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Othello Tunnels and a holiday weekend

Canada Day weekend offered a #52Over50 bonanza of choices for getting up and getting out. Holiday weekends make it easy to find a celebration—every store has a sale, every town has a picnic, and every park, well, the parks are open and the wilderness is calling.

“Let’s go check out the #OthelloTunnels,” I said.

“It’s raining,” my husband observed.

Okay, he had a point. The day was iffy in the weather department. The sky was socked in with clouds and raindrops were already falling on our heads. We decided to go anyway. That fact alone makes it a win in the getting up and getting out department. Rainy days make it easy to do nothing, but this is the “wet coast.” We have rain gear.

The Othello Tunnels are a long-time item on my “We should” list. The five tunnels, located in the Coquihalla Canyon, were once part of the #KettleValleyRailway. Constructed between 1914 and 1916, they connected the Kootenay region with the South Coast, at long last giving Canadians a way to get goods to market without bringing them through the US.

The tunnel trail is an easy walk. The distance ranges from 3.5 to 5.5 km, depending on which website you look at. Because it’s an old railway bed, the grade is never greater than two percent. Once you’re past the tunnels, another trail, the Brigade Trail branches off and makes a climbing loop up the hill. Trails BC calls it “rugged with a bit of climbing.” We left that for another day.

The tunnels were a fitting Canada Day pick. Standing where railway ties once lay, you look up at the sheer granite walls of the Southern Coastal Mountains. As you look down, you see the boiling rapids of the Coquihalla River .

#AndrewMcCullough, the engineer tasked with defeating the craggy section of track running through the Coquihalla Valley wasn’t a stranger to tough situations. It wasn’t his first railway.

I wonder what he was thinking?:

o Damn these mosquitos

o Where did I put my bear spray?

o Need more blasting caps

o Need more workers (not in that order)

o Will this rain/snow ever stop?

Just how tough were those Canadians? Building a railway is back-breaking work. Building a railway with pickaxes and shovels . . . brutal. As I stared up at the walls of the tunnel I tried to imagine how harsh the job was. The digging was done by hand, the lights in the tunnels were flickering lanterns, and the weather, as one source said, “. . . was the wettest BC winter on record.”

To top things off, the explosives used for blasting were unstable and dangerous. Did they have any idea how powerful an explosion would be after they lit the fuse and yelled “Fire in the hole?”

Surveying the site wasn’t a walk in the park either. McCullough and his assistant climbed into a woven basket and were lowered over the edge of one of the steep cliffs. From there, they chopped footholds in the granite wall to set up their surveying equipment. Yup, those Canadians were tough.

If you plan to go:

  • expect a traffic jam. We went on a rainy holiday weekend and were faced with tour buses and crowds

  • bring a light. The tunnels are dark, and the ground can be wet and uneven

The tunnels are an engineering marvel. Once through the last one, the crowds vanished and we had a nice walk. Othello Tunnels—check. What’s next on my list?


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