Sunday, August 27, 2017

Trans Canada Trail

Chilliwack Lake at the end of our first full day

The Trans Canada Trail, now renamed "The Great Trail" (, is a network of trails supposedly stretching all the way across Canada. The project has been in the works for 25 years and celebrated its "completion" in August 2017, also to coincide with Canada's 150th anniversary. Coverage in the media seems to create the impression of a seamless network of bucolic (or even remote and pristine) trails, but does it match reality? 

Trail markers on nice single track - but stretches like this are more the exception than the rule for the Trans Canada Trail
There is no substitute for first hand experience. My brother-in-law Bob Bawn is on a 4 month bike tour across the US and Canada and I joined him for 2 weeks in August to explore the British Columbia to Alberta sections of the Trans Canada Trail. 

In summary: The Trans Canada Trail through British Columbia is of very uneven quality. There are long rails-to-trails sections that match the goal of a "Great Trail", there are some lovely  (but short) single/double track sections, but there are also long stretches of riding on busy highways and other gaps.  Other parts of the claimed trail are not or barely useable due to wash-outs, overgrowth, no maintenance (and little use).  It does not make into my top tier list and I would rate it below the Great Divide route, which is otherwise fairly comparable in terms of trails/roads. In my opinion, the Colorado Trail wins for spectacular scenery and remoteness (although it is very hard with many hours of walking); Trans Germany Bikepacking gets a top slot for a pleasant and car-free route. Neither the Great Divide route or Trans Canada trail are competitive on those dimensions. The Western part of the Trans Canada is not unlike Southern Germany (especially Black Forest) in terms of terrain and vegetation, but Germany has much better bike trails. 

Prologue, Friday August 11:

I flew to Vancouver Friday morning with plans to meet Bob in the evening in Mission, about 80km from downtown Vancouver. 
unpacking my bike at the airport
ready to roll - except the shock is blown

I put my bike together at the Vancouver airport and everything seemed fine until I started rolling. Then I noticed that the seals of the front fork had blown out during the flight. That is not a problem on city roads (but would be once off pavement), so I made my way to downtown Vancouver and tried to get the fork repaired. I had no success with the bike shops around the city center, though. Either they didn't have parts, or experience, or time. But when I called the bike shop in Mission (which was my goal for the day anyway), they promised to fix it as long as I get there before they close. Wenting's Cycle and Mountain shop is just across the commuter train stop in Mission (the last stop, in fact, of the commuter line) and that made it easy to arrive before closing. Thanks to Wenting's, everything was back on track by 8pm. 

Day 1: about 120 km to Chilliwack Lake

Bob and I started Saturday morning from Mission and after less than 2 hours on suburban roads were in the agricultural area of the Fraser valley. The trail in this valley is on dykes along the Sumas river and Vedder canal and made for enjoyable riding that morning. Then it turned onto a short (<1 hour), but unpleasant uphill highway stretch to Cultus Lake with heavy traffic and little space.  Cultus Lake itself feels like a cheap amusement park, but once we got through it, there were dirt roads and even the ATV traffic subsided soon after Cultus Lake. 

The main stretch to Chilliwack Lake is a road, but with many side trails, some of them being the nicest single track trails on our route. However, it feels artificial: rather than a continuous trail, these are little sections of trail that criss-cross the main road and often require a bit of road riding to connect. We did most of the small trails, but eventually got tired of that game and just stayed on the road for the last kms. 

A lovely single track section along Chilliwack Lake Road

Around sunset, we made it to Chilliwack Lake. There were 7 km along the lake shore that were only open to cars during the day, so there was little traffic by 8 and we found a flat spot to camp just before the climb up to Paleface Pass. But as the dirt road up to there is open to cars, our camping spot had its share of gun shells and trash, a theme that would plague us for a couple more days. 

Day 2: Paleface Pass to Hope and beyond, about 80 km

on the way to Paleface Pass

Paleface Pass was one of the harder parts of our ride (in that case, mostly a hike-a-bike up and down). It is part of the Skagit Range of the Cascades Mountains. The uphill took us maybe 2 1/2 hours moving time for about 8 km, so not overly difficult, but certainly a good effort. It was a scenic, although steep, hike-a-bike. 
Bob pushing up towards Paleface Pass

There was a light rain this morning, but we got more wet and cold from the vegetation. The last 3 km to the top were a bit overgrown, but there clearly was a trail. We saw 2 abandoned bikes on the trail that appeared to have been there for some time. 

