All posts by Old Boot Dave

Kaoham Shuttle (Lillooet)

Kaoham Shuttle at Lillooet Station, March 2016
Kaoham Shuttle at Lillooet Station, March 2016

Canada’s greatest hidden rail trip” – Those are not my words, although as a rail fan, I totally agree with them.

In fact, that’s what the BBC proclaimed in their 2014 travel story about the Kaoham Shuttle, a two-car, 32-seat rail service that links the tiny communities of Seton Portage and Shalalth with the town of Lillooet, British Columbia and the rest of the outside world.

If there’s something I’m more nerd about than my beloved lacrosse, it’s trains. When I first came across the BBC story last autumn, and then started Googling and Youtubing about the Kaoham Shuttle, I knew I had to make the four-hour drive to Lillooet to experience this first-hand. On Good Friday of this year, I finally managed to take that two-hour train trip.

To fully understand and appreciate the uniqueness and local flavour of this journey, it helps to know some of the background about how the railroad and the Lillooet area are interlinked. After all, passenger train service was ended by BC Rail in 2002.

The Kaoham Shuttle was established not long after as a daily replacement service by the Seton Lake Band government to access the isolated communities of Seton Portage and Shalalth, nestled between the rugged peaks of the coastal mountains and the long, narrow lakes of the area, which are much easier reached by rail than by gravel roads often prone to landslides and washouts.

“Kaoham” means “to meet the train” in the local St’át’imcets Lillooet language. The two small self-motorised diesel units run along the former BC Rail tracks between Seton Portage and Lillooet in a unique partnership between Canadian National Railway and the Seton Lake St’át’imc Nation.

Seton Lake.
Seton Lake

The rail line that the shuttle runs on was built around 1912 by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway – the forerunner of British Columbia Railway and BC Rail – to ultimately link North Vancouver to Prince George and the Peace River country. Now owned by Canadian National Railway since their takeover in 2004, CN seems disinterested in the line that today only sees one northbound and one southbound run per day between North Vancouver and Prince George. Only a few years earlier, in 2000, there were as many as five different passenger trains running each day as well as numerous freight trains by BC Rail. All these trains stopped at Seton Portage to pick up and drop off the locals going to Lillooet and Pemberton.

The shuttle is the only passenger service anywhere in North America operated with Canadian National equipment. Since CN is strictly a commercial, freight-only railroad, passengers on the Kaoham shuttle are classified by CN as “groceries” for cargo reporting purposes. CN owns the diesel units and maintains the track, but otherwise the management, operation, and booking reservations of the shuttle are handled by the Seton Portage St’át’imc band office.

After leaving Lillooet, the shuttle follows along the narrow Seton Canal before opening up into the incredibly green waters of Seton Lake, a freshwater inland fjord lake around 22 kilometres in length situated between the small communities of Seton Portage (pop. 700) and Shalalth (pop. 400) at the west end of the lake and the larger town of Lillooet (pop. 2,300) at the east end. In the 1950s, the lake was raised by 10 feet as part of the 1948-1960 Bridge River hydro power project.

The engineer (technically a ‘machine operator’) on our trip was Eugene John, who’s been working this line for over 35 years for BC Rail and Canadian National and happily shares his incredible wealth of knowledge of the area with passengers. Sadly, if Eugene is telling the truth, he’s retiring next year – if so, then take the shuttle now! Eugene’s commentary adds so much to the enjoyment and passenger experience of taking in the sights, the history of the railway and his people who reside in the communities, and the incredible rugged scenery.

Young grizzly bear along the trackside.
Young grizzly bear spotted along the trackside by Seton Lake

Wildlife abounds along the rail line – and Eugene would slow down for us, and sometimes even back up, so we could see the deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. The highlight sighting of our trip was an adolescent brown (grizzly) bear. The locals seem to know about this particular bear whose mother was killed or abandoned it a couple years ago – but he or she seems to have survived on its own, probably with the help of occasional food scraps thrown from the train by the locals.

