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Old Fort Steele – A Kootenay History Tour

One of our regular contributing writers has launched a new book. This excerpt from “Zero Avenue to Peace Park: confidence and collapse on the 49th Parallel” finds author Trevor Marc Hughes at Fort Steele, a restored NWMP outpost, in southern British Columbia, following three days of adventure riding with friends.

I said goodbye to the Taylors, hugging Nancy, rubbing Amber’s head, and giving a handshake and a hug to Wes. I put my riding gear on and started the engine. I felt a sudden rapping on the top of my helmet.

“Safe ride!” Cal shouted, as he tapped my helmet with his fist. The big man, and fellow motorcyclist, dropped by to encourage me, as he knew I had a 400-kilometre day ahead of me to Kootenay National Park.

I was so happy to have reconnected with the Taylors—adventurous people I met on a previous adventure. It seemed we would be seeing each other again. 

I gave Cal a thumbs-up as I rolled on the throttle. Too soon, it felt, I was cruising out of the RV park, beeping my horn as I climbed the gravel to the lip of Highway 3, checked oncoming traffic, then set out solo for the first time in days.

I was soon out of Castlegar after crossing the Kootenay River (this would not be the last time I’d see the Kootenay River this day) on a cloudy and drizzly day. But, the climb would not stop there. The ride was pleasant enough along the one-lane road heading southeast to the town of Salmo. But, what lay ahead through the Kootenay Pass, also known as the Salmo-Creston, would take me to a change of climate I didn’t think possible in such a short ride. 

Once I was in Salmo, the town of Creston near the southern tip of Kootenay Lake was only 85 kilometres away, but the wet, cold climb and descent into the mountains became relentless. It was significant, even with several layers on, just how quickly I became cold and hungry on the bike as I made my way into the pass, my visor increasingly covered with rain droplets. The climb seemed endless; a sheered-off cliff to my left, a drop into a densely forested valley to my right. I was sure I was missing spectacular scenery by being tucked in a rain cloud. I didn’t know it was one of the highest highway passes in Canada. 

But, as I slowly rounded Lost Mountain, cornered around Cornice Ridge to descend slowly past Creston Mountain, me and my shivering torso could have sworn we were riding in the depths of winter. I vowed to stop for a bite and some fuel the first chance there was, in Creston.

I slowly stopped shivering, and the descent ended as I rode into an utterly different landscape. Flat, lush green farmland welcomed me into the town of Creston. 

I found my fuel stop. The rain was letting up, but no one was around. There was a closed pizza place in the back of the lot, and there was a furniture place next door, but no human was in sight to take my money. On closer inspection, I found a card reader, separate from the gas pumps, just standing on a metal rod with a keypad attached. I approached it much as I imagine ET would approach a smartphone, loading my credit card in the slot with one eye closed. The machine came to life and invited me to fill up with gas. Oh, happy day!

After I finished, a pickup truck pulled up on the other side of the pump. The lone male occupant got out. Looking around as though he had dropped several contact lenses on the ground, he finally ventured to me, “Do you know how this works?”

A cereal bar in my tummy and a tank full of gas made me feel invincible. As I rode slowly through the pleasant town, railroad tracks to my right, I realized it was Saturday. The road twisted and turned and, even though I was still on Highway 3, I found myself riding along a main street, meandering through weekend shoppers, smiles everywhere. Now this is more like it, I thought, a smile on my face now, too.

The route took me into the unincorporated hamlet of Yahk, which had me making childish noises in my helmet, giving me the giggles. I was following the meandering Moyie River, a long CPR freight train stopped and resting to my left. Several impatient truck and camp trailer drivers were riding my bumper (if I had one). I was passed several times by speeding cars and trucks with Alberta plates on them. Why were they in such a hurry to get home? Isn’t it the weekend? The Moyie River became the scenic Moyie Lake, and a thought hit me as the rain started again. Why not ride to Calgary today? My wife, Laura, and son Marc would be there visiting Marc’s grandfather, who lived downtown. Hmmm.

Now, I suppose my dormant adolescent sense of invincibility and immortality was talking here. From Castlegar to Calgary is nearly 700 kilometres. That would be the longest distance I had ever covered in a day on a motorcycle. I do not possess a butt of iron, moreover, I enjoy seeing the places I’m passing through, which means getting off the bike from time to time. But, the thought of being with my wife and son that night, rather than sleeping in a thunderstorm in Kootenay National Park, won the day. By the time I rolled into the metropolis of Cranbrook, I had decided.

