Kettle Valley Railway – 100 Km’s For 100 Years
I was there for the planning of the trip to Naramata. I recall talk of wine-tasting tours by ebike and a plan to use the bikes to haul the ISUP’s down to Okanagan Lake for a morning paddle. I was the one who suggested riding the ebikes on the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), an abandoned railway that stretches hundreds of kilometers and is a popular attraction for riders and hikers.
I’d ridden stretches of it many times a few years earlier during a summer I lived on the Bench in a fruit picker’s shack at Tightrope Winery The smooth, low-angle rail bed was a great way to rehabilitate a busted-up knee I’d suffered from the previous ski season, and I thought the ebikes would be a fun way to explore more of the historic area.
What I do not recall was the decision to ride 100 km’s on the KVR, under the blazing hot sun, doing an out-and-back from Naramata to the Myra Canyon Trestles, billed by someone in the group as a “century club” ride to celebrate the railway’s 100th birthday. I was dubious; the crew I was with are a lot less “history buff” and a lot more “if a little is good, a lot must be better” crowd. A cruisy afternoon ride would turn into a test of human – and battery – endurance, for some more than others.
The KVR opened in 1915 as part of the “Coast-to-Kootenay” line built to bring ore from the booming gold, silver, lead and zinc mines of the Kootenay’s in BC’s interior to the west coast where it could be shipped by sea. The line was one of the most expensive ever built in North America, in part because of the unfriendly topography of the area; the famed Myra Canyon is a great example of why the costs were so high. Though just a few km’s long, the route required the construction of some 18 trestles – built of wood timbers in those days – and 2 tunnels, all perched precariously on the side of Okanagan Mountain, 3,000 thousand feet above Okanagan Lake.
The line was officially abandoned in 1990, in large part due to the increase of trucking, though bikers and hikers had been using stretches of it for many years prior to the abandonment. In 1992 the Myra Canyon Trestle Restoration Society (MCTRS) was formed to make the area safer and more accessible to the public. News of the attraction continued to spread, and within 10 years the canyon saw an estimated 30,000 visitors annually. The KVR now totals 600 km’s of gravel-packed rail bed that’s ideal for bike touring, gently ascending and descending at a steady 2.2 % grade.
CHUTE LAKE RESORT - A STEP BACK IN TIME
We began our “century club” ride at the Chute Lake Resort, a small rustic hotel that has truly been frozen in time, giving visitors the feeling that they’ve somehow slipped into a Twilight Zone episode. We departed from the resort at 2:00 in the afternoon with 5 electric fat bikes and a trailer to haul the film and camera equipment, food and a remarkably insufficient supply of cold beverages. We did have the forethought to bring an extra battery for the bike that would tow the trailer, and, like seasoned adventurers, we snuck in one last nutritious meal before we set out: a three-scooper ice cream cone from the resort cantina. We suited up – flip-flops, board shorts, bikini tops and sun hats – and set out.
ICE CREAMY GOODNESS
We had a big riding day ahead of us so we agreed to limit the electric assist to level 1 or 2 (5 is the maximum) so that we’d have as much battery power as possible for the return trip, and to get a good idea of how far the bikes would go on a single charge.
We met dozens of other riders on the KVR: some who were out for a quick ride and carried only a water bottle, others who were out for several days and were loaded down with panniers full of heavy camping gear. For the latter, the rail bed was easy going when the ground was firm, but when it turned to soft-packed sand, as it often did, their touring tires would sink in, making the going visibly tough. Our fat tires by contrast made the going easy – loose sand, washboard, you name it.
The bikes garnered a lot of attention, and more than a few people, young and old, went for a spin. Everyone was suitably impressed, but one comment stuck in our minds: “Forgive my French,” said an enthusiastic dude who rode a hard tail mountain bike, “but this thing is f’ing awesome!” Exactly.
It was a great adventure that day on the KVR; the tunnels and trestles are a legacy of the frontier mindset at the turn of the century, and totally worth the effort it takes to get there. We got some great shots and footage that would not have been possible (ok, possible, but maybe not in flip flops) without the advantage of electric assist to cover the distance in one day.
We arrived back at the Chute Lake Resort just in time to make the last call for alcohol (7:00 pm? Seriously?), sucked back what may have been the most refreshing bottle of Kokanee ever, and settled in for the final 40 km leg. The battery power of the bikes began to wane after some 65 or 70 km, though one rider was less fortunate. His battery began to sputter at about the 50 km mark, thanks entirely to his love of speed enabled by ‘assist level 5’, an ebike-touring nemesis. That guy was me.
It was 10:30 by the time we returned to camp with a blue moon rising over Okanagan Mountain to light our way; the party in the vineyard below was in full swing. We sat down with our friends to eat and drink and share stories of the big day, savouring the feeling of accomplishment you get at the end of an epic ride. And so we sat, dusty, exhausted and smiling: it was only day two on the Naramata Bench, there was still lots to come.