Between the Rockies and the Purcells -- Part 3

... The beautiful, rich Columbia Valley

by Don Norris

The last of three parts

The trench, the valley, the source of the Columbia River as it winds its way northwest. The Rockies are to our right, and at the left (out of sight) is the Purcell range. Between is this magnificent valley one mile wide and several hundred miles long.

So far the story of our 50th anniversary trip has taken us through Glacier National Park in Montana, to Calgary, then Banff and along the Icefields Highway to the Columbia Glacier. As we climb out of our gigantic icecrawler, we conclude that we've had our fill of spectacular mountains, menacing clouds and icy winds, and head west for new adventures.

On retracing our steps along the Icefields Highway, the heavy clouds let go again, this time with a steady heavy rain. At one point as we coasted down a long incline, there was a lone bicycle rider struggling to get up the hill. It was obvious she was exhausted, and as we sailed by at 60 I thought I recognized her from a chance meeting in a Lake Louise restaruant. She was one of a party of six that were doing the long, mountainous road to Jasper, now a hundred miles north.

Two minutes later I pulled over, turned around and headed back to see if she needed help. And just as we caught up to her, a south-bound support van came to a stop. We watched as she literally flopped into the front seat, totally spent, drenched, freezing, and exausted. Considering the weather, we wondered why these middle-aged riders thought they could conquer 150 miles of mountain roads.

We spent that night back in Lake Louise, having negotiated an agreeable fee with the lady behind the counter of the Mountaineer Lodge, a new impressive hotel/motel on the edge of the small village. It was comfortable and warm, but it was still raining. Our dinner that evening was coffee and healthy grain-cookie, which we shared. Which sounds rather extreme, but we had stuffed ourselves at lunch at the Icefields cafeteria.

Even what we consider weeds adds beauty to this pristine wonderland. There was color everywhere, if you looked closely.

Actually we ate very sparingly during our journey simply because we had convinced ourselves that now was a good time to loose weight -- and save a few bucks too. Like in Calgary we had a 6 p.m. breakfast, in Canmore we had two meals the same day in the same restaurant -- hot mealball sandwiches -- and in Banff we did it up big with French Onion soup and a plate of spaghetti. We did our best to walk and exercise, but in places like Canmore and Banff, exercise is limited to walking in and out of endless shops. After 18 days of travelling, we arrived home weighing exactly the same as when we left.   

On Friday, September 3 -- the 11th day of our journey -- we climbed the twisting highway to cross the continental divide once again, and began our long descent off the west side of the Rocky Mountains, into the Columbia River Valley. Strange, on my topo maps this 400-mile-long oasis is called a trench, which doesn't sound appropriate for it is a place of continuous and serene beauty.

So far we had  spent 11 of our 19 precious vacation days, and while we were on no schedule (except the airline's), we were farther along the sketched-route than I had planned. That was because we just eliminated Jasper -- we had seen enough Rocky Mountains along the Icefields Highway to last a lifetime. So Jasper was scrubbed, and now the immediate goal was the town of Golden, in the Columbia River valley.

Golden is not a tourist town, although there has been a major effort to attract vacationers. There was a rodeo going on, or rather just winding up, but it's not a cowboy town either -- that we could see. It was more industrial than we had imagined. Downtown had a nice facelift, and we had a good breakfast of biscuits and gravy at the deli/bakery where the locals go. There are many ranches in the valley, however.

So we poked along a two-laned Route 95, south, enjoying that rich valley and the meandering Columbia River. The Rockies were now to our left, and across the valley was the Purcell Range -- again more serene beauty. And there was one phenomena that we New Englanders don't see very often, anymore -- there was virtually no traffic at all.

The next stop was Radium Hot Springs, where (we were told) we could swim in the mineral-rich pool of hot water. That sounded nice, and we did visit the Springs -- but the springs have been replaced by two cement pools and a bath house -- with gift shop. And the pools were filled to the brim with tourists.

But Radium is a nice stopping place. There are several dozen motels in this little town, and it seems that is the main industry. We chatted at length with one of the volunteer librarians, Jane Jones, who was manning a table-sized book sale along the main drag; She told us that the library is all volunteer, that it shares a small wing off a municipal building, and that the town allocates $1100 a year for new books. That's their budget. Eleven hundred dollars! I made a ten-buck donation.

Golf seems to be a major sport in Canada, and there was a fabulous course in Radium -- and two others nearby. Our librarian told us that folks come to Radium from as far away as Calgary, which is about four hours east, on the other side of the Rockies. It's like we New Endlanders -- we think nothing of a three to four hour drive to get to the White Mountains or the rocky shores of Maine.

As I remember, the cost of a lovely room in a nice mom-and-pop motel (The Bavarian) was about $65 American. And the Canadians surely are a friendly bunch. We heard that there was another golf course and hot pool at "The Resort at Radium Hot Springs", and were pleasantly surprised at the gorgeous golf course carved out of forest; right behind the fairways were the Rockies, rising abruptly out of the valley foothills. Further, we learned that it was Buffet Day at The Resort, so we spent maybe $15 (US) for two wonderful buffet dinners. We aren't golfers, but the view from that restaurant was of the forested, lush green golf course, the Columbia River below, and the Purcells across the valley. Just gorgeous.

We spent a couple of days in the Radium area, exploring back roads. We found on our maps a road that seemed to parallel the valley on the east flank of the Purcells, so, starting from the town of Invermere, we started motoring north on the "Westside Road". It was class-A gravel, but as the miles went by, it began to diminish. At one point we spooked a black bear, who darted across the road in front of us. We saw mule deer, who acknowledged our being there with a nod, then went back to munching in the meadow.

