Monday, September 6, 2010

The Summerland-Princeton road - Published BC Outdoors Sept/Oct 2010

The Summerland-Princeton road
A kinder, gentler backroad experience

Story and photos by Trevor Shpeley

Roughly following the old Kettle Valley Railroad which has recently become a popular section of the Trans/Canada Trail, the Summerland-Princeton road isn't the longest backroad you will ever see chronicled on these pages. Nor is it the most rugged, in fact this road is very well suited for most any type of vehicle including big dual purpose touring motorcycles as long as they are driven sensibly and with caution. What it is however is a riveting, beautiful drive past cottage ringed lakes, meandering streams and emerald valleys that lie beneath grass covered mountainsides that would not seem out of place on a Swiss postcard.

The Kettle Valley Railroad was completed in 1914 to allow for the transportation of silver from the bustling mines of the Kootneys, through the mountains and down to the BC coast. Considered an engineering marvel even today, the KVR was decommissioned in the 1980's and it's 600KM of track, bridges and tunnels left to fade gracefully into disrepair and eventual oblivion. Happily however this was not to be the fate of this understated treasure and in recent years, community fund raising and contributions from both provincial and federal governments have combined to partially preserve the historic railbed for multi-use recreation.

In 1992, large chunks of the KVR were proposed for incorporation into the Trans/Canada Trail network and what was once a little known rail right-of-way has since become known the world over as a unique sought-after destination for adventurous cyclists and hikers. The Summerland-Princeton road crosses the KVR railbed several times and many relics of the golden age of rail travel are visible from the road where the two paths run in proximity. You can even ride in a lovingly restored 1912 steam engine train along 16 kilometres of scenic track on the Kettle Valley Steam Railway. Check the website for schedules and more information.

The Summerland-Princeton road can be travelled in either direction but for the purposes of this article all kilometre references will be made from the Summerland end. Distances are approximate due to the vagaries of odometer calibration and an off road mapbook used in conjunction with a GPS device is highly recommended.

Every journey has a beginning and ours is in the sleepy village of Summerland. The quiet town of 12000 residents rests in the cool green hills above Okanagan Lake, just north of the city of Penticton. It is the perfect place to load up on fresh Okanagan fruit and locally sourced ice cream before you head out on your backroad adventure. From downtown, take the Prairie Valley road until you reach Denike road. When you come to a “T” intersection, turn right onto the Summerland-Princeton road. Set your odometer to zero at this point.

The first part of the drive has you climbing up from the Okanagan valley as Trout Creek descends through the valley to your left. Cattle roam freely beside, on and across the road and running over one is unlikely to win you any friends with the local ranchers, your insurance adjuster or the cow for that matter. Drive with care and expect livestock on the road at every turn.

Hawks surf the updraughts over the fields looking for tasty rodents on the ground while the local deer do their best to ignore you completely as they wander around doing whatever it is deer do when they aren't in any particular hurry. To treat this road as a 'point A” to “point B” thoroughfare would be to totally miss the point of the trip. Wildlife and scenic vistas are all around you every step of the way and it would be criminal not to open your eyes and take it all in so by all means, take your time and enjoy everything the area has to offer.

At K11, you come to the first of many Forestry Recreation Campsites. At the time of this writing there is no sign to be found on the roadside either naming this site or pointing out the access road however you will have no problem spotting the half dozen or so clean well-spaced campsites perched on the top of a precipitous hillside overlooking the Trout Creek valley. Watch for the access road that crosses the field to the camping area. The view is expansive, the breeze refreshing and there is plenty of room in the undeveloped area for overflow or a quick game of Frisbee with the dog.

20 kilometres in, the road drops down to cross Trout Creek for the first time. A small rec site of four campsites runs alongside the creek. Like most of the roadside recreation sites on this trip, there are outhouse facilities and visitors do a pretty good job keeping them clean. This seems like as good a place as any to ask you, the visitor, to also do your part. If you pack it in, pack it out. Nobody is going to clean up after you so a little consideration will go a long way towards keeping this area a destination worth travelling to.

For the next 10 kilometres you will travel alongside Trout Creek as it meanders through low brush and forested canyon on its wandering journey through the valley. Scattered unimproved campsites line the creekside and if you look carefully, you can see the continuing efforts of the Okanagan First Nations peoples and local forestry companies in rehabilitating Trout Creek to improve habitat for its namesake. Both Rainbow Trout and Brook Trout exist in the creek and although the fish have recently faced significant challenges, work continues towards this goal.

At K29, the valley opens up to fields of long grass sprinkled with the ruins of old pioneer cabins, rickety bridges and fences that look like they were made the hard way. Nesting boxes from the Northern Interior Bluebird Trail pop up here and there along the roadside and it goes without saying that the boxes should be left unmolested, even by people with the best of intentions.

This area is a photographers dream and on a sunny day the siren call of the burbling stream and the lush green field can be overwhelming but please remember that much of this area is the private property of a working ranch and should not be trespassed upon except by permission of the ranch owners. If you do secure permission to cross private property be sure to respect the gates and never, ever, leave an opening in a fence where a person’s livelihood can escape.

A large open camping area popular with the ATV and off-road motorcycle crowd sits just off the road at K32. This is also where the Glen Lake FSR meets up with the Summerland-Princeton road and leads up into the hills towards the Headwaters lakes, Brenda Mine rd and points beyond including Hathume Lake, Penask Lake and many others before finally dropping down into Bear Creek Park across the lake from the city of Kelowna. To take this route you would want to have a high clearance vehicle and a solid understanding of how to use the previously discussed mapbooks and GPS.