At the settlement of Shalalth are the BC Hydro Bridge River No. 1 and No. 2 Powerhouses. Their penstock pipes feed water into the dam generators and travels over two miles underground from Carpenter Lake. My wife currently does contract work for BC Hydro on one of their dams in the Lower Mainland, so she found this aspect of the trip interesting. Yeah, I’ll admit I actually did use the line “…and there’ll be dams!” as a selling feature of the trip.

Soon after the second powerhouse, we entered the 1,200-metre tunnel. This is the third-longest tunnel along the old BC Rail line. Periodically, Eugene would blast his horn to scare any wildlife also using the tunnel themselves as a short-cut through the mountain. He would also turn off the lights in the middle to show how dark it was inside; naturally amusing the quickly-spooked children on the train.

Exiting the tunnel, we then made our approach into Seton Portage which is located on a small flat plain between Seton Lake to the north and Anderson Lake to the south. The portage was formed thousands of years ago from a landslide which divided what was originally a single, narrow lake.

Arriving at Seton Portage, we picked up a few locals heading into town and everyone who boarded at Lillooet then got off and switched to the other car as the shuttle changed directions for the trip back.

For much of the journey, the tracks hug both the lakeside and the mountains and it’s a great way to see some of British Columbia’s most rugged and beautiful scenery.

WHAT TO KNOW AHEAD

kaoham 04Fridays are the only day feasible for non-residents to take the shuttle because there’s an extra return-run added. This means you can board at Lillooet, go to Seton Portage, and then return to Lillooet. Any other day you would find yourself stranded at Seton Portage overnight with nowhere to stay or go.

The Friday service leaves at 10:30 a.m. – you can then catch the return trip right away or hang out in Seton Portage for a couple hours, wander around, maybe get some lunch, and take the later train back to Lillooet. Almost everyone on the 10:30 a.m. train are tourists from out of town.

When you book your seat, make sure you tell them which train times you want to take. Seating is limited (to around 16 souls) and it’s first-come, first-served for seating spots. It runs every day except Christmas Day. We found the booking process to be somewhat informal – there was one family who weren’t on the list of passengers but luckily there was still room for them. After all, this is a train service for local use – although they are aware of growing tourist interest on the Friday runs since the BBC story ran.

Lillooet is around a four-hour drive from Vancouver, regardless which route you take: the shorter but slower Sea-to-Sky Highway 99 (Duffy Lake Road) via Whistler and Pemberton, or the longer-but-faster Fraser Canyon route via the Trans-Canada Highway to Hope and Lytton and then Highway 12 for the last leg of the journey to Lillooet. Highway 12 is a highway in name only, as there are winding (and windy) spots and one section is single-lane, one-way as it traverses the “great slide” area.

If leaving Vancouver at 6 a.m. isn’t your thing, we’ve been told there is a good but really basic hotel walking distance from the station called Reynolds Hotel. Next time we take the shuttle, we are planning to go up the day before and stay overnight.

The entire train trip takes an hour from Lillooet to Seton Portage and then an hour back. We were back in Lillooet by around 1:30 p.m.

Lastly, make sure you’ve stopped somewhere to use the washroom one last time before you arrive at the station in Lillooet (the Esso in town is a safe bet). The train didn’t have any toilets and the station at Lillooet is kept locked up, as you wait and board outside.

Costs: $10 (cash only) per person return
Schedule and Fares: http://www.tsalalh.net/shuttle.html
An excellent YouTube clip of the shuttle: https://youtu.be/dcEFYGb2pv8
Reservations: 1-250-259-8300 (don’t leave a message, make sure you speak to someone)

Yale, British Columbia

YALE, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Population: 186 (2006 census); 136 (2011 Census)

lady franklin rock yale bc 2015-05-30Lady Franklin Rock in the Fraser River is named after Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875), the wife of explorer John Franklin who went missing in the Canadian Arctic in 1845 trying to navigate the unexplored Northwest Passage. She financed 7 expeditions between 1850 and 1875 to search for the remains of her husband. The rock was named after her when she visited Yale during the Fraser Canyon gold rush of 1857-1858. Lady Franklin Rock obstructed paddlewheeler steamers from going farther upstream, resulting in Yale becoming an important pioneer settlement as the trailhead north into the Fraser Canyon.

