All posts by Thomas Rohner

Helicopter ride over Baffin Island (gallery + videos)

(scroll down for photo gallery + videos)

Aerial view of York Sound during Operation Nanook, Aug. 27, 2014. Photo: Thomas Rohner
Aerial view of York Sound during Operation Nanook, Aug. 27, 2014. Photo: Thomas Rohner


When the military invites the media for a tour, it’s safe to assume there’s nothing really worth seeing–at least not journalistically.

So when my colleague at Nunatsiaq News told me there was a seat available on a military-chartered helicopter to York Sound, about 175km outside Iqaluit, to visit an encampment set up as part of Operation Nanook–an annual military exercise–I didn’t really jump at the chance.

But I ended up going and it was worth the trip, even though it was excessive, pampered and, from a news perspective, sterile.

The Views, The Pilot

Military-chartered helicopter lands at York Sound Aug. 27, 2014, for a tour of Op Nanook. Photo: Thomas Rohner

At an altitude of 3,000 feet, the bay sparkled beneath, every wave reflecting a shard of sunlight.

“Those waves are as tall as houses down there, don’t fool yourself,” the civilian pilot said over the headset.

Oblong isles of rock and the odd ice floe drifted by beneath.

Back in Iqaluit, before takeoff, the pilot had given us a stark and graphic safety briefing.

“If something horrible like a crash happens, please don’t leave me in the helicopter. Rescue me. Even if my legs are gone, I’m on fire or unconscious—whatever, please save me. I wouldn’t leave you in there. Nobody should be left in the helicopter if we crash, OK?”

He told us where to stand, and where not to stand when the chopper blades were turning, and what the consequences were if we erred.

“I’ve never heard of an injury. You die, that’s all.”

The view from a helicopter en route to York Sound from Iqaluit, Aug. 27, 2014. Photo: Thomas Rohner

He was like a character out of an adventure novel: confident, outgoing, friendly, aggressive and a little lewd.

“They don’t send me places where there’s no mosquitoes, with lots of booze and hookers,” he said of his employers on the way up to York Sound. “They only send me places where there’s  lotsa bugs, no booze and no hookers.”

He was due for some time off, he told us. “I’m going to abuse my liver, that’s what I’m going to do.”


The Camp: bacon and cigarettes

Groups of soldiers loitered throughout the camp, most in groups, huddled together, talking, smoking cigarettes. Three rows of tent–dark green, white and bright orange–extended from where the helicopter landed. Backpacks were piled high in a few spots.

ATVs buzzed around the camp, and there was an almost constant coming-and-going of helicopters and twin otters.

I was surprised to smell bacon.

“They’re our rations,” a search and rescue technician wearing a neon orange jumper told me. “I had a sausage breakfast this morning,”

Tent latrines at Op Nanook, York Sound, 2014: do your business in a bag, deposit bag in blue barrel. Photo: Thomas Rohner

The day before he had parachuted from a helicopter.

I was bored by the interviews and footage the other media personnel were obliged to record for their outlets. I didn’t have the same obligations, so I looked around.

On either side of the cluster of tents, standing 15-20 meters away, were a few booth-like structures, similar in material as the tents.

They looked like port-o-potties, and that’s exactly what they turned out to be. Beside the tent latrines were bright blue, plastic barrels. The latrines use a bag system. You go in a bag, and then put the bag in the barrel.


Rangers: polar bear, caribou, whales

Of the 32 rangers helping out at York Sound, around 30 are Inuit from the Baffin region, one ranger estimated.

Their main job is to carry out predator patrol along the perimeter.

Members of the Baffin region rangers at York Sound, helping out with Op Nanook, Aug. 27, 2014. Photo: Thomas Rohner

They’ve seen a few polar bears so far, another ranger told me, including a mother and cub. The bears may have been attracted by the caribou the ranger shot and killed.

