Gnat Pass: Exploring the BC Rail Northern Extension

The plan for Day 53 of the trip – Wednesday, June 15th – was fairly vague. We’d simply leave our beautiful campsite at Meziadin Lake Provincial Park and just drive north on the Stewart-Cassiar until I didn’t feel like going any further. In the back of my mind, though, a look at a long-abandoned BC Rail project was a possibility.

We ended up going 309 km (192 mi) to Lower Gnat Lake, where we parked to overnight in a small pullout with a great view. Click on the map to open an interactive version in a new window.

Map - Meziadin Lake Provincial Park to Lower Gnat Lake
At 07:30, the day wasn’t looking like much, but we were by then well used to sudden dramatic weather changes at Meziadin.

Rainy morning at Meziadin Lake Provincial Park
By 10:15 as we were getting ready to leave, it was looking like a pretty good travel day. Despite bad bugs (mostly mosquitoes), we’d been extremely happy with our stay at Meziadin, and will certainly be back.

Meziadin Lake Provincial Park campground
The highway was in good shape, and with a few short stops along the way, we reached my favourite pullout at Lower Gnat Lake at 3:30 pm, greeted by a strong north wind and a looming rainstorm. It was perfect timing, as I felt like quitting for the day.

Lower Gnat Lake, Stewart-Cassiar Highway, BC
Molly loved this spot – swallows kept landing on the rearview mirrors just inches from her. She was so excited for a while that we thought that her little brain was going to explode! 🙂

Molly the cat on our RV dash
Tucker was happy with his window on the world, too. He was watching ducks on the lake when I shot this. We scanned the slopes for caribou or grizzly, but had no luck.

Tucker watching the world from the RV window
The storm passed by without dropping any moisture on us, so after an early dinner, I unhooked the Tracker to go for a look at the long-abandoned grade of BC Rail’s “Northern Extension” from Fort St. James to Dease Lake.

The BC Rail Northern Dream

Wikipedia has a good summary of the Northern Extension project: “In the 1960s, a new line had been projected to run northwest from Fort St. James to Dease Lake, 412 miles (663 km) away. On October 15, 1973, the first 125 miles (201 km) of the extension to Lovell were opened. The cost of the line was significantly greater than what was estimated, however. Contractors working on the remainder of the line alleged that the railway had misled them regarding the amount of work required so that it could obtain low bids, and took the railway to court.”

“The Dease Lake line was starting to appear increasingly uneconomical. There was a world decline in the demand for asbestos and copper, two main commodities that would be hauled over the line. As well, the Cassiar Highway that already served Dease Lake had recently been upgraded. Combined with the increasing construction costs, the Dease Lake line could no longer be justified. Construction stopped on April 5, 1977. Track had been laid to Jackson, 263 miles (423 km) past Fort St. James, and clearing and grading were in progress on the rest of the extension. It had cost $168 million to that point, well over twice the initial estimate. The trackbed can be seen on Google Earth all the way to Dease Lake, via the small towns of Leo Creek and Takla Landing.”

The access from the highway to the grade running south from Gnat Pass is the sort of route that makes me fight getting a new toad for the motorhome. A few more scratches on the very-well-travelled Tracker don’t matter. Very few vehicles can be towed “4 down”, that is without a trailer or dolly, and some of the vehicles she’s looking at (like the Cadillac SRX) wouldn’t be going into any bush!

After some bush-crashing and rock-crawling, though, we were soon on the rail grade, which is well used by ATVs at that point. My impression is that the grade has been purposely cut in a few places to limit access by hunters, though pretty well all hunters up here have ATVs now. A pickup, though, couldn’t cross one particular rocky ledge that the little Tracker barely got across.

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
After less than a kilometer, the grade was blocked by a rock collapse in a deep cut. An ATV track led up and around the cut, so I left Cathy and the dogs in the Tracker and went for a hike. The track around the cut was through thick brush, very grizzly-friendly, and I made a lot of noise!

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
There was a couple of hundred yards of wet ground south of the cut. Once I got through it and saw this ahead, though, I knew that this was going to be a very hard hike to turn back from 🙂

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
Some of the fills were nearly 100 feet deep. I’ve always been incredulous that this route was approved, and then abandoned so close to the final destination after spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
A telephoto shot of the view to the south, with the Stewart-Cassiar Highway cutting across and dropping down towards the Stikine River, which is only about 30 km (19 mi) from our camping spot.

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
This is where I reluctantly turned around. Rail grade cuts can be seen far ahead on the left, and the highway is on the right.

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
I had a hard time keeping my mind off the railway that night, and by 08:00 on Thursday morning, I had hiked up to the grade directly above our camping spot.

