BC wildfire blues (and bluegrass)

Four years ago, I spent the summer biking across Western Canada. I left my hometown of Peterborough, ON, on the 28th of May and I arrived in Victoria, BC, three months later to the day.

Along the way I saw some intensely beautiful parts of Canada. Highway 17 as it runs along the shore of Lake Superior on the road from Sault Ste Marie up to Wawa, and again in between Marathon and Terrace Bay, is a spectacular sight to behold, as is the gorgeous Highway 22 running south from Calgary along the borderlands between prairie and mountain, leading to the entry to the towering Crowsnest Pass. The Okanagan Valley’s dry sagebrushed palette was a delight to the eyes, and of course Vancouver Island’s majestic ancient-ness is in a league of its own.

But for me, nothing compared to the wild rolling hills of the Kootenays.

I made steady forward progress throughout my entire trip – until I hit Creston, BC, the entry-point to the Kootenays on the southern Crowsnest Trail. Two weeks later, I arrived back in Creston, having completed a grand loop through the towns of the southern Kootenays. I had visited Nelson four times, as well as Trail, Castlegar, Fruitvale, Rossland, Slocan, Nakusp, and a sublimely beautiful backroad hot springs called Halfway that I wish to God I still knew the location of. I was led there by migrant fruit pickers, mostly Quebecois, who swell the population of the Kootenays and the Okanagan Valley every summer, harvesting the massive fruit crops.

I wonder if Farley Moway ever wrote about the Kootenays. It would take a talent of his magnitude to do them justice.

I mean seriously. Look at this. This is like the dictionary definition of majesty.

I mean seriously. Look at this. This is like the dictionary definition of majesty.

The air was crisply clear and the colours were impossibly vivid and there was a glowing gorgeous vibration in everything. Apparently the area sits overtop a massive deposit of crystals, one of the largest in the world.

I discovered the most perfect stealth camping spot I’ve ever found, precisely three kilometres from Nelson’s Big Orange Bridge (BOB), overlooking Lake Kootenay, which I hope is still there and open to the public:

Precisely three clicks from the BOB, then turn off onto a gravel pullout with a chain across it which says No Trespassing, Private Property. It's a little driveway leading down to a wooden dock and this gorgeous view.

Precisely three clicks from the BOB, then turn off onto a gravel pullout with a chain across it with a sign which says “No Trespassing, Private Property.” It’s a little driveway leading down to a wooden dock and this gorgeous view.

The Kootenays have been on my mind all week. The news about the wildfires ravaging the interior of BC are jarring, and the photos and videos I’ve seen are wrenching.

I mean, look at this! I’m pretty sure I could have had a perfect view from my idyllic campsite:

This is climate change at work, and no doubt about it. And I’ve known for a long time that climate change was going to fuck up large swathes of this earth. But it’s painful seeing it happen to perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

I came across an op-ed in the Nelson Star which encapsulates a lot of what I’m feeling, which asks: “When do we start calling this the apocalypse?“:

[Pope] Francis was on my mind five days after the tree-toppling storm, as I wound down Highway 3A [the most beautiful stretch of road in Canada, bar none] in the direction of a wildfire that had potentially resulted from plentiful lightning.

When I first caught sight of it, I felt like Frodo Baggins gazing horrified into the bowels of Mount Doom. The orange inferno reminded me of some CGI spectacle, and later six-year-old onlooker Oz Meeker agreed with me.

“It looks like a volcano,” he said.

[The writer’s partner] Darby was in my passenger seat, freaking out, as we made our way over. Pictures and videos of the conflagration had proliferated on social media, and I’d decided to rouse myself from my porch-slumber to investigate.

When I met Bob Tremblay he was sitting in the beautifully manicured terrace of his backyard in a lawn chair. Approximately two kilometres uphill he watched as row by row, the flames descended the slope towards him.

It was an eerie sight, one I won’t soon forget, seeing him alone in the shadows and surrounded by the meagre water-spitting of five or six sprinklers.

If Mother Nature wanted to barrel through his property, there wasn’t much he could do about it…

Kaslo author Mandy Bath, when I interviewed her at the Johnson’s Landing slide earlier this year, told me that more and more of these natural disasters are coming our way. In her memoir Disaster in Paradise she illustrates two main things: it can happen to anyone, and our emergency response plans are woefully inadequate.

Talking to people living under this evacuation alert, families who are trying to decide what to bring along when they flee, I’m realizing that this stuff isn’t hypothetical anymore. It couldn’t be closer to home—I can literally see the smoke from my porch under Elephant Mountain.

And I’m not the only person who feels this way.

“I’ve always considered Nelson to be the perfect place to bunker down and ride out the apocalypse,” wrote Nelson resident Stevland Ambrose online. “But this week I am starting to reconsider.”

My thoughts are with all of the people of British Columbia and Saskatchewan who are affected by these unprecedentedly massive wildfires. Here’s hoping that in the end, the damage to forests and wildlife and people’s homes isn’t as bad as it looks like it might wind up being.

All of which is a pretty big downer.

So here’s some catchy music to pick y’all up, a toe-tappin’ bluegrass classic by the incomparable Bill Monroe and his boys. If this is the soundtrack of the apocalypse, then at least we’ll go down dancing.

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