“We spread the meat out on the ground, covered it with a tarp so the ravens wouldn’t get it, and it’s still fresh,” he said. “I’ve fed all the rangers with the caribou,” he laughed. A few more caribou have been shot since, which has raised some questions considering there are apparently not that many left on the island.

The rangers drove us down to the beachside on their ATVs, where a tent and small encampment was set up as the command centre for the grounded cruise ship in Op Nanook’s mock emergency scenario, about a kilometer offshore.

The military rep told us that, if we were lucky, we’d see some of the 50 actors hired to feign injury brought back to shore from the cruise ship and up to the triage tents in the main camp. Some of them would even be transported back to the hospital in Iqaluit, she said.

Be all you can be. Or something. York Sound, Operation Nanook, Aug. 27, 2014. Photo: Thomas Rohner
Be all you can be. Or something. York Sound, Operation Nanook, Aug. 27, 2014. Photo: Thomas Rohner

But we weren’t lucky. It was quiet down on the seashore, a handful of participants in Op Nanook—including a man with a “coroners” armband—mulling around a tent. After a few minutes we rode back up to the camp and piled into the chopper.

If only the media had been invited out to York Sound the previous day, when Stephen Harper visited the camp. We could’ve saved on jet fuel, maybe even asked the PM a question or two.




Harper’s in Iqaluit: so what?

Would it matter if, when Stephen Harper arrives in Iqaluit this week, we just didn’t show up to the photo-ops and PR stints so carefully planned and thoughtfully communicated to the media by his communications team? Would he smile to an empty room, shake hands with phantoms?

Most people know his annual trip to the North is a token gesture, a symbolic visit devoid of real significance. So why do we, especially in the media, still scurry to his events like lap dogs? An event needs an audience, and if the media deprived him of that, what would be left?

Photo by Remy Steinegger, courtesy wikicommons.
Photo by Remy Steinegger, courtesy wikicommons.

The media has grown too dependent on communication officials.

Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman published a propaganda model of media in 1988 predicting that, contrary to popular democratic belief, news media is not independent of power centres in society and actually “mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity”. The model is, by now, one of the most well-tested and proven models in all of social science.

The model is set up as a series of filters which potential news has to pass through in order to reach the public. Filters like advertisers and capital investment to create news media. One of the filters is a “sourcing bias”.

The sourcing bias is pretty simple: media rely on communications from governments and companies as an authoritative source of news. The resources of governments and companies are far greater than the resources of the media. Media can save money and time by relying on official communications.

The disparity in resources ensures this is an imbalanced relationship. But the imbalance doesn’t end with a sourcing bias; it only begins to explain how the general public, and the media, are kept at an arm’s length—a long go-go-Gadget arm’s length—from meddling in governmental affairs.

A commentary in the Toronto Star by Gregory Thomas earlier this month revealed that the Conservatives are spending over $260-million on communications personnel this year—for core public services alone—which is $48-million more than when they first came into power. In comparison, that amounts to about 80% of the payroll for the House of Commons. And, as Thomas points out, it’s not like communicating with Parliament Hill has gotten any easier under the Conservatives.

Photo courtesy wikicommons. Graffiti in Toronto on Danforth Ave.
Photo courtesy wikicommons. Graffiti in Toronto on Danforth Ave.

“Canadians are seeing a quarter-billion dollars of their money used against them: not to provide them with information, but rather to delay, conceal and spin the information to enhance the image of the party in power,” Thomas wrote in the Star.

Sourcing bias. Excessive spin doctors. And then there’s that nagging accusation that the Conservatives are muzzling scientists.

An article published last week by Postmedia’s Margaret Munro revealed through an Access to Information request—one of the last tools available to journalists asking meaningful questions—that scientists from the Canadian Ice Service, an arm of Environment Canada, were denied their 2012 wish to hold a “strictly factual” media briefing to reveal how ice had disappeared from the Northwest Passage. Their request to have biannual “Media Tech Briefings” so that Canadian media wouldn’t have to rely on American data which were “missing the Canadian details” didn’t make it through the government’s nine-level approval process that ensures their “communication plan”.

