Michelle Colley | Back To The Land |

Ymir, British Columbia

 

With the southern Saskatchewan stories wrapped up and a final blog post on Jim Commodore, I will have more adventures from southern British Columbia and Vancouver Island as I continue to photograph people from small town and remote areas across Canada. If this is your first time reading one of my posts on Back To The Land I’ll give you a quick brief on how each trip starts. First, I do very little research on the places I visit and usually end up staying in towns based on intuition and nothing more. Prior to my departure for each segment of this project, I do a test pack a few days before, triple checking everything so not to forget items that could potentially hinder my progress or worse, force me to come home with my tail between my legs; like forgetting a light modifier or camera… it’s happened. I do this also to keep my head clear and not scrambling the day I leave.

The BC portion of Back To The Land was a bit different from my Saskatchewan leg of the trip, outfitting the back of my tacoma with a basic backcountry mattress from MEC and strapping my photo gear along the inside rim of the trucks box with bungee chords as I spoon my equipment each night to replace my wife. I left on May 1st, 2015, glancing at google maps before leaving and picked a route on my paper map in hopes to find a few potential spots and seek out the people from rural Canada.

A friend of mine mentioned a town called Ymir which is located in the Kootenays just outside of Salmo and connected me with their friends that live there as potential contacts in the event I needed a little support and insight within the community. I left Calgary at 9:03am and headed down highway 3 (Crowsnest Highway) making a quick stop in Bellevue to see my fiancé (now wife), enjoying lunch with her and a friend at our favourite place in town; The Crowsnest Cafe and Fly Shop. The one thing I love when you cross provincial borders in Canada, especially Alberta into British Columbia is the recognizable change in people’s homes. The best way I can describe it is houses start to resemble the Weasleys home from the Harry Potter movies. Now I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, more of a playful observation that continues to make me laugh out loud each time I cross from Alberta into BC. If you have never taken highway 3 before I suggest try it as it’s a refreshing change from the trans Canada, plus when you drive into Creston this time of year… HOLY S%$T the greenery is incredible. With a quick stop in Yahk and a friendly conversation from the owners of the Yahk Soap Company, I continued west until I finally made it to Ymir around 9:30pm pulling into the riverside campground that sits right off the main street. Happy and excited to stretch my legs, I found myself struggling to find the energy to set-up my trusty coleman stove, instead went to the Ymir hotel in hopes of finding something to satisfy my grumbling belly.

As I walked in I could not help notice the massive collection of mini statues and artifacts from either Africa or Central America along with a variety of impressionistic paintings. To say the walls were covered is an understatement as you could not even tell the walls existed as it looked as though the roof was supported by the art itself. I proceeded to the bar where I notice a man sitting there enjoying a drink and an older man half busy behind the bar. I asked if food was being served and unfortunately I just missed last call, but they did have some leftover pizza and I settled on that. I also ordered a beer which was a nice treat given the days drive. Satisfied with the homemade hotel pizza, I made small talk with the owner of the hotel; Hanz and the cook Monty. The two gave me a little history about the town, I payed my bill and made my way back to the campsite and excited to crawl into the back of my taco where my sleeping bag was waiting.

The next morning I woke and decided to do a little exploring and also reach out to the couple whose contact information I received through my friends in Calgary. Their names were Jay and Michelle and as I made my way to their home, I found Michelle working in her garden. Their property consisted of a small cabin on the side of a slight embankment and the house was accompanied by various planters, small trees out front, and two smaller shed like structures; one near the back of the house and another to the side with a small rectangular garden. Michelle and Jay greeted me with genuine kindness that you can only find in small towns. After pleasantries, I told them what I was doing, what I planned to do and any help reaching out in the community would be greatly appreciated. Michelle immediately dropped her shovel and said “Well lets go meet Carla, she lives just down the road and she know’s everyone”.

Within five minutes and a quick walk down the street, we knocked, and the door immediately opened with a enthusiastic “Hello” and energy that could lift you up on the darkest of rainy days. Carla was a short woman with dark hair and two long french braids with subtle streaks of grey that came over her shoulders and down to her waist. She immediately wanted to know more about the project, I told her, she was excited and said lets do a tour of the town. Right from the start how could you not like this woman. Michelle left as she wanted to get back to her gardening and left me and Carla to explore. We jumped into my truck and she proceeded to take me everywhere pointing out the historic buildings, checking out the natural spring that supplied the towns water supply, stopping into local businesses with introductions, and even heading into the far back roads where more of the towns people live. After about an hour or so of driving from location to location and a variety of names and phone numbers, I had a growing list of people to search out and possibly photograph as well. I went back to my campsite excited and anxious to start.

