Daring & Dust on Duffy Lake Road

by Raymond Parker on May 3, 2010

in Adventure, Autobiography, Cycling, Photography, Touring

The Royal Engineers Columbia Detachment recorded a single death in 1861: that of  Sapper James Duffy. He had been consigned to one of British Columbia’s remotest outposts by a government eager to enforce sovereignty in the face of an invasion of American miners, lured north by the Cariboo Gold Rush. Duffy froze to death on the 9th of January, while surveying a route through the Coast Range between Lillooet and Pemberton.

I first heard of the Duffy Lake road in 1978, during my stint at Vancouver bike and outdoor store The Great Escape. An adventurous customer had broken a bicycle frame on its washboard and potholes.

In the summer of 1982, I shared a house in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood with fellow Mountain Equipment Co-op workers Carrie Frechette, Vera Zyla, and former colleague at The Great Escape, Colin Little, original owner of my Nishiki Landau.

Another Co-op worker Marty Young and I developed the fledgling bicycle department. While poring over bicycle gear catalogues, deciding which components to stock (and buy at discount!) I mentioned the Duffy Lake Road.

On July 24, we rode to North Vancouver and caught the 7:30 a.m. BC Rail train to Lillooet, Mile 0 of the historic Cariboo Wagon Road. We paused for refreshments and to chat with a lovely Saskatchewan lass we’d met on the train. She was a wandering banjo player, off to join a horse-drawn vaudeville show.

Lillooet is renowned for its record summer temperatures and when we stepped off the train sometime after noon it was trying to set one. Out on Highway 99, it was over 40C. With Seton Canal on the left and Cayoosh Creek to our right, we began the first climb in the searing heat, up to the outlook over Seton Lake. The view west over the dam, down the turquoise-blue lake would be breathtaking had we breath to take. Every gasp was a torrid dustbowl. One thing for sure: we weren’t in danger of meeting the same fate as James Duffy!

Faced with some serious switchbacks, and after only a few more steep kilometres, we agreed there was a serious risk of boiling our radiators. We rolled into the forest to hide under the pines. Red-faced and woozy, we dozed for an hour, waking to find ourselves crawling with insects. It was too hot for mosquitoes but not for the ants whose nest we had made our bed upon.

The road ahead was still exposed and the arid hills amplified the heat like a solar oven. It was a long slog to the first bridge crossing, where we dunked our heads and replenished our water bottles in the cold waters of Cayoosh Creek.

We were happy to reach a rough campsite beside the swift-running stream and pitch our tent ― a prototype we were testing for the Co-op. We shared the picnic table with a lone motorcyclist but soon crawled into the cramped cocoon, bushed from the day’s exertions.

Failing to learn from the previous day’s weather, we made a late start. By ten o’clock it was already hot. Luckily, we had broken the back of the major climbing and could fully enjoy the scenery … and another cooling dip in Cayoosh Creek. How often in the lowlands do we credit baptism in the alpine zone for our comfort? Yet without the highland thermostat we’re toast. We stopped for lunch beside Duffy Lake, throwing up the tent to escape the mosquitoes willing to risk sunburn to extract our blood.

As we summited Cayoosh Pass, the glory of the Coast Range climaxed with the glacial peaks of the Joffre Group, gleaming against a hazy blue sky.

From the Cayoosh, we set off on a precipitous decent filled with more excitement than expected. Swooping down the series of sharp hairpins at hair-raising speeds, we worried that our rims would overheat from frantic braking. Marty fixed two flint-inflicted flats in less than a kilometre.

At the bottom of a long decline, where gravel had collected deeply, my bike began to fishtail and buck underneath me. Somehow, telemarking on two wheels, I stayed upright. Easing my Nishiki to a stop, I shouted back to Marty, warning him to slow.

In golden evening light, we reached the aboriginal community of Mount Currie, where we  helped a couple of young native men free their bogged-down truck from the roadside ditch.

The Lil’wat people have resisted more than a century of encroachment on their traditional territory. Just two years previously, (1979) they had halted clearcut logging on their reserve by Canadian Forest Products.

However, there was a split in their ranks with one faction wanting to fight in Canadian courts based on the Proclamation of 1763, which outlawed “Frauds and Abuses [that] have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indian” and those who were opposed to the notion that any colonial court of law had jurisdiction over their fate.

