British Columbia's gentle cycle

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Beaverdell, Canada

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.

Just an hour beyond McCulloch Lake, the 5 1/2-mile section through Myra Canyon, with its 18 trestles and two tunnels, has been turned into a provincial park. The park is extremely popular, especially on weekends (more than 40,000 visited last year). At 4,100 feet, Myra Canyon is the highpoint of the railway, and the trestles, 10 to 180 feet high with decks and handrails for safety, are suitably dramatic. The trail bed between them alternately winds through corridors of stone, hangs on ledges and curves through evergreen forests.

Maria and I took our time, stopping frequently. We explored stone ruins left by railroad builders, climbed overlooks and picnicked on a shady bench near one of the trestles. Rain clouds were closing in as we reached Chute Lake Resort, an easy three-hour ride beyond Myra. Because we were hungry rather than tired, we decided to head to the rustic dining room at the lodge for a burger and beer first. Camp could wait.

We sat between a potbellied stove and a neon-lighted Wurlitzer jukebox. Antiques covered the log walls, which, as owner Doreen Reed told us as she cooked our burgers, were once telephone poles. Her husband, Gary, a retired lineman, built the lodge by hand in the 1970s. Gary's passion is antiques, and he has a collection in back of the lodge that overflows with an assortment of stuff — all for sale — plundered from backwoods British Columbia.

The rain squall we had anticipated arrived, giving us the excuse we needed to sleep on a soft mattress again. We took a room and slept soundly as the rain drummed on the tin roof.

The next morning, the sky was blue again as we began our long, winding float down into the "Valley of Vines." Ninety-mile-long Okanagan Lake shimmered below. Farther south, Skaha Lake glowed like an emerald, bordered by grids of green vineyards.

The Hillside Winery sits so close to the rail bed at the bottom of the hill that we coasted right up to the tasting room. Upstairs on the deck we joined some fellow cyclists for an alfresco lunch that turned into a prolonged feast, with entrees such as "KVR linguini" and seared salmon sandwiches (both about $8.50) and delicious seafood salads, complete with local and Old World wines.

Rolling into the stretchWe had just an hour's cycling left, downhill past vineyards, then along the Okanagan River to the lakeshore at the south end of Penticton. We found campgrounds on either end of the busy municipal beach at Skaha Lake and chose a site under silver Russian olive trees at Lake Skaha Tent and Trailer Park. In contrast to our three previous quiet overnight stops, we had landed in a beehive of vacationers.

On our last day we cycled south from Penticton, our most difficult stretch. Here the railway corridor was interrupted by parcels of private property, and KVR cyclist signposts detoured us along sections of rural roads and once along part of a busy highway. Off the rail bed we encountered a few aerobic uphills that were definitely not a 2% grade. The reward for our exertion was some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip.

On the willow-lined right-of-way alongside the Okanagan River we rinsed off road dust in the swift current. Then, laden with ripe peaches from one of the many roadside fruit stands, we pushed up the steepest hill of all to our final destination: an utterly decadent B&B nestled among the grapevines of Tinhorn Creek Estate Winery.

Dinner was a memorable food-and-wine-pairing workshop, and afterward, from our hillside aerie, Maria and I watched the stars rise over the mountains above Okanagan Lake and looked over the route we had just cycled.

It looked like a long, long way, but it hadn't been so hard.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Easy riding on the Kettle Valley Railway

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Air Canada and Alaska Airlines offer connecting service (change of plane) to Kelowna, Canada. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $268.75.

WHERE TO STAY:

Beaverdell Hotel, Box 40, Highway 33, Beaverdell, B.C. V0H 1A0; (250) 484-5513. Historic hotel built in 1901 has double bunk beds with duvets, shared baths and a pub. Doubles $47.

Zack's Creekside Campground, Box 25, 5th St., Beaverdell, B.C. V0H 1A0; (250) 484-5532, zack2852@ hotmail.com. Has four rooms in lodge for $33 and grass campsites with hot showers for $5 a person.

McCulloch Lake Resort, 9995 McCulloch Road, Kelowna, B.C. V1P 1K3; (250) 862-7834, http://www.mccullochlakeresort.com . Restaurant, cabins, rooms, hot showers, camping, rental boats. Six rustic cabins $47 double; campsites $15; four log chalet units with kitchens, $84-$102.

Chute Lake Resort, RR1, Site 16, Compartment 16, Naramata, B.C. V0H 1N0; (250) 493-3535, http://www.chutelakeresort.com . It has an antiques museum full of local history in back, a restaurant, hot showers, lodging, campsites and boat rentals. Doubles in log cabins $40-$65; rooms in lodge $40; 20 campsites, $11-$18.

In Penticton, the Lake Skaha Tent and Trailer Park, 3700 S. Main St., Penticton, B.C. V2A 5J8; (250) 492-6322, http://www.geocities.com/lake_skaha_tent_and_trailer_park . Friendly, family-run campground near beach has many repeat customers. Hot showers, close to restaurants. About $18 a night for a tent site; RV sites $22.

In Oliver, we stayed at the Tinhorn Creek Estate Winery, 32830 Tinhorn Creek Road, Oliver, B.C. V0H 1T0; (888) 484-6467, http://www.tinhorn.com . Its "Winelovers' Club" package includes a three- or four-night stay in a suite in the middle of a vineyard, with meals, estate tour, winemaking tutorial, wine-and-food-pairing workshop and a guided tour of neighboring wineries. From $700 for a three-night package for two.

CYCLING TOURS:

Monashee Adventure Tours, 470 Cawston Ave., Kelowna, B.C. V1Y 9V8; (888) 762-9253, http://www.monasheeadventuretours.com . Mountain bike rentals start at $22 per day; shuttle to Beaverdell $109. Guided three- to eight-day Kettle Valley Railway cycling tours from $127 a day (equipment rentals, meals, transportation included).

Kettle Valley Trail Tours & Shuttle, Box 186, Naramata, B.C. V0H 1N0; (250) 496-5220, http://www.kettlevalleytrail.com . Shuttles and KVR cycling tours from the Okanagan Valley side (Naramata to Chute Lake). Guided three-hour tour including bike rental, $36. Our return shuttle from Oliver to Kelowna cost $109.

Great Explorations, 305-1510 W. 1st Ave., Vancouver, B.C. V6J 4S3; (800) 242-1825 or (604) 730-1247, http://www.great-explorations.com . Seven-day, six-night guided camping trips are $645; with lodge stays costing $845. Longer and shorter trips are available.

TO LEARN MORE:

Thompson Okanagan Tourism Assn., 1332 Water St., Kelowna, B.C. V1Y 9P4; (800) 567-2275, http://www.totabc.com .

I found Trans Canada Trail/Kettle Valley Railway Links town.princeton.bc.ca/newpages/parksandrec/transcantrail.html, an informative site.

— Carl Duncan

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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