To understand the landscape when travelling, an appreciation of the past is often necessary.
Chapter I – The River
The Columbia River begins in Columbia Lake near Invermere and heads north some 320 kilometers to where it meets the Canoe River. At this point it “bends” all the way around. Augmented with water from the Canoe and Wood Rivers, the mighty Columbia turns south and flows for about 435 kilometers before crossing into the United States where it eventually enters the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon.
Chapter II – The Highway
From Golden to Revelstoke the Big Bend Highway, constructed between 1929 and 1940, would follow the Columbia River. It was a relief project during the Great Depression and constructed by pick and shovel. Although regarded as a perilous gravel road that featured steep grades and runoffs from melting snow in the summer it provided access to spectacular scenery. The Big Bend Highway was never paved and it was never kept open in winter because it was too expensive to plow.
In 1962, Canadians celebrated the grand opening of the Trans-Canada Highway after the final stretch through Rogers Pass was finally complete. This new route cut about 160 kilometres and seven hours of travelling time off of the old Big Bend loop.
Chapter III – The Dam
The Columbia River Treaty is an international agreement between Canada and the United States to coordinate flood control and optimize hydroelectric energy production on both sides of the border. Mica Dam was built between 1967 and 1973 as part of this treaty and is one of the largest earthfill dams in the world. In 1977 the site became a hydro-electric generating station.
A century earlier Mica Creek was named for the flakes of mica minerals found floating in its waters. The Mica Creek area was a center of activity during the Big Bend Gold Rush of the 1860’s.
After the building of Mica Dam, small natural Kinbasket Lake was engulfed and became a 260 kilometer reservoir. Below the Mica Dam, the Columbia River water held back by the Revelstoke Dam is known as Lake Revelstoke. Among other settlements, Boat Encampment is now submerged.
Chapter IV – The Road Today
After the ratification of the Columbia River Treaty the old Big Bend route was designated as BC Highway 23. In 1968 to facilitate construction of the Mica Dam the section from Revelstoke to the dam site was paved. Later in 1984 it was also rerouted for construction of the Revelstoke Dam as its reservoir, Lake Revelstoke would flood sections of the old highway. Most of the roadway east of Mica Dam was also lost to flooding.
Chapter V – Up Highway 23
Today with almost no traffic to speak of there are still amazing views along the 150 kilometre route to Mica Dam from Revelstoke.
Fifteen kilometers up Sale Mountain from our campsite in the alpine we had a glimpse of Lake Revelstoke below and the glaciated peaks of the Monashee Mountains in the west. We luxuriated in solitude and quiet.
Venturing beyond Mica Dam and off pavement we continued north-east. Our lunch stop at Potlatch Creek Rec Site overlooked Kinbasket Lake.
Around the point, Sprague Bay Rec Site would be home for two nights. Here we spent a tranquil afternoon watching carpenter ants bore a hole for a nest in the wooden picnic table.
A short hike leads to the Boat Encampment National Historic Site marker.
The 1811 David Thompson campsite at the mouth of the Canoe River on the Big Bend is now submerged under the massive reservoir behind the Mica Dam. Imagine being caught by cold weather and deep snow in the heart of Big Bend Country. Imagine spending three months over the winter here.