A Canadian Adventure

A major rockslide recently blocked Highway 97, just north of where we live. This 97, the longest highway in North America, starts in Weed, California and ends somewhere in the Yukon, no one knows exactly where. In this, British Columbia’s steep and narrow Okanagan Valley, the 97 is the only viable north-south travel corridor. The February rockslide started from a high promontory favored by mountain goats. Witnesses said the loosened rocks started out house size, but were then reduced to van size when they hit the pavement. There was instant commuter consternation, since commuting is our lifeblood here in the Okanagan, and there were no obvious alternate routes. No way to get to and from Kelowna, the Big Box city. At first we all assumed the closure would be a matter of a day or two–this simply could not be a repeat of that horrendous prolonged rockslide closure of 2008. But the commuterless, shopperless days dragged on. Adventurous young bucks in F-350’s began exploring various sketchy and unmarked bush roads to get around the blockage. Even more adventurous tow truck drivers began raking in big cash by towing the bucks out. A rumor circulated that a lovely young woman in a party dress arrived at one end of the rockslide and convinced an adoring Mountie to escort her on foot over the rocks, to meet her partner on the other side.

Finally the Ministry of Transportation got involved, and established a signed and graded detour of 200 kilometers, following Forest Service Mains up the east side of the valley. Then a few days later they announced a shorter detour of only 90 kilometers, on the handier west side of the valley. My wife needed to catch the Vancouver-bound bus, which stops on Highway 97 just a short drive north our home, but on the far side of the rockslide. So we girded our loins, packed up toques and mittens, checked tires and gassed up, ready to take on the shorter detour.

The Ministry’s map of the “alternate route” showed a crude and wobbly V laid on it’s side. One end of the V started at our home town of Summerland; the other end touched down at Peachland, twenty kilometers away up 97, with the rockslide in between. The vertex of the V was near a community far out in the bush called Mazama.

Pavement switched to gravel just a few kilometers out of Summerland, but we soon discovered that frozen graded gravel, with skiffs of ice here and there, provided pretty good traction for our aging Honda CRV.  So off into the forest we went, the road continuously winding, angling mostly upward and occasionally downward. The very odd straight stretch of a few hundred meters was usually followed by a hairpin and then a one-lane bridge. This was clearcut country, the vast and seldom visited Southern Interior warehouse of lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, mines, powerlines and reservoirs.

We passed occasional convoys of commuters coming the other way, and they slowed down respectfully as we passed. There was a sense that we were all in this together, and if anyone needed help, several cars would pull over to offer it. When we finally reached our turning point at the end of the V, I realized the community of Mazama consisted of one bush ranch and nothing else. It got dark as we started the long descent toward Peachland, and dry, flaky snow started falling. Fortunately visibility was improved by the bright, continuous meter-high barrier of recently plowed snow on either side of the road.

To help pass the time, we reminisced about that first 97 rockslide, which happened right in the same area. We were returning from Vancouver when it occurred, and we were the first car to be stopped by the lone flagman a few kilometers north of the slide. “How long do you think it will be?” we asked. “Dunno, but you can wait if you like.” We chose not to, and headed back to Kelowna, seeking the alternate eastside route to get home to Summerland. The directions we got were pretty vague, but we set out, winding through the suburbs of south Kelowna, blithely assuming there would be signage. We soon realized we were lead car in a small convoy of fellow commuters who were relieved, assuming they were following someone who knew the road.

Several kilometers later we finally stopped on what had morphed into a glorified, muddy goat trail, full of ruts, rocks and roots. Adventurous young bucks in Ford F-350’s and camo gear were stunned by our surprise arrival at their 4WD playground. They gave us to understand our little six-car convoy was definitely on the wrong road. In fact, not a road at all, and that we best turn around. The car behind us, a Dodge Caliber containing four nurses returning from a convention, needed help. The young bucks provided instant assistance to get them turned around.

We did, finally, make it home, and Highway 97 reopened—19 days later. As challenging as the detour was, we were glad we didn’t decide to “wait.”

But enough reminiscing about the last rockslide and back to the present. Even though we were on the descent to Peachland, we were still way, way out in the bush. I had reset the trip meter at Mazama, and I checked it again when we finally re-emerged on to Highway 97. Forty-six kilometers out, forty-four back: a fearful symmetry.  

We arrived at the bus stop in time to get Judy on the bus for her seven-hour trip over the Coquihalla, to Vancouver. It was a true Canadian adventure.

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