Kettle River Valley Railroad – Making Tracks in BC
This was the real deal: the Kettle Valley Railroad and the Trans Canada Trail, all rolled into two days on two wheels. Well, not all of it. There’s more to be discovered, but it will have to wait for another weekend.
August 18~ August 20, 2006
Total Miles: 685 miles, 3 days
Seattle, WA to Summerland, BC
Once again Doug asked the unnecessary question: “Want to go riding this weekend?” It was a silly question indeed. I changed my original plans because Doug specifically dangled an enticing carrot in front of me: the Kettle Valley Railroad (KVR). I have wanted to take this converted railroad bed trail for a year now but had trouble finding sufficient resources on just where it was and where it went. Doug had been on part of it recently and was up for exploring more of it. We made arrangements to meet Friday night and get an early start to our weekend.
I left work as early as I could, but it still took me 2 hours to get the first 23 miles out of Seattle. Eventually traffic cleared up enough for me to start putting real miles under my wheels. I rolled up the 5 until I hit Bellingham and then took the “smelly but scenic” route through dairy country and the border crossing at Sumas. From there it was a quick zip over the Crowsnest along BC’s southern border and in to Hope. I arrived on time (due to leaving an hour early and despite the traffic) and found Doug already there. We hashed out some vague plans for the next day, gathered up some munchies for dinner and kicked back and relaxed for the evening.
Saturday morning dawned bright and cool and we packed the bikes for our ride on the KVR. Unfortunately, despite asking our waitress at breakfast for direction we still didn’t know exactly where it started. We tried a couple of side roads outside of Hope but to no avail. The clerk at the local gas station was helpful and we discovered that we weren’t more than two miles from the start of the trail.
The Kettle Valley Railroad is a discontinued rail line where the rails and ties have been removed and the surface graded. Trestles had been retrofitted with planking for a smooth surface and there is some maintenance performed to clear up slides. Its primary use is for bicyclists and pedestrians, with horses and motorized vehicle sometimes tolerated. Our first event of the day was to get around the gate that blocked our way. There was a bit of space on one side, just before the hill dropped away to the river below, where it looked like we might get the GSs through. It took some maneuvering in order to get the bikes around the tight corner created by the gate post, the rocks and the hill, but we both managed to get around. Nirvana was before us! The trail was smooth, hard-packed dirt shaded by a canopy of trees. We rode casually along the trail for two miles before coming up to a second gate. This one was positioned so that there was no possible way to get the bikes around it, although they might have fit under it if we laid them on their sides and dragged them along. That wasn’t going to happen, so we retreated back to the first gate, where we had to back the bikes around the gate in the same manner we got them around the first time. What an inglorious start to the trip!
Working our way around the gate
The beginning of the Kettle Valley Railroad trail in Hope
Trail outside of Hope
Perfect trail riding!
Blocked by the second gate
We stopped at the Visitor’s Center in Hope only to learn that there are no motorized vehicles allowed on this portion of the KVR. Sure, other areas may allow it, but the girl at the Visitor’s Center only knew about their portion. Doug and I left and headed northeast on the Coquihalla Highway. The road was fast and it didn’t take us long to crest the Pass and pay the toll before Doug darted off on the exit to Larson Hill. I was surprised when the paved road led down to a wooden bridge over a shallow river. This, apparently, was the KVR.
The surface was for the most part loose gravel that had been pushed away from two wheel ruts. Staying in one rut or the other was the safest option, less you get your front wheel caught in the mass of loose rocks in the middle or side. Because it is an old railroad bed, the grades were gradual and the corners were never sharp or surprising. The trail was also very straight for a long time. But the variety of scenery viewed from the Kettle Valley Railroad was spectacular! I passed through farms from deep within the acreage, cows and hay bales dotting the fields. Farmers were out in the sunshine, adjusting irrigation lines or gathering up the hay. The forests that I passed through were close, sometimes branches reached out to smack my shoulder or helmet. The raw rock that had been dynamited through still lay in piles, some of it freshly fallen onto the trail.
One of the first trestles we came to had burned down in the forest fires that hit a few years ago. While there are plans to replace these trestles, they take time and money. As it was, side trails had been cleaved into the hillside to facilitate our negotiations around the missing structure. This particular trestle once spanned a roadway, and the ride down, while steep and on slippery dusty soil, was fairly easy. The ride back up, however, was a different story. It was also steep, but instead of slick dust, there were large loose rocks laid down as surface material. I watched Doug ride up and then convinced myself that if I just went for it and didn’t let up on the throttle that I could make it too. I made it halfway. I lost momentum; the bike dodged right (towards the edge) and then left before it went over on its side. I killed the engine quickly and looked up to see Doug watching me from 10’ above. He took pictures, naturally, and then came down to help me stand the bike up. No real damage was done and he rode it the rest of the way up the hill for me. His bike has been fitted with aggressive “knobby” tires that are designed to bite into the soil and give the bike traction. I had street-oriented tires that were designed for long life on smooth pavement. Doug commented on how much the knobbier tires helped his bike as compared to mine. Oh well, just one more thing to keep in mind when trying to keep up with him on the trail!
