The Kettle Valley Trail: Myra Canyon

October 1, 2016

over-the-hill-toc
The sun was close to the horizon as the eastern reaches of Kelowna came into view far down the slopes. The sky carried both the threat of rain and the promise of a beautiful sunset, depending on which way the clouds might move. And just ahead were the Myra Canyon trestles – eighteen famous wooden bridges which conducted the Kettle Valley Railway trains around the rim of the Myra Canyon, which now make this the most spectacular and most visited section of southern British Columbia’s rail trail system.

Satellite map showing approach to Myra Canyon from the east, and road down to Kelowna at the west end of Myra Canyon.

Satellite map showing approach to Myra Canyon from the east, and road down to Kelowna at the west end of Myra Canyon.

I still had 37 kilometers to ride if I chose to make it to downtown Kelowna that night. But it was easy to see that a good part of the trip would be downhill.

View from Kettle Valley Rail Trail of eastern outskirts of Kelowna, including airport.

View from Kettle Valley Rail Trail of eastern outskirts of Kelowna, including airport.

It wasn’t long before I arrived at the eastern trailhead for the Myra Canyon trail – a busy parking lot full of hikers and bikers packing into cars and SUVs for the ride home. As I continued towards the first trestle I noticed that the trail surface here was smooth and well-maintained, and that there were still lots of other bikers and walkers in spite of the late-afternoon hour.

An unfortunate fact is that all eighteen trestles are located in one 18-kilometer stretch of trail, so that this ride seemed to fly by in a flash. Or, a fortunate fact is that all eighteen trestles are located in one 18-kilometer stretch of trail, so that I was able to ride to the trailhead at the far side of the canyon in the last hour of sunlight.

If I lived in the Kelowna area, no doubt I would ride this trail many times. But since I’m unlikely to have the chance to visit more than once, I’m glad to have this slideshow from my ride (accompanied here by an excerpt from “Everybody Slides” by the late great dobro player Mike Auldridge).

Now Kelowna and Okanagan Lake were clearly in view, but there was no way of knowing how easy it might be to find my way to downtown in failing light.

Twilight view of Kelowna from Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

Twilight view of Kelowna from Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

Little White Service Road was my route from the west end of Myra Canyon to Kelowna – and though this is a two-lane road open to cars and trucks it’s a very rough ride. In a little over 4 kilometers before Little White Service Road meets pavement at June Springs Road, you drop over 400 meters at a 9% grade. On smooth pavement with wide-radius curves this grade would mean you could fly along at 50 or 60 kph. But on a rough gravel road with many sharp turns, it means you get off the saddle and put all your weight on the pedals so your legs can act as shock-absorbers, thrust your butt back over the rear wheel to keep balance, and squeeze the brake levers as hard as you can, roughly every five seconds, to keep your speed under control.

But soon enough I was cruising down the pavement through orchard country, sniffing the scent of ripe apples in the moist late evening air.

It was well after dark when I reach the shore of Okanagan Lake and found a motel near Okanagan College. I had a real surprise when I got off my bike: my left ankle was swollen and throbbing and I could hardly walk. Apparently that ankle had suffered some damage when I fell on a rocky section of the Kettle Valley Trail a few hours earlier. But through the past 40 kilometers – the most thrilling 40 kilometers of riding since I crossed the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park – I had been quite oblivious to the detail of a small sprain.

Ah well, I had a first-aid kit in my pack, and now I had the satisfaction of knowing I hadn’t carried that first-aid kit along for nothing. As soon as I wrapped the ankle snugly in an elastic wrap it started to feel better, and most of the pain was gone by morning.

Sunday morning, October 2nd was sunny and calm, and it warmed my heart to know that my bike ride was over, and there was nothing more pressing than exploring the flat neighbourhoods of downtown Kelowna and gazing across the lake at mountains I did not intend to climb.

Looking west across Okanagan Lake from a small waterfront park in Kelowna

Looking west across Okanagan Lake from a small waterfront park in Kelowna

Top photo: a view across Myra Canyon from one of the eighteen trestles in this section of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

The Kettle Valley Trail: Carmi to McCulloch

September 30 – October 1, 2016

over-the-hill-tocWhen I began to plan my trip the Kettle Valley Rail Tail was the prime item on my itinerary, and now that I had arrived at Mile 0 of the trail, I had also decided that the KVRT would be the last leg of my ride.

