Our camping trip in British Columbia, Canada, including a drop down to Yellowstone National Park.

freedom road

[21st September 2016]

Why is it that narrow mountain passes frighten me so much?

Thoughts, I know!

I am eternally grateful that I did not come upon this photo before embarking on this stage:

The Hill
~ taken from https://www.hikebiketravel.com/surviving-eleven-kilometers-terror/
where I was thrilled to find that I am not alone with my terror!

Anyhow, it would not do to be a passenger with eyes tightly shut and a trusty camera lying idle, so while H tried his best to stay away from the edge, I stole a few shots:


‘Freedom Road’ the plaque said. There was nothing free about this pass for me, but the plaque was enough to stimulate my curiosity. Apparently the residents of the valley dubbed it such when on 23 September 1953 the first road out was completed. Before this the only way to obtain goods in the valley was by steamship or by horsepack trains winding down the steep slopes – nothing quick about that.
Provincial officials were unable or unwilling to construct a roadway through this treacherous terrain. However, when they witnessed the brute determination of a small group of volunteers and one bulldozer hired by the Bella Coola Board of Trade, to carve out a very narrow and very steep track with several very extreme tight curves, they agreed to cover some of the costs.
Soon enough that money ran out at which point a second bulldozer operator from Tatla Lake kindly offered his services and started working from the top on a new trail, walked and surveyed by eye. One year after work began, the 2 bulldozers removed the last bit of rock to touch blades. A small blue plaque marks the spot.
~ taken from 101 Things to do along Highway 20.
See also: https://bellacoola.ca/portfolio/history-of-the-hill/

Remarkable indeed!


And then it was over and I relaxed once again on the very flat Chilcotin plains, rolling, before long into Williams Lake once more, taking a sharp right on to Route 97 South all the way down to Green Lake Provincial Park not far beyond 100 Mile House.
We set up camp under the Trembling Aspens on the banks of the lake just as the sun shed its last rays over the still waters.



wilderness loos

Next day: frozen

a cow… or is it?

[20th September]

Bella Coola, derived from “Bilxula”, is the last townsite in the valley where land meets the network of glacial fjords, 100kms inland from the outer coast islands of the Great Bear Rainforest. The First Nations who paddled these fjords more than 10 000 years ago, identified the people living in the Nuxalk (now Bella Coola) as “Bilxula”.
Disappointingly, out of season, nothing happens here. The harbour is very quiet; attractions lie out of reach. Soaking in a hot spring in the wilderness would have been top of my list.

bella coola valley maptaken from https://bellacoola.ca/

We find this Totem Pole in Bella Coola, the townsite, soon after listening to a radio show about the horrendous removal of children from their homes:

0026The inscription on the brass plate on the stone reads:

“The story of the pole is reflective of the experience of the residential school survivors and their community and bears a striking similarity to the Nuxalk Creation Story.
The mother sits at the base of the pole and above her are four children. Those right side up are the children who managed to escape going to the schools, often accompanying their parents into areas the Indian agents couldn’t reach, such as South Bentinck and Kimsquit. The government and church couldn’t assimilate the adults because the culture was too strong, so they went after the children. These are the upside down children who were taken away to the schools and forced to abandon their traditional way of life.
Above the children is the father who is upside down and without a mouth. This is to represent the turmoil of life without a voice, as residential schools tore apart families and left parents without power to speak for their children. The blank space above the father represents how the residential schools stole the culture, language, songs and dances from the people and left them with a gigantic void. We used to live all together, ten families in one longhouse. The schools were meant to take our collective culture by turning us into individuals and removing us from our communities.
In the middle of the pole is the sun, flanked by two ravens. The Creator sent us the sun and this represents hope. The two ravens are returning this to us. Above this is a half-man, half eagle, representing the transformation of the people as they reclaim their culture, language, songs and dances. The transformation is taking place through our healing and reclamation of our culture. We are healing ourselves and moving forward as one community.
Alhkw’ntam and the four carpenters sit atop the pole, symbolizing the final goal of total forgiveness of the world and the chance for the people to heal within themselves. This pole is not meant to be a constant reminder of what happened. It’s a reminder to keep working on ourselves, to keep working on our healing. It’s a reminder that if we work hard on something we will accomplish it in the end.”

