Kootenays B.C. By Irene Butler
Pics by Rick
Life in the Kootenay Rockies, we have been told, is like going back in time to a quieter, more rural existence exemplified by shops closing early to allow for family time, local-collective sustainability, and loads of community spirit; with time to spare for easy-going hospitality to visitors. We were anxious to experience the Kootenays.
But first things first; we found ourselves heading west from Kelowna, backtracking to witness first hand a prototype of the Vertical Axis Wind Turbine still in the testing stages at Sea Bird First Nations near Agassiz. (See Rick’s blog of June 29/04 “Wind energy has been around, well, forever.”) We were not in any hurry to leave this tranquil community resting by clear waters, and watched over by the only snow-laden mountain as far as the eye can see.
The day is still young as we turn Emili eastward once again and drive as far as a place deserving of its name; Merritt. The copper dome of the Coldwater Hotel drew us like a magnet. Opening its doors in 1909, this fifty-five room lodging with saloon and restaurant catered in the early years to coal miners, and now to saw mill workers, cattle ranchers and tourists. Country music lovers make their way to the Annual Country Music Festival in July, which earned Merritt the Country Music Capitol of Canada designation. Rick sent me in to check out a room. Hmmm, no reservation desk. At the restaurant I was directed to the pub where the old patterned tin ceilings remain in their original glory. In between mixing rye and coke and filling frosty glasses with beer on tap, I was passed a key and headed up well-worn stairs. Upon opening the door to room #5, I was transported back in time; a faded bedspread, a small table with the centre worn by innumerable late-night poker games, patched seats on chrome-legged chairs, and a first issue of bathroom fixtures. A clank followed by a hum brought my attention to a rounded-corner fridge behind the door. If I squinted, the years of wear and tear became invisible; my imagination swirled with the history of patrons who came through this same door. The only drawback to our stay was the near 100 years of smoke that permeated every square inch. I prompted the chortle of the day being silly enough to ask if they had a non-smoking room. Off we went to the Prince Motel. But we were not about to miss the Coldwater Hotel’s “rancher’s special” breakfast the next morning. The full-throated strains of Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” filled the air. Cheery staff called out personal greetings to a dozen locals, mostly blue-collared workers who were soon downing coffee and eggs. Much kibitzing went on with the servers, coming around like clock-work every five minutes with java refills and quick retorts. We were soon part of the jaw-wagging. The unpretentious citizens of Merritt made us feel right at home everywhere we went.
Though we passed through the city of Revelstoke many times in the past, we had never stopped for a Dam tour, no pun intended. As the guide lead us about, I thought, no use crying over past ecological damage with its construction; at least it is a non-polluting source of energy in British Columbia. The fast flowing rivers charging down mountainsides require no fossil fuels to supplement the power to the generators. On a large model a bulb represented each dam in the Columbia River basin including following the Columbia to the Pacific through the United States. It was shocking to learn there are a total of 97 dams, lighting up the mock-up like a Yule tree. Conservation and micro-stations will increasingly be of great importance.
The temperature hit 30 degrees Celsius. The snow-packed peaks in all directions had a faux cooling affect as we walked about Revelstoke’s town central. The funky cherry red, gold and melon walls of the Woolsey Creek Cafe drew us in. Once inside the royal blue ceiling with a large world map in earth colors in the centre; a choice of sofas or wooden chairs to indulge in the night’s specials brought us to a state of inertia. Wonderfully satiated on wild salmon with lemon dill sauce and all the trimmings, we meandered down by the river to Centennial Park. Campers and tents dotted the roadsides and beaches. Soon in the groove of swaying to zingy jazz from the Annual Jazz Festival in full swing under the big-top, it was dark before we could pull ourselves away for the long walk back to our current home, the Colonial Motel.
As luck would have it, the next morning was Saturday and the weekly market was in progress along the main street. Stocking up on hand-made soaps and a freshly baked strawberry and rhubarb pie, we headed off to meet our son, Rob, and his partner, Glenda, who were anxious to show us their Kootenay favourites. Since we had both been incommunicado for a week, the plan was to meet at Halcyon Hot Springs Resort at 2:00 p.m. and if either party could not make it, or would be detained, a message was to be phoned in to the Resort desk.
The rendezvous went off without a hitch. After a delicious lunch at Halcyon, which has every amenity possible, we followed the kids back up Hwy #6 for a short distance to the smaller Coyote Springs Resort; consisting of about 4 RV lots, 10 tenting spots, two small cabins and a tepee, plenty of outdoor biffies, pool, small gift shop and an Integrated Body Therapies Centre all developed and operated by proprietors, Robert and Margaret Ann. Our progeny informed us they had the tepee booked, which was an exciting first for us. Lots of room for four; a double bed for us old folks, an additional air-mattress Rob and Glenda had set up earlier for themselves, a wood-stove in the centre, though stoking it up would not be necessary with the scorching temperature. The tepee had a raised wood floor; with an outer canvas around the tepee poles, and an inner liner pulled tight to the half-way mark, then draping in an inward fold with the ends still secured above.
As soon as we threw our gear inside, and gingerly hung the pie from the middle of the tent, we were off to one of the best kept secrets of the Kootenays – a remote, undeveloped hot springs approximately 11 kilometres down Halfway road, then down an unmarked steep incline even a 4 x 4 is taxed not to get hung up on. The last 1000 feet can only be reached by descending a steep, rocky incline on foot. Still unable to don any shoe coming in contact with my broken toe, I made it down in my sandals at a snail’s pace.
A turbulent glacial stream swirling over boulders; steaming mineral-laden water seeping from the cliff-side rocks; nature in the raw. Some industrious people, wanting to trap the hot spring water before it mixed with the cold stream had built up a series of rock barriers to hold back the flow. In other places sheets of plastic had been strategically placed to catch the piping-hot windfall in make-shift pools. We staked out a spot by an eight foot barricaded section. The water temperature felt scalding. Someone had conveniently left a five gallon bucket on the barrier rim. After transferring eight pails of icy stream water to the other side, we lowered ourselves into liquid bliss. The top two inches caught most of the runoff from the spring, so we had to constantly swirl the water to keep from cooking our hides and every so often bucket in more cold water. Wild and wonderful – after several hours we clambered up to the vehicle on jello-legs. Upon arriving back at the tepee, after a hamburger and fries supper at Nakusp Leland Hotel, we traipsed over to try out the Coyote Hot Springs Pool, though our skin was still shrivelled from the first soak. Immersing ourselves into the 44 degree Celsius (112 degree Fahrenheit) water of the 6 X 12 pool sunk into a wood deck, open to the mid-night sky brilliant with stars was exquisite.
A bonfire seemed like a great way to end an awesome day. Ready to dig into the strawberry and rhubarb pie, we found it had fallen to the tepee floor with large chunks missing. We were a whisker away from indulging in the ambrosial treat as our eyes followed Rick placing the remains in the garbage. Squirrel whiskers probably, we thought, remembering seeing some scampering around the site. Bushed from all the fresh air and hot soaks and being after midnight, we were more than ready to turn in. Lights out precipitated the sound of scurrying feet across the tepee floor. Lights on revealed a fat furry animal about 9″ long and weighting in at about 1/2 pounds staring at us beside the entrance. We were stumped; ears like a mole, definitely not a squirrel or chipmunk, long tail like a rat except it was covered with short fur. And there were more than one. They used the fold between the outer canvas and the draped inner liner of the tepee like the Indy 500, circling at breakneck speed. Pounding on the canvas ushered in quietness for about twenty minutes; just long enough for us to dose off before the race was on again, or another, “Ahhhh, man,” escaped Rob’s lips as he let another shoe fly at one sprinting across the floor in a vain effort to scare the vermin off. One brazen little fellow stuck his head over the rim of the inner canvas twitching his whiskers and rolling his beady eyes at Rob before ducking out of sight as a water bottle came flying.
“Last year we stayed in this same tepee and nothing like this ever happened,” Glenda lamented.
“But this time you are camping with us,” I responded thinking of our track record for “camping incidents”.
Lots of hysterical laughter but not much sleep until the obviously nocturnal creatures went off shift at sunrise. Margaret Ann called them pack rats; Robert, her partner called them bush rats, adding they were vegetarians so they would not have been tempted to chomp on us; which ever, they sure packed a bushel of discombobulation. We omitted mentioning the critters were only after maintaining their sugar high. Rob and Glenda left for home later that day, while we stayed another night at Coyote Campground for a wonderfully uneventful night in our tent.
After packing our gear, a half-hour drive brought us to Nakusp for a superior chai tea at “What’s Brewing on Broadway”. Carrying on to New Denver, we walked the streets of the once bustling mining town with more heritage buildings than people. We found the sign, “The New Denver Mall” titillating; being no more than a 1000 square foot Victorian style building. Over the creek is a memorial to the thousands of Japanese Canadians who were interned here during WWII as “Enemy Aliens”. Several kilometres down a gravel road off of Hwy # 31 we found the fascinating ghost town of Sandon. In 1892, boasting a population of 5,000, we scanned the remains of hotels, bordellos, churches, and shops in varying condition. We made it as far as Kaslo before nightfall, another quaint town that typically shuts down early, encouraging us to eat first and look later. Down by Kooetnay Lake is the resting spot for the S.S. Moyie, the oldest surviving sternwheeler of its kind in the world; built in 1896 and serving the area for almost 60 years. A whirlwind of a day; tomorrow we have a specific place in mind to tarry.
