out, he had just finished riding south solo along Highway 31, the road we would be taking. We asked him how the riding was. Dave was a man of few words.
“It’s not a technical ride,” Dave told us. “It’s hard-packed gravel for the most part.”
Wes and I looked at each other and smiled. I think we breathed a little easier after hearing Dave’s brief road report, and meeting someone who had travelled the route successfully.
There was a lesson to be learned here, I think. Wes and I had kept our anxieties too much to ourselves. It was fortunate we met Dave as I think we enjoyed our morning much more having heard what was ahead. It’s not unlike asking for directions at a gas station, checking in at a tourist information booth or asking a friend you know who lives in a place you’re not familiar with. Asking alleviates anxiety about the road ahead.
Oh, and Wes and I did enjoy riding Highway 31. Very much.
(You can read the story of our ride through the West Kootenays in Zero Avenue to Peace Park )
I was delighted over the weekend to hear that Wes Taylor’s surgery went well and he’s recovering in a Colorado hospital.
He told me by email that he’s “recovering but hurting also.” I’ve been mailing him motorcycle travel books so he can pass the time while healing. I send my riding buddy emails from time to time in between bringing my sons to activities and the latest writing jobs. I’ve been thinking about him over the weekend, sending him good thoughts.
For those of you who don’t know the story of how I met Wes, it begins five years ago when I was setting up my one-man tent at Meziadin Lake Provincial Park when what should appear next to me but a huge trailer towed by a pick-up truck. Wes and Nancy Taylor and their friendly dog Amber soon emerged having driven south from Alaska and we have remained friends since we were neighbours at that northern British Columbia campground. Wes was keen on Kawasaki KLR650s and I was riding one. We would soon be talking about riding together. I tell the story in more detail in Nearly 40 on the 37.
I was looking through my Zero Avenue to Peace Park photos over the weekend and found the above shot. It tells a particular story about when Wes and I got to ride together, two years after we met.
We were riding north on a cloudy August day on Highway 31 near Kaslo, the shores of Kootenay Lake not far to our right. I was in the lead and checking to see Wes was in my vibrating rear view mirror. After a minute or two of not looking, entranced by the ride and the scenery, I looked back and Wes wasn’t in my mirror anymore.
I looked for a place to turn around, then rode back thinking the worst. When I finally did encounter him coming at me along empty Hwy 31 we stopped, our front wheels pointed in different directions. He said over the engine that he was scouting out locations for another spot to bring Nancy and Amber to in the RV along the many gravel dips off the road into Kootenay Lake Provincial Park. Just like Wes to be thinking of the next adventure when he was on an adventure!
(The full account of our ride in the Kootenays, exploring historic silver towns on and off road, is in Zero Avenue to Peace Park.)
Needless to say, Wes is an adventurous fellow. And despite being in his early 70s he is still thinking ahead to the next one. I admire that. I hope in my 70s I’m still dreaming of adventure, splaying out the maps in the winter and planning the next one, whether solo, with my family, or a riding buddy.
As for my riding buddy Wes, I wish him a swift recovery and hope he is dreaming of future adventures as he heals in his hospital room.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a frequent filler-upper.
Regular stops at gas stations, I’d say every 150 kilometres, are where it’s at for me.
Sure, my F650GS has a digital fuel gauge, and I could surely make it to 250 kilometres and beyond without stopping for fuel.
But I like to stretch my legs, use the washroom, maybe have a cereal bar and a sip or two of water, and make some human contact.
I’ve never been a big fan of the card-reading automaton when I pay at the pump. It just beeps and whines at you like a second-rate R2D2. And it’s always demanding things: your PIN, what octane fuel you want, whether you want a receipt printed. You can’t small talk about the weather or comment about the wonderful road you’re riding. If you did it would be a very one-sided conversation.
So in this blog I’m choosing to remember the gas station attendants I met when I went inside the station building to make a human connection. No matter how brief. I’m always saying how riding a motorcycle allows me to connect with people, not connect with machines.
