A Great Ride
On a rugged portion of Canada’s new Great Trail, explore the fast-growing Okanagan Valley wine region
BY ELAINE GLUSAC / PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBB THOMPSON — Summer 2018
yra Canyon is complicated. It plunges south, paralleling the mountain ranges nearby in southeastern British Columbia, and then twists north in an accordion of confronting topography. But in 1914, 18 trestle bridges and two tunnels that were blasted through the granite gneiss inaugurated east-west travel through Myra by train. The railway preserved Canada’s riches, staved off invasion by the U.S., and, long after its retirement in 1989, provided cyclists a route over which to ponder the engineering of defiance.
Given its historical significance, scenic grandeur, and recreational accessibility, the former Kettle Valley Railway makes an apt piece of Canada’s new Great Trail, a 15,000-mile cross-country off-road path completed in 2017 to celebrate the country’s beauty and diversity on the occasion of its 150th birthday.
Though some stretches accommodate paddlers and hikers, bike routes make up much of the Great Trail, and the Kettle Valley Rail Trail — which supplanted the railway — not only offers some of the most stunning passages, but it also links to Canada’s only desert in the Okanagan Valley, a traditional fruit-growing region newly cultivating a reputation for fine wine and food.
The promise of staggering panoramas, heart-pumping rides, and the reward of locavore meals matched to dry rieslings and rich syrahs lured me — a play-hard, rest-easy traveler — to the KVR, as the route is known. I tasked proprietor Paula Sheridan of KVR Cycle Tours with making my effort-meets-indulgence ambition a four-day inn-to-inn reality. Sheridan specializes in multinight trips along the trail, supplying cycles, luggage shuttles, and provisions. Itineraries explore remote portions where black bears outnumber humans and more cultivated ones where lush vineyards comb the hillsides that together encompass the KVR’s feral-to-refined charms. Stamina willing, of course.
“We’re going to encounter everything the KVR has to throw us,” says Sheridan, deeply tanned by September, close to the end of cycling season, and still cheerleading for the route, bumps and all. “It’s not maintained,” she warns. “There are no pavers or graders although it has been a hot, dry year. We’ll be bumping our way over some sections and pedaling downhill in sand.” But then she smiles broadly and hands me a gemlike plum freshly picked and bursting with sunny sweetness. “You’re going to love it,” she winks.
Day One: Pedaling Through Remote Whistle-Stops
Within minutes of pedaling, we’ve lost cellphone service. Our first day in the saddle, our “wilderness day” per Sheridan, follows a 44-mile gravel ribbon through aromatic stands of larch, spruce, and Douglas fir, past strutting grouse and river-cut canyons.
That the KVR remains remote despite the railway’s incursion attests to the rugged terrain faced by Andrew McCulloch, the route’s chief engineer. Here, in then British Territory at the confluence of the Kettle River and Rock Creek just a few miles north of the 49th parallel, prospectors struck gold in an area west of the Kootenay Rockies known as Boundary Country. Americans tried to claim the area for the U.S., resulting in the Rock Creek War, a skirmish quelled by the arrival of the colony’s governor. But that didn’t keep the ore from flowing south on American-owned rail routes that snaked close to Canada. The province, which joined the nation in 1871, tallied the shrinkage of its gold, silver, and other minerals and urged the construction of a Kootenay-to-coast route within Canada.
That route required crossing three mountain ranges with railroad technology that maxed out at 2-percent grade. Enter McCulloch, an Ontario-born civil engineer charged with route design who had a thing for Shakespeare, as demonstrated by rail stops named Romeo, Portia, and Othello. He picked a northbound route away from the border along the Kettle River that bends west across the Okanagan Highlands through dramatic Myra Canyon where nature’s intractability tested his ingenuity.
Completed for nearly $20 million in 1915, the railway soon fell victim to its own improbability, subject to avalanches and rock slides that made maintenance costly. The last passenger train pulled out in 1964 and freight trains stopped in 1989.
Like a McCulloch of the tourism age, Sheridan, a former cycle tour guide in Banff who now spends winters guiding in New Zealand, aims to create a cyclist-focused economy in the former whistle-stops. “We’re trying to get as many people on the trail as possible,” she says at the three-cabin Last Resort in tiny Beaverdell over turkey wraps that her affable partner Swade Finch has delivered in the support van that makes the trip so effortless. “We’ve seen in New Zealand what bike trails have done for small towns that now have shuttle buses, hanging baskets of flowers, cafés. We’re starting to get there.”
The few people who live in the Boundary region prove interesting. We cycle directly into the trailside Little Dipper Hideaway B&B near Westbridge where owner Frauke Delisle is preparing a hearty dinner, as well as a homemade peach pie for dessert. Before we sit down, her husband, George, a former forest ranger, guides a tour of the wooded property and his “cookies” or tree trunk samples. “Every stump has a story,” he vows, identifying one from a tree planted in 1653.
Day Two: Navigating a Wondrous Canyon
Our second day of pedaling — unofficially heritage day — starts at the very beginning, the original KVR station in Midway near the U.S. border, and rolls north through grassy ranchland bordering the Kettle River where bald eagles top the trees. A post-picnic-lunch shuttle delivers us to Myra Canyon. (“We cherry pick,” admits Sheridan, who follows the most scenic legs in the easiest directions because, at 30 to 50 miles each day, “you’ll feel it, even at a 2-percent incline.”)
