QC2BC13: Over 2 Mountain Passes (2020/08/03)
I love the road from Canmore to Banff for its gentle introduction to the mountain world. It takes us through evergreen forests, ice-cold rivers with patches of snow in the peaks above showing the birthplace of the grey-green water.
We stopped in to the town of Banff but found its main streets transformed into construction zones as the city worked to convert it to a walking village. The large number of tourists, cars, and small shops remained but we often felt like we were walking down back alleys as we were redirected around the construction.
It brought to mind the tremendous challenges that the parks have faced with their conflicting mandates to encourage and inform people about the natural environment yet at the same time protect it. One can see evidence of the challenges they face in the major attractions like Banff, Lake Louise, or the Columbia Ice Fields but it is also apparent in the limitations imposed on backcountry hikers and campers. It’s also apparent driving on the main highways when one passes under the special overpasses for animals to safely cross the busy roads.
We also noticed the increasing height of the mountains as we travelled west of Banff. The tree line got closer to our road and the patches of snow grew into glacier-type regions in spite of the August sunshine.
I remember coming through this area as a child when the roads were narrower, rougher, and there was no such thing as an animal overpass. The new look of the roads shows significant adaptations for the influx of people, their toys, and their cars.
As we approached the Lake Louise turnoff we saw signs regarding parking restrictions and traffic control that indicated it would be extremely busy with tourists, so we decided to avoid the visit this time–no matter how spectacular the lake.
Kicking Horse Pass
The breadth and good condition of the road diverted attention from the fact that we were climbing higher toward the first major pass of the day: Kicking Horse Pass. The more frequent visibility of the train line was also a good clue, since the narrowness of the pass has forced the road and train closer together. We also noticed increased train activity as the sidings filled up with units waiting their turn to travel up or down the steepest part of the pass via the spiral tunnels.
The Kicking Horse route through the mountains was chosen by the Canadian Pacific Railroad when it first came through the Rockies in 1884. The pass was so steep that they had to add on extra engines to get up and faced considerable dangers going down. After a number of runaway trains, they constructed a couple of tunnels that formed a figure 8 by going into the mountain as they gained height. These created the famous spiral tunnel, where one can see the engine emerging from the higher tunnel as the tail end of the train (in my childhood days, it was the caboose) enters well below the engine.
There is a nice lookout on the road where one can see this impressive spiral. We stopped to see if a train was passing through at the time we were there, but saw none, so continued on our way. On our last time through (2005) our timing was perfect. A train entered the first tunnel just as we arrived, exited with its tail still entering, and finally exited above the road after making its way through the second tunnel. It needed extra engines at the back and middle to make the trip.
Our decision to continue without a stop at the spiral tunnels was also encouraged by the arrival of a dramatic rain squall as we headed down the hill into the Kicking Horse valley and the railyard where extra engines were waiting to help with the climb ahead.
The whole region is not only impressive for the beauty of the rushing river and towering peaks, but for the history it represents as the railroad engineers searched for acceptable routes through the Rockies. The Kicking Horse Pass (and related Rogers Pass) was the first to be completed, the Crowsnest Pass farther to the south was the second (1898), and the Yellowhead Pass in the north was the third (1913). All of them have their own delights and special stories.
The Rocky Mountain Trench
Travelling west from the Kicking Horse pass, we began the long and winding trip down into the Rocky Mountain Trench. The many pull-outs for trucks to check their brakes and the runaway turnouts reinforced the steepness of the route and its potential dangers. When we rounded the hill high above the town of Golden we breathed a sigh of relief–knowing that the RV had managed the hill with no problem.
The valley at Golden is another highlight of this trip. It is a long, wide valley with impressive mountains rising above on both sides with a cold-looking mountain river winding through its center. At its south lies Golden–a mountain town with an obvious outdoors focus as shown in the small shops appealing to a young and active clientele.
The road turns north to follow the eastern side of the valley–providing many glorious vistas of the mountains and river–until it crosses over the river at the northern end of the valley, then starts its climb up the slope of the western mountains to traverse the last major pass before we drop into the western foothills of this route.
The trip over the mountains through Rogers Pass is as dramatic and storied as the one through the Kicking Horse pass. This one is more about the challenges of snow and avalanches rather than steep slopes. It becomes obvious as the road travels through the many avalanche sheds on it way up to the summit, and the observant traveller can see the round concrete installations beside the road where large guns are installed to shoot into the winter snow in an effort to trigger avalanches before they become too big.
The challenges and drama of this pass are well documented in the interpretation centre at the summit–another stop which is well-justified for any traveller. Although we stopped for a quick photo at the summit, we did not spend time in the interpretive centre as we had done on several of our earlier trips. We were also eager to get to Fran’s sister in Sicamous.
The long trip down the west side of the Rockies had it own special appeal–this time because of the changing vegetation. Not only does it change from the hardy evergreen of the high altitudes, but the underbrush grew thicker among the mixed vegetation–showing the effects of the higher level of moisture on the west side of the mountains. As the prevailing west winds are pushed higher by the mountains, they drop their moisture, providing an abundant venue for deciduous and evergreens alike–along with ferns, bushes, and rich underbrush.
The Eagle River Valley
By the time we reached Revelstoke we knew that the Rockies were behind us. Crossing the bridge over the Columbia River we were reminded of one of the more famous and important rivers in Canada. Born in the Rockies, it takes a route down into the USA creating the need for one of the more interesting international agreements regarding the use of water for power, agriculture, and consumption before it comes out at Portland in Washington State.
Once we passed Revelstoke, we wound our way through the many lush valleys of the western foothills. We did not stop at Craigellachie after crossing the Eagle summit since we had visited it a number of times in the past. It is the location of the “Last Spike”, ceremoniously driven by Sir Donald Smith of CPR fame in 1885. It has been used to represent the completion of the CPR route from east to west in Canada.
Not far beyond this monument we followed the winding Eagle river to its exit at Shuswap Lake, the village of Sicamous, and our welcome for the night at Wilma and Gary’s house.