Canada First

The Kootenai River Complex on September 6

We enjoyed a breakfast with my stepfather Jim, who had graciously filled his refrigerator with things for us to eat, since he only has cereal in the mornings. He pulled out a map and we talked about the best route to take to get to Slocan, and he suggested taking the ferry to Nelson and encouraged us to stop at the Glass House. We said our goodbyes, promising to return on Friday, and left Idaho for Canada.

Before we left our country, we got up close and personal with the fire. The Kootenai River Complex in North Idaho had grown to 10,000 acres at the time. (It’s 21,000 today) We could see many different plumes of fire showing places where the fire was burning heartily. It was clear that the fire was spreading across different hillsides on steep slopes in multiple directions. In order to fight it, people would have to be all over the place. Jim had said they weren’t fighting it at the time though because the hillsides were so steep that it would be too dangerous for firefighters to attempt to get in there. They were mostly keeping an eye on where the hot spots were approaching buildings. We could see that the chance of fire burning someone’s home or barn was a very real threat.

The fire was uncomfortably close to the valley, where the people are.

I found out after we had already begun this road trip that Pedro had never been to Canada. I didn’t realize that! How much extra fun, then, that he would get to add another country to his list.

Since I grew up here, only a few miles from the border, Canada seems like another state to me. When we were young, it was a simple thing to drive over the border and spend a day exploring and shopping in Canada, and then come home. I told Pedro how the border towns used to treat U.S. and Canada coins the same, since they are similar to each other in size and material. On either side of the border, if you didn’t have the right country’s coins, you could use the other country’s coins, and no one cared. You didn’t need any kind of ID to cross the border, and generally the only thing Canadian border keepers asked you was whether you were carrying more than the allowed amount of tobacco (since their cigarette tax was high, imports were a problem), and the US was worried about how much alcohol you brought back. At the time, the state law in Idaho was that beer could not have more than 3.2% alcohol, and many were eager to drive north and enjoy some Kokanee beer at 5%.

These days it is different and a passport is required to cross the border. Border guards always seem cranky and that especially holds for the US guards. Every single time I’ve crossed from Canada into the US in the last ten years, I’ve been ordered out of the car and had it searched. It’s intimidating.

Rest Stop at the beautiful Kuskanook Harbour
Cute sticker on the bathroom door

Despite the smoke in the air, that grew thicker as we traveled, it was a beautiful route through gorgeous country. I was sad that Pedro was not getting the full experience of stunning British Columbia, because half of our vistas were obscured. We stopped for a break at a rest area co-located with a marina, and though the smoke hung low, it was still pretty and we could still imagine what it could look like on a clearer day.

Open for business

Then, viola! Shortly after the rest area we saw signs right on the road for the Glass House. I pulled over and we checked it out.

This turned out to be a particularly great stop for Pedro because his father owned a funeral home and that was the occupation of David H. Brown who built this place. The mortician died in 1970 but his family still lives on the property, in a more typical home built nearby. After we paid a small fee for a tour, we were led to the house by a granddaughter. She told us stories about growing up there, like playing with the peacock that is now stuffed and in the living room. It turns out that when you build a home out of glass that looks like a castle, she explained, strangers are emboldened to stop and knock on your door. It happened more and more often during her grandparents’ lifetime, and they were kind enough to show them around. Visitors told their friends and soon the couple was opening up the house on designated times of the year and inviting people to come in and look around for a fee.

View as you walk up the hill from the parking area.
View of the home from the gardens.
Glass bottles at the entrance to the home.

Back in the 1940s, recycling had not yet become widespread, but David H. Brown was bothered by the amount of wasted bottles in the course of his mortuary services. It took two to four bottles of embalming fluid per person, and they quickly piled up. The bottles holding embalming fluid were made of thick glass and had a square shape and a short neck and he got to thinking that this was a good shape to use for some kind of building material. He mixed cement and began experimenting. He also contacted his mortuary friends and acquaintances across Alberta and British Columbia and asked them to save their bottles for him. He continued to perfect his technique and found that the bottles work well for insulation. He and his wife bought a beautiful piece of land on the shore of Kootenay Lake and decided that he would build them a home out of embalming bottles.

