People are drawn to the Kootenays because of the beauty, but they return (time and time) again because of the culture.
I’m not talking about culture as in dining, museums, art galleries and theatre — though for the population size of the Kootenays, there aren’t many regions in Canada that can compete.
The culture I’m referring to is directly tied to the people: a laid-back, make-yourself-at-home, never-take-ourselves-too-seriously culture. We like to get dressed up to go out, but that “dressing up” means finding our best flannel as often as it means dressing up for one of our reservation-only restaurants.
Heck, even in our reservation-only restaurants, you’ll probably find flannel.
Take, for example, the village of Salmo. At the junction of Highways 3 and 6, and with a population of about 1,100 people, this West Kootenay tiny town has become a feature of retro Canadian culture.
Enter the Salmo Dinner Jacket, otherwise recognized as the classic plaid lumberjack shirt so often synonymous with foreign perception of “Canada wear”.
Salmo's Dinner Jacket; photo courtesy of the Village of Salmo
It all started with some regional ribbing. The village’s down-home vibe lent with neighbours categorizing the plaid wear as Salmo’s “dinner jacket” — became something of status symbol for residents. “We chose to turn the ... stereotype around of the Salmo Dinner Jacket by making it the ‘official work gear’ of our employees,” says Diane Kalen-Sukra, Chief Administrative Officer for Salmo.
The stereotype was further encouraged by producing an official version for sale in the village office and by posting selfies snapped while people sported the dinner jacket at home and abroad.
The trend became such a story that it even made its way onto CBC.
The eclecticism of the Kootenays — and maybe even the world — is represented in a town further west along Highway 6. The diversity of people (and outfits) became so synonymous with the town that a book was published on the theme.
But it doesn’t stop there. Nelson’s Baker Street is the epicentre of this eclectic hub, and one coffee shop, advantageously fronting the busy corner of Baker and Ward streets, has taken a playful approach to the local culture.
“The bingo cards were his idea,” says John Ward Coffee General Manager, Amy Stewart, referencing her husband’s creation of the “Baker Street Bingo” cards found at the coffee shop. “There are some unique features to Nelson living and some of these are mentioned on the bingo cards.”
Baker Street Bingo; photo by Amy Steward
When I first encountered the cards at John Ward, I thought it was simply a clever poke at the town’s eclectic vibe. I sat down with a local who assured me we’d have most of the squares checked off by the time he was done with his coffee. My card listed sightings such as “Beard & Staff”, “Unattended Children” and “Moccasins” as requirements for a winning streak. Though funny, I thought, there was no way I’d actually see all these things while sitting here for one coffee session.
We both had “Bingos” before my local friend had drained their cup.
“Nelson culture has shifted and changed over the years … you see a mix of the old and the new here today,” says Amy, who admits she’s been a “walking bingo” herself. “It's a unique town and never a dull moment on the corner of Ward and Baker.”
Southwest of Nelson and Salmo, and hugging the Canadian-US border, you’ll find Rossland. Steeped with mining history as a gold rush town, the modern draw of Rossland is the skiing and biking terrain of the beloved RED Mountain Resort. The town has been known to throw regular shindigs paying homage to both Rossland’s history and the shenanigans of its past, making this a place where retro vibes spill from parties into the everyday.
Rossland's Beer Goggle Event; photo by Ryan Flett
"Maybe we got stuck in our ways, maybe we never grew up, maybe we just like a party,” says Kristi Calder of Rossland. “Either way, Rossland locals like to dress up. Specifically, they like to dress retro. We have specific events catered to our retro ways, like the annual end of season retro deck party at RED Mountain Resort. However, we find any excuse to pull on a onesie and chuck on a wig, be it a house party, Winter Carnival, or sometimes ‘just ‘cause.’”
And that “just ‘cause” part is where Rossland’s love of retro outshines most places of its size. In a town of just 3,500, the testament of retro lies in its thriftstore culture.“Rossland's thrift shop is very well-frequented, with line-ups outside each day before the doors open — seriously,” adds Kristi. “Our up-cycling ways carry over into more practical uses. Downtown Rossland hosts 3 shops focused on up-cycling including Revival Boutique: high quality, lightly used women and men clothing; Bombshack: trendy, lightly used kids and tween clothing; and the Rossland Thrift Store with its reputation as the best in the biz and a constant stream of used kids and adult athletic gear provided by the sporty locals.”
Words by Gina Bégin. Top photo by Dave Heath, from Nelson BC.
Gina Bégin - Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. On a quest to reach the distant adventures of North America, she lived in her car, traveling to ski the backcountry of Alaska, sleep under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climb Colorado's frozen canyons, photograph Nova Scotia’s coves, backpack in southern US wildernesses and munch on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But after three years living on the road and seeing the many wonders this continent had to offer, she chose the place she knew would fit an explorer looking for a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains.