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avalanche country


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.



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.


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.



Boarding the Greyhound in Nelson

Boarding the Greyhound in Nelson

I begin my journey home. It feels horrible. I ask myself what I’m going back to and none of the answers make me smile. I have to say goodbye to one of the most precious people in my life – my daughter. We spend the afternoon making lunch, playing ping pong on the deck in the 35-degree heat and watching the last of the Harry Potter movies, which is kind of depressing.

As I’m getting out of the taxi at the Greyhound bus terminal, I am stung by an unknown insect and I become completely flustered.

With my arm swelling and a red circle spreading around the bite, I go to Shopper’s Drug Mart to buy some food for the trip. And some After Bite medication.

I nearly wet myself before reaching the washroom as my daughter has been trying to over-hydrate me in the heat wave. I’m feeling more and more uncomfortable by the minute.

The Alberta-bound bus, with only six of us on board, pulls out of Nelson just after 7 p.m. and turns onto Highway 6 heading south. We’ll turn to the east, away from the setting sun, and lose an hour of time before we reach Calgary in 11 hours.

The evening is still and hot, but late-day shadows are deepening in the British Columbian forests. By this time tomorrow, it will all be behind me and I’ll be preparing for the long train journey through the Prairies and into the wild, rocky, lake-splattered country of northern Ontario and on to Toronto, then Ottawa.

If all goes according to schedule, I’ll be “home” in four days.

An hour and a quarter into the bus trip, we crest one of the highest mountain passes in the country, the 1800-metre Salmo-Creston in the Selkirk Mountains, the local name for the Kootenay Pass on the Crowsnest Highway. My hearing is muffled at this altitude, but I listen intently to the woman across the aisle chatter about how dangerous the road is. She boarded in Salmo and has a one-hour journey to endure, but she’s skittish as she recalls being hit by a vehicle on this very road. She also regales me with stories of friends she has lost in avalanches – she used to work with the Department of Transport’s helicopter crews who plant explosives in potential slide areas.

27 June sunset over the Rockies at Creston

Sunset over Selkirks at Creston

Luckily, Avalanche Woman disembarks safely at Creston, where we have a 35-minute stop and a driver change. A waxing half moon is rising steadily in the paling sky, and light layers of cloud are blushing over the distant dusky blue peaks.

Susan Hickman