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Saturday, 1 February 2014

My Sacred Places - Part Four

Kootenay Lake, British Columbia

In his book "The Buffalo Head", Raymond Patterson quotes George Pocattera 's description of British Columbia; "There is a softness to it that Alberta does not have; it is almost as if one could feel the breath of the Pacific."  I remember the spark of recognition when I first read his portrayal many years ago. I cannot think of a more apt description, especially for my favorite valley and lake lodged between the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains.

It was over twenty five years ago when my new wife and I decided that we would take a different route to the Okanagan that summer. We drove through Creston, B.C. and continued along Highway 3a. Soon we found ourselves winding along the east shore of the lake toward the ferry. The scenery got more and more beautiful as we headed north. Pretty properties dotted the road and any undeveloped land was lovely cedar forest. To our left was the lake backed by the pretty summits of the Selkirks. which were mirrored in the still waters. Finally we saw a place to we could stop and have lunch.

The Heidelberg Inn was at a particularly pretty bend in the road. Our heads were on swivels as we got out of our Ford Escort. We took in all of the scenery, flowers and hummingbirds in front of the restaurant.  John Mclean, (the proprietor of the inn) could see we were enamored with the area and he proceeded to tell us about "Banana Bay" across the road, which he said was the warmest part of the lake. We decided we would paddle our dinghy around the bay and laze on the beach that sunny afternoon. We rented one of the rustic rooms in the Heidleberg and decided to stay the night.
 We were concerned about leaving our stuff on the beach while we were in the water, but John told us that we needn't worry - the local people were very trustworthy and honest. We floated around the bay and I am sure a few beers were consumed. We could hardly believe our eyes when we returned to the beach and all of our stuff was gone. I was stunned! Our keys, towels and clothes were in the bag we left behind. I went up the hill to the hotel with my insides churning, but just as I arrived, John emerged from a small storage shed with all of our belongings. His son had brought our things back to the inn after looking around and not seeing us on the water. When John told him we were down there, he was afraid to bring it all back. We all had a laugh as his son looked sheepishly on. We did continue on to Vernon and the Okanagan that year via the ferry and lovely Nelson, B.C., but after that day we always returned to Kootenay lake at least once a year.

 I have never visited a Scottish Loch, but I have seen pictures and films about them and I've flown over them on my way from England. I would say that Kootenay Lake is comparable to the land locked freshwater variety (there are also sea lochs). Kootenay is a big lake, much longer than it is wide. At the most the main body is perhaps ten miles wide (from east to west), but it is over 70 miles long (from north to south). It's one of those lakes that they say "nobody knows how deep it really is". That isn't true, but it is very deep! It is also a cold lake, but big enough that it doesn't freeze over in the winter.

Kootenay Lake kokanee
One of the activities that I like to do most when I am at the lake is go fishing. It isn't the typical type of fishing that I normally do anywhere else. I really do prefer stream fishing. I suppose that comes from growing up in southern Alberta. Kootenay Lake is the one place that I spend a lot of time lake stillwater fishing. The gerrard rainbow found in the lake are the largest rainbows in the world and can weigh in at 50 pounds. The North American record bull trout (or Dolly Varden as they are called locally) was caught in the lake and was about 35 pounds. Fishing for these big fish usually involves large boats with downriggers to get your lure or bait into the deep waters. One day I wouldn't mind trying that (probably with an outfitter).I am told the best time of year for this kind of fishing is February. My type of fishing is off of a rocky point or at a creek mouth with small gear. Most of the time, I am fishing for Kokanee (a landlocked salmon). They are usually small (around one or two pounds), but they are fun to catch and they put up a good fight - jumping and dancing. They have soft mouths and they will often spit your lure back at you, but a good day of kokanee fishing can be very exciting and just plain fun.
The other thing that makes this type of fishing an adventure is there is always the threat of a big "Dolly" taking your lure and if you fish with light tackle like I do, the fight is on! I once brought in one that we estimated at twenty plus pounds with 4 lb. test line after it almost emptied my reel three times. I laughed when I got it in close and went to grab my net which was totally inadequate for bringing in such a monster. I have always sworn by the Shimano Spirex reels that we have used for years and I must say I would have never landed this fish with such a small reel of any lesser quality. My wife held the rod while I hauled the fish in by its mouth and gill plates.I removed the hook and back in the lake it went (as I believe in catch and release) and the fish was uninjured except for a sore jaw perhaps. I sometimes will keep the odd kokanee, as they are delicious eating. There are also a non-gerrard type of rainbow and cutthroat in the lake.
The climate around the lake is very temperate and more humid than the East Kootenays, which are not that far away. I like to go there in the spring, because it always seems to be quite a few weeks ahead of the surrounding areas. I have heard it said it is the most easterly area of Pacific influence and I have seen examples of this when I visited in late April/ early May. In Alberta I left behind snow or sticks sticking up from the brown tundra and even the East Kootenays were barely greening up at all, but when we pulled into Erickson B.C. there were blossoms on the fruit trees and people were outside gardening and mowing their lawns. It was very much like driving into spring.
Don't let the lake fool you. Its waters can go from placid to a tempest in a matter of minutes. One evening I had my tiny flat bottomed boat (the Li'l Titanic) out fishing on waters which were like glass. We noticed a rain storm miles across the lake and I said "we'll have to keep an eye on that". I retrieved my cast one more time and turned around to look. The lake was white caps! By the time I got the motor started and the boat turned around, we were in it. I told my wife to hang on to her seat and I worked our little boat diagonally through the waves. One moment we were between the waves and all we could see was a wall of water and the next we were on top of a massive wave (my poor five horse Mercury screaming and out of the water). I managed to get the boat back to the marina and had to gun it through the entrance. The owner was waiting for us on the docks. She had watched us head out earlier in the evening... I never took that boat back to the lake again.

