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Inspiring Adventures: Breaking Into British Columbia in a Defender 130 Pickup

  • Greg Fitzgerald
  • Dec 17, 2021
Defender 130 in rural British Columbia

The border with Canada had reopened, and it was time to exercise my passport again. After spending twenty months exploring the United States, I was ready for a change of pace.

My good friend Spencer Whitney lives in Vancouver, and has an excellent 2000 Defender 130 with a TD5 diesel that he brought over from the UK a few years ago. (Canadians can bring in trucks at 15, ten years before Americans can.) It was originally used by the Isle of Man Civil Service before finding its way to Britain. Spencer bought it in 2018, driving it around the UK for a few days before shipping it to Vancouver.

After spending a few days exploring Vancouver, and a few more camping on Vancouver Island, we headed to the Interior of British Columbia – the area to the east of Vancouver just north of the American border. The scenery is similar to the landscape in Washington State across the border, with a history of mining and heavy infrastructure projects. We started our trip on one of those – the Coquihalla Highway, built in just 20 months in 1986-87 to create another much-needed route from Vancouver to the east. It’s one of the most dangerous highways in North America, with weather that can change on a dime. It was nice when we drove it, but if it’s snowing, motorists can get stranded in minutes. Recovering vehicles here has become the subject of an eight-season TV show, Highway Thru Hell.

Defender 130 driving across what may be an unsafe bridge

We made it across okay, and dove off to take some back roads along the Tulameen River to the small towns of Tulameen and Coalmont. These both sprung up in the era of the Kettle Valley Railway, which would be the historic thread that would wind through much of our trip. Tulameen was used as a watering and coaling station for the Kettle Valley; Coalmont was a very productive coal mining town. The trail here wound through valleys and across mountaintops, with a few photogenic bridges thrown in for good measure.

Defender 130 parked in front of famous Coalmont Hotel

We spent the first night in a Recreation Site on BC-3 between Princeton and Hedley. BC has hundreds of these sites spread around the province – simple campgrounds with minimal services, many of which are free, designed largely for people in transit for the night. Spencer whipped up a beef stir fry on the tailgate with ingredients we’d bought in Princeton, and cracked open a few cans of Caesars – the de facto national cocktail of Canada. Invented in the 1960s at a hotel in Calgary, it’s a spin on a Bloody Mary made with Clamato, vodka, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco. I had two while we sat in the dark night, and fell in love with the concept.

cooking at our camp site in British Columbia

The next day we headed into Hedley, a quaint historic mining town, and put the D130 into low range again. We were headed for the French Mine, an abandoned mine high in the hills above Hedley. The Defender whirred as we headed up Apex Mountain, taking switchbacks through the trees. The road ended at the entrance to the mine, which you can drive a few feet into, making for some cool photos; you can even shoot your truck from above thanks to a small cave in in the land above. Nearby, we found some of the infrastructure from the mine’s slide, which would send raw rock down to Hedley for milling.

We wound around the other side of Apex Mountain, crossing cattle gates, logging zones, and hitting what was technically my first snow of winter 2021-22. The views over the mountains were expansive, with distant peaks visible on this clear day.

Defender parked in front of old French mines

Coming back to earth, we drove east on BC-3, spending the night at Boundary Creek Provincial Park, a well-maintained site (complete with flush toilets!) right on the water. Dinner was canned chili and Kraft Dinner – a Canadian icon known to Americans as Kraft Mac and Cheese. How this is a Canadian icon doesn’t make a ton of sense, but dinner transported both of us back to our 1990s childhoods on each side of the border.

Greenwood, British Columbia is the smallest city in Canada, given the designation when it was a rollicking mining town. We rolled in on a quiet and rainy weekday morning, parked the Defender on the street, and headed into a coffeeshop for a brew (Spencer continued to make fun of my oh-so-Jersey order of a cawfee). We drank it looking over the town out the ornate storefront window. This was where the movie Snow Falling on Cedars was filmed, with the town a stand-in for the film’s Washington State setting. Some of the signage painted on buildings for the movie is still there a quarter century later.

Defender 130 parked in Greenwood

We checked out the museum, which had an extensive history of the town’s Japanese internment camp during World War II – a disgrace I did not realize Canada shared with the United States. The museum also had extensive displays on Greenwood’s mining history, several photo albums on the history of the now-closed Greenwood Curling Club, and displays on local veterans. We took the Defender on some backroads to see the remnants of the mine infrastructure, of which alas there is not much more than a chimney left.

The easternmost point in our journey would be Grand Forks, which lies less than a mile from the Washington State border. We grabbed lunch at the Grand Forks Pub, filled up the truck, and headed into some interior logging roads to make our way north. Signs on the logging road tell you to call every other kilometer to alert logging trucks to your presence. I was put in charge of the radio, diligently calling “Green Land Rover, 22 kilometers up” every two minutes or so. This was logging roads similar to those I’d been in in the Maine North Woods back in July, working land meant to be cut, grown, and cut again over many decades.