Totem Poles:

The word totem is derived from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) word ‘odoodem’ meaning “his kinship group”. Totem Poles were not worshipped but they inspired respect.

Who made Totem Poles:

Totem Poles were not created by all Native Indian tribes and their production was limited to Northwest Indian tribes located in the Pacific Northwest Coast in British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. The names of the Northwest Tribes which carved Totem Poles included:

  • The Tlingit tribe
  • The Haida tribe
  • The Bella Coola tribe
  • The Chinook tribe
  • The Tsimshian tribe
  • Coast Salish

In the culture of the Northwest people Totem Poles were erected in the front of a Northwest Native Indian’s home and would show the ancestry and the social rank of the family. The figures carved on the Totem poles could be humans, animals, or other creatures.

Purpose and Reason for Totem Poles:

Totem poles were made to fill a variety of needs, but their primary purposes were to commemorate people or special events. The first totem poles were carved as part of an elaborate Potlatch ceremony which was a great, expensive feast with deep meaning. Totem poles were later created for other reasons. The Principal purposes and reasons for Totem Poles were:

  • Potlatch Pole – to symbolize the generosity of the person who sponsored the Potlatch ceremony
  • Legend Pole – To record a supernatural encounter
  • Memorial Pole – To commemorate the life of an important person
  • Burial Pole – totem poles were used as grave markers, grave posts  or mortuary totem poles
  • Heraldic Pole – Recording the history of clans or families
  • Portal or Entryway pole – through which a person enters the house, identifying the owner and family of the house
  • Ridicule pole, also called shame pole  – symbolic reminders of debts, quarrels, murders, and other objectionable occurrences
  • Indoor House Pole – supported the roof and bore emblems of the clan
  • Welcoming Pole – situated on waterfronts and identifying ownership of the water and surrounding area

~ taken from https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-culture/totem-poles.htm


There are 17 trails in the valley, but we have come primarily for the bears which means that time allows for only one more short walk.

On this day, then, we choose to do the magical Saloompt Forest Trail:


Photos simply cannot do the experience justice!

Back to camp for a quick lunch before heading out to the platform of camera lenses at the other end of the valley to try our luck with spotting another bear.

En route we pass the cows in the pasture and stop to scan for that one which has adopted a new identity. We are rewarded, but not without the help of our binoculars that magically turn a stump into a pair of antlers. He soon needs to graze a bit so we watch for a while.
The platform yielded nothing on fours legs but we were delighted to find the moose right up against the road on our return past his new herd.


Perhaps not quite the same as out in the wild, but certainly unusual.

Fire and food beckons.

D-day was bound to dawn all too soon; I need to brace myself for the climb out of this adventure.

river float

[19th September]

Our sleeping bags were so toasty but the sounds of the dawn were coaxing us out into the chilly morning; there was that viewing platform after all and we might be missing out. We envied those already there holding steaming cups of coffee, but there was no going back now as they excitedly pointed out the bear. Sure enough, there in the distance, our binoculars zoomed the tiny black speck into a full-sized brown bear waddling along in our direction.  But first, he waded into the icy blue waters to catch himself a fish which he savoured right there in the middle of the river before emerging again and continuing in our direction. He disappeared into the thicket but re-emerged just as we turned back to put that pot on to boil. If those holding their steaming cups had not called us back, we would have missed a sighting, so close, we could hardly believe our good fortune.
We heard later that this was a rare sighting. Little did we know at the time just how lucky we were!


Is it a brown bear or a grizzly? The answer is that all grizzlies are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies. The grizzly is a North American subspecies of brown bear with the Latin name Ursus arctos horribilis. The correct scientific name for a grizzly is “brown bear,” but only coastal bears in Alaska and Canada are generally referred to as such, while inland and Arctic bears and those found in the lower 48 States are called grizzly bears.
~ taken from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/bears-of-the-last-frontier-brown-bear-fact-sheet/6522/

We had a bit of time to kill before meeting the rest of the group for our float down the river, so we dropped in at Snootli Regional Park for a short ramble through the forest. It was magical for us, coming from a dry country; a fairy tale coming to life, our very first taste of trees stretching to the heavens, dripping in moss.

