Fresh Tracks

Fresh Tracks

The “Spirit Trail,” Harrison Lake, BC.

from BRITISH COLUMBIA magazine, December, 2010

The tubing park at Hemlock Valley Resort doesn’t look like much: just five lanes carved into the side of the hill, separated by hay bales, with a rope tow to schlep the demonstrably lazy to the top. But it provides a perfect teachable moment.

“Girls, in about a minute you’re going to feel like you’re going for gold in Whistler. Because this is very much like the luge.” Madeline lay poised on her inner tube. Lila lay on top of me on the other tube, inert in her snowsuit. (She is two.)

“What’s the luge?” Madeline says. (She is five.)

“An Olympic event.”

“Who invented it?”

“Who invented the luge?”



Last night’s snowfall had creamed the entire valley almost to lodge level. In today’s sunlight it looks as if a painting crew had triple-coated everything in white, leaving the baseboard untouched. You can see the triple-express chair ferrying skiers and snowboarders to the summit – from which, an hour ago, a parasailer had launched, a yellow dot against the blue sky. We shrugged our tubes up to the edge of the slope and over.

It isn’t super-steep. But some space-age polymer on the underside of the tubes makes them unspeakably slippery, and fast. We thundered town, pinched the haybale sidewalls and spun like curling rocks until straw scattered on the runoff slowed us to a silent stop. There was a certain amount of heavy breathing; I realized it was coming from me. Were the kids alive? If so, it occurred to me they might never forgive me. But it soon became clear they’d never forgive me if we didn’t do this 15 more times.

Snow is not the first thing, or even the second or third thing, that comes to mind when someone mentions Harrison Hot Springs, BC, and its surrounds. The village, just two hours’ drive east of Vancouver, is known as a summer getaway — a place of sandcastles (on the beach) and fiddlers (at the arts festival) and boutique cheeses (from the area farms). Even winter here’s just a cooler shade of green. That’s why Hemlock Valley is so freakish. It’s like something out of CS Lewis. Bear north outside of town and push up into the mountains – through the firs as if through the furs in the magic wardrobe—and out you pop into … the French Alps. In Hemlock Valley so much winter snow routinely falls that even amid one of the warmest winters on record in southern BC, it was ski business as usual up here—minus the lift lines.

If it all seemed a little bit magic—slipping in and out of winter in less time than a cab-ride takes to the airport—well, so be it. There is something a bit otherworldly about this former logging town cum-tourist-mecca—and there always has been.

To American gold-rush prospectors, steaming north toward the rumoured motherlode in Yale, Harrison Lake was a golden key. Here was a freshwater highway, 42 miles long and boomerang-shaped, that breeched forbidding mountain ranges like a magic portal to the BC interior, where untold riches lay. And maybe all that concentrated human intention, that thrill of sudden good fortune, is still in the air around here.

Willie Charlie has no qualms about using the “s” word. It is, he says, a spiritual place. Charlie, the soft-spoken chief of the local Chehalis band, is a custodian of many of his people’s legends, recounted an origin myth. A man out fishing had a bountiful day. But instead of sharing his catch, he got selfish. He boiled up a huge batch of fish-head soup that he aimed to quaff down himself in one big greedy slurp. Sadly for him, the great creator was watching, and turned him to stone. He stands forever on a mountain ridge west of Harrison Hot Springs. And that boiling cauldron of soup? That’s the hot springs.

To all the Natives in the area the springs carried – and still do – a healing power. But no longer can you just jump into the pools that once gathered beneath a fissure in the mountainside. The healing waters have long since been harnessed. They pop out now in two places: the pedestrian public hot springs and the lavish, spa-like pools of Harrison Hot Springs Resort.

The morning we arrived, the hotel itself seemed to be just stirring from sleep. Guests padded groggily through the lobby in plush robes en route to the outdoor pools – thence to slide into the water until the warm vapours met the cool air and their hair turned white.

The rest of the family beat me into the water. I was finishing breakfast upstairs with a guy who knows as much as anyone as the other thing that has put Harrison Hot Springs on the map.

Bill Miller is a big man with a shaggy mane of cinammon-brown hair. Almost every day, rain or shine, he climbs aboard his Polaris ATV — “Bigfoot Research” on the side — and guns it up the logging roads, high into the mountains looking for … signs. When he’s not on the buggy he’s out dutifully checking out every reported sighting, or he’s on the Net contributing to the sasquatch conversation in forensic detail. Sasquatch sightings have been reported all over the Pacific Northwest. But around Harrison Lake the data points cluster. If Bigfoot lives, he lives here. Did Miller really believe they’re out there? I asked.