But the views of the valley below were spectacular as the road hugged the edge of the mountains. We passed signs for several forested ranches, and at one intersection of dirt roads was a large, painted sign offering a $2000 reward for turning in rustlers and/or poachers. Hmmm.

The road kept getting more and more narrow, and several times we came to huge mud holes created by the continual passing of lumber trucks. It was a gamble but I thought I saw a firm route through the muck, and decided to charge right on through. Lorry hit the roof at least once, and the car slewed sideways, but we made it, with mud to spare.

We probably drove 30 miles on Westside Road, crossed many roaring streams, saw wildlife, ranches -- but hardly nobody else. It was a lonely, but beautiful drive. Finally the road, now one lane wide, began to descend the mountain, and finally we broke out on the Columbia River plain. Hopefully there would be a bridge -- yes, yes, an ancient wooden bridge, sturdy enough to carry the lumber trucks. Across the river was the mill, and the highway we had passed over two days before.

Invermere is a neat town. Funny, but it's not on the highway, but about 500 yards off, on a large loop. There are lots of interesting stores there, tourist and home-grown, including a hardware store in an old strip mall that took over the furniture store next door, then the next store (I think it was a drugstore) and another, until it was a block-long hardware store with a huge variety of goods.

I finally found a hat in Invermere, in a really neat sporting goods shop. They had had an end of summer sale the week before, and inventory was pretty low. Nevertheless, I found a real Canadian leather belt for $25 CD, and floppy roll-up hat for eight bucks. The sales lady was great, even gave us both a small metal Canadian flag, which I immediately pinned on my new floppy hat.

I have to repeat, we found the Canadian people so gracious and outgoing. It makes a difference.

The sun and clouds played tag with us all day, but a magic spot of light suddenly illuminated this logging mill.

From Radium Hot Springs (and its Bavarian Motel), we drove south, back toward Montana and Idaho, about 150 miles away. The highway is good, two lane, with endless new views of the Rockies still on the left, the Purcells on the right, and the Columbia River winding its way north along this trench -- for several hundred miles -- then does an abupt turn to the west, then south, re-tracing itself a couple of valleys over. It is the same Columbia River that separates Oregon from Washington, emptying its load of snow-melt into the Pacific Ocean.

We pass Columbia Lake, beyond which, barely a half mile away, runs the mountain-fed Kootenay River, headed south on a short-cut journey back to Montana. One river heads north, the one right next to it goes south.

We went through the Canadian towns of Fort Steele, Cranbrook and Yaht, close to the United States border -- Montana, fairly near Kalispell -- before we decided to stay in the garden valley of Creston. The States were now off our left shoulder, almost always in sight.

Creston isn't gorgous, not spectacular, not even urbane. It is oldish, it is suffering economically (judging from the several empty stores downtown) -- but it seems to be a valley of eternal growth. We visited several handsome farms, looking for unusual B-and-Bs, and wound up picking a million cherries from trees whose crop was abandoned because of too much rain. Lordy, were they good. We had talked to the farmer, and she wasn't concerned about the potential loss; somebody later suggested that the crop had been insured.

In Creston we found a quilt shop in a Quonset building that had been a church. It was one of the most beautiful stores I have ever entered, for the most beautful quilts had been affixed to the entire walls and ceilings. Light and color and design just drenched that great hall.

For no other reason than it seemed like a good idea, we headed north again out of Creston, up the east side of Kootenay Lake, if only to get the free ferry 30 miles north. On the way we had lunch at a German restaurant on the edge of the lake, where we had schnitzel and sauerkraut, I think. The ferry was fun and put us off by the town of Balfour. We wandered south through several communities, but it was mostly forests and winding steep roads.

We came to an industrial town whose welfare rested with the success of the single huge factory on the side of the hill. The town was "Trail". Roads in this area were steep and we finally came to a town called Rossland, on top of a small mountain, where we found marginal accomodations -- but delightful food. It was our last night in Canada, for the border was just down the hill.

The crossing into America was funny. It was a forlorn little road, remote, the border crossing building seemed to be put together with random lumber -- fitting for the lumber territory we were in. A lumber truck preceded us, and the driver was waved through with a friendly gesture. There were two bays, and it seemed I went into the wrong one, for the officer made me back up and drive in the other. I have no idea why. He was the boss, and once I said I was sorry, he smiled. Otherwise he accepted that we were American tourists, coming home.

Almost magically, we left the mountains of Canada and entered the U.S. over flat prairies. This was Washington. And the sun was shining, brilliantly.

We crossed the Columbia once again, this time from west to east, then followed the beautiful river as it meandered its way south. The land is handsome, rolling, golden fields, dark green forests. There are few people here, towns are small and set off by themselves. We see the state made boat landings, but we saw not a single boat, private or commercial, on 20 miles of blue, clear water. It was serene, this wild west. Half desert, half forests, abandoned farms, homesteads falling into the ground. A land of general stores from another time.

In Spokane there is a marvelous plate steel marathon -- a sculpture -- in the city's central park -- an island in the Spokane River, really. One cannot possibly ignore these runners -- nor the implied message.

We passed through the Spokane Indian Reservation -- not exactly inspiring -- and spent a couple of days in Spokane. We were impressed with that city that seemed so old, yet so overrun with cars that it had to be modern. It was more than a hundred miles in any direction to another of its size.

It was a nice way to wind down, two days to catch up to our itinerary, two days to stay in bed late, to scout a good restaurant, to enjoy this place. On the 19th day, we flew back, all the way across the country.

It was a good trip.

If you'd like to review the first and second chapters, the links are here:
Off to the Canadian Rockies
Canmore, Banff and the Icefields

April 1, 2005

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