Having heard from several experienced riders about the trail conditions, and having ridden a good chunk of the adjoining Columbia & Western trail, I was content to travel only a small portion of the 600 kilometers of rail trail in this part of BC.

These trails can be slow going with a fully-loaded touring bike. In addition, for a rider like me who grew up in the prairies, the trails’ frequently constricted field of view, with a wall of new-growth trees on either side, often felt claustrophobic.

But I didn’t want to miss one spectacular stretch of the Kettle Valley Trail just outside of Kelowna, where the trail crosses 18 trestles as it makes its way around the rim of Myra Canyon.

So I set out from Midway – Mile 0 of the Kettle Valley Rail and right on the US/Canada border – on Friday September 30, headed northwest towards Kelowna. The plan was to ride west on BC 3 (the Crowsnest Highway), turn north on BC 33, and switch over to the Kettle Valley Trail soon after.

From Rock Creek north to Carmi, both the Kettle Valley Trail and BC Highway 33 stay close to the Kettle River.

From Rock Creek north to Carmi, both the Kettle Valley Trail and BC Highway 33 stay close to the Kettle River.

That was the plan, but the wind blew. Not just any wind, but a tail-wind. The day was sunny and warm, I was riding straight north, and the wind was straight out of the south – the best tail-wind I’d had for the whole trip. So I stayed on the pavement until early afternoon, by which time I’d ridden 80 km to Carmi and spotted a roadside restaurant where I could enjoy a late lunch.

Sign marking the former Carmi station and trailhead.

Sign marking the former Carmi station and trailhead.

Just north of Carmi the Kettle Valley Rail Trail takes a sharp turn away from the highway, starting the long slow climb up to the rim of Myra Canyon. The sun was still warm as I made my way up this trail, adjusting to the very different pace required to dodge rocks and loose sand after cruising on the highway with the wind at my back all morning.

krv-north-of-carmi

I stopped to make camp when my odometer read 98 km for the day. I would have liked to make it an even 100, but I had seen very few flat spots big enough to pitch a tent and lay out my air mattress. So when I came to this wide spot on the trail I figured I’d better settle down for the night.

Campsite along Kettle Valley Rail Trail north of Carmi.

Campsite along Kettle Valley Rail Trail north of Carmi.

The sky had clouded over as the sun sank low, and soon after dark a light rain started. It was the first time on the trip that my tent was tested by steady rain, so I tossed and turned nervously until I was sure no seams were leaking. Once I was confident I would stay dry the patter of soft rain became a perfect lullaby.

After breakfast and coffee in the morning I set off, hoping I would find a water source soon. This countryside was very dry, so when I came to a pond I filled a couple of water bottles just in case I didn’t find anything better. The pond’s resident Castor Canadensis made sure I didn’t forget about the possibility of beaver fever (Giardiasis), and I was glad I had a stove to boil water, plus chemicals to treat the water.

Castor Canadensis

Castor Canadensis

Within the hour I came to a much more convenient water source. The Arlington Lakes campground is right along the trail. The lake water there still needed to be treated to be safe for drinking, but it was much less murky than the water from the beaver pond, and there was a picnic table to sit at while I boiled water and enjoyed a second breakfast.

The campsite was waking up by then and a veritable symphony of internal combustion instruments filled the air. Each resident family appeared to have at least one four-wheel drive pickup, a camping trailer, a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle, a dirt bike, and a gas-powered generator. The crew that built the rail line 110 years ago could only have dreamt of the horsepower that was present in that one campground.

For the rest of the day I rode northwest along the trail, glancing often at the heavy clouds moving around the sky. It was my plan to camp for another night along the trail before riding the Myra Canyon leg and then down the mountain into Kelowna.

This timber retaining wall is all that stands between the trail and a steep upward slope.

This timber retaining wall is all that stands between the trail and a steep upward slope.