“Unless the one I saw died as it walked out of sight, and it was the last one,” he said.

Miller’s eyes drifted into the middle distance, beyond the poised forkful of breakfast sausage and out through the big windows into the east shore of the lake, as he reconstructed the memory. Co-ordinates: 2003, 4200 feet up Sentinal Mountain, near Stoki creek. Miller was scanning a nearby slope when, in a clearing, something moved. He got off the buggy and peered through 600 mm of camera lens. He picked the thing up again there, in the shaky telephoto spotlight, and squeezed off two shots. The first one was blurred. The second one caught Bigfoot. The very same species of hominid, maybe, that Miller had glimpsed through the fog while night-fishing in Minnesota almost thirty years ago, and that set his Bigfoot obsession in train. Except that the picture is not quite good enough to show anyone. Another inconclusive photo is going to create more scoffers than believers. And so he will not rest until he has the definitive vindicating evidence – a crisp photo, a sharp video sequence. He has already spent, in his estimation, $150,000 of his own money in the hunt. (If he accepted money, his motives would be suspect and his credibility shot, he reasons.)

The fruits of his labours to date: some footprints in the middle of nowhere. A rough catalogue of fugitive glimpses. No bones, no nests. “People say to me, you’ve been at this almost every day for a decade and you haven’t found it. Well, look around. This is a vast place. You could hide a dinosaur up here and no one would know.”

But just by being here, doing his thing, Miller is kindling a buzz around Bigfoot not seen around here since they cancelled Sasquatch Days. He’s trying to scratch up funding to get a good-quality replica of the creature built and put on display here in Harrison, a diarama kind of thing, sasquatch in his natural habitat. He thinks there might be a market for Sasquatch tours, taking tourists into the mountains to the locations of famous reported sightings. You’d bring a lunch and eat it right there on the Sasquatch trail.

It’s easy to think of the whole Harrison Hot Springs area as a filigreed map of trails like that, some visible, some not, dating back thousands of years – First Nations, explorers, fur traders, prospectors and maybe hairy hominids too, all laying down tracks. It would take something like a satellite map not of space but of time to reveal them (get on this, Google people). But even today, local residents are still finding ways to create new trails, with surprising payoffs for those who discover them.

Earlier, we’d pulled off the main road and stopped at an unmarked trailhead. This was the “spirit trail,” so named by some geocachers who had hidden a small prize at the end of it (a box maybe containing batteries for the gps that had got you there). The woods in there felt primeval. Traffic sounds soon fell away, swallowed up by the sword ferns. Moss-covered deadfall gave it an elephant’s-graveyard feel. It seemed untrodden by anyone, ever. And then you saw it: halfway down the path, high up on a big hemlock, the face of an old man.

The mask was the handiwork of Ernie Eaves, a potter and semi-retired drama teacher from an area highschool. This was a path he knew of, had walked for years with his dog. But one day he saw the forest differently. The trees seemed somehow…animated. A group of four of them looked like four men playing poker—and so that’s what they became, replete with visors and eye patches. Near the end of the trail is a kind of circle of trees. That’s where Ernie put “the goddesses” – twice-lifesize faces of women across cultures.

Ernie didn’t build this trail to be discovered, or to be written by people like me. He built it, he says, “to make myself laugh.”

I caught up with the rest of the family at the indoor pool at the hotel. There was a strange energy to the scene. Madeline was sharking around in search of warm spots. Where was the kid who was a little bit afraid of water? She was dunking her head, swimming half the width of the pool. Lila was launching herself off the side with crazed abandon, and babbling nonstop in some foreign toddler tongue. Clearly, in the last 24 hours, the kids had made a developmental leap. There’s probably a scientific explanation –like, that’s how kids’ brains grow, in observable fits and starts. But I couldn’t help think that something in the water had shot them through with vitality, like Hume Cronyn in Cocoon.

Probably, whatever mysticism people find in Harrison Hot Springs is mysticism they have brought here themselves. “The great thing about Harrison is that it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is – a beautiful spot at the end of a long lake,” Ernie Eaves told me. The medicine water issues not from rock but from the espresso machine at Muddy Waters – a coffee spot we visited on the way out of town. Sunshine speared through the big glass windows. We fueled up on sandwiches for the trip home and gazed at the photos on the wall. Portraits of guys with names like Cootie Williams and Waldren “Frog” Joseph. Jazz legends who never in their lifetimes saw this much light.

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