It’s with a mix of patriotic pride and shame that I raise the ten-pound maul high in the air and bring it down precisely onto a single spike in a short set of railway tracks. I’m feeling conflicted because of the historical magnitude of this very location – Craigellachie, British Columbia on a narrow slip of ground a few kilometres west of Revelstoke between the Trans-Canada Highway and the country’s transcontinental railway. With this spike maul, I’m consciously posing like Donald Smith, the white-bearded director of the Canadian Pacific Railway, who is hunched, driving the famous “last spike” into the railway. The whole scene is depicted in a life-size painting a few steps away.
I’m at the beginning of what’s called the Kootenay Rockies Circle tour. When I landed at Kelowna airport this morning to begin the tour, I was only vaguely aware of the extent to which the story of Canada’s creation myth – the completion of the railway that spanned the country – is fraught with contradiction, racism and deception. What I don’t know at the beginning of this week-long circuit is just how often this sense of conflict about Canada’s history will be repeated.
Revisiting the History of the Kootenay Circuit
Around this tiny historical site, there’s a small gift shop with interpretive information, several picnic tables, an old caboose, a cartoonish cut out of Donald Smith with a hole where his face should be, Canadian and provincial flags and a rough cairn made of stones from every Canadian province. Set into the cairn is a plaque that reads, “Here was driven the last spike completing Canadian Pacific Railway from Ocean to Ocean November 7, 1885.”
Nearby, a sign fills out the story rather poetically. “A nebulous dream was a reality; an iron ribbon crossed Canada from sea to sea. Often following the footsteps of early explorers, nearly 3,000 miles of steel rail pushed across vast prairies, cleft lofty mountain passes, twisted through canyons and bridged a thousand streams. Here on November 7, 1885, a plain iron spike welded East to West.”
Railways don’t build themselves. Back in the van, heading toward Revelstoke, I Google Donald Smith and discover that the famous image of him pounding that iron spike with the maul hides the full story of the nebulous dream. Perhaps because Smith didn’t work with his hands, his blow with the maul glanced off the spike, bending it so badly, it had to be replaced. This small truth is like a window upon the larger truths not told at Craigellachie, perhaps the most iconic location in a very large country, some say the very spot the nation of Canada was born. Canada encouraged workers to emigrate from China to work on the railway. The CPR company worked them so hard in dangerous conditions, an estimated 600 died. So poorly were they paid, most could not cover the debts they incurred to cross the Pacific. Shortly after the driving of the last spike, Canada imposed a head tax on Chinese migrants, easily dissuading others from making the journey.
Just a few kilometres along the Trans Canada Highway, we pull into the Three Valley Lake Chateau to explore more history, in this case, the story of one man’s personal obsession. The 200-room, red-roofed Chateau is impressive enough, but the elaborate Heritage Ghost Town beside it is a testament to the life-long work of the Bell family – mostly the founder, Gordon Bell – to preserve local history. Our tour guide, Thane, leans on a polished walking stick and begins telling us the story of the 26 buildings, railway roundhouse and antique auto museum. Some of the buildings were moved here, some are replicas. At the Craigellachie School House, Thane jokes that students of the time had it tough, forced to walk uphill both to and from school. At the Golden Wheel Saloon, he tells us about the women who entertained upstairs, adding with a wry smile, “And that’s how the west was won.”
Revelstoke: The Beginnings of The Railway
Some 25 kilometres on, we check into the historic Regent Revelstoke Hotel, claiming to be the oldest family-owned business in town and one of the oldest family-owned and operated hotels in the country. As a town that grew up along the railway, the history of Revelstoke and the hotel are closely tied to the development of Canada itself. The Regent started out as the Windsor Hotel but was purchased in 1919 by the son of a Swedish immigrant who came to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Eventually, the Windsor was renamed the Regent, then combined with the adjacent Selkirk Hotel. In all its incarnations, the Regent has always hosted railway workers.
In the morning, we head to the Main Street Café for breakfast where I order crepes with blueberries. While I wait, I sip a London Fog and admire the old wood cook stove with its gleaming iron and white enamel surfaces. Before heading south on Highway 23, we drive to the summit of Mt. Revelstoke National Park along the Meadow-in-the-Sky Parkway. A stop at the Fire Lookout provides sweeping views of the city far, far below. Back down the mountain, we check out the Sutton Place Revelstoke Mountain Resort. Outdoor centre manager Dan Sculnick shows us around the resort and explains that the geography and prevailing winds create ideal skiing conditions in the Kootenays on what’s called “The Powder Highway.” As Dan puts it, “The snowflakes are so big, you can do two turns on each one.”
Nikkei: The Internment Memorial Centre
Down Highway 23, we cross Upper Arrow Lake at Shelter Bay aboard a car ferry, then head for Halcyon Hot Springs where we spend a luxurious afternoon floating around the naturally heated pools and admiring the mountain views across the lake. That evening, we dine at the Kingfisher Restaurant before hitting the hay in one of their very comfortable cottages.