In 1898, the captain of the sternwheeler "City of Ainsworth" also found that he had underestimated the power of the lake, when he left Kootenay Bay in a storm. The boat had barely rounded the headland when it floundered and nine souls were lost. The wreck still sits at the bottom in 360 feet of water.
Lockhart Creek
There are areas of old growth cedar forests around the lake. One of the places I love to walk is Lockhart Creek, where the mature forest creates its own climate. It can be windy and storming out on the lake, but a few hundred feet back into the forest it is muggy and calm. 
Sandon, B.C - A boardwalk once covered the creek and streetcars transported passengers through its streets.
The Moyie, Kaslo
On the west side there is an interesting hot spring in Ainsworth which is cut into the rock making a horseshoe shaped tunnel. Nearby is Cody Caves which I have visited several times. Highway 31a extends from scenic Kaslo (home of the sternwheeler "Moyie")through the Selkirk mountains into the "Silvery Slocan" and past the ghost town of Sandon. The West arm of the lake brings one to the City of Nelson which is built on the side of the mountains overlooking the lake as it narrows back into a river.
South of the lake is Creston, which is a pretty retirement town, full of gardens and orchards. The Creston Valley is prime farm land retrieved from the original marshland that was this section of the Kootenay River before it entered the South end of the lake. When the Palliser expedition came through this area, it was inhabited by Kootenay Indians who fished and hunted in the marshland with their unwieldy sturgeon nose canoes. There is an example of this unusual water craft in the Creston museum. I once visited their archives and there were many interesting photos of the paddle wheelers that once navigated the lake. Some (like the Kuskanook) were massive. The Creston Valley Wildlife Centre is also worth a visit for nature watchers like me. In the summer we often drive the Gray Creek road which goes across the crest of the Purcells and on to Kimberly. It's a rough road and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but it does access a remote network of roads and streams full of cutthroat.

A sign and phone booth are all that remained of the Heidleberg Inn
and now even they are gone...
I could go on and on. People that I talk to around the lake often mistake me for a local. I suppose that all of the years that we have visited the area qualify me as a spokesman of sorts. I can't help being enthusiastic about the nature and history of the lake and surrounding region. I have seen people come and go (many of them Albertans). The Heidleberg changed owners (who we also got to know) before tragically ending its days in a massive fire.
Black bear in Crawford Bay
We have had many adventures around the lake, but the main reason that I return is that I really find it relaxing. After a long winter of work, there is nothing that refreshes my soul more than a week or two at my favorite lake; fishing, nature watching, walking or even just sleeping in on a rainy morning. Many of my ideas (for stories, films or music) have come to me while deep in the cedar forest or on the rocky shores of the lake with only the sounds of the wind and water to keep me company. Like many of the places where I worship, I can see Kootenay Lake peering back at me when I look in the mirror - reflected in my eyes and etched in the lines of my face. Kootenay Lake  is a part of who I am. The peace I have found there is something that I take with me wherever I go.