“Communication plan.” How quaint.

A communication plan isn’t about communication at all, at least not in the sense of a dialogue. It means communicating with an agenda. There are no direct answers given, so why bother asking direct questions?

Harper doesn’t think an inquiry into the tragic number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is necessary, for example, because it’s not a “sociological phenomenon”, he said last week while in Whitehorse. “It is crime against innocent people, and it needs to be viewed as such,” Yukon News quoted him as saying.

“No need to fret over the toxic brew that contributes to the many troubles faced by Canada’s aboriginal communities,” Yukon News editor John Thompson wrote in a scathing, impassioned editorial lambasting Harper’s “stupidity”. Thompson listed a few sociological

Photo courtesy wikicommons.
Photo courtesy wikicommons.

aspects that Harper glossed over: high unemployment, substance abuse, overcrowded housing, low education levels and “not to mention the terrible traumas inflicted during residential schools that continue to be passed from one generation to the next.”

More to the point, though, Harper’s not really answering the question: should we have an official inquiry? Instead he’s selling his tough-on-crime shtick. He’s shticking to a communication plan.

Sourcing bias. Excessive spin doctors. Muzzling scientists. Communication shtick.

Just for the exercise, what could Harper be addressing, instead of being wooshed from one venue to the next, handled by handlers whose soft hands see Jergens five times a day and cotton swabs for their cuticles? Just for the exercise…

John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club had some good suggestions in an editorial last week for Troy Media.

He wants to know why the National Energy Board is considering relaxing safety measures it adopted after the Verizon catastrophe in applications it’s currently reviewing from Chevron and Imperial Oil. “Will the PM be talking about drilling safety on this trip through the North?” Bennett asked.

He also wants to know why the scientists from Canadian Ice Service aren’t allowed, as scientists, to inform the public of scientific facts, as scientists.

I’m new to the North and have much to learn about reality and complexity of life up here. There’s a million real questions I imagine people would love to put to Mr. Harper that I don’t know about yet. But Harper’s shtick—shucks, that I’ve seen since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

If only, Kids in the Hall.



Prominent architecture in Iqaluit

scroll down for picture gallery

The architecture in Iqaluit leaves two distinct impressions on my mind: the town’s military history and the harsh arctic environment.

Many of the bigger buildings are box-shaped with minimal geometric variations and sparse porthole windows. There’s a simplistic aesthetic which immediately speaks to function and weathering the blistering winds.

But it doesn’t seem there are many admirers of Iqaluit architecture.

A letter to the editor of the local newspaper in 2002 described the town’s architecture as one of fear: fear of the elements, fear of costs, fear of a unique identity and fear of imagination.

“Buildings still do not engage the landscape as they should, striding over it with complete abandon,” the letter said. “There is little attention to the streetscape…to lighting, to the human experience of the building.”

And a former reporter at the local paper described the architecture, simply, as goofy.

But there are signs that architectural designs are becoming more ambitious, if even goofier.

One architect from Toronto designed skyscrapers, made of local rocks, to sit atop glaciers and move with ocean currents. Nothing came of those designs.

And some design students, also from Ontario, pitched giant floating balls of light to Nunavut communities as a way to see them through the long, dark winters.

Much of the push for more colourful, unique buildings comes, sadly, in the form of government, especially federal, buildings, as you’ll see below. The Territorial legislative assembly, built in 1999, was seen by many as the first building to attempt creativity. And an aquatic centre slated to begin construction next summer would certainly add some colour and flare.

A project headed by a Toronto firm, called Arctic Adaptations, tried to address what many see as the abysmal state of architecture in the North earlier this year by designing buildings with five themes in mind: health, housing, education, arts and recreation.

The project was one of the top exhibits at this year’s Venice Biennale—an internationally renowned architectural fair.