Just past Hydraulic Lake, my attention lapsed as I tried to ride through one of the many patches of loose rock and gravel – a spot where it would have been wiser to walk. My front wheel slid out and I went down hard on my left side. As I picked myself up I was pleasantly surprised to find that I hadn’t injured my hand or wrist, and the only really sore spot seemed to be a big bruise on one calf.

One of those frequent but short stretches of the trail where it makes sense to walk rather than ride.

One of those frequent but short stretches of the trail where it makes sense to walk rather than ride.

This first fall of the trip might have indicated I was getting tired and should stop for the night. But I could catch glimpses of Kelowna in the distance far below. Heavy clouds still filled half the sky but the sun was shining just ahead, and the first of the Myra Canyon trestles was only a few kilometers away.

The late afternoon light would make for a great view of the Canyon – perhaps better than anything I’d enjoy in the morning – and I might make it down the hill into the city before it got really dark. After one last look at the map, I got back on the bike and headed for Kelowna.

Hydraulic Lake near McCulloch Station

Hydraulic Lake near McCulloch Station

Top photo: the late afternoon sun breaks through the clouds between Carmi and Myra Canyon.

Log booms on the Columbia River west of Castlegar

Columbia & Western Rail Trail

September 27–28, 2016

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About 125 years ago gold and copper were discovered in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia and a fury of railroad building ensued. In part this was a simple matter of providing rail access to new mines. But the construction was also motivated by fear of US annexation of this remote territory: Canadians realized that if American companies were the first to lay rails into this area, US expansionism might result in a redrawn border.

The result was a series of ambitious projects which connected new towns – Castlegar, Grand Fords, Midway, Keremos, Osooyos and Pencticton – with the Pacific coast via the Vancouver Victoria & Eastern Railway.

Nearly all the track is gone now, but what remains is an extensive system – roughly 600 km including the many spurs – of rail trails. These trails, including the Columbia & Western and the Kettle Valley rail trails, are now part of the nationwide Trans Canada Trail network.

In planning my trip through this area I learned that trail conditions vary widely, from hard-packed gravel to loose sand to fields of shattered stone that has washed down from blasted rock cuts. Forest fires have destroyed some of the wooden trestles, not all of which have been rebuilt, and some tunnels have caved in. The upshot is that a cyclist planning to bike these trails needs to keep a flexible itinerary.

On September 27 I set out from Mile 0 on the Columbia & Western Rail trail, along the Lower Arrow Lake section of the Columbia River on the outskirts of Castlegar.

Map of northeastern sections of Columbia & Western trail, via Columbia and Western Trail Society website. Click here for interactive version of map.

Map of northeastern sections of Columbia & Western trail, via Columbia and Western Trail Society website. Click here for interactive version of map.

My goal was to ride the trail at least as far as the former Paulson Station. (The adjective “former” applies to all stations shown on the above map. There are no longer any settlements or stations, and very few road crossings, along this route.)

At least I wouldn’t face any steep grades. In common with most railways, the Columbia & Western was routed to avoid any grades steeper than about 2%.

Elevation profile of Columbia & Western railway.

Elevation profile of Columbia & Western railway.

Starting at Castlegar and biking west my first 43 kilometers would be uphill – but the steepest grade would be 2.2%. It was slow going – maintaining a speed of 10 kph was hard work – but that was mostly because of the many patches of loose gravel. For the first 20 kilometers the trail hugged the shore of Lower Arrow Lake, and I could only tell that I was going uphill by the fact that the log booms on the lake gradually grew more distant.

By then I had to think about replenishing my water supply, and the only creeks I saw were trickles at the bottom of steep canyons, viewed from trestles far above. Fortunately I passed more than one good spring, tapped by pipes that emerged from rock faces.

A spring water tap beside the Columbia & Western trail.

A spring water tap beside the Columbia & Western trail.

And traffic? The Trails BC website warns that “You will almost certainly encounter motorized vehicles along the route, particularly ATVs and dirt bikes, which could be travelling at high speeds. Over the years, unregulated motorized use has degraded the trail surface along the Columbia & Western, making many areas quite challenging for hikers and cyclists.”  But I met a grand total of two ATVs in 24 hours, plus two other cyclists. I met those two cyclists three times in two days, as they did out-and-back rides from different trailheads.

