Four cyclists and a dog lounged in plastic lawn chairs on the banks of Curlew Lake, sipping leftover booze on ice (the dog got lamb snacks) on a warmish September evening. The view of the lake and mountains was a muted yellow-orange due to the smoke from a potpourri of fires burning in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.
The conditions were far from perfect for a bike trip. “Mike Deme would have loved this,” I thought as I took a sip of bourbon.
Mike was the inspiration for this trip. My editor (and my friend) for many years, we’d never taken a trip together. The closest we came was a day ride in Seattle when Mike visited once. He gave me a lot of grief over the years about making him climb every hill in Seattle.
Last year, when I got the shocking news that Mike had died, I found myself scanning the archives of this magazine just to hear his voice via his “Letter from the Editor” columns. I read all 95 of them. Then I read his touring features, including “The Tale of a Terrible Climber” and “A Terrible Climber in Italy” (no wonder he gave me grief about our Seattle ride). I knew he loved bike touring with Chuck Haney so I looked up Chuck’s articles. He and Chuck had pedaled parts of the Kettle Valley Railway back in 2009. I saw a photo of Mike pedaling across a gorgeous trestle in the mountains, and I wanted to be there with him, pedaling and laughing. Mike made me laugh more than anyone I’ve ever known.
I contacted Marilyn Hedges and Mike Sorenson in Wenatchee. These two amazing trail advocates inspired and helped Kat, me, and our dog Tiva ride the John Wayne Pioneer Trail across Washington State (December 2016/January 2017). Marilyn is on the board of the Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. Perhaps it was time that we all traveled together.
Marilyn already knew tons about the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), and she and Mike had ridden portions of it. Marilyn and Kat began searching out a route and sharing ideas via email.
They came up with a route beginning in Republic, Washington, on the Ferry County Trail, crossing over into British Columbia and following the KVR as it wandered north, then west, and finally swinging south where we’d then pedal back into the U.S. to Oroville.
The only glitch was shuttling four cyclists, their bikes and gear, a dog, and a dog trailer back to the starting point in Republic.
Enter Fred Wert, a legendary trail advocate who literally wrote the book on Washington State rail trails. Marilyn talked to Fred — apparently all trail advocates know each other — and he agreed to help us out.
So we all piled into Mike’s truck in Wenatchee and drove out to a park in Oroville where tall, bearded, smiling Fred was waiting for us. He loaded our bikes and gear on a flatbed trailer and drove us to Republic. No cycling for Fred this journey; he just wanted to help out.
As I’ve already stated, all trail advocates know each other so we met up for lunch in Republic with none other than Bobby Whittaker (the son of Everest legend Jim Whittaker). After a long career in the music business, including working at Sub Pop, managing Mudhoney, and tour managing R.E.M., Bobby left the fast lane and moved up to some acreage near Colville National Forest where he is now the president of the Ferry County Rail Trail.
There’s a reason that people like Bobby are called trail champions. It takes herculean efforts to get a trail from planning to reality — with a ton of bureaucratic, political, and financial hurdles to clear.
After lunch Fred dropped us off at the trailhead and we pedaled about seven miles to Curlew Lake where Bobby introduced us to another trail advocate, Roberta Weller, who allowed us to camp on her beachfront property bordering the trail. And that’s how we ended up lounging lakeside in plastic lawn chairs.
The morning brought a sunrise disguised as a sunset due to the smoke. Our dog Tiva was eager to run alongside her trailer, having been cramped in multiple trucks the day before. The trail hugs Curlew Lake and Curlew Creek until it picks up and follows the Kettle River toward the Canadian border. We stopped at Tugs outside the town of Curlew for fish and chips and then toured the Ansorge Hotel Museum. It was officially closed, but the proprietors opened up for us anyway — you’ve got to love a small town. The ride along the Ferry County Trail was stunning even in a smoky haze, and Kat and I vowed to come back to see it in all its clear-sky glory.
The Danville/Carson customs station has to be the mellowest border crossing I’ve encountered on the planet. We were the only ones in line. We handed over our passports and the paperwork stating that Tiva had her rabies vaccination, and the border official didn’t even look in our trailer to confirm that we had a dog. She just smiled, glanced at our passports, and waved us through.
Not many kilometers later, we were sitting on the patio sipping sizable mugs of beer at the Grand Forks Station Pub. Life was good. We found the local regional park and camped between a grumpy car enthusiast and a heavily medicated couple who were using their picnic table to set up and spray-paint several objects that we never could identify.
