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Small-Town B.C.: Sheer Heaven
(2016 - Spring Issue)

Writer: Sean Arthur Joyce

Renowned economist E.F. Schumacher said “small is beautiful” and the revitalized small towns of B.C. prove it.

Whether it’s the alpine ski lodge feel of Rossland, Kimberley nestled lovingly in the shadow of the Rockies, the Victorian heritage time capsule of Nelson, the crisp perfection of Golden in the cradle of the Columbia River, or the moonlit glacial quiet of the Slocan Valley, people who live here value quality over quantity. Banff is a natural gateway to the magnificent landscapes and cultural diversity of the Columbia Basin, encompassing both the East and West Kootenay regions.

I crossed Canada to tour a book in 2014 and I can tell you, it was such a relief to come back to towns that had one or more coffee roasters and offered sumptuous organic food in restaurants. If you don’t believe me, eat lunch at the Frog Peak Café in South Slocan. It may be the only time in my life I’ve had what I could describe as gourmet organic salad that passed every test—artistic appeal, incredible taste and fresh as if it were plucked straight from the garden. And coffee. On my tour I tasted espresso from Nanaimo to Brockville, Ontario, and can say with confidence the best coffee in Canada is made in the Columbia Basin. Kootenay Coffee, Oso Negro, Kicking Horse—the list goes on, blessedly. A list as long as the indie brewers who stoked the craft beer revival of the early 1990s, not least among them the Nelson Brewing Company.

Backwoods, But Not Backwards

No matter what you’ve heard—from the upper arm of the golden Columbia to the village ski and arts mecca on our eastern boundary, Fernie—this is not Hicksville, folks. You’re as likely to find a retired PhD living here as a Rastafarian. In many ways the place is a natural melting pot. It mellows people. Although I grew up in this country, nowadays most of the residents I meet are from elsewhere. Quite often they come disenchanted from frenetic urban lives, having hit some personal nadir and needing to renew themselves deeply. And often, of necessity for health and sanity, that means slowing down. Others find it’s the only stable base of community that allows their creative pursuits to thrive. People here believe in living their lives holistically but intensely. For as many musicians, writers and artists as you’ll meet, you’ll find just as many manic snowboarders and extreme skiers and businesspeople with innovative new ideas for greening the economy.

It’s no surprise the 100 Mile Diet concept was well supported here. In fact, compared to a century ago, the Kootenays are more dependent upon food imports now than ever. But with the revival of farmers’ markets, that ship is slowly turning around. Many can now buy all their summer vegetables at local markets, formerly the domain of trinkets and T-shirts. No one at these markets needs a label that says “organic.” Groups like the Healthy Community Society in New Denver, located on Slocan Lake in the sparkling shadow of the glacier, sponsor gardening and home-canning workshops, teach kids at the local school how to germinate and grow plants, and have Métis plant collector Eloise Charet take them on forest walks to learn how indigenous people survived in such an environment. In these communities, your neighbours are as often four-legged and winged as they are using that blasted leaf blower again. Silence is sacred here, as sacred as celebration. On occasion we get a little bit noisier and let loose the electric guitar players to make us dance through the night at Silverton’s annual Winter Blues Boogie where only two or three times in 24 years have there been any incidents requiring police intervention. Tell me that vibe isn’t worth gold if you’re from the inner city.

Turning Gold into Gold, Heart into Art

What first welcomes us to any town or city is its architecture—a palimpsest of form, mass and colour. It’s probably the first story a city tells us about itself. Though that may be less true in country villages, where architecture was historically a luxury reserved for corporate bosses in big towns. A miner’s pay wasn’t going to get you Victorian spindles. Larger towns—Nelson, Cranbrook and Revelstoke—were the locus for late-Victorian and early arts-and-crafts architecture while villages have had to make do with a kind of “Kootenay-alpine” or restored late 19th-century mining-boom look. Rossland has a lovely mix of both alpine and heritage. In an age that has an obsession with the new, it takes a certain capacity for reflection to not just bulldoze something because it’s old. Obviously I’m not forming the Society for the Protection of Sheds here, but why take down a 1900-era church or courthouse lovingly designed in Kootenay marble or granite?

Nelson’s savvy mid-1980s mayor Tex Mowatt figured that out in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Transforming frayed Nelson heritage into an asset to polish rather than cover up or tear down turned the whole city around. Within five years of the completed Downtown Heritage Revitalization program, two movies were made there, Roxanne and Housekeeping (both 1987). A community’s pride had been restored. Designer Bob Inwood spent the next decade or two being hired by towns in the East and West Kootenay to breathe new life into downtowns that had been spent dry with the last seams of iron ore. His work lives on in the enchanting downtowns of Revelstoke, Nelson and Fernie. The arts revival that followed was a natural part of this flourishing. As studies show, aesthetics matters. Simply put, beauty has a good effect on us.

In the summer months there’s Artwalk (in more than one Kootenay town), Castlegar’s Sculpturewalk, the Slocan Valley Art and Garden Tour, the annual Columbia Basin Culture Tour of artists’ studios, the Kootenay Storytelling Festival, Elephant Mountain Literary Festival, the railroad museums in Revelstoke and Cranbrook, the SS Moyie Sternwheeler Museum in Kaslo, Hills Garlic Festival in September, the Nakusp Hot Springs, and of course, the thriving weekly farmers’ markets in many of the towns and villages. Summer is also the time of music festivals—Kaslo Jazz Etc. Festival, Unity Music Fest, Shambhala— and the Kootenays are a hotbed of great music, both local and imported. Many take a serious cut in income to live here, and many others come here to fulfill their creative and artistic dreams. And it shows. Almost every little town has at least one art gallery, enthusiastically volunteer-run.

A demitasse of crème-chocolatey Oso espresso, a Kaslo Sourdough Bakery bagel, a good book, the morning alpine sun streaming in—air crisp, lakewater clear to the bottom… Why would you go anywhere else to get in touch with what matters in life?

Travel Planner

For more information on the Kootenays, visit:

Destination BC Corp.: hellobc.com/kootenay-rockies.aspx

Kootenay Rockies Tourism: krtourism.ca

Cranbrook: hellobc.com/cranbrook.aspx

Fernie: tourismfernie.com

Golden: tourismgolden.com

Kaslo: hellobc.com/kaslo.aspx

Kimberley: tourismkimberley.com

Nakusp and Arrow Lakes: nakusparrowlakes.com

Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism: nelsonkootenaylake.com

New Denver: newdenver.ca

Revelstoke: seerevelstoke.com

Rossland: tourismrossland.com

West Koot Route: westkootroute.ca

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