Riding the Silvery Slocan

Story by Trevor Marc Hughes// Photos by Trevor Marc Hughes
May 11 2016

On the trail of ore and off-road escapes

In the warmth of the sun, Wes Taylor and I were riding Highway 31 north along the long arm of British Columbia’s Kootenay Lake, passing by groups of cruisers and motorcycle-friendly campgrounds. The whistling thumps of the single-cylinder engines of our KLR650s carried us along the twists of a descending road that wound along a tight switchback. Gearing down, then gearing back up again, we soon found the road turning into graceful curves as we entered the outskirts of the
charismatic former silver town of Kaslo, B.C.

The Lardeau RiverTwo years earlier, while riding solo along B.C.’s remote Highway 37, the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, I met Wes, a Coloradan who was travelling with his wife, Nancy, and yellow Labrador retriever, Amber. The trio had been visiting all 50 U.S. states and was returning home from Alaska, the last one on their list. Wes had a KLR650 at home and so we hit it off. Chatting about back-road adventures we’d like to do, we decided we would have to ride together someday.

Oldest of Its Kind

That’s much of the reason why I saw him in my rearview mirror two years later as we pulled in across the street from the Kaslo City Hall building. It’s a National Historic Site, as is the SS Moyie, a restored example of the fleet of sternwheelers that plied the waters of Kootenay Lake. Wes and I walked to the site of the Moyie just before closing, but they let us in for a quick look around what is billed as the world’s oldest intact steamship. We were most impressed with the painstaking restoration of the 1898-built vessel. The massive sternwheeler was a marvel. Wes and I wandered fascinated through the saloon and cargo space of a vessel that transported everyone from miners wanting to stake a gold or silver claim to royals visiting the beauty of “the Switzerland of Canada” for the first time.

The KLRs rest outside the Windsor Hotel in Trout Lake CityAfter a stroll along Front Street, passing the recently rebuilt Kaslo Hotel, we walked back to our motorcycle-friendly, cheap and cheerful Kaslo Motel, discussing the next day’s route.
Many motorcyclists travel Highway 31A, which pushes west from Kaslo along a curvy and meandering route that, although fun and interesting, gets bikers to New Denver on a well-worn path. Wes and I planned to take Hwy 31 north, to a place where the pavement runs out and would bring us to the front door of several former silver towns. I couldn’t help but notice that on my tourist map I picked up in Kaslo, much of Hwy 31 didn’t even appear.

Off-road Expedition

The drizzle fell the next morning as we finished the last of our pesto potatoes at the Bluebelle Bistro on Front Street. Our enthusiasm to explore the back roads of the Silvery Slocan got us into our rain gear and roaring out of Kaslo, the shores of Kootenay Lake on our right. Hilly and curvy aged blacktop along a single-lane route brought us to a descent and into a clearing. Before us was the small community of Meadow Creek, where most indications of a road existing on my tourist maps disappeared. But my topographical map showed a road continuing north. Traffic was non-existent. The gravel began. It now felt like an expedition.

“This is God’s country,” my Coloradan friend expressed, breaking the absolute silence, except for the rushing of the Lardeau River to our right. We had stopped the motorcycles along a stretch of road with blackberry bushes on either side. The sight of black figures walking across the road ahead told us we had spotted our first bears of the trip as they grazed on the sweet fruit.

Black bears travel across the road aheadThe Lardeau would be our companion for many kilometres, the wide and well-graded “highway” deteriorating to a narrow, rutted, muddy road past a single-lane wooden bridge at Gerrard. This was the start of Trout Lake and where our off-road skills would be put into action. Oddly enough, the only motorcycle traveller encountered on this day was a tall fellow, dressed entirely in black, waddling his Harley-Davidson through the muddy trenches of this section between Gerrard and Trout Lake City. We waved at each other casually, as if this were an everyday meeting of motorcyclists on a paved road. The route climbed out of the mud into a rocky track high above the eastern shore of Trout Lake.
The KLRs were pummeled, my speedometer kicking out after a couple of hard jolts, and then coming back to life after a stop. Something of a rhythm would start here. We would descend switchbacks into muddy depths, then climb out in first or second gear before starting the process again. This went on for kilometres. On one climb out of a muddy dip, I encountered a young buck, just as surprised as I was, staring at me. There was a moment when I felt he wouldn’t move, where I would have to stop. At the last second, he scampered with admirable force up the densely forested hill to the right. I wondered afterwards what that buck must have thought of a motorcycle with a dark and muddied rider crawling slowly toward him.

Full Serve

Suddenly, there was new asphalt to ride on. And there were speed limit signs – 30 km/h. Houses could be seen through the trees. Then, just as suddenly, there was an intersection and a grocery store. Wes and I got off our bikes to admire what was in front of the store. Two century-old hand-operated gas pumps stood there proudly, like sentries guarding the entrance to the store. A large man with greying pony-tailed hair emerged from the store and I asked awkwardly how they worked. He told me he worked them. Enough said. Wes and I watched in fascination while the antique pumps fuelled our modern motorcycles. Trout Lake City was a focal point of the silver rush in the 1890s.

Promises of inexhaustible silver claims and a railway brought thousands to the remote and rugged country. One remaining indication of this hopeful time is the presence of the Windsor Hotel, built in 1897. It was a luxurious three-story hotel, bringing a bit of Victorian style to the wilds of the Kootenay country. During the trip prep, I had hoped we could stay there, but the hotel had unfortunately closed and was converted into a private bunkhouse. Wes and I pulled up our bikes, though, and sat in the comfy seats on the veranda, enjoying our Kaslo-made sandwiches, avoiding the heavy rain and trying to imagine the place when it was a stop for incoming prospectors and settlers.

Rest for the Weary

Riding past lake chalets along some gravel, then along a paved highway, Wes and I rode through increasingly hard rain and eventually turned right to see figures wandering between cabins wearing white robes and slippers. This was the villa resort of Halcyon Hot Springs, where we’d rest in a cabin before the next day’s adventure to another silver mining town – possibly one of the province’s largest. The next day’s soggy ride out of the resort to New Denver along Hwys 23 and 6 saw the clouds finally parting and us drying out in the sun. We rode briefly east along Hwy 31A to take a gravel road on the right. This was the road to Sandon. It had taken just a few years for Sandon’s population to boom from zero to 5,000 in the 1890s, bringing along with it the hotels, card houses and brothels that came with silver boom town status. A tumultuous history featured destructive fires, landslides, floods, bust and abandonment. Wes and I pulled our bikes into the lot next to a small brick building, which houses the Sandon Historical Society, one of the last original structures left standing. We learned a lot about the rise and fall of this giant of the B.C. silver rush. We made our final fuel stop in the town of Slocan before winding our way south along Hwy 6.

The realization that our long-awaited expedition was now coming to an end began to sink in. The ride back to Castlegar had us leaning into the curves at high speed, taking us through Slocan Park and Crescent Valley, which had been threatened by forest fires until recent rains fell. Mission Accomplished Wes and I were smiling in our helmets after our off-the-beaten-track adventure through the West Kootenay region, pulling into an RV park where Nancy and Amber were waiting for us. We were tired and weary, and we certainly hadn’t had the driest of summer rides on our KLRs, but we were wiser for the experience. We’d discovered some silver mining communities of the past – some thriving, some fading – and had travelled some of the most exciting and varied motorcycling roads B.C. has to offer.


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