“Maybe we haven’t been as intelligent as the Inuit have been in adapting to place [in the North],” the lead architect said.

This post only deals with prominent architecture of public buildings in the town; a post on housing and infrastructure will follow at a later date.

Iqaluit Airport


Inuksuk High School

DSC_1225 DSC_1224 DSC_1228


Nakasuk Elementary School

DSC_1226 DSC_1285 DSC_1292


Baffin Correctional Centre and the territorial court house

DSC_1270 DSC_1271 DSC_1272 DSC_1233 DSC_1234


Legislative assembly and  RCMP office

DSC_1263 DSC_1266 DSC_1269 DSC_1255



St. Jude Anglican Church


DSC_1281 DSC_1283



The Arctic Hotel, The Frobisher Inn and the Legion


DSC_1243 DSC_1242 DSC_1218




DSC_1290 DSC_1241 DSC_1240 DSC_1239a

Building houses municipal council chambers.
This building houses the municipal council chambers.
Qikiqtani General Hospital
Qikiqtani General Hospital
CBC building.
CBC building.

Iqaluit groceries, sculptures


Grocery Bill, North Mart

*salt and pepper shakers (mini): $6.99

*sugar, bulk (0.465kg): $2.28

*canola oil (475mL): $3.99

*coffee, ground (925g): $19.99

water enhancer, squirt (48mL): $4.35

*pasta, rotini, 1 bag (900g): $5.49

*sandwich bags, 100: $1.99

*soap, bars (2): $4.19

*toothpaste (100mL): $4.29

*crackers, 1 box (225g): $3.99

*candy, 1 box (450g): $6.19

milk (4L): $10.45

frozen veg, corn (750g): $4.79

frozen juice concentrate: $1.35 x 4

ground beef (0.5kg): $5.95

pork loin (0.42kg): $6.76

chicken breast, boneless/skinless (1.1kg/5 pieces): $32.03

bag charge: $0.72

subtotal: $136.83

gst: $1.15

total: $137.98

*= discount brands


Things I can’t afford until I get paid

laundry detergent, Tide 5L: $48.89

toilet paper, Charmin 12 rolls: $19.99

garbage bags, Glad 20 large: $14.39

Hello Iqaluit


Grocery Bill
Cereal, Special K (565g): $11.39

Potato Chips (270g): $4.89

Loaf of Bread, 7-grain: $3.25

Onions, yellow (2lb): $3.49

Peppers, red (1): $2.33

Potatoes (5lbs): $5.45

Eggs (1 dozen): $3.95

Milk (2L): $6.19

Cheddar, Cracker Barrel Old (200g): $6.45

Butter (1lb): $7.99

Pork chops, loin (0.32kg): $4.89

subtotal: $60.37
gst: $0.21

Total: $60.58

Pearson tarmac, en route to Iqaluit

Pearson tarmac

August 4, 2014



When I left for Austria, Daniel came to the airport with me. Tata had dropped us off. Tata’s always offered a ride to and from the airport. He may not be the most emotionally-accessible father, but he often means well and is consistent and sincere in the help he can think—or is willing—to offer.

“Call me…one time,” he said when dropping me off to fly to BC a few months ago.

“I’ll call you…one time,” I said today when he dropped Alex and I off.


Daniel and I ate at Swiss Chalt while we waited for my flight to Vienna all those years ago. Only four or five years, really, but it feels like a lifetime. Daniel’s dead now. And so is Mama. And now I sit, waiting on the Pearson tarmac, en route to Iqaluit, with a definite purpose, a focus I never had before, though focus isn’t everything. Daniel cried when it was time to say goodbye. That surprised and touched me. I always struggled to recognize and appreciate his sensitivity. I blame it on being a stupid man. I’m pretty sure he paid for Swiss Chalet, because that’s the kind of guy he was.