The Big Cedars Trail in the park is home to an ancient cedar grove. The First Nations people used this area, for which respect needs to be shown, to harvest bark and wood from these sacred trees. The scars left, after planks were cut away from the living tree, are clearly visible here.


The weather is not that of a sunny South Africa; in fact we are not even sure if our float down the river will go ahead… but we are not disappointed, rain most definitely does not deter a single thing down here.
This is a gift from my daughter and her husband for my birthday and I am beside myself with excitement! We have a booking with Kynoch Adventure Tours and arrive at the Bella Coola Mountain Lodge 15min prior to departure, to sign the waivers.

While we wait for our guide, we step out into a brief splash of sunshine to meet the other two couples joining us on the float. They are Canadians from Calgary and they are on a road trip across British Columbia.
Time to pile into the van. En route to the boat launch, our guide stops to point out a strange sight among the cattle, but it is nowhere to be seen… another time maybe.
Life jackets on, rules of the river explained, we take our seats and push out into the adventure, not without trepidation… we are hoping to bump into bears, brown bears and black bears!


Up ahead there is a platform on which lenses of extraordinary lengths are propped up on tripods… waiting. Apparently, they can wait in vain for days.

But not today.

We are still heading out into the river when suddenly our guide leaps out of the rubber ducky and drags the boat back. Out of the corner of his eye, he has spotted movement, and there before our very eyes, just a hop away, a brown bear emerges looking altogether just like a giant teddy bear.

What a rush!

0025dlook at those claws!0025f

We have the back seats so I notice when our guide looks back suddenly – he had noticed, he says, that our brown bear had spotted something behind us, and sure enough, a black bear had come down to drink. Sadly though, in a flash, he dashed back for cover. Black bears are shy and do not hang around brown bears. I was very lucky to have spotted that one too.

Black Bears vs Grizzly Bears ~ taken from Bear Smart

Black bears can be black, blue-black, dark brown, brown, cinnamon and even white. Grizzlies, likewise, may range in colour, from black to blond. Although grizzly bears are, on average, significantly larger than black bears, size is not a good indicator of which species is which.

The best indicators are the size of the shoulders, the profile of the face and the length of the claws. The grizzly bear has a pronounced shoulder hump, which the black bear lacks. It also has a concave or “dished” facial profile, smaller ears and much larger claws than the black bear. Black bears have a flatter, “Roman-nose” profile, larger ears, no visible shoulder hump and smaller claws.

See also




for more detail.

When our very knowledgeable guide, who has been in the family business forever, decides to leave our brown bear in peace, we float on down. The cameras cheer and show thumbs up.

The waters ripple with salmon; the edges littered with those that have spawned and died.  Even though it proves to be quite a slippery affair to land a fresh bite, only once the run has come to an end, will the bears settle for rotting flesh.

It rains softly off and on; the nooks and crannies that usually yield bears are dismally quiet… we console ourselves with the thought that we could easily have seen nothing at all on this trip… when all of a sudden, there they are, mother and baby, frolicking with fish. Bears are solitary (this I did not know) and one only really sees groups, small groups at that, when a mother with her one or two (rarely 3) babies, passes by.

0025hwait for meeeee...0025igot him!

They disappear into the long grass to enjoy lunch.

WHAT a treat!! Thank you for a very, very special birthday present!


Next day: a cow… or is it?


dropping into the valley

[18th September]

We head out due west on a softly misty morning. Highway 20, the only road access to the Great Bear Rainforest, rambles through the Chilcotin Plateau. The road passes through several small communities, at one of which we bump into a morning market where we treat ourselves to some local fare. Dodging livestock, we drive on at a leisurely pace; we are heading for the Bella Coola Valley where a very special float down the Bella Coola River awaits our arrival.




yummy bannock and jam


I wonder whether I would have agreed to head into the Bella Coola Valley if I had read the brochure properly. I was NOT expecting the Coast Mountain Range to cross our path, and especially not the pass! I have no photos to show at this point, as I needed both hands to hold very firmly on to my seat (I am a little braver when we drive out of the valley again).

