I moved to Vancouver years ago, but until recently I didn’t realize I lived next door to a Hollywood legend. In the timeless 1981 action flick Rambo, Sylvester Stallone goes on a rampage in a ruggedly beautiful mountain town, blowing it to smithereens. That town is Hope, British Columbia, an otherwise unassuming pit stop on the edge of the Cascade Mountains. I poked around Hope recently for this article published in British Columbia Magazine.
By Remy Scalza for British Columbia Magazine
(For the magazine version with photos, click here: Finding Hope)
The first face to greet me when I walk into the tiny Hope Museum on a sunny spring afternoon is Sly Stallone’s – staring back with a fierce snarl. He’s carrying an automatic weapon of considerable size and flexing his pecs on a vintage movie poster for Rambo: First Blood.
“What can I say? He brings in the crowds,” says Inge Wilson, the friendly manager of the museum and visitor centre. It turns out Hope – the otherwise law-abiding community at the confluence of the mighty Fraser and Coquihalla Rivers in southwestern British Columbia – is the very same town Rambo wiped off the map in the 1982 action movie. The gas station he blew up, the sheriff’s office he blasted and the canyon walls he clung to for dear life now highlight a popular walking tour.
“Of course, we’re a lot more than that,” clarifies Wilson, who moved to Hope with her husband fresh out of university nearly 30 years ago. “If you want to enjoy small town life and outdoor recreation, this is the place.” She’s right. Often dismissed as a highway pit stop for travelers bound for interior B.C., Hope – on closer inspection – proves anything but.
Outside the museum, a neat grid of streets marks the cozy downtown, which shows no lingering signs of Rambo’s wrath. Motels with vintage neon signs, a single-screen movie theatre and even a vintage bowling alley line Wallace Street, the main drag. Kids romp on jungle gyms in Memorial Park, while parents chat on benches flanked by outsized wooden carvings of bears, cougars and wolves.
It’s mother nature, however, that really steals the show. The broad Fraser River flanks the town, tempting river rafters and fishermen and sometimes churning right over its banks. Meanwhile, the brooding peaks of the Cascade and Coast Mountains glower down from above – imposing massifs wreathed in ice and snow much of the year.
To experience Hope’s natural splendor – and some fascinating history – I take a short drive to the Othello Tunnels, located just outside town in Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park. The five tunnels – stretching more than a mile – were built as part of the Kettle Valley Railway in the early 1900s. Trains have long stopped running, but the tunnels remain a popular attraction for hikers. The backdrop is dizzying: Sheer rock walls rise on one side of the tracks, while the Coquihalla River churns on the other, carving its way deeper into the twisting canyon.
Daylight dims to darkness as I enter the first of the tunnels. Inside, voices echo off the rock walls and icy water drips from the ceiling. I stumble on, guided by the headlamps and flashlights of other, smarter hikers. The tunnel finally opens to a trestle bridge, perched high above the Coquihalla. Swollen with runoff, the river rages against its granite banks, sending up a chill mist.
For another fascinating chapter of Hope history, I drive north along the Fraser River to the tiny nearby town of Yale. During the heyday of the 1858 Fraser Gold Rush, Yale was home to 30,000 people, mainly miners hoping to strike it rich. Today, the population has dwindled to a few hundred people, but Historic Yale, a block of heritage buildings, recalls the bygone boom town.
I step inside an 1870s-era home and am greeted by a guide dressed as an old-time sheriff. He’s carrying a plastic rifle and wearing a bowler hat, silk vest and – incongruously – Nike runners. We head outside where a ring of canvas tents has been set up to recreate the hardscrabble lives of miners. Inside the saloon tent, unfinished drinks and poker hands are laid out on the table.
But the guilty highlight at Historic Yale is the sasquatch exhibit. Hope and the surrounding area – to the delight of local conspiracy buffs – has had more than its share of sasquatch sightings over the years. The hairy giant – close cousin to Bigfoot – was spotted most famously in September 1941 at nearby Ruby Creek. Plaster-cast footprints, photos and even a documentary video called Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science round out the display.
Well versed in Hope’s past and supernatural wonders, I head back into town for some R&R. I’m staying at the Kw’o:kw’e:hala eco retreat, a cluster of rustic cabins on the banks of the Coquihalla River. My particular cabin, a cute three-by-four-meter number, dates from 1923 (It was built by a railway worker to house his wife and, get this, five daughters). Outside, organic fruits and veggies – featured as part of scrumptious meals – are grown in the garden. Apart from the murmur of the Coquihalla River, the scene is splendidly silent.
Worn out from a day exploring, I head toward the river and slip into the retreat’s unique wood-burning hot tub, a big barrel with a wood stove inside that looks like an 1800s version of a Jacuzzi. Owner Sue VandeVelde-Savola, a self-described flower child whose family has lived on this land for generations, stops by to fill me in on the local history. Because of Hope’s proximity to the U.S. border, it was a haven for hippies and draft dodgers in the ‘60s, she says. These days, visitors come seeking a different kind of refuge. “Look around you – You’ve got so much natural beauty, and yet we’re so close to Vancouver that you can pop in for the weekend.”
For a glimpse of Hope’s wild side, the next morning I drive due west out of town on Flood Hope Road. I’m bound for the Skagit Valley, a vast tract of untouched wilderness that embraces a 28,000-hectare provincial park and stretches across the U.S. border into northern Washington. But along the way, I make a quick detour to the home and studio of one of the town’s better-known residents.
“Rule number one in this business – Don’t cut yourself,” says chainsaw carver Pete Ryan. Dozens of Ryan’s monolithic masterpieces – bears, mountain lions and eagles hacked from tree trunks – line Hope’s streets, prompting the town’s designation as chainsaw carving capital of Canada. His small studio is filled with a veritable wooden menagerie – museum-quality pieces whose prices top out in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Today, he’s in the midst of putting the finishing touches on a set of bears. “It takes me about a month to do the big guys,” says Ryan, who’s covered from head to toe in sawdust, with chips of wood in his beard. I watch as grabs a die grinder and coaxes a grizzly’s menacing mug from a block of cedar.
Not far from the studio, I pick up Silver Skagit Road, an unpaved, potholed track that parallels the foaming Silverhope Creek. Signs of civilization disappear as the road plunges deeper and deeper into the wilderness. After a bumpy, half-hour drive, I stop and hit the trail, striking out for remote Eaton Lake in a high mountain valley. The path climbs steeply through old growth forest, inexplicably spared from the logger’s saw. I switch back and forth alongside a thundering creek and arrive, breathless, at a waterfall. A rainbow of mist erupts at the base, where ferns and moss grow in luxuriant profusion.
It’s a stirring scene. There’s just one tiny problem. Spring runoff has washed out the only bridge across the creek. Nearby, I notice a single, fallen tree spanning the rapids. I can see the trail on the other side. My Rambo instincts kick in. I put one foot on the trunk, then another, and take a step forward. Covered with moss, the log is as slick as ice. Very quickly, I reconsider. Better to leave the lake for another day and get my action-hero fix back in Hope on the walking tour.