East of Castlegar, 139 kilometres from my starting point at Nakusp, I pulled in to the quiet Glade Esso. It’s to be found on the west side of the Kootenay River, just before the hydroelectric Brilliant Dam. I dismounted to find the pump actually was not card-operated, nor did it indicate which octane it dispensed, forcing me to make human contact to make enquiries.
I found two young ladies wearing sunglasses, seated and chatting in the early morning sun at the deserted fuelling station. I could have very well been their first customer of the day.
“Morning. Is it 87 octane fuel it pumps?” I asked.
“Sure does,” a young lady with a nose ring and long sandy blonde said coolly as she stood up and opened the door for me to go inside and pre-pay.
“I just need an amount to authorize for,” she said as I handed her my credit card. I thought about that a minute. “It’ll only charge you for the amount you pump.”
“Ten dollars,” I said. “Could I also use the bathroom?”
“Mm hmm,” she handed me a key attached to part of a wooden handle.
I did my business, fuelled up then walked my bike away from the pump where I parked it and tucked into a cereal bar and a few sips of water, aware the two ladies were curiously watching me. Even though it was just a small interaction, it was the most I’d spoken to another person that morning, and it actually charged my brain up a little bit, the side not focused on riding the bike and taking the twists and turns of Highway 6 from Nakusp.
The next stop was Grand Forks at a Petro-Canada station. The day was warming up. I had just made it over the big climb at Bonanza Pass, ascending to just over 1500 metres’ elevation before descending into the old copper town. The August day was really starting to warm up and the landscape becoming more arid as I wound my BMW around curves past ranches and slowed down to enter the quaint town on a Sunday. I could see people entering churches for the morning services.
It was good to stretch my legs after fording the Monashees. And I needed another bathroom break (I had anticipated needing hydration on the expected hot day and drank much orange juice and water that morning). After paying for my fuel at the pump I proceeded inside.
The middle-aged, bespectacled woman at the till was helping another customer. I patiently waited in my riding gear, holding my helmet. Anticipating my needs, almost as though she could read it in my face, she handed me the washroom key with a smile.
“It’s just around the building to the left,” she said conspiratorially with a wink.
I was impressed. The gesture gave me something to think about for the exit out of town. How had she known? What a kind exchange.
The next stop would be in Osoyoos, at a Petro-Canada station at the foot of the steep switchbacks leading down into the Okanagan Valley. During the steep climb out of Rock Creek earlier, I had noticed with some alarm just how hot it was getting. I needed some refreshment, stat.
After once again fuelling up at the busy multi-pump station, I pulled the bike around to park next to some leather-clad Harley-Davidson riders. Proceeding inside I searched for fruit juice, choosing a bottle of orange juice and filtered water. I went up to the till to pay.
“Hi there. Just these two please,” I said in as friendly a way as my dehydrated self could.
“It’s a hot one out there, isn’t it?” My attendant was of First Nations ancestry. I was right next to Nk’Mip Resort and the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, a place I’d stayed a few summers before with family that I knew demonstrated the culture and history of the Okanagan people.
“Keep cool out there,” she said with a look towards my riding jacket.
“I will thanks,” I said, making eye contact. It’s always nice when a stranger takes a genuine interest in your wellbeing.
“I’m looking forward to end of my shift and relaxing in the sun,” she extended to me.
“Enjoy it,” I said. “And thanks…”
As it would turn out, I managed to have my first bout of heat exhaustion I would discover as I stayed at my hotel for the night in Princeton. Silly me, I also took it upon myself to hike downhill into town then uphill afterward to see the museum and have dinner. I overdid it, even though the museum and meal were wonderful. I needed to take an extra day to recuperate.
Pulling out early the next morning, having had a quiet recuperation day with little human interaction, I rode across Highway 3 to a Husky station. In a hurry to fuel up at the pump and get my heat-exhausted self home before the sun was once again upon me, I ignored the young men fuelling up their mini-van behind me.
“Excuse me,” I heard a young man say. It was a German accent. I was still in my helmet and sunglasses.
“Yes,” I managed as I was going through the instructions the pay-at-the-pump droid was dishing out.
“Could you help us?”
