Crossing over Canada's Gray Creek Pass (Kootenay range)

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Crossing over B.C.’s Gray Creek Pass

So where is the highest dirt road in Canada?

Near as we can tell, it’s Gray Creek Pass that runs between Kootenay Lake on the west and Kimberly to the east through the Kootenay range.

While there are two other roads higher than Gray Creek Pass, Highwood and Bow, both are in Alberta and both paved. One of them has reached disrepair and is only accessible via a lengthy water-crossing, a favorite with bicyclists who are willing to dismount and ford the river. You and your motorcycle? Probably not.

During the 2016 Sasquatch Dual Sport GPS Adventure Tour, we thought it might be fun to toss in the 6,850 foot high Gray Creek Pass as part of the itinerary. Our plan was to cross over June 23rd. That date comes with a challenge – will the pass be open?

BC’s Ministry of Forests has determined that the pass is officially open July 1st on any given year. During a warm spring, the pass could probably thaw out before that date, but you’d have to wait and see. In colder years, the pass is plowed out, making it accessible regardless of nature’s plan.

So there we were, making our way to the pass 8 days before the official opening.

It had been a mostly cloudy morning as we rode north from Kettle Falls along dirt roads that traced the U.S./Canadian border. The sun was making good strides by the time we rolled out of Creston where we had lunch, but looking north up Kootenay Lake it was obvious we still had weather challenges ahead. It began to rain as we rode north along 3A.

I’d been watching the Gray Creek Store website which maintains a blog and provides tidbits of information on the condition of the road. The most recent was from mid-May that noted a hiker and his dog had gone over the pass. There were pictures and they showed snow, but that was a month before. No telling what that might mean now. No further information available.

We arrived at the store and I proceeded to check in with the gentleman at the counter. “A few guys came from the Kimberly side and passed over the other day,” he responded. Okay, that sounded promising. But with rain falling at our 1,745 elevation, that could spell early summer snow in the pass, so it was still anyone’s guess.

As we got ready to head out, I mentioned to a woman, also an employee, that we were going to give it a go. “A few guys tried the other day, but had to turn around.” And thus I’m sticking with my golden rule of travel – be wary of advice from locals. We had to go find out for ourselves.

Off we went with sprays of rain now and then. Up we climbed. In fact, the climb up to the pass from the lake is a seemingly short trip. About 8 miles with a 4,000’ gain in elevation. As we rode we could see areas where a grader had been prepping the road for the upcoming ‘season.’ And when we neared the top, there was the grader, making its last preparations – just below a bank of snow that covered the final 200’ of the pass.

Our friend, Norm, tried to bribe the driver to cut a swath open, but he wasn’t going for it. Looks like that spot would not get cleared until late afternoon on June 30th if the Ministry had their way.

Nonetheless, we’d come this far, so why not make a go of getting through? To do that, the options were two. More agile riders could cross over a bare hill to the left doing a little two-tracky-single-tracky dance. The geezers, like myself, who don’t fancy a life flight out of the woods, would use the other strategy.

You can’t really just hit the throttle and go. Instead, a little teamwork is required to get the bike from one side to the other through the snow.

For starters, it’s best to dismount. With the bike owner controlling the throttle, and the help of several others, it is possible to move a bike through a patch of snow if it’s only a few feet deep. In Norm’s case, he wanted to be on the bike and with the help of three others he got through, the traction control from his Africa Twin hissing and screaming all the way through.

There were several other patches of snow on the downhill side. They were easy to pass through just coasting, but it became apparent that those riders who had attempted the pass from the Kimberly side a few days beforehand, had their work cut out for them trying to pass through three snowdrifts with gravity working against them. Maybe it’s all true – some got through and some did not.

As for us, we all caught our breathe and made the other 35 miles to Kimberly grinning ear to ear.

So, yes it may be possible during some years to make it through Gray Creek Pass, before it gets plowed open. But, I couldn’t imagine a more fun way of passing through than how we did with the weather as it was, the challenge of the patches of snow, and our teamwork ultimately paying off.

Tom Mehren/July 2016

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