550 Kilometres on Horseback on the Trans Canada Trail

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By Tania Millen

Click. 

Nothing. 

I pressed the button on top of my headlamp again. Click. Still nothing. Oh crap. My headlamp batteries had just died, and on the worst morning possible. Today was the day I would be riding Chocolate through 912-metre long Bulldog Tunnel as part of our 550 kilometre solo journey along the Trans Canada Trail (TCT).

I’d been worried about this tunnel since I learned it was on our route. Located two days’ ride west of Castlegar, BC along a remote stretch of the TCT, there’s no way around the tunnel; either we had to ride through it or ride over 50 kilometres back to Christina Lake. Not knowing what condition the tunnel was in, and being prone to claustrophobia, I definitely wanted some light for this adventure.

Unlike most trips, deciding to ride the TCT didn’t come from a longstanding desire to do so. It was actually just the result of circumstances colliding at the right time. It was 2017 and I wanted to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary doing something challenging that provided an opportunity to connect with our country’s history and geography. I also wanted to experience a horseback journey longer than three weeks. Visiting horse friends in southern BC while exploring new country seemed like an excellent way to meet those needs. Plus, during the dark, cold days of a northern winter, heading south in the spring seemed like a great idea.

It’s challenging to find long riding trails in Canada that don’t deteriorate into endless bushwhacks or heinous road rides. Canada simply doesn’t have long distance horse-friendly trails like the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail in the United States, both of which are open to horses and traverse spectacular country for over 4,000 km. But Canada does have one very long trail.

The Trans Canada Trail, renamed The Great Trail, connects Canada’s three coasts. It’s a 24,000 kilometre non-linear trail that includes waterways, roads and trails, many of which are not suitable for horses. However, the TCT’s southern route across BC follows decommissioned rail beds known as rail trails, which seemed ideal for a horseback journey. After doing some research, I decided to ride a 550 kilometre section of trail between the Coquihalla Highway near Merritt, and Castlegar.

After the May long weekend, I loaded up and drove south to Merritt, where friends then hauled Chocolate and me to a bit of trail near the highway. It was mid-afternoon when, with Chocolate’s ears pricked and a grin on my face, we set off - just the two of us heading east across BC. I wasn’t totally sure where we were or where we’d camp that night, but it felt fantastic to start our journey.

The first part of our route followed the former Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), which was constructed between Midway and Hope, BC, to connect mineral-rich areas of BC’s Kootenays to Vancouver’s port. Construction began in 1910, and due to the genius of chief engineer Andrew McCullough, it became known as McCullough’s Wonder upon completion. The route is an impressive feat, winding through the Coquihalla Canyon near Hope and Myra Canyon south of Kelowna, plus maintaining less than 2.5 percent grade over three mountain ranges. Portions of the track were abandoned in the 1960s, with the last train chugging down the rails in 1989. Since then, the rail bed has been converted into a recreational trail.

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Brookmere’s original train station still exists. Photo: Tania Millen

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Trout Creek trestle was the highest trestle and timing our crossing was imperative, as it’s still used by a whistle-blowing tourist train. Photo: Bryn White
 
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The concrete base of a former railway station water tower was often the only way to tell where we were on the trail.  This one had been restored and turned into a gazebo with a picnic table. Photo: Lorraine Stubbins
 
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Long views were rare, so this one of the Okanagan Valley was a treat. Photo: Tania Millen

This trip was very different from what I usually do, which is self-sufficient pack trips through remote wilderness where it’s rare to meet other travellers. For this adventure, I pre-mailed resupply boxes of food to friends who lived along the way, and my guide was the book Cycling the Kettle Valley Railway. The trail goes through cities, and while theoretically non-motorized, many parts are popular with ATVs and dirt bikers. It’s also enjoyed by cyclists. My proposed campsites included everything from recreation areas to friends’ paddocks, Crown land to a ski area, and an AirBNB. There were unusual challenges such as trestles and tunnels, plus I was only taking one horse. 

