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Seen on the Fraser Canyon stretch of the Trans-Canada. (IAN BROWN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Seen on the Fraser Canyon stretch of the Trans-Canada. (IAN BROWN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Driving home: Ian Brown on the Banff-Vancouver run and what it means to be Canadian Add to ...

I left the festival after lunch, took a roadside swim in bright, clear, rock-bottomed Shuswap Lake to wake myself up, then bolted west for Kamloops. The driving was a breeze.

 

Nowadays Banff escapees take the new Coquihalla Highway when they reach Kamloops, because it shortens the trip to Vancouver by an hour and a half. But the Trans-Canada is beautiful, and gets to the heart of the highway’s promise. It follows the old Cariboo Road, the first real highway in British Columbia, built northward from the town of Hope in the 1860s to service miners looking for gold. Before that, the only route in was by steamer to Hope from Victoria: $25 for the voyage, $5 for a mining licence, $4 per tonne of freight, a buck for a berth. Beyond that you were on your own.

You still can be on this stretch of the Trans-Canada. It drops steadily from the shockingly open high country west of Kamloops down and down and down to Hope, where the boiling Fraser River finally slips free of the mountains and relaxes. The Trans-Canada continues on to Victoria and Tofino, its duelling mile zeros, but after Hope the view is mostly suburbs.

It was all I could do to stay on the road. I kept looking down into the Black Canyon, to see the famous Fraser seething below. Hugh MacLennan called it “the most savage river in North America,” 13 per cent longer than the Rhine and at cataract force for 965 of its 1,374 kilometres. Huge logs spin in the Fraser’s whirlpools for days on end, like desperate boyfriends. The mean flow of the St. Lawrence River is about 15,375 cubic metres of water per second; at its highest flood, the Fraser has equalled and surpassed that. But the St. Lawrence is 2,400 metres wide; at Hell’s Gate, the Fraser is 46 metres across. And yet these are the same roiling rapids steamboats were winched over for years, where rafters bob today.

The Fraser still feels prehuman. In his journal of 1808, the year he descended the river that took his name, Simon Fraser wrote: “I have been for a long period in the Rocky Mountains, but have never seen anything like this country. It is so wild I cannot find words to describe it at times. We had to pass where no human beings should venture.” He went on to point out that natives ventured there anyway, shooting the river in canoes and scaling its cliffs on vine ladders. Fraser thought he was descending the Columbia. When he discovered he wasn’t, he turned his men around. They made it back up the river to Fort George in 37 days.

I drove the Fraser in three hours. It was like balancing a car on a piece of string. The road tunnels in and out through the river’s cliffs. I could see freight trains inching impossibly along the canyon wall on the other side of the river. That was when the shift registered, I think, when I realized the river was moving faster than both the train and my car. We were back on Nature’s scale, once again slower and smaller than the land that formed us. It was 1964 when Hugh MacLennan said Canada had begun to out-travel its soul. On the Trans-Canada Highway you can actually slow down enough, once in a while, for it to catch up to you.

 

In Hope the next morning I drove over to Rolly’s Pancake House Restaurant for breakfast. Packed, as usual. The waitresses were all pros; you could tell because they never stopped to pause or emote. Mine called me Dear and did not tell me her name. It was like being served by a very kind and thoughtful God, one whose confidence and certainty of judgment were ample but serene.

I ordered the light breakfast – two poached eggs on pancakes, with bacon. My waitress placed two jugs of syrup, one small and one large, on my table before she brought my order.

“What’s the small one?” I said.

“This is black raspberry,” she said. “A lot of people like it. But this is maple.”

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