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Mountain Passes, Rail Trails and Heads Bobbing Downriver : A wild ride through the BC Interior

Kelowna to Castlegar, 496km

It was a challenge we’d never imagined.

Standing underneath a rusty train bridge next to a highway overpass, we took turns scrambling to the top of a precarious pile of boulders.

There, a lean teenager in board shorts would hand us a knotted rope whose other end was tied (securely, we hoped) to one of the girders 50 feet overhead.

Our sweaty hands would grip as high up as we could.

“You’re sure I’m going to clear it?”

“Oh yeah, dude, just lift your knees up to your belly.”

“What if I slip?”

“Just hold on tight.”

“What if I forget to let go?”

“Oh don’t do that. Then you’re in trouble.”

“How do I know when to let go?”

“Oh, you’ll know.”

“What if I miss grabbing onto the board in the middle?”

“Then you’ll just keep on floating downstream… no worries.”

No worries?

There are certain moments when feeling truly alive requires leaps of blind faith. In this case, it was literally a leap off that dusty rock, down toward the rushing Slocan River, then swinging back up into the void and letting go, plugging nose and plummeting into the frigid waters.

If we wanted to reach the true goal, though, we’d have to resurface within seconds and start front-stroking fast to reach the second rope dangling among the mini-whitecaps, where a bright orange wakeboard was affixed for the ultimate test of summer coolness in the southern Kootenays. 

Only a few of the assembled locals would succeed in grabbing hold, scaling up hand-over-hand as the raging river yanked their ankles toward the abyss beyond, then somehow finding the balance to mount the board for an epic ride on the fast-flowing rapids. Those who did were met with raucous applause from the sidelines.

The scene felt like a thirty-years-later sequel to Stand By Me

But the best part was that those of us who flailed and failed - such as a family of four Yukon bike-tourists accustomed to canoeing down rivers of this speed rather than swimming in them - were heartily cheered for even trying.

Thirteen-year-old Sitka, yet to hit his teenage growth spurt, grabbed hold of the very end of the wakeboard, clung tenaciously for a few seconds then was dragged downstream for the leisurely 8kmh float to the exit eddy 200m away. Big hoots from the crowd.

Fifteen-year-old Heron, whose multiple spurts now have him at six feet tall, caught the rope gracefully and got to his knees before his balance betrayed him and the river claimed its victim. “Ahhhh, almost dude! Right on!”

Ed spurted a bunch of river water out of his mouth but then muscled his way farther up the rope than the others, gaining confidence before tugging himself upright in one valiant pull, then slipping right off the board and getting twisted look all up in the rope and awkwardly tumbling back into the current.

At least the local teens got some comic relief.

Joce was thankfully laughing too hard to get pictures, and would later swing in undetected, not even bothering with the board as she bobbed blissfully along the beautiful river with spruce- and cedar-covered mountains in the background, just before its confluence with the Kootnenay River north of Castlegar, BC.

It was a sublime bookend to a splendid week cycling over mountain passes, through forested valleys, beside vast lakes and along rail trails in the interior of British Columbia - the first leg of our west-and-east Canada summer tour of beautiful places and family visits.

We’d plotted this BC expedition two years ago as the conclusion to our summer Rockies ride, but were turned back in Invermere by warnings of intense wildfire smoke further west. Sad to miss visits with Joce’s parents and dozens of cousins scattered throughout the interior valleys, we were relieved to hear later that their homes were spared - though barely, judging by the burnt treelines within view of kitchen windows.

This year, we planned to ride in earlier summer so the fires couldn’t deter us, but a wet spring gifted us a lush landscape of lush BC mountain forests to ride through - and we took full advantage of BC’s Interior splendour.

At Kelowna’s airport, we re-assembled our boxes bikes, and before even leaving the parking lot we’d connected with the newly developed Okanagan Rail Trail - only five years old and already a staple for active residents who run, walk and bike right along the shores of spectacular Lakes Wood and Kalamalka for some 50km north to Vernon, buffered from the blustery traffic on Highway 97 by sturdy basalt cliffs and thick evergreen stands.