Near the top

The downhill on the eastern side was supposed to be a deactivated logging road. Maybe 10 years ago. But without much use and no trail maintenance, nature has reclaimed it and rather than an easy roll downhill, we had 8 km of bushwacking. We saw plenty of bear scat, but no evidence that anybody else has been here recently. Sometimes it opened up a bit, but a machete would have come in handy on the descent. 
The downhill bushwack, often no visible trail anymore

Although the pass is less than 1500m high, it sees snow most of the year and even August was chilly, partly because of the wet vegetation that soaked us through our rain gear. Despite tedious bushwacking, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip into a remote section of steep mountains and narrow valleys.

By mid-afternoon, we reached a more widely used forest road and then had a fast downhill roll for a late lunch/early dinner in the small town of Hope. 

Hope is almost the beginning of a long rails-to-trails corridor, the historic Kettle Valley Railway, which would cover the majority of our ride, but not without some breaks in between. It starts with a spectacular section of tunnels and bridges through a narrow gorge about 8 km outside Hope, an engineering wonder (and there would be a few more). The chief engineer of that project, completed in 1916, was fond of Shakespeare and this part was the Othello station.

One of the 4 tunnels near Othello

 Unfortunately, shortly after Othello, nothing is left of the original rail trail and it is road or even highway. We rode a bit on a dirt road paralleling the freeway (highway 5) and once we were separated from the freeway by the river, made camp for the night. The camp spot had lots of potential, but, being easily reachable by car, suffered from the usual trash problem along dirt roads.
Camp day 2 along the Coquihalla River

Day 3: Freeways, Portia, and Otter Lake (about 115 km)

We continued along the dirt road, which the gpx file I downloaded from the greattrail website showed as the official trail, but it came to an end a few km past our camp. No obvious sign for how to continue, except that it would be on the other side of the river. I checked two spots that seemed a bit more promising for crossing the river, but it was too fast and too deep to try (and it was also really cold). There may or may not have been a wood bridge at one point. In any event, we saw no alternative to backtracking to the freeway and riding on the shoulder. Probably no more than 10km on the freeway, but uphill and therefore slow, before we could get off again. At the old Portia station, there is a real trail again that separates from highway 5 and goes into a different valley/hillside. It starts with a lovely flowing single track, then an exposed dirt road in the hot sun. We are getting into the Okanagan region, which feels more like Southern California than the wet coastal section of British Columbia. 

Single track after the Portia station

almost near the top of the pass near Coquihalla lake and the Romeo station. It starts looking like Southern California.

We had ice cream, popcorn, and cold drinks from a food truck at the rest area where the trail rejoined highway 5. The Indian owner spotted me as a cyclist and went into a long tirade how the next section of the trail was going to be terrible, impossible for bicycles, "day and night" compared to what we just did. Bob went shopping a little later and as soon as he was recognized as a cyclist going east got an earful about the non-existent trail, impossible for cycling, just "day and night". Well, it was hard to assess whether this was new information (did the trail get destroyed this spring?) or whether we heard about a chronic problem (we read in a guide book from 10 years ago that there are some washout section and maybe this has been his usual conversation piece for years). In any event, we were going to give the trail a try before doing more freeway riding. 

Nice trail despite dire warnings

It turned out that the trail is in fact very nice for a while, although runs close to the freeway, separated with a fence. There are bicycle/pedestrian exits to and from it every few km. 

Bob taking the exit onto the freeway

and off again, the last 25km on the freeway hadn't been fun
Once off the highway, there was a confusing patchwork of trails and dirt roads, but we soon found our way. Not getting too lost is important here as the mountain sides are very steep and being just a km - or even just a few hundred meters - off route could mean being in the wrong canyon. We didn't get too lost and had only minimal backtracking to find the route. The rest of the afternoon/evening was on a pleasant old rail trail and we camped at Otter lake. Not bad, although once again we were near a road where cars are allowed and that almost guarantees trash - but that was the last time. 

