Return to the Kootenays
September 20, 2018
Words: Ginni Seehagel/Emanuel Smedbøl/
Photos: Emanuel Smedbøl
What is it about a place that draws us to return to it again and again? Writer Ginni Seehagel and photographer Emanuel Smedbøl, both based in Vancouver, British Columbia, first crossed paths in the Kootenays, in southeastern British Columbia. Here, Seehagel talks to Smedbøl about this mountainous region where he grew up and frequently returns, discussing the enjoyment and meaning of place, and how travel is about more than just discovery.
Emanuel and I became acquainted through place when my husband and I took a trip to the Kootenays, a region in British Columbia’s lower interior, over a smoky long weekend at the height of forest-fire season. I had traveled to the Kootenays a number of times in my earlier years as a form of self-discovery, or perhaps self-preservation, depending how you look at it. It was a place that helped me and taught me things in early adulthood. I associate many things with it, but its hazy blue layers of rock stacked above lake-bottomed valleys is an image etched precisely into memory. I doubt it’s an experience unique to me as the scene seems iconic, especially under smoke.
Being impacted enough as a visitor, I could only speculate how Emanuel, a native to the remote Kootenays, felt about his own frequent returns to the area. I asked him about the place where he grew up and why he goes back every year to canoe the same lake route when he currently lives in Vancouver, the land of endless and convenient coastal hikes and swims:
“I remember a persistent feeling of wild possibility, a thrilling sense of the unknown and the promise of discovery.”
“I grew up in an old log cabin in BC’s mountainous Kootenays. We were about three miles outside a little village with a post office and small school, about an hour’s drive from the nearest shopping center (population 10,000), or about eight hours east of Vancouver. It was pretty rural. Our house was on a flat little bench surrounded by dark forested ravines and a view of the mountains. I spent a lot of time outside exploring the nearby woods and river. The forest was my playground, and since all my friends lived miles away I would often just go out alone, or sometimes follow my dog on her rounds to see where she would take me. I’m probably romanticizing it, but I remember a persistent feeling of wild possibility, a thrilling sense of the unknown and the promise of discovery.”
When we talked about the influence of his childhood home on his choice of present location, he told me that while he was clearly enamored by his secluded upbringing, he also carried a strong curiosity for city life, gravitating towards stories and images of urban progression and architecture even when he was small. It’s agreed that Vancouver brings a healthy balance of amenities and natural spaces as far as cities go. It has plenty of places to explore, requiring minimal effort to access. Emanuel pointed out that although there are many places in close proximity he could easily revisit or newly visit, he chooses not to:
“It’s nice to revisit these places again and again, to experience them in their different moods, witness their changes, and find comfort in what has stayed the same.”
“I’m not totally sure what draws me to return to a few places rather than others. What makes us like what we like? Is it a sort of familiarity? A kinship of personalities between person and place? A lot of the places that call to me are indeed similar to the landscapes of home — mountains, lakes, forests. But many are also greatly different — the tangled rocky coast of BC, wide open rangeland, sculpted deserts, the vast tundra. It feels like these places have a personality all their own, a wildness that piques the imagination. But there’s nowhere that calls to me with quite the same resonance as that First Place, the hallowed haunts I once knew so well. The Kootenays have been a constant companion throughout all these years away, a source of indelible inspiration, a resource I continually draw upon. It is home.”
Connection to particular places is something I’ve been excavating throughout my own life and I’ve often wondered why the concept seems to hold some of us more than others — whether it’s rooted in habit or history, or likely both. I asked Emanuel what he thought about nomadism – I had read a definition of it as those who follow and return to fixed routes that satisfy a purpose, rather than that of constant thirsty wandering. He’s been paddling the same lake every August with his mom and select company for consecutive years and says it just “feels kind of weird” to miss a year. The return has become a necessity.
“The Kootenays have been a constant companion throughout all these years away, a source of indelible inspiration, a resource I continually draw upon.”
“The trip is perfection, a summation of everything I love about summer,” says Emanuel. “We take our time, canoeing some 50km in five days, a slow ritual of morning swims, coffee, a couple hours of paddling, a lazy lunch, hiking to see waterfalls, more swims, setting up camp, and sleeping on a different beach every night. It was my mom who started the tradition. She would canoe the lake every summer with my stepdad, and while for the life of me I can’t recall why my sister and I didn’t initially go, I’ll always remember the look on her face upon her return: buoyant, brimming with life and with tales of beautiful unspoiled beaches, refreshed from a week on the water far from anywhere. After my stepdad passed away there were voids everywhere, empty spaces, a profound sense of loss. I knew it would mean a lot to keep some traditions alive, and in particular to ply the same waters over and over, to keep this memory with her. And it has meant a great deal to me too. For all my years camping on those waters, I had barely gotten to know half of it. The whole west side of the lake is inaccessible to vehicles - one giant stretch of rocks and forests and beaches - and it has been very fulfilling to finally get to know that side of it too.”
It’s apparent in Emanuel’s work and demeanor that a sort of ‘slowness’ carries merit. He attests to the slower methods of travel, “bicycle trips, canoe trips, walkabouts”, suggesting that they allow a “much more intimate and visceral way” of connecting with a landscape. “You just don’t experience a place in the same way when you are sealed off in a car, zipping by.” Perhaps it’s accurate that there is a sense of likeness between person and place; a mirroring of personalities that prompts the return, not unlike wanting to spend time with a person you get along with. These days so much of travel looks fast and frequent. Maybe dialing back on that is a request for building stronger relationships with the places we know.
“Few things can compare to the thrill of travelling to new destinations, but I’ve always felt a need to balance it with ritualized returns to a handful of my favorite places,” says Emanuel. “It’s nice to revisit these places again and again, to experience them in their different moods, witness their changes, and find comfort in what has stayed the same. There will always be other lakes to travel, other canoe trips to plan. I have a long list of lakes I want to visit. But I think they will always be an addition to our little trip, never a replacement. I feel this landscape within me.”
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