Rediscovering the Rugged Rockies
Panning for gold, dodging black bears and experiencing a wonderfully spectacular landscape is all in a week’s work
This summer, I had the opportunity to ride in one of my favourite Canadian destinations. With mountain ranges from the southern border to the far north, the interior of British Columbia, in my humble opinion, has the best riding in Canada. Steep mountain slopes rising straight up at the roadside, combined with deep valleys, thousands of rivers and sinewy ribbons of blacktop make it hard to imagine a better place to ride a motorcycle. Even the usually tedious Trans-Canada Highway is exciting as it winds its way over sky-high mountain passes and clings to mountainsides from Kamloops to Lake Louise. The ride truly is as amazing as the views.
My riding partners this time were a varied mix – a Texan, a couple of Germans and a fellow Canadian. All had ridden in B.C. before except Robert, the Texan. I was actually a little excited for him to see the spectacular Rocky Mountains.
Our weeklong travels began and ended in Kamloops, an arid city located in south-central B.C. I picked up my liquid-cooled Ultra Limited Harley at EagleRider Kamloops, which shares accommodation with Kamloops Harley-Davidson. Also joining my Ultra Limited was a Heritage Softail, a Street Glide, a Road King and an Ultra Classic.
It was rainy and overcast as we headed east out of the city. We weren’t in any hurry and the skies looked brighter to the south, so we veered off on 97 (the Okanagan Highway) toward Vernon, seeking sunshine. British Columbia has a varied landscape, and the brown, sagebrush-covered hills of the Kamloops area soon gave way to steep, evergreen-forested hillsides and farmers’ fields, and more importantly, clearing skies. The long, sweeping downhill approaching the historic O’Keefe Ranch offered particularly scenic views.
Our day’s destination was the Regent Hotel in downtown Revelstoke, and upon meeting up with Hwy 97A, we turned north through Armstrong and tightly hugged the long shoreline of beautiful, mountain-flanked Mara Lake before meeting back up with the Trans-Canada in Sicamous, and then to Revelstoke, just an hour up the road. The weather held out and the ride through the mountains along the Trans-Canada Hwy 1 was outstanding.
Our luck with the previous day’s sunny skies caught up with us, and the thought of riding in the morning’s heavy rain prompted the Germans to hang out in the hotel’s lounge to watch Germany take Portugal in FIFA World Cup play, while the remainder of us took advantage of some local sites.
The railway played an important part in the colonization of Canada, and particularly B.C., so it’s fitting that Revelstoke has a railway museum. Most memorable for me was my time inside the cab of an actual vintage oil-burning engine, and talking to the old-timer who used to operate it. There were hundreds of gauges, levers and knobs, and he could explain what each one did. The Revelstoke Dam on the Columbia River that passes through town was also an entertaining way to kill an hour. In this day and age of high security, I was surprised at how far into the actual dam we were allowed to venture.
We had hoped to ride up Mount Revelstoke and tackle the switchbacks, but time was getting on and while the rain had lessened, the roads were a soggy mess. In addition, we found that we would only be able to make it partway up, as even in the middle of June, the summit was still deep in the grips of winter.
I was disappointed that Robert, our Texan friend, was robbed of the exhilarating roads and world-class scenery offered on this stretch of Hwy 1 from Revelstoke to Lake Louise. Not only did he come unprepared for our Canadian mountain temperatures, it was wet and foggy, making visibility nil. The evidence of devastating avalanches still visible in June is a poignant reminder of how treacherous this mountainous region can be in winter. The roads were quite rough riding through the higher altitudes of Glacier National Park and over Rogers Pass, but the Ultra Limited didn’t seem to mind – it almost floated over any imperfections – and the new Twin-Cooled engine climbed the steep grades without hesitation.
It was dusk by the time we pulled into the Baker Creek Mountain Resort on the Bow River Parkway, 13 kilometres outside Lake Louise. I thought we’d have to pry Robert off the bike and carry him in to sit beside the fire. He mumbled something about being the coldest he’d ever been in his life.
The Baker Creek resort is thoroughly motorcycle-friendly (the husband and wife managers both ride) and I dare say in a bold statement that the bison ribs may just be the best food I have ever eaten – others equally raved about the wild boar chops.
Although damp and cold at 5 degrees, the forecast promised clearing skies for our morning run up the Icefields Parkway through Banff and Jasper National Parks. If there were animals to be seen the day before, we missed them, but we would see wildlife on our ride up the parkway. First was a black bear standing on the opposite side of the road. As the last bike passed, the bear ran between it and the EagleRider truck and trailer driven by Al Perrett, owner of Kamloops H-D. Al locked up the brakes, and it was quite a sight in our mirrors to see the trailer trying to pass the truck. Due to the excitement and everyone looking in their mirrors, we almost had a motorcycle pile-up as well. Shorts checked, we continued on our way. It was a good reminder that while animals can be dangerous, people can be more dangerous (I’ve seen cars stopped in live lanes, with doors wide open as the people excitedly spilled out in an attempt to get too close to wildlife).
It wasn’t until around noon that the fog cleared and we could begin to see mountaintops. The roads were rough on the parkway, but the amazing scenery more than made up for it. This is only my second time on the Icefields Parkway, but I will never tire of the majesty of the mountains and how insignificant you feel amongst them.
