Tag Archives: British Columbia

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.


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

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.