The rambling, tin-roofed lodge and a few cabins stood beyond an antique windmill under the tall trees. Rustic, casual, quirky Chute Lake Resort looked like the sort of place that would soothe away the muscle strain from a body unused to two days of pedaling a mountain bike.
Late afternoon shadows stretched across the lake, and Canada geese grazed beside an abandoned barn. My wife, Maria, and I leaned our bikes against a picnic table and headed toward the scent of hamburgers and the clack of billiard balls. I wanted to kick back and chill out here for a lifetime, but we were here only for the night.
The day's cycling had been easy, a near-level grade as the abandoned rail bed of the Kettle Valley Railway, a former Canadian Pacific train line, gently climbed the mountainous landscape of south-central British Columbia to a forested plateau 4,000 feet above sea level. Our four-day, 120-mile bike trip last August took us over the most popular and best-maintained section of the KVR, as locals call it. We followed a large north-south horseshoe-shaped route rising over Mt. Okanagan, then dipping south through the Okanagan wine country.
This route delivered mountain vistas, vineyard-filled valleys, scenic salmon streams, emerald lakes, orchards and wineries. Add to that historic trestles, tunnels and the choice of camping or taking a room in a lodge each night — we did both — and it's easy to see why the Kettle Valley Railway has become so popular. Biking magazine rated the KVR "one of the world's top 50 bicycle routes," and it's the shining star in the new Trans Canada Trail, an 11,000-mile system of recreational pathways connecting the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans. But its 2% grade is what attracts cyclists of all abilities.
Because steam trains hauling heavy loads of ore from the area's silver and gold mines required easy inclines and declines, railway engineers had to carve a route through the mountains and valleys with no more than a 2-foot rise or drop in every 100 feet.
We flew into Kelowna, the urban hub of the Okanagan, picked up rental bikes and took a shuttle about 90 miles south to our starting point at Beaverdell. This sleepy mining town on the Kettle River has little more than a few homes, several campgrounds within a stone's toss of one another, a small grocery store and the historic Beaverdell Hotel, which dates to 1901. When the railroad was running and the silver and gold mines were operating, Beaverdell bustled. Now it's nearly a ghost town.
We pitched our tent near a thin stream at Zack's Creekside Campground and turned in. Early the next morning we had a hearty breakfast for only $5 each a block down the main street at Our Place Cafe.
We had more than 32 miles to cover our first day to 3,900-feet-high McCulloch Lake, where we would camp for the night, and half those miles would be uphill. I was sipping one last cup of strong coffee, worried about those 16 uphill miles, when a family of seven showed up on their bicycles. The parents had tandem bikes, with a child each in the jump seat. The three other kids, about 9 to 12 years old, rode their own bikes. They were heading the same way we were but had started out in Midway, 40 miles east, the day before.
"A 2% grade is a piece of cake," the father said, reassuring me. "Even for the kids."
Most cyclists do the KVR from east to west for two reasons: The climb from Beaverdell is slightly easier than the uphill on the valley side, and the downhill "float" into the Okanagan Valley — one of the longest unbroken stretches of 2% grade in North America — offers breathtaking views along the 25-mile descent.
The "onramp" to the KVR is a few hundred yards past the bridge at Beaverdell, and the abandoned rail bed looks like an unpaved country road, shady with trees. The uphill grade, I was glad to discover, was barely noticeable.
A flat tire, in fact, is about all that will turn a 2% grade into a grind, as I found out after our picnic lunch near the ruins of a railway station at Arlington Lake, about halfway up. I began struggling to keep pace with Maria and soon had fallen far behind. Finally I realized that my rear tire was flat from a slow leak.
I was carrying 50 pounds in the panniers — camping and camera gear, food and water — but the pump and repair kit rode with Maria. I pushed the bike for more than an hour before a cyclist with a pump lent a hand. With an inflated tire, the rest of the way was no sweat.
Motor traffic is restricted along most of the railway, but McCulloch Lake has road access. Besides fellow cyclists with their tents pitched under the trees, the campground was quietly busy with fly fishermen vacationing in their RVs.
A long, hot shower soothed our tired muscles, and McCulloch Lake Resort's lakeside restaurant had good salads, a nice selection of wines, and tempting pastas and burgers. In fact, at each stop we had convenient restaurants, so we never bothered to light the camp stove we carried. For lunches along the trail we had packed our favorite cheeses, bagels, pâtés, pickles and cold cuts.
McCulloch Lake was named for the brilliant Canadian Pacific Railway engineer who, in the spring of 1910, was assigned the Herculean task of designing the line into the Okanagan Valley. Andrew McCulloch's mandate, under strict time and monetary constraints, was to build a "first-class railroad."
The KVR would be one of the last major railways in North America constructed almost entirely by men. Because of the high costs of maintaining the railway over the rugged terrain and increasing competition from highways, train service was discontinued in 1973. By 1981 Canadian Pacific had removed the ties and steel, and the abandoned rail bed — a multimillion-dollar pathway wandering lazily through the best scenery of the Okanagan region — became an instant hit with hikers, cyclists and horseback riders.
Rails-to-trails enthusiasts lobbied the Canadian government to create a recreational corridor out of the historic Kettle Valley Railway, and in 1990 ownership of the right-of-way was transferred to the government of British Columbia. It is now administered by the Canadian Ministry of Lands and Parks.