The silence is golden, the sun beating down and the trail seemingly endless in a good way. Everything is tranquil, pastoral, on the verge of divine. My friend Bryn and I are cycling with the butterflies.
If it seems like a dream, it was--the dream of a nation. This cycling trail is a legacy of the Kettle Valley Railway, built in southern B.C. at a time when railways were the future. The first train ran on the railway in 1915; the last one in 1989. Soon afterward, Canadian Pacific Railway tore up the tracks and the railbed was reincarnated as a cycling trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail.
For all its pastoral beauty, the Kettle Valley Railway isn't always a smooth ride; washouts, rock falls, and treacherous canyons are common. Then there's the fire hazard. The burning question on everyone's mind when I mentioned my upcoming trip was, "What about the bridges?"
Last summer, Myra Canyon's railway trestles ignited one by one as an inferno raged through a section of the trail near Kelowna. Only four out of 18 bridges in the area survived.
A government-appointed task force recommended rebuilding the bridges in a way that reflects their heritage. Now it's a matter of money: how much will it cost and who is going to pay? In the meantime, Trails BC is building a bypass above the canyon; it is expected to be ready sometime next month. For now, cyclists can detour through Kelowna or arrange a ride with a shuttle service around the canyon.
The good news is that the fire affected only about 10 kilometres of the 600-kilometre trail. The rest is the same as it ever was: bridges mostly intact, scenery stunning, and trail two-percent standard railway grade, meaning that the path is as close to flat as a trail through the mountains can be. Workers dubbed the railway McCulloch's Wonder, after Andrew McCulloch, the engineer who took the route from the drawing board to the mountains, connecting the isolated southern Interior of B.C. to the coast as mining booms hit the region.
When the booms went bust, they left a legacy of ghost towns and abandoned places, including Brookmere, the starting point for our 112-kilometre trip in the Princeton area. As the junction between the Princeton and the Coquihalla lines, Brookmere was once a hub of railway activity. Now it's home to the last remaining water tower on the railway and not too much else.
We begin cycling, sounds of birds, the wind, the tires on the dirt barely registering in this peaceful valley. We cycle past lofty ponderosa pines and follow a well-established detour around a missing bridge--incinerated in 1996.
As the path follows Otter Creek down the valley, the trail morphs from gravel to sand to rocks to cow dung and back again. When the path becomes a pond, we ride through it. When the trail skirts Otter Lake, we pause to take in the view.
We know we are almost at Coalmont, our stop for the night, when an ATV driver yells, "The beer's that way." The very pink Coalmont Hotel, circa 1911, is home to the only bar in town, if not the only bar in the valley. My friend and I get the last two seats in a room full of men. (At last, I've come to the right place.) It's hockey night in Canada. Today, there are two items on the menu: steak and hamburgers. If you're vegetarian, the proprietors will make an exception.
As far as small towns go, Coalmont is very small, with a population of fewer than 100 and dwindling. Formerly the railway stop for the Blackburn coal mine (closed 1940) on the mountain above the village, the town feels as though it is about to be swallowed whole by the valley.
When the hockey game ends, we start playing a different game that lasts well past midnight with some men from Langley. Shuffleboard. Yeah, Coalmont's a wild place.
The next day we cycle to the site of the former, once-grand Granite City, where there's even less to see. At one time the third-largest town in B.C., Granite City lost its glitter with its gold. The plaque reads: "In 1895 a cowboy named Johnny Chance struck it rich. He started a boom town that grew to a population of over 2,000. Granite had two main streets, Government and Granite, with 200 buildings, 13 of which were saloons. But it was not to last. And by 1915 it was left to the deer and grass."
We make for Princeton, cycling with the rushing Tulameen River down a dazzling canyon, through a mercifully cool railway tunnel, and past a sheep farm where three black lambs jump over each other to greet us. We cycle past hoodoos, and vermilion cliffs, a source of the ochre used by First Nations for trading and face-painting.
In Princeton we have dinner with a view at the Copper Mountain Bar and Grill, whose namesake mountain is home to another ghost town and an abandoned mine found by a prospector with the unlikely name of Volcanic Brown. According to at least one local, the mountain is now a place to incinerate chickens.
After dinner, we get a ride in a Chevy Avalanche called Buttercup (it's yellow), owned by Rick Hudson, a former musician and ad-jingle writer reincarnated as an ATV tour guide doubling as a cycling shuttle service.
He drops us at Jellicoe Station Inn, a beautiful bed-and-breakfast midway on the KVR between Summerland and Princeton. Not only is it utterly gorgeous, but owners Les and Darleen Sirokai serve a breakfast that makes you glad you have 50 kilometres to cycle. The next morning, Hudson shuttles us up the trail to Osprey Lake. As we cycle, we see a deer burst through the trees and bound across the trail. Later, I almost run over a garter snake. And then there's that one sharp rock and the dreaded hiss. My friend loses all the air in her rear tire. Good thing she knows how to fix it. The sun has become relentless and I'm wishing I'd brought more water.
But it's all a gentle downhill glide from here, through a tunnel, across a death-defying bridge, and then zigzagging across the open country at Jura where the trees open up and the hills are everywhere.
ACCESS: The best source of information is Dan and Sandra Langford's book Cycling the Kettle Valley Railway and their Web site (www.planet.eon.net/~dan/kvr.html). Trails BC plans to post details of the bypass it is building at www.trailsbc.ca/. The Myra Canyon Trestle Restoration Fund's Web site is at kvr.acromedia.ca/.
The Princeton Chamber of Commerce ( 295-3103, town.princeton.bc.ca/tour/tour.htm) lends out gold pans for those who want to see what they can find in the rivers. In Princeton, we stayed one night in the Riverside Motel ( 295-6232; $49 for a double) in a cabin by the river. Three of them were built circa 1934 as a fishing lodge.
Accommodations along the way include the Coalmont Hotel ( 295-6066; $42 for a double) and Jellicoe Station Inn Bed and Breakfast ( 295-0160, www.jellicoestationinn.com/; $75 for a double, $40 for a single, $25 per person for cabin and trailer beds without breakfast).
For cycle shuttle service (rates vary), contact Kettle Valley Scenic ATV Excursions ( 295-3052, www.kettlevalleyatv.com/). Monashee Adventure Tours (1-888-762-9253, www.monasheeadventuretours.com/) provides shuttle service at Myra Canyon.