Annabel Howard

Driving to Shangri La

Annabel Howard discovers the allure of the Canadian wilderness

Driving to Shangri La
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I’d go to Canada if I wanted to ski, or fish, or see the Northern Lights, but in the end it was only to launch my (Canadian) boyfriend D.W.’s book that I ventured west. I hate to think of myself as prejudiced, but even lyrical books like Will Fiennes’s The Snow Geese don’t do much to encourage Canadian tourism. Which made D.W.’s goal — to woo me into a love of the Great White North — difficult: I was determined not to be converted.

D.W. is a native of the Kootenay Valley, British Columbia, where, he says, ‘Men are men, and so are women.’ His book is set there, in ‘the Valley’, and is a hard-as-nails collection of short stories about sad men and lost opportunities. This — small-town Canada — was my destination.

D.W.’s ‘ma’ (pronounced maaaa), Kathy, met us at the airport in Calgary, a city somewhere west-of-the-middle. Upon deplaning, we were greeted by aged cowgirls who sing-songed ‘Welcome to Calgary folks!’ as they rocked on their booted heels. Kathy had driven ten hours for the privilege of picking us up and thank God she had, because Canada has a vendetta against public transport — one of the few characteristics it shares with the United States. She lives in Regina, and the landscape beyond her window is so flat that she says she could watch her dog run away for days.

Luckily, isolation had not turned Kathy into a monster but a woman of remarkable kindness and determination. She is what’s known as a ‘doer’. Most Canadians I encountered were ‘doers’ — they chopped and stacked firewood, hauled heavy equipment, cleared out basements, constructed terraces and held yard sales. Perhaps they don’t have enough to do. The town where D.W. grew up has, by way of entertainment, one cinema (open once a week) and one bar (open till 2 a.m. every day). There’s also a lake, but if you fancy a dip you risk the dreaded Swimmer’s Itch and mosquitoes determined enough to dig through cotton to nip wheals in your skin. In that environment, why not learn to chop wood?

Leaving the airport, Kathy walked ahead of us with quick little steps, on a mission to get back to the road. Her vehicle was everything I’d hoped for: a peeling Ford truck, open-boxed, with a cab stuffed full of tools, maps, and carefully labelled plastic bottles. We set off in the direction of the Rocky mountains with the radio playing Brad Paisley’s ‘I’m Still a Guy’.

The Rockies are unlike the Alps in that there’s no introduction — you round a corner and there they are, big as imagination. D.W. loves the mountains because they make us feel small, same as the desert or the ocean. I wasn’t sure that I liked feeling small, but I didn’t say it, for fear I’d hurt his Canadian feelings.

As we drove along the mountain flanks, we passed signs that read ‘Danger’ and ‘Check your brakes’. The sun was setting and the peaks glowed dusty red. There’s no phone reception in the Rockies, and even on the ­carefully maintained road I felt further away from things than I’d ever been.

And then in the dusky light — would you believe it? — we saw a bear. It had plumped itself on the embankment to strip a soapberry bush. I could see its claws, long as knitting needles. I read that bears eat 100,000 berries a day to prepare for hibernation, but from up close even that didn’t seem enough. A wild bear! It left me speechless. What more could Canada offer?

D.W.’s childhood friends had enlisted for Mission Canada. That first weekend they arranged for five of us to go out to an old trapper’s cabin and hike the mountains. The organiser was Nathan Koss, known as ‘Kosser’. When he was 18 he wanted to see the world, so he joined the army, endured it, appreciated it, and left at the first opportunity. Having been to Alaska, Quebec and Switzerland, he’d seen enough to know he loved the Valley more. So he came back, spent a year at business school, and set up Koss Roofing. Now he works like a dog and lives for the outdoors.

We met at Kosser’s place. He bounded out with: ‘Hey dudes, fancy a road juice?’ He didn’t wait for a reply, just threw us each a beer. Then he said: ‘Chuck your crap in the truck and we’ll go.’ That was it, except for a conspiratorial wink in my direction. Colour me charmed.

Within an hour the feeling of isolation I’d experienced on Highway 1 began to look like a child’s fear of pussy­cats. First we ran out of phone reception, then we ran out of road. Then we kept on going, over loose rocks and dry riverbeds, deeper and deeper into the Purcell mountains. This was true North American drama. We drove through thick fir trees, and over the roar of the hardworking engine I felt the quiet descend. Eventually, even the bare track ran out — washed away by the spring rains. We hiked the last mile on foot, sporadically clapping our hands to warn away bears, armed with wholly unreassuring ‘Bear spray’ and a rifle that we later discovered had no ammunition.

The camp was tucked into the mountain, on a small grassy platform that glowed emerald under the heavy firs. The cabin itself, a simple square, was made of rounded logs like a box of brown straws, and embellished with a porch that jutted over the steep slope. The porch roof was supported by two totem poles which Koss laughed off as mountain superstition.

Inside there was a long communal table, a stove, some shelves, and a sink with a drain but no taps. Piles of logs lay stacked against the side of the cabin. We built a fire and waited for two more friends to arrive.

They came jostling up the hill not long after, while we sat hypnotised by the forest. They each barely shook my hand before their attention turned to an empty beer can which they set on a branch and popped at with air rifles. ‘If you weren’t here they’d sit and do that all weekend,’ Koss told me as I watched the can jiggle in the tree.

Both latecomers were labourers. Danny, who had a bashful smile and the sweetness of St Francis, was Kosser’s employee; he had the air of a man who’s damned grateful the worst of it’s over. A.J., on the other hand, entertained us with a steady stream of buffoonery. He loved to play the redneck. He was big and wobbly, with a round face and hedgehog hair, and had just landed a job at the mill after eight months as a gas station attendant. D.W. calls him Ham — I don’t know why.

The next day we set off to climb a mountain. Our object was to reach one of the larger glaciers that hang above Shangri La, a famously beautiful basin home to no fewer than seven sedimentary lakes. As we climbed the vegetation closed in. Then the path all but disappeared. We scraped past ferns, long grasses and scratchy bushes. Sometimes we’d pass a glade, its sides hung with wildflowers. Eventually the mountain plateaued. The green thinned to a long slope of loose scree. High above us hung a ridge crusted with gritty snow. This, Koss informed us, was the glacier.

The sun beat down on our ascent. A few tireless horseflies dogged our progress. We fumbled over huge boulders and smaller ones that rocked precariously under our feet. The climb was endless. The glacier didn’t grow any larger. Then, quite suddenly, there was nothing left to climb: in what could have been a single step we crested the top and — bam! — the mountains’ closed fist opened up, as if with the final stride we’d stepped from the Grand Canyon and arrived on top of the cliffs of Dover. Except what we were looking at wasn’t the sea, but endless snow-dusted peaks suspended above grey valleys and coloured lakes. I could see so far. The nearest pool was an unimaginable turquoise, so

intense that its waters seemed thick like clay.

This was it: this was what D.W. had hoped I’d fall in love with. We sat down on the edge of the ice, Koss passed a cold beer, and we drank it in the sun above the valley of Shangri La.