Day 4: Princeton and Trout Creek (about 110 km)

It was a lovely, but chilly, morning and we had a particularly nice stretch of rail trail. I was riding behind Bob when my throat was itching, as if I had swallowed a bug, and I kept coughing. Once I convinced myself that there actually was nothing stuck in my throat, I attributed it to smoke from the wildfires that had blanketed much of British Columbia for a few weeks, although the morning seemed to be clear. A little later, Bob complained about it, too. 

We rolled into Princeton late morning, stopped at a supermarket to restock, did laundry, and went to a cafe for lunch. One other bike with similar luggage was leaning against the railing. It belonged to a woman from Sheffield, UK, who was on her way to Penticton for an international triathlon competition scheduled that weekend. She had flown into Vancouver and rode her bike, but it was also her race bike with 23mm tires and that required her to stay on pavement. After we had parked our bikes alongside hers and sat down, she started to cough, too, and complained that she always gets sick on international travel to competition. We assured her that this probably is just from wildfire smoke than an impending illness. Other customers coughed, too, after all. Having finished eating (she was on her way by then), Bob checked his bike and noticed a liquid on his bar and found that he punctured his can of bear spray. He briefly waved it around, which over the next few minutes not only set off coughing fits among people sitting outside, but even indoors. The cafe was next to a car wash and Bob started to hose his equipment down. It turned into a much longer break than planned.

By the afternoon, we were on the trail again and for the next few days, it was unambiguous rail trails with minimal gradients. The maximum gradients, either up or down, were around 2%, but typically more like 0.6-0.9%. It didn't make the elevation changes go away, so out of Princeton, we were climbing for maybe 40 km. 
Typical rail trail look for the next few hundred km

We camped around sunset near a trestle over Trout Creek, our first unambiguously good camp.

Day 5: Summerland, Penticton, Chute Lake, and detour to Kelowna (110km on the route, plus 22 km detour)

There is a regular pattern on these rail trails: 30-50 km downhill to about 400-500 m, 30-50 km uphill to about 1200m, 30-50 km downhill to 400-500, keep repeating. So after a long downhill run from last night's camp, we got to Summerland on the west side of Okanagan Lake. Hot, dry, many vineyards, could be California.
Unfortunately, no trail along the lake to Penticton (at the Southern end of Okanagan Lake), only a busy highway. I bought new bear spray in Penticton, we had lunch (no coughing today, although the air today was hazy from wildfire smoke), and over to the next 40 km climbed back up to about 1200m. Being fully exposed to the sun, it was a hard afternoon, felt like a day in the Los Padres (e.g. going up Sierra Madre Road). 

view of Okanagan Lake and Kelowna from the Kettle Valley Rail trail
 While Kelowna, the largest town in the Okanagan valley, is on the east side of the lake, just up from Penticton, there is no paved road and the closest connection is a dirt road with an 800 m elevation gain (cars instead take the long way around the other side of the lake).  At the top of the mountain/pass are the famous Myra Canyon trestles, another major engineering feat. Despite having burned down in wildfires twice in the last 30 years, they get rebuilt because of their historic (and touristic) role. Here is the puzzling fact about the historic Canadian rail routes: They don't necessarily go to cities and its designers were mainly concerned about getting over the mountains than serving towns. So the railway line ran far above Kelowna (about 900 meters vertically). Myra Canyon would make a spectacular bivy spot if you arrive late at night, but it was 7.30 and there were still many visitors. In fact, even the bike rental shop in the parking lot was still open! 

The last days (and today) had not been easy and Bob was developing saddle sores, so it was time for a rest day. Only 20 km into town and they were very fast 20km (after all, 900 m elevation loss).  
Myra Canyon Trestles

Day 6: Rest day in Kelowna

Bob took the rest day very seriously and hung around the local park and motel, while I rode around town and along the lake shore. I like Kelowna a lot, the downtown area is pretty, many bike trails (almost never have to fight with traffic), and it seems to be a very livable town. Plenty of arts activity as well. 
Marina in downtown Kelowna

Busking is well regulated, but the "Stop" is more in the sense of bus stop, it is "the place to do it" (with a permit, of course), rather than "don't do it"

downtown park

Day 7: Railtrail to Kettle River Recreation area, 110 km

I couldn't stomach the idea of climbing back up 900m to Myra Canyon on a wide dusty dirt road with heavy traffic. But no need as there are lots of bike shuttles (a common tourist route is to shuttle bikes up to Myra and let them roll down to Penticton). In fact, the day before, we met a former outdoor guide who said we may be the only cyclists actually riding to the top. While waiting for our shuttle, we had breakfast at a nice bakery downtown (and there seem to be many similar choices) and trail runners met there after their Friday morning run as well. 