George and Anne Clark were the only cyclists I met in 60 km – but we met at three different places.

George and Anne Clark were the only cyclists I met in 60 km – but we met at three different places.

Anne and George came by just after I had replenished my water supply at a spring and I had settled down next to a rail cart to make coffee. Thanks to Anne for snapping the photo below.

Break time at Railside Cafe. Click for closeup.

Break time at Railside Cafe. Click for closeup.

It was late afternoon when I reached Bulldog Tunnel – at 912 meters, the longest tunnel in the BC rail trail system. Not only is it long but it is curved, so as you head west there is no “light at the end of the tunnel” for most of the way. I had been told that a recent collapse here had been repaired days before through the installation of new support beams – but still, my pulse sped up just a bit as I mounted a light on my helmet and pedaled into the darkness.

Almost immediately I found I was riding through big puddles, and then through loose rock. A shard of stone bounced up and got caught between my spokes, then made a horrible crunch as it hit the fender. Now each revolution of the wheel made a loud grating noise. What a great place for the first mechanical breakdown of the trip! By the light of my headlamp I couldn’t tell where the noise was coming from or how to fix it – and I wasn’t sure how long my lamp would stay on before the battery weakened. It did help to flip the cable loose on my front brake – I didn’t need brakes inside the tunnel anyway – and then I walked the rest of the way through.

When I emerged into the late afternoon sun I was delighted to find a convenient camp site. The picnic shelter shown below was under construction, and was just a netting of reinforcing rod in a square excavation. But there was an outhouse, a reasonably flat spot beside the trail to pitch my tent on, and a picnic table where I could sit for supper as well as to unload my bike and fix my front wheel.

Campsite at Bulldog Tunnel. The picture at left is from the Columbia & Western Facebook page, showing the new shelter which was built a few days after I passed through.

Campsite at Bulldog Tunnel. The picture at left is from the Columbia & Western Facebook page, showing the new shelter which was built a few days after I passed through.

In the morning after I’d prepared oatmeal and coffee it was time to get some more water, and I knew there was a spring just 900 meters away – back at the other end of the tunnel.

This through-the-tunnel-and-back water-carrying hike was also an opportunity for gadget-play. I rigged a GoPro camera on my helmet, mounted a light high enough to shine over the camera, used another camera to record some sounds, and then tried a time-elapse video of the trip. The light flashed a “battery low” warning about half way through and I had to switch to a lower light setting – but the light didn’t give out. Here’s a glimpse of what it’s like walking through Bulldog Mountain.

 

My second day on the trail was much easier than the first. I had only 12 kilometers left of the uphill section to Farron Summit.

At 1200 meters, Farron Summit is the highest elevation point of the Columbia & Western. (Click here for enlargement of sign.)

At 1200 meters, Farron Summit is the highest elevation point of the Columbia & Western. (Click here for enlargement of sign.)

The downhill stretch from Farron to Paulson was an easy ride, but when I got to the first intersection between the Columbia & Western and the Crowsnest Highway (BC 3) I was ready to get back onto pavement. Much of the paved route was downhill too, and what a difference a paved surface makes! While I had been flying along at the breakneck speed of 18 kph in the loose gravel of the trail, on the highway I soon came to long hills I could coast down at 45 or 50.

First I passed Christina Lake, then I met the Kettle River and followed it downhill to Grand Forks. While I had spent a day and half biking 60 km of trail from Castlegar to Paulson, the 50 km to Grand Forks on the highway took only a couple of hours.

Christina Lake, viewed from BC 3, the Crowsnest Highway.

Christina Lake, viewed from BC 3, the Crowsnest Highway.

Top photo: log booms in the Lower Arrow Lake section of the Columbia River, seen from the Columbia & Western Rail Trail.

 

Topaz Creek, on the west side of Kootenay Pass along the Crowsnest Pass in BC.

A Tale of Two Passes

September 25–26, 2016

over-the-hill-tocWhen I biked over the Going To The Sun road in Glacier National Park at the beginning of my journey, I thought I had faced the most difficult climb of the trip. My first day on the Crowsnest Highway showed that I really should do better research.