I would still stop, though, at my scheduled point of historical interest: Fort Steele Heritage Town. It was interesting that I was riding through Cranbrook now, past the brick edifice of the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel, industrial parks, strip malls, and familiar gas station chains (these ones had people working in them). Because it was the fact that the CPR had chosen the route that it did that made Cranbrook a city, and Fort Steele a heritage site where no one lived.

The landscape had taken on the look of the plains. Just after Cranbrook, my KLR and I unceremoniously said goodbye to the Crowsnest Highway, Highway 3 (which we had travelled since Hope) and made the noncommittal Highway 93/95 our new trail. A truck towing a camper was tailgating me as I made the left turn into Fort Steele, the whistle of a steam locomotive welcoming me into the preserved town. 

It was immensely satisfying to have arrived at the place I had read about so much. I parked in a gravel lot among many RVs and trucks to stroll over to the visitor reception building, styled off the Fort Steele Brewery, a building that was once stationed across the nearby Kootenay River. 

Fort Steele was a community derived from a North West Mounted Police outpost and assembled above the confluence of three rivers: the Kootenay, the St. Mary, and Wild Horse Creek. Tucked into the foothills of the Selkirk Mountains, gold was discovered at the site in 1860. Soon $40 million in gold had been extracted from Wild Horse Creek and the rush was on. In 1887, two miners from the community were killed as they made their way to Golden, and a Constable Barnes of the British Columbia Provincial Police soon arrested two Ktunaxa men of Chief Isadore’s band. The chief then banished any government people from the area and broke the two men out of jail. With tensions running high, the news got to Ottawa, making Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, sit up and take notice. He dispatched the man charged with settling the dispute—North West Mounted Police (NWMP) superintendent Sam Steele.

It wasn’t long after Steele had set up “Kootenay Post” that he dismissed the charges against the two Ktunaxa men, as there was no evidence against them. Soon, the NWMP were packing up to leave, but not before residents of the area petitioned to rename the town Fort Steele in the superintendent’s honour. With the discovery of mineral deposits in the 1890s, Fort Steele boomed again. But, it soon plunged into bust status as the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to bypass Fort Steele in favour of the Crow’s Nest Pass and Cranbrook. It would seem the CPR was a deal breaker in those days.

Clumsily, I made my way inside to the admissions desk with my heavy tank bag. I swished along as women in dainty period costumes welcomed me to the fort. After I paid my entry fee, I asked if the women would mind storing my bulky gear behind the desk. They happily indulged my request. When I looked back after thanking them and got my bearings on the map, I saw that a purple feathered hat had been placed on top of my yellow riding jacket.

I could only imagine, as I walked thoughtfully across the grassy field towards a huge wooden water tower, what it was like for Steele and the men of his “D” Division to march across the continent to bring law and order to the west. British Columbia had only recently joined Confederation, but the border with the U.S. had yet to be truly solidified. The Oregon Treaty may have established the 49th parallel as a border between Canada and the U.S., but that didn’t stop thousands of prospectors from pouring over it in search of silver and gold.

Max, a mustachioed guide who approached me as I walked away from the officer’s quarters, was dressed in a straw hat and light-grey tweed suit. I asked him not only about the quick succession of events that made Fort Steele, but also about the railroad passing it by.

“It ruined the town,” he said, referring to the Crow’s Nest Line, or B.C. Southern Railway, which was built through Cranbrook and not Fort Steele. “By 1900, people started moving away to Cranbrook, as did the government’s offices.” The population of the town, which had boasted more than 4,000 in 1897, dropped to 150 in 1902. That reminded me of a former silver town I had visited just the day before.

I spent a pleasant hour wandering the muddy streets of Fort Steele, watching horse-drawn carriages roll by and street theatre, visiting the Kershaw & Son General Store and eating a late lunch at the Old City Bakery next to more women in period costume. But, soon, my old idea took hold.

“Hello, Rachel,” I shouted into my phone in the darkening parking lot. “Yes, I’d like to cancel my campsite reservation at Kootenay National Park. Much too rainy for my taste.” I let out a laugh to Rachel at Parks Canada, who, for all I knew, was sitting in an Ottawa office. She politely let me know my reservation fee was non-refundable at this point. The rain, as though it had heard me, began to fall in earnest. 

With the whistle of the Fort Steele locomotive seeing me off, I crunched over gravel and aimed my bars east once again. I was committed to Calgary now. 

by Trevor Marc Hughes Canadian Biker Issue #320


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