Discovering a Town That Time Almost Forgot
In the timeworn and dishevelled village of Trout Lake, there is a quality of unabashed honesty about the local conditions. For example, the battery was missing from the smoke detector in our hotel room. We knew this because the cover was also missing from the smoke detector. You could see where the battery should have been.
For dinner that April evening in the Windsor Hotel, the choices were two: pork cutlets and cabbage rolls. The food, at $13.95 a setting, was good, made for the Windsor's regular patrons, who worked hard, burning slash and looking for minerals, and needed meat on their plates. The conversation was amusing, too, in a Jethro Bodine sort of way: a friendly argument over the fate of a sick bear, which had moved into a nearby cabin. A drunk fellow at the next table tried to promote a shooting, but he found no takers. Sick or not, let nature take its course, was the general agreement.
Nature, in all its dusty profusion, lies thick upon the village of Trout Lake. Take a walk around and you'll see where it springs up furious and lush between abandoned appliances: here a backyard Maytag, there a thatch of wild strawberries. Notice where it threatens to tip over a motley gathering of outhouses. Where it creeps silent and steadfast under the edges of a vacant home.
There is no embarrassment about this. The residents of Trout Lake wear that crusty skein of nature like a pair of rope suspenders, hung out for all to see. But for the visitor, it's confusing. You look at Web sites advertising a pristine wilderness and a slice of history preserved like grandma's jam, and then you go there and you see all this shit collected up and stored like it was actually worth something, and you think, "What the hell is all this?" And, more importantly, "What am I doing here?"
I don't know what it is, though unabashed honesty does appear to be a part. What I was doing there, on the other hand, is simple. I've lived in Nelson for 20 years and never bothered to make the two-hour trip. It's north, 100 kilometres on pavement, then 70 more up a dirt road that starts out well enough but eventually deteriorates into a mule path. In need of a sudden holiday, I decided to go to Trout Lake, because it wasn't far, and I had never been there. Better yet, I talked someone else into driving me there.
The first impression you get of Trout Lake, you get long before you get there. Never mind the dirt-road part; the paved road takes you so far into the backwoods, you could be squealing like a pig before daybreak. You go a ways north of Kaslo on Highway 31, past the big ol' Duncan Dam, where you can stop for lunch at a picnic table on a little crowning hill that appears to overlook about half the West Kootenay. We sat there and watched a helicopter working the timber and enjoyed the scenic isolation.
Carry on: you continue north on pavement, turn at Howser to follow the Lardeau River northwest, and the pavement goes away. You're still on Highway 31, and though it's dirt, it's not bad. We hadn't gone far before we passed a sign; too quickly for my eyes, but Maggie, who was driving, has better reflexes. She laughed.
"What was that?" I said.
"Ambulance path," she recited.
I wondered why an ambulance path would run off into the bush and up a mountainside. Clumsy loggers, I figured; they must need a special path for the ambulances. "Makes sense," I agreed.
Anyway, there was more to look at than highway signs. The Lardeau is a gorgeous, active river, and on this day it glittered with spring sunshine and twisted through the forested countryside, showing up for a little while and then sliding away behind a bunch of trees, only to return a mile down the road. Everywhere was the light leafy green of spring's rebirth, so rampant with health it made you want to get out and have a smoke just to balance things.
The quality of the dirt road was surprising, so smooth you could actually read a map at 60 kilometres per hour, which Maggie only stopped doing when I yanked it out of her hands.
"Keep your eyes on the road!"
She laughed recklessly.
Soon, keeping your eyes on the road became crucial. We crossed a bridge over the scintillant Lardeau, which now lay on our port side, and the road began to twist and scurry through the forest as if it wanted to hide from us. Signs urged the use of a radio, presumably to avoid collisions with logging trucks, and the road narrowed like the waistline of a fashionable woman of the 1890s, which was when Trout Lake was built by a gang of miners (and perhaps a few fashionable women) prospecting for silver and gold.
Like other boomtowns, Trout Lake eventually deflated; in this case, around 1920, when metal prices sank and the steamboats quit running, shutting off a community that had grown up too fast: hotels, a bank, hospital, newspaper, a skating rink, all thriving on the mining economy, and nearly all gone now.
