Bikepacking Across BC : The Kootenays

Nelson to Pend-d’Orielle River / 76k / 5:30:23 / 657m / June 27, 2020 

I had just drifted off into dreamland when I was startled awake by rustling against the tent. My gut reaction was to swat at whatever little critter had decided to get so close to me that I could hear it nibbling near my ear. I backhanded the bottom side of the mesh and felt its furry body bounce back, hitting the overarching fly and then scrambling off into the night. “Punk.” I whispered under my breath. I laid back down and listened carefully. Nothing. 

We awoke the next morning to the burning sun rising over the sparkling blue waters of the Pend-d’Oreille River. As we stretched our arms up to the sky, we congratulated each other on a successful first night in our brand new Big Agnes tent that we had waited and waited and waited for with great anticipation. As I reached behind my back to grab the puffy jacket that doubled as my pillow, a small portal to the outside world caught my attention. 

I rubbed my eyes to make sure I was seeing things right. “That little bastard chewed a hole in our tent!” I said angrily, looking around as if it might have spent the night splayed out in my vestibule. Mat leaned over to assess the damage. “Well, what’s done is done.”

It didn’t take long for my anger to dissipate as I unzipped the tent and let the daylight flood in. We were perched upon a little piece of paradise. A soft, dirt floor overlooking the turquoise waters of this stunning tributary to the Columbia River. Nestled between sturdy evergreens and lime green foliage, I was exactly where I wanted to be and I knew that staying mad would only rob me of this moment.

Waking up on our perched piece of paradise along the Pend-d’Oreille River in the southeastern Kootenay region of British Columbia on our bikepacking adventure.

It was the first full day of our cross British Columbia bike trip that we’d been excitedly routing for the past four months. We had pieced together a map of as many gravel roads, repurposed rail beds, logging branches and bike trails as we could, doing our best to avoid bustling roadways and long stretches of pavement at all costs. We were ablaze with excitement for our path.  

Lovers of novelty and chasers of flow, Mat and I continue to be drawn out by new routes, places we’ve never seen, roads we’ve never been on and areas we didn’t know existed until we stumble upon them or catch word of their existence. We’re always hunting for an off-beat way to bike to any destination, new or previously visited. How can we make life more fun, more scenic, more exploratory, more challenging, more remote?  

Hence, our summer trajectory. 

We had started out the day prior, quite literally from the back door of what had been our temporary home base in Nelson, BC and traversed the entire Great Northern Rail Trail towards Salmo, ending up on the Nelson-Nelway Road bound for the Pend-d’Oreille River. After branching south off the Crowsnest Highway, we climbed our way towards the US border, but being that it was COVID-closed, the otherwise busy pavement was silent and serene.

Getting uncomfortably close to the border crossing with cannabis in our bags, we kept a keen eye out for our right hand turn down a short paved path that quickly descended our recently gained elevation towards the Idaho-originating waterway. It was breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. How had we never been here before?

Traversing the dirt road along the Pend-d’Oreille River on our bicycles. It’s a perfect dirt road for bike travel, we even saw some old Trans Canada Trail signs along the route.

The road soon turns to dirt and becomes speckled with 4×4 rigs situated on either side, each nook filled with knowing locals who had stashed away at their favorite little pullout, equipped with RVs, fishing rods, barbeques and beers. We rolled the double wide dirt path until we found our home, a stone’s throw from the road but far enough down the embankment to be excused from the passers-by exhaust. 

Somehow, amidst the abundance of boondocked visitors, the area felt tranquil and still. The perfect place to have our first rest, fading off to sleep to make way for the wild woodland creatures to make their grand appearance.

Pend-d’Oreille River to Violin Lake / 65.5k / 5:40:52 / 1,197m / June 28, 2020

From this little piece of Pend-d’Oreille paradise, our plan was to continue edging along the southern British Columbia mountains through the Kootenay region and up into the Okanagan. We knew the road we were on would eventually turn to asphalt and spit us out at the Seven Mile Dam where raging waters explode out the concrete spillway, creating hydroelectric power at an immense rate. It’s also a great place for a scenic smoke break. 

From here, we would ride right through the Teck-laden town of Trail, BC and resupply at the best little grocery store in the Koots, the Italian-owned Ferraro Foods. As we sat outside under the fiery sun, I pulled up an old message on my phone. Our cycle-centric friend Rory from up the hill in Rossland had recommended we re-route ourselves up to the stunning Violin Lake via Casino Road where neither Mat nor I had been.

It would be one helluva uphill grind on fully loaded bikes, but there was no quieter way to go and the lake would regale us with great rewards, he promised. We were in. A short bit of route research and a google map screenshot later and we were rolling our way along Riverside Avenue in sync with the raging southbound waters of the mighty Columbia. 

