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Fraser Canyon and the Trans Canada Hwy

Bill Gedye has a theory that goes something like this: there’s a little bit of Route 66 right here in Canada. All you have to do is squint the right way at the Trans Canada where it runs through the Fraser Canyon. 

The Mother Road, Route 66, an icon to drifters, ramblers, dreamers, and, yes, motorcycle riders. One of the first major assets in the US highway system, Route 66 was made famous by Okies trekking from the American Midwest to the dream of plentiful work and easy living that was California. But the Mother Road was made obsolete by the construction of the Interstate highway system. Now abandoned motels characterize Route 66, hotels, and gas stations surrounded by tumbleweeds and sporting rusted signs—the stuff of broken dreams and economic ruin. Still, to any motorcyclist, its way up there on the bucket list, isn’t it?

Fraser Canyon along the Trans Canada Hwy

But please indulge my theory that there is a piece of road in BC with a parallel history—the Trans Canada Highway, where it runs through the Fraser Canyon. As much as Route 66 transported fortune-seeking Americans to the Promised Land during the 1930s, the Fraser Canyon was a pipeline for miners headed to Canada’s northern goldfields as early as the 1890s. It too was a road to riches, known as the Gold Rush Trail.

Where the American Interstate projects made Route 66 redundant, the local economies along the Fraser Canyon stretch of the TCH were devastated by the construction of the Coquihalla Highway, which provided a quick alternate route to the interior and Okanagan areas of BC.

But Canada’s Route 66 is not a mish-mash of broken and scattered highway sections like today’s Mother Road. Instead, it is a single stretch of sinuous, winding hardtop with enough elevation changes to make you very, very happy indeed. It starts at the town of Hope and runs north for 190 kilometres to Cache Creek, most of it dashing alongside the mighty Fraser. 

The scenery is spectacular, and the rock formations make you wish you had paid more attention in Geology class. But, if you travel in the summer, be prepared for riding in a furnace.

My Yamaha RSV and I started the tour in Hope, which is about 150 km east of Vancouver on the TCH. Nowhere is the disparity in the fate of Fraser River businesses more evident. Running east out of Hope toward the Coquihalla route, people are lined up three deep for gas. Contrast that to the defunct Gas Bar at the north end of town on the Fraser Canyon route—not even Chester Fried Chicken or cheap fuel could save them.

An added bonus for those who love all things associated with railroads, both the CPR and CNR run trans-Canada rail lines up the canyon and you’ll see mile-long chains of coal, grain and container cars snaking their way along the edge with perilous drops to the river below.

In the town of Yale, the Golden Nugget restaurant succumbed but the corpse gave birth to a summer long flea market, where there’s now equal opportunity for local artisans to share their talents. I parked the bike under some shade for a break here.

The steep rock walls of the canyon caused most, if not all, of the elevation changes. This meant that the road builders had to blast tunnels to straighten out the more dangerous sections. Curves, great pavement, and tunnels: now do I have your attention? How about an abandoned steel suspension bridge that looks like a mini Golden Gate Bridge? About 40 km north of Hope, the Alexandra Bridge was part of the Fraser Canyon Highway until the 1960s when they changed the route to the east side of the river and let the western approaches go back to nature. 

Fraser Canyon along the Trans Canada HwyYou can still hike down and onto the bridge through a well-marked BC roadside park just south of the derelict Alexandra Lodge. Be careful, though, you have to cross a working rail line and may be stuck on the wrong side for a while if one of those 100-car coal trains moves through. Take a snack.

Don’t get the impression that the Canyon is totally devoid of economic life. There are many sparkling examples where the shift to eco-based industry has been a success story. Two of the best known is the Hells’ Gate Tram over the thundering gorge at Hell’s Gate and Kumsheen Raft Tours, which traverse the numerous Fraser River rapids. Both are internationally known. When I visited, there was a busload of soaked German tourists unloading at Kumsheen’s new resort just north of Lytton.

In Boston Bar, some of the surplus buildings have taken new life serving other purposes. What looks like an old Husky gas station has been successfully converted to an ambulance station. 

In busier times, these people may have been a couple of hundred feet over the bank trying to deal with an injured semi driver after he’d missed a turn on Jackass Mountain. Now, not so much, but there are crew openings if you are inclined to a career periodically punctuated by intense action.

There’s another bright light in Boston Bar. The Olde Towne Inne snags passers-by with good food, reasonable prices and funky décor. You can sit out on their covered porch and listen to Janis sing “Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz” while puffing on a stogie and waving at the other bikers who are all obeying the 50 km limit.

Fraser Canyon along the Trans Canada Hwy

North from here, you might notice the Kanaka Bar Café with its entrance blocked by a backhoe, no longer serving its unique brand of coffee and local lore, or the Jade Springs Grocery Store, which looks abandoned but is in fact still operating, its parking stalls curiously filled by vehicles without licence plates. Maybe shoppers just left their rides there and disappeared.

There are “For Sale” signs everywhere. If you’re in the market to re-start a gas station, motel, fruit stand or roadside market, here are opportunities.

The town of Spences Bridge appears to be one of the worst hit areas. From the road, it looks like the set from Road Warrior with weed covered lots and signs proclaiming motels, and restaurants that are now empty lots.

Fraser Canyon along the Trans Canada HwyInteresting too is the phenomenon that the abandoned cars are getting newer. Now, the junkers are autos from the 1960s and ‘70’s instead of hulks from the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Look north as you approach Ashcroft, you’ll see a long abandoned forest ranger facility of derelict houses. Farther north, what was once a new car dealership failed and tried to resurrect itself as a restaurant and still operates as a car repair, welding and towing business.

Then we come to Cache Creek, where the TCH veers east toward Kamloops and the Ghost of Wallachin (but that’s another story …). Cache Creek has changed noticeably over the years, not for better or worse, it’s just different. The town hasn’t escaped the effects of the Coquihalla. There’s an abandoned strip mall at the south end of Cache Creek and vestiges of former gas stations and restaurants that are either closed or hanging on by a thread.

Fraser Canyon along the Trans Canada HwyBy now, you have completed the length of our own Route 66. Your bike has laboured up Jackass Mountain, you’ve pinned it through the tunnels so you can hear the Termi’s blasting off the walls and you’ve pulled over in a quiet spot to listen to the wind rustle the sage and the sound of a distant diesel horn. You’ve managed all this in an afternoon, and without having to cross the border.

Story and photos by Bill Gedye, Canadian Biker, June 2014

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