Lesley, the Rockies, and a new Jag

November 20, 2011

Every time I take a bite of halibut or salmon from the freezer, I think kind thoughts of Mrs. Lesley Reid for deciding to send her little brother Tony and his friend on a fishing trip to Northern British Columbia last June. As earlier columns no doubt made it clear, this was my first trip to the west coast, first helicopter ride, first encounter with a huge tree, first look at a whale, and the list goes on.

I could add to the list my first chauffeured drive in a new Jaguar XJL and my first meal at an Elvis-themed restaurant, for on one of our sight-seeing days Lesley determined that we should visit Hell’s Gate, the point at which the Fraser River, which is over a mile wide outside their guest house, narrows down to a roaring gulch accessible only by cable car and suspension bridge.

While exploring on our own Tony and I had borrowed Alex’s Cadillac, but Lesley suggested that we take her XJL on this longer trip, so Tony twisted the shift dial to reverse, the navigation system switched over to a camera view of the flower beds and other obstacles behind (courteously showing where the wheels will go in yellow dotted lines on the screen), and we backed out of the driveway and onto our adventure. To say the big Jag is an impressive touring car is to understate the obvious: it’s a car fit for a queen. In fact, Queen Elizabeth has one.

On the road it was quiet and very comfortable. Tony seemed to rein in his normal dodgem-cars-driving style in favour of a more sedate pace, and the cat purred us up and down the steep slopes while I took photos of more and more of the guard rails on the Trans-Canada Highway. The Rocky Mountains are huge and magnificent, but they won’t fit into my little Canon.

I couldn’t help but think of how hard it must have been to live in or travel through this section of the country before the tunnels and the highway were built. The Fraser is a wild river with enormous fluctuations in flow over the course of the year. It shows no consideration whatever for life forms trying to live in its path.

After an hour or so of this fascinating drive we fetched up in a crowded parking lot: Hell’s Gate. Lesley asked us to wait while she walked over to the ticket booth, then returned, suggested proper clothing and cameras, and we stepped onto the cable car which sloped down to a museum on the other side of the river.

A pleasant young woman introduced us to the spectacle. She launched into a witty speech describing a colourful history of this point on the river as we dropped into the dark of the gorge. She ended her pitch just as the Airtram bumped against its stop. I saw satisfaction in her face: she had timed it just right.

The tourist complex down in the gorge is part museum, part gift shop, part fish-viewing station. The artist’s renderings of the original trail through the gorge nearly made me air-sick. To avoid high water the aboriginal builders suspended scaffolds half-way up the sheer side of the gorge as a trail through the difficult sections. From the murals these primitive structures seemed to require a great deal of climbing ability, nonetheless. Now I understood why it cost so much to ship freight to the inland of British Columbia during the gold rush. They had to pay men to carry the stuff on their backs over mile after mile of these terrifying scaffolds, and also pay tolls to the tribes who owned the structures.

But soon a sign read “fish ladder” and Tony and I were off to find salmon. Lesley hit the book store and loaded a shopping bag with titles on the Fraser and Hell’s Gate.

She gave me three of them, suggesting that I could find answers to some of my many questions. She only gave Tony one. Squeaky wheel syndrome, I guess.

On the other end of the tunnel just up the road lies the Elvis Rocks the Canyon Cafe. It was kind of a seedy place, but with a certain charm, too. The menu was loaded with Elvis favourites. No wonder the man weighed over 240 pounds at the time of his death. The food was greasy, heavy, and quite delicious.

But the patrons were more interested in who had arrived in the Jaguar than in their food. Lesley shortly was holding court with Winnebego owners, a pair of Harley riders, and a vegetable truck driver. It’s a very nice car, especially in the context of a gravel parking lot overlooking the river, and a quarter-mile-high rock cut on the other side of the Trans-Canada Highway.

On the return trip Lesley suggested a massage, so Tony flicked the switches, and a series of rollers began a gentle, soothing trip up and down my spine. I might have nodded off for a bit there, because the trip back to Abbotsford seemed shorter than the run out.

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