Bicycling the wilds of British Columbia: Chapter 1

by Raymond Parker on January 20, 2005

in Adventure, Cycling, Photography, Touring

In the spring of 1981, I was scheduled to pick up my daughter from the East Kootenays of British Columbia, where she lived with her mother. This seemed like a good chance to traverse the province by bicycle again, on the southern route from Vancouver, via Highway #3. We pick up the story in Princeton, east of Alison Pass.
Cougar, Cougar, Burning Bright

Cruising along the valley bottom in the gathering dusk, I decided to escape the holiday weekend traffic on Highway 3, east of Princeton. With tires crackling through twigs and pine needles, I rolled my Nishiki Landau back into the dry forest, choosing a cosy little copse of trees to situate my camp.

Travelling light, I carried only a small tarp and bivi sack. After stringing the orange tarp between four handy lodgepole pines, I settled into my sleeping bag, contented and looking forward to my eastward bicycle traverse of British Columbia.

Shortly after arranging my little bivouac and pulling out my journal, I heard a noise in the woods, just beyond the small circle of light cast by my headlamp … then the bulb burned out.

With a new bulb in place, I pulled out a bag of gorp to nibble on, rationalizing the noise as a foraging squirrel or porcupine. Then, barely 10 metres away, there they were: two fluorescent eyes, caught in the beam of my lamp. Scrambling out of my mummy bag, I directed the light toward the animal—a cougar, I suspected.

The glowing eyes, and following shadow, undulated through the darkened pines, advancing in a spiral towards me. With the hair standing up on my neck, I bent down, grabbed a stick from among the bed of needles at my feet and flung it with a loud “Hey!” in the direction of the glowing eyeballs. The beast circled; then I lost track of it. Riveted to the spot, I rotated my head to and fro, scanning the scraggly pines like a human searchlight.

Thump! The dull earth reverberated with the unmistakable sound of a limber animal, leaping from a tree. I scrambled to gather my food, my headlight once again catching the animal eyebeams, burning bright in the shadowy forest. Yes, it was definitely a cougar, and a persistent one at that!

I launched another—larger—fallen branch in the direction of my stalker, catching the wire running from headlamp to battery pack, tearing it loose and plunging my surroundings into inky darkness. With a fluttering stomach, I loudly encouraged the invader to go away.

As the cat padded off over the duff, I hurriedly stuffed all my impedimenta into panniers, threw my sleeping bag and mat over the crossbar, and hightailed it back out to the highway.

11.20pm: Three kilometres down the road, I ran across Bromley Rock Provincial Park, where I hung my tarp from a picnic table and collapsed for a well-deserved rest.

May 16: I reach Keremeos (365m/1200ft.) by 11:30am and a fairly easy day brings me to Osoyoos (227m/909ft), before 5pm. I did a bit of shopping, then scouted a camp-spot by the lake—no easy task on a busy long weekend. Finally, I chose a place down on the beach, in the shade of a willow tree.

This day started very cold, but by afternoon I’d stripped off wool tights and doffed my jersey to luxuriate in the warmth of the sun.

Osoyoos boasts Canada’s driest climate. Warm summers, with an average maximum temperature of 28.4 C/84 F, makes it the centre of British Columbia’s wine and fruit industries. Cyclists take note: they grow our staple fuel here, bananas!

The climate is semi-arid, as evidenced by the nearby Pocket Desert Federal Ecological Reserve, abundant sagebrush, and the prickly pear cactus I sat on during my roadside lunch break.

Osoyoos Lake snakes along the valley bottom for 19 kilometres, at a mean elevation of 276 metres above sea level. Out on the lake, the most popular activity is motor-powered. Some water craft sport engines so large it is a wonder they don’t sink under the weight. They roar back and forth monotonously, raising great rooster tails of water and exhaust fumes backlit by the evening sun, never tiring until the great engines demand another drink of gasoline or the beer cooler runs dry.

As the sun sank lower, a cloud bank rolled in and the roaring engines fell silent. Snuggling into my goose-down sleeping bag, I recalled those two wild eyes shining in the dark. No gas-powered thrill can compete with that!

May 17: Local legend has it that Anarchist Mountain was named by pioneer rancher R.G. Sidley, who settled here in 1889, with reference to the kind of frontier justice meted out in these parts. Yet some say Sidley’s own dubious reputation, earned during a brief and contentious stint as justice of the peace, is commemorated here.

The only reputation I fear is the purported “longest continuous hill in Canada,” including 12 kilometres of seven and eight percent grades, rising from the lake to 1,233 metres in a series of switchbacks.

My fear of the 1000 metre climb proved unfounded. Though still suffering the remnants of a flu bug, I put the 30 kilometre hill behind me without much trouble. The real anarchy occurs when a sports car full of shrieking youths appeared. The driver (and I use the term loosely) swerved across the road, heading directly towards me, playing “chicken.” These fools shared the same robotic mentality (and, I presume, liquid courage) as their waterborne counterparts: depress an accelerator, fantasize virility. I wasn’t about to test the “nerve” of this cretin, so I headed for the ditch.

I picked gravel out of my knee, then flew down to Rock Creek (603m/1978ft), at the junction of the Kettle River Valley, where I made a snap decision to head north on Highway 33, toward Kelowna. I had travelled Highway 3 over the Salmo-Creston Pass many times, but I’d never been to the West Kootenays.

Five kilometres north of Rock Creek, I took a campsite at Kettle River Provincial Park. As I polished off a big pot of macaroni, my mind wandered back to my first long bicycle tour, at the age of twelve.

At the time—in the early ’60s—my aunt lived in a 16th century English farmhouse, built from great blocks of native red sandstone, nestled in the hamlet of Chatwall, Shropshire. I got it into my head that I would ride out from my home in Wednesfield, Staffordshire, 55 kilometres to this bucolic farm where I’d spent the previous summer rebuilding stone walls, scything hay and experiencing country living for the first time.

With a recruited school chum, who surely didn’t know what he was getting into, I set off past the grimy terraced houses of Heath Town, out through Wolverhampton, past the old cliff village of Bridgnorth, on the banks of the River Severn. Continuing southwest, we attacked the steep hills guarding Wenlock Edge.

I have no idea how I was able to find my way through the narrow, winding lanes of the South Shropshire Hills to a place I’d only been taken by car once or twice. I had no idea how to read a map; familiar landmarks—a thatch-roofed cottage, a stone barn, a crooked stile—guided me along. Not that this navigation method always worked. On other occasions I got myself and companions hopelessly lost. Once I had to admit defeat and beg help from an imposing, stately manor, whose lady swore it was God’s own providence had brought me to her door!

In Chatwall, my aunt and uncle exclaimed their own oaths, wondering, as I do now, how the hell I’d found my way across two counties! They insisted on cramming both our bikes into the back of their little Austin A-35 van and drove us back the 25km to Bridgnorth.

I’m amazed to think that two pre-teen kids managed to ride a total of 80 kilometres over that hilly countryside. My most vivid memory of the day remains the effort of will required to push the last miles through the rolling farmland between Bridgnorth and Wolverhampton. The following Monday, my companion and I shared the bond of cramped quadriceps, not to mention a damn good schoolyard yarn.

Drifting back from my campfire reverie, I was convinced these childhood explorations formed the basis of my addiction to long-distance cycling through mountainous terrain. In fact, it’s safe to say, when I followed that road out into the Shropshire countryside, those were the very first pedal-strokes of the adventure that led me here today.

Chapters: |2|3|4|5|6|»

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