ned stout gravesite yale bc 2013-08-17The Gravesite of Yale pioneer Edward ‘Ned’ Stout (1824-1924) is located at the Pioneer Cemetery. Probably the most famous of the 30,000 odd miners involved in the Fraser River gold rush of 1858, Stout barely survived the Fraser Canyon War of that same year when he was ambushed and hit by seven poisoned arrows. He later headed north to Barkerville and was in the mining party that discovered Williams Creek, the richest creek in the area. After his mining days, he returned to Yale to retire. He died at the ripe age of 99 years, proud he had never drank nor smoked a day in his life.

st john divine church 2009-04-11Built sometime around 1863 by the Royal Engineers, the Anglican Church of St. John the Divine is the second oldest church on the mainland of British Columbia still standing on its original site. It is located adjacent to the Yale Historic Museum. It was facing demolition as it approached its 90th year until donations collected from across Canada resulted in a complete renovation which took place in 1953. Anglican worship services were held at the church from 1863 until it was closed in 1976. The church features the walls and rafters of the original structure as well a pulpit which was added during the renovations. In the vestry is stored a beautiful collection of church linens and vestments. These were all stitched by hand by the students of the All Hallows boarding school for girls, which existed in Yale from its opening in 1890 until its closure in 1920. A rectory used to stand next to the church but the building was demolished in 1940 – all that remains is its stone foundation which can still be seen.

sawmill creek yale bc 2013-05-23Sawmill Creek is located along the Trans-Canada Highway #1 between Yale and Spuzzum. It is one of the prettiest creeks along the highway in the Fraser Canyon – although easy to miss if you are not looking for it as well as not the easiest to photograph. Usually the traffic along the highway (and no walkway) makes it dangerous to walk out on the narrow bridge, but during a trip through Yale in May 2013, with no one around for miles on the highway at 7:00am, I was able to stop and managed to snap some photographs of the creek during spring run-off.

Books in my Cariboo Backpack

Whenever I go on my travels through the BC Cariboo and Gold Country, these three books I always make sure to pack along with me:

FRASER & THOMPSON RIVER CANYONS

Fraser & Thompson River CanyonsPublished by Heritage House, this little 126-page book is an absolute treasure trove of historical facts despite being dated from 1986. After all, history really should not change over time whether it is being told now or from in the past. The book details every stop of interest and local characteristic along the Trans-Canada Highway #1 route from Vancouver to Kamloops by mileage waypoints in distance (in miles and kilometres) from Vancouver and Kamloops.

There are many black and white photographs included and it is rather interesting to compare location descriptions and observations from ca.1986 with what one now sees along the route today. With the construction of the Coquihalla Highway #5 in the same year as publication, the book also provides a final snapshot of the Trans-Canada canyon route while it was still in its glory as the only route between Hope and Kamloops.

In the time since its publication, many towns and local business geared to the highway tourist industry have suffered severely from loss of traffic to the Coquihalla. Perhaps the starkest evidence of this can be found in and around Spences Bridge – which of all the towns between Hope and Kamloops appears to have suffered the most in the last 25-30 years. Closed-down accommodations and campgrounds, abandoned fruit stands, and ghosts of gas stations litter along the highway between Lytton and Spences Bridge. And where residents and businesses can still be found hanging on and eking out an existence, often there is a “for sale” sign to be found nearby.

What I have enjoyed most about this book is the detail and lore it has brought to life with many of these obscure locales and to be able to drive by such and such creek or a now-boarded up resort stop and know its significance in regards to the locale’s history and sometimes even the rest of the province – such as Nicomen Creek and its possible spark leading to the 1858 gold rush – it helps reconnect one to the past.

If you have any interest in the history of the Fraser River or Thompson River and you are fortunate enough to find a copy of this book still available or sold second-hand, do not hesitate to snap it up! This book is best enjoyed while being read as a passanger and paced as you progress from points of interest along the highway.

