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From transportation route to scenic road:

Driving the Trans-Canada Highway through B.C.

Writing and photos by Mark Richardson

Illustration by Molly Margaret

Victoria, B.C.

Published July 20, 2023

Heading west through British Columbia, the Trans-Canada Highway seems to give up its aspiration as a national transportation route and settles on being a scenic tourist road. Or perhaps it evolves to this. Perhaps this is what the Trans-Canada should always have been.

Mark Richardson is driving the length of the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s to Victoria. This is the sixth of a seven-part series.

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Mark dips the front wheels of the Lexus RX 500h into the Pacific Ocean at Cattle Point in Victoria.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The road is now mostly four lanes through the Kicking Horse Pass, past the town of Golden and over the Rogers Pass, but then becomes a more narrow, two-lane highway at Revelstoke. The plan is to twin it – separate two lanes in each direction with a wide centre median – all the way from the Alberta border to Kamloops, but “I’ve heard that plan for the last 40 years,” says Gary Sulz, the Mayor of Revelstoke.

@globedrive Mark Richardson is driving the #transcanadahighway from #stjohns to #victoria. Here he is going over the Rogers Pass in B.C. It is part of a stretch that was the last to be built. #rogerspass #britishcolumbia #roadtrip ♬ original sound - Globedrive

Sulz is also a local funeral director, and he’s acutely aware of the dangers of an inadequate highway that’s busy with truck traffic.

“I’m the guy who gets to go out to the accidents to bring in the deceased,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than getting called out at Christmastime for a motor vehicle accident, and pulling a family of children out of a car who have died because the road wasn’t cleaned or they didn’t have the right tires or there were transport-trucks on the road that just slid into each other.”

Sulz blames much of the road’s carnage on heavy truck traffic, and the poorly trained drivers who are forced to stay out too long on the highway to meet deadlines and targets. He’d like to see a “mountain” rating needed for a truck driver’s licence that requires additional education about safe driving on mountain roads, just as some roads in B.C. require appropriate tires in winter. On the more-than-200 kilometres of two-lane Trans-Canada in B.C. east of Kamloops, there’s nowhere for those trucks to go when they slide out on a corner, or when a car underestimates the distance needed to safely pass.

Left: A two-lane section of Trans-Canada Highway, west of Revelstoke.

Right: One of the very few tunnels on the Trans-Canada Highway, near Hell’s Gate.

“Back in the day,” says Sulz, “we thought this (highway) was quite an engineering feat, but now, we look at it and it’s just a two-lane road.”

The problem is that it is immensely expensive to literally move mountains to make extra room for a wider road. It’s also challenging to do so with proper consideration to the environment. Do you blast out thousands of cubic metres of rock face, or fill in the edges of the lakes? Do you create a tunnel, as European planners lean toward?

“If a design includes tunnels while achieving the objectives within the available budget, they might become part of the final solution,” says the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure on its website, yet the only tunnels on the B.C. Trans-Canada are relatively short and beside the Fraser River to the west.

In British Columbia, the planners accepted 40 years ago that the comparatively narrow road through the Fraser Canyon was impractical to widen, so they created the multi-lane Coquihalla Highway that carries most of the commercial traffic between Kamloops and Hope. The Trans-Canada, however, was left to carry tourists beside the Fraser River between Hope and Cache Creek, through Lytton.

On the day of my visit in late June, Cache Creek was still recovering from severe floods this spring that washed out much of downtown. It was a shock to see mud being hauled away from parking lots and damaged buildings. Nothing, however, prepared me for Lytton, an hour down the road.

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Flooding at Cache Creek this spring damaged the downtown area.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Two years ago, after a day of insufferable heat that broke the Canadian record at 49.6 degrees Celsius, a wild fire burned the village to the ground. When I came through, the community was empty: empty of people, empty of buildings. The damaged properties have been razed and their land protected behind security fencing, but nothing is yet rebuilt. Construction trailers are everywhere, but no one seemed to be around.

I reached the village’s mayor later by phone. “The reality is, they didn’t even start removing the debris until June of last year,” said Denise O’Connor. “I don’t know why. I keep saying that someday, there’s going to be an investigation or an audit or something, and the story will come out about why everything’s taking so long.”

