Thursday, December 2, 2021

Born For This Battle: An Update From the Leading Edge

It's time for an update from the Carbon Crisis!

 The North American craton has been heading west into the Pacific for some 200 million years. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels only exited the historic regime during the Korean War. Both historic trends are important as we put November to bed on Canada's West Coast. The direct cause of the tricky situation in which the Lower Mainland of the province of British Columbia, home to 3 million Canadians, now finds itself is admittedly a climate-change driven weather event, but the actual problem we now have is related to the untidy way that our home tectonic plate has been sorting out the terranes it has been acquiring for the last few geological ages. 

The  story is that Two weeks ago, on November 14--15, a major weather system made landfall on the West Coast, and delivered an unprecedented, or almost unprecedented amount of rain to the region. The Nooksack River, which usually drains Mount Baker (Boeing's Mount Baker) directly into the Salish Sea, unburdened itself of the resulting floodwaters into its big brother, the Fraser, via a long-since reclaimed slough, the Sumas Prairie. The flat land of the area having had an irresistible attraction to freeway engineers, the result was the closure of the Trans-Canada as well as significant flooding in a lightly-populated but heavily farmed area. The exact impact of this on local supplies of milk, eggs, poultry, and Christmas trees are unclear at this point. Flooding also affected two towns in the watersheds on the lee side of the coastal mountains. Downtown Princeton was flooded by the rising Tulameen and its distributary, the Similkameen, itself a tributary of the Columbia via the Okanagan, while  the town of Merritt on the Nicola, a tributary of the Fraser via the Thompson River, suffered an altogether more devastating flood when the flood breached the protection of the municipal waste water plant and knocked out all water services, forcing the complete evacuation of the community. 

At the same time, heavy water loads on unstable slopes denuded by a devastating summer fire season, and high water in mountain creeks damaged highway infrastructure. By the end of the rainstorm on Tuesday afternoon, all four highways and both of the two railways connecting the Lower Mainland and the Port of Vancouver with the rest of Canada were closed. Two highways, 99 and 3, were reopened on Friday the 19th on a limited basis. 

We have had two subsequent storms of equivalent magnitude, but as is not entirely uncommon with rain storms, without the same degree of devastation. Between emergency work on flood protection systems, and the blockage-clearing efforts of the first flooding, the rainfall of the subsequent storms was able to find its way to the sea without inconveniencing us too much. Unless something worse happens, this is the new normal for my province. And by this I mean a complete logistical fuckup, which  I will explore in this post. 

I despair of finding an image that captures the Cyclopean geology of the area around the city of Kamloops in south central British Columbia, often naively described as a river valley superimposed on a glacial scour. It is a driver's town, spread up and down across some 500 meters of elevation from the (well-established, not million dollar mansions on the top of a mountain) neighbourhood along old Highway 5A to the downtown far bellow. the fact that whole neighbourhoods perch on benches up and down this slope is telling of the scale of geological action in this region, and would let pictures speak further if they captured what I have seen on the highway from my sister's car. They tell a story which cannot be simplified. British Columbia has accumulated as an agglomeration of more ancient terranes swept up by the leading edge of the North American Plate as it ground over a series of older, smaller, subducting continental plates such as the Farallon. While conventional mountain building has played a large part in the creation of the Mountain West, the details on the ground are chaotic, and a road and railbuilder's nightmare.

If you are not Canadian, you probably haven't been brought up on the epic origin story of Canada, which turns on the construction of a transcontinental railway from "sea to sea," and the effort to find a way through the mountains to that sea. Inevitably, somone who has gone to school in Canada will reference Gordon Lightfoot's Railroad Trilogy, but the story is richer than that:

I, personally, disapprove of making CPR labourers the origin story of the Chinese-Canadian community. There has got to be another way of honouring them that does not  make Asian Canadians implicitly "second comers" who must conform to rules about immigration and citizenship that are natural because the White man colonised the province a week before they did. However, the construction of the CPR is the origin story of Canada, so why not appropriate it for your own community? And besides, the gold field road that came before it, the Cariboo Road, is also part of the origin story of the province of British Columbia, and has also an origin story of the Chinese Canadian community. That's the great thing about  myths, even if I would prefer to start it with Meare's men.  

To return to the concrete world of civil engineering, geography and geology, here is the BCAA on the scenic highway (and two railways) that breach(es) the coastal ranges in the canyon of the Fraser River.