The Kettle Valley Rail Trail gradually climbs out of Grand Forks up through the foothills until you are in a tunnel of fir and pine. These long climbs are a good time to “release the hound” while relieving me of 40 pounds of dog weight. The trail opens up the higher you climb, with views of the valley and the meandering Granby River.
Throughout the day, Mike Sorenson kept stopping along the trail and collecting something. Mushrooms? Pine cones? Rocks? No … litter. There is something about trail advocates — they never really stop working. There wasn’t a can or bottle or piece of litter left on the trail after Mike pedaled through. Each time we came to a stop with a garbage can, Mike would unload the trash he’d strapped to his bike. I wasn’t surprised. This guy is a founding member of Goathead Warriors — a group of volunteers whose mission is to find and eradicate every goathead weed along the Apple Capital Loop Trail in Wenatchee. If you have ever dealt with this nasty invasive weed, which produces multipointed thorns biologically engineered to do maximum damage to a bike tire, picking up litter is a picnic.
Coming down the pass, a little black bear cub scampered across the trail about 300 feet from us. How cute! Except that bear cubs are generally followed by much larger mommas. We waited awhile and then proceeded quickly — with caution.
The trail began to deteriorate, and our tires swam in the loose sand. We were worn out by the time we got to Greenwood, where we camped in the backyard of Ciel Sanders and her husband Mark Hoddinott who are … trail advocates! Mark met us out on the trail on his fat-tire bike and escorted us into town. Ciel is on the board of directors for Trails BC. They’d fallen in love with Phoenix Mountain, which looms over the town and offers skiing, hiking, and mountain biking.
In conversation later that night, we learned that all trails in BC are open to ATVs unless they are specifically designated as walking/cycling only. That is why the trail was in such bad condition on this section. Although the smoke from the fires put a damper on the views, the reason we never encountered an ATV on our journey is that they’re prohibited during extreme fire danger.
Greenwood has seen better days as the many “For Sale” signs implied, but this little town has character. The main street still has some faux storefronts built for the filming of Snow Falling on Cedars back in the late ’90s. It has a good restaurant and a fine bakery with excellent coffee. And it has Ciel and Mark. It’s a great stopover on the trail.
Two nights later, we arrived in the little town of Beaverdell, knowing we had multiple options for camping or lodging. But a speeding motorist had veered off the road and taken out a critical electric pole, which blacked out the whole community. Because there was no current for heating water or food, we figured there would be a discount. Apparently the community was not in a discount mood. The prices were high, whether or not there were amenities. One campground had an enormous generator, which meant we could pitch a tent, but good luck sleeping.
We turned back toward the river (Rock Creek), scouting for someplace to wild camp. We checked near the ball field (too open) and in the woods (no place to pitch a tent). A possibly homeless man appeared and pointed down a path. “There’s a beach down there,” he said.
I followed it and came to a bend in the river where the view opened up. There on a high bank was just enough room to comfortably pitch two tents. It was, bar none, the most beautiful campsite we had on the trip.
We didn’t realize just how much food we were carrying until Mike and I went to go hang a bear bag. It was hysterical. It looked like we were hoisting a nylon-covered hog. The substantial limb strained from the load. If that branch had broken, I could imagine the headline: “Touring Cyclists Killed by the Weight of Their Gluttony.”
We had soured on the town the night before. But come dawn, after packing up and pedaling in for coffee, we parked our bikes outside Red Rock Garage, which bills itself as a “small coffee shop with a motorcycle addiction.” The place had all sorts of motorcycle memorabilia and lots of maps. There were beautiful posters with scenic images from the road and captions like, “You weren’t born to just pay bills and die,” and “Let’s wander where the wifi is weak.” The coffee sure wasn’t weak, it was fabulous.
We walked out ready to ride … bicycles.
Fortunately there had been enough rain and wind to clear the air for our pedal through Myra Canyon.
Myra Canyon is the draw. Folks who have described it as “highly scenic” are underestimating its appeal. The route winds along the steeply walled canyon, crossing 18 grand wooden trestles in the process. It’s hard to imagine how an engineer looked out and thought, “We can get trains though here.” The trestles carried their last train in 1973 and soon fell into disrepair, with the right-of-way turned over to the provincial government. Beginning in 1992, those aging and weather-damaged trestles were restored by the Myra Canyon Trestle Restoration Society. By 2003 the number of visitors had exceeded 30,000 per year. That year a fire roared through and burned 12 of the trestles — a disaster from which many a trail would never have recovered. But the dedicated group of volunteers miraculously rebuilt those trestles in just over five years.
