The town of Nelson, semi-Victorian, substantially bohemian, sportier and more artsy than your average hamlet of 9,700 souls, sits in the...
The town of Nelson, semi-Victorian, substantially bohemian, sportier and more artsy than your average hamlet of 9,700 souls, sits in the Selkirk Mountains of southeast British Columbia, about 30 miles north of the U.S. border. Picture a college town that has misplaced its university.
It has dramatic leaves in fall, skiing in winter, swimming and boating in summer, hiking and mountain biking much of the year. Thousands of American draft resisters and back-to-the-landers chose this area as a haven 40 years ago, and hundreds are said to remain, but it gets barely a trickle of U.S. tourists.
Just below the town lies the west arm of photogenic Kootenay Lake. Just above town rises Toad Mountain, where the discovery of silver prompted the founding of Nelson about 125 years ago. Nelson’s stone and brick Victorians, once the province of off-duty miners and loggers, now house eccentric shops, galleries and restaurants. The Sacred Ride (on Baker Street) peddles bikes. Downward Dog (Front Street) offers pet supplies. The Funky Monkey (Front Street) grills burgers. ROAM (Baker Street) promises gear for rivers, oceans and mountains.
Nelson — about 150 miles north of Spokane — is too little and isolated to stand as a major destination by itself.
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But you can stop by on your way to the Canadian Rockies. Or spend a few days driving a 135-mile loop from Nelson past the mountains, lakes, rivers, meadows and small towns of Kaslo, New Denver, Silverton and Slocan in B.C.’s Kootenays region. Or follow the 280-mile International Selkirk Loop (www.selkirkloop.org), which includes handsome chunks of southeast B.C., including Nelson, plus northern Idaho and northeast Washington.
Roaming the town
In Nelson, my family and I window-shopped on Baker Street; took a skiff for a buzz around on the water; rode an antique streetcar.
Downtown, we shared a good but pricey brunch at BiBO, followed by a great (and pricier) dinner at the All Seasons Cafe, Nelson’s top restaurant. Uptown, I took a ride on an old railroad track that has been converted into a mountain-biking trail.
“I just moved here to retire,” Aza Samchuck told me one afternoon as he sat astride a bicycle and watched teenagers leap from a piling into the chilly lake water. He is 35, Samchuck said, but because he’s done well in his profession, he can arrange a few lucrative days of out-of-town work per month, then hang loose in Nelson the rest of the time. Of course, I had to ask his profession.
“I tattoo people,” he said.
For a less bohemian, more Victorian Nelson, head to Vernon and Ward streets, where you can nurse a drink inside the stone-faced Hume Hotel (1898) and gaze north to the old ivy-cloaked courthouse (1902) or east to the Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History (1902 again). Nearby on Victoria Street, there’s the restored Capitol Theatre (1927) and the old jail, now Selkirk College’s Kootenay School of the Arts.
As such buildings were going up in the early 1900s, Nelson and environs were getting more than the usual influx of miners and woodsmen. A pacifist, agrarian sect of Russian Christians known as Doukhobors also arrived, about 5,000 of them, and with them a militant fringe group, the Sons of Freedom, that staged hundreds of nude marches, arsons and anti-government bombings.
Wars also changed the region. During World War II, the Canadian government set up internment camps and imprisoned about 8,000 Japanese Canadian men, women and children.
And as the Vietnam War stretched from the 1960s into the ’70s, along came the Americans — perhaps as many as 10,000 draft resisters (aka draft dodgers, aka conscientious objectors) by some estimates, along with others eager to start communes in the countryside.
Most of the communes fell apart fast, and President Carter pardoned the draft resisters in 1977. But like many Doukhobors and Japanese Canadian families before them, many of these immigrants stayed, raised families and worked as farmers, artisans or entrepreneurs.
In the late 1970s, Nelson boosters started tidying up the town’s then-bedraggled old buildings. By the summer of 1986, the renewed downtown was fetching enough to attract actor Steve Martin, who arrived with a prosthetic nose and film crew to work on the movie “Roxanne.” The popular film, released the following year, features Martin as the big-nosed chief of a bumbling small-town fire department and Daryl Hannah as the bespectacled astronomer of his dreams.
Draft resisters monument
After learning all that, it was a letdown to meet no avowed draft resisters, Doukhobors, Japanese Canadians or movie stars. But I did hear plenty about the furor of 2004, when Isaac Romano, of Nelson, proposed a monument to the draft resisters, stirring scorn from many sides, prompting denunciations from local business leaders and inspiring a New York Times headline that dubbed Nelson “Resisterville.”
The monument idea was quickly shelved, but in 2006 a reunion of resisters was staged (with Doukhobor help). Locals say a 3-foot-high bronze model of artist Naomi Lewis’ proposed draft-resister memorial now resides at the Vallican Whole Community Centre in the nearby Slocan Valley, a favored haunt of countercultural folk.
Yet when author Ernest Hekkaman and his partner, Margrith Schraner, were looking to relocate from Vancouver 11 years ago, Hekkaman told me, they chose Nelson “because it’s a small town with an active arts community and literary community. … I didn’t realize there was such a large anti-war population here, so many draft dodgers from the ’60s and ’70s.”
But since Hekkaman is a draft dodger himself — having moved from Seattle to Vancouver in 1969 — that was hardly a problem. He helped underwrite the 2006 reunion and briefly housed the model draft-resister sculpture at his home-gallery. He estimated that perhaps 300 draft resisters remain in Nelson and surrounding areas. But good luck spotting them among the other free spirits.