I looked at him and held up my forefinger. “Just give me a sec,” I said hastily.
The young man retreated to his friend who was looking confusedly at the pump.
What was I doing? Of course, help him. What a selfish gesture on my part. I fuelled up and went over to the young men. They were confused with the octane options. 87? 89? 91? What did it all mean? The young german’s friend had the van’s manual in his hand and was flipping through it.
“It’s our first gas stop in Canada,” my new German friend was saying. “We are not sure if we should put in 87 octane.”
“What does your manual tell you?” I tried to sound helpful.
“It says minimum 85,” he sounded doubtful.
“Well then, I imagine 87 should be enough,” I managed. “I know, they provide many options don’t they?” I gave a smile.
The young German also smiled.
“All right, we will try that one,” he said brightly. “Thank you for your help.”
“Not a problem,” I said.
I took my receipt out of the droid, hopped on, started up, and proceeded hastily west through the haze of forest fire smoke.
As I proceeded along the switchbacks that make up the ride along Highway 3 west to Manning Park, I though in my helmet of the help received and human contact made in the last few days. Too often, I retreat back into my big city aloofness, my defense against an unforeseen foe who may provide me with a problem.
I realized as I rode into the lodgepole pine forest of Manning that the human contact made on a journey is a major part of it, not to shun it, but revel in it, in whatever form it may take.
It was in the summer of 2010 that I was walking along Quebec Street in Vancouver with my wife Laura when I spotted a red Kawasaki KLR650 with aluminum panniers parked at the curb. We stopped and I commented to her that the motorcycle, as it was modified, represented a kind of adventure motorcycle look that was popular among the ADV crowd.
In short, I wanted one.
A few months later I would be scouring the Craigslist posts, thinking that searching at the end of the riding season would create a buyer’s advantage for me. I thought that riders thinking of parting with their rides would likely be keen to do so before the gloom of winter set in. In October I got lucky, buying a well-kept blue 1999 KLR, with few modifications made, from a musician moving from a tiny ground floor suite off Commercial Drive in Vancouver, to a massive farmhouse in Manitoba. He was eager to sell, pricing his dual sport bike at $2000.
I would insure the bike for the day and ride it to Burnaby Kawasaki, where it would hole up for the rainy season as part of their winter storage program.
At the first sign of warm weather I started in with a vengeance. I ordered an aluminum pannier kit from Happy Trails in Boise, Idaho, and started working on it with a friend, modifying it to the adventure machine I wanted for an upcoming journey.
In a few months I would be riding with my friend Mike Whitfield along the Duffey Lake loop, taking the KLR from the cool coniferous air of Whistler, into the heat of Lillooet, one of the hottest places in Canada, before riding in the setting sun to Vancouver, clocking 660 kilometres that day.
By August, I was ready. I was nervous, but up for the challenge. Setting out with Mike, we would ride to Cache Creek, then next day on to Prince George. Mike had to get back to Vancouver, so I continued north while he returned back along the Cariboo Road.
The next ten days would introduce me to a part of British Columbia I had never seen before. I rode past the massive lumber mills of the Nechako, whistled along the waters of the Bulkley, leaned on my motorcycle while staring in awe at the Bear Glacier and sorted out camp gear on its flanks at Kinaskan Lake southeast of the stratovolcano of Mount Edziza. I would ride solo along the broken pavement and gravel of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway before turning around at the powerful and pristine waters of the Stikine River. That KLR gave me a sense of connection to my home province that I hadn’t had before, but had secretly craved since I was little, and learning about the history of my home province in the safety of the exhibitions of the provincial museum in my home of Victoria.
Connection. That’s what that motorcycle gave me.
I’m emphasizing it because, until then, British Columbia history was something static, that I took in from an armchair. The KLR pushed me out of my comfort zone and had me meeting people and really taking in the sights, smells and climate of the places I rode through.
The KLR and I would have many more adventures after that. We would bounce along the dusty rugged forest service roads leading from Cowichan Lake to the natural sanctuary of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park and the peaceful fishing village of Bamfield. I would ride with Mike again, visiting our American neighbours to the south, to the edge of the site of the nearest natural disaster of my youth; Mount Saint Helens, which erupted in May 1980. I would explore the silver towns of the Kootenays with Wes Taylor, a friend I made while traveling the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Mike Whitfield and I would ride together one more time, attempting to get as far north as we could by road on Vancouver Island along bumpy forest service roads, stopping at the logging town of Holberg near Cape Scott.
This winter I learned that Mike, who was in his early seventies, would be retiring from motorcycling. He offered his riding buddy first dibs on his motorcycle, one I’d always admired, a 2010 BMW F650GS. This spring I bought it from him. Although I will think of the F650GS as Mike’s bike for years to come I’m sure, it really is a pleasant motorcycle to ride.
I had to be honest with myself. I couldn’t maintain and insure two motorcycles. So the practical solution was simple, if not a little difficult to face: I had to sell the KLR.
Parting with my old friend wasn’t easy. But when I realized that I was getting further into middle age, a more comfortable bike with a lower seat height (such as the F650GS) made a lot of sense. There were many other practical advantages to the F650GS, but it didn’t help my sensitive side, which believed I was planning to sell off an old friend.
I reluctantly got the word out that the motorcycle was for sale. A carefully worded post was composed for Craigslist. The right buyer, in all of my worrying to find him or her, responded right away. Cesar was finishing up his time in Vancouver after working construction sites for several months. In his mid-twenties and with few attachments, he was planning a cross-continent motorcycle journey, and needed the right adventure machine, for a good price.
Six years earlier, I had been much like him, although a bit longer in the tooth, yearning for adventure, with a certain expectation as to how it would look.
Knowing that the KLR would still be presenting someone with opportunities for exploration and adventure to come, I agreed to the sale. There is now one motorcycle in the garage, waiting to go on new adventures.
Although this year has presented a few obstacles provided by Mother Nature (heavy rain and cold leading in to summer, a record-setting wildfire season in the Cariboo), there are some adventures awaiting me this riding season I hope. And although the KLR is no longer with me, I will always have the connection with British Columbia it allowed me to have, as we whistled past the glorious rivers, mountains and historical sites of this wonderful part of the world.
I know this isn’t Craiglist. Nor is it a place to moan about the old days. But I’ve got some sad, perhaps surprising, news.
The motorcycle I’ve been riding for the past six years is for sale.
Yes, you read it right. The Kawasaki KLR650 that I’ve ridden all over British Columbia (into Alberta and Washington State a bit too, but who’s counting destinations?) searching for historic places while bouncing up and down on gravel roads and holding onto for dear life while taking switchbacks on FSRs to former gold towns is up for grabs.
It’s for sale. What am I doing? I’ve been sneaking into the garage not saying anything (I usually do say hello to my motorcycle…What? Don’t you?) to my KLR for days.
I’ve written notes on its solid, unforgiving factory seat that would become paragraphs in my two books. It has appeared, dusty and proud, in my articles in Motorcycle Mojo, Inside Motorcycles, RidersWest, Canadian Biker, Rider Magazine… just to name a few.
The motorcycle has brought me to faded silver towns like Sandon in the Kootenays, to the back door route up forest service roads to park next to Mount St. Helens, to the northern extremes of Vancouver Island along unforgiving gravel, to the peaceful and rainy park at Waterton, Alberta, and led me up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway into the north of British Columbia.
Needless to say, I’m reluctant to part with this particular motorcycle.
But as I’ve recently purchased my friend Mike’s BMW F650GS (see Mike’s Bike), it’s time.
It’s time to part with an old friend who, I hope, will find a good home.
The motorcycle has been winter-stored at Burnaby Kawasaki for the six years I’ve owned it. It was bought in October 2011 from a musician leaving for Manitoba in a real hurry. I’m the third owner. It was a basic, non-modified factory model when I bought it. I added Happy Trails Teton 33-litre aluminum panniers, Happy Trails bash plate, Moose pegs, hand guards and a 16” Clearview windshield. The doohickey’s done. Also I’m including a Wolfman Explorer Lite tank bag and Wolfman Expedition Dry duffel bag as well as all the Rok Straps you’ll need to secure it. There are two Michelin T63 knobbies on, front and back, with lots of tread on (as well as an Avon rear and Bridgstone front as a spare pair of shoes).
