Blazing British Columbia: a smokey photo tour of the province’s interior

Smoke on the Water

Smoke on the Water

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Last weekend, smoke from British Columbia’s Interior wildfires reached the west coast. Residents of Vancouver and Victoria awoke to an eerie orange sky (approximating the effect of a 040/550 lens filter!)

On Friday, crossing the Salish Sea, from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, on the Queen of Cowichan, I photographed an undulating ribbon of smoke stretching from Sechelt, along the Sunshine Coast, south over Howe Sound’s adjacent mountains, all the way to Vancouver. Outflow winds pushed the smog across the strait on Sunday, bringing the apocalyptic haze to Vancouver Island.

A week before, I’d begun a work/play vacation under clear blue skies in Vancouver. I’d promote my Eighties Vancouver work at a few galleries in the city, then drive out through the Fraser Canyon to Cache Creek, which had, just a few weeks ago, been inundated by an extreme rain event, then on to Lillooet and back over to the coast via the Duffy Lake Road, to Pemberton and the Sea-To-Sky Highway.

Vancouver was hot and crowded with fans of the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament. Without a reservation, my wife Amanda and I faced hotels booked to capacity, and with inflated prices. We finally found a room in the Robsonstrasse Hotel (Robson Street used to be a German enclave, with ethnic delis and restaurants) at $235.00!

I’d been hoping for a room at the Blue Horizon, situated directly across from the apartment I lived in 38-years-ago. It too was booked to capacity. Nevertheless, we had a late supper there, at the sidewalk patio, and closed down the hotel bar I used to frequent in my youth.

The next morning, we managed to get a room at the Blue Horizon, for the more reasonable rate of $160.00. Somewhat worse for the aforementioned indulgence, we braved the crowds and the heat to visit English Bay, trying to flog my posters and cards at galleries along the way.

No luck. Vintage Vancouver stuff is, I was told, out of fashion.

“Do you do canvas wraps?”

Not if I can help it.

Disconsolate, I couldn’t wait for the 3 pm check-in time at the Blue Horizon. We hauled our luggage up to our ninth floor room (yes, they have an elevator) and flopped on the bed.

Post nap, I set up my tripod and (Nikon D-800) camera to make aerial views, before and after dark, from the balcony on the northwest corner, overlooking Bute and Robson Streets. In 1984, I’d made a photograph at street level at the same intersection, looking west, (image #9 in the Eighties Vancouver gallery). I intended to reproduce the view on this visit.

The view to the northeast has been recently transformed into a solid wall of geometrically-arranged glass.

In the evening, we took the iPad down to the corner and, using the hotel’s WiFi, loaded this website to compare the vintage image to the scene in front of us. The main difference, besides the new building on the southwest corner, was the abundance of leafy trees — mere saplings when I lived there, yet worthy of a poem. The glowing screen, held aloft, attracted a crowd of locals and tourists. No translation was needed to explain the contrast to a group from Beijing.

On Monday morning, I returned to the Bute and Thurlow Street intersections to photograph those locations, as I’d done 31-years-ago.

I’d resigned myself to the fact that my stock of vintage Vancouver photographs were not going to find a home in the city where they were made. After breakfast, we packed the car, ready to leave the hustle, bustle and traffic jams for the open road to the Interior. Maybe just one more try, at a gallery further east on Robson. I grabbed the tube containing two of the posters  I’d recently had printed.

Time Frame Gallery is appropriately named. Plenty of other historic photos on the walls. I waited for the proprietor to grab a free moment.

The reception here was a contrast: obviously there is a market for this kind of work; my products are top quality and appropriately priced; the canvas wrap fad is on the wane.

I made a sale.

On the way out of town, I visited another gallery, on W. Broadway, not far from the intersection featured in my 1983 image, Broadway & Heather. The façade of the old Texaco station was demolished years ago, leaving a nondescript box fronted with dark windows. The owner of this gallery was interested but noncommittal.

It was now after 5pm … I became one of the trapped, rush-hour commuters I mock on the news.

Through the Fraser Canyon, we saw dozens of “spot fires” in the hills — 120 started that day by dry lightning. At 9 pm, we pulled into Lytton, 260 km northeast of Vancouver.