Up, up, up through the teeny tiny community of Casino and sneaking past the locked yellow logging gates put us on a gravel grind towards our new day’s destination. We stopped in the midday heat to guzzle back some delicious, life giving water and take in the expansive views. 

The sky was angry against the mountainous backdrop and the cloud cover changed from bright white to light grey to a deep black in a matter of minutes. 

Watching the storm brew in the background as we climbed up Casino Road and along the reactivated service road towards Violin Lake.

As we watched the storm brew, two large men on quads came barreling over the back roads and brought themselves to a stop beside us. “Do you know where you’re going?” the first man laughed, cutting the are-we-allowed-passed-this-gate tension. “Kind of,” I smiled back, “We are heading for Violin Lake. I know it’s the town’s watershed up there, but someone said we would be okay to camp there for the night.”

They were so impressed that we had biked here from Nelson, (hell, so was I), that they gave us the locals nod of approval. “I’ve always wanted to camp up there,” said the second guy, “just make sure you bring some bug spray.” They both laughed as they rode away with a wave.

As we continued along the undulating road, the sky broke wide open. As if in perfect harmony with our route, the rain, hail and lightning would pound down on us as we reached each peak and then calm to a stop as we descended the next ridge, then storm, then calm, then storm and finally calm. 

Eventually, we reached the alpine watershed and decided to pitch our tent at the toe of the waterway before becoming too tired. Feeling slightly underwhelmed at the beauty, I felt I had let my expectations precede me. For years, I had heard about Violin Lake, how stunning the water was, how beautiful the area, how many perfect places to pitch a tent. I tried to muster up some gratitude for what was before me.

Thirty odd minutes had passed when a chatty, middle aged couple walked up the path, fishing rods in one hand, Old Mikwaukee in another, proudly draped in their Boston Bruins sweaters. Being that they shared a fondness with my father’s favorite sports team, I felt it necessary to strike up a conversation and they reciprocated with enthusiasm.

We chatted a few minutes before he looked over at our staked tent and then out at the water. I wondered if he was wary of our camping here. Instead, he pointed up the road as asked, “Have you two been to Violin Lake? If you think this is nice, well, it’s even more beautiful than this.”

My jaw dropped. “So this . . . this isn’t Violin Lake?” I stuttered, looking around. “Nope, this is the reservoir,” he said matter of factly. “Violin Lake is about another kilometre or so up the road from here,” he looked at his wife for reassurance. “Yep,” she said, “and it’s worth the trip.”

The fake Violin Lake. In retrospect, the sign should have been a dead giveaway. Perhaps I was a bit more fatigued than I care to admit.

Suddenly it all made sense. We thanked them profusely for being our ‘trail angels’ and to the universe for having them show up in black and yellow regalia that would lead us to a chat.

Then, for the first time in our five years of bike travel, we packed up our tent before sleeping the night in it and relocated ourselves up the road to the far more beautiful and pristine shores of the great, Violin Lake. 

The real Violin Lake. So thankful to our trail angels for leading us here to spend the night.

Violin Lake to Santa Rosa Rec Site / 46k / 4:34:59 / 1,205m / June 29, 2020

We couldn’t have asked for better weather to rise to on the morning of our third day on the trail. Not a single cloud in the vast Kootenay sky, we knew we had to start the day by swimming in the stunning waters that had been turned into sparkling gems but the beaming sunlight. 

A perfect Kootenay morning to go swimming in the stunning alpine lake. The brisk water is a great recovery tool for our legs after gaining so much elevation on our bikes.

Worry not, my friends, for both the reservoir and the lake has been decommissioned as the local watershed years back, it’s just the tough-talking ‘keep out’ signs that remain to deter the faint of heart. 

Unable to locate the Pipeline Road that would have taken us a sneaky back route into the Rossland Range, we opted to descend the free-wheeling, brake-squealing, dusty, fun backroad down to Warfield so we could make our way up the historic Wagon Road and arrive in Rossland the old fashioned way. 

We stopped in downtown Rossland at the fantastic Alkeme Foods to pick up our package of pre-ordered Mountain Bites that we knew would be the perfect fuel for our upcoming challenge on the Old Cascade Highway.

The amazing and delicious Alkeme Nut & Seed Bars – aka Mountain Bites. Real food, transformative food. Perfect for every adventure, always.

Then, after a second quick pit stop for a bubbly brew at the Rossland Beer Co. we took our Hazy IPA filled legs and headed west out of town.

The Old Cascade Highway is an incredibly stunning, 74 kilometre wilderness route that features not one but two gravel mountain passes as it climbs, descends and switchbacks it’s way through the majestic Monashee mountain range.