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
Liking what I saw, I went back and got the Tracker, intending to see if I could find the spot where construction actually stopped. Just south of Km 465, a short road took me to the rail grade, which I followed north 0.9 km to this spot. Directly below me is a cut from which the rock had never been hauled away. That was a good indication that I was near the end of the line.

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
Continuing north, I drove or walked to the rail grade at a few other points.

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake

The End of the Dream

This appeared to be the end of the line, where construction was halted on April 5, 1977. There’s a large pullout at this spot, just a few hundred meters/yards from Gnat Pass Summit, which tops out at 1,241 meters (4,072 feet). The end of gravel on the Gnat Pass section can be seen in the distance to the south. However, I discovered thanks to a comment here after I posted the blog that there’s more finished or nearly-finished grade between Gnat Pass and Dease Lake – see, for example, this huge loop that gets the line down from the pass. On my next trip down, I’ll try again to find the northern end! 🙂

Grade of the BC Rail Northern Extension south of Dease Lake
Back in 1994, I drove south from Gnat Pass with my Blazer while wandering after the tour bus season had ended. As you can see, the grade then was in great shape – I quit at this point because I ran out of time.

The Dease Lake Extension of BC Rail in 1994

I was surprised to find while researching this post that a bridge had been built across the Stikine River for the railway, and it’s still useable (see photo). About 40 km (25 mi) of the line south of the Stikine River is accessible from a spot near Tatogga Lake, and a brief report at talks about it as a great bike route.

BC Parks notes in their information about Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park that “The Ealue Lake Road and Klappan Rail Grade are both unmaintained. Recent rain in August 2015 has increased water flow and washed out sections along the rail grade. These washouts have been temporarily fixed for 4×4 vehicle access.”

My impression from what I’ve learned to this point is that much of the line can still be travelled. Some of it is drivable with a 4×4, much of it by ATV, and even more (perhaps all of it) by mountain bike or even motorcycle. So much to explore, so little time! 🙂

Once I got back to the rig and had breakfast, we headed north again, with 2 only more nights on the road planned before reaching home.


Gnat Pass: Exploring the BC Rail Northern Extension — 7 Comments

  1. Murray
    Actually BC Rail’s grade north of the Stikine to Deese Lake was largely completed. The grade was being built in parallel sections, and partially completed contracts were abandoned in mid-construction, as you found at Gnat Pass. Check out Google Maps/Earth and you can trace the grade down into Deese Lake, much of it currently in use as roads. The section paralleling the Stikine appears to have been cleared and grubbed, but taken no further. The Klappan River valley line appears to have been built from the Tatogga Lake access, and completed to the point of being ready for rail. Bing has better coverage than Google here, almost up to the divide, and resuming about 20 miles down the Skeena valley. It appears that the upper Skeena valley was only cleared, and in some spots not that, while the lower valley line was completed to the placement of several large steel bridges. Google coverage of the upper Klappan valley and the Skeena valley is too coarse to to be useful. There is currently a log reload camp 4.5 miles short of the Skeena’s eastern bend, the end of the operated line, but unmaintained track continues into the Skeena valley, past the point where Google loses definition.

    • Thanks, John! It must have been a long time since I looked for the line north of Gnat Pass because yes, it’s clearly there now. I didn’t even know that Bing had aerial photos – Google Earth wins on showing the Stikine River bridge (hidden by clouds on Bing), but much of Bing’s imagery is superior.

  2. Neat information. Who owns the right of way now? – potential rails to trails type deal, biking, camping, etc.

    The replacement of the Tracker will be an interesting eventuality for the both of you…are you already talking and scheming for anything else, RV trip, multi day this summer or 2017 already?

    • That land appears to have reverted to what we old folks usually call “the Crown” (dating back to the days of royal rule, meaning the government in some form), as it’s wide open for use.

      Replacing the Tracker has been a discussion for years, but I think I have Cathy convinced now that it’s perfect as a toad for what we want to do. She hopefully will just get the commuting car that she wants (probably a Honda Civic).

      There’s a long list of plans for the summer (funny having it arrive just after we get home from a 2-month trip!). I’m probably going back down the Stewart-Cassiar with my canoe in the very near future – I have LOTS more exploring to do yet, especially in the Stewart area. For the July 1st long weekend, I’m going to Kluane Lake for about a week and Cathy will join me for the 3 days.

  3. Not a bad idea for the Tracker, keep it viable, decent shape for trips, but make Cathy happy w a newer better (and safer) day in day out vehicle. The ability to get out there a bit in the tracker and not worry about a little mud, scratches here and there, furry friends in back…!!!

    See, I know from doing similar multi day car camp trips that the gears and wheels of dirt roads, distant views, untrod trails, etc… continue to percolate all the while the dust from the big trip is not yet settled. Sounds like fun!