When I was a child, the Kettle Valley Railway sang to me.
That is not how it was, but it is how I remember it.
The truth is far more prosaic. The railway did not sing; it was the engine, and it was not really singing, it whistled. The sound of it, however, as it drifted across Skaha Lake half-a-century ago, sounded like a song to my brother and me, standing on the end of the wharf at our maternal grandparents’ home just outside Okanagan Falls.
We would be up early in the morning to wait for the train, peering towards Kaleden for the first glimpse of it, gleeful when one of us spotted it. (And why is it, I wonder, that young children who groan and complain when being roused from their beds on a school day can be up with the birds during summer while their parents slumber on?)
As the train drew closer to the south end of the lake it would whistle, just opposite where we waited, waving. Little wonder that we thought it was singing to us; it had made nary a sound until that moment, and we were convinced it was responding to our waves, in that way of children, who believe they are the centre of the world.
It was not until many years later, as an adult driving into Okanagan Falls, that I realized the truth. The train, just opposite to my grandparents’ house, was about to cross a trestle and then the highway, and was whistling to warn vehicles of its approach. It made no matter to me. As a character says in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
I was reminded of the singing train when I watched a video of a trip along Highway 3 — the Hope-Princeton — that was shot on July 21, 1966. That was the route we took from our home in Richmond to my grandparents’ house at OK Falls, several times a year, and it was almost as familiar to me as the suburban Richmond streets. Watching the video brought back those trips, with all their roadside attractions and stopping-places — most now long-gone — and the names of places half-forgotten, such as Alison Pass and Sunday Summit (why Sunday, I wondered as a child, out of all the days of the week).
There was the sparkling Similkameen River (and is there a more beautiful, more silk-smooth name than “Similkameen”?), although I tried in vain to spot the site where we used to pull off and picnic; it has been paved over in the decades since. There was the mystery and eeriness of the Hope Slide site, through which the highway used to run, and I would hush as we drove through the awesome jagged piles of boulders and rock.
What there was not, on the video, was the now-legendary sign of a cigarette hanging in a noose, near the site of a long-ago wildfire near Manning Park. I had long been convinced I had seen it with my own eyes, so vivid were my parents’ descriptions of it on every trip, but I had not, as it was taken down in 1963, months before I was born. Memory is a fickle thing.
So fickle, in fact, that I phoned my brother a few days ago, to ask him if he remembered the train singing to us. He did, he assured me. We are probably the only two people on Earth who share that particular memory.
I can see from my grandmother’s visitor books-cum-diaries from The Lake (as we called it) that we had made the journey there only days before that video was made in July 1966, travelling the same route, seeing the same sights. I was two-and-a-half, my brother only two months old, thus both far too young to be on the wharf on Skaha Lake. I am sure that the train was there, however, even though I do not remember it from that trip.
When I was a child, the Kettle Valley Railway sang to me. Sometimes, prompted by a memory, it still does.