FINALLY we reach terra firma. Relaxed now, I enjoy the drive on the 80km valley floor through Tweedsmuir Park and on to our lovingly tended campsite in Hagensborg. Hagensborg was established by Norwegian colonists who settled in the valley between 1894 and 1910.


Rip Rap Campsite

The Bella Coola River is a mere scramble over the rocks to the right, the tenting site to the left.


Next day: our first encounter with a bear

going west

[17th September]

And then the rain came down. Our aim on this day was to reach a point halfway to the west coast. We would travel due west on Highway 1 through Kamloops, turning north onto Route 97 at Cache Creek and then on to William’s Lake where we would spend the night.

We came upon the strangest tunnels en route; tunnels in our experience afterall, are there to pass through mountains, but these tunnels were not passing through anything. We eventually realised that they were most probably avalanche tunnels, difficult as it was to imagine these slopes covered in snow, given the fact that snow is not something commonly seen where we come from.



Nothing quite like a hot cuppa on a rainy day! And in a strange country, anything familiar becomes a welcome sight; Tim Hortons became that for us, and only because while traveling with our children we had stopped at one (or two) for refreshments.

There were two things on this trip for which we were very grateful; 100km speed limit (it is 120km in our country) and no sign of an early winter as we did not have winter tyres (we had only 2 weeks in hand before winter tyres became compulsory).

And then, our tummies started to grumble. We had secured a whole roasted chicken and salads for lunch (not the first time either) and it was now time to find a suitable spot to pull off and dig in.


Route 97 north of Cache Creek came with town names that compelled me to hit google:

“The South Cariboo historic roots go back to the fur trading days before the gold strike. By 1860, thousands of gold seekers thronged to the Cariboo to seek the precious metal. Between 1862 and 1870, over 100,000 people traveled the Cariboo Wagon Road from Lillooet, making their way north into Cariboo country.

Throughout this gold fever, certain roadhouses, because of their favourable locations along the Cariboo Wagon Road from Lillooet to Soda Creek, grew to be supply points for the gold seekers and the surrounding district. 100 Mile House, South Cariboo’s dominant community, was originally one of these stopping points along the gold rush trail. 100 Mile House was so named because it was located 100 Miles from Lillooet (Mile 0) of the Cariboo Wagon Road. As the gold rush subsided, ranchers began to settle the surrounding area.

Today, the South Cariboo consists of a number of small unincorporated communities in the outlying area surrounding the District of 100 Mile House and has a population greater than 20,000.”
~ taken from http://www.100milehouse.com/


“Other roadhouses of note in the area include 59 Mile House; built overlooking Painted Chasm it included a fifty stall barn to accommodate the horses of Barnard’s Express Company. A roadhouse was constructed at 70 Mile. Incredibly, this house operated continually from 1862 to 1956 when it was consumed by fire.

The 105 Mile House was unlike most of the Cariboo roadhouses in that it was a handsome building built in a Victorian style. This house was moved from its original location and now resides at the 108 Heritage site where it can be toured by the public.

108 Mile House started as a somewhat cruder affair in 1867. It was only eight miles from 100 Mile House so stage coaches probably passed it by, although it would have been a welcome site to those walking pack animals. By 1875, although there was no evidence of ownership, it was known as the 108 Mile Hotel and was run by one Agnus McVee and her husband Jim.

The next owner tore down the building and reassembled it at what is now the 108 Heritage site. Several more buildings such as a blacksmith shop and an ice house were added, the most notable being the Clydesdale barn built in 1908. This is the largest log barn of its kind in Canada and is still standing at its picturesque location on the shores of 108 Mile Lake.

The builders of the 111 Mile House felt they had a good location and built a large and impressive, two-story inn. They were right because four horse stagecoaches from Barnard’s Express made it a regular stop as a horse change station. It operated till 1909, sat empty for awhile and finally became part of the 3000 acre Highland Ranch. Today only one small building remains beside the creek.

The 118 Mile House is not as old as some but the building still stands on private property visible from highway 97.