I’m always the one leaving. Maybe that’s why I don’t understand the grief or sadness at parting. It’s not fair, really. Excitement, novelty and self-serving, egocentric desire is palpable for me when I’m in an airport. But for those I leave behind, an anticipated absence.


Alex held it together today. I almost cired when we were hugging and kissing, saying goodbye. The only other time I almost cried was an hour or two earlier. I was standing in the living room, making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, when I became aware that I was standing on the exact spot Mama died, in a hospital bed.


Places. Home. Geography. I’ve always struggled with understanding how a place I feel deeply connected to can continue to exist if I’m no longer there to witness it. Egocentric. Existential. Romantic.


We’re all born on one exact spot, and die in one exact spot. I could contemplate that for hours.


I orbit, revolve around places I love, never sure, never certain, that I will return, but maintaining a clear vision of each place. A feeling and a knowing.


In this way people are like places: they can only be in one spot at any one time, and they inspire a knowing, and tether me to the ground, even though my head drifts constantly into the clouds.



Robson Valley land grab threatens farming communities

no trespassing, gate, field, raush valley road, grass, security camera
One of six properties in the valley owned by billionaires Mark Walter and Robert Patton Jr, this one over 300 acres.

Beyond an iron gate, with warning signs of “No Trespassing” and of hidden security cameras, an overgrown driveway stretches past young pines. It ends in a clearing dotted with sand pits where the Lee Road school house used to stand. The fruit trees that stood beside the school house are gone too. Three deer, ears twitching, skittish, keep a watchful guard from across an adjacent field of weeds.

“Dunster’s always been this open community, everybody knows their neighbours,” Chuck McNaughton, a short but burly lifetime resident of the area said. “Now there’s locks and gates and security cameras everywhere.”

A community meeting held June 4 in Dunster was organized to discuss what many in the valley have observed over the past decade or so: large parcels of land bought up and then, to varying degrees, abandoned; property prices as steep and harsh as the mountainsides that flank the valley floor; and how difficult it is for people of ordinary means—often young families—to move into the valley.

“Quite often when the face of a community starts changing, you don’t notice it at first, it has to reach a critical mass,” Linda Fry, who attended the community meeting, said. “I think we do have to realize that change is the face of our communities.”

But change from and to what?

“The ultimate result of abandoned properties is the death of the community,” LelaniArris, president of the Dunster Community Association, said. It’s not change people in the Dunster area fear; it’s the slow strangulation of their farming community as it becomes nearly impossible for new people to move in and find affordable land, while fertile land is left fallow or mostly unused.

“A lot of us are getting older,” Chuck said. “It’s the volunteer labour we’re running short on, and that’s what keeps this community going.”


The Mad Land Grab

All over the world, large groups of people and organizations are buying up farmland, says Dr. Lenore Newman, the Canada Research Chair of Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley. Dr. Newman is tasked with studying the Canadian agriculture industry in the context of global trends.

“We’re in the middle of a global land rush. It’s not just your valley, it’s not just the province—it’s the whole world.”

farm, field, grass, fence, wire, abandoned, absentee
This property in Dunster– not owned by Fraser River Landholdings– was productive a few years ago, but has since been overgrown by trees and hawk weed.

In BC, foreign landowners don’t face any more restrictions than Canadians do.

“There’s a lot of big money sluicing around the world and land is one of the best investments going,” Dr. Newman said. “This incredible pressure on land in BC is pricing it out of the range of everyone who was born and raised here and who makes an average Canadian salary.”

Fraser River Landholdings Ltd is one company with extensive landholdings in the valley. A co-director of the company, Mark Walter, confirmed through a media representative that the company owns at least six properties, totaling about 1,000 acres, between Dome Creek and Valemount.

“The property is planned to be left as is, agricultural and recreational,” the email read.

Walter and co-director Robert Patton Jr. are wealthy American businessmen who, in 2012, bought the LA Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion as part of Guggenheim Baseball Management. Walter is also a founding partner, and current CEO, of financial assets management firm Guggenheim Partners LLC, with over $200 billion in managed assets, according to their website. Walter is also a trustee of the storied and powerful Guggenheim Foundation.