Burned out trestle
The trail leading to the missing trestle
Running behind the farmlands, the rail bed kept us behind the scenes of civilization for the most part. Then we came to a large lake that was peopled with kayaks, ski boats and beaches of picnic-goers. We had found Tulameen. With the temperature hovering in the mid eighties and the sun shining harshly on our black gear we felt it was fine time for a break. It was tough work riding on the trail, despite the easy look the pictures lend to it. Constantly shifting road conditions required sharp attention and gentle “hills” in the surface gave me a feeling that I can only relate as “riding a galloping horse for 10 miles”. I stood up on the pegs to absorb as much of the shock as possible, but the constant flexing of the arms and legs was tiring. The trail would occasionally cross over a farmer’s access road and create a more emphatic “bump”, which at one point led me to get both wheels off the ground for a moment.
The KVR through farmlands
Railroads generally go straight
Doug coming over a small trestle
At Tulameen we threw back some cold beverages and bought a nice book titled “BC Back Roads” or something like that. We checked out the local museum (yep, mining and lumber) before putting on our disgustingly damp gear and getting back on the bikes. We were headed out of the farmlands and into a narrow valley taken up by a cold river. Because of the steeper sidewalls there were many more piles of rocks and debris to circumvent or climb over. In general the trail was in very good shape, with only one spot that made me stop and look before proceeding over the pile of loose sand and rocks. The silvery green of the aspens, the red rocks and the blue river all joined in to provide me a palette of color as a background.
Coming into Tulameen
We arrived in Princeton and crossed through the town to pick up the trail again on the east side. I’m glad that Doug had scouted this all out earlier, as finding the trail was often very difficult. It frequently looked more like someone’s logging access road or some farm trail. But he got us on the right track (so to speak) and we were able to continue our adventure. From Princeton the trail crossed the main road many times as it gently climbed the hillside. Deep, loose gravel at the road approaches made it interesting to slow down to look for cross traffic while maintaining enough speed to get me through the gravel and onto the road bed. And if you’re not paying attention like I wasn’t at one point, all of that loose gravel can present quite a challenge to stop quickly. I realized at the last minute that the truck I saw was about to cross my path – and I wouldn’t win that argument. The bike slid to a stop at a slight angle and I was rather embarrassed as I watched the truck go by, the driver eyeing me because of my sudden stop. There were also a number of gates to go through in this area, each one required a stop, dismount, opening of the gate, pulling the bike through and closing the gate. And then repeat for the gate on the other side of the road. Doug and I worked together for this, with me opening the gate for him and then him closing it after me.
Even with all of these “hazards”, the trail bed was usually firm and easy to ride. I found that I could maintain a comfortable speed of 35mph. The turns were gentle and predictable and I found myself taking them at the same speed as the rest of the trail.
Gentle grades past Princeton
Doug coming up the hill
Views east of Princeton
The open grasslands of this area gave way to a rising grade and the trees closed in. A wide, fertile valley fell away to the right as the rail bed hugged the mountainside on my left. We had been through a couple of tunnels already, but this one was unique in the raw rock face that was left to frame it. A slight trail to the right of the tunnel was very narrow and full of half-buried rocks and tree stumps, something I found out about firsthand when Doug suggested that we ride back there to check out a cool potential campsite. Although it was fun (and truly a beautiful spot to camp) I think that bit of trail tested my limits of just how far I was willing to go “off road” with my GS.