Most of the historical content was researched by C.P. “Chess” Lyons and his work appeared in print during the 1950s as Milestones on the Mighty Fraser. The existing 1986 volume was based around Lyons’s earlier work but updated with relevant information and photographs for the times.

Lyons will re-appear below when I discuss his groundbreaking field-guide Trees, Shrubs and Flowers to Know in Washington and British Columbia.

BRITISH COLUMBIA INTERIOR

Published locally by Altitude SuperGuides and written by Meredith and Ron Woodward, this is the best travel guide currently available that covers Gold Country and the Cariboo region – along with the rest of the southern-half of the province east of Hope. The copy I have is the 2003 edition and it is starting to show its age a little – however by and large it is still a very useful and informative book.

A highlight feature of the book is its “While You Are in… Top 10” or “Top 5” info boxes which list off must-see tourist attractions and popular activities in that particular town or locale. Interspersed throughout its glossy pages chock-full of interesting and gorgeous colour photographs are history sidebars and the book starts off with an overview chapter that describes the local economy, general history, ecosystems, and outdoor recreation.

The two chapters I generally focus on are the Trans-Canada Highway (which covers from Hope to Field – with sidetrip to Lillooet) and Central Interior (which covers northwards from Cache Creek to Quesnel and Barkerville – as well as the North Thompson stretch of the Yellowhead Highway #5 north of Kamloops).

Unfortunately the guide does not detail such topics as accommodation and food establishments. The only guide book (apart from government-issued tourism brochures) I have come across that lists anything related to finding places to rest for the night or eat one’s fill is the Lonely Planet book for British Columbia – however due to its scope it glosses over the region in passing without much worthwhile detail. You would do much better to simply stop at one of the BC Tourism visitor infomation centres. The most useful ones in the Cariboo-Gold Country are located in Hope, Merritt, Cache Creek, and 100 Mile House – with smaller, more-localised offices in Yale, Lytton, and Lillooet.

TREES, SHRUBS AND FLOWERS TO KNOW IN WASHINGTON AND BRITISH COLUMBIA

Published by Lone Pine Publishing and written by C.P. “Chess” Lyons and Bill Merilees, Trees, Shrubs and Flowers to Know in Washington and British Columbia is hands-down the best field guide book of any sort – flora or fauna – I have ever come across.

Its brilliance is found with the cross-referencing organization, as each of the dozen or so ecosystems is broken down with location descriptions and then a list of trees and flowers (grouped by petal colour) one would expect to come across within that particular ecosystem. There are colour photograph plates of various flowers – again grouped by colour for easy comparison and charts for blooming months of various flowers. Combine these photos with the various ecosystem lists, and you can usually find and confidently identify what you are looking at.

As well, the book includes two incredibly useful charts: one which lists the trees and flowers grouped by four different terrain elevations; and, a second chart which is alone worth the price of the book: a leaf comparison chart for broadleaf trees and a flow chart for identifying evergreen trees by needle count and structure.

What makes this book so valuable is, along with the detail of the individual entries, is its organization and charts make it so you are able to quickly locate what you are looking at and not therefore waste one’s time thumbing through any irrelevant sections. The evergreen identification chart is something so ingenious that I’ve never seen it in any other tree book – but is useful beyond any number of photographs other books try to utilise for comparisons. Lastly, the tree identification chart layout makes it fairly easy to memorize after some practice.

As the book relates specifically to the Cariboo, it includes a description of the ‘Cariboo Parklands’ ecosystem. While not ‘officially’ recognized as one of British Columbia’s distinct ecosystems, there is nevertheless an obviously unique ecosystem in the region which the book decides to take the liberty to acknowledge. Anyone who has driven from Clinton to Quesnel will notice that the region – with its gently rolling hills, hay-farms, and prominence of spruce and aspen trees – is quite distinct from the Ponderosa Pine and Sagebrush regions to the immediate south and the mountain forest which surrounds the region and one begins to notice as they make their way northwards to Prince George.