Regularly maintained at Burnaby Kawasaki (I kept records and receipts), it was also valued by the good folks at BK at $3000. So that’s how I’ll price it.
So if you are in the market for a well-loved dual-sport motorcycle that has had its share of media exposure and still has many adventures left in it, I’d like to hear from you.
Here’s my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t try to talk me out of it! Oh my my my…
I found one of the best motorcycling roads on Vancouver Island in September 2016. But I hadn’t intended to…
You see, my friend Wes Taylor, who I’d met motorcycling in northern British Columbia in 2012, had invited me to ride in his home state of Colorado. A day before I was to fly to Colorado Springs, I received a baffling email. Wes was hurriedly typing on his smart phone, urging me to cancel my flight, if there was enough time to do so. He was in hospital. He had just been in a car accident.
Wes was lucky to be alive, but he would need some recovery time. I was glad my friend was relatively all right and concerned about him. But I was disappointed I couldn’t visit and ride with him along some of the best motorcycling roads in the United States of America.
I had more than a week freed up. What to do? Well, I hurriedly decided to travel a road on Vancouver Island that I knew was long overdue to ride. It also promised a great deal of historical incentive to get me going: Highway 28 west from Campbell River to Gold River.
Gold River is at the end of fifty-five kilometre Muchalat Inlet. It used to be a community known for its chief employer: the pulp and paper mill. I had prepared several stories on Gold River when I was at CBC Radio Vancouver, one of which was on the subject of Luna, the orca calf that had lost its mother and wandered in to Muchalat Inlet to befriend the people of Gold River. I was never comfortable filing stories about places I’d never been to. Visiting Gold River was long overdue.
The road west from Campbell River soon developed the curves I’d heard about from friends and other sources. It winded along, having me flick the bike back and forth in the sun of an early Fall day, the smell of burning leaves filling my nostrils while I anticipated the next series of turns leading to the Campbell Lakes.
There were no communities along the route to Gold River. The only structures seen were lodgings within Strathcona Provincial Park. Crossing a bridge at Buttle Narrows, I climbed, then descended, while stealing glances at formidable Kings Peak before encountering the boot: the Gold River Boot carving that is. It marked the entrance to the community.
I would ride another thirteen kilometres to Muchalat Marina before being treated to a view of Muchalat Inlet in the sun. The MV Uchuck III was in dock, men painting the historic vessel after a busy summer taking travellers to nearby Nootka Sound, Yuquot and beyond.
Yuquot village is a National Historic Site of Canada. It’s the ancestral home of the Mowachaht, and a place where traditional whaling was practiced. It had been a community for four thousand years by the time Captain James Cook encountered Chief Maquinna there. Europeans would call it Friendly Cove after their congenial visit in March of 1778. The MV Uchuck III, a former US Second World War minesweeper, makes daily runs to Yuquot in summer months. Uchuck means “healing waters” in the Nuu-chah-nulth language.
I looked out over the smooth lines afforded by the mountains rolling into the distance across from the inlet, listened to the calm water lapping against the dock supports and was warmed by the midday sun.
I said hello to the husky dog lazily guarding the office door of Get West Adventure Cruises, the business that runs the Uchuck III. Off to the right there was a log sorting station where heavy machinery was separating logs into piles according to type of wood in advance of them being hauled by truck into Campbell River. Some logs were dumped back into the inlet. This was all that was left of the pulp and paper mill that shut down in 1998.
A few men walked along the wooden planks of the small marina, where two tall modern sloops were in contrast to the stocky silver water taxis. The tug Malaspina Straits bobbed up and down next to its neighbour, Nanaimo Flyer. As I walked back to my motorcycle, I took note of the Air Nootka floatplane at a small dock. The Gold River-based business flies north regularly to Kyuquot as well as charters for those seeking an adventure beyond travel to Gold River.
