Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass – Hiking British Columbia

The Saturday trek over Balu Pass into Cougar Brook Valley, scrambling through Nakimu Caves and hiking the 7 kilometres back out, has left me beaten up badly.  Sore muscles are combined with a plethora of bruises, badly damaged shins and my right hand is swollen to twice its normal size.  I have no specific recollection of injuring the hand and am concerned I may have broken a small bone, but it is back to normal within a couple of days.  No harm done.

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

My inability to tackle another physically demanding hike turns out to be a blessing in disguise.  Railroading is huge in this part of the country and, this week, Railroad Days are being celebrated in Revelstoke to recognize the 125th anniversary of the railroad being established from coast to coast across Canada.  The event shines as a significant achievement and national contribution in Canadian history.  The last spike was driven in Craigellachie, British Columbia at 9:22 am on November 7, 1885.

Glacier Park Lodge provides me with better than adequate accommodation.  My second floor room has everything I need and my window looks out to the Illecillewaet and Asulkan Ice Fields directly over the top of Parks Canada’s Rogers Pass Discovery Centre.  The Discovery Centre is closed until the folloeing spring for major renovations.  Parks Canada Information and the Friends of Mount Revelstoke and Glacier are operating out of a second floor conference room at Glacier Park Lodge.

Update: October 2012 – Glacier Park Lodge at Rogers Pass is permanently closed.

On this day, an event is being held at the summit of Rogers Pass, a kilometre west (actually south) on the TransCanada Highway, from Glacier Park Lodge.  I decide I will attend to pass the time.  To get there, I can mosey along the highway for a kilometre or I can stroll on the Abandoned Rails Trail for 1.2 kilometres one-way.  It is flat and follows the path of the original 1885 railroad route.  The asphalt is laid down over the original railroad ties so it is completely unsuitable for rollerblading.  There are information placards along the path which tell of the tragedy which occurred here on March 4, 1910.  I am walking on historic ground.  It is a fascinating but very sad story.

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

The high-altitude route through the Selkirk Mountains and across Rogers Pass is in a tight valley surrounded on both sides by very tall and steep mountains.  Trains were frequently delayed by avalanche activity over the long winters.  It had snowed for eight straight days before an avalanche slid down the side of Cheops Mountain and blocked the tracks on March 4, 1910.  A crew was dispatched to clear the line.  Just prior to midnight another avalanche rumbled down the same chute and buried the crew.  A frantic effort was launched immediately to save the workers.  On March 5, 1910 the entire population of nearby Revelstoke, British Columbia was called on to assist in the recovery effort.  After several days of unrelenting effort, the bodies of 58 people were recovered.  Thirty-two of the dead were of Japanese descent, recruited by Canadian Pacific Railway to supplement the scarce workforce in the area in that time.  They came willingly to Canada for the adventure, perhaps, but more so for the income to help support their families back in Japan.

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

I am walking on the ground where this tragedy occurred in 1910.  As I learn more from the information boards, I become quite emotional, particularly as I walk by one of the now-decrepit snow sheds, originally installed to protect people and machines from avalanche.

This tragic event caused a great deal of change within the next few years.  The news went worldwide.  Tourist traffic declined substantially as rail travel in the area was deemed too dangerous.  Construction began in 1913 on the eight kilometre Connaught Tunnel bored through the base of Mount MacDonald to eliminate the avalanche threat.  It was completed and put into service in 1916.  The new line bypassed Glacier House completely and the grand hotel closed its doors in 1925 for lack of business from the publicity surrounding avalanche danger.

The celebration of 125 years of rail service, paradoxically combined with the 100 year anniversary of Canada’s most tragic avalanche accident, is hosted with dignity and distinction by Parks Canada.

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

The presentation tent is adorned by over 14,000 colourful paper birds sent from Japan. The presentation includes heartfelt dissertations from Parks Canada, Canadian Pacific Railway and relatives of the people who lost their lives on that fateful day.  A very touching Buddhist Memorial Service is accompanied by chanting and several relatives of the Japanese victims have travelled to speak, very emotionally, on behalf of long-lost family members.  I am in the half of the audience which is shedding tears.  Folk singers from Revelstoke perform self-composed songs about the tragedy.  A very beautiful and newly constructed Rogers Pass Memory Garden exhibit is dedicated.

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

It stands beside the Rogers Pass Monument dedicated by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1962 when the TransCanada Highway was opened.  Between 1885 and 1962 the only way through Rogers Pass was by rail.  Cake is served.  I am impressed with Parks Canada and the supporting organizations that held this flawless and tasteful event.  It made me proud to be a Canadian.  Overall, it is a profoundly moving experience and I am glad I stumbled on the opportunity to attend.  I return on the Abandoned Rails Trail with a pensive heart and an entirely new perspective of this great tragedy.  It has been a special experience for me.  Without the need to recuperate, I would not have attended.

After dinner, I attend Jan’s going away beer and bonfire party at the old abandoned fire truck tucked away in the forest near Glacier Park Lodge.  After a short token appearance I call it a day and get ready for tomorrow’s hike on Mount Sir Donald.

Abandoned Rails Trail – Rogers Pass, British Columbia, Canada

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