The roadhouse at 127 Mile started as a blue army tent. It operated as a bar while a building was erected. It was a large, attractive two story building but the location was popularly known as the Blue Tent Ranch for many years. In 1904, it went the way of many buildings in an era of woodstoves and no fire departments, it burned to the ground.”
~ taken from http://www.100milehouse.ca/history/index.html

The clouds grew more and more menacing! It was not long before huge drops obliterated the road – we prayed that hail was not about to destroy our children’s trusty steed!

And of course, we wondered just how we were going to manage to set up camp in the deluge! It was decided that a motel of sorts in William’s Lake might be a jolly good idea, but price rates soon put paid to that idea, at which point, exactly, the sun came out!


William’s Lake had a campground and William’s Lake was an excellent halfway stopover; what we had not realised was that the campground was part of the Home of the Famous William’s Lake Stampede.
We arrived, along with many other folk – there was clearly a function on that night – and confused again as to where to go, wandered into the function area to look for a place to book in for the night. No such place there, so we headed off around the arena to where we had spotted camper vans. There still was no office or anyone at the gate, but we soon discovered the very efficient (yet again) self-registration procedure.
There was a very soft stretch of very green lawn at the opposite end of the campground which was allocated to tenting (with a very clear sign asking us not to park on the grass, which we had not noticed! Apologies to those concerned!) We set up camp, enjoyed our supper under the most spectacular sunset and retired for the night, just nicely settled in when announcements could be heard over the loudspeakers at the function; announcements that never seemed to end… but wait, those are not announcements, they are holding an auction, a fund-raising auction to be sure.
And then the entertainment began; we were lulled to sleep by the most delightful foot tapping Canadian country music, a treat indeed!


Next stop: BEARS!

truffle pigs

[September 16th]

We were still firmly snuggled down in our far too airy little tent when the bustling of campers started up well before dawn. It is a strange feeling lying there wondering who is doing what and how close; invariably our imaginings turn out to be quite off target too.
Finally, we did emerge to find the place all but evacuated… that is when we sprang into action to choose ourselves a better site. Claimed and paid for, we set up camp again. The river gurgled past close by; we felt cozy, nestled now amongst the trees.

Today is the day we set out to find Emerald Lake that comes as a ‘don’t miss’ recommendation wherever one looks.
But first, another must stop en route to the lake, the Natural Bridge created by the strong torrents of the Kicking Horse River that undercut through solid rock.



Water flows through time and wears down mountains.
In the moment of our lifetime, we see but a part of the process.
Yesterday’s waterfall is today’s bridge, becoming tomorrow’s chasm.
~ taken from info board on site.


Emerald Lake is breath-taking! We follow the path away from the crowds to enjoy the quiet tranquility of the emerald waters.


Avalanche slope – close-up
This avalanche path is a place where snow moves with incredible speed and power.
The plants here are low and flexible enough to bend with the blast of thousands of tons of hurtling snow and straighten slowly up when the snow is gone.
The open avalanche path provides food for animals varying in size from mice to moose; and these animals, in turn, are food for predators who depend on this open space for easier hunting. A keen-eyed hawk in a tree nearby has likely postponed his hunt until you pass beyond his territory.
~ taken from info board on site.


Time for that lunch. Today we eat out at The Truffle Pigs in the little town of Field which is situated within Yoho National Park.
“At Truffle Pigs we believe in fresh local and regional ingredients, and non-medicated meats. We believe the mealtime experience should be social and energetic, and that children have a place at the table. And we believe that neither cooking nor eating should be rushed, because quality food and quality time go hand in hand.”
~taken from The Truffle Pigs Bistro
It was the ‘fresh local’ and the taste combinations on the menu that sold it to me; the bistro lived up to its recommendation with flying colours and flying pigs (even though for us the exchange rate made the meal a luxury we could not repeat, sadly).



The day was not yet done…

Takakkaw Falls

The 13km scenic drive to the falls is a treat on its own. It comes with a couple of switchbacks, my first experience of such. I never did get the instructions for the reverse maneuver for longer vehicles, but longer vehicle or not, the bends could not be taken at the same time as another vehicle, which was a little hair-raising if you were puffing up to the turn while someone else was in the turn… unless, of course, you are a pro at stopping and starting on steep inclines.

