Thursday, September 1, 2011

Great Drives: Kootenay Loop

About The Route
Best time to Go: Weekdays from April to October
Total Distance:  110 km
Route: Starting point is the village of Lumby along Highway 6, 50°15'2.48"N 118°58'4.29"W, where highway 6 winds drivers east through over the rocky Monashee Mountain range that separates the Okanagan valley and the Arrow Lakes, to finishing at the ferry crossing, 49°52'27.36"N 118° 5'50.71"W.
Places To Stop: Two magnificent glaciers at either end of the route, other than this, just enjoy the epic journey between the two.
Road Type: Rough tarmac road.
Warnings: Rough road that doesn’t really have its own character, corners can easily be misjudged with nasty consequences. Can snow any time of year.

During this series of great driving roads, I’ve seen my fair share of exotic sights, strange events and odd detours, however, only in Canada would you be turned around because of a fresh dumping of snow… in May! The road that was supposed to be featured in this issue was to be the Crowsnest Highway #3 between Rock Creek and Creston B.C., as part of the Kootenay Loop. However, a thick blanket of wet snow on highway 33, just south of Kelowna, stopped me in my tracks on the transit to Rock Creek. The winding route through the west Kootenay Rockies would require a nimble and quick little car to negotiate, and there is non more fun than the MINI Cooper S.

Problem was, MINI had already swapped over the cars snow tires, for the much more fun, ultra high performance summers that come on the from new. Being May, a prudent and responsible act. But mother nature didn’t see things as such, and try as I might, the little Cooper S just couldn’t get over the summit of Highway 33, with a shimmering wet track of compact snow making any traction with summer rubber nigh on impossible.

And so, I turned the little Cooper S around and headed back to Kelwona. Along the way, I could see that the sun was doing it’s upmost to peek through the clouds, and that if I took a reverse route through Vernon, then on to Nakusp via Highway 6, the snow maybe melted at the higher elevations by the time I got there.

A spirited jog up highway 6 to Lumby B.C. and the skies were ominous; the scenic rolling farm lands had a healthy dusting of white, while the clouds were low with bit of solid fog falling from the sky. Despite the continuing threat, the layer of salt on the road was holding strong, and I made a push for the ferry that crosses Lower Arrow Lake on the other side of the range.

While the biker fraternity has spoken highly of the roads in the Kootenay region of the loop, little did I know that the northern section was equally impressive. It wasn’t long after Lumby that the MINI was thrust up into a winding mountain pass. The rolling farmland was swallowed up by the rocky, rugged and pine covered mountains of the Monashee Mountain range. At first the road meanders gently up into the range, with fast easy curves and great scenic sights of several peaks above and a small river below. However as the altitude rises, the road becomes much more aggressive with corners becoming much more abrupt and the road surface begins to degrade due to the sheer amounts of rock falls and avalanches. Not to mention each corner was blinded by deep snow, trees or a rocky ledge; extreme concentration is needed as the character of the road changes abruptly.

Near the summit the road cuts through a 5-metre deep trench of snow, and the little MINI is skipping from one tight chicane to another, in a seemingly never-ending series of slaloms. Slaloms with consequences, as walls of snow would sporadically open up with a deep rocky ditch on one side, and an open riverbed on the other. The short wheelbase and nimbleness of the MINI was ideal for the character of the road, however, like last issue, extremely rough tarmac meant the thin profile tires and firm suspension proved a little more bruising than I would have liked. Something with a little more suspension travel, such as a Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Evo would prove to be the ideal weapons for this particular battle.

Luckily, the salt had done its job as I cresting the summit; the road was void of the white death, and the trip down the east side of the range was proving even more delectable. The blind corners obscured by snow and trees on the west side climb was replaced with open curves through a rocky landscape. With good vision, the corners could be taken at speed, putting huge lateral and forward g-forces on the body as I left my braking as late as possible and pitched the Cooper S into a fantastic series of downhill bends. Likewise, the view over the surrounding mountains was nearly as spectacular as the drive itself, but not so good as to make me want to stop for a rest, I was having way too much fun, and the road was all but vacant of other motorists.

However, like the way up, the way down began to calm down as the altitude began to subside, along with the adrenaline pumping through my veins. Soon the road calmed back into rolling farm lands, before coming to its ultimate conclusion at the banks of Lower Arrow Lake, and the cable ferry used to cross to the east side.

Crossing over the Monashee Mountain range proved to be a pleasant surprise in a day that had started off on the wrong foot, however, to my dismay, what layed ahead would prove to be even more enticing.

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