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The Kootenays: Listening for the Echoes of the Past, Part 1

August 10, 2013

Instructions for living a life.  Pay attention.  Be astonished.  Tell about it.

Mary Oliver


Although I have been unable to drag the genesis of it from the cobwebbed recesses of my mind, a few years ago I took a decided interest in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, delving into its colourful history of miners, sternwheelers, internment camps and Doukhobors.  My research became a virtual archaeological dig as I painstakingly sifted through books, websites and online documents. At the time, my intent was to make an extensive visit to the area, and I wanted to understand what I would see.  Although I did manage a couple of daytrips, my work and personal schedules (the tyranny of the urgent) never afforded more.  My current imposed hiatus opened a window of opportunity, but my present pecuniary realities acted as a WOLD (window opening limiting device).  It seems, at least in my own life, that free time and discretionary finances rarely coexist.


The brief history of the region (the first settlement in the area was just slightly over one hundred years ago) is marked by boom and bust.  The mining boom that began in the 1890s and saw a few fortunes made and many dreams worn out, leaving the area dotted with abandoned mines, was over by 1920.  The frenetic railroad construction that accompanied the boom was also short lived, mergers and takeovers reducing the field to a couple of economically viable lines that were soon outstripped by the expansion of road transport.  The glory days of the Kootenay sternwheelers were sunk with the first shot of World War I, and the era essentially came to a close in the 1931 with the completion of the CP rail line between Kootenay Landing and Procter, leaving only a single CP ship to supply the needs of the more remote lake communities for another twenty-odd years.  A very profitable fruit industry developed during the 1920s, but in 1933 the region was plagued with a virus known as “little cherry disease”.  As fruit became a luxury during the Depression and competition from American and Okanagan growers increased, fruit growing in the Kootenays lost its economic viability.  The lumber industry that was instrumental in opening up much of the area declined drastically in the 1990s.


Today the Kootenays are a mecca for tourists attracted by the same natural magnificence of the mountains, lakes and forests that greeted the first settlers and financial opportunists, as well as the timeless appeal of its numerous hot springs.  The Kootenays are inhabited by a multitude of artists and artisans and those espousing alternative lifestyles.  The hippie accoutrements of the 1960s—tie-dyed clothing, psychedelia and Volkswagen Westphalias—still abound.


A friend and I recently decided we both needed a bit of a vacation, and ignoring the hoopla about the jet fuel spill at Lemon Creek, headed for the Kootenays.  Packing the car to its limits, we set out on a Friday from Vernon, traveling through Lumby, over the Monashee Summit to the Needles/Fauquier cable ferry on Lower Arrow Lake, then north along the east shore of the Arrow Lakes to Nakusp.  There we spent a day soaking in the vibrancy of the charming little town with its many unique and interesting shops and people, and soaking in its hot springs.


The next day we headed for New Denver, then tracing what was once the route of the Kaslo and Slocan wagon trail and subsequently the Kaslo and Slocan Railway, both built to haul galena (lead ore containing silver) wrested from the rock of the Selkirk mountains, we twisted our way along the margin of the Kaslo River as it tumbled toward Kootenay Lake.  The mountains and the forest rising skyward enfolded us like the arms of God.  This is the Valley of the Ghosts, so-called for the ghost towns that remained after the many mining camps that popped up like mushrooms from the mycelium of gold, silver and lead deep within the mountains along the route met their demise.  The largest camps—McGuiggan, Zincton, and Retallack—boasted concentrator mills.  But time, fire and scavengers have obliterated almost everything; only a few buildings at Retallack survive to bear witness to the rich mining history of the area. 




In the picturesque village of Kaslo we pitched our tents in the community campground, burgeoning with jazz enthusiasts drawn by the Kaslo Jazz Etc. Summer Music Festival.  We had intended to take in some of the headliners, but the best laid plans of mice and men….   We did, however, thoroughly enjoy the music that wafted from the waterfront stage, especially the odd-time signatures of the Dan Brubeck Band.  We strolled through the town, marveling at the stunning vistas over the fjord-like lake, the clouds run aground on the jagged mountain peaks.