We put some road behind us the next morning before stopping at the tiny, charming town of Nakusp for breakfast and a walk around the Japanese Garden. From there, we turn inland toward New Denver. This is where we meet again with skeletons in Canada’s historical closet at the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, which occupies no more than a block. Now a tranquil site with several rough buildings, a reception centre, a peace arch and a peace garden, this was once the detention centre for some 1500 Japanese-Canadians forced to live out World War II in 250 shacks here. A few shacks remain as reminders of yet another episode of racism in Canada’s history. A regulation under the War Measures Act stripped 20,000 Japanese-Canadians of their Canadian citizenship, their freedom, even their property and forced them into these work camps. For such a peaceful site, the ghosts here speak loudly of injustice.
Kaslo: A Stop At Kootenay Lake
Continuing southeast through a mountain pass, we hit Kootenay Lake at Kaslo where we climb aboard the SS Moyie, the world’s oldest intact sternwheeler. It’s been docked here since 1958 as a portal to a history in stark contrast to that of Craigellachie and New Denver. This is a romantic history of cruising up and down majestic mountain waters. On board, we find separate saloons for men and women, a dining room, small staterooms for longer trips and fine woodwork everywhere. In the pilot house, I get to sound the ship’s whistle. Every year, 20,000 board this vessel to walk the floorboards of history on the ship nicknamed “The Sweetheart of the Lake.”
From Kaslo, the circuit drive can follow several routes, including one that loops into Idaho and Washington before crossing the Canadian border again. We choose the road into Nelson where we cross the big orange bridge known affectionately as BOB (Big Orange Bridge, of course) and into what is instantly one of my all-time favourite towns. That’s partly because we immediately check into what is one of my all-time favourite hotels – the Hume Hotel. It has the feel of a combined saloon and hotel right out of an old western.
Left photo via trivago
Nelson: The Mountain Hideaway
Exploring the town built on the side of a steep incline, I quickly discover that Nelson is a laid-back mountain hideaway. The Kootenay School for the Arts is here. There’s a sprawling farmers market, over 300 heritage buildings, tons of public art and a yoga festival. In casual conversation with a local, he says he knows a bartender and massage therapist who provides yoga instruction on the side for clients of a heli-skiing company. It’s that kind of place. Nelson is also the kind of place where the health food store has a bin of shoes next to the entrance because so many customers arrive barefoot.
After an evening on the town – including dinner at the All Seasons Café where I tuck into the Deconstructed Jumbo Prawn Taco with Feta Polenta and Chimichurri Sauce – followed by a good night’s sleep at the Hume, we make our way too quickly through Castlegar and reluctantly by-pass Trail and Rossland. Our time is limited. We skirt the US border along Highway 3 and stop at Greenwood – no more than a few buildings on either side of the road. We order lunch at the Copper Eagle next to the Greenwood Saloon Inn. Together with a handful of other buildings, they are a streetscape out of time. Four motorcycles are parked outside the saloon beside a bright red Chevrolet 1955 two-door station wagon with fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view. After taking a quick walk around, I grab a couple of mincemeat tarts and a cappuccino for the road.
Osoyoos Lake: The Wine Country
It’s around here that the landscape suddenly becomes dry and sparsely forested. We wind along switchbacks down to Osoyoos Lake, surrounded by green farmland that stands out in contrast to the brown mountainsides. At Osoyoos, we make a quick stop at Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort for a tasting from the Nk’Mip Cellars winery and a look around. Based on the views of Anarchist Mountain and Osoyoos Lake from their suites, two pools, restaurant and nine-hole golf course, I wish we could stay longer. But we have other plans. Back in the van, we turn north onto Highway 97 that follows Okanagan Lake toward Penticton.
This is indeed wine country. We pass vineyard after vineyard. But the climate is ideal for many kinds of fruit, which becomes obvious when we pull into Matheson Creek Farm on the eastern shore of Skaha Lake. Co-owner Arlene Matheson plucks an enormous peach-coloured apple from a tree and slices generous crescents for the sweet, juicy fruit for us to try. At their small market, they sell their own apple juice, freshly harvested purple garlic, pears, tomatoes and crazy Turban squash that look like two very different vegetables slammed together.
Penticton: The Final Stop
In Penticton, we make a stop at the Penticton-Ikeda Japanese Garden next door to the Penticton Lakeside Resort for a quiet stretch. Penticton and Ikeda in Japan have been sister cities for over 40 years. These gardens are just one of the fruits of an active, respectful relationship. The gardens represent at least a small attempt to make amends for the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians so poignantly commemorated back in New Denver. Then it’s check-in time at the Ramada Penticton Hotel and Suites adjacent to the Penticton Golf and Country Club immediately off Highway 97.
In our final hours of the Kootenay Circuit the next morning on our way to the airport in Kelowna where we started, we drink in the dramatic views as we follow BC-97 along the western shore of Okanagan Lake through places with sunny names like Summerland and Peachland. Waiting for my flight, I think back to the first day at Craigellachie. As I was posing with that spike maul over my head, a train approached, then rumbled past, just on the other side of a chain-link fence. I could feel the ground trembling up through my feet. The train seemed endless. I remember wondering how long a train could be as the cars followed upon each other from the double engines to the tanker cars and box cars covered in graffiti to the caboose. It rolled along, as undeniable and insistent as knowledge you can’t unlearn. The one thing I feel certain of is that my country is struggling, however imperfectly, to be honest with itself. It’s in that effort, as well as in the spectacular scenery, the verdant farms and talented producers, the creative chefs and historic hotels, if not the wrongs of the past, that I can take pride.
All photos courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted