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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)