Kaslo boasted a population of about 3000 in the 1890s, but by the middle of the 20th century that number had declined to 700.  It is currently home to just over a thousand souls.  The village has preserved dozens of exceptional examples of residential and commercial Victorian architecture.  The village hall, built in 1898, is one of only two wooden buildings in Canada still in use as a seat of government.  Front Street, the main commercial area along the lake, is dominated by the full-length balconies of the three-storey Kaslo Hotel, originally built in 1896, acquired by the village for non-payment of taxes during the 1920s, used for the internment of about 200 Nesei  (Canadians of Japanese descent) during WW II, burned to the ground in 1950, rebuilt in 1958, and recently renovated to be as close to the original as modern building codes allow.  The Langham Hotel, built in 1896, featured a 25m bar to slake the thirst of local miners.  It too was the site of the internment of Nesei from 1942 to 1945. 


Village Hall

Village Hall

Kaslo Hotel

Kaslo Hotel

Langham Hotel

Langham Hotel

Further down the street rests the CPR’s venerable SS Moyie, the last passenger sternwheeler to operate in Canada, and the oldest intact sternwheeler in the world.  She was named Moyie after a prosperous mining community on the CPR line south of Cranbrook, which in turn got its name from the French word for wet, mouillé.  She was built and launched in Nelson on October 22, 1898, the steel components having been fabricated in Toronto by the Bertram Engine Works, and the hull assembled by team of riveters at the Nelson CPR Shipyard after which carpenters, painters, metalworkers and boilermakers completed the ship.  The locomotive boiler on the lower deck provided steam at 160 psi to the two 16” x 72” single expansion horizontal cylinders that delivered 450 indicated horsepower to turn the paddlewheel, 19’4” in diameter and 17’ wide.  (The specs are for Laurence, with whom I worked as a boilermaker for many years.)  The Moyie cost $41,275 to build, close to a million dollars in today’s economy.


SS Moyie

SS Moyie

Initially she provided passenger service on Canadian Pacific’s Crowsnest Route.  The Moyie could deliver passengers from the rail terminus at Kootenay Landing to trains waiting 55 miles (88 km) at Nelson to carry them westward, in three and a half hours, travelling at 14 miles per hour (22.5 kph), but often enjoyed a more leisurely pace that allowed passengers time to thoroughly enjoy the trip.  Normally she carried 250 passengers, but could accommodate 400.  She was gradually demoted from regular passenger service as newer, faster, larger boats came into service, and based at Procter, she was relegated to providing weekly passenger service to Kaslo, delivering mail, hauling freight such as powder, oil, apples, lumber, coal and ore concentrates, serving as a tug for rail-car barges (transfer barges) to Lardeau and Riondel, and providing relief service for Kootenay Lake’s ferries.  At times she was allowed a return to her salad days, providing dance cruises and pleasure excursions between Nelson or Kaslo and Procter, her superstructure hung with streamers and bunting.  In 1957, at the end of nearly 60 years of faithful service, the Moyie was retired, beached at Kaslo, and sold to the village for $1.00.  


There she languished until restoration began in 1988. The ship has been lovingly restored under the direction of the Kootenay Lake Historical Society to its Victorian opulence of intricate hardwood parquet flooring, oriental carpeting, attractive curtains and drapery, tufted velvet upholstered seating and gold-leaf stenciling on the walls.  The thirteen staterooms had three double and twelve single lower berths, and fourteen single upper berths.  The royal cabin featured full bath including a hardwood-lipped clawfoot bathtub.  The dining saloon with its four tables graced with linens, china, crystal and heavy silverware brought back memories of sumptuous meals in CPR dining cars during my youth.  As meal service was not available on the trains of the time, the 24 seats in the Moyie’s dining saloon were a most welcome feature to travelers.  In 1920, the ship was altered to carry six vehicles on its freight deck.

