As we were sitting on the plane at the Vancouver airport waiting to fly to the BC interior, the pilot told us a worrying anecdote. A flight that morning had almost reached Castlegar, but had been forced to turn around and fly back to Calgary. Smoke from local forest fires had blown in at the last second and turned the visibility to zero. Now I’m not a happy air traveller in the best of circumstances, so the thought of almost reaching our destination then being forced to return to Vancouver sounded perfectly awful. I spent the entire one-hour flight with my face glued against the window, trying to control my stress level and stay positive. Usually the flight is very scenic, but that day I couldn’t even see any mountains through the smoke. As we started our descent, the pilot lowered the wheels, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Surely that meant we were definitely going to land, right? But then the pilot got on the intercom and said “Okay folks, we’ll be landing soon at Castlegar airport, hopefully.” Um, excuse me, but HOPEFULLY??? I never ever want to hear a pilot say the word “hopefully” for any reason. I was in no mood to experience my first “go-around”, complete with swooping and bumpiness. Noooo thank you. Luckily, a few minutes later, we descended through the smoke and I could see the runway. Whew! Our landing was smooth and swoop-free, just the way I like it 🙂
My parents were also in BC visiting my brother Tony, his wife Alana and their 22-month-old daughter Hannah. They picked us up at the airport and drove us to my brother’s place in Rossland. I hadn’t seen Hannah since my trip to Bonaire in February, and I was amazed by how much she had grown and by all the skills she had picked up. She could say short sentences, put on her own shoes, climb up into her car seat by herself, walk down the stairs…she’s a genius I tell you! 😉
The original plan for the Rossland portion of our trip was to spend most of our time outdoors. Unfortunately, the smoke made the air quality fairly terrible, which made even the five-minute walk from our B&B to my brother’s house feel quite taxing. The smoky smell permeated throughout the town. When I brought in the clothes from the washing line, they smelled like campfire.
Despite the smoke, I didn’t feel like being cooped up inside the entire time. Mum, Dad, Tony, Hannah, Chris and I decided to head to Nancy Greene Lake one afternoon for a picnic. Tony rode his motorcycle, while the rest of drove in Tony’s truck. When we arrived at the lake, Hannah spotted Tony in his helmet, and she started to cry. She doesn’t like seeing him wearing motorcycle gear because it always means he’s about to leave. She raced over to me and grabbed onto my legs, wanting to be picked up. I couldn’t believe it! She could have run to her grandparents (whom she knows much better), but she chose me! My heart just about exploded.
Our picnic was interrupted every few minutes by helicopters flying over the lake, scooping up water, and heading off to douse nearby fires. We kept having to grab onto all the food on the table to prevent it from blowing away. Hannah seemed undisturbed by the whole spectacle. She even laughed hysterically every time the helicopters flew directly over our heads. What a chill kid 🙂
Chris took a video of one of the helicopters:
Tony and Alana had a BBQ and he invited all their Rossland friends. My Ukrainian dance friend Ksenia from Ottawa had been living in BC since the spring, and she came over for the party. Very few people in Rossland are from the area originally. Most people grew up elsewhere and moved to the town to work at the ski hill or at the smelter in nearby Trail. They all serve as surrogate families for each other, since most people’s extended families live far away. The sense of community is very strong, and it’s wonderful to see.
My brother’s area has some excellent tubing spots, and I’m always up for anything involving water. Mum, Dad, Tony and I donned our lifejackets and hopped into some tubes and inflatable kayaks for a lazy float down the Slocan River. Tony and I latched on to our parents’ kayak, and they were in charge of steering us around all the rocks. They were mostly successful, but I did scrape my bum while passing through one set of mini rapids. Ouchie.
Tony took a GoPro video to document our family adventure:
Chris and I rented a car in Castlegar, and we headed off on our own to Invermere, a town close to the Alberta border. We were lucky that the Salmo-Creston pass was open. It’s one of the highest and most beautiful passes in Canada, and it had been closed on and off throughout the summer as a result of the fires. The smoke had actually temporarily blown away, so we were treated to some spectacular scenery. It was the first time in the trip that we actually saw mountain tops!
We spent three nights at the Panorama Mountain Resort, just above Invermere. The resort had several pools, hot tubs, restaurants, hiking trails, and friendly deer who munched on grass right outside our balcony. It was all very picturesque. My Australian friend Larissa from my 2011 Contiki Greece tour was working at Panorama, so we stayed at the resort on her recommendation.
Larissa invited me to join some of her fellow staff members for the “Fairmont Float” at the nearby Fairmont Hot springs resort. I only too eagerly hopped into another inner tube for some lazy river fun. We meandered down the waterway, which snaked around a golf course. The beginning of the float was a little dramatic. We had to enter the water in the middle of a set of rapids, so it was tricky trying to hang onto all our gear while getting settled into the tube. Larissa lost one of her flipflops, but by some miracle we were able to spot it and retrieve it about an hour later, quite a long way from our launch point!
Every so often, the rapids sent us careening into the rocks lining the river. At first, I kept trying to manouevre my tube to avoid the rocks, but I always wound up spinning in circles and hitting the rocks anyway. Eventually I gave up and just kept bracing for impact instead. Luckily, the tubes were designed to take a beating.
We had two glorious smoke-free days at Panorama, and we appreciated every second of them. Chris used the opportunity to snag some lovely photos.
We had planned to hike to the top of Panorama Mountain on our final day at the resort, but the smoke reappeared and the lovely mountain view vanished. We made a valiant attempt to reach the top anyway, just for the sake of getting exercise, but the smoke made the uphill climb deeply unpleasant. We did have a memorable encounter with wildlife, however. Chris and I noticed a chicken-like bird on the trail, so we stopped to take a picture. We were delighted when the bird barely moved and Chris was able to get some great shots. We were not so delighted when, as we walked off down the trail, the bird decided to give chase and peck at my ankles. Chris fended it off with his hiking pole, but it kept charging us. It didn’t leave us alone until we were well out of its territory, and it kept watching us until we had disappeared around the corner. A sign at the chairlift told us to report wildlife sightings to staff, so I told the lift operators that we’d been attacked by a “chicken bird”. I found out later that it was a ptarmigan, a type of grouse.
To recover from my grouse encounter, I had a glorious massage at the spa. That evening, Larissa joined us for dinner at a lovely restaurant overlooking the golf course adjacent to the resort.
The next morning, we drove back to Rossland to spend one more night with the family. This time, all the mountaintops had disappeared from view. We even spotted some fires burning right alongside the road. Fortunately, none of the roads were closed.
When we arrived in Rossland, the town was still blanketed in smoke. I was very pessimistic about our chances of flying out of Castlegar. Sure enough, we awoke the next morning to find out that our flight had been cancelled. We ended up driving our rental car all the way to Kelowna (my parents kindly drove it back to Castlegar), then flying from Kelowna to Calgary to Ottawa. You always need to have a plan A, B, C, D, E and even F if Castlegar airport is involved!
“We’re just trying to get out of Cancelgar” – Chris on the phone with Air Canada, accidentally referring to Castlegar airport by its well-deserved nickname
“Alana introduced carb propaganda into the house” – My keto-obsessed brother, while watching Hannah play with a giant Mr. Potato Head
“It’s like we’re all in a smoky Instragram filter” – Alana, describing the local scenery