The Trans Canada is currently closed and I do not find a projected reopening time. The Coquihalla, Highway 5 between Hope and Meritt, on the other hand, has a promised reopening date in late January. An unusually well-situated local blogger provides some insight into the extent of damage at the first of five sites where the road has been breached between Hope and Merritt:


The repairs are likely to be temporary, with temporary bridging structures that will not support freeway speeds. 

The Coquihalla River is a left-bank tributary of the Fraser, joining it at Hope, British Columbia. The river valley offers a convenient and just barely economical gradient up out of the Fraser Valley, falling 3400 feet over 53km from the Coquihalla Lakes on, high tableland, separated from the watershed of the Nicola River by the Coquihalla Pass. It carries both of the mountain highways that lead east out of Hope until Highway 3 leaves the valley of the Coquihalla for that of the Nicolum River, which is very confusing, so thank you for that, Coastal Salish people. The Coquihalla was scouted as a route across the Cascades to the Interior from the Nineteenth Century, and became the route of the deeply implausible Kettle Valley Railway, which operated from 1915 to 1958. 

Highway 5, the Coquihalla Highway, was completed in 1986 as a rush job ahead of Expo '86 to modern freeway standards. In spite of contemporary, gloomy predictions about imminent failure, bad winter weather, and the crushing burden of highway-building debt, it has been a boon to the province, and a credit to the shifty and not always terribly worthy political dynasty that built it. Bill Bennett had the political good sense to crush the opposition to this project and drive it before him because his dynasty was based in the interior city of Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley, and he had a better sense than many of his opponents just how far the economy of the provincial interior was being  held back by congestion on the existing two highways (Highway 99 doesn't really count). Merritt was a pretty pointless destination in its own right, but it was connected to Kamloops via an old mountain road still frequented by trucks which cannot make highway speeds. In later phases of the project, freeway grade highways were extended from Merritt to Highway 97 just south of Kelowna and to Kamloops, and Highway 5 became the principal truck route from the Lower Mainland to the rest of Canada.

And now the Coquihalla and the Trans-Canada are closed, and all that traffic is being fed through Highway 3, the Hope-Princeton. Here's the installment in the Ministry of Transport's classic series of mid-60s timelapse highway drives that covers the Hope-Princeton. There have been roughly a billion driver-delay hours of construction put in since 1966 to make the highway four-lane since 1966, but the lay of the land hasn't changed. 

If you're annoyed that the dash cam angle doesn't take in the sweeping vistas of this mountain highway, don't be. In spite of the natural setting, the Hope-Princeton is aggressively unscenic. 

While evidence will show that I am not the best photographer on the planet, I do not see how better equipment or more skill would get a better picture of the Falls of the Similkameen than this:

Notwithstanding the fact that I am photographing from a pull-out, there's no vantage point from which to photograph the Falls. You could climb all the way down to river level through the gravel scree and the vegetation clinging to its steep sides and never get a worthwhile vista. There's a  dirt road to the Falls on the far side of the river and far below, according to the maps, but  it leaves the highway back at Eastgate, and the people of Eastgate weren't feeling any too hospitable to firebug city folk that summer.
By the way, there is a lot less rural buildup  along the road now than is visible in the 1966 film. Virtually all the old gas stations, cafes and motels are closed, leaving only three inhabited locations west of Sunday Summit: at Eastgate, around Manning Park Lodge, and at Sunshine Valley. None of the three areas are particularly large, and none have semi-urban sprawl. The hamlets end, and that's it. 

If you are beginning to get the sense that British Columbia has serious logistical problems that are going to get worse this winter, my travelogue is only getting started. Once down in the valley  far side of the Hope-Princeton, the highway continues via old, two-lane country highways. While the continuation of Highway 3 through Keremeos in particular carries significant traffic, both it and Highway 5A to Merritt have been eclipsed by the Coquihalla extensions, and have substantial stretches of two lane roads. 

In other words, the entire commercial road traffic of the city of Vancouver is currently dependent on two, count them, two lanes of traffic leading out of Princeton to Merritt and Keremeos, and since the Keremeos extension is a significant diversion that forces truck traffic to make its way up Highway 97 all the way the top of the Okanagan Valley, it is mostly the old road to Merritt taking the burden. Of which the best that I can say is that it is very picturesque. Here's a travel video from a better day, albeit one that postdates the glory days of the Merritt Mountain Music Festival, destination of choice for the bros and --girl bros?-- of British Columbia from 2002--2011. 

The initial few minutes of the video will give the viewer some sense of what the locals were thinking when they heard that the entire city of Merritt had to be evacuated because of sewage problems. Skipping ahead to 27:00 will give some sense of just how bad a road this is for heavy truck traffic.

The Provincial government has done pretty much the only thing it can do in response to this, which is restrict the Hope-Princeton to commercial truck traffic exclusively until further notice. The auto-owners of the Lower Mainland can still drive to the Interior via the Old Cariboo Road, as now reinvented as Highway 99. But although it, too, is the route of an ill-starred trans-mountain railway, it hardly counts as a highway. A key section along the route is carried by a single lane bridge. It's on a rez, as you might suspect, but I doubt that the fact that they're getting their systemic racism on is going to be much consolation to anyone stuck in traffic on their way to ski Big White(!

Now I am going to step back a bit and explore how we got to this place. Highway 3 is a bit arcane to most people below a certain age. It carries a fair amount of traffic, since it is the most convenient route from the Lower Mainland to a significant chunk of the southern Okanagan-Similkameen region. Osoyoos is not a small town by British Columbian standards, and the Keremeos/Royston area is an industrial-scale fruit producing machine. But that is still not many people or many trucks by comparison with the Coquihalla, and it is an almost pointlessly-difficult road to drive. The highway crosses three passes between Hope and Princeton, the first between the Nicolum and Skagit watersheds, the second between the Skagit and Similkameen, and the third ascending the tableland west of Princeton to avoid the canyon of the Similkameen. The gradient along the highway goes over 18% on the final climb from the Nicolum gorge to the top of the ridge separating it from the valley of the Sumallo River. Because the Sumallo joins the Skagit just above Ross Lake, and continues south into Washington State to reach Puget Sound at Bellingham, neither a Canadian nor a trans-Cascadian highway can follow the river, and at Rhododendron Flats, Highway 3 leaves the watercourse to climb Allison Pass, the highest summit, although not the heaviest gradients, along the route. Once over Allison Pass, however, the motorist is separated from any permanent inhabitation by two or even three mountain passes that can be, and often are, closed by winter weather. It is a starkly isolated part of the world in mid-winter, although pretty lively in the summer, notwithstanding the enthusiastic tourist-gouging practices of the management of Manning Park Lodge. (Although the staff is very nice, leading me to suspect that the staff-facing side of management is very good.)

I should be clear here that there is nothing inevitable about this route. It was pioneered by the colonial government's contractor, whose work was fast enough and slap-dash enough for it to be pretty clearly an existing hunting trails, but there were alternatives. The most noteworthy alternative  passes to the South Okanagan lead from the Coquihalla to the upper valley of the Tulameen, but I believe there is a direct pass to the Tulameen from the Skagit, which might be beside the point since, once over Similkameen, the decision to go over Sunday Summit instead of simply following the river down to Princeton seems to have been made by pioneering ranchers around Princeton, who chose the existing path as a cattle driving route.  Once that point is realised,  one understands the route. It doesn't go by Eastgate, Manning Park and Sunshine Valley by accident. It goes to those places because there is grass along the route. 

See? This post is relevant to the topic of the blog. I shouldn't have just filed it under "my life" and put it under my other, semi-defunct blog with all the fifth-rate fan fiction. And that is despite working in a grocery store, for a company that thought it reasonable to consolidate the meat and variety/general merchandise warehousing operations for Vancouver in Alberta. Though at least we're not as bad as our monopolistic partner, Canada Breads, which has been progressively consolidating baking on the far side of the Continental Divide. And while we at least have moved on to staging chilled goods out of our brand new Campbell Heights facility, so that the meat shortage has relented, we are now three weeks out from the last delivery of everything from cinnamon to cold medicine. 

Because we have built a business model in which we drive those orders, already picked and sorted by store, from Calgary, over the Rockies, Selkirks, and Coastal ranges, three times a week. That's why. You can see how all that carbon dioxide got up there!

So it comes that at this latest crisis of the Age of Carbon, my city is cut off from the world except by a road straight out of the Age of Grass. A road that doesn't give a fuck about gradients, corners, passing lanes or separated grades. It is a road that is not going to stand up to delivering toothpaste by the tote three times a week, but it is a road that goes where the grass grows. We might learn a lesson. Because, we, too, are  headed back to the Age of Grass. 


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