Now that we were about at the top again, most of the rest of the day was fairly flat or even (almost imperceptibly) downhill. Even a slight downhill requires some effort, though, as the trail is a soft surface, sometimes outright sandy. 

Beautiful lunch spot
 The afternoon was hot again, exacerbated by getting back to lower elevation and a shadeless area that has been damaged by wildfires not long ago. The Kettle river is also an agricultural (cattle) area and the water was dirty, very different from the great water we found along most of the route. On bikepacking routes in Southern California, we'd be delighted to find water like the Kettle River or later the Columbia River, but on this route, it was inferior water. We stopped across the bridge from the Kettle River Recreation area, far enough to be away from cars and noise, but close enough that we could take a shower and get water from the campground. 

Not too far from the Kettle River recreation area
Picnic tables on the right, Kettle River recreation area. 

Day 8. Saturday More Kettle River and then climbing again from  Christina Lake on (about 120 km)

Bob had taken his rest day in Kelowna too seriously and not replacing tires or cleaning gear in Kelowna now caught up with him. His tires had over 4000 km on them since he started his ride in Colorado more than two months earlier, well past what one can expect from a mountain bike tire. Yesterday, the front tire started to leak and had a very soft spot that seemed ready to burst. The leaked bear spray hasn't evaporated either and made his tent unusable. However,  now there wasn't much that can be done about it, the last good bike shop  (or outdoor gear store) for a while had been in Kelowna. The best bet for finding a tire was in Grand Forks and that required doing 80km before the store's Saturday 3 pm closing time (and it would be closed Sunday). We had an early start to make sure we make it and that way arrived in Greenwood for breakfast. 

Breakfast at the Copper Eagle in Greenwood

It was a fairly agricultural area with many cattle gates to open and close.

A little after Greenwood, Bob took a pavement shortcut along highway 3. The trail to Grand Forks ran along a different valley and was supposed to be rocky, not something his tires were in the shape to handle at that point. I continued on the trail to Grand Forks. 

Tunnel on the trail to Grand Forks

Grand Forks isn't much of a town, but at least it had a bike store that stocked tires. The owner didn't seem to have much experience setting up tubeless tires and Bob was plagued with slow leaks for another two days until the next real bike shop (I think not enough sealant and not enough effort making sure the bead is sealed), but at least his tires were no longer in danger of bursting.

Right now, we were in an area where the route went south and north and south and north without making too much progress going east. Distance wasn't the concern to railway engineers, but elevation changes, and the mountains are steep here. After Christina Lake, however, they ran out of rivers to go north and south and on to the next long, long climb eastward. A little way up, we met Aidan who is on a long hike across Canada ( So far, Bob has the edge in distance covered (2 wheels are just a lot faster than 2 legs), but Aidan is planning to go for 3 years and 20,000km, putting even Bob's 4 month and maybe 7000 km into perspective. 

The two real long distance tourers, Aidan and Bob

Day 9. Sunday's Castlegar confusion, about 110km

We stopped for the day well before sunset, maybe after 15 km of climbing past Christina Lake. But we also had an early start and had been in a hurry to buy tires before the bike store in Grand Forks closed.

In any event, the climb felt much easier early in the morning on Sunday than it did late in the afternoon on Saturday. We stopped a few times for raspberries (around Vancouver, there were plenty of boysenberries, almost a weed there, but now it was mainly raspberries). They complemented my rather sparse Sunday diet (at least until we make it to Castlegar).

Sunday morning: That's all the food I have left for the day

We passed a few beaver ponds, saw the first bear on the trip, made it through a very long and cold tunnel (longest tunnel on that trip, wet, too), and enjoyed a very long gentle downhill. Very nice ride until Castlegar.