When you say Takakkaw, you are saying it is ‘magnificent’ in Cree which is spot on for this 254m waterfall, one of the highest in Canada.
Daly Glacier, 350m from the brink, feeds the falls. The glacier, in turn, is fed by the Waputik Icefield, snow falling on the icefield becomes moving ice in the glacier, which melts to become Takakkaw Falls.
In summer, the rock face roars with the plunging mountain torrent. But in the autumn, the melt is slowed, and by winter, the racing falls narrows to a ribbon of ice awaiting summer to set it free.
~ taken from an info board on site.


Back at the camp, there was just enough daylight left to do the first bit of the very interesting 1.2km (one-way) self-guided trail following in the footsteps of the rail workers back in 1884:

A Walk in the Past

A walk up this trail is your ticket to the past. Over a century ago men struggled to build a railroad down the steep Kicking Horse Pass. Today you can follow their old tote road, touch the soot left behind by long-gone steam locomotives and discover an abandoned work engine.

Take the trail guide along and allow about 2 hours for the return trip.

Caution: The trail crosses a main line of the Canadian pacific Rail which is used many times a day, so watch out for trains!

~ taken off the info board.


Satisfied after a good day, we pile up on wood… we are ravenous!


Yoho has most certainly lived up to its name which means ‘awe’ in Cree. Perhaps I was guided by intuition to miss that extra night up in Jasper…

Tomorrow we head out across the plains of BC to reach the west coast of Canada…


dates gone awry

[September 15th]

Time to rise and shine, roll up our mattresses and head out into the northern reaches of Jasper National Park.
The drive to Maligne Lake, and especially the boat trip out onto the lake, was strongly recommended by our neighbouring campers back in Johnston Canyon Campground, but we have a long road ahead back down the Icefields Parkway to Yoho National Park, so time is not on our side. The boat trip will have to take a miss.

The town of Jasper welcomes us. We sail on by, turning down, not long after, to follow the Maligne River to the lake.


Where there is a gathering of cameras there must be something to see; sure enough, there he is, lounging in the long grass. The sun has barely seen the light of day; there is time a-plenty for grazing yet.


It is a beautiful 48km drive down to Maligne Lake from Jasper. About half way down we pass the most peculiar Medicine Lake, a lake with a river inflow, but no river outflow.

“Like drains in a giant bathtub, gravel-strewn openings in the floor of Medicine Lake allow its waters to escape underground. In summer, the sinks are under nearly 20m of water, while during the winter they lie at the bottom of small frozen ponds in the otherwise empty basin – rather humble beginnings for one of the greatest underground rivers in the world.” ~ taken off an information board on site

0020eMedicine Lake

Maligne Lake… and we have been warned! Sadly not a moose in sight, however.


We watch longingly as the boats chug out and disappear onto the nearly 28kms of water from end to end. Reaching a depth of 96m, this is the largest lake in the Canadian Rockies.


There is some exploring to do around the lake before we head on out again, back through Jasper, branching off onto Parkway 93A, an alternate route following the old highway just 7km from Jasper. The Mt Edith Cavell road branches off this road and we are especially keen to find Cavell Pond and the Angel Glacier.


“Angel Glacier forms in a large bowl, or cirque, largely hidden from view. Very slowly, it flows out of the cirque towards you. Some ice breaks over the vertical cliffs, forming the angel’s 40m thick wings; the remainder plunges down a steep gully, forming the body. This constant movement of the glacier sometimes causes an ice avalanche, so it is dangerous to climb beneath this hanging glacier” ~ taken from an info board on site.


It is time to move on again, bumping into another bunch of cameras, this time treated to our first sighting of fluffy mountain goats.
And then back past spectacular ice blue rivers and the Icefield.


It is at about this point that we start to reflect on the days ahead. It is Hugo that first realizes that dates are not tying up… my, by now, very confused head finally figures out that I had somehow neglected to remember that I had allocated 2 nights at Wapita Campground. The silence is deafening. There is no way to describe the feeling of loss, of having missed out on that which we will most probably never see again. There is no going back. I pray that our now two nights at Yoho National Park will compensate.

It doesn’t start off well…


The Spiral Tunnels can be found en route to the campground. They did little at the time to lift our spirits (fortunately we spent a good chunk of time there making memories to enjoy later).