With the truck back on the road, the young men wished us well on our way past a large, hand-painted sign proclaiming “No outside white visitors allowed because of your failure to obey the laws of our tribe as well as the laws of your own. This village is hereby closed.”

Marty and I had enough supplies to bypass the forest industry town of Pemberton. We settled for a rough camp beside the Sea-to-Sky Highway, where we cooked a pot of pasta and crawled into the poorly ventilated, clammy tent ― a characteristic that earned it a failing grade.

We managed to hit the road a full hour earlier than usual, but the thermometer was already boiling over. Though uphill most of the way, we had only 22 kilometres to our lunch break, which we reached at 11:45.

The Whistler of 1982 was not the alpine city it is today, but it was noticeably transformed from the sleepy ski village famous for its naked ski bums and squatter cabins that had been so recently ejected to make way for the growing resort. We filled our tanks with large quantities of fuel, including a memorable chicken salad sandwich, cheesecake, pints of ice water and coffee. Then we slept on the grass until 2 p.m.

In the heat of the day, we passed the blinding massif of the Tantalus Range dominating the horizon over Cheakamus Canyon. Again, we survived the heat with naked dips in roadside streams, careful not to distract motorists by ducking in the shadow of bridges. We rolled into Squamish at 6 p.m. to restock our food and liquid supplies.

Several kilometres south, beneath the soaring granite face of the Stawamus Chief, we erected our camp beside the strip of crumbling tarmac from the original road, known by climbers as Psyche Ledge. The great quartzite mirror of the Grande Wall delayed the gathering dusk, illuminating our supper preparations and socialization with two climbers from the U.S.

We chatted over tea late into the evening, regaling the two young women with our local rock climbing exploits, promising to guide them tomorrow up to the new area Marty and I had discovered and developed last spring — The Octopus’s Garden cliff at nearby Smoke Bluffs.

But at 8 a.m. the next morning, the memory of the previous days’ heat prostration saw us scribbling a description of the route up through the bluffs to our recently-unveiled cliff and, with a regretful adieu, pointing our bikes southward again.

We made good time over the first 30 km, but just short of Lions Bay we were stopped by construction on the M-Creek Bridge.

On the stormy night of October 28, 1981 the highway that has just received the lion’s share of government largesse prior to the 2010 Olympics was severed by a debris flow comprised of 20,000 cubic metres of rock, mud and timber that cascaded down the creek, carrying away the bridge.

Five cars plunged into the raging abyss and were carried out into Howe Sound. Nine people lost their lives. As is often the case, the triggering event occurred in a heavily logged area, 1500 metres above.

Crossing the Lion’s Gate Bridge, we wheeled into Stanley Park and around Prospect Point. As if to delay surrendering to the city, we took an unpaved detour through the giant cedars of the Merilees Trail, above iconic Siwash Rock.


It is heartbreaking to remember this stately grove, since felled by another “storm of the century,” in November 2006. Sad also is the absence of the BC Rail passenger service to Lillooet and beyond. The publicly-owned railway was liquidated by the incumbent Liberal government in a deal with party patron Canadian National, signed in 2004. Despite a cloud of suspicion thicker than the dust Marty and I braved on Duffy Lake Road and an ongoing RCMP investigation prefaced by a raid on the BC Legislature on Dec. 28, 2003, the deal was consummated 7 months later. “Railgate,” as the affair has become known, has for the time being slipped off the front pages.

I’m inclined to agree with those who lament the paving, in 1991, of the Duffy Lake Road. I’ve cycled this rugged section of Highway 99 since. It’s still worthy of respect and low gears, but receives much more traffic and has lost some of the mystique it held before the application of macadam and taming of the more sinuous switchbacks.

Still, I’d recommend the traverse to any cyclist as a “must-do” adventure. The austere grandeur of the Coast Mountains remain as compelling today as they surely were to the first European explorers. And to the Lil’wat and greater St’át’imc Nation peoples, these territories remain as they were to their ancestors: the place they call home.

Duffy Lake Provincial Park1911 Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe | Lil’wat Nation | Last Ride on the BCR | Railgate

{ 0 comments… add your spin! now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: