September 27–28, 2016
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Top photo: log booms in the Lower Arrow Lake section of the Columbia River, seen from the Columbia & Western Rail Trail.