After some quality time with Joce’s parents and cousin Kristin’s crew (including an inspiring cooperative garden) got us grounded and spoiled, we pivoted eastward through farmland past Lumby, then up the serene Creighton Valley road and a less-leisurely highway ascent to an unexpectedly perfect campspot on Lost Lake, right at the summit signpost of Monashee Pass.

There, legs gelatinous, we unfurled our camp gear for the first time on a lone flat patch with picnic table a few feet from the edge of the soft-bottom reedy lake, a couple hundred metres long and 50 across, lined with soaring spruce and pines we’d missed since moving north of 60. Our burgeoning bike appetites devoured a new bike-camping recipe: mango avocado coleslaw salad wraps with melted cheese and smoked tofu, made possible by borrowing the lighter of our neighbour and new friend in the camp trailer on the far side of the lake, Millivan from Serbia.

We were back in our family nirvana.

Next day we enjoyed the lengthy descent with a picturesque creekside lunch stop en route to Needles, where the free ferry whisked us to Fauquier and a gorgeous pedal overlooking Arrow Lake, with its mammoth talus cliffs opposite holed with curious caves and dotted with resilient conifers. The boys were distracted by a passing rally of dozens of souped-up speedster cars that blew past us in the opposing lane for over an hour: freshly-glossed Porsches, Ferraris, Corvettes and a Lamborghini revving and rocking along the winding lakeside road. Exhilaration for drivers and passing teen cyclists alike. 

Our run of idyllic sleep spots continued with a rental camp trailer on an Arrow Lake beach, complete with paddle boards and inflatable kayak to bliss the last afternoon away; then the hidden-gem lakeside municipal campground in super-cute Silverton, where the locals called out warm welcomes to town as we pedaled past them walking their dogs; and finally a cozy cabin at Karibu Park in Winlaw, where Chris and her husband have greeted campers for over 30 years with a hot tub, sauna and lawn games.

In between we earned our evenings over several steep and sweaty passes: out of charming little Nakusp we climbed 15k to refreshing Summit Lake for a chilly late afternoon dip, then out of Silverton our legs and lungs awoke over an hour-long, early-morning winding ascent to a glorious viewpoint over Slocan Lake; and the backroad route to Nelson along Blewett Road took us past impressive hydro dams and far up onto the hillside before dropping us back down next to the west arm of Kootenay Lake.

But the two-wheeling treasure in these parts is the Slocan  Valley Rail Trail: fifty kilometres of flat, winding two-track through calm countryside and mostly astride the swift flow of its namesake river. It was fast and fun side-by-side cycling over various packed-dirt terrain, sometimes through long-grasses and others among the birches, hemlocks and cottonwoods opposite parcels of farmland - great for meandering conversation in pairs without checking our mirrors for traffic.

It’s where we found Karibu Park and also the funky Frog Peak Cafe, with its ultra-hippie vibe, divine fruit smoothies, sasquatch statue and walls covered in framed drawings by local children amongst the posters of Hendrix, Kramer, and witty sayings like Sitka’s favourite: “Zombies eat brains - you’ll be fine.”

We concluded our ten-day journey with two day-off stops: in Nelson, renowned community of eco-happy artists and outdoor lovers, we hiked up to iconic Pulpit Rock with our old pal Suzanne (who has now met us at various points of three consecutive summer bike trips on two continents), ziplined back and forth across the stunning Kokanee gorge (at 300 feet, 800m and 100kmh, our highest, longest and fastest zips of all time) and stayed two nights with our new buddy Raz - a beloved local obstetrician with a phenomenal knack for bringing people with lots in common together for scrumptious communal meals around his dinner table. 

Then on our July long weekend in Castlegar - an outdoor playland at the confluence of the Kootenay and the Columbia - we picked huckleberries, jumped off bridges, played community pick-up soccer, and snuck in some teenage hide-and-seek (“Did he really fit in the dryer?”) with Joce’s cousin Sky and her family who felt like kindred spirits to ours: playfully ready for any adventure.

Indeed, as our sons grow into their teens, big moments on bike tours happen when we encounter other teenagers to hang out with, dive off docks with, exchange Spotify playlists and recount stories of how sick their respective hometowns are for biking / skiing / chilling.

And, of course, swinging off of train trestles into rushing rivers while grabbing at wakeboards.



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