My introduction to the BC Interior

My love affair with the Cariboo region of British Columbia began on August 23, 2007. But before explaining the how’s and why’s, we need to back up by two years…

Every second or third weekend in August starting in 2005, I would drive up to Prince George with my lacrosse team (the Vancouver Burrards) to compete in the annual Alcan Cup tournament. For the first two years, we would depart the Lower Mainland in the dark expanse of night, at around midnight, rendezvous at someone’s house, and our convoy of half a dozen cars would then make the drive up through the Fraser and Thompson Canyons in complete darkness.

Usually by the time we reached the highlands around Mount Begbie, just south of 100 Mile House, the sun would start to peek above the horizon and we’d finally see some daylight emerge during the following hour. By half past six o’clock in the morning, we would have reached Williams Lake, daylight, and a greasy yet most-welcomed breakfast pit-stop at Denny’s.

On these first two trips north, in 2005 and 2006, I thought little about the trip and its sights and scenery – after all, half the journey was done at night – and focused more about simply getting there.

Preparing for these road-trips was a lot like anticipating Christmas morning when you were a little kid – where adrenaline and excitement kept us awake, and one hoped that all that adrenaline (paired with coffee) would keep you awake long enough until daylight and arrival in the Spruce City. Most of us had only a few hours of sleep at best before leaving. Typically I would work a full day, come home and then spend the evening doing laundry and packing. I’d be lucky if I got a two-hour nap in before I had to load up the car and hit the road.

My teammate Jeremy rode shotgun these first two years – and while I drove, it was his job to entertain and keep me awake with his conversation as well as play DJ with my car’s CD deck. He would bring with him a home-made CD he burned especially for the trip. One year it was half an hour of epic “morale speeches” from sports and movies, things like Vince Lombardi Super Bowl quotes and soundbites from Full Metal Jacket to get us pumped up for game time.

But along with the official trip CD, Jeremy would also entertain me with his impressive knowledge of the Fraser Canyon. We’d drive through this-or-that tunnel north of Yale, and he could recount the history of it and any interesting historical tid-bits. In later years, the history buff I am would buy an out-dated travel book to the Fraser Canyon – and realise Jeremy actually could relate a lot of accurate knowledge about our driving route.

Then in 2007, less of us were driving and more flying north. Admittedly the 800-kilometres drive had now worn out more than a few souls. So our road trip convoys became a thing of the past as only a handful of us drove up as a group that year. Jeremy couldn’t make the trip, so this time around my teammate Cam and myself were car-pooling together.

Not committed to leaving and sticking with the convoy, Cam and I decided on a sudden whim to leave town a few hours later so that we reached Hope right around dawn at 5:00am and then didn’t have to drive as much in the pitch black. In previous years, six hours or so of driving along the un-lit Trans-Canada #1 and Cariboo #97 highways took a toll on one’s eyes as you strained to concentrate on the winding road and avoid any wildlife which may happen to wander on to the otherwise dark highway.

So with us now entering the Canyon in the early morning light, for the first time on our road-trips north were we able to actually take in and appreciate the scenery passing by us. Towns, settlements, buildings, and business signs which we had only known previously as lonesome dots of lights in the vast darkness of night, or on our road map, their identity now became apparent. It’s amazing how different places can look and your bearings change when you don’t drive the long distances in the pitch black.

But it wasn’t until we began the stretch of highway from Lytton to Cache Creek – the Thompson River canyon – that the location’s beauty really struck home with me. Already in awe of the stark rawness of the mountain scenery and scrubland which begins as soon as you leave Lytton and head along the Thompson River, I was coming around a bend on the Trans-Canada, somewhere north of Spences Bridge when suddenly the whole valley was illuminated by the bright dawn of the sun in a cloudless sky. It was, quite frankly, the most incredibly beautiful sunrise I have witnessed. It was a zen moment – and if I were a more religious person, I would have said God himself was looking down from one of those mountains that morning.

In subsequent trips north, I would often try to time and co-ordinate my route so that dawn would occur at the same time and location – but I have yet been able to replicate what I saw that early morning of August 23, 2007. That was the day that the lure of the British Columbia Interior, the Cariboo, and the beauty of my province, would start to draw me in.

You, mighty Thompson River, had me at ‘sunrise’…