A Bridge called Betty

A new bridge at Wild Bear Lodge

A Bridge called Betty

Even before we bought the 80 acre strip of land across from the ranch a few years back we used to worry about the structure that provides for its only access.

An old Bailey bridge designed for getting British tanks across middle European rivers, it had somehow ended up in the Canadian bush serving the needs of loggers and miners.

But after years of neglect, the 100 foot structure was hardly a bright shining object. Dull and browned by rust, she also had a noticeable and worrying droop in the middle.

When Ben Fogle stepped onto the bridge last spring during a shoot for his episode of New Lives in the Wild, the cameraman panned down to its rotten timbers to underline its titillating precariousness.

Shamed that our bridge should be shown to the world in such poor colours, we determined to do what we could to bring the old lady back to her best.

Remarkably a bridge engineer I brought up for the day gave her basic structure – her skeleton, if you will – a clean bill of health.

It seems that the military engineers of the mid 20th century knew what they were doing when it came to moving men and materiel eastwards.

Amid all the jargon on the engineer’s report there were also a few recommendations.

One called for a slow speed when crossing in a heavy vehicle, another for a lick of paint to prevent further corrosion, and the third insisted on a new wooden deck.

We ignored the first one and postponed the second, but decided to embrace the third.

This spring, even before the snow had fully melted, we brought in a local team of carpenters and workers who attacked the old girl with chainsaws and nail guns. A small excavator helped out.

A week later Betty the Bailey Bridge had a beautiful, new wooden deck, sturdy enough for us to lead even the most timorous of our guests safely to the other side.

And that, our bank account dictated, should have been it for new infrastructure this year. But there was one more project I just couldn’t bear to postpone any longer: my long-dreamed-of airstrip.

I had been umming and ahhing over the location of a runway ever since we bought the ranch a dozen years ago. My original plan was to cut it out of the middle of the garden, with an approach over the river.

The land available was a bit short but Charlie Russell, a long-time friend and fellow bear aficionado, helpfully suggested stretching out a sturdy net at one end to help with braking.

Kristin nixed the idea of that location, and laughed scornfully when I mentioned the net. She said she thought I might take out a guest cabin or embarrass myself in some other kinetic way.

So I spent endless hours on Google Earth looking at approach angles, elevations and the merits and flaws of other possibilities.

One I looked at was too short, another had a mountain at both ends, the third was flooded every year by the river.

But finally, in this land of endless mountains and trees, I found one possible spot on the western end of our new property.

And so, after much thumb-sucking, I asked Ron, a neighbour and old-timer with some veteran but serviceable machinery, if he was up for the job.

A month ago, the diggers moved in. Ron hauled out an old D8 bulldozer and an oily yellow excavator. He inched them across a groaning Betty. He corralled Jim, another long-retired neighbour to help him.

And last week, after endless bush-clearing, earth moving, levelling and dealing with one particularly ornery slab of rock that ripped open the bucket on one of Ron’s machines, the job was done.

Admittedly the strip has a decent kink in the middle, some large poplar trees at one end, and a mountain at the other. But it is 1,200 feet long, almost smooth and fairly flat.

All I need now is to find a plane that can land on it. And I have an idea. Another creature of the depths of the Cold War, this one built in 1953.

Stay tuned.