Just before the trip started, my pack horse became ill, so Chocolate got the job of carrying both me and all our gear. A big ask, even for an eight-year-old Spanish Mustang with a great work ethic. Chocolate is an excellent trail horse, but we’d never tackled trestles or tunnels. Plus, he’d almost been rear-ended while road riding, so didn’t like vehicles, ATVs, or bikes coming up behind him. However, I felt he was up for the challenge.

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Railway labourers built rock ovens over 100 years ago, to bake fresh bread while building the railway. Thirteen ovens still exist today, in perfect condition for baking. Photo: Tania Millen

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The most intimidating trestle was 200 metres long, and curved over a deep, wide valley. Photo: Tania Millen

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Although riding across trestles was challenging, the engineering feats by those building them in the early 1900s were astounding. Photo: Tania Millen

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Riding non-motorized single-track through the Kettle River valley was a highlight. Photo: Tania Millen

The first section of trail took four days and ended at a friend’s place in Princeton. On the first afternoon we rode south alongside the Coldwater River to Brodie – a former KVR station. Most of the stations and water towers that serviced the steam trains have been demolished, but where there’s a demolished station there’s usually flat ground with grazing and water, perfect for horse camping. That first night as I clambered into my tent thinking about railway builders and steam trains, Chocolate nickered, wondering where I’d gone, worried about being alone in a strange place with no horse or human friends. So I started a nightly ritual of talking to him from the tent, until he settled under a tree just metres away.

Over the next three days, we travelled through the rainy Coast Mountains and along the impressive Tulameen River to scorching Princeton. As the days got hotter, I started breaking camp at 5:30 am and setting up camp in mid-afternoon. We enjoyed stellar campsites with great grazing and unexpectedly impressive scenery. One sweltering day, a couple on an ATV gave me ice cold Gatorade®, then returned with carrots for Chocolate and watermelon for me. Bliss!

During our rest in Princeton, I resupplied and mailed off excess gear, while Chocolate enjoyed free choice hay in a restful paddock.

From Princeton, we rode four days through tight valleys, meadows and cottage country to Summerland. One night, we had a dreaded encounter, but not with a cougar, bear or rattlesnake, all of which were possible on this trip. A drunk wandered into camp at 10 pm, but fortunately, he left when requested before earning a blast of ever-handy bear spray. However, the bulls that meandered through camp another night weren’t so easily deterred, keeping us awake as they grazed nearby.

In Summerland, we had a lovely rest and an escorted ride south to Penticton, then travelled eight days towards Rock Creek. Along the way I learned about stone baking ovens that are still standing over 100 years after they were constructed, encountered fierce mosquitoes, and pulled 21 ticks off Chocolate. This section also included one of our biggest challenges - Myra Canyon and its 18 tourist-attracting trestles, which BC Parks advised were not suitable for horses.

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The original Midway railway station is in great condition and a lovely tourist stop. Midway is mile zero of the Kettle Valley Railway heading west to Hope, and where the trail starts following the Columbia & Western Railway bed east to Castlegar. Photo: Tania Millen

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Chocolate became the king of bridges, crossing more than 30 during the trip. Photo: Tania Millen

The Myra Canyon route is one of McCullough’s engineering marvels, traversing 11 kilometres of hillside around a canyon that is less than one kilometre wide. The trestles attract over 40,000 people every year. Trestles are similar to bridges but they have train tracks laid directly on spaced railway ties, and no decking. However, there are no tracks on Myra Canyon’s trestles and the centre third of each trestle is purposely decked for cyclists, so I was fairly confident Chocolate would cross them. I also arranged for a horse friend to escort us through the canyon at 6 am to beat the tourist traffic.

The first trestle was the most intimidating, at 200 metres long. I hand-walked Chocolate confidently towards it and stepped onto the boards in the centre of the deck. Chocolate looked to one side of the trestle and then the other, checking out the open railway ties near the trestle’s edges where a hoof could easily jamb. Then he carefully stepped onto the middle boards and followed me. Brave lad. Chocolate’s confidence grew with each trestle and I ended up riding him across many. We had the canyon almost entirely to ourselves, and the peaceful sunshine made for a spectacular experience.