Sunday, after driving south, then along the north shore of the west arm of Kootenay Lake past Balfour, once home to CP’s luxurious Balfour Hotel, which was converted to a convalescent home for soldiers in 1917, closed in 1920, and demolished in 1929.  We boarded the cable ferry for the 10-minute passage across to the sleepy communities of Harrop and Procter, the latter once the CP ferry/rail terminus where at the slip rail cars were loaded onto three-track barges to cross the lake.  I was anxious to visit, having long wanted to acquaint myself with my namesake town.  Set in a spectacular location on the lakeshore surrounded by mountains and pristine forests that the local residents have tirelessly protected against logging, with Harrop it is now a quiet cottage and retirement community of about 600 with nurseries for the local forests and gardeners.  Procter’s commercial district consists only of a small general store, so needless to say there was nowhere for us to stay there.


At Procter

At Procter

Eschewing the exorbitant long weekend rates of most of the few area hotels that still had available rooms, we settled on a modern spacious cabin looking out over Kootenay Lake and the Purcell range on its far shore in the large resort community on Woodbury Creek, reasoning that the well-equipped kitchen would allow us to cut costs by preparing our own meals.  The resort’s proximity to Ainsworth hot springs was also a definite plus; Monday morning we enjoyed a couple of hours steeping in the pools and the natural steam bath of the caves. 


Having been offered accommodation between Nelson and Castlegar by friends, we headed to Kokanee Creek Provincial Park to meet them, enjoying a pleasant afternoon on the beach before a convivial evening meal on the patio of a Mexican restaurant in Nelson.


Tuesday we boarded the MV Balfour for the 35-minute crossing to Kootenay Bay on the east side of the lake. 


[Note:  At this point on our trip, the unthinkable happened—the LCD screen on my camera ceased to function.  As a consequence, I have no pictures of the balance of the trip.]


Crawford Bay was a delight.  This little community of artisans displays and offers top-of-the-line products and allows the visitor to watch the artisans at work.  At Kootenay Forge I traded ideas on jigs with the blacksmith as he hammered out some candleholders.  We watched the glassblower Chantal Legault-Elias of Blown Away Glass as she developed a goblet; unfortunately it dropped to the floor before it was complete, at which point she declared it was time for lunch.   At FireWorks Copper and Glass I enjoyed a running commentary from an artist as she enamelled some copper jewellery.  Barefoot Handweaving’s straw-bale studio provided a cool respite from the midday heat; the intricate textiles the weavers produced were amazing.  In an old log barn occupied by North Woven Broom a young broom-maker described for us the process of creating traditional corn brooms as he worked.  Unfortunately we simply didn’t have as much time for me to spend as I would have liked.


Near Riondel we visited a yoga retreat, the Yasodhara Ashram, wandering through its expansive grounds on a network of shaded boardwalks, flagstone and gravel paths, and picturesque bridges spanning rivulets trickling over carefully arranged stones.  The paths meandered through orchards, meditation gardens, naturalized flower gardens featuring some plants I had never seen, as well as expansive vegetable gardens.   At a tranquil lily pond goldfish rising from beneath lily pads caught the sun with flashes of vivid orange.  The sparsely furnished domed temple offered a panoramic view of the lake.


We visited Gray Creek Store, operated by the same family for exactly a century, then headed for Pilot Bay lighthouse where we panted our way up the 130-foot (40m) elevation change over the quarter mile trail. At the trailhead we were surprised by the appearance of three elk only a few feet from us and later a browsing Blacktail doe.  The lighthouse was built in 1905 across from Kootenay Lake’s west arm, and was visible on all three arms of the lake for 17 miles (27 km).  Since its decommissioning in 1993, it has been maintained by the community.


We returned to the west side of the lake on the MV Osprey 2000, the larger of the two ferries that ply the lake at this point.  Back at Balfour we were greeted by osprey fledglings perched on the edge of their nest on the superstructure of the wharf.  On our way back to our “residence”, we encountered a small rafter of wild turkeys.  (Yes, rafter is the proper term for a group of turkeys.)

Oftentimes the echoes of the past are loud and clear, cheers of heroism and discovery.  Those are easy to hear, although one must take care to determine if they have become distorted as they traveled through time.  But behind the clamour there are lesser echoes, sometimes so faint as to be almost imperceptible.  These are the echoes of the voices of those who have been trampled by the majority in the rush toward a dream of a future, or broken on the wheel of progress.  To hear those echoes, we must go to quiet places.  On the final two days of our trip we visited two such quiet places.  I will describe my experience of them in my next post.



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