At K36 you can look through the trees and spy the impressive newly rebuilt spillway and curved concrete wall of the Thirsk Lake reservoir dam. The dam and spillway were raised 15 feet in 2006 in response to crippling water shortages downstream in Summerland that necessitated the complete shutdown of water flow in Trout Creek for a time during the summer of 2004. The 2005 Trout Creek Water Use Plan Agreement which called for a 96% increase in water storage capacity, expanding the Thirsk Reservoir by 3100 million litres also set triggers for water restriction that have helped to ensure the water is never again turned off to the fish in the creek while still maintaining a reliable water supply for the residents of Summerland.

Reports suggest that fish populations are rebounding in Trout Creek however the expansion of the Thirsk reservoir has resulted in the flooding of the recreation campsite there and the decommissioning of the lake access road. Visitors are greeted by a tall chain link fence that runs alongside the road the whole length of the lake but happily, there are a number of traveller friendly waters just a short drive down the road.

K46 is the end of the dirt road and the start of the Osprey Lake cottage country. People have been vacationing in the Osprey Lake area for a very long time but the area has lost little of its slow paced country charm. Bruce Merit, owner of the Osprey Lake Retreat has lived on Osprey Lake for five years and in that time has seen the fishing improve significantly in numbers if not in size. Four pound rainbows are still found occasionally among the generally medium sized fish more commonly encountered and trollers happily rub elbows with flyfishers on this popular lake. Bruce recommends flyfishers bring along some Pumpkin heads in various colours, a selection of micro-leaches and to tie their Chironomids with a peacock or dubbed fur thorax.

B&B's and private campgrounds are sprinkled liberally throughout the lake zone and range from the rustic to the truly decadent. Travellers with time on their hands could do far worse than to spend a few days enjoying this area.

A quick left turn onto Aguar rd at K49 will lead you down a short drive to the recreation site on Link Lake. Smaller than its neighbour Osprey Lake, Link is much better suited to flyfishers and is reputed to have somewhat larger fish. It is also better sheltered from the prevailing winds and on the day I was there earlier this year there was a huge Chironomid hatch in progress. The recreation site is roomy and trailer friendly. The Mountain Pine Beetle has had its way here but the site has fared better than some of the other campgrounds in the interior.

At K50, You will come to the Tee-Pee lakes store and resort. The three semi-private lakes collectively known as Tee-Pee lakes have had a continuously operating fishing lodge since at least the 1940's. I remember seeing their ads in BC outdoors for as long as I've been reading the magazine and as a young teen, I finally got to go on a trip to this fabled (for me anyway) destination. The trip marked a number of firsts. It was my first trip to a real fish camp, the first time I got to accompany my Dad and his cronies on a guy weekend and the first time I ever had a fishing rod yanked out of my boat by a fish.

I had only turned away for a moment when there was a scrape, then a splash, then nothing but a ripple where my fishing rod had been. I was devastated, fishing rods didn't grow on trees in those days, even less so than now, but after only about 10 minutes of making long faces at the water, the bubble float my nymph had been suspended under popped to the surface and I was able to grab it and the fish that had tried to steal my gear. The Rainbow was all of nine inches long and it was delicious, made more so by the heartfelt relief of recovering my rod.

I learned two important lessons that day. One, it aint over till it's over, a little patience will often get your gear back provided something on it floats and two, always hang on to your rod, a fish doesn't have to be huge to pull it over the side.

It's been more than 30 years since that trip but other than the addition of some fancy new cabins and the subtraction of a few trees, the resort hasn't changed much at all. There are the same old wooden cabins and the lakes still look and fish pretty much exactly as they did back then. A happy half hour spent watching the spawning channel proved to me that there are still some decent fish to be had. If you go, be sure to pick up the key to the gate at the store BEFORE you head up the road to the lakes.

For the truly adventurous, Eastmere and Westmere lakes are two walk in lakes being managed as quality fisheries in the hills high above Osprey lake. If you decide to try and find them, you are going to need a good four wheel drive (a truck, not an AWD soccer-mom special) and you are going to need that mapbook and GPS. You are also going to need to bring a friend that you can talk into walking back down the mountain to get help if you get stuck.

BTW – If you see a pair of jeans with mud soaked up to the pockets stuck to some branches over a washout, you probably shouldn't take that as a challenge and try to cross it anyway. Don't ask me how I know.

Back down in the valley on the paved road heading west once again you pass through the community of Bakier and alongside Chain Lake. Chain is very long and narrow and has cottages and B&B's most of the way around it. The fish are not huge here but it's an idyllic lake to putt along in a small boat on a long afternoon and it's not always about big fish right?

Several small to medium sized campsites line the roadside on Chain Lake and these are the last rec sites before Princeton.

From Chain Lake to the grasslands near Princeton and beyond the road is a motorcyclists dream but would not be too big of a handful for travellers with large trailers or motorhomes. The valley is carpeted in Lodgepole Pine and hidden driveways discourage high speed travel. The inhabitants are an eclectic mix of rugged iconoclasts, gentleman ranchers, sprawling retirement estates and plain hard working country folk. They co-exist in a harmony that shouldn't really work but does somehow. Million dollar homes stand next to house trailers and nothing looks out of place.

10 kilometres from Princeton the terrain turns to wide open range land and the rest of the trip is a roller coaster ride past cattle grazing the grassy hillsides among the groves of birch trees whose leaves twinkle in the breeze and narrow wooded ravines with their resident deer, hawks and porcupines.

At 87K the Summerland-Princeton road ends and this phase of your trip is over. From this point you can take a short drive into the historic town of Princeton and take advantage of all the amenities it has to offer. If you haven't had enough backroads travel, continue on across the hwy and take a drive up to Coalmont, Tullameen and beyond on one of Southern BC's most scenic lightly travelled roads, but that would be another story for another day.