Our guide told us that her grandfather had used 600,000 bottles to build this place. (Pedro morbidly calculated that it translates to about 200,000 dead people. I guess when you grow up working at your dad’s funeral home, it shapes the way you think, haha!)

It is a cute little home and we were allowed to see most of the rooms. The fireplace was sufficient to warm the entire house, which is built in the shape of a cloverleaf with three levels. We walked up a step to the kitchen that our guide pointed out. She explained that the house is built directly onto the stone cliff. Her grandfather carved the stone itself to make that step. In the winter, she said, that step is ice cold. The public is not allowed to go up the staircase from the kitchen to the master bedroom.

A panorama of the living room – kept as it was when the couple lived here.
The visionary and architect, David H. Brown.
The spare bedroom.

Mr. Brown didn’t stop at the house, and created a couple of glass towers in the garden and a glass arch and a glass gazebo. There is a glass wishing well. There is a small glass hut that today holds a tiny museum with photos of the construction process and some of the tools he used to build the place. It also holds a framed mortuary specialist’s certificate. Pedro took photos of everything for his family in Guanajuato, who were supported in their childhood by their father’s mortuary business.

It’s a brilliant environmental effort from a time when people were not as thoughtful about keeping trash out of the landfills. On the flip side, the Browns populated their gardens with dozens of cheesy Snow White and the Seven Dwarves sculptures, plus dozens of generic garden gnomes and goofy bigfoot paving stones, and ceramic rabbits and squirrels and painted rocks in bright gaudy colours. In other words, they intentionally filled their property with stuff I think is better suited for a landfill, ha ha! I tried to keep most of that crap out of my photos, but if you look at the first two views of the home above, you’ll see what I mean. Aside from all the knick knacks, the multiple gardens and courtyards and paths were quite beautiful.

The darling kitchen that used triangle shaped pots, in order to fit them all on the stove at the same time. The window looks out over Kootenay Lake.
The kitchen window looking out over a patio above Kootenay Lake.
Some of the photos of the construction process
You can climb one of the castle-like towers and view the courtyard below.
Pedro squints in the sun atop one of the towers on the property.
Walk down to this tower above the beach.
Our smoky view from the glass beach tower.
Glass bottles in the tower.

We got on the road again and wound around curvy mountain roads beside long, narrow lakes. The speed limit signs kept us mostly at 60 kph and sometimes even 50 kph and I was groaning with the struggle to keep myself creeping along the road at a snails pace. Locals would speed past me at every straight stretch of road, but I was not about to exceed the speed limit with vehicle license plates that stated: Oregon. I’d be the first person to get a ticket.

A rather small ferry left the dock without us.

We finally reached the ferry. In this part of the country, the many long narrow lakes are conducive for being incorporated into the highway system, so there is no fee to use the highway ferries. Attendants guided us into the correct lane, and said we would not make it onto the ferry right in front of us and would have to wait for the next one. We had some concern about how long we would have to wait. Ferrys came once an hour, and by the looks of the one in front of us, it could not hold even as many cars and trucks that were already waiting, not even counting the vehicles that would arrive in the hour before it came back. Furthermore, there were two loaded log trucks and a refrigerator truck that would probably fill most of the ferry and they had arrived before we did.

Map near where we parked and waited for the ferry. We would take the ferry to Balfour, then have dinner in Nelson, then head north to Slocan for the night. Our backpacking trip was planned for Valhalla Provincial Park.

There was almost nothing to do in the area but wait and worry. After an hour, the next ferry to arrive was much larger than the one that we had first seen, and we were so relieved. This ferry was able to accept both log trucks and the 18-wheeler, and all the waiting vehicles. Whew. Off we went again. It was enjoyable to get out of the car and go up onto the deck and let the wind blow through our hair as we traveled across the lake. Sad that our views were again blocked by all the wildfire smoke. Soon we docked and made our way a few more miles to the darling town of Nelson, BC.

