And then there were four. A quartet of historic Cowichan Valley railway-trestle bridges, that is, the last of which has now been restored to its former glory. The Kinsol Trestle near Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island, one of the tallest and longest such structures in the world, joins three companion spans on the Cowichan Valley Trail, a recreational route that runs through the warmest year-round temperate zone in Canada, with a growing roster of local wineries to prove it.
For years prior to the trestle's official reopening last July, hikers, cyclists, and equestrians were forced to make an arduous, muddy detour across the Koksilah River. That's no longer the case. In September, Pique journeyed to Shawnigan Lake to view the completed 187-metre-long bridge. Decking and railings make for safe passage along this section of the Cowichan Valley Trail, itself part of the Trans Canada Trail.
In time, the trail will link with its better-known counterpart to the south, Victoria's Galloping Goose Trail, and with the Nanaimo Regional District's greenway to the north, for a total of 122 kilometres. That's more than enough to keep even the most ardent cyclist happy.
As it was, Pique encountered a cycling duo, Peter Davies and Tyson Kimball, who had already spent almost eight hours in the saddle on a circle ride from Duncan via Lake Cowichan, with a few more hours to go before arriving home. Davies, an engineer mechanic with the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, told Pique that over the years, since the last train crossed the Kinsol Trestle in 1979, the structure had fallen into such disrepair that it had become unsafe to cross. "Local kids used to come out here to party. At one event, they decided to build a fire in the middle and burned a hole right through the decking. After that, the trestle was closed permanently. For a while, there was even talk about dismantling the bridge. That would have been a terrible loss."
Davies encouraged visitors to the trail to also stop by the BCFDC to check out "Samson," the working 1910 steam engine he helps maintain, one of a dozen locomotives in the centre's collection that are prominently on display beside Highway 1. "At various times during the year, we fire it up along three kilometres of miniature-gauge track, including a smaller version of the Kinsol Trestle across Somenos Lake, so you can get a feeling for what travel was like along the CNR line where we've just biked."
Autumn is an ideal time to explore the trestles, plus as much of the trail as you can cover on a day trip. During summer months, an almost claustrophobic feeling envelops long stretches where second growth closes in on both sides. Now, much of the forest canopy has shed its leaves, allowing travellers to look deep into the woods.
Kinsol's trailhead lies a short distance west of Shawnigan Lake. Follow the wide, hard-packed route that leads 1.2 kilometres to the trestle, a pleasant distance that serves to heighten one's expectations. When a wall of wooden, crosshatched timbers finally comes into sight, the structure doesn't disappoint. Almost as remarkable as the trestle is the diminutive size of the Koksilah River glimpsed far below. Who would have thought that such a relatively insignificant waterway — far smaller than the Cowichan River, beside which the trail runs farther north — could prompt a building project of this magnitude? On closer examination, the gorge carved by the river is, in fact, the actual obstacle that structural engineers sought to surmount.
Viewing platforms extend outward on both sides and allow better sightlines of the complex structure itself. For a truly comprehensive experience, Brian Farquhar, parks and trails manager with the Cowichan Valley Regional District, recommended that hikers follow the Kinsol Interpretive Trail that winds downhill from the trestle's north side. "You're standing 12 stories — 130 feet — below the bridge and can really appreciate its complexity," he told Pique by phone. "It's one of the project's neat aspects: to safely get the public down and through the trestle. This sets us apart from other trestles, where you can only cross the deck. The hillsides in Myra Canyon, for example, are so steep, there's no way to get below."
Farquhar viewed the $7.2-million cost of restoration as money well spent. "Hundreds of people per day visit it. The trestle is an icon of valley history that served our forestry, farming, and mining communities for decades. The Kinsol crossing has been the missing link between Shawnigan Lake and Lake Cowichan. With its completion, we now have 80 kilometres of the overall route open between Victoria and Nanaimo. For recreational tourists, this provides a phenomenal opportunity to visit the island by bike."
Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book (Greystone). For details, visit www.jackchristie.com
Shawnigan Lake lies 48 kilometres north of Victoria, easily reached from Whistler via the Tsawwassen–Swartz Bay and Brentwood Bay–Mill Bay ferries. From Mill Bay, roadside markers direct visitors west to the Kinsol Trestle trailhead. For information on the Kinsol Trestle and the Cowichan Valley Trail, visit www.kinsoltrestle.ca or www.cvrd.bc.ca/index.aspx?nid=1379. For information on trestle bridges in Cowichan River Provincial Park, visit www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/cowichan_rv/. For information on the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre, visit www.bcforestmuseum.com. "Samson" makes Halloween-themed evening runs October 26 to 28.