Driving the Crowsnest Highway

I’ve driven part of Highway 3 – the Crowsnest Highway – between Cranbrook, British Columbia and Fort MacLeod, Alberta. I’ve driven it enough that I know the general map. What I haven’t done, until today, was drive the portion from Cranbrook to Hope. And it’s a segment I’ve wanted to see for a long time.

We’ven driven to be with Granny and Grandpa, something we’ve done at least once a year since Choo Choo was a toddler. We’ve always taken the Trans Canada Highway, a route I have nearly memorized and can do pretty easily. But life needs variation and I needed something different. Besides, there are trains down there.

Well, were trains down there. Back at the turn of the previous century, there was a battle for control over Southern British Columbia between the Canadian Pacific Railway and the (American) Great Northern Railway over the apparent mineral riches in the mountains. And, indeed, much copper was found and is still being mined to this day. But the fight ended up being more politics and greed, not reason. Andrew McCullough, the Chief Architect of the Kettle Valley Railway, would later comment that had they known what each railroad was getting into, they would have collaborated much earlier.

And Ground Zero for all of that was Midway, British Columbia. That’s where the KVR officially started, and where the Vancouver, Victoria, and Eastern waged a bout over the access to the area. But as the name implies, it’s quite a distance from the eastern side of British Columbia.

Following breakfast at Huckleberry’s, Alex headed towards home (as she had to work tonight) while the kids and I retraced our route to Fairmont Hot Springs, and continued towards Cranbrook. We listened to music, Monkey was subjected to my “hey, neat fact about this area…” retinue, and Choo Choo zoned out in the backseat, her favourite place. About thirty clicks or so before Cranbook, we ran into heavy smoke, another forest fire not far away choked out the landscape and made me drive a lot more carefully, since it was difficult to see anyone coming the other way.

The smoke had largely cleared by the time we got to Cranbrook, which was where we filled up. We had a long road ahead of us, and I wasn’t sure what the gas station situation was to the west. We still had smoke for another 100 kilometres, causing a haze over the landscape, though what we saw was still quite beautiful. And to be clear, the Highway 3 route is very beautiful, much less developed than the Highway 1 route further north.

It’s also full of trucks and people who don’t drive with cruise control, which makes the trip a bit frustrating at times. Especially when you’re stuck behind a large truck on a steep downhill and it’s illegal to pass. I’m not saying I passed illegally at any time, but the trip would have been a lot longer had I not paid attention to what other drivers were doing.

I had thought that, some 25 years ago, that I had driven the Crowsnest. But as we drove along, I realized that I didn’t recognize a darned thing, not even remotely. And it was that unfamiliarity that sent me on the wrong route from where Hwy 3 in Castlegar down Hwy 22 to Trail, then back up Hwy 3B back to Hwy 3, adding 35 km to the trip. But I did at least get to see Trail and the end of the line of the CPR in that part of the country.

From Castlegar we wound west, then south past Christina Lake, which I’d only ever heard of before. It was as busy a lake town as I think I’ve ever seen. And it has, without a doubt, the most legit 1950s-era hamburger and ice cream stand that I’ve ever seen, including the movies.

We continued to zig-zag across the bottom of the province, coming within a couple hundred metres of the border, then swinging some 20 km to the north, jaunting more to the west, then diving back down towards the border again. Such is the route of Highway 3, which weaves its way around, sometimes seemingly avoiding more obvious shortcuts.

We stopped in Midway. It was 36C as we stepped out of the car, it felt like a hard hit after being in air conditioning for the previous two hours. But I needed to get out, I needed to stop at Midway. I needed to see the start of the KVR. And frankly, it seemed like a good time for us to get out for a bit of a walk.

A hundred years ago, Midway was a small divisional point, with a three-stall roundhouse. Today, it’s a smattering of homes and a small museum dedicated to life in the Kettle Valley. In addition to the museum building is the original station house, which had been moved back from the track right-of-way. The right-of-way is now a part of the Trans Canada Trail, along with most of the rest of the KVR’s right-of-way.

We got to see the upstairs of the station house, which lives up to its name – the station master and his family lived in the building, with only the trackside part being the office and waiting room for passengers. The building was kitted out with era-correct artefacts, and a beautiful, large map that covered the CPR’s routes in western Canada, including a few sections I hadn’t been aware of.

After I snapped my shots, we hit the road again and continued west. The landscape here was wide and dry, considerably fewer trees than the route up to Castlegar. But it was perhaps that climate that gave someone the bright idea to raise ostriches, which we spied in Bridesville.

It was 5pm by the time we arrived in Osoyoos, which had been a consideration for our pseudo-reunion last year. The view from the lookout on the eastern side of the lake as we descended into the valley was spectacular, and I totally understand the appeal of going to Osoyoos … but once we got into town, I was relieved that we hadn’t gone there. I don’t think we’d have had nearly as much fun.

We stopped at the 7-11, partly for fuel, partly for Slurpees. It was that stop that put Highway 3 out of my preferences for driving. And that’s not a slight against Osoyoos, it’s just a reality of economy. Driving from Calgary to Ruskin, I fill up in Calgary and refill in Kamloops, and I have more than enough fuel to go to Vancouver and back after that. Osoyoos was my second fuelling of the trip, and we were still quite a distance from Ruskin. My efficiency until Castlegar was about 6.5l/100 km. It got worse from there, despite my efforts to minimize fuel use. But from Castlegar to Osoyoos, it slipped to 8l/100 km, and worse.

From Osoyoos, we headed over to the Similkameen valley and headed north towards Princeton. I tried to spy the remains of the VV&E, which ran up the valley to Hedley; some of Highway 3 is built atop the VV&E’s old railbed.

When we arrived in Priceton, I made my second train-related stop of the day, which neither Monkey nor Choo Choo objected to, at least until we got out of the car. Though not as hot as Midway, Princeton was still quite toasty as we walked across a vacant, grasshopper-filled lot, and back onto the KVR right-of-way (and Trans Canada Trail path), and I pointed to the Princeton Tunnel. My kids seem to have a thing for tunnels.

When the KVR came through Princeton, it swooped in from the northeast. Leaving Princeton wasn’t easy, and they chose the route up the Tulameen valley to the northwest. There was only one problem – the Tulameen River carves a narrow, deep channel around the north side of the town, effectively leaving a wall of rock. The only option was to tunnel through it.

Today, the tunnel is marked with two concrete portals, both bearing the year of construction: 1961. It is no small irony that the same year, the Kettle Valley Railway had started to be abandoned. It would be another 25 years before the KVR ended entirely in Princeton, leaving behind the tunnel and the rail bridges that would eventually become part of the Trans Canada Trail.

The road out of Princeton is known, apparently, for the hairpins as you approach Copper Mountain, one of the largest copper mines in Canada, which is at the side of Highway 3, it’s great grey tailings pond dam stands out against the deep green of the surrounding forest. The mining company has gone to great lengths to hide most of the operation from view, though it still pokes through breaks in the trees.

Most of the rest of the way to Hope is going through the never-ending EC Manning Park and its seemingly dozens of subsections. I was relieved to finally see the Highway 5 entry and the end of our Crowsnest odyssey. We arrived in Ruskin over twelve hours after leaving Fairmont Hot Springs, including my stolen 90 minutes of train-related stops.

At this point, I’m fairly sure that if I did drive part of Highway 3, it was nearly 25 years ago coming out of Vancouver, wasn’t very far, possibly not even to Princeton. But I don’t remember.

And after today’s ordeal, one would think I couldn’t possibly forget.