Finally we were welcomed on board
Standing on the upper level of the ferry
The crest on the Osprey 2000
Thick wildfire smoke was a concern for us all day long.
The approach to Balfour, BC

If you ever saw the move Roxanne, where Steve Martin plays a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, and Darryl Hannah plays his muse, then you have seen Nelson. The movie was filmed here and uses the town’s real name. When I was younger, I drove around one day until I found the Nelson Fire Department, highlighted in the movie. Today it is a small tourist town in a gorgeous setting in a valley between steep mountain slopes. We walked through a couple of shops and then found a place to order a meal. We only randomly chose Mike’s Place Pub, and were pleased that it turned out to be a great choice with excellent craft beer and outstandingly delicious food.

Welcome to Nelson, British Columbia
Nelson is a lovely tourist town nestled in the mountains.
On the left, Mike’s Place Pub, which served us an outstanding dinner with beer.

Then we hit the road once more for the final leg of our trip. It was only one more hour to Slocan City, where once again (like two nights before in Boardman, Oregon) I had chosen a room to rent based on the online description alone. Once again, the room was great. We met our host at the Slocan City Hotel, who was expecting us and knew our names from the reservation. As he showed us to our beautifully remodeled room off the second floor balcony, he explained that he and his partner got the idea about ten years ago to convert an old hardware store into a 5-room hotel. The lower level is currently not used by guests, but it’s easy to see there is a lot of work going on there and the partners have big plans for a restaurant and music venue. He invited us to a barbecue he was hosting for friends at the hotel patio that night, but we were still stuffed with our awesome dinner in Nelson, and had no room for barbecue.

On the way to Slocan City, we passed Pedro Creek and had to stop for a photo.

Slocan City is tiny, but it did have what we needed to get ready for our hike. Next to the only hotel in town, where we dumped our bags, was the only restaurant in town, made from a house and with outdoor seating since there is no room inside for seating. Next to that is the only store in town. We were pleased to find that this tiny store had a produce section, a walk-in beer cooler, all the dry goods you could wanted, and a refrigerated section. We purchased the things we wanted to take hiking with us, like oranges and trail mix and cookies, then went back to the room to divide up our camp gear and load up our backpacks.

We had reliable Internet service there in the room, and I was able to make the last edits to the Cherokee newsletter that I edit, and get that sent off to the hundreds of people on the mailing list. It seemed sort of amazing to me that we were in a tiny, tiny town in Canada, and I was taking care of my volunteer duties to my Cherokee group by sending out correspondence back in the States via my portable computer. Technology still blows my mind sometimes, even though the Internet has been with us for decades.

I had been driving all day long after not enough sleep and the trip had taken much longer than we anticipated, mostly due to the ferry. I can’t believe I didn’t take a single photo of the hotel, the room, the town, or anything there. I must have been tired! It was pitch black outside when we were finally done packing and it made me grumpy that we had not had a chance to explore Slocan during daylight. Our host had told us about a beautiful beach within easy walking distance, and we used the lights on our cell phones to pick our way over there and check it out in the dark. We couldn’t see much in the dark, but the night and the water were warm, and it was quiet and peaceful and that made it worth the effort. After letting the peace of the quiet mountain town seep into us, on the shores of a pristine lake, we walked back to our room and went to sleep.

7 thoughts on “Canada First

  1. Despite the worrying smoke this was another splendid tour. A great mortician’s recycling – somewhat appropriate that the peacock your guide played with as a child has finally been preserved for posterity

    1. Yes, I thought it was an appropriate end for the bird, too, preserved in a mortician’s home. She told us the story after we remarked about the peacock in the living room, ha ha! I think she said his name was Charlie. You will be pleased to hear that the winds shifted and the next three days in the mountains we saw hardly any smoke. Such a relief. Too scary to hike in the mountains with smoke all around.

  2. What an interesting excursion, Crystal. A pity about the smoke, though. It is disconcerting how many fires burn each year across the world. I love the photo of the Pedro Creek sign.

    1. The Pedro Creek was a fun stop for us! We were on a narrow, winding road and noticed the sign as we passed. We had to then find a place to turn around. Then on the way back we had to find a place to park the vehicle so we could walk up the road to the sign. It all worked out and we had fun goofing around with the Pedro Creek sign.

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