We were fortunate to experience the newly opened Glacier Skywalk. This glass-bottomed, arched walkway stretches 30 metres out from a cliff face, leaving you some 280 metres above the Sunwapta Valley. In addition to the Skywalk, the other must-do is to stop at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre to experience the Athabaska Glacier. Where else can you walk on top of 300 metres of centuries-old solid ice and taste some of the purest water on the planet?
At 230 km long, the parkway is about a three-hour ride from Lake Louise to Jasper, but allow a whole day, because the scenery and animal sightings will have you stopping constantly. Also, be sure to fill your tank at your starting point as the only other option for fuel is 75 km north of Lake Louise at Saskatchewan Crossing, and you’ll pay dearly for fuel there. The road conditions weren’t the best in mid-June, and dodging imperfections became the norm in some areas. We left Baker Creek in early morning and arrived at Jasper’s Mount Robson Inn at around 8 p.m. The Ultra Limited is an ideal touring bike, but many hours, even in a comfortable saddle, can still wear you out. The long day made for an early night after we visited the Jasper Brewing Company, sampling a couple of their craft brews and grabbing a bite to eat.
The morning dawned sunny as we headed west from Jasper on Trans-Canada Hwy 16, and once we passed the junction of Hwy 5, I was in new territory. Many years ago, I rode this stretch of road from Jasper and turned south at Tête Jaune Cache to head back to Kamloops, but I wasn’t ready to end my trip so soon this time. The Ultra Limited is an all-day comfort machine, and there was no reason to call it quits just yet.
We played tag with the Fraser River for most of the way, but lost sight of it around the same time the mountains faded from view, mostly due to heavy tree cover at the roadsides, but the terrain also started to level out as we travelled farther west.
I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with Al Perrett at the Treasure Cove Hotel and Casino in Prince George. He’s quite a character and a super-nice guy. He has been in the motorcycle business for close to 50 years and at age 52, he competed in his first of thirteen Baja 1000 races. He has also participated in many European Six-Days Enduro competitions. And now at 76 years young, he still regularly rides off-road in Baja California. To say he’s full of life and entertaining stories is an understatement.
We were lucky to have a table waiting for us next to the small stage at an eclectic downtown restaurant called Nancy O’s. While the food and local beer were excellent, a young four-piece band called High Society played a fusion of rock, blues, soul and jazz, and by all accounts, they made a great night even better.
Changing direction the next day would mean heading south on 97 to Quesnel, and would mark the beginning of our return trip back to Kamloops, but first, an overnight stop in Wells and a day in Barkerville. Turning east at Quesnel on Hwy 26, I found one of my favourite roads of the trip – there wasn’t much to see except trees and a family of bears, but it was 85 km of fairly smooth tar-and-chip roadbed with blind corners and elevation changes. Be sure to refuel in Quesnel if you’re heading to Barkerville.
We took a step back to the mid-1800s when we pulled into Barkerville. With over a hundred heritage buildings reconstructed where they were originally built, this gold-mining town is the largest historic site in western North America. We were fortunate to have a tour of the town by an actor portraying Billy Barker himself – very informative, and Billy, as it turns out, was quite a comedian. And what trip to a gold-mining town is complete without panning for gold? Under the tutelage of seven-time world gold-panning champion Scott Rea, we learned how to pan – and hopefully, how not to wash any of the good stuff down the drain. What I found in ten minutes of splashing, took Scott about eight seconds – that’s why he’s the world champion, I suppose.
I’ve never been up close and personal with a grizzly before, but but our accommodation at the Hubs Motel in Wells had a massive stuffed specimen in the owner’s living room. Stuffed or not, it was still daunting to stand beside. It’s also well worth a stop at the Wells Hotel Pub for an impromptu jam session with the supplied instruments, or to take part in sampling over 200 varieties of single-malt scotch, claimed to be the largest selection in B.C. Al, the only local with us, suggested that a few miles south of 100 Mile House, we should take Hwy 24 as an alternate route back to Kamloops instead of 97. Elevation changes with twists and turns and plenty of scenery; we couldn’t ask for a better road. To top it off, approaching Little Fort, at the junction with Hwy 5, we began to descend a mountain that was posted 10 km/h for heavy trucks and had the longest runaway lanes I’ve ever seen.
Roads with indications like that have fun written all over them for a motorcyclist. Had I been riding alone, I would have turned around and done it all over again. Just south of Barrière on Hwy 5, we followed Al down a small road to the McLure Ferry on the North Thompson River, for no reason other than to experience this unique ferry in action. The operator angles the small ferry in such a way that the current rushes against one side, pushing it sideways, and cables attached to the riversides hold it from floating downriver. The first half of Westside Barrière Road after the ferry was quite rough, and even the Ultra Limited let it be known that maybe a dual-sport bike would have been a better choice. The second half smoothed out and enticed us to lean a bit harder and scrape a few floorboards. My Ultra Limited was the only bike in our group with a GPS, and once we hit the city limits of sprawling Kamloops, we needed it to find the dealership. Harley GPS units are preprogrammed with all Harley dealerships, making navigation on the large 16.5 cm infotainment screen a breeze. All in all, it was a spectacular six days of riding, and even if one of the best stretches of road was veiled with fog and rain, I couldn’t think of any place I would rather have been. It just goes to prove that a bad day of riding is better than a good day at work.