Parks Canada does an excellent job of relating the fascinating story of the tunnels:

Spiral Tunnels


When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, it was on the condition that Prime Minister John A. Macdonald would build a railway to link the province to the rest of the country. Building a railway across such a large continent was a major undertaking and one of the most serious obstacles was the Rocky Mountains. Several passes were considered for the route and despite its rugged terrain, Kicking Horse Pass was chosen because of its proximity to the US border and its shorter distance to the Pacific Coast. This choice was so significant to the history of Canada that Kicking Horse Pass was designated as a National Historic Site in 1971.

The steep grade in Kicking Horse Pass posed a serious challenge. Under government pressure to complete the railway, and given the engineering challenges that came along with the geography, Canadian Pacific was not in a position to carve a gradual descent. A solution was reached, which temporarily allowed a grade of 4.5%. The first train to attempt the hill in 1884 derailed, tragically killing three workers. In an effort to improve safety, three spur lines were created to divert such runaway trains on what became known as the “Big Hill”. Switches were left set for the spurs and were not reset to the main line until switchmen knew the oncoming train was in control. Descending the Big Hill was challenging, but uphill trains had their problems too. Extra locomotives were needed to push the trains up the hill, causing delays and requiring extra workers. Although the mountains were a complication for CP, they were an inspiration to the many tourists who started to arrive by train. In an effort to preserve the landscape and encourage tourism, CP prompted the creation of Mount Stephen Dominion Reserve in 1886. The park was renamed Yoho in 1901.

Schwitzer’s Solution

The solution for a more gradual grade came from J.E.Schwitzer, one of the railway’s Assistant Chief Engineers. He modeled the Spiral Tunnels after a system used in Switzerland. In 1909 the Spiral Tunnels were completed and after 25 years of use, the Big Hill grade was abandoned. With a gentler grade, descents became safer and slower, spur lines and rear pushers were no longer necessary, and scheduling delays and operating costs were reduced. Although the Spiral Tunnels were a great improvement for the grade, rockfall, mudslides and avalanches are some of the challenges we still face today in this area where nature reigns supreme.

How the Spiral Tunnels Work

An eastbound train leaving Field climbs a moderate hill, goes through two short, straight tunnels on Mt. Stephen, under the Trans-Canada Highway, across the Kicking Horse River and into the Lower Spiral Tunnel in Mt. Ogden [1]. It spirals to the left up inside the mountain for 891-m and emerges 15-m higher [2]. The train then crosses back over the Kicking Horse River [3][see illustrations below for text in bold], under the highway a second time and into the 991-m tunnel in Cathedral Mountain. The train spirals to the right, emerging 17-m higher and continues to the top of Kicking Horse Pass.

See Them for Yourself

There are two viewpoints where you can safely watch trains and learn more about the Spiral Tunnels and Kicking Horse Pass National Historic Site of Canada. On average, 25 to 30 trains pass through the Spiral Tunnels daily, though not on a regular schedule.

~ taken from Parks Canada

the train emerging from the Mt Ogden tunnel

We are lucky enough to bump into a 2nd train as it arrives, in so doing seeing 3 pieces of the same train (up to 1000m long) in 3 different positions.
With the highway at our backs, the train, going east, has crossed under the highway, has crossed the river and [1] is still entering the tunnel [2] it is still emerging from the tunnel 15m higher and [3] is passing right below where we are standing, back towards crossing under the highway.


And then…

The campground is full!

And there is only one campground open at this time of the year!
There is, however, still a bare piece of grass available in the overflow area for campervans. It is close to gate closing time. I guess they don’t expect many more campervans; they let us set up camp there.

The setting is spectacular!


But first fuel and food…

I have earmarked only one eating place for the whole trip, and it is in the little town of Field in the Yoho National Park… tomorrow…


Thought for the day:

“We feel that we have to be right so that we can feel good. We don’t want to be wrong because then we’ll feel bad. But we could be more compassionate toward all these parts of ourselves. The whole right and wrong business closes us down and makes our world smaller. Wanting situations and relationships to be solid, permanent, and graspable obscures the pith of the matter, which is that things are fundamentally groundless.”
(When Things Fall Apart) ) Pema Chodron

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