As the dirt road heading for Trout Lake the village became rougher and narrower, it climbed above the long reach of Trout Lake the lake, and because that body lay on our left, the road would, every so often, shoot hard right, inland, and then curl sharply to the left. Here, a creek would reveal itself: a bright little waterfall on our right, the deep slash of a ravine on our left, the creek tumbling a long way to the lake below. Sometimes there would be a sign; one said Copper Queen Creek. Later, we passed another one that read Avalanche Path, and Maggie said, "Hey," in a funny way.
Out there, where the lake came to an end, a smudge of brown lay on the air--someone burning slash--and below it, geometric shapes. Soon we pulled into Trout Lake, and there we found a general store, with alien spaceships in front that turned out to be old-fashioned gas pumps, "visibles" with glass cylinders on top.
A lady inside directed us to the Windsor Hotel, which was built in 1892 but went to seed after the local mines reached their best-before dates. Kept upright for decades by a woman named Alice Jowett, it has since been restored and now is Trout Lake's dining room and bar, gathering place, and big-screen TV room. It presents to visitors a backwoods cornucopia of amusements: a huge grizzly skin on a wall, an old piano-organ, a bookcase full of old books, another full of geological specimens. Everything is kind of dusty and waiting to be discovered--fun stuff for the traveller.
The Windsor's rooms, meanwhile, might be a little rough for your finer class of tourist. I missed my Trinitron (there is no TV, and in some rooms, no toilet), and when Maggie threw a cigarette butt out the window, it nearly set fire to an abandoned sock on the roof below. Looked like a pretty good sock, but I couldn't reach it.
Later, walking around town, Maggie commented that there were no gardens. Spring wasn't as far along as in Nelson, and there was snow in some of the yards. But she was right: no flower gardens. (The one exception encircled a stop sign.) There were almost no children, either.
Trout Lake's population is not small, it's microscopic--56, according to the Encyclopedia of British Columbia--so there aren't many bodies for a municipal beautification committee. That does make for quiet nights, though, and in the Windsor Hotel we enjoyed nearly perfect sleep, disturbed only by the occasional hoot of an owl.
At one end of town, there is a well-maintained dock, a giant capital T reaching into a lake that is said to be 230 metres deep. Along the shore, there were cottages that looked like fine places for a summer holiday.
A sign on the dock advises that it's against the rules to swim there. But as Maggie pointed out, "Who's gonna stop you?" Many of the people who go to Trout Lake go there only briefly, for fishing or snowmobiling, or to enjoy those cottages. A lot of the houses we saw were summer places, used by people who come for something they can't get in Vancouver or Calgary. Wherever you walked, there was this sense of abandonment, but if you looked beyond your nose, you saw an overarching beauty. The Selkirk mountains around Trout Lake reminded me, in their craggy, snow-capped wildness, of the Rockies. In the lake at 7 a.m. the sky and a white-topped mountain were reflected, and there was no one to make a ripple, to disturb that frail image. In the end, that's probably why people go to Trout Lake, and why 56 people live there. If you look, you can see a lot of beauty, and it's not hard to ignore the trash, because it's just there, doing nothing. And whatever you choose to do with your time in Trout Lake, nobody is likely to come along and mess it up for you.
ACCESS: To find Trout Lake on a B.C. road map, go to Revelstoke and turn southeast; it's not far. To find Trout Lake from behind the wheel of a car, you can go to Revelstoke and drive south to the Shelter Bay ferry landing, catch a free boat ride to Galena Bay, then continue east for half an hour on Highway 31. That's the easy way. The hard way is north from Kaslo on Highway 31, with an hour on a dirt road that gets narrow, but not challenging. Alternatively, drive east from Vernon on Highway 6, then head north through Nakusp. Air Canada flies to Castlegar, where you can rent wheels at the airport and go north on Highway 6 through Nakusp. For accommodations and dining, consider the Windsor Hotel: 1-888-WINDSOR; fax:  369-2246; Web site: www.windsor-trout
lake.com/. The rooms are cheap and look it, and the food is tasty. There is a municipal campground and a good boat launch. You can rent a small boat or arrange a lake cruise at the Windsor.