Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine goes road-tripping in our backyard to discover the best trails and ales. Giddy up. By Vince Hempsall. Photos by Peter Moynes.
The Sprinter van is state of the art, complete with solar-powered beer fridge and in-board air compressor for our bike tires. And with it, we’re driving back in time. Not just the age before Covid, but a pre-iPhone time when people actually spoke on their devices or, gasp, in person. Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine photo editor Peter Moynes and I are on a “SLAYcation” road trip around the West Kootenay visiting the region’s newest mountain bike trails and breweries and we’re starting on the East Shore, which, as we discover immediately after disembarking the ferry, is like driving back to 2005 because we can’t see anyone on their smartphone.
“The East Shore” is a local term that refers to the area on the east shoreline of Kootenay Lake encompassing Riondel, Crawford Bay, Gray Creek and a few other tiny communities. It can be accessed via Highway 3A from Creston or the Kootenay ferry, the longest free scenic ferry in the world. At its eastern terminal is the quaint Ladybug Coffee stand that serves the heartiest breakfast sandwich in the province and it’s here we realize we can ditch the Trailforks app and just chat up the locals for beta on where to ride, kind of like we all used to do at the turn of the century.
THE EAST SHORE OF KOOTENAY LAKE
To prove the East Shore is a place where social media and texting holds little sway, here’s a play-by-play of the events that transpired after we arrived:
- Random dude named Evan who’s standing in line at the Ladybug asks us what we’re up to and we say we’re looking for good mountain biking trails. He replies, “Oh, you definitely have to talk with Farley then. He’s responsible for a lot of the new trails here. I was just hanging out with him yesterday. Here’s his phone number.”
- We call Farley and he tells us he’s a director of the East Shore Trail and Bike Association (ESTBA), knows all the sanctioned trails intimately, and lists his favourites. “But for unsanctioned trails, you should talk to Luke. He owns the broom company in Crawford Bay.”
- We drive to the North Woven Broom Company located in the centre of Crawford Bay’s artisan hub and wait in the parking lot for the dozen grey-haired tourists to clear out so we can chat with Luke. One couple says they’re from Chemainus on Vancouver Island and would normally be in Moab this time of year but because of the border closure, they’re exploring the province instead. “Who knew there was such amazing mountain biking right in our backyard?” the husband exclaims.
- The tourists clear out and Luke gives us the goods on some little-known singletrack. He also tells us he sells between 4,000 and 6,000 hand-crafted brooms a year, most between June and August. Wha??!!
- We drive up Weasel Creek FSR, just south of Crawford Bay, looking for The Wimp bike trail and put the RedFish Sprinter van through its paces. It may be a luxurious camperized vehicle but holy smokes does it have guts. And clearance, which is a good thing. Despite our best efforts though, we can’t find the trail. We call Farley back who says he doesn’t know much about it but will get a friend to phone us.
- After abandoning The Wimp we get a message from Sandy Oates, the president of ESTBA: “If yer lookin’ for The Wimp trail, it’s not very well maintained this year. I wouldn’t recommend goin’ on it. There’s some other better trails around. If yer lost and need direction, gimme a call.”
Despite being denied The Wimp we still enjoyed some epic riding thanks to Farley’s info of the sanctioned network on the peninsula between Crawford Bay and Pilot Bay. It includes the beautiful Height of Land trail that offers a unique experience: viewing the Kokanee glacier from the warmth of a Ponderosa pine forest. Whenever we stopped to take in the stellar views I was overwhelmed by the cozy smell of the trees, reminiscent of hot-buttered movie theatre popcorn. ESTBA oversees over 30 kilometres of trails around these parts and we highly recommend visiting, not just for the riding but for the experience of meeting locals who’d rather spend time talking to you than staring at their phones. No trip to the East Shore would be complete without a stop at the Gray Creek Store: our favourite purveyor of everything from wood stoves and cutlery to candy bars and fishing tackle. Talk about taking a step back in time. We wish there were more places like this in the world.
KASLO AND AINSWORTH
The trip to the East Shore built up our appetites so after returning across the ferry we immediately hit Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort for a bite. If you haven’t visited in awhile you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the renovations that have transpired here since it was sold to the Lower Kootenay Band of Creston in 2015. The hot springs have historical significance to the Ktunaxa, who refer to them as “nupika wu’u” or “Spirit Water” and Ainsworth is, indeed, an amazing place to rejuvenate your spirits. All we had time for was a restoration of our energy via food and a glass of Angry Hen craft beer, however, but we definitely enjoyed the redesigned restaurant which offers beauty views of the surrounding mountains and Kootenay Lake.
We were in a race against the light so booked it north where we’d heard of a new art installation tucked amongst the trees of the Kaslo River Trail. We parked at the northern trailhead, crossed the covered bridge and it wasn’t long before we spotted the statues peaking out behind moss-covered boulders. Designed by the Koots Artist Collective, a group of three artists from the community of Argenta, the life-sized figures are popping up all around North Kootenay Lake but the largest concentration of them are alongside this three-kilometre loop trail in Kaslo, which is appropriate as the woods here are the perfect environs for pixies, fairies, and other whimsical creatures. The kids will love this one.
