The Weekender Effect (and the end of tourist season)
have moved upwards of 32 times in the past nine years.
Ferry crossing Vancouver-Nanaimo, May, 2009
The first four or five years I actually just slept in my sleeping bag. Gradually I became a little more civilized; I started stuffing my sleeping bag in a duvet cover. Six years ago I started hauling around a nice pair of sheets (15 moves and counting). Three years ago I bought a small foldable Ikea paper lamp that started travelling with me (it’s unbelievable what lighting can do). A pottery cup appeared about two years ago, spontaneously purchased as a momento of a sunny, crazy road trip with friends.
Many other things have come and gone, but gradually, I am amassing the things that make a space a home, and slowing down. For the first time in nearly a decade, I have spent over 6 contiguous months in a single province. I know now is the time that people move, being blown about for opportunity, intrigue, love and family, but I also am feeling the increased need to put down roots. To build things: spaces, relationships, communities. I am conscious of the need to begin laying a foundation for whatever comes next.
Deep and meaningful connections to place are a fundamental element of what makes us human.
Robert Sandford, The Weekender Effect
A good portion of my meanderings have taken me to ridiculously beautiful tourist locations. When I was thirteen my parents rather intrepidly drove my sisters and I on the Canadian rite-of-passage journey West. It was a six-week saga of epic proportions and endless kilometers on the road. After returning I could not stop raving about British Columbia (BC). The immense presence of the mountains, the pink sunset glow. The deep sense of perpetuity and the solace you have when being in the foggy wet coast of the Island. Just being there was intoxicating. It was filled with adventure, promise and possibility. The weather had been impeccable (unlike the 2400km of torrential rain we encountered upon entering Ontario); it wasn’t too hot, or crowded and best of all-there were no bugs.
By 2006 I had started spending my summers working in BC. My first year room-mate was a French Canadian from Timmins and just as star-struck by I was with the West. She told me there was a big magnet under the province, and that now that we were here, we’d keep coming back forever. And I have been. But consistently, I’m always pulled east again, for family, school or work. I would work long seasons on the Island, broaching local status (I eventually even was awarded a PO box in Ukee!), but never truly seemed to make it. It required too much stuff. The winters are hard. For these reasons I was especially keen to read another instalment of Rocky Mountain Books’ series: The Weekender Effect.
The Weekender Effect is another one of RMB’s slim little manifesto series. It is narrated by long-time Canmore resident Robert Sanford, who I later found out, is a prominent ecological activist and environmental steward from the Rocky Mountain Parks area. Much of the manifesto is exactly what one would expect from a small, idyllic, mountain-town resident who is seeing his community erode as giant influxes of weekend residents arrive and snap up investment properties–he’s not too happy. Surprisingly however, he provides a well researched, discourse on the metaphysical aspects of place, which he attempts to balance in a non-whiny way as he paints the somber evolution of the town.
I was anticipating a pedantic analysis of urban migratory patterns, coming from a small-town biased “we were here first” type narrative. Instead, I was taken aback by how many of the nuanced steps in the development of sense of place he was able to pick up on. Such as naming:
Naming helps people witness themselves and reflect on what they’ve seen. It’s the beginning of talking to ourselves, that most primal business in which we invent and reinvent ourselves all day long, incessantly thinking and feeling, talking ourselves into being. Saying local names and reinventing our stories is an endless , non-stop search for ourselves.
When I first moved to the West Coast I wanted (and needed) to know the names of everything. I worked in tourism in a National Park and people were endlessly coming in with bits of things they picked up off the beach, pictures they’d snapped on their cell phones of various birds and barks, or vivid descriptions of scat they found left in the middle of trails. I was surprised that within a few weeks of beginning work, suddenly what used to be a blurry green bike ride become blocked out in sections of fauna: through the patch of salal, around the bend with the foxglove right before the scotch broom, passed the bog with the crowberry. Within a few months trees also emerged out of the woodwork. The change is profound, it’s nearly biblical in nature. The sense that with each name you learn, an entity comes into being. Fortunately west coast rainforests make up the diversity they lack with size, so there are a limited number of species to know. Regardless, the sense of appreciation and consciousness as everything around me developed names and ecosystems felt a little like Helen Keller’s W-A-T-E-R moment. Even the surfer’s had dozens of names for the different waves, breaks and wind. Let alone the need to preserve Nuu-chah-nulth.
To preserve what is essential about where and how we live, we must preserve this language. The loss of words can lead to the loss of the things those words stand for.
Post sunset surf, Florencia Bay, BC, June, 2010
I was a little hurt by Sandford’s mountain pride. As much as I love the mountains, I’ve never been able to be far from the ocean. However his mountain pride could easily be extended into the coast:
The mountain West is different from the rest of the country – and from most of the rest of the continent – in that it is not what we constructed out of the landscape that most deeply and enduringly defines us as a people. It is not what we built that truly makes us unique as a culture, but what we saved…what we built only serves to make what we saved meaningful.
Perhaps the coast is then what we have forgotten. The mountains present a tangible, grounded challenge. Surmounting them has constitutionally been a part of Canada since 1871(ish); rails have been criss-crossing the mountains since last century.
