Full Circle: A return to the West Kootenays

by Raymond Parker on July 28, 2008

in Adventure, Cycling, Photography, Randonneuring, Touring

loopmap More than 27 years had gone by since I last bicycled the undulating roads of the West Kootenays. That was too long, I’d recently decided, and made a visit part of my holiday itinerary, following duties at the Lake Louise control of the 2008 Rocky Mountain 1200 randonee.

In Nelson, B.C. (533m), I readied my Rivendell Blériot bicycle and left the motel around 07:30, heading 20 kilometres west, on Highway 3A/6, toward Castlegar, following the winding Kootenay River, 19 kilometres to South Slocan. Here, I turned north onto Highway 6 proper, into the Slocan Valley.

The morning air was still refreshingly cool after the previous night’s thundershower, sweet with grasses and fragrant blossoms amidst green farmlands. But, as I began the first difficult ascent along Slocan Lake toward Silverton, the mercury had also climbed. Shortly before I’d stopped at a roadside café for morning coffee and to strip off my leg and arm warmers. On the approach to New Denver (556m), I was dousing myself with water bottle showers to keep the “radiator” from boiling over. I spent an hour in the old mining town, mostly at the Apple Tree Café, downing a cup of hearty soup and half a tuna sandwich (the rest wrapped for later), before turning east onto Highway 31A.

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New Denver, BC

Now I was on the route I’d cycled before, on my tour of 1981. I knew—and the memory was as vivid as if it were yesterday—that I’d soon be flying down a steep hill toward a dangerous, narrow bridge over a foaming creek. What the old brain had let flow into some remote cerebral “cache” was the recollection of the steep climb out of New Denver … and the temperature out on the road was now 30°C!

The narrow Bailey bridge has, it turns out, been replaced with a wide concrete span and the “L” corner rearranged into a more navigable curve, with the creek redirected through a big culvert. In contrast to the near-disastrous descent of yesteryear, survived on my sturdy Nishiki Landau, I crossed the bridge without incident, pausing only to take a comparison photo before beginning the next climb, culminating in a steep switchback at the Sandon Road intersection. But the work didn’t end there.

If the mind is inclined to bury painful memories, then mine did a good job of interning 20 kilometres of almost continuous vertical suffering–529 metres, in total—up to the pass. Perhaps I was young and virile back then, but my journal for May 22, 1981 notes drily: “Once up and over Zincton Summit, it was one long … cruise, down to Kaslo. Pushed 80” [gear] all the way.” However, the entry then meanders discursively, pondering strange states of consciousness and out-of-body experiences, brought on, I surmise, by “fatigue.”

This year I enter a similar zombie-like dimension and, before I realize it, pass the summit missing the Zincton ruins and the rough cabin built by Del, the squatter from South London. Perhaps I really had crossed into the Twilight Zone those decades ago. Maybe, crazy Del and the crumbling ghost town were figments of my fevered brow. Maybe they don’t call this the “Valley of Ghosts” for nothing! But what of the “photographic evidence” I brought back? It seems those fading Kodachromes are all that is left.

One thing is certain: My record of the descent to Kaslo (542m) was spot on — a 30 kilometre swoop through mountain air, chilled by the rushing waters of the Kaslo River, racing me down to Kootenay Lake

In 1981, my day ended here on the lakeshore. I’d ridden 100 hilly kilometres over from Nakusp on Upper Arrow Lake, a widening of the Columbia River, swollen by the construction of the Keenleyside Dam. Today, with 150 kilometres on the odometer, there remains 70 kilometres to my destination. A couple of snapshots on the digital camera, a shot of Coca-Cola, and I’m on my way, heading south on Highway 31. But first, another hill.

One can always count on a few lumps alongside a large body of water, and the topography bordering Kootenay Lake, nestled between the Valhalla Range to the west and the Purcell’s to the east, is no exception. The steepest part includes a hairy hairpin crossing Woodbury Creek, launching into a steep ascent on the south bank.

Further on, I pass Ainsworth Hotsprings. Once a rustic system of springs the bubbling fault was excavated by early prospectors desiring a greater flow of hot water in which to broil their aching bones. Mining companies saw the economic potential of the soothing waters from day one; the place bears the name of one of the wealthiest capitalists of the day: Captain George Ainsworth of San Francisco. Since my last visit a tony hotel—with prices to match—has gone up around the natural wonder. I paused long enough to admire an unusual rock formation created by the mineral-rich waters flowing over a steep bank beside the road.

Another new development here: campsites specifically targeting motorcyclists, as common as mosquitoes on this loop. I’ve also noticed at roadside rest areas that many of these bikers have a serious taste for Jack Daniel’s whisky—along with Harley-Davidson, the brand of rebels. Accordingly, when I hear the characteristic thunder announcing the approach of another group of “Wild Ones” I hug the road edge as if my life depended on it.

As evening crept up the mountainside, I pulled into Balfour. On the lakeside a free ferry takes travellers over to Kootenay Bay, on the east side of the lake. This is exactly what I did 27 years ago riding south on 3A to Creston, then left to the East Kootenays. This year I paused only for a junk food transfusion. Fortified with Coke and chips I crossed the 200 kilometre mark with about 30 minutes to spare—had I been riding a brevet (which allows 13.5 hours for this distance).

Less than an hour later, as darkness fell, I crossed the “Orange Bridge,” happy to see the lights of Nelson dancing on the inky waters of the Kootenay River.

Before tackling the 15% grade back up to the Alpine Motel, I quaff a pint of the Kootenay’s finest ale at a sidewalk patio. But I don’t tarry; the night is cool and the rest of the previous evenings’ “Italian feast”—a gargantuan meal fit for two loggers, or a randonneur at the end of a long day in the saddle—waits in the motel fridge.

Original Kootenay traverseBlériot Maiden FlightBlériot and 650b page

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