Wading through the dim lit caves in 39 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) waters, we peered in awe at nature’s artistry of mineral deposits glinting on the wet walls, the stalactites on the ceiling dripping from condensation, and found the source of the naturally heated spring waters gushing from a crevice in the rocks. Leaving the echoing tunnels for a quick cool-down in the small pool spilling water (13 degrees Celsius – 57 degrees Fahrenheit) from the creek nearby set our skin a-ting-a-ling. Luxuriating in the warmth of the large pool at the foot of the caves, we gazed at the spectacular vista of Kootenay Lake gleaming in the sun; forested hills backed by the snowy peaks of the Purcell Mountains jutting into the azure sky punctuated with drifting puffs of cloud; ahhhh, we have arrived at Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort.
These waters have been a source of pleasure since early times. Native Indians migrating to the area each year for the Kokanee salmon run and to pick the ripened Huckleberry so abundant in the area no doubt rejuvenated tired muscles at the day’s end. In 1882, George Ainsworth began the town site catering to silver, lead and zinc mines in the area. It was the bone-weary miners who enlarged the caves to increase the flow of water from the springs. Ten cents could buy you a swim in the first pool built in the 1930’s.
The 43 room resort hotel was built in 1987 and has been continually updated. The fabulous wild salmon fillet with white wine pear sauce, stuffed potato and perfectly crisp seasoned vegetables is the meal that rates a big 9 on our “Hobbit-Worthy 1 to 10 Restaurant Rating System“. This great vacation retreat, open 365 days a year, is geared for everyone’s enjoyment. Located between Kaslo and Nelson on Hwy #31, in the midst of the vast playgrounds of three provincial parks, and also three 18-hole golf courses nearby, it is a great destination to wind down. (See Rick’s blog of June 29th/04 for particulars on alternative energy at Ainsworth.)
Leaving the comforts of Ainsworth, we took the Harrop Cable Ferry across the west arm of Kootenay Lake thinking we could get to Crawford Bay from the other side. Best not to use a fun map for minute details; we crossed back on the Harrop Ferry and drove north to the ferry that leaves from Balfour. An array of studios with artisans at work, flood the small village of Crawford Bay. Untrimmed brooms, trimmed brooms, flat brooms, brooms, brooms of every description were born before our very eyes with the best quality raw broomcorn. North Woven Broom had the prestigious task of turning out 250 brooms for the launching of the 5th book in the Harry Potter’s Series in Canada by Raincoast Books. One unique sweeper was sent to J.K. Rowling. In folklore, brooms were used to sweep away evil and bad fortune, and a new broom brought good luck making it a common housewarming or wedding gift in days gone by.
Thump, thump is heard from the traditional looms outside on the porch of Barefoot Handweaving. Upon entering the shop filled with beautifully patterned garments and tableware fashioned from the woven fabric, the coolness of the interior registered in the 30+ degree Celsius day. A glass covered port-hole reveals the secret coolant. But a huff and a puff won’t blow this house down; the adobe interior and exterior walls are filled with a foot of packed straw insulation.
Breathless Glass, Fireworks Copper and Glass and Kootenay Forge are just some of the other amazing shops where you can meet the makers as they craft their specialties.
Our next detour off Hwy 3A was the Glass House. Six hundred thousand square bottles from embalming fluid held together with cement and wire was designed by the owner, the late David Brown. For those who wish to calculate the morbid details, each body requires between 2 and 4 bottles of embalming fluid, depending on the deceased person’s size. Mr. Brown, who was himself in the funeral profession for thirty-five years, did not save all the bottles himself, but had friends in the same business, put them aside for him. After retiring in 1952 he began construction of this two storey home, with total area of 1,200 square feet of floor space. He then continued to build fence terraces, and a 35-foot observation tower with the bottles. How’s that for recycling. Mrs. Brown still lives here during the winter, and the home is open to the curious from May to October.
As we came over the rise overlooking Creston Valley, a panoramic view unfurled before us; lush farmlands, the tail-end of Kootenay Lake and the blue waters of Duck Lake, framed by the Selkirk Range on one side and the Purcell on the other. A good place to catch up on my writing, and when home-style cooking was in order, we were doted on by Sketch, the veteran server at the Rendezvous Restaurant. Flying around on her self-proclaimed “waitressing since ’85” legs, Shirley Sketchly doled out smiles and witty remarks in equal proportions.
A thunderstorm erupted as we pulled intoKimberley; British Columbia’s little Bavaria. It did not stop us from our mission of filling up on wiener schnitzel, beer and apple strudel at Mozart House Restaurant situated in the Platzl or gathering place. Hail and relentless rain the next day sent us rolling east towards the Alberta border.
The Kootenays are better than I could ever have imagined in pristine beauty and down-to-earth neighbourliness. We hope some of the wonderful traits of the slower pace of life rub off on us and we leave a little more “kootnified”. KUDOS TO THE KOOTNEYS.
Irene & Rick