My instinct was to try to get on a boat, or a plane and explore further, as this was the end of the asphalt. But it was time I got to my bed for the night in Qualicum Beach, a two hundred kilometre ride east.
Wait a minute! That meant I would get to ride the twists and turn of Highway 28 all over again!
With plans for future adventures on the MV Uchuck III or a seaplane filling my head, I got back on my Kawasaki KLR650 and rode east towards Campbell River. I had to call Wes Taylor and tell him about the joys of Highway 28. I knew it would make him feel better.
Buying a motorcycle. It sounds great doesn’t it? I have mixed feelings about it lately.
This past weekend I bought a 2010 BMW F650GS. I’d admired this de-tuned 798cc motorcycle for a while. I had seen it close up on several occasions, as it belonged to my friend and travel companion Mike Whitfield. Mike decided recently to retire from motorcycling.
For anyone who has read Nearly 40 on the 37 or Zero Avenue to Peace Park you know how influential Mike has been to me. He was the one that convinced me to continue on my Stewart-Cassiar Highway adventure years ago. He was the one who kept reminding me about the nature of adventure. Without him I may have turned around at Prince George…but I didn’t. After that trip there were Mount St. Helens and the Holberg Road on north Vancouver Island, two adventures I’ll never forget.
So, seeing his orange GS in my garage is a bit disconcerting. It’s with pride that I’ll ride it this weekend, but…it’s Mike’s bike!
I’ve received pleasant messages of support from friends reminding me that Mike would be glad to see the BMW in good hands, in the possession of someone who will take good care of it and ride it on other adventures.
Last weekend, Mike showed me the various features of the GS in his underground parking garage. There were features that blew my mind…like a fuel gauge! When ready I took it for several spins around the garage. Some clutch-throttle control exercises. Some sudden braking. Then it was time to exit into the world on Mike’s Bike.
It was raining. Pouring. I have to admit it affected my mood.
I’m planning a Saturday ride out to Iona Beach. I keep checking the weather forecast.
It’ll take a while to get used to riding Mike’s Bike. It’s a bike packed with memories of riding alongside my riding buddy…certainly for Mike who has ridden the GS all over the world.
It’s time to create some new memories.
Helen Kennedy looked over the bridge, peering down thoughtfully at the rushing waters of the Coquihalla River. New wooden planking and rails passed over original ties of the Kettle Valley Railway. Those ties had been in place for just over a hundred years.
“We’re standing between Tunnels 4 and 5,” the Operations Manager and Museum Curator at the Hope Visitor Centre said to orient me. “We’re functionally between Tunnels 3 and 4 though.”
She pointed to the tunnel we had just walked through, with a self-conscious smile.
“That tunnel there is actually two tunnels. These were built as the Quintette Tunnels. There are five of them. Although we still refer to this tunnel as Tunnel 5, as you walk through it seems like two tunnels. Just to confuse all of our visitors to the park,” she said with a laugh.
I came to what must amount to one of the greatest feats of engineering in British Columbia’s colonial history. I rode my Kawasaki KLR650 into the shaded roads of the community of Hope from the small town of Coalmont where I’d been early that morning to check out one of the stations of the Kettle Valley Railway, a now retired but extremely important railway. The KVR would effectively end in this place just east of Hope. The final challenge of building the railway would be overcome in this scenic place. Chief engineer Andrew McCulloch had no other alternative than to punch holes through the solid granite of Coquihalla Canyon over the hiss and mist coming from the violent current below. Tunnels would need to line up perfectly to allow the passage of a train. Just over a hundred years since the first train went through in 1916, Kennedy gave me a tour of the tunnels.
I asked why Hope was decided upon as the terminal for the Kettle Valley Railway.
“I think it was partly the politics of building a railway,” she told me. “What made more sense was, at Merritt, to go up through the Nicola Valley, connect with the CPR line up to the Spences Bridge area. That definitely made more geographic sense. But it was a bit more circuitous.”
But as is sometimes the case in a politically charged situation, the quickest distance between two points is a straight line, despite the fact that there are mountains in the way.