Leaving Creston, BC, I knew I had about an 85 km to ride to get to Salmo, and I knew there would be a mountain pass along the route. But the mapping app on my iPad didn’t show elevation profiles, and the first couple of hours of riding just contributed to complacency.

First I crossed the wide Kootenay River valley, then started climbing at an easy pace. I cruised for a long time thinking, “this road is great, it’s almost like a rail trail! With such a gentle incline, I feel like I could climb all day!” But after about 25 kilometers of this easy climb it wasn’t feeling so easy any more.

With the benefit of hindsight and a better mapping app, I now realize that I had picked a very bad time to get tired.

The elevation profile shows a 1238 meter (4061 feet) gain in elevation, from the Kootenay River up to the point where the road reaches its highest point and starts down the other side. This is almost twice the elevation gain I had struggled with on the visually spectacular but comparatively gentle Going To The Sun road.

Elevation profile of Kootenay Pass climb, east side, on BC Highway 3 (Crowsnest Highway)

Elevation profile of Kootenay Pass climb, east side, on BC Highway 3 (Crowsnest Highway)

But the biggest part of this climb happens in the final 12 kilometers – that is, after the point at which I realized I was getting tired.

Final section of climb to Kootenay Pass, east side.

Final section of climb to Kootenay Pass, east side.

While I had climbed 590 meters over 25 kilometers, I had to finish by climbing 648 meters over 12 kilometers. The air temperature dropped from about 7°C at valley bottom in the morning, to about 4°C near the pass. There was no rain or sleet, nor was there any sunshine, just a damp breeze that seemed to cut right through my jacket, rain pants, wool jersey and tights, which were damp with sweat long before I stopped climbing.

The road curved endlessly, never affording a long view forward or backward, so I couldn’t gain any sense of how far up I had come or how far I still needed to go. Each .1 km – the smallest increment on my odometer – marked a pathetic, hard-won victory. At last I had to admit that as I was only biking at 6 kph, and even then stopping for a rest at least twice per kilometer, I might as well get off and walk.

Pushing the loaded bike up the hill was slower than pedaling it, but barely – I managed 5 kph as a pedestrian. “A change is as good as a rest”, some say – and after walking for a kilometer I was able to get back on and pedal with slightly renewed vigour.

Shortly after getting back on the bike I rounded an embankment and came to the most wonderful sign a weary cyclist will see: “Check your brakes, 600 m”. It was just over half a kilometer to the top! So it turned out that the kilometer I had walked was the second-to-last kilometer in the climb.

There is a small pond at the pass, and a cook-shelter at a trailhead for Stag Leap Provincial Park, whose primary role is to provide sanctuary for the dwindling numbers of woodland caribou. I sat down just long enough to eat an energy-rich snack, pull out the last layer of wool clothing from my panniers and put that on underneath my rain suit. And then I pushed off, hoping I’d get no colder than I already felt.

Just a couple of kilometers down, I rounded a curve to see a small group of Bighorn Sheep standing in the middle of the road. They jumped a concrete barrier and started climbing an almost-vertical rock face as I rolled by. Though I briefly considered stopping, struggling with my over-tight gloves, getting my camera out, and trying to get some pictures, that would have meant going back uphill a little ways. No way was I reversing course! – it could have been the Sasquatch scrambling up that cliff, and still I wouldn’t have gone back up the hill to take a photograph.

Thirty kilometers later when I reached the valley floor it was sunny and 18°C. I was still wearing three long-sleeved wool shirts and two pairs of wool tights under a full rain suit, and I was still cold. It was only after I had pedaled for a half hour on level ground, at the outskirts of Salmo, that I took off my wool hat, gloves, and rain suit.

Finding a warm and cozy shelter was first priority, and the Reno Motel more than fit the bill. The 1950s-era motel looked like it had never been renovated – just like me!

The room had a fridge, microwave, and original art on the walls. The guest services booklet in my room also had a long writeup of the Kootenay Pass from a cyclist’s perspective – including the news that I could have avoided the climb altogether by going north from Creston and taking a free ferry across Kootenay Lake.

But it was pure luxury to soak in the deep claw-foot bathtub, and my dinner of tinned soup was special, served in such a cheerful bowl.

Soup bowls with soup.