When it was too dark to shoot anymore, Peter and I drove the five minutes into downtown Kaslo, doffed the bike gear, and hit the Angry Hen Brewery for a flight. Brewmaster Shirley Warne established this craft brew pub in 2017 and she was there holding court with a number of other locals when we arrived. We also noticed a lot of older tourists in evidence as well. Obviously September is the time for retirees to get on the road and judging by the number of campervans around, Kaslo was a favourite stop. We enjoyed plenty of tasty brews with such names as Kluckin Kölsch, Tough Old Bird, and Roostertail (my favourite) before Peter insisted we stagger around the sidewalks snapping photos. Eventually we walked up Front Street to the Kaslo Hotel where we enjoyed more beer and at some point went to our room, which I’m told by Peter was very stylish, comfortable, and had a beautiful view of Kootenay Lake. I liked the pillows.
The following day was spent recovering in our hometown of Nelson. Normally we’d be excited about visiting the various breweries here on assignment but given the superflous swilling in Kaslo the night before we can only share with you our list of the best breweries and trails here based on decades of drinking and riding. The craft brew establishments include Nelson Brewing Company, Backroads, and Torchlight. Visit them all. Like Kaslo, Nelson is small enough that all the breweries are within walking distance of one another. But I recommend drinking more responsibly than we did to avoid a hangover. For family-friendly riding check out Fairly High Trail off Giveout Creek Road and for perfectly buff downhill, visit the Morning Mountain trails. As for old-school fun, hit the Mountain Station network. Info for all these can be found through the Nelson Cycling Club.
After nursing hangovers in Nelson for the day we again hit the road to exercise our legs and livers. The first stop was Revolution Cycles in Rossland where we hit up our buddy, and owner Tyler Merringer, for beta about the most scenic rides and newest trails. We’ve visited Rossland innumerable times over the years for its riding and done the world-famous 36-kilometre-long Seven Summits as well as everything on Red Mountain and, well, almost all of it. However, we hadn’t done the newest addition to the cycling scene here, Colonel Angus off Maide Creek FSR near the US border, nor had we ridden some of the trails on the north-east bluffs. To access those, we drove through the south side of town to a trailhead near the Columbia Cemetery, which was established in 1899 and decommissioned in 1985. I stopped to check out the gravestones and was somewhat chastened by the ages of most of the deceased. Here we were, twice as old as many of those buried in this cemetery in the past century, and we were still a bit hungover from our night in Kaslo. What were we doing with our lives!? To make amends, Peter promised to capture riding photos the likes of which had never been seen before. And indeed, he took banger after banger of snaking singletrack through the incredible poplar forests that make Rossland one of our favourite autumn riding destinations.
The views from Roger’s Trail were also banger. Named for Dr. Roger Crisfield, an immigrant from England who convinced many of his friends to move to the community, this trail and many of the others on this side of Rossland offer incredible views down into Trail and the surrounding valley. We stomped this and a few others before returning downtown and settling on the patio at Clancey’s to enjoying what ended up being the best pulled pork sandwich in the region. Also, what do they put in their ketchup there? Whatever it is, I’m still craving it. To wash down the food we walked a block to the Rossland Beer Company for a delicious Four on the Floor IPA and met some more grey-haired tourists, this time from Alberta. The guy was so enamoured with the beer, he asked our server if he could buy one of the brewery’s laser-etched metallic signs off the wall for cash. Sure enough, they wrapped it up for him. An hour later we were working off the calories on the new Colonel Angus trail which, we have to say, isn’t our favourite in town: it’s fast and flowy at times but with some old-school corners and janky lines thrown in that are kind of jarring. No matter though because Rossland is touted as the “mountain biking capital of Canada” for having over 136 trails in its vicinity. Take your pick.
As we drove down the hill into Trail we decided to ride an area neither one of us had been to before: the bluffs above the hospital. We were hesitant because they’re located directly across the river from the Teck plant, one of the largest zinc and lead smelters in the world, and weren’t sure there would be any photo opps. But man are we really glad we did. The Bluffs Loop and nearby trails are mellow and fun but the views from it and the various tributary outlooks are uniquely beautiful. There are the forested mountainsides of course, scenes you’d expect on most any ride in British Columbia, but there are also amazing views of the city’s compact streets, war-era houses, and the three graceful bridges. One of them is almost as old as the city itself, which was established in the 1890s, and they all span the Columbia, a shimmering sliver of powerful beauty. The Bluffs trails were one of the biggest surprises of our “Slaycation.” We’ll definitely return.
Another big surprise of the trip happened as we were driving back to Nelson via Fruitvale. We had tried to get into the Trail Beer Refinery but it’s so popular these days, there was an hour-long lineup. A testimony to how good their beer is. So we left the city and 20 minutes later stopped at Burgervale, an old-school hamburger joint in the small community of Fruitvale. Although its menu is tiny, there’s a sign on the wall declaring that because meals are made to order, they take awhile. And they did. But oh my god were they worth the wait! I can’t believe this place isn’t better known. If you take nothing else away from this story, not the info about the fun singletrack or the amazing communities, or the delicious beer, then remember this: Fruitvale has the best burger in the Kootenays.
To plan your own “Slaycation,” check out the Kootenay Road Trip site.