In the railway era, passenger trains only traveled through Myra Canyon at night to avoid frightening riders. Now, we spend the afternoon cycling over those 18 wondrous spans, where the tracks were removed and the crisscrossing trestles were reinforced to hold cyclists who flock from nearby Kelowna to the 7.5-mile passage that defies the canyon’s steep drop-off.
From Myra, the KVR gradually descends toward Okanagan Lake, an 84-mile-long glacier-carved waterway. To reach our next overnight, Myra Canyon Ranch, we detour, point our bikes down a steeply winding dirt road, and cruise brakeless and breakneck for a fast mile until we reach the lodge with horse stables and four modernist apartmentlike rooms complete with floor-to-ceiling windows framing the radiant sunset. The ranch has no restaurant, but again our guide has arranged a feast of salmon and chicken, and a later start the next morning means I can moose-watch on horseback in neighboring Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park.
Day Three: Wilderness to Wine
The bounty of the province meets the frontier’s DIY culture in all the homemade pie along the KVR, including the peach and apple treats baked in a wood oven by Doreen Reed, pastry maven and co-proprietor of the log-built Chute Lake Lodge, a 22-mile ride south of Myra Station. In the antique-filled dining room, I find Richard Cannings, a local biologist, author, and new Parliament member holding an informal town hall. “That’s what politicians do in summer — go around and meet people,” he says over pie. “I do it by bike.”
Joining his constituency tour, I pepper him with questions on trees (behold the northernmost ponderosa pine region) and birds (he identifies a redpoll by its chirp alone). We stop at stone ovens built by railway construction workers and crumbling tunnels the current bike route circumvents until we finally emerge from the forest on a panoramic ridge some 3,300 feet above Lake Okanagan. Below us, vineyards furrow the Naramata Bench, a silt-rich plateau. Steering through them, we leave the KVR and coast into Serendipity Winery in tidy Naramata, where we taste the versatile terroir in an herbaceous sauvignon blanc and a plush Bordeaux-style blend.
Only agricultural zoning keeps lakeside Naramata, where I sleep in a former school, now the Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa, from being overrun by development. But as local winemaking consultant Bradley Cooper explains, the 1973 Agricultural Land Reserve Law keeps condos from uprooting grapes. “Fifty percent of B.C. is above the tree line and useless for farming,” says Cooper. Now 172 wineries call the Okanagan Valley home, and the Ontario-based Andrew Peller Limited, one of the country’s largest wine marketers, acquired three local wineries in October. The valley’s first major investment signals promise in the budding region where many vines are well under 20 years old, infantile by industry standards. “The soil is so vigorous, there’s still a lot of experimentation going on.”
Day Four: Tasting Room Tour
On our final cycling day, we reach Penticton at the southern end of Okanagan Lake and follow a KVR spur line south through a vital section of the Okanagan wine region.
Evidence of the 10,000-year-old glaciers that ground out the valley visibly score a towering cliff face near Liquidity winery’s glass-walled tasting room. It triple-tasks as an art gallery and locally sourced restaurant, all overlooking viognier vines and Vaseux Lake. “We don’t do art exhibits with landscape paintings. This is my IMAX show,” says winery owner Ian MacDonald.
The hottest part of the Canadian desert runs some 30 miles from Penticton down to Osoyoos on the U.S. border where vintners can grow heat-loving varieties such as syrah, which we stop at Road 13 Vineyards to savor. At the 650-acre Covert Farms, we tour the biodynamic fields in a 1952-vintage Mercury truck, then sample B.C. cheeses with estate pinot noir at the rustic tasting room.
“It’s almost like the undiscovered virgin of the wine world. We started late and are finding our own identity,” observes Bertus Albertyn, owner and winemaker at nearby Maverick Estate Winery, who joins me that evening for a four-course send-off dinner at the lakeside Watermark Beach Resort Hotel in Osoyoos.
As risk-reward propositions go, I’ve ventured nearly 200 miles, earning tonight’s 28-hour sous vide lamb. Everything else this section of the Great Trail delivered — legends of Canada’s past and the promise of its future — is glorious gravy.
Details: KVR Cycle Tours offers inn-to-inn cycling trips along the Kettle Valley section of Canada’s Great Trail. Four-day trips start at $850 and include bikes, luggage shuttles, meals, and overnights. 250-498-9194; kettlevalleyrailtrail.com
Exploring Canada’s Great Trail
The 15,000-mile trail largely hews to southernmost Canada in its cross-country route but swings up to the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Recreational options in 13 provinces and territories span hiking, paddling, and skiing. Some ways to explore the trail’s variety:
• Kayak the 165-mile Salish Sea Marine Trail between Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia and see the Gulf Islands and the Sunshine coast.
• Hike the 50-mile High Rockies Trail in Alberta connecting Banff National Park to the B.C. border in a high-country route.
• Bike, walk, and do some bird-watching on the popular 43-mile Waterfront Trail, which runs along Lake Ontario through Toronto.
Visit thegreattrail.ca for links to trail maps and information.
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