Rule of the Road #2: Winter Driving in Canada

Driving the Coquihalla

Driving the Coquihalla

Now, this is a post that will probably evolve. I’m writing it in a Starbucks in Kamloops, BC, after one day of driving from Vancouver. Over the course of the next year, we’ll see all the seasons in all the Canadian provinces…and I’m sure there are many more attributes of this activity that will reveal themselves as the terrain and climate change. But with (hopefully) the most trying stretch behind me, I’m hoping that spinning a yarn about the Canadian winter driving experience will prove cathartic.

My partner Alexandra and I made the first stop of our cross-country voyage in Pender Harbour, BC–a community I wrote about last week. Pender is coastal, obviously, so the climate is comparatively mild. Nighttime lows in the winter rarely dip below -5 Centigrade (23F), and the snow accumulation of the whole season would barely be higher than the tread of your hiking boots. So we chose to go there first because it would be not only close to home, but also easy to get to.

Merritt, BC

Merritt, BC

Our next destination is Cremona, Alberta, a town of some 400+ residents northwest of Calgary on Highway 22. The town appears to be stunningly idyllic: it rests on the gentle rolling plains just east of the Rocky Mountains. In Vancouver, however, we were west of the Rockies, and it was today that we had to face the inevitable obligation of traversing these craggy, windy, temperamental young peaks in the end of January.

 

There are three options for hauling yourself and whatever precious cargo you have through the passes. The oldest route was established over a century ago through the Fraser Canyon–this is now the Trans-Canada Highway 1. While probably the gentlest passage in terms of elevation, the Canyon is somewhat circuitous, and, for those travelling to parts east, goes out of the way. The second route is the Crowsnest, or Inter-Provincial Highway 3. The Crowsnest squirms though mountains close to the U.S. border and, while it services communities of the Okanagan Valley well, it is out of the way for drivers bound further east to an even greater extent than the Canyon road.

The final option, then, is Highway 5–the Coquihalla. Known in BC as “the Coke”, this road was blazed straight up the Coquihalla River Valley through Merritt to Kamloops and was the only highway in the province to be tolled (although those tolls were lifted in 2008). It is the most direct route between Hope and Kamloops, shaving over an hour of driving time off of the Fraser Canyon path. The highway has two lanes each way divided by a huge median, in contrast to the other two, which are one lane each way with shared pavement. These luxuries come at a price, though; the road here rises incredibly steeply, particularly from the east, and the valley in which it sits is prone to some of the most wicked blizzards in southern BC. To carry tire chains is mandatory October through April, and the entire highway can be closed for days at a time. There is even a Discovery Channel “extreme reality” show about a towing crew on the Coquihalla called Highway Thru Hell.

Another day on set.

Another day on set.

We were lucky enough to fall into a stretch of decent weather in the interior, so we elected to take the Coke and benefit from its relatively straight trajectory (switchbacks are just short of terrifying in our 5-tonne monster bus]. “Decent weather” is a term used in a relative sense here, as the forecast from the outset was “Compact snow – slush and slippery sections” for the entire route.

Taking off from Hope was easy for traction but not so for elevation. It was a grinding 30 km/h climb to the Coquihalla summit. From there until Merritt, snow encroached on the pavement, but one lane remained black and visible…”dry” pavement. But thereafter, as the cloud-obscured sun began to recline into the peaks above the highway, blowing flurries crowded into traffic. Driving lanes became abstract as vehicles mostly crowded onto the one beaten path through the icy slush that had taken over what was once three-lane blacktop. The occasional passenger car, fed up with the crawling trucks, would grit its teeth and chew into the former passing lane, kicking up piles of muck and fist-sized balls of ice. I thought occasionally about the precipitous drops on either side of the roadway, but only indirectly. The road, for the time, was still tractionable.

We reached Kamloops intact and before the snow squall began in earnest. I glanced in my mirrors as we rolled into town. The “Severe Weather Warning” signs for traffic bound down the way we had just come were not yet blinking.

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This post is also featured on the webisite for Contenders Magazine.

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