Spences Bridge and the Kettle River Valley
A quick weekend romp through British Columbia’s back roads. No real destination, no real plan and nothing to do but ride.
September 23 ~ September 25, 2005
Total Miles: 905 miles, 3 days
Seattle, WA to Spences Bridge to Vernon and back
Even though I left Seattle at an ungodly hour that morning I still wasn’t sure what time I’d reach Spences Bridge. I estimated that it was roughly a 4 ½ hour trip, but so much of that depended on traffic on the 5 and weather conditions further north. I was to meet Doug at Spences Bridge in anticipation of a weekend romp through some of BC’s finest roads, and unbeknownst to me, not all of those roads would be paved. I took solace in the fact that we had a comfortable meeting place and Doug would at least have somewhere nice to wait for me to show up.
Traffic on the 5 was light and it wasn’t long before I took the cut off at Bellingham to cross the border at Sumas. There was only one car in front of me at the border crossing and I barely had time to pull out my passport before it was my turn to pull forward. As usual, crossing into Canada was simple and I was once again in my home to the north. Mt Baker had never looked so stunning as it did that morning. The skies were clearer than I had even seen them before and the lines of the ridges stood out in the soft light of the morning sun. The daylight slowly increased and the views around me adjusted to the growing light. Riding on the 3 from Abbotsford to Hope is never very spectacular but today it looked better than it ever had. I reached Hope and found the road up the Fraser River to be sparsely populated with cars. I had filled up the GS before leaving that morning, sure that I could make it to my destination on the one tank of gas, a tank that had given me 300 miles before it needed re-filled. Sure enough, it was only 265 miles before I took the turn off that would lead me to the Inn at Spences Bridge, the starting point for the weekend. .
Doug had purchased an atlas of forest and logging roads (but no hunters or fisherman’s roads were included, much to his dismay) in British Columbia and it was his idea to explore some of them. We found difficulty right off the bat – not all of these roads are named or marked and they can be difficult to find. Our first attempt led us promptly into a garbage transfer station. This was my fault, however, as I had insisted that there was a road there. While waiting for Doug to check out another possible road I had the pleasure of watching an adult bald eagle flying low over the Nicola River, a fish clutched in it talons and its immature-plumed offspring following shortly afterwards. After a couple of unsuccessful forays down dead end lanes we finally found what we were looking for. The road we found led us north of the 6 and into a small native community. The road was recently graded but soon dissolved into a two-rut trail that led us through high, thick pines and dry underbrush. Cattle guards were frequent, as were the cattle. Road conditions were for the most part favourable, with one particularly exciting section posted as being a “discontinued road”. Grass grew up in the middle and recent rains had caused the mud to form deep ruts from previous vehicles. Eventually the ruts smoothed out and the middle of the road returned to hard-packed dirt. Leaves danced in the wake of Doug’s GS as he rode ahead of me. Doug did a great job of navigating the junctions and keeping us on track to our destination: Merritt and lunch. Our “discontinued road” all too quickly became a logging road; flat, wide, smooth and not nearly as challenging. We started to meet other vehicles on the road and knew that we had re-entered civilization. The dirt road became paved and we soon joined onto the main road that we had turned off of a few miles and a couple of hours behind us.
The Inn at Spences Bridge
Early in the day
Taking in the fall colors
Smoke in the valley
Lunch took longer than we expected but it gave us time to plan the route that we wanted to take for the second half of the day. We continued east from Merritt, following another fine Canadian road; the 5A. The plan was to take a side road that would lead us to Douglas Lake and follow it to Westwold. In our eagerness to get off the pavement we took the first likely looking road heading in that direction. It turned out it wasn’t the intended road, but I think it was probably the better one. The first thing that we noticed was the gravel: it was deep and loose, something that neither of us enjoy riding in. Trusting that these conditions couldn’t last forever, we kept on going. The road lifted quickly from the banks of the Nicola River and a vast expanse of gold was laid out before us. Islands of green pines nestled in sheltered draws, breaking up the sea of grass; this was the beginning the Douglas Lake Ranch and our second adventure into the unknown.
The road conditions did improve and we merrily rode along this uncharted territory. We stopped at a hilltop to take in the silence and peacefulness of the area. Doug walked to the top of a rise and spied a herd of horses on the next hill over. I lay down in the grass, listening only to the wind blow around me. Doug asked that I ride ahead so that he could get a picture of me. I obliged, and then stopped to get a picture of him approaching. I could see his bike on the far hillside, the road snaking before him like a twisted rope. A band of almost leafless trees broke up the scene, creating a curtain for him to come out from behind. Puffs of dust were kicked up by his tires and I could hear the sound of his engine as he approached. The grin on his face was unmatchable as he rode by.
We were surprised to find out that we were not on the road that we thought we were on. We discovered this after we had reached Douglas Lake, but by then it didn’t matter: we were still having fun and on our way to somewhere, no matter where that “somewhere” ended up being. A coyote with a fat tail trotted casually through the grass, looking very much like he could care less that we were there. The road surface at Douglas Lake became hard packed and then paved for a while before returning to dirt. Much to my joy Doug spied an abandoned log house near the road and stopped for pictures. I excitedly pulled up next to the house and started to explore. We speculated about the age of the house and the lives of the previous owners, poking our heads into rooms and sheds. After abandoning the house we got back on the bikes to continue our journey. The road varied wildly in its make up, sometimes taking the shape of a well-heeled two lane road, other times reverting to a mere single lane wending its way through a grove of cheerful trees. A herd of horses crossed the road before us, a foal frolicking alongside its mother as they raced up the opposite hillside.
