Tuesday, June 09, 2015


East of Vancouver is a city called Hope, beyond which there isn't much. A hundred years ago, in 1915, a new railway followed the valley of the Kettle River and ventured into the craggy granite mountains and deep ravines of Similkameen Country to serve the burgeoning silver mining communities.

Twenty years ago I backpacked seventy kilometres along the bed of the now extinct Kettle Valley Railway, from Brodie junction, where it breaks away from today's Coquihalla Highway, to Princeton. It was a formative moment in my life as a young man in his early twenties learning about his independence, and I have ever since wanted to return to hike the rest.

The terrain was treacherous for the railway, especially crossing the Coquihalla summit. The steep mountain challenged rail's two per cent grade limit to reach the 1200-metre summit, and the line was regularly blockaded in winter by avalanches and mud slides. By the 1960s, the number of incidents that closed the Kettle Valley Railway for weeks at a time was breaking the back of the line's finances and it was shut down.

The highway I'm now on obliterated the Coquihalla section when it was built over the top of the abandoned KVR in the 1980s. My ears are popping as the bus hauls itself up the mountain. Dense forests of white spruce concede the altitude to stands of black hemlock which disappear into an early June mist engulfing the rocky mountain tops.

I remember driving this road in winter in my youth when I had held a drivers licence for only a year or two. It was white-out conditions. I crawled up a hill of black ice at 10 k's an hour at night with a visibility of maybe ten metres, the headlights reflecting bright on a wall of falling snow, everything black beyond. Standard stuff for the Coquihalla.

I was once picked up hitch-hiking by an old bloke who used to jump the rails of the KVR in the 1920s, looking for work in towns along the line. That was common then. Young men would sneak aboard the box cars when the train was at a slow roll, evading the rail guards and their truncheons.

The railway seems to have a history of forming young men. But as a not-so-young man anymore, I am preparing to hike the line from the other direction—a one-hundred kilometre distance from Rock Creek to McCulloch—and then mountain-bike the spectacular mountainside section of tunnels and trestles through Myra Canyon, a thousand metres above Lake Okanagan.

I bet it still has the power to form, and perhaps reform, men.

No comments: