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Bridge River: Green water, aging assets & a long commute

Weekly four-hour commutes the norm for crews working remote area

As the crow flies, Lajoie Dam & Powerhouse is almost exactly 200 kilometres from Brandon Ingraham's Langley home. But until crows start training as electrical technologists or earning engineering degrees, the BC Hydro crews at Lajoie and other parts of the remote Bridge River system face circuitous commutes over infamous gravel roads to get to work.

The Hurley. The Highline. Mission Mountain.

Ingraham takes a four-hour drive each Monday morning through Whistler and Pemberton and over the tricky Highline route, a narrow gravel road that clings to the steep mountainside above Anderson Lake. He returns home each Thursday evening via Lillooet, Lytton and the Trans Canada Highway, so that he can avoid traffic on two Vancouver-area bridges.

For everyone except the local guy on the crew – Gold Bridge resident Troy Van Loon – working on projects in BC Hydro's aging Bridge River system is a four-days-on, three-days-off routine from homes far away, ranging from Vancouver to Lumby in the B.C. Interior.

But somehow, it works.

"I'm a mechanical engineer, and the equipment in the Bridge River system is from the late 1940s to late 1950s range," says Ingraham. "So a lot of our equipment is very interesting, old mechanical parts. From your classic nerdy engineer's standpoint, Bridge River is an interesting place to work."

Map showing Bridge River system
BC Hydro's Bridge River system of hydroelectric generation starts at Downton Reservoir north of Pemberton and finishes at Seton Dam & Powerhouse - and the Fraser River - near Lillooet.

First Bridge powerhouse was biggest in BC Hydro system in 1946

Responsible for about 6% of BC Hydro's total generation, the Bridge River system generates enough electricity to power the equivalent of 300,000 homes a year. Glacier fed, the Bridge River's emerald waters run through two reservoirs and a lake, generating power at four powerhouses, including Bridge 1, which was B.C.'s largest source of electricity when it started operating in 1946.

With powerhouse components past their 50-year best-before date, the list of planned upgrades in the system includes more than 100 projects. Between 2015 and 2019, we're spending almost $400 million on the system, whose proximity to the Lower Mainland provides the entire BC Hydro system with the flexibility to operate more efficiently.

The system is a bit of an engineering marvel, with two 2,500-metre tunnels drilled through Mission mountain – to bring water from Carpenter Lake Reservoir to two powerhouses in a neighbouring valley at Seton Lake at the top of the list. Bridge generation operations manager Jim Coles got to tour one of the pitch-black tunnels during a shutdown and inspection in the summer of 2015.

"It's amazing they drilled this tunnel back in the 1940s with the technology they had," says Coles. "They started building the tunnel from both ends, and when they met up in the middle, they were within half an inch. It's mind-boggling. Today, we barely get that kind of resolution with laser alignment."

A beautiful place to visit, an interesting place to work

A former junior hockey standout from Ontario, Ingraham arrived at BC Hydro as part of the engineer-in-training program and was immediately off to the Bridge River Valley, an area once known for its gold mines but now a sparsely-populated destination for outdoors enthusiasts.

Bighorn sheep and mountain goats are frequently spotted on roads, and snow-capped peaks dot the landscape. The area's Tyax Lodge isn't just famous for its float-plane access to a stunning location on Tyaughton Lake, it's a bucket-list destination for mountain bikers across the world. If the closed-for-winter forest services road known as the Hurley Highway north of Pemberton was an easier 74 kilometres, a lot more of us would be sampling the wonders of the Bridge River Valley. For now, you can celebrate your successful drive on the rough but scenic gravel road by buying an "I survived the Hurley" tee shirt.

Ingraham's focus these days is on repairs to water passages that link the Lajoie powerhouse near Gold Bridge to the waters of Downtown reservoir on the other side of the Lajoie dam. In the future, the dam itself will undergo seismic upgrades, which will allow BC Hydro to store more water in Downton, which at its current lower water levels can't deliver the pressure required for the powerhouse to reach its full 22-megawatts of capacity.

The dam is old enough that its "face", the wall that holds back the water of the reservoir, is covered in wood. But that wood began to leak, so "shotcrete", a thin layer of concrete sprayed over the wood, is reapplied every few years.

The intake tower at Lajoie Dam, where water from Downton Reservoir runs through a powerhouse and continues through the Bridge River Valley to form Carpenter Lake Reservoir. Show caption
Water running through Lajoie Dam & Powerhouse meanders through the valley before forming Carpenter Lake Reservoir. Show caption
The green glacial waters of the Bridge River continue below Terzaghi Dam, which holds water back to form Carpenter Lake Reservoir, the source of water – via two tunnels through a mountain – for two powerhouses on Seton Lake in a neighbouring valley. Show caption
Gun Creek campground, a free-camping BC Hydro recreation site on Carpenter Lake, is a popular destination for outdoors enthusiasts including mountain bikers and hikers. Show caption
Water pipes, known as penstocks, run 1,000 feet down Mission Mountain to feed Bridge Powerhouse No. 2, one of two powerhouses fed by penstocks that are fed by water-bearing tunnels running through the mountain from Carpenter Lake Reservoir. Show caption
Lighter green glacial water, originating from Carpenter Lake Reservoir, flows out of  Bridge 2 Powerhouse on Seton Lake. Show caption
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BC Hydro crews form 'sense of family' on Bridge system

The four-days on, three-days off lifestyle of work at Bridge River appeals to many crew members, who make the most of living at a remote location away from family and friends.

Ingraham says there's a "special kind of family atmosphere" that comes not only from working together, but also from staying at BC Hydro's townsite at Seton Lake, near the Bridge 1 and Bridge 2 powerhouses. Crew members can go for a remote hike along a mountain ridge, or fish for rainbow trout, kokanee or sturgeon on Seton Lake Reservoir.

"It's a great crew – really nice people," he says. "The reasons people leave here are the obvious ones, like when you have kids and you want to be around your family more. But they don't really leave because of a lack of work – it's a really happy crew that's built a special kind of family atmosphere."

Troy Van Loon is part of that family, but he's the one guy who loves the remoteness of the area enough to live full time in Gold Bridge – just a 5-minute drive from Lajoie Dam. A machinist by trade who became a sub-foreman with BC Hydro, Van Loon actually grew up then raised his own daughter at Gold Bridge, which along with nearby Bralorne, produced enough gold in the 1930s to almost singlehandedly drive the southern B.C.'s economy during the Depression.

Once home to thousands, Gold Bridge and Bralorne now have only about 50 year-round residents between them. And that's exactly why Van Loon enjoys the area so much. He's a former logger who first joined BC Hydro as a guy skilled enough to dangle from the top of the Lajoie Dam on ropes to apply that shotcrete to the dam face. And as a BC Hydro worker in an area without phone service, he can be rather "popular" at times.

"I don't wear my gang colours to town during a power outage," he says with a laugh.

Like so many people in Gold Bridge, he wears multiple hats, as a 24/7 BC ambulance worker, a member of the volunteer fire department and as the guy who helped set up the Wi-Fi service in a town where a wooden population sign on an entry road rarely changes.

"It's gone up or down one or two in the last 10 years, maybe," he says, of the sign. "The paint fades before the number changes."

See also:

Former gold rush town Bralorne wants better Wi-Fi (and you)