The motel room was, “just renovated.” So, besides the heat (the daytime temperature had topped 40℃), which was not moderated in the bedroom by the roaring air-conditioner in the front room, we had the formaldehyde smell of fresh paint to lull us to sleep.

The next morning, I continued the series of Instagram “#balconypics,” begun at the Blue Horizon, with a view of the Lytton street, seen from the motel deck.

Just before my mobile phone lost service, my niece responded to the picture, asking if we were heading her way — to Bralorne (pop. 77, this week), a semi-ghost town in the Bendor Mountain Range, between Lillooet and Pemberton. The original plan, as I mentioned, was to follow the Duffy Lake Road out of Lillooet. My first time over that route was by bicycle, in 1983 … before it was paved. I’ve cycled and driven it a few times since.

The second time I cycled the Duffy, it was a consolation at the end of a two month bike tour of Alaska, Yukon, and B.C. Short on time, I resolved to go back and complete the unpaved road through Gold Bridge (short of Bralorne), over the Hurley Pass to Pemberton, but never did.

Here was my chance to see the mountainous country it traversed.

We abandoned the disaster-gawking trip to Cache Creek, for the direct northern route on Highway 12, to Lillooet. The heat was intense. Heidi, our Volkswagen, became confused along the way.

“Please make a legal U-turn,” she pleaded, after one sweaty photo stop.

“What the … ?” I usually obey her commands, but sure the heat had not addled my brain so much that I was heading back south, we continued. I had, of course, ignored Amanda’s pleas to consult a road crew, working nearby. At Lillooet, we ate and rehydrated, then turned onto Highway 40, a mix of pavement and dirt.

We were looking for the Tyax Wilderness Resort & Spa, where my niece was working that day. We programmed Heidi to find Tyaughton Lake Road. Surprisingly, she knew of the remote place.

A few dusty hours later, we were sitting on the balcony of the log-built lodge, overlooking the lake and snow-streaked peaks of the Dickson Range, sipping a cold beer. We slept comfortably that night, in a deluxe suite, cooled naturally by mountain breezes.

The next two days introduced us to the history and the present-day wonders of Gold Bridge and Bralorne. In the 1930’s both towns swelled with miners, during a time when the rest of the province, indeed the world, suffered the Great Depression. More than $100,000,000 in gold has been dug from the area.

Today, the region is seeing something of a resurgence, as new pioneers — from prospectors to adventure tourism entrepreneurs — attempt to build a new economy.

Aside from our own excursions, up side-roads better suited to 4-wheel drives, my niece Nikita Chatwin and boyfriend Chad Smith, the area fire warden, showed us around. A perch dubbed Lovers Leap looks over the deep chasm threaded by Cadwallader Creek toward the dominant summit of the area, Mount Penrose. We caught the crimson sunset there on Thursday night, and the banner of smoke from nearby wildfires, driven up the valley by a brisk wind.

The same haze followed our traverse of Hurley Pass on Friday, veiling the spectacle of glaciated peaks, as we crested, then descended the pass via rutted switchbacks to the Pemberton Valley. Heidi, pretty in brown camouflage, jauntily navigated the way.

It was a long day: a tense trip down the crowded Sea-To-Sky, and a long two-sailing wait for the ferry, at Horseshoe Bay. The cool breeze on the Salish Sea was appreciated, but the ominous ribbon of smoke could now be viewed in full, from its northerly sources all the way to Vancouver, where its perimeter hung like an ochre shroud.

That evening, we stayed with old friends, near Nanaimo. I reminisced with my old climbing buddy, Tom Hocking, partner on many of the expeditions launched out of my little garret on Robson Street.

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  • Lynn Hirshman - Your journal — though not your photos — remnd me of trips we once took. I would miss BC if I weren’t in Colorado, which is just as beautiful, though not so empty. Wish you’d come this way one of these years….July 11, 2015 – 10:09 pmReplyCancel

    • Raymond Parker - Time seems to fly by … hence these reminiscences, and I seem to have tied myself to this new venture, but for short sojourns.

      I’d like to venture further afield, see new landscapes, meet new people, and visit old friends. I need an assistant 🙂July 11, 2015 – 10:23 pmReplyCancel

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