Heading towards Douglas Lake
Perfect day for a ride
Enjoying the empty, rolling countryside
First view of Douglas Lake
Showing off his stuff
Checking out an abandoned house
The road narrowed and started to follow the course of a rushing river. The landscape became crowded with tall trees and the golden grass was replaced by lush greenery. The hills gave way to steeper slopes and jumbles of rocks indicated that this was not stable territory. After crossing a small bridge Doug pulled over to consult the atlas. We had seen no signs or road markers for quite some time, and the markers that we did see just then weren’t indicated on our map. We decided to continue the way we were headed and hope for the best. After a time the river we were following increased in width and the valley did so correspondingly. One by one, houses and farms appeared in the ever-widening river bottom. Despite the previous question of our route, the reassuring arrival of pavement was not exactly welcome. This marked the end of our second adventure for the day.
The road that we had been exploring dropped us onto 97 where we then turned east towards Vernon. We had hoped to make it to Nelson when we started out from Spences Bridge, but riding dirt roads takes a lot longer than pavement and we were content with making it to Vernon. I spied a sign for a motel off the main drag that had pleasant but unremarkable rooms. After a good hot shower we walked through a bit of downtown Vernon to dine at the local steakhouse. Dinner was tasty as usual and afterwards we watched the odd Canadian TV show “Trailer Park Boys” before calling it a night.
Despite our plans for getting an early start, we didn’t hit the road until almost quarter to nine. Doug had a goal that I readily approved of and that was to find and ride down the Kettle River Valley. The problem was that we didn’t know exactly how to get there. With atlas in hand (or in tank bag, as the case may be) we headed east on the 6, looking for a turnoff somewhere past Cherryville. Doug surprised me by stopping at the Goldpanner Restaurant as I had assumed that we would stop by Spruce Grove for cinnamon buns. As always, I trusted Doug’s judgement and he did not let me down. The food was good and to our benefit, our waitress was able to get us precise directions for where we wanted to go. We were on our way!
The turnoff from the main road was littered with signs warning of logging trucks, narrow roads, and the need for a radio set at a specific frequency. Doug took a picture of these signs. The road started out surprisingly well maintained and fairly straight. I took this as an indication of the frequency of its use as a logging road and expected a big truck to come barreling around each corner. We both watched carefully for the signs that would indicate where we should turn, and stopped a couple of times to confer with each other. We did take a short break after crossing a charming one-lane wooden bridge when Doug found a deserted campground along the river. We took off our gear and admired the beauty of the river, the woods and the silence. We agreed that it would be nice to come back someday and camp for a while.
We couldn’t stand by the river all day, as Doug had to make sure that he didn’t miss the last ferry to Victoria that evening and we were quite a way from there. We kept heading south, following the dirt road as it wove its way alongside the Kettle River. The road was rough, with rocks scattered across it and ruts cutting into the surface. It was fun, I tell you! There were few vehicles to contend with and while the dust from Doug’s bike got pretty thick once or twice, it was never bad enough not to keep up with him. At one point I thought that the road in front of me would make a fabulous backdrop for Doug on his bike, so I prepared to stop so that I could take the picture when he came back for me. What I didn’t count on was dumping my bike during the stop. There was little incentive for me to try and pick up the heavy bike by myself when I knew that Doug would return for me so instead I took a couple of pictures and waited for him. At least it wasn’t completely in vain as I did manage to get a good picture of him coming back toward me. We picked up the bike, tweaked a couple of things and continued on our way. I had done a number on the tank and the crash bar but nothing serious to myself. It wasn’t long after this incident that the valley started to open up some more and become more rural. Doug found a couple of cows to talk to, and we spoke with a local on his little Honda. A couple in an SUV stopped to see if we needed any help while we consulted our atlas as well – it was a very social little valley we had stopped in.
First glimpse of the Kettle River
The $1,000 shot
Easy dirt roads for miles
Nearing the southern end of the Kettle River Valley
Looking back the way we came
The pavement ended just as we reached Rock Creek and Doug and I took another break, this time for Gatorade and tweaking my bike a bit more. Doug was clever enough to figure out how to re-attach my turn signal while I tightened down my mirror mount. Ah, we’re so mechanical!!
From here on out our route would be the Crowsnest Highway. The weather was still beautiful and we pushed our bikes along on the smooth pavement relishing the higher speeds we could achieve on this surface. The scenery passed by quickly as we road towards the sun. We usually stop at Osoyoos but this time we kept on going, breezing through the Similkameen Valley, home of one of my favorite rivers in BC. Near Hedley Doug took off, apparently victim of a surge of playfulness and while I tried to keep up with him, the traffic prevented me from ever doing so. My chase was brought to an abrupt end when I was pulled over for speeding and I was surprised to see Doug pass by – he had pulled off to wait for me and I didn’t even see him! We gassed up in Princeton and kept going until we reached Hope, another location that we usually stop at. It is here that we said goodbye, knowing that we wouldn’t stop again before we waved farewell at my exit at Abbotsford. I continued to follow Doug from Hope and into the setting sun. Traffic was heavy and it was a challenge to keep up with him, but it was fun nonetheless. As we neared my exit we rode next to each other and said good-bye one more time before I made the turn for the border.