Newman said she doesn’t like to think of it as foreign capital, though. “The reality is there’s lots of people within the country in the same position, with tons of money, buying up land and sitting on it.” Only about 15 per cent of BC land is owned privately and with global capital hungry for investments, Dr. Newman fears the land rush will continue.

In the global village, where global capital permeates the local economy, national boundaries become almost irrelevant. Local community members can invest their time, labour and dreams, and can sow seeds for the future, for their children and the land they become a part of; but how does that stack up against pools of global capital, mostly impervious and ignorant to local community concerns?

“The problem,” says Dr. Newman, “is this idea of parking on the land; using land as a GIC or a safety deposit box.”


Old Blood

“If I were king,” Pete Amyoony says, chuckling, sitting in the kitchen of his small cabin in Dunster, sipping tea, “I would make a law that says, if you buy a piece of land and don’t put it to good use, don’t improve it, that you’re not allowed to sell it for more than you bought it.”

Pete Amyoony, Tim Haus, Aziz Haus, garden, farm, land, grow
Pete Amyoony, left, Tim Haus, far right, and Tim’s son Aziz, 3, discuss gardening on Pete’s farm.

A fantastical notion, but one that belies a certain wisdom. Amyoony has called Dunster home for some 30 years, has worked hard to pay off his 10-acre farm and is very active in the community. But circumstances have changed since he first moved into the valley.

“Land has become a commodity: to be bought, sat on, sold for more.”

Arris knows this all too well. She sold the piece of land on Lee Road where the school house sat to Fraser River Landholdings.  She still feels intimately attached to the property: her ex-husband perished in a tragic fire in one of the buildings, and she’s visibly devastated by the absence of the school house.

“I just don’t understand, why did they have to tear down the Lee Road school house?”

Just after selling the lot, Arris wanted to move a shed from the Lee Road property to her home, up the street. She was pulling the shed up Lee Road with a tractor when her realtor called; somebody had seen her, called the realtor, who told Arris that she wasn’t allowed to remove the shed since the sale was already finalized. The shed was sold with the lot, its fate up to the new owners, who evidently tore it down.

Property ownership is absolute: once the transaction is complete, any emotional or psychological value it holds for the former owner is translated into memories and dollars and cents.

“People have a right to sell for whatever reason they have decided to sell, and people have a right to buy, for whatever reasons they decide to buy,” Linda Fry, who works as a notary public, said. “These are individual decisions.”


New Blood

aziz haus, farm, garden, kid, child, school bus, bus
Aziz, 3, working in the garden with the school bus he calls home in behind.

A warm burst of fish odour greets you at the door of Pete’s greenhouse this time of year.

“I farm organically, with fish fertilizer,” he explains.

Despite scaling back on farming as he nears retirement, Pete has an exuberance and tireless energy. He hops off his riding lawnmower—“Those clippings will go in my compost”—and points across a rectangular plot, tilled and planted, which stretches about 100 meters away from the greenhouse and ends just before a derelict school bus and the forest in behind.

“That’s the magic school bus,” he smiles. The soft sound of clattering dishes and murmuring voices escapes the open door and windows of the bus. “Tim and his wife Susan are living in there, with their two children.”

Tim Haus, a German native, and his wife Susan Umstot, an American citizen, first travelled through Dunster on a family cycling trip a few years back. They both fell in love with the area, especially the strong sense of community. They met in the Middle East, working for Doctors Without Borders; Tim as an engineer and Susan as a nurse. They decided to make Dunster their home.

“We came here to live in the nature,” Haus says at Pete’s kitchen table with coffee in hand, eyeing his loaves of bread in the oven.  “To live for the nature, and with the nature.” His English is almost flawless.