Many people come just for this section alone, often arriving by van from Kelowna with one of the bike tour operators who rent mountain bikes. People walk it as well. We saw a young couple strolling on the route. They stopped midway on the trestle that sported the grandest view. There was a gasp, followed by “Where did you get this?” and then an embrace, laughter, and tears.
There was no doubt about it. We’d just witnessed a successful proposal. So we got the honor of being the first to wish them well.
Not long after the beauty and drama of the Myra Canyon section, the trail’s surface quality takes a dive, developing sandy conditions and deep ruts. It’s slightly downhill, although it doesn’t feel that way. It was a perfect time to let Tiva out of her trailer and allow her to run and sniff while I dreamed of fat tires on my bike.
It was a slog. But it was a slog with a reward at the end — Chute Lake Resort. Some would call it “run down” or “rough around the edges.” There’s truth to that. You have to boil your water, the dock isn’t safe or functional, and the modest lodge built of logs is filled with antiques — signs, bottles, and glass insulators. It appeared that nothing has been upgraded — ever. I must have a nostalgia gene because I loved this place.
Doreen and Gary Reed have been running the resort for over 40 years. Gary built most of it. It was like entering a museum of yesteryear.
Doreen may never have gotten around to buying new furniture, but can she bake a pie — and in a wood oven no less. We sat out on the deck around a plastic table with a view of the lake, each of us with a big piece of apple pie á la mode and a bottle of Okanagan Spring Pale Ale. It’s a memory I’ll carry to my grave. And it may have been my one and only chance to visit. As of this writing, Doreen and Gary have put the resort up for sale.
We set up our tents at the resort’s camping area by the lake. We had neighbors — a large tour group of Germans who were on the bike portion of their multisport adventure in British Columbia (hiking, kayaking, cycling). Tiva, who is a shy dog by nature, took a while to warm up to our camp neighbors. Then the sausages came out, and Tiva turned on her best circus dog routine — shaking, high-fiving, and giving triple nose bumps to any willing participant (how can you resist a shy dog gently touching your nose with hers three times?). Tiva loved this place too!
We said goodbye to Chute Lake Resort in the morning (after eggs and sweet rolls) and began the gradual descent down to Okanagan Lake and Penticton via long train-grade switchbacks. We began passing more and more local cyclists who use the gradual climb as a daily workout or just a casual bike ride or walk up to take in the view. Forests slowly transitioned to vineyards as we descended into one of the largest wine-growing regions in Canada.
Wine was tasted.
The KVR is not a single trail but a network of trails (the rights-of-way of the Kettle Valley Railway). Our last stretch of bike trail was a spur of the rail line that parallels Highway 97 along Skaha Lake. Like so many rail trails, there are private ownership issues so the trail at times disappears, and you are on residential roads until you merge back onto the old railbed.
As we came into the town of Okanagan Falls, a narrow bridge crossed an outlet of the lake. We encountered three young girls walking along the bridge in swim attire. Squeals of delight burst forth when they discovered we were towing a dog in our trailer. “She’s so cute!!!!” they repeated. After pets, treats, and nose bumps, we asked the girls where they were going.
“We’re going to jump off … well, she is.” And two girls pointed at the third who beamed with confidence. She was the local. They were her friends visiting from out of town.
Ten feet from where we were all standing was an unlocked gate in the guardrail and a ladder to climb back up. The jump to the water wasn’t dangerous — maybe eight feet down, but just far enough to be scary (if you haven’t done it before). I’m guessing the local authorities thought it was better to put in a gate and make it safer to jump off the bridge rather than risk injuries to anyone who would climb the rail to jump off regardless.
She jumped, and her friends screamed with delight and soon followed her in.
I’ve come to think of rail trails like that bridge. They are fun and accessible, yet adventurous enough to be challenging to the beginner. They allow all levels of cyclists to experience pedaling a bicycle surrounded by nature without the noise and risk of motor vehicles.
They are a jumping-off point to a world of adventure.
So grab a friend who has never been on a bike trip and take them on a bike trail. Introduce some kids to their first overnight bike trip. Volunteer to maintain or advocate for a trail in your community.
Be the friend who jumps first so others will follow.
Willie Weir is a contributing writer for Adventure Cyclist.