Beaver ponds

A shy beaver swimming away
  By afternoon, we reached the Columbia River (or rather a somewhat inflated version of it, as it is dammed into a lake here) and Castlegar (with another nearby town named Raspberry). 
Upper Arrow Lake / Columbia River

Lots of wood in the river before Castlegar, possibly the main industry here

Castlegar is a small industrial town with lots of churches and not much more. The influence of churches seems pretty big as everything (including all restaurants) is closed on Sunday, the exception being the one supermarket. 

After Castlegar, things became extremely confusing. We tried what is listed as the official trail, but even finding that was difficult (the gpx files showing the entry are wrong). Once we found the only path that could be the trail (and it had TCT signs), it would have been even difficult for hikers. We spent an hour on maybe 1 km before trying to escape, but that required climbing a big fence (where I punctured two water bottles). Then we tried the main road (highway 3A), which was extremely unpleasant. Eventually, we found a road detour that had been described in Obee's 2008 guide book for bicycle touring. So there is a big undisclosed gap in the trail after Castlegar. We did find an excellent camping spot for the night, though, possibly the best one, but far away from the alleged Trans Canada Trail. 

Day 10. Nelson, Ferry across Kooteney Lake, to Crawford Bay 80 km

After a few hours, we reconnected with the "trail", which by then was the same paved road we were riding on (not great for hiking or horses). It was Monday, the day of the eclipse, which we completely missed. I had expected to notice a change in daylight, but apparently didn't and as we got into the city of Nelson, the eclipse was over. Nelson is a cute artsy town with good bike shops and Bob added enough sealant and pressure to finally get a tight seal and end his leaks. 

There is a signed trail through the streets in town, but then it is 30 km of highway to Kootenay Lake where we arrived in time for the 5.20 pm ferry. 
On the ferry across Kootenay Lake. 

The other side greeted us with a painfully steep climb, followed immediately by a similar descent. We stopped in Crawford Bay, a tiny artsy enclave (too small to be called a town), for pizza and then headed into the forest for the night. 

Day 11. To Kimberley Nature Park 95 km

short single track section after Crawford Bay

Today was by far the biggest climbing day. After an hour of warm-up (part of it on single track paralleling the road), we had a 15km and 1500m climb that took us about 3 1/2 hours of moving time (plus additional break time). Clearly, rail trails were over! No raspberries, but lots of blueberries on top. 

Also the closest bear encounter. A black bear wasn't paying too much attention and walked on the road just a few meters in front of me, then jumped off after noticing me. 

It was a long climb, but then it makes for a similarly long descent

The descent was nice, too, except that at the bottom we joined a very wide dusty dirt road with traffic. Utterly atrocious and as unpleasant as freeway riding, although for different reasons. Eventually, it turned into pavement and after another 10km or so, we made a turn into the Kimberley Nature Park. We hiked up until we found a reasonable camping spot. It was well after dark by then.

Day 12. Kimberley Nature Park to Cranbrook (40km)

Bob still snoozing in the Kimberley Nature Park, there is a similar picture of Obin in Germany's Black Forest. Both situations involved a late evening hike-a-bike.
Obin im Schwarzwald a few years ago, after a similarly long day in the saddle and evening hike-a-bike

The day started with lovely single track trails through the Nature Park into town. Kimberley is a nice town, too, but unfortunately had a power outage that morning, so no breakfast available. We continued to Cranbrook, which was 30km away, but a paved rail trail that is very fast. 

Last day: Cranbrook trails to Wardner and back (60km)

As I was flying out of Cranbrook (the last airport before Calgary), I was done, but I rode with Bob for 30 km out of Cranbrook. Then went back to get my bike shipped from Gerick's bike shop, a large and well-stocked bike store in Cranbrook.  

The area around Kimberley and Cranbrook really did get the idea of the Trans Canada Trail right, all nice trails suitable for multiple uses (hike, bike, horses), no motorized traffic. We met a group of mountain bikers, one of them was active in the trail building community, and she said it was embarrassing how the Trans Canada Trail is advertised, given its uneven and incomplete nature.   

Fairly new and very well maintained single track after Cranbrook

Going home

Cranbrook is a really tiny airport, that's it (10 am, no airplane anywhere)

On the 11.40 flight to Vancouver, Rocky Mountains in the background

Flying over the area we biked in last week (but in the valleys)

the columbia river/lake again from the top

Now on a big jet plane from Vancouver. I think it is Mt Rainier in Washington

 downtown Los Angeles - almost home

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