A reluctant admission: British Columbia kicks Alberta’s butt.
After cresting Storm Mountain on Hwy 93 from Banff National Park, the descent into B.C. begins. The change is apparent: greater vistas, fewer people … and much better weather.
Soon the Rocky Mountain Trench appears, a formation that extends for 2000 km southward toward old Mexico. To the east rise the mighty Rockies. West lies the Purcell Range. We are in the Kootenays, named after the Kootenai people who inhabited the region before white men appeared and put up cellphone towers.
Kimberley, a quiet Kootenay town in southeast B.C., has never really caught on as a tourist destination despite its remarkable amenities. We like it that way.
In summer, the hiking trails are ours alone. Winter ski lift lineups are rare and the endless, empty cross-country ski trails are world class.
During the last two decades, we’ve wasted a glorious allotment of life’s brief flicker in this pristine region.
For a century, Kimberley’s Sullivan mine, overlooking Northstar Mountain ski hill, supplied the world with a rich lode of zinc, silver and lead — and provided most of the town’s employment — before its ores waned and the shafts permanently closed 10 years ago. The town entered an economic funk from which it has yet to recover.
Despite the slow pace, Kimberley is our beloved home away from home. Each August, we host a gaggle of friends, anxiously fleeing Alberta’s fickle summer. Kimberley is warm — without the stifling heat of the Okanagan — and offers soft summer evenings free of the mosquito hordes biting voraciously on the eastern side of the Rockies.
We golf, pedal around, raft white waters and hang poolside for afternoon appetizers — catching up while winding down.
On top of our love-to-do list is hiking. Traversing high mountain trails in the Kootenays has evolved into a passion that we’ll never outgrow. I’ve even convinced some of my fat friends to get up off their floating toy and join us for a long steep wilderness climb, past fireweed blooming amongst the charred remains of lodgepole pine, around anemones resembling Dr. Seuss characters, heads poking comically sunward; where dense forests of larch and Engelmann spruce inevitably give way to stunning vistas from the high, barren alpine onto a hectic world far below.
Technology is reduced to a hiking stick. As we scramble up scree, the sharp sentinel warning call of a pica or a hoary marmot replaces the irritation of a cellphone’s ring.
(Actually we’ve noticed excellent cellphone coverage on these mountain summits, three or four hours by foot from the nearest roadway; better service than on much of Hwy 2 in Alberta. Go figure. Last year, I was scaling a car-sized boulder high above Hourglass Lake in the Purcells, carefully planning each footfall to avoid the 300-metre vertical plunge offered by one misplaced step. The phone went off. I braced myself against the rock face, buffeted by a crisp, high-altitude wind and answered. An earnest voice offered an invitation to a political fundraiser that evening in Red Deer. “Nope, we won’t be able to make it,” I announced gleefully before carefully re-pocketing the gadget in a fashion designed to ensure I didn’t tumble off the cliff faster and farther than a cabinet minister who has backed the wrong horse in a leadership race.)
But I digress.
The unquestionable social highlight of the August holiday is our annual “shoot out.” Armed with festive hearts (and local swill), we contest for best live musical performance; each man, woman and child vying for the evening’s honour. Some songs are performed quietly, sotto voce without accompaniment; many include guitar, ukulele or harmonica as a sidekick. But attending every piece is the raucous percussion of background laughter.
The perennial winner is “Croc Hikin’ Willie” with his stunning a cappella version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Young Willie is a hiking legend, nearly as famous in these parts as Jackrabbit Johansen whose visage hangs nearby in the warming shack of the cross-country ski trails.
Then there’s fishing.
I wouldn’t say fly-fishing has become my life’s obsession but I sure enjoy watching a 30-cm cutthroat tricked into chomping on a hand-tied mayfly. Besides, fishing represents a nice change from a day spent three-putting greens. So in September I booked a guided float down the Bull River for my three golf buddies and me as part of our annual fall pilgrimage to Kimberley.
Jeff and John are the amiable owners of Kimberley Flyfishing. We chatted like old pals on the hour drive from their office, near the Platzl in downtown Kimberley, to our drop point on a forestry road where the upper reaches of the Bull River nestle behind Fisher Peak, whose distinctive spire eclipses its mountain neighbours.
“I hope none of you guys are lawyers” Jeff deadpanned as he started to repel me over a cliff on the 60-metre drop to the Bull River below.
“I used to be,” I hollered, disappearing over the edge and into the abyss, hanging for dear life onto a frail rope looped around my wrist.
Our clamber down paled compared to Jeff and John’s descent. They somehow managed to get themselves, all the fishing gear, lunch for six and two pontoon boats down the treacherous embankment while we waited meekly below, feebly practising our fly-casting technique.
Despite our lack of experience and innate athletic inability, we all landed our share of cutthroat and had a fantastic day serenely drifting with our amiable guides down this valley carved by glaciers retreating an ice age ago.
The thing about these guys is that, although you are paying them (handsomely) for a day of drift-boat fly-fishing, it’s like an outing with buddies you’ve known all your life … particularly when they insist we stop on the way home at the Bull River Inn for a cold pint served by Ed, the cherubic and acerbic owner. Ed’s cherry-blossom nose suggests that he has occasionally dipped into his own inventory.
The Kootenay’s rivers and streams are a treasure-trove of hungry fish, whiling away sunny afternoons in pristine waters while, thousands of metres above, snow-capped peaks gaze down, silent and magnificent.
All this beauty comes at a cost. As in “B.C.”: Bring Cash. A visiting fisherman (all us Alberta tourists) plying the Bull River must purchase both a non-resident basic licence and a classified waters licence. The latter is good for one day only and only in the stream identified in the licence. If the Bull’s not biting, your licence is no good for the Elk or Kootenay Rivers, which are within spitting distance and form part of the same drainage.
Did I mention that hiking is free?
Oh well, it’s just dough. The B.C. government needs the shekels to top up its treasury, having recently been obliged to return $1.6 billion to the feds when the electorate tossed out the HST.
In a nutshell, the Kootenays offer a perfect combination of thrills and spills coupled with quiet rest and relaxation.
Don’t tell a soul. Everybody will want to come.
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.