“Firestorm 2003,” as it became known, was, by almost any measure, the most devastating season of wildfires in British Columbia history. It followed the three driest years ever recorded in the southern part of the province. When lightning struck near Rattlesnake Point in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park on Aug. 16 of that year, there wasn’t much the thousands of forest firefighters could do to stop a force of nature that, within weeks, consumed 239 homes, more than 25,000 hectares of forest and a dozen wooden trestle bridges.
Five years later, I am coasting through the valley on mountain bike. My ponytailed guide, “Trailhead” Ed Kruger, points out Kalamalka Lake in the distance. Before the fire, he says, stands of lodgepole pine and larch had obscured this sweeping view. Before the fire, the grand wooden trestle bridges of the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) soared across this forest.
The railway and its bridges began construction in the 1880s to transport rich silver deposits from the Kootenay region of southern British Columbia to the coast. When the KVR was completed in 1916, it navigated 525 kilometres through the hard rock, sharp curves and steep grades of three mountain ranges and became one of the most costly railways in the world. The advent of highways and trucking led to the its decline in the late 1950s. The last freight trains passed through the mountains in 1989, and the tracks were dismantled the following year.
Yet, almost a century after the KVR was completed, it continues to transport resources critical to the area’s economy as part of the Trans Canada Trail. Now tourists are the principal commodity, rolling through on rubber rather than rails. As if by design, the requirements for heavily laden trains match those of sightseeing cyclists. With the tracks removed, the right-of-way makes for a wide, flat gravel road where they can ride two abreast beneath open skies. No part of the rail bed has more than a 2.2 percent grade. And during my three-day bike trip with Monashee Adventure Tours, Kruger makes sure that the grade always works in our favour.
MYRA CANYON WAS THE CROWN JEWEL OF THE KVR, its 18 graceful trestles shaped by chief engineer Andrew McCulloch to hug the contours of the canyon walls. It was also the site of the fire’s worst destruction, home to all 12 fallen bridges. The largest trestle was 150 metres long and 37 metres tall, but now looks like a pile of Douglas fir timbers. Just seven months before the fire, the Myra Canyon section of the KVR had been named a National Historic Site. So after the embers cooled in late 2004, the provincial and federal governments set about rebuilding the trestles, at a cost of $13.5 million. Constuction was underway during our visit last fall, and the trestles reopened in June. (See sidebar below.)
Bridges outside the canyon miraculously survived the fires. At Bellevue Creek, red fire retardant staining the trestle is the only evidence of the tragedy. We survey the elegant curve of a 238-metre-long, 65-metre-tall steel-plate girder bridge spanning the ravine. Bursts of yellow alder punctuate the evergreen forest below.
Kruger leans on the railing and gazes into the expanse. He started leading bike trips through the Monashee Mountains 14 years ago. A tall, gregarious 46-year-old, he has also been a competitive skateboarder, and 15 years earlier, an amateur racecar driver. Since that time, he’s guided more than 10,000 cyclists through Myra Canyon.
In the summer of 2003, Kruger sat in his downtown store watching soot rain down on Kelowna. The fire burned for three weeks and “spread a football field a minute,” he recalls. “It felt as if a family member were dying.” The fire pushed Kruger to seek a new focus for his cycle-tour business, and he found it in the Okanagan’s burgeoning wine industry.
There are now more than 130 wineries in British Columbia, up from just 14 in 1988. Almost 100 of them are in the Okanagan, spread out over 250 kilometres and neatly bisected by the KVR. At Hillside Estate Winery & Bistro, we encounter a conveniently positioned trailside tasting room. Still wearing our bike helmets, we saunter up to the fir-topped bar and work our way down a list of offerings. “This one’s like red velvet in a bottle,” says our server, pouring a 2005 Merlot, “very gently chocolate, cherry, vanilla.”
We continue the rhythm of cycling followed by fine wine, and the next day, we take a 20-kilometre cruise down a scenic section of the KVR outside of Penticton. When we arrive at the trail’s shortest tunnel, the 49-metre “Little Tunnel,” Kruger plants a long wooden tube in his mouth and lets loose with a train whistle that echoes from the rough-hewn walls.
“Sometimes I like to strap on a headlamp and scare hikers into thinking a train’s coming,” he quips.
Later, we puff into the Red Rooster Winery. After turning off the right-of-way and cycling up a short hill, we’re greeted by a naked man carrying a suitcase. It makes sense that a winery featuring local art on its labels would provide safe haven for Frank “The Baggage Handler,” an outdoor sculpture by Michael Hermesh that created controversy when first displayed in a Penticton roundabout. The strenuous public debate reached a head when someone, as Kruger puts it, “broke off his manhood.”
We pass the roundabout that was Frank’s first home on our way to lunch at the Hooded Merganser Bar & Grill, a concrete modern affair mounted on piles in the shallows of Okanagan Lake. I tuck into poached wild B.C. salmon.
The next day, we cycle along the western shore of Skaha Lake beside brilliant red sumac and glassy calm water. A carp meanders the shallows near the shore; a loon cuts a V through the water. A western screech owl lands in a nearby poplar.
Each day begins and ends with a ride in a support van, without which I’d spend far more time grinding than exploring. As we drive along the highway, it’s hard to believe that there’s much past the drab sandbanks of Canada’s only true desert, at the northern tip of the Sonoran. Yet the back roads hold many surprises. We stop to examine roadside rocks bearing aboriginal pictographs, thousand-year-old figures of hunters and bison drawn in red ochre mixed with bear fat. Passing through a rural community, Kruger points out the book-lending institution, “See that row of green mailboxes? The library is the little white cabinet on the end.”
And it’s thanks to the van that we’re able to squeeze in a visit to the 188-metre-long Trout Creek Bridge. The tallest on the KVR, at 73 metres, this engineering marvel was, in its time, North America’s highest steel-truss bridge. When builders laid down the final span, it came to within a pinky’s width of perfection, testament to the chief engineer’s skill.
I hang my arms over the railing and lose myself in the rows of vines carpeting the slopes below. McCulloch could surely not have anticipated that one day this bridge would stretch over rolling vineyards, just as Kruger likely never foresaw that his outings would involve more tastings than trestles. I’m thankful that some things are worth preserving.