We exited in Edgewood and headed east on BC-6 past the heartland farms of the Okanagan Valley, one of the most productive agriculture regions in Canada. Yards here were full of old machinery and cars – including a Series II 88” I spotted languishing in one farmer’s field. We ended up in Kelowna, the interior playground of BC. The town has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. With a wet few days ahead, and bad memories of being soaked to the bone a few days prior on Vancouver Island, we took the lack of available camping as a sign and went for a hotel tonight. We checked into a Hampton Inn, ordered pizza which my snobby New York tastes didn’t really approve of, and watched Coronation Street on the CBC – a cultural mashup if there ever was one.

logging road in Canada we drove our Defender 130 down

We started the next day with the first mechanical issue the Land Rover had suffered all trip – a squishy clutch that wouldn’t engage right. Being in the most heavily serviced town we’d be seeing until we got back to Vancouver, we decided to deal with the situation while we could. We stopped at Canadian Tire for some tools and got the clutch master cylinder bled in the parking lot. The truck back up and running, it was over BC-97C to Merritt, on the banks of the Coldwater River. We grabbed onion rings and a Teen Burger at A&W (another American import that has become a distinctly Canadian tradition – the two countries have their own versions of the restaurant, with different menus), hit up the excellent historic society and thrift shop across the street, and poked around – not knowing that in a few weeks, most of Merritt would be underwater and evacuated, as the epicenter of the November floods that swept across BC.

Our last evening would be spent in Ashcroft, an inland port along the Thompson River. The two trans-continental railroads of Canada, the original Canadian Pacific and the later Canadian National, both follow the course of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers on opposite sites. One railway’s track runs downbound, the other upbound, with a sharing arrangement in place. This canyon was the key to the construction of the Canadian Pacific, and thus the linking of British Columbia to eastern Canada, and perhaps the preservation of the concept of a trans-continental Canada. Trains run frequently and all day in both directions, in one of the world’s busiest freight rail corridors. The Ashcroft Legacy Park Campground lies directly under the railbed of one railroad, and across the river from the other. Recently redone with funds from Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations, it has gorgeous washrooms (Canadian for bathrooms), Wi-Fi, and beautiful views over the river. It’s also in a perfect place to hear train whistles all night. Paul Simon might have written that “everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance,” but I don’t think he ever had this level of constant exposure.

Defender 130 exiting Lytton Ferry

Our last day would take us on a run back to Vancouver, but we weren’t going to stick to pavement. A dirt road through farms leads out of Ashcroft and runs along the top of the Fraser Canyon to Spences Bridge. It winds past abandoned and not abandoned farmsteads, decades-old car wrecks lying off the side of the road, and small derelict churches. At Spences Bridge we drove a bit down the highway to Lytton, a city that is famous as being the hottest place in Canada. It’s a record that was set decades ago and set again in 2021 – the day before the town proceeded to burn almost entirely to the ground in a wildfire. Spencer had been here a number of times before, a natural stopping point on the way from Vancouver to the north. Now, the town was shielded from the main highway by large drapes. On the way in was the wreck of a restaurant, including the still-distinctive burnt-out remains of a Discovery 1 that had been in the parking lot. We drove into the town, with signs warning us to close the windows and put the A/C on recirculate for our health. (In a Defender, all you can do is hope and pray for your lungs.) Almost nothing was left of what was once a vibrant village. Neither of us could speak as we coasted through, especially Spencer who had too-vivid memories of what this was all a wreck of.

The Lytton Ferry still operated, a reaction ferry that rode on a cable strung above the river, using the force of the river to propel it across. We loaded the Defender on and headed to the dirt road that ran on the other side, mostly through First Nations land. This dirt road ran all the way down to Boston Bar, a waystation on the way up the Fraser. Some of the sections were rough, and there were some washouts that we had fun photographing the Defender in. We also saw our only black bear of the trip here, trotting in front of the truck before darting into the woods as we approached.

Defender 130 driving through puddle

At Boston Bar, we headed back to Highway 1 and a few hours back to Vancouver, getting a number of waves in Sunday traffic heading back to town with a barrage of thumbs-up from other drivers for our muddy, battle-worn Defender.

It had been an amazing trip. I fell in love with the BC interior, which offered so much of what I love about my adventures in America. The mountain landscapes of the Rockies and the Intermountain West…the mining industrial archaeology that I love to chase in places like Death Valley…the twisty roads and scenic highways…all in one place. And we’d barely scratched a tiny corner of it – this place goes on forever and ever, and by the time I got on an airplane back to America, Spencer and I had about five years’ worth of future trip plans bouncing around.

***

In my life’s adventures, I’ve done lots of things that aren’t there anymore. I’ve been to buildings that have since been demolished, four-wheeled on trails that have since closed, camped in forests that have since burned down, and sailed on ships that have since been broken up for scrap on far away beaches. Chasing the liminal spaces of human history is one of my biggest drivers in my travels. But I didn’t expect that the idyllic five days I spent meandering around southern British Columbia in September 2021 would be an experience changed forever just two months later.

Two months after I got home, an atmospheric river, a weather event that hits the west coast, came through BC. It wiped out huge amounts of the places we went. The Coquihalla Highway collapsed in places. Several of the riverside campgrounds we stayed at may well have washed away. Merritt flooded. Princeton flooded. The road from Spences Bridge to Merritt has largely collapsed into the river. The road we drove from Lytton to Boston Bar is probably washed out in several places. Hope, the crossroads we transited several times, flooded and the highways around it broke in half. The BC roadway system, built between the 1940s and 1980s, will never look quite the same. For weeks, Vancouver was cut off from the rest of Canada, to the point that Covid-19 border restrictions were waived for Vancouverites to drive through the US to get to Alberta.

All this goes to show that none of the places we visit in our adventures through life are permanent – even if, in an idyllic few days, it all feels like it always has been and always will be. But I know I’ve fallen hard for Western Canada now, and hopefully there will be more than one future installment here about adventures in Beautiful British Columbia.

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  • Written By
  • Greg Fitzgerald
  • Adventure addict. '90s Land Rover daily driver. Historic preservationist. Personal vehicles: 1994 Discovery I, 1994 Range Rover Classic, 1961 Series II 109", 2005 LR3.
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