Haus’ short hair is tousled, his hands slightly soiled. He’s rigged up a container to catch rainwater so his family can shower outdoors. It hasn’t rained much lately, though. “You can live well off the land here,” he says.

“You sure can,” Pete smiles broadly with a hint of pride. “I feel like one of the richest people in the valley when I walk into my root cellar or see my canning cupboard… the food that’s grown out of this place has been amazing.”

“See, even in Pete’s day, people moved here for philosophical reasons, more than economic reasons,” Tim says.

Pete amicably disagrees, shaking his head. “I wanted to find affordable land that I could grow on. Up until the 90s you could buy a quarter section for $25-$30,000, but now it’s $300-$400,000.” Many valley residents, especially farmers, are retiring now, Pete says. “And they sell their land to the highest bidder, and I understand that. They worked their butts off, and that’s their pension.”

“But the next generation, we know we won’t receive a pension, or as much of a pension,” Tim replies. “We have to deal with different parameters; hence we are not able to pay $300,000 for a piece of property because we will never make that kind of money living a lifestyle that we believe is good for the world, and not just good for the pocketbook.”

Haus has talked to some farmers who were willing to sell a portion of their farmland—tracts spotted with gullies and rocks that aren’t really farmable—but restrictions in the Regional District’s Official Community Plan (OCP) on subdividing land found within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) have so far thwarted him.  The Regional District, with delegated authority from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), ensures that farmable land is not divided into parcels smaller than 150 acres, as per the OCP. This way farmland is kept in larger, more productive tracts and intervening subdivisions are avoided.

ALR land stretches on either side of the Fraser River, on the valley floor. Residents mostly agree that the ALC’s aim is positive, but on the local level it makes it difficult to attract new families and farmers into the valley. With soaring real estate prices, larger parcels are that much more expensive.

The ALC includes incentives to farm land within the ALR, Lara Beckett, chair of the Agricultural Land Use standing committee at the Regional District said. “If you actually farm the land and make enough income on it for agricultural status, you can get a significant tax reduction.” But are there incentives to dissuade wealthy landowners who can afford the higher tax rates from abandoning their properties, leaving them unproductive?

“No, not really,” Beckett said. “It’s private land, so to some degree people make their own choices… It’s unfortunate, especially if it’s been productive in the past, to see it being taken over by weeds and trees; it’s a lot of work to get it back into production.”


wool, bike, washing machine, gizmo, invention, hippie, green energy,
Tim salvaged the sheep’s wool in the foreground before it ended in the dump. He washes it with the bike-powered machine in behind, then fleeces it to use in a yurt he’s building.

No Blood

Over the past 25 years Chuck and a neighbour have been tracking land ownership for most parcels of farmland in the valley, labeling each subsequent owner on a series of maps. Wielding a pen in calloused, scarred hands of knobby joints – a farmer’s hands – he goes through some of the oldest names in the valley. Chuck can trace his roots in the Dunster area to 1920, when his grandfather bought land—the parcel right beside Chuck’s home, in fact. He brings the maps to the Ice Cream Social sometimes, and to other reunions where people happily regale each other with stories of days past. The maps paint a picture of absentee landowners too.

Sitting in his workshop with high ceilings, various machinery and works of art – paintings, drawings, little wood carvings all the way up the walls– Chuck is quick to point out that “absentee landowners” is too vague of a notion: there are oil-patch workers with land who visit on weekends and plan to return for good once the property’s been paid off; there are others who can’t afford to live on the land they bought, but rent it out to local farmers; these landowners contribute to the community, he says. So which absentee landowners are the real concern?

“The ones that buy it, lock the gate and walk away, and then keep buying more.”

Chuck is drafting a letter addressed to Mark Walter that he plans to bring to the next community meeting on July 15. “There’s a chance that guys like Mark don’t have any idea about this stuff, how they’re affecting our community.”

