Road to nowhere: B.C.’s mud slides and floods underscore our reliance on remote highways
Experts say it will be months until temporary fixes are available for some damaged routes, including the Coquihalla Highway
We take our roads for granted.
This became painfully clear to me as I sat staring at the wall of a hotel room in Langley, B.C., stranded just 350 km from my home in Kamloops yet nearly a day’s drive away. The atmospheric river that temporarily flowed over the southern part of the province caused mudslides and floods that closed or outright deleted large sections of crucial highways. I was among those caught away from home when things got so supremely and devastatingly wet.
Things got so wet that the main vein from coast to interior, the mighty Coquihalla Highway (Hwy 5), built in 1986 to withstand the annual punishment of mountain winters at 1,244m above sea level, was snapped like a twig in multiple sections, giving way to flowing rivers of mud and timber that engulfed cars with their passengers inside and exposed Dukes-of-Hazzard style bridge gaps.
Confronted with mud where the Coquihalla had been swept into the valley below, trapped motorists turned around only to find similar obstacles. Even beyond, alternate routes along Highway 3 through Princeton or Highway 1 along the Fraser Canyon had been severed by mudslides as well. Dykes and dams holding back waters from the agricultural prairie of Abbotsford were similarly overcome, and acres of farmland and homes were flooded. The river that runs through my hometown literally rerouted itself, taking backyards and entire homes with it.
The downpours brought lethal tragedy on Duffey Lake Road (Highway 99) between Pemberton and Lillooet, where mudslides claimed the lives of at least four individuals. The search continues for another who remains missing.
The halting effect of all this precipitation was unlike anything I’ve witnessed before in Canada. It seized travel in the province so wholly and suddenly that residents from Vancouver who’d been inland and Interior residents who’d been on the coast were unable to return to their homes.
Parents were separated from their children. Youth hockey teams slept on busses. In centres like Kamloops, grocery stores were rushed like they were during the first COVID lockdown by shoppers panic-buying essential goods. The supply gaps caused by the closed routes impacted businesses as far away as Edmonton, and government officials imposed a provincial fuel restriction, limiting drivers to 30 litres per fuel-station visit.
Like everybody else in our situation, my partner and I anxiously watched the news and checked our phones for updates as we tried to make a plan. In the hotel breakfast room, guests stocked up on fruit and bagels for the epic detour that was likely to come. We met a three-generation family from Kelowna whose 4-year-old seemed oblivious to the chaos, happy to be barefoot eating Fruit Loops on grandma’s lap in a room full of stressed-out strangers. They would also be attempting the border-hopping route we heard of on Facebook — apparently border guards were allowing trapped residents without passports to make the passage to the province’s Okanagan Valley routes via Washington State.
Our vehicle, a used 4×4 Toyota RAV4 that we only just purchased the day before expressly to tackle B.C.’s treacherous mountain routes and steep icy city streets in winter, would make its maiden (to us) voyage across international borders and ultimately deliver us home after a 12-hour drive from Vancouver, along Stevens Pass in Washington, and up through Osoyoos, Kelowna, and Vernon.