Not every building is gone, however. The Church of St. Barnabas still stands in the middle of the empty blocks, next to the rectory and church hall, all seemingly untouched. “There’s an asphalt street in front of the buildings (that acted as a firebreak),” says Rev. Angus Muir of Lytton Anglican Parishes, trying to explain. “Even though there was some fire between the rectory and the church that burned the grass and whatnot, and burned a post off, it didn’t burn the church because it’s cement and stucco. But it’s amazing they survived.”

The church holds services and the hall is now rented to the village, though there is no water or sewage service. It was used to host a lunch on June 30 after a blessing ceremony was held for the rebuild. O’Connor said it was the first gathering for the village since the fire.

Left: The Anglican Church of St. Barnabas in Lytton survived the fire.

Right: A highway cut-out on the Trans-Canada south of Cache Creek.

Lytton “is a good place to have a community,” she said. “It burned down a hundred years ago and we’ve had fires over the years, but so has every little town in the interior. Lytton is home to so many people. Lytton First Nation is a huge population, and they’re not going anywhere.”

She said the pre-fire town was making the most of its placement on the Trans-Canada Highway to bring in tourists, and it will do so again once it’s rebuilt. Whenever that is. The road is a reminder of the challenges of the interior: At Hell’s Gate to the south, where four times the volume of water that flows over Niagara Falls surges through the river, Simon Fraser is remembered for exploring the canyon in 1808 by walking on planks suspended by rope from the rock; these days, it’s an easy drive for RVs to reach the lower mainland in time for dinner.

I crossed on the ferry that night from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo – officially part of the Trans-Canada Highway, the same as the ferries in Newfoundland and PEI – for the final drive south to the end of the road in Victoria. On Canada Day, I parked beside the large sign in Beacon Hill Park that marks Mile Zero, beside the monuments to Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo, and then drove on to a boat ramp at Cattle Point to dip the front wheels of the Lexus into the Pacific.

That night, there were fireworks over the harbour and they seemed to mark a fitting end to this journey. Unlike the generic American interstate, which is still by far the fastest and safest way to drive across the continent, the Trans-Canada Highway offers a bit of almost everything. Most important, it offers access to everywhere else: to the roads that lead north, and those that follow the rivers and coast. It’s the best way to see Canada, but it’s still only the start of the journey.

When I first collected the Lexus RX 500h loaner that I drove for this road trip, from outside the assembly plant in Cambridge, Ont., where it was built, my colleague Petrina Gentile urged me to test its self-parking abilities. They are, apparently, exceptional.

@globedrive Mark Richardson tests how the #lexus RX 500h parallel parks on a street and perpendicular parks in a parking lot. He has some criticisms. #carreviews #lexusrx ♬ original sound - Globedrive

It was Lexus that first featured self-parking in its production LS sedan two decades ago, and it’s come a long way. Even so, I never use the feature – I pride myself on my parking, and it just takes too long for any car to evaluate the many parameters involved.

Still, I gave it a shot in a parking lot, where it parked well at 90 degrees into a space between cars, and on the street, where it parked poorly parallel. You can see the mixed results in the videos with this article.

@globedrive Mark Richardson is driving the #transcanadahighway a few weeks earlier he dipped the wheels in the #atlanticocean now he dips them in the #pacificocean on #canadaday🇨🇦 to conclude his drive. #victoriabc #roadtrip ♬ original sound - Globedrive

Lexus does have an excuse for whenever the RX failed to perform flawlessly: this SUV is officially a “prototype.” It was one of the very first to be built, and intended to test the manufacturing equipment at Cambridge, and so it’s not guaranteed to meet the Lexus standard. As a prototype, it will never be sold, and will probably be donated to a fire department or technical school or just crushed.

I’ll be reviewing the vehicle more thoroughly next week, but for now, one thing it did prove to me is that if you’re capable of parking a car yourself, you should do so. Don’t lose your learned skill, and don’t let autonomous vehicles make you lazy.

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Mark Richardson dips the front wheels of the Lexus RX 500h into the Pacific Ocean at Cattle Point in Victoria.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Mark Richardson is the author of Canada’s Road: A journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s to Victoria (Dundurn).

Read more in this series:

Of moose, a monument and a devastated port town: Driving the Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland

A bridge, a ferry and a dot-matrix printer: Driving the Trans-Canada highway through the Maritimes

Construction, make-work projects and the bright side to the dark side: Driving the Trans-Canada Highway in Quebec and Ontario

Canada’s national highway didn’t come easy – it took some daredevils and squabbling to make it happen

A peculiar town and remembering tragedy: Driving the Trans-Canada Highway through the Prairies

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