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Photo: Bryn White

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Photo: Bryn White

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Myra Canyon’s 18 trestles were a significant challenge which Chocolate carefully and confidently negotiated. Photo: Bryn White

The trail continued east to a frosty ski area where Chocolate got loose and gaily cantered down the back trail with a cheeky smirk on his face, before letting me catch him. Then one morning, while riding south down the Kettle River valley, Chocolate came up sore behind. It was a devastating moment. Not just because we couldn’t continue our journey, but because after all Chocolate had given me – being brave in new situations and striding down the trail with enthusiasm for 350 kilometres - he’d become injured. That didn’t sit well with me. However, one phone call later, a horse friend in Rock Creek rescued us with her trailer, and the next day Chocolate got a massage and new shoes.

Fortunately, after a week of rest and massage, Chocolate seemed fine. So after a day-long ride on the section of trail we’d trailered around, we continued east. The trail east of Rock Creek was some of the nicest of the trip – a non-motorized horse-friendly single track beside the rollicking Kettle River. After that, I walked most of the final 160 kilometres, to help ensure Chocolate’s injury didn’t recur.

In Midway (so named because it’s situated halfway across BC), the KVR ends and the TCT continues on the former Columbia & Western (C&W) Railway line to Castlegar. The C&W went into service in 1900 to transport mine ore and passengers, but most of the line was shut down in 1990 and the rail bed is now rail trail.

Near Greenwood there was a locked gate across the trail and the alternate route included riding along the shoulder of Highway 3 – not something I was willing to ask Chocolate to do. This show-stopper would have ended our trip, but the horse community rallied and a kind stranger trailered us around the gate.

Grand Forks was new to me, and the horse people and community grounds were marvelous during our two-day rest, as was the sunshine. Farther along in Christina Lake, we stayed with new horse friends before grinding perpetually uphill on a brutal 37 kilometre day.

And then came the Bulldog Tunnel. When my headlamp batteries died, I didn’t have any spares. But with great relief, I discovered that my emergency SPOT beacon had the same size batteries as the headlamp. So after swapping batteries, we continued towards the tunnel.

At 912 metres long, with rocky, sloshy, uneven footing in pure blackness, Bulldog Tunnel was one heck of a test of Chocolate’s trust in me. I’d prepared him as best I could, supporting him during moments of uncertainty riding through almost 30 shorter tunnels. He’d had many opportunities to question the wisdom of travelling through dark, damp, enclosed spaces with echoing walls and mysterious footing, but Bulldog Tunnel was a whole new level of difficulty. So when he rose to the challenge and tip-toed through the tunnel, I was really proud of him, just as I imagine all riders are when their horses give them a whole lot of try.

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Photo: Tania Millen

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There were over 20 tunnels on the trip including the longest and most challenging, Bulldog Tunnel. Photo: Bryn White

After successfully navigating the tunnel, we travelled for two relaxing days downhill to Lower Arrow Lake and our endpoint near Castlegar, where another horse friend kindly picked us up. It felt strange to end our journey, and odd not to have each day organized by the simple rhythm of the trail. It felt downright wrong to put Chocolate in a paddock and desert him by sleeping in a house elsewhere.

However, the trip was much more satisfying than I expected. I’m grateful to have experienced unique parts of BC with a special horse partner, and discover such welcoming horse communities along the way. We survived scorching heat, rides in strange trailers, injury, and an air mattress that stayed inflated for only three nights in five weeks. But we also enjoyed incredible kindness from strangers and friends, marvelous engineering feats, and only four days with rain.

So next time spring fever arrives, consider embracing it with an impromptu ride along the Trans Canada Trail, and expect some marvelous surprises along the way.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main article photo: Bryn White

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