The International Selkirk Loop

The International Selkirk Loop
Here we are in Castlegar, Nelson can't be very far.

Climbing out of Castlegar on Highway 3, the view of British Columbia below is so captivating that I pull over to fully appreciate it. The Columbia River glistens in the afternoon sun like the chrome on the 2009 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic I'm riding. Dark stands of evergreens and bald clearcuts line the valley like a patchwork quilt, while the stubby outline of the city, its airstrip and sturdy bridge lie beyond. It's late September, and though the air is cool and fresh, the afternoon sun beams down from a cloudless azure sky as I begin the Selkirk Loop in Kootenay Country.

Thirty miles northeast is the Victorian town of Nelson, the regional seat of government. Nelson lacks land flat enough for a commercial airstrip, so Castlegar is Nelson's staging point. Hence the rhyming couplet above that the locals are fond of repeating. Except for much of the winter, the Columbia's humidity generates fog that lingers for days, trapped between the mountains.

My route to Nelson will take me through the hamlet of Salmo, once a railroad whistle-stop called "Salmon's Siding." I park under the splendid wooden verandah of the Salmo Hotel, first opened in 1865 - though the building on the site dates from 1912, four previous wooden structures each in the same spot had burned down. Here I connect with the International Selkirk Loop, where the Crowsnest Highway (one of three major routes through the Canadian Rockies) pauses before pushing on over the 7,000-foot Kootenay Pass.

In Norse mythology, Odin and his brothers created the world out of the body of Ymir, leader of a race of frost-giants. Why the tiny town of Ymir just north of Salmo bears his name is lost in time, but the town is famous for other reasons. The story goes that the hotel owners, hosts of an annual biker rally, branded the floor of the saloon with the Harley-Davidson bar-and-shield logo. Apparently, the Motor Company's lawyers were not amused.

Parking in the dirt lot across the street, I intend to check out this local biker legend to see if it's yet another Nordic myth. New owners who seem a bit anti-biker have completely refurbished the hotel. If the brand was ever there, it's long gone now.

Highway 3A swings through a wall of evergreens, shielding the sun. Something bikers know and drivers rarely appreciate is how cool the air can become around a stand of trees. This region of British Columbia has seen many boom-and-bust cycles in its 150 years or so of European habitation, and its economy has depended on railroad development, silver mining, and forestry.

Nelson was formerly the railhead where silver ore from nearby mines was transferred to railcars from the sternwheelers that plied Kootenay Lake. The ore then rolled south across the border into Washington for processing. Squeezed into a narrow valley alongside the Lake, Nelson's charming Victorian houses line a series of terraces that climb into the mountainside. Nelson, the Queen of the Kootenays, earned its regal moniker for the elegance of its streets and buildings during the silver days. Many of these buildings had their intricate fascias boarded over until a civic initiative in the 1970s, when the town reinvented itself as a tourist destination. Interestingly, the movie Roxanne that starred Steve Martin was shot there.

I park the Glide on Baker Street, the main drag, where patios edged with colorful flower boxes spread into the road, and coffee sippers bask in the late afternoon sun. Storefronts, many a century old or more, have been restored and are brightly painted. Nelson enjoyed a population boom in the 1970s as hippies (many dodging Uncle Sam's Vietnam draft) moved here - and never left. Subsequently, the town has a laid-back, slower-paced feel that I find very amenable.

I cross the big orange bridge, or BOB, as the locals say, to the north side of Kootenay Lake and ride the five miles or so to my overnight stop at Kokanee Glacier Resort just as the sun disappears into the mountains.