In the late 1800s a gold rush engulfed the interior of southwestern Canada. However, to be worth the assayers' valuations, the precious metal and other mined commodities had to reach the Pacific coast. Great mountain ranges and deep river gorges stood in the way, and at that time, building the Kettle Valley line proved to be the most difficult and cost-intensive construction of a railway ever. It took 20 years to complete, and the first train ran in 1915.
By the '60s, new roads had taken precedence, leading to the decline of the railway. Wrecks were common in this hostile terrain, and the costs of maintaining the 600-kilometer line had skyrocketed. So, when the Canadian Pacific Railway finally tore up the tracks, the rail bed was reincarnated as a great trail crossing southern British Columbia. I've come to ride the best part of it, east to west, from Castlegar in the Kootenai Region to the Fraser Valley near Vancouver.
The sun is getting low, immersing the deep blue lake and surrounding mountains in beautiful orange light. A scenic spot by the shore makes the decision to set up camp an easy one. The water is much warmer than it looks, and I cannot imagine any greater joy than diving in right then, with this summer's day pushing the mercury into the nineties.
While pitching the tent, I suddenly hear a loud splash behind me. A beaver is fishing only a few yards away. As he drags his bounty onto a big tree trunk afloat in the lake I notice that I'm not the only one watching him. An eagle circles on high. The beaver, too busy feeding, is unaware of the danger. Waiting for one of nature's dramas to unfold, I am almost disappointed when nothing happens. Maybe I am too close for the big bird, or perhaps this type of fish isn't on the evening menu. Nonetheless, it is fascinating watching these creatures in wilderness that's only a mile from the town of Castlegar.
With a grade of two percent, the railway climbs slowly but steadily above Lower Arrow Lake. Squeezed into the narrow valley and 56 miles long, the water still has a much more sizeable distance to flow. The mighty Columbia River begins here and empties out at the Oregon coast a thousand miles away; and the views, getting better all the time, are especially stunning from the renovated trestles of the railway. The rail bed is cut into the steep, rocky mountain slope, and it is often held in place only by a series of engineering marvels, massive masonry retaining walls. The tunnels are something else too. After rolling through two smaller ones, I'm swallowed up in the black hole of the 3,000-foot-long Bullfrog Tunnel. Riding in nothing but darkness in the first part is an eerie feeling that almost causes me to lose my balance, and seeing the light at the end is a relief - even though it takes a while to reach it.
Backtracking, the Only Option
The long climb ends at Farron Pass. On the other side, a creek spoiled with beaver dams sluggishly meanders along the trail. Far above, Highway 3 spans the gorge in a wide, impressive arch. However, it doesn't look like I'll be getting up there anytime soon. The day is hot and I am already looking forward to a swim in Christina Lake in the valley below, but the huge washout in front of me is going to delay that pleasure. The trail has gone missing for more than 100 feet. I get off the bike and look around. Backtracking is the only option. Riding five miles the other way, I turn off the railway onto a forestry road that leads to the highway bridge and a spectacular crossing offering an eagle's perspective of the railway line.