“Great Northern (Railway) and the CPR were really fighting to see who would be fastest,” she told me as she gestures two fists coming together. “It was a lot faster to come from Merritt straight to Hope. And then at Hope cross the river. The CPR line came through there. As the crow flies, it was faster.”
So engineers had to move mountains, in a manner of speaking.
Once we were across the bridge, Kennedy called my attention to the cliff face to the right of Tunnel 4…or 3. Anyway, you get the idea.
“They would build ladders up the side of a cliff,” Kennedy pointed out. “Typically Chinese labourers. It would be the worst of the jobs. They would light a fuse, scramble down the ladder and hope to get far enough away before it blasted.”
Then it would be a matter of using hand shovels, pick axes and pack animals to chip and haul away until a tunnel remained.
“I like to say they did it with magic,” Kennedy told me with a wistful look, then looking back and scanning the cliff face and tunnel path. “I can’t imagine using anything as imprecise as dynamite to create such precise measurements in tunnels. They’re not much bigger than a train I don’t think,” she exclaimed with a laugh.
And to test out her observations we walked the length of the path. Some of the tunnels are jagged, still demonstrating the rugged fashion in which they were hacked from the solid granite of the mountains. Kennedy believed it would have been terrifying to meet these tunnels on a train. There really doesn’t seem to be much more than a few inches of clearance to spare from a casual scan of the edges.
The Kettle Valley Railway was abandoned in 1961. A major washout in 1959, as well as the opening of the Crowsnest Highway, spelled certain doom for the engineering marvel. In the 1980s the tunnels were rediscovered and prepared for visitors. May 15th, 1986 saw the opening of Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park, a place focused on a section of the Kettle Valley Railway bound to generate awe and wonder in anyone.
I had spent the morning wondering if I would be riding on pavement or gravel.
My map showed a yellow line for the Coalmont Road. Yellow indicates a secondary road. Sometimes that’s the asphalt less travelled and sometimes it’s offroad. I was about to find out as I visited one of British Columbia’s most interesting not-quite-a-ghost-town towns.
Coalmont is nineteen kilometres north west of Princeton. British Columbia. It’s by the Tulameen River, traditionally a placer mining hotspot. There aren’t many rich deposits left though. A hundred years ago or more you’d find prospectors pulling their packhorses or donkeys across wooden bridges spanning the river. Many would be spending their days panning for gold. Coalmont was also near a significant resting place for coal. And as a result, when the railway came through town starting in 1911, it became the equivalent of a fuel stop.
As I snaked my way along the Tulameen on the Coalmont Road, ponderosa pine and modest homes made way for open scrub as I descended the curves into the Tulameen Valley on cracked pavement. My introduction to Coalmont was via two aging and eccentric signs warning against undesirables coming into town, especially magazine and encyclopedia salesmen.
I met a man with shock white hair, full white beard and sporting sunglasses who was minding two Chihuahuas and holding a kitten. He welcomed me to Coalmont, full-time population of twenty souls. This is where the Kettle Valley Railway, otherwise called the Coast to Kootenay Railway, rumbled through on its way to Hope or Midway.
Further down the dusty road I came to the intersection of Coalmont & Parrish, where I found, almost looking like it did on opening day, the CPR-red Coalmont Hotel. It opened in 1912 with the expectation it would service rail travellers for decades to come. The hotel was closed on my visit. It is now sporadically operated it would seem.
I heard a familiar engine’s rumble. I was soon shaking hands with the driver of an all-terrain vehicle, Ralph. He was enjoying camping at the Granite Creek Recreation Site with family. It would seem many come from the Metro Vancouver area to camp along the Tulameen or a kilometre north of Coalmont at Otter Lake Provincial Park.
It would seem Coalmont’s locomotive travellers have been replaced with the outdoor adventure kind. The local Mozey-On-Inn boasts panning trips along the Tulameen and campers can find canoeing opportunities and rainbow trout fishing at Otter Lake.
I rode out along the dusty, twisty and broken pavement of Coalmont Road and climbed out of the Tulameen Valley in the bright noonday sun, keen to see the Othello Tunnels in Coquihalla Canyon.