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avalanche country

DECEMBER 13: THE FINAL LEG

My trip over the Kootenay Pass today is brilliant! The deep royal blueness of the sky is breathtaking and the sun glints off the white-capped mountains.

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Fernie

I’ve stopped for breakfast in Fernie, a popular Alpine town near the Lizard Range of the Rockies that is completely encircled by mountains, and the drive west from there along the Crowsnest Highway No. 3 is deliciously beautiful.

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Condensation rises off Elk River

Condensation rises off the frozen Elk River under the morning sun, whispering upwards in billows of white into the frosted blue landscape.

Highway 3, which I’ve picked up at Sparwood, goes all the way to the coast. I’ve travelled it many a time in all seasons. It’s a beautiful scenic route passing through some of the best parts of British Columbia and the shortest road to the sea. It’s also very windy.

My “change oil” light flickers on in Fernie, less than a week after my last oil change, but I’ll have put 5,000 kilometres on the car by the time I reach Nelson, driving day after day through all sorts of road conditions and in very cold weather.

Directly west of Fernie, there is no stopping due to avalanche risk. The mountains tower over the road on my right and a steep embankment runs down to the river on my left. Eventually, the embankment turns into a high cliff as the road climbs higher.

2016-december-13-kootenay-pass-bighorn-sheep-copyThe roads are compacted with hard ice and snow and slippery patches, but traffic is very light and I keep my speed down. Signs warn of ice, crosswinds, limited vision, leaping deer, and big-horn sheep – and I come across a herd of the latter on the road over the Kootenay Pass between Creston and Salmo. Between Elkford and Sparwood, I see a herd of elk and a fox.

I’m a bit worried about the road over the Kootenay Pass, because as I approach Creston at the bottom of the pass in the early afternoon, the sky turns grey and light snow begins to fall. The mountain peaks ahead of me are draped in fog and a highway sign advises the roads are snow compacted with slippery sections. By the time I reach the peak, however – at about 1800 metres elevation – the sky has turned a brilliant azure, inviting me to take a series of photographs.

The descent is slippery and I drive at 30 kph along with a small line of traffic. Once in Salmo, I have only an hour to go to my destination of Nelson.

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Crowsnest Pass, Alberta

DECEMBER 12: MOUNTAIN VIEW

The GPS on my phone isn’t always reliable, especially in remote areas and in the mountains. So before I hit the road each day, I quickly scribble directions in a little notepad. Old school mapping in case of interrupted technological assistance.

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First sight of the Rockies

It takes me awhile to leave the city of Calgary as I fill up with gas and pick up a Starbucks breakfast. I drive south on the Deerfoot Trail and am awestruck — as always — by my first view of the mountains on my right. They sit prettily on the horizon, completely covered with snow. Eventually of course I turn west and slowly climb through them.

The north-south Cowboy Trail (Highway 22) leads to the Crowsnest Highway, a long, high, flat windswept road up to the Crowsnest Pass. Along the route, I lose my GPS directions. My phone tells me they’re not available because of road conditions, whatever that means. There’s a little bit of snow on the pass, but the weather is good and it’s sunny. Traffic is light and moving well.

The Crowsnest is a fairly low-elevation pass that crosses the Continental Divide of the Rockies. I drive by the site of the Frank Slide, a field rife with the rubble (and remains of dozens and dozens of buried residents) left when 82 million tonnes of limestone rock slid down Turtle Mountain in less than two minutes, covering part of the town of Frank, The Canadian Pacific rail line and a coal mine in the spring of 1903 when the region was still part of the Northwest Territories. A frozen piece of history.

In fact, the thriving Crowsnest community has a colourful history, complete with train robbery, shootouts and rum-running. A landmark is the 600-plus-year-old Burmis pine tree, twisted and weathered and dead for nearly 50 years, but still standing resiliently against the wind.

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The Elk Valley Highway

It’s slow coming down off the pass because there are plenty of icy patches on the road. The shiny blue-grey-green rivulets running through the snow-blasted evergreens are stunning, so it’s really enjoyable to drive at a quiet pace.

I only have another hour to reach my destination: the “Wild at Heart” Rocky Mountain town of Elkford, British Columbia, which sits at an elevation of 1300 metres at the end of the Elk Valley Highway 43 near the Teck Coal Greenhills coal mining operation.