Fine dining at the Reno Motel.

September 26, 2016

While the Kootenay Pass nearly finished me off, the next day’s climb over Bombi Summit seemed almost too easy to be true.

About halfway between Salmo and Castlegar, the Bombi Summit is at 1214 meters above sea level (compared to the Kootenay Pass at 1775 meters). As I pedaled uphill I didn’t realize my climb would only be half as big as the previous day’s climb, and it was a beautiful warm sunny day besides. When I saw the “check your brakes, 600 meters” sign I couldn’t believe I was really at the top of the hill already – perhaps, I feared, I’d go down a short steep hill and then start climbing all over again.

sign warning "Steep Grades Ahead"

Yet the “Steep Grades Ahead” showed 7 km of steady downhill, so I had finished the climb before breaking into a serious sweat. This mountain riding can be a breeze!

A sign detailed the proper procedures for truckers:

Brake Check Advisory sign.

I couldn’t help but notice the omission of any procedures for bicyclists, so I took the liberty of adding a few lines:

Check Your Brakes sign including procedures for cyclists.

Check Your Brakes sign including procedures for cyclists.

The road downhill was smooth and wide, and it wasn’t long before Castlegar appeared in the distance. By early afternoon I crossed the Kootenay River near its juncture with the Columbia and rolled through downtown Castlegar.

That night I was hosted by a Warmshowers member just across the Columbia from Castlegar. Richard proved to an exceptionally knowledgeable cyclist as well as a great gardener and cook. He shared lots of information about the Columbia & Western and Kettle Valley rail trails, which were next on my itinerary. To our delight we were also joined that night by a Spanish cyclist who was nearing the end of a cross-Canada bike ride.

Pablo Pedroche, Richard Roussy and yours truly in Robson, BC, near the Columbia River.

Pablo Pedroche, Richard Roussy and yours truly in Robson, BC, near the Columbia River.

Twilight falls on the Columbia River.

Twilight falls on the Columbia River.

Top photo: Topaz Creek, along Crowsnest Highway on the east side of Kootenay Pass.

Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

In the Valley of the Kootenai

September 24, 2016

over-the-hill-tocThanks to the generosity of my hosts from Warmshowers.org, on my single night in Idaho I met several cycling enthusiasts in what was clearly a very warm and friendly community of outdoor enthusiasts, and they happily shared some of their favourite biking routes.

So when I left Bonners Ferry, Idaho on a sunny Saturday morning, I headed not to the highway but to a meandering gravel road that would take me through the lowlands of the Kootenai River valley.

This road led me first around the southern and western edges of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, passing wheat fields, cattle pastures and a large hops farm, before winding back to the east across the Kootenai River, where I would turn onto the highway north to Canada. Since the major highway route from Bonners Ferry to my next stop, Creston, BC was less than 60 kilometers, my more circuitous route would round out an easy day by adding another 16 km.

A small creek flows towards the Kootenai at the southwest corner of Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.

A small creek flows towards the Kootenai at the southwest corner of Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Wheat farm west of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

Wheat farm west of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

 

Quad wheel tractor pulling sprayer.

The traffic was sparse but sometimes it was heavy.

Wetlands in Kootenai River valley.

Extensive wetlands make this an important area for migrating birds.

Just north of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge is Budweiser Loop, the site of an intensive hops operation owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Kootenai Valley hops farm owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Kootenai Valley hops farm owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Where the valley-bottom road crosses the Kootenai River before heading uphill to the highway, I stopped for an early-afternoon picnic lunch.

Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

My afternoon’s itinerary included riding the entire length of Idaho State Highway 1 – all 20 km of it. That would take me to the US/Canada border, where the Kootenai River mysteriously transforms into another stream with a different name. (Don’t ask me y.)

Relief map of Kootenay River system

Map of the Kootenai watershed and portion of Columbia watershed, adapted from map by Shannon1 and published under GNU Free Documentation License at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kootenayrivermapnew.png

Although I would return to this spell-shifting river several times over the next few days, my brief rest on the flatlands was quickly drawing to a close. When I pedaled in to Creston that afternoon, there were just 500 meters of road between me and my destination for the night – and that half a kilometer was on a 10% uphill grade.