British Columbia, Smell of the Pacific


After Alberta, travelling west, I anticipated the Pacific Ocean. But first, there were more mountains to cross and wilderness on a scale that even Alberta cannot match. The planners of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) must have stared askance at the mountain passes and precipices confronting their surveyors before the Kicking Horse southern route was chosen.

The main line of the CPR was constructed between Lake Louise, Alberta (Banff) and Field, British Columbia, using this route in 1880s, in preference to the originally planned route through the more northerly Yellowhead Pass.

A little history offers insight into the difficulties constructing a railroad through the steep rock cliffs that comprise the Yoho National Park, which extends west from the border with Banff. The pass and adjacent river were first explored by Europeans in 1858 by the Palliser Expedition led by Captain John Palliser. James Hector, the naturalist/geologist in the party, was kicked by his horse while exploring the region.

The original route of the CPR between the summit of the pass near Wapta Lake and Field was the steepest stretch of any mainline railroad in North America. There were frequent accidents and expensive helper engines were required to negotiate the terrain. The CPR then opened a pair of Spiral Tunnels in 1909 that replaced the direct route. It was miles longer but the grade was reduced to a more manageable 2.2%. These multiple tunnels are clearly visible from the highway today. The Trans-Canada Highway was constructed through the pass in 1962 following essentially the original CPR route. The road's highest point is at an elevation of 1,643 metres (5,390 ft).

It was at this pass where I conversed with a young woman who was approaching the last leg of a multi-month bicycle traverse of Canada, coast to coast. Her bike, laden with the comforts needed in discomfort, is an accomodation that is quite a contrast to the luxury train coaches that carried curious tourists into this thickly forested landscape over the past decades.

Her anticipation of the conclusion of her singular adventure was evident as she indicated a sense of relief that from that point her ride would be downhill for miles and miles. And it was. We had crossed the Continental Divide. But, of course, she was riding mostly against the wind -- all the way across Canada. Hmm. (I wish I could remember her name).

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