But the ocean, the giant swath of deep blue, is a port that is nearly forgotten. Vancouver meekly striking out as a foray into a seaside town. Our main port of entry into the province, a rail connection to the mainland, is still hidden behind Vancouver Island. BC’s capital, located on the southern tip of the Island, is south of much of Canada, and the balmy, temperate climate is nothing like the hundreds of kilometers of coast rolling out to her resource-rich, isolated North.
I remember the first time seeing a clear cut from the water. We had driven up island to Campbell river (about 3.5-4 hours), then on gravel roads west out to Gold River (another 1-2 hours, leaving cell reception far behind). Then we boated down out, and around Nootka island (1.5 or so hours, in a fast boat, ~35 nauts/hour). There, up passed Tahsis near Kyuquot, hidden up where Europeans made first contact centuries ago: totally isolated, totally remote, and (swaths) totally clear cut. It felt completely untapped, untouched, and then you see an entire mountain face, bald from heli-logging. Giant logging camps with satellite and speed boats, still searching for riches.
Another day I was out reading on our deck near Friendly Cove, watching humpback whales in the straight and an unmarked black helicopter landed on our helipad out front. A half dozen men filed out, crossing in front of our house and down to our dock, where a boat had quietly appeared (you don’t need to be too stealthy under the helicopter-chop) and whisked them away. You can be so far away from society on the west coast, and you are only ever found by others who are trying to escape, and those with a radically different agenda.
* * *
Sandford also has a certain reverence for National Parks, and our Parks systems:
Recasting our history against the backdrop of such an extraordinary intergenerational public policy achievement gives our culture some room to manoeuvre in a time when natural systems everywhere are under great stress and are changing rapidly. We have not spent all our natural cpitl…What we have saved keeps the doors open …ecology is economy: the gift of true sustainability.
Tourist economies are just as volatile as the bust-boom of the resource cycles, and should be approached with a degree of cautiousness. As described in his essay, the mountain parks are fortunate enough that they have a huge swath of territory conserved and set aside, making true preservation and conservation of megafauna possible. After seeing the challenges faced by Parks in the face of resource and land developers on the coast, and the delicate strips of coastal park that have been protected (at times no wider than 1 km–hardly sufficient territory for a bear), it was impossible for me to truly embrace his admiration without a green tinge of envy.
Sanford also because paradoxical when describing the successes of tourism. He proudly touts the 7 million vists a year to Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks and then is quick to criticize the “wealthy urbanites from around the world who have decided that living in this largely protected landscape is preferable to living in the often corroded and dirty places they helped build.” Travel inspires people. There is always a first time, a first visit to everywhere. I think he also forgets that out here, people are tough. Really tough.
Road up Mount Ozzard, BC, June 2009
Moving is also hard, travel is hard. Seeing the changes, even over the past five years at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (PRNPR), I can tell you that “little” things, often done for the safety and comfort of permanent residents (like the highway adding more passing lanes, rumble strips and pull-outs), also facilitates an increased amount of traffic, and definitely erodes barriers of migrants into the area. Want to increase the caliber of schools in a small town? You may have also just removed a deterrent for young families looking to relocate. Want high-speed internet? Say hello to freelancers. Seven million visitors a year also indoubtably plays a huge role in the caliber of life mountain residents enjoy. Do you share a road with a major resort? The major resort will help you get your road plowed.
Foxglove Farms, freak snowstorm in December, 2010
In closing, I don’t necessarily agree 100% with Sandford’s essay and approach to mountain-town development. It kind of reminded me of the internet même I’ve seen around a lot recently:
I really grappled with this piece, because it was thoughtful, and it really resonated with me. The world is a crowded place. And Canada is (relatively) empty. The mixed motivations of migrants from the east and west all bring with them their own cultures and motivations: inevitably, they are going to clash.
Newcomers forget that the people who moved here before the boom cherish the town not because it offers good investment opportunities, but that it is the one place in the world that permitted them to be who they wanted to be.
Visit any gulf island, or small town and you will see this in action. They can attract and breed characters. You may be escaping constraints that may have been formerly placed on you in your previous home. But there is also a hypocrisy in his statement. As much as it is beautiful and noble to have gone somewhere isolated to escape, there are also people who wanted to be rich: resource or land development will help them do that. Every time I have moved it is because it is helping me become the person I want to be: but sometimes that person is someone who is employed, someone who is close to her family, someone who is receiving a certain type of education. It is a difficult argument to make in the way he has couched it.
In closing Sandford cites over and over again that “communities should not rely on intellectuals to save them,” but instead people should build up their own communities and save themselves. He explains:
[in] Canada we have a habit of leaving places when they no longer suit us. We realize our world has changed when we can no longer relate to ourselves by way of where we live. Instead of staying and defending what is important about where and how we want to live, we pack up and leave….In order to preserve even the possibility of an enduring sense of place, [Wes] Jackson contends that we have to slow down our aimless, wandering pursuit of upward mobility at any cost and find a home, dig in and aim for some kind of enduring relationship with the ecological realities of the surrounding landscape. Jackson believes we have to somehow reverse the Western frontier tradition of picking up and leaving the moment a place is no longer what we want it to be. We have to learn to stop running away. We have to stay and to stand up for where we live.
I could not have read this at a better time.
Sandford opens the book by mentioning that Hippocrates first identified homesickness (nostalgia-to return and to suffer) in 400 BCE. This essay will definitely ring your mountain cowbells, stirring up your personal deep connections to place.
Thanks to RMB and Bob Sandford for a great, thought-provoking book-highly recommended.