The historic roadway connects the quaint mountain town of Rossland with the sleepy tourist town of Christina Lake via the Sheep Creek Valley. It offers wide open vistas that gaze off into the vast expanse of the Cascade Mountains and down into the deep green valleys and rolling rivers across the US border divide.

Looking out from the Old Cascade Highway towards the US Border to the south.

It has long been on our radar to explore by bike. 

Damn near smack dab in the center of the both mountain passes is the Santa Rosa Creek Rec Site, a fantastic little single serve spot nestled in a shady cedar grove with a picnic table and plenty of fresh water. It is perfectly positioned for getting some rest after accomplishing the Cascade climb and before tomorrow’s effort up the Santa Rosa Summit. 

The forested space is a first come, first serve situation and we felt mega-fortunate to be the ones who got the spot. After having settled in the space and pitched our stormproof shelter, three different vehicles passed by, slowing down to hope it was theirs for the night. 

Alas, we were already home.  

Our perfect bikepacking tent set up at the Santa Rosa Creek Rec Site along the Old Cascade Highway in the Kootenay Region of BC.

Santa Rosa Rec Site to Christina Lake (Cascade Trestle) / 40k / 3:27:56 / 861m / June 30, 2020

We didn’t see a single logging truck until we began climbing up the Santa Rosa side of the Old Cascade Highway on our second day traversing the road. We waved to the first crew of fellas as we rounded the switchback and saw their tree-hacking equipment lined up on a muddy patch in clear cut on the side of the road. They waved back.”They’ll radio the others.” Mat assured me.

Perhaps our excitement for the route is what kept us from feeling too overwhelmed by the effort, or maybe after four days on the road, we were finally getting into the swing of things. Either way, we ascended towards the summit in what felt like record time.

Making our way to the top of the Santa Rosa Summit along the Old Cascade Highway by bike.

A few kilometres from the top, another quad wielding, middle-aged man stopped his journey down the mountain in the middle of our gravel grind to greet us. The crest on his work shirt and the brown clipboard on his dash led us to believe he was part of the forestry team and his actions verified our suspicions. 

“You know there is active logging on this road,” he said to us as he made fervent eye contact. 

“Yep, we’ve seen a couple of trucks already and it seems like they know we’re here.”

“Yes, well it can be dangerous, you know,” he continued, “cycling on a road like this with big trucks like that.” We nodded our heads. “Where are you going anyways?”

We told him about our route this far and our plans ahead. It seemed to surprise him that we would choose the mostly peaceful gravel over the distracted drivers on the bustling pavement, which always blows my mind. 

“We feel safer here.” I told him. “The roads are quieter, the drivers are professionals and we can hear a logging truck coming from many miles away. Plus, it’s incredibly easy for a bike to pull over to the far side of the road when a vehicle is approaching, we are much smaller than a car.”

He thought about it for a moment and nodded slowly. No sooner had the works left my mouth than we heard the rattling and felt the rumbling of an unloaded logging truck, bouncing down the dirt switchbacks ready for another load. He heard it too. Looking over his shoulder, he waved, “Gotta go!”

But as he reached for the ignition key, his engine wouldn’t fire. He hit this button and that, but it still wouldn’t start. The sound of the trucks banging chains was getting closer and he was right in the middle of its path. We could tell he was getting frantic, looking over his shoulder while trying to toggle every switch on the dash. There would be no time for the logging truck to stop once it came around the switchback. My palms were starting to sweat.

At what felt like the last possible moment, the engine finally fired up and he sped off down the dirt road, obviously feeling like a fool for scolding us while then becoming the safety hazard. We had to laugh at the irony as we waved and watched the big truck jumble by, oblivious to what had transpired.

We soaked in the sunny summit rays and mowed down some salty snacks from a rickety old wood platform at the top of our climb. A world of deep green tree tops stretched out before us, alive with the songs of summer birds and the buzzing of nature’s choir. It was spectacular. 

The view from the top of the Santa Rosa Summit on the Christina Lake side of the Old Cascade Highway. The second of two mountain passed along the gravel road.

From here, we would be rewarded with the joys of a masterful descent down, down, down the rough, dirt road across the raging waters of the Kettle River and into the tropical little town of Christina Lake.  From here, our adventure would continue.

(Stay tuned for the next chapter of Bikepacking Across BC : The Kootenay Boundary)

PS. Did you know you can find all of our bikepacking routes by following us on Strava. Click here to find us.

Crossing the Kettle River along the Kettle Valley River Trail through Christina Lake and into Boundary Country.

2 Replies to “Bikepacking Across BC : The Kootenays”

  1. Hi! I’m trying to follow you on Strava but the link doesn’t take me there. What’s your Strava name? My partner and I have been chatting about a similar route. Can’t wait to hear more!!

    Liked by 1 person

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