It’s long been a harsh reality that the economic basis of a community determines whether it thrives or perishes, regardless of history and the sense of home locals may derive. But in the small Dunster community, the economic basis—farming—is still viable. “Every parcel along the river is crucial to this community,” Chuck says. But farming is being undermined by the current land grab, and by a lack of policies that ensure farmland is actually farmed.

Is the value of farming and food security losing out to the power of global speculation? Co-director Patton bought property in Fort Worth in 2005 for $6.5 million, and then sold it two months later for $15.7 million, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported last year. But he’s also a farmer: he’s been buying enormous ranches all over the US, ensuring surplus hay for his cattle during droughts that devastates smaller farmers. He’s managed to keep a low profile despite his enormous wealth, which, in the interview with the Star-Telegram, he attributed to his own community: “If I had grown up in Dallas, it would probably have been different. But this is how you act in Forth Worth.”

Or is farming losing out, as Chuck fears, to hunting grounds for the very wealthy? When asked if Fraser River Landholdings or Guggenheim Partners uses land in the Robson Valley for hunting the company responded by writing, “Guggenheim is not involved with Fraser River Landholding in any way.”

Pete knows it’s only rumours that have been swirling for years about the “Guggenheims” and “the hunters” and he’s eager for some answers. “The thing is, I don’t know what’s going on, and I’d like to know what they’re doing with our community. Why are they buying up land and not using it? There are those that want to use the land but can’t.”

Another community meeting is planned in Dunster for July 15. When asked if a representative from Fraser River Landholdings would be present, the media representative wrote, “We don’t know if representatives of Frazier (sic) are going to the meeting,” spelling “Fraser” incorrectly.

“Everyone’s saying everywhere, small communities are dying. But bugger it, this one’s not gonna die,” Chuck said.

Atop Swift Creek Lookout


a joint, a view
a joint, a view

A fear fueled by weed and my urban paranoia—but of bears!—saturates. I sing, I whistle, I bang two rocks together in rhythm. I have no desire to die by a bear’s brute force.

Before hiking up Swift Creek trail I asked the woman at the hardware store about their bear deterrents.

Bear Spray: $39.99

Bear bangers: $29.99 (scare them off with a loud bang)

Machete: $24.99

“You could just get a can, fill it with some marbles if you got some. Rocks’ll do too. Even just a pop can,” she said. “Tie it on your backpack.”

“I feel like the machete might be my best option,” I said.

“I’d hate to be close enough to a bear that I could use a machete.”

“Well, from how far away does the bear spray work?”

swift creek bridge
swift creek bridge

“Depends,” she said. “If you’re downwind…” She trails off, but makes big eyes.

Would I really be aware of the wind’s direction if a bear was close enough—advancing on me, teeth bared, claws at the ready—to use bear spray?

A few weeks ago, the paper reported a grizzly attack near Jasper. The grizzly attacked a hiker, who had curled into the fetal position, only to bite into a can of bear spray in a pocket of his backpack. The hiker was suspended above the ground, his backpack in the mouth of the grizzly, at the time. The bear dropped the hiker and ran off. The punctured aerosol can leaked the remaining liquid onto the hiker, burning his skin. He jumped into a river. So the story goes.

I used to tell people I had a “feeling” I would die fighting off a bear. I spent a lot of time in nature, growing up and in my adolescence, and a lot of that by myself. Besides, I’d just finished reading Song of Myself and Thoreau.

“People have seen a grizzly up there,” the woman at the hardware store said. “And there’s definitely a black bear up there.”

“Were there any cubs?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Some people say to wear a bell on your backpack, like a dinner bell…”

“Ya that’d scare them…”

“…that way they know where dinner is.” A broad smile, and big eyes again as if to say, I’m kinda joking. KINDA joking!

My solution: a battery-powered radio. Preferably with a tape deck or CD player for more variety. A buffer of safety created by noise. So that I can enjoy the view. And my joint. And do some writing or reading. Next time.

pondering bear
pondering bear