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Nelson, British Columbia

By Ardelle Hynes

Wedged tightly in the slope between the West Arm of Kootenay Lake and the soaring peaks of the Selkirk Mountains, the little town of Nelson, British Columbia, appears suddenly around a bend on the Crowsnest Highway.

Coming closer, you sense something unique about the place, but what is it?

Like many towns of the BC Interior, Nelson was born during the rough-and-tumble "Silver Rush" of the 1890's, drawing mainly Americans and Italians to the glittering promise of her mineshafts. Their legacy remains in stately, well-preserved houses and shop fronts. One of these buildings houses the Kootenay School of the Arts, which offers classes in crafts, fine arts, writing and music. Nelson’s vibrant arts and entertainment scene gained it a #1 ranking as “Best Small Art Town in Canada” by author John Villani.

Walking down Baker Street, you’ll notice that all the locals drive pickup trucks but you're as likely to see a pair of telemark skis as a skidoo in the back. At Oso Negro, the favourite local coffee shop, the crowd goes from dreadlocked to suit-and-tie, and a faint whiff of pot mingles with the smell of roasting beans. ‘Organic gardeners’ and ‘carpenters’ abound - polite ways to indicate your real source of income.

But this is not a hippie town, blissed-out and oblivious. Nelson is home to some true hard-cores whose passion for the mountains now pays the mortgage. Resident Tim Ripple guides clients up some of the most challenging climbs in the world. John Buffery ensures safety during high-altitude movie shoots like Kundun and Imax Extreme. Fortunately for the rest of us, hiking and biking trails around town and in nearby Kokanee Glacier and Valhalla Parks allow for easier access.

Then there’s the snow, almost forty feet of it each year; great, fluffy gobs that weigh down the trees and clog the streams. Out of a population of 7 000, 3 500 hold season’s passes to Whitewater, the local ski hill. Every winter, the unemployment rate swells to one of the highest in the province. That’s not because there is no work; rather, it’s because people are too busy skiing to work. ‘The UI ski team’ is the standing joke: ski bums living off unemployment insurance.

Riding up the chairlift at Whitewater after a 20 cm snowfall, I have an illuminating conversation with my liftmate. Turns out he’s a supervisor at one of the local mills. Wait a minute, today is Tuesday. Shouldn’t he be working?

“Naw,” he said. “I’ve got it in my contract – the 15 cm clause.”

“The what?”

“When it snows more than 15 cm., I don’t have to go to work.” He grins at my surprise. “Hey, we Nelsonites have our priorities straight.”

People who have been to Nelson invariably make up their minds to visit again, believing they’ve found the place where life is lived as it is should be. Others develop a strange look in their eyes. They’re preoccupied, working on a way to swing it so they can move to Nelson – permanently.

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