View from the tunnel
Shortly after this tunnel we saw a sign that Doug had notice earlier: Cycle Inn. It was a Bed & Breakfast that catered to the bicycle-touring crowd that normally traipsed this way. We were now on the Trans Canada Trail, although I’m not quite sure where one ends and the other begins, or even if either of them truly “end”. Regardless, the B&B sign promised showers and camping, something both of us were looking forward to. Especially the “shower” part. It was still hot and the dust kicked up by our bikes had coated us with a fine layer of grit. There was a cross road at the sign, with the sign on the left, so we went left. We didn’t get more than 30yards down the road when we came upon a tree across the trail. Figuring that a B&B wouldn’t leave a tree blocking access, we turned around to go the other way. That’s when I sunk into the soft sand at the edge of the trail. Despite knowing how to get a vehicle unstuck from a snowdrift, I was unable to get the GS out of this situation. I was rather surprised when I realized that I could get off the bike and it still stood standing, hub-deep at the rear wheel in a soft loam. Doug and I pondered and pushed and rocked, but to no avail. We mutually agreed that the best way out would be to pull the bike onto its side, drag it away from the hole, put it back up and ride away. Easier said than done, but it was still quick. We were now heading the other direction from the Cycle Inn sign. This road was wider than the trail, but in much worse condition. Roots, rocks and ruts prevailed, as well as steep downgrades and tighter corners. We kept a vigilant eye out for the Cycle Inn for a couple of miles, only to find ourselves spit out onto a paved road at the bottom of the hill. We must have missed the Cycle Inn, or it was to the right, because we went to the left and followed the new, paved road around the Three Lakes area until we came to a restaurant/general store/cabin rental place. Doug and I agreed that it would be nice to get cleaned up and relax so we rented a cabin for the night, had a good hot shower and poured over more maps in anticipation of the next day’s ride.
Cabin for the night
There wasn’t an easy way to get to Merritt from where we were, and that is where we wanted to go. We has scouted out a number of back roads that may or may not have gotten us there, but in the end we caved in to the original plan: to take the KVR all the way east into Summerland. At first we were just going to follow the paved road into Summerland, but when it turned to gravel and we crossed over the KVR anyway we both agreed that the KVR was the way to go. I had a Harley rider scrutinize me as I followed Doug off the main gravel road onto the 6’ wide dirt track that appeared to lead no where, and I smiled inside my helmet as I imagined what he was thinking.
This section of the trail was very pleasant, with little scenery because of the close-in mountains, but always with the trees and sunshine. I could usually see the gravel road below us, knowing that I was having infinitely more fun where I was. By now my legs were starting to ache. We had done over 50 miles of dirt, most of them standing on the pegs and my legs constantly flexing. I looked for smooth areas so I could sit and ride for a bit, but then another bump would come along and I’d be up on my feet again. There were a few more trestles, one of them under construction, and then a final road crossing before we reached the last stretch into Summerland. The road crossing itself almost got me. Doug had said that it was coming up shortly, but I didn’t realize just how shortly! The road was preceded by a serious drainage channel cut alongside it before the trail swooped up onto the road surface. I had time to decide that I could probably make it, but I didn’t have time to see if any cars were coming. As the other side of the road neared I saw that an identical ditch was waiting for me, looking even more ferocious. I gassed it just as the bike was coming up the far side of the ditch and the bike responded beautifully. It was another perfect example of a great bike.
From here the trail did very little as far as elevation gain/loss and the bends were gentle but frequent. I was fortunate that this was the case because the road surface changed from hard-packed dirt to loose sand. I felt the change immediately in the way that the GS responded to the new conditions. My street-oriented tire slid around and the front end wobbled with every new ridge line and rut of sand. I dropped the pace down a notch (Doug was letting me lead for a while) and stood up for better control. Despite it being such a heavy bike it really did quite well on this unforgiving surface. I was jealous of Doug’s knobby tires but I knew that I was doing ok with what I had. Still, I was glad when we reached Summerland and the end of the sand.
Before the road crossing to Summerland
Looking towards Summerland
It was after noon and Doug had to be in Vancouver in time for the last ferry, another 300 miles away. We had two choices: stay south and take our time going over the 3 into Hope, or hightail it north, hitting the 8 from Merritt to Spences Bridge and then the Fraser River Canyon south to Hope. I wanted the northern route but left the decision up to Doug. After all, he was the one who had to catch a ferry. He said that he liked the challenge of it and we headed north towards Vernon, hopping on the 97C west bound over the cooler mountains. Our stop in Merritt was brief before we attacked the bliss that is route 8 from Merritt to Spences Bridge. Traffic was minimal, the heat was intense and the bikes performed flawlessly. We reached Spences Bridge in no time at all and then turned south to fight with weekend traffic along the Fraser River. At Lytton a friendly RCMP pulled us off to the side to suggest that we slow it down a bit, which we did for all of two miles or so before picking it up again. We reached Hope a short time later, where it was much cooler than the mid 90’s we had been traveling through for most of the afternoon.
Doug and I played with traffic on the Crowsnest while heading for Vancouver before I had to exit at Sumas to head home. I stayed on the 9 until Sedro-Wooly where I decided that the growing dusk would not mix well with the plethora of deer that inhabit that area. I jumped ship and rode the 5 the rest of the way into to Seattle, arriving well after dark but not too late to relax with the kitties.
Heading towards Summerland
Wildlife or dinner – you chose