I never intended to photograph Michelle, however after hearing her playfully inspiring story the fist day we met, I asked and she willingly accepted. Michelle was born in Kelowna, B.C. and upon graduating high school she moved to Calgary and attended the University of Calgary studying Environmental Science. Once she graduated and still having an urge for adventure, she moved back to Kelowna to be a ski bum at Big White Mountain Resort, but instead of operating the lifts, she randomly managed to become a carpenters helper. Michelle has always been around tools thanks to her father and has enjoyed the process of using her hands to create and fix things. After one year of carpentry in Big White, her and her husband Jay left for New Zealand, travelling for a year with only the their bicycles as a means of getting around.

With their return from Kiwi land and realizing Kelowna was too chaotic and not close enough to the mountains, Michelle and her husband headed for the Kootenay’s. With a small stint in Nelson, the stars aligning, Michelle and Jay both received carpentry jobs from a custom home builder and a day later purchasing a fixer-upper in Ymir. Now Michelle teaches and programs the woman’s only carpentry course at the Selkirk College in Nelson, she also does custom carpentry for people in the community and surrounding towns, Ski tours in the winter, runs policy development and waste management for the “Tiny Light Festival”… AND is pursing a passion for painting. Oh and she taught herself how to play the violin. One can only feel inspired when encountering such a wonderful human being.

 

 

Michelle Colley Carpenter in Ymir BC

 

 

Michelle Colley Carpenter in Ymir BC

 

 

 

 

February 3, 2016 - 7:04 am

jmeyersforeman HI Jeremy, love reading your stories. It was nice to meet you Saturday at the gallery opening. The portraits you have taken are wondering, they show a connecting with the people you have meet. And they are impressive when printed in large format. I recommend everyone travelling to Banff to head to the Whyte Museum and see them….
take care

Jim Commodore | Back To The Land

One of the last cowboys and his name is Jim…

 

Val Marie is gem of a town that lies on the borders of the Grasslands Nations Park surrounded by some of the most stunning prairie landscapes with incredible morning and evening light I have never witnessed. I suggest if you’re looking to explore some of Canada’s unknown or less listed parks, this would be at the top of my list as it boasts wild roaming bison, camping, backcountry camping, hiking, informative seminars on the grasslands ecology, tours and is within a half days drive of the more popular Cypress hills.

Throughout my travels I have noticed where there are beautiful landscapes there are always beautiful people. During my stay in Val Marie I was welcomed with open arms and support even when I did not ask for it. The day I spent with Wes Olson the bison rancher, he immediately recommend I try and contact Jim Commodore.

With every great man there is an even greater woman and that’s when I met Carol Masecar, Jim’s Wife in the local coffee shop. Carol was so friendly and full of so much joy. She even convinced Jim to meet with me, as it turns out he is quite shy and doesn’t like to be interviewed let alone photographed. I mentioned to Wes I was heading to see Jim one day and he immediately asked if he could join me as he wanted the pleasure of introducing the two of us including a possible photo-op of the two of them together.

Jim was born in 1941 during a time when the Canadian prairies were drastically affected by serious drought from the dirty 30’s. People had no money and relied heavily on the land and animals they raised. Being born during this time moulded you into something more than just a farmer, you were a survivor. In 1935 the PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) program was created to help save drought affected areas with community pastures and to keep the ecology from collapsing. This continued for 80 years.

The day Jim and I met he was 74 years of age. His body looked frail at face value but what he lacked in physical size he made up for in experience and miles. I watched him handle a horse better than any young cowboy half his age. Jim is a man of little words when it comes to talking about himself or his life, and that made getting an intimate interview with him quite difficult. Frustrating at first, however, I have come to realize that isn’t such a bad thing with a man like Jim. I like to believe he is an actions speak louder than words kinda guy. And for him to allow me to witness his day to day activities on his farm, I believe, that was his way of trusting me with his story and leaving the unknown for my imagination.

I spent the day watching Jim closely with his animals, feeding them, calling them, reacting to their presence and periodically taking a knee to roll the occasional cigarette. I was also lucky enough to see him care for a horse with a limp and upon closer inspection it looked like some type of infection with a mysterious black goop coming out from the animals sole. To anyone who owns horses this may not be anything even worth mentioning, but to an outsider like myself, it wasn’t just the act alone, it was witnessing something greater. Whenever the name Jim Commodore is mentioned in conversation throughout the community and surrounding towns, the name was soon followed by words like legend and prolific. I wish I knew more about this man of few words but I am honoured he picked me, a stranger to take his picture, and to see a brief glimpse into the life and eyes of what a real cowboy is and stands for.

 

If you enjoyed this story and others in my blog, feel free to join me at the Whyte Museum, in Banff as I will be featuring the start of my project “Back To The Land” in part with Exposure Photography Festival. The event is free and feel free to bring your family and friends. Also if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me.

Exhibition: January 30th – March 27th, 2016

Opening Reception: January 30th 7pm-10pm

Address: Whyte Museum – 111 Bear Street, Banff, AB.

 

Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
Jim Commodore the cowboy from Val Marie, Saskatchewan.

 

 

January 18, 2016 - 10:18 pm

Marcia Stahl Loved seeing these pictures of Jim, and Wes. Have known these guys for an awful long time, too long to say… By Jim allowing you to take his picture and share his time means to me that he thought you were “all right” and what you were doing was alright too! You’ve done a good job capturing some of the love and sharing that Jim has with his horses – and not just his – but all horses I’ve ever seen him handle have been receptive to his way. He shod horses for us for many years and we are lucky enough to call him a friend. Jim is a cowboy through and through!

Crowsnest Pass | Back To The Land |

Crowsnest Cafe’ and Fly Shop in the heart of the Crowsnest Pass.

When I first came up with the project “Back To The Land”, I wanted to create a short trailer to help tell the story of the people I have photographed thus far throughout Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. So I hired Chantelle Kolesnik from DDG (Deluxe Design Group) to work with me and create the trailer for “Back To The Land”. I wanted to give the audience a better visual of the project that showed the process of traveling from town to town while inspiring a desire to explore the unknown and celebrate that connection to Canada for those who call this country home. For the human element of the trailer, we needed to find someone who not only fit the project scope and vision but also someone who was comfortable in front of the lens. That’s where Susan Murray (Suzie) came on my radar and who I also wanted to photograph for this project. After a little convincing and once Suzie agreed, the next thing was to decide on a location to tell her story. I started to scout around the Crowsnest Pass and for those that do not know, it is made up of five small towns; Bellevue, Hillcrest, Frank, Blairmore, and Coleman. Having access to such an array of communities, this gave Chantelle and I a huge variety of material to work with. From small towns, open fields, Rocky Mountains, rivers, and more, Chantelle and I spent two weekends out in the Crowsnest Pass filming 14 hours a day and driving as far as Brocket and Fernie to get the shots we needed to bring the whole trailer together.

After the trailer was launched and photographs edited, I recently sat down with Suzie to find out more of her life story. Suzie was born in Kingston Ontario then moved briefly to the UK and then back to Canada where she received a BA in Philosophy. From there she spent the next 10 years travelling all over the world as far as India, South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Nepal. With her love for travelling she would return back to Canada every so often working in Banff in order to fund the next adventure halfway around the globe. When I asked Suzie about each of these places she visited, she had few words but looking into her eyes I could see the memories flash with expressions of joy and subtle smiles that revealed everything that words could not express. Speaking from experience and when you actively travel and live in another country, it’s hard to find the words as most people who travel will tell you it’s one of those things that you do, live, and experience. Suzie did however say “I don’t think I’ll ever return to Europe”.

With all the traveling Suzie did your probably wondering how and when she made The Crowsnest Pass her home. Suzie did visit the Crowsnest Pass when she was 29 meeting a guy which ended up becoming her husband Al, however her first impression of the area was far from sublime and I quote “Why would anyone live in this god forsaken town”. Marrying her husband Al and finding a love for fly fishing, she soon feel in love with the area and fast forward to 1998 when Suzie decided to open up The Crowsnest Cafe’ in Blairmore. Then in 2003 she moved the cafe’ to Coleman inside a tiny little house neighbouring the 7-Eleven on highway 3. Then again in 2004 took on a small demolition, knocked down some walls and added a fly shop which is now the Crowsnest Cafe’ and fly Shop. Along with serving up homemade and organic food, she and her husband also guide on the river systems that surround the area sharing the world-class fly-fishing the Crowsnest Pass has to offer. Most of Suzies clients come from Southern Alberta and BC, but regularly guides for people from Montana, Washington, California, Texas, and occasionally visitors as far as Italy and Germany. If your ever in the Crowsnest Pass area and your hungry, you need to try her homemade soups and pie… it’s out of this world delicious. Plus if you gassing up at the 7-Eleven next door save yourself from buying that processed packaged sandwich as The Crowsnest Cafe’ and Fly Shop will not disappoint as everything is made from scratch. Plus you can always count on a friendly chat and expect no shortage of other fisherman in the store to geek out on some fly fishing.

Enjoy~

Jeremy

 

 

Susan Murray - Fly fishing in the Crowsnest Pass

 

Susan Murray - Fly fishing in the Crowsnest Pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ron Aust | Back To The Land

Ron Aust’s General store in Big Beaver, Saskatchewan.

On my first few days in Val Maire, Saskatchewan my days were spent visiting the cafe’s and the local hangouts introducing myself to locals, getting a good feel of the surrounding landscape and deciding on who I could potentially photograph. One thing I find interesting about this Back To The Land project is each place I visit for any period of time, I know immediately if I’ll be staying for five minutes or five days. This is purely based on intuition and gut feelings. I have always wondered where does this gut feeling come from and why does it happen? I do sometimes think about what might have transpired in life if I ever chose to ignore that little voice that sits at the bottom of my stomach. Would I be living in Canada, would I have found photography, where would I be mentally and physically? Myself and I’m sure many others as well have ignored that “gut feeling” at least once in their life and in my own personal experience, nine times out of ten that decision was always met with regret. From these regrettable decisions in the past, I now listen to that voice regardless of the severity of the decision, even if the outcome that I hoped for does not show itself immediately, however in the end it always works out and for the better.

One morning as I was staying in Rockglen, Saskatchewan, Neil Jones, Jan, Leary and I met up for coffee at the local diner Burning Hills Cafe and we started talking about other people who they might know and would possibly be a good fit for my Canada project. Neil mentioned I should check out a place call Big Beaver, Saskatchewan. I stopped him in mid-sentence asking him to repeat the name of the town as I thought I was hearing things. Neil laughed and reassured me the town was called “Big Beaver”. The four of us all must have laughed for a minute or two all while repeating the name several times just cause it was fun to say. Neil said there was a general store in the small town where you could buy anything from a box of Cheerios to gun ammunition. Still trying not to laugh, Neil went on to explain a gentleman named Ron Aust owned and operated the store and it was called “Austs General Store” with a slogan that made the store quite famous and could have not been more perfect. “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it”.

After hearing this my gut was screaming to check this place out from which I immediately jumped into my taco and headed east. The drive itself to Big Beaver was beautiful, passing through a couple other small towns along the way all while taking in the beautiful prairies of Saskatchewan. The town is located just off highway 18 and you have to keep your eyes open as there is only one small green sign that marks the turn off a couple hundred meters before you head North 1 km into the town. Once I arrived I was shocked on how remote and small this little town was. There are only a couple of streets and avenues with an array of random houses on each of them. You can’t miss the Aust General Store as you pull into town and as I parked out front, there were already a couple of families loading supplies into their trucks. As I walked into the store, it was quite the scene where I had to adjust my eyes and take a few minutes of what I was witnessing. There was canned fruit, toilet seats, knick-knacks, clothing, hunting gear, kitchen utensils and everything in between stacked floor to ceiling high. The store was by no means messy but very organized with every item having its own intended space and position. I spent a good 20 minutes carefully looking at everything on each shelf down each corridor and isle making a few laps just so I didn’t miss anything.

As I made my way back to the entrance, I noticed a man working the front and asked him where I could find Ron Aust. The gentleman said “Yah I’m Ron, how can I help you”. I proceeded to tell him why I was in town, my project, and if he would be willing to sit for a portrait. Ron happily agreed and I told him I just needed 15 minutes to set up. Ron went about his business helping other customers until I was ready to take his photograph. Once I had my lights set-up which was quite a challenge given the very limited real estate in the shop, I called Ron over and as I was taking some test shots I asked him a little about the store and its history. It turns out his parents owned it before passing it down to him and has been in the family now for 56 years. Even parts of the building date back to 1928 as the store now spans across the neighboring buildings to house all the supplies and inventory.

Along with all the merchandise Ron also shared his guestbook which hundreds of visitors have signed over the years along with personal messages from all across North America and even some parts of the world. It was an honour and pleasure to photograph Ron one place I will never forget and hope to visit again very soon.

I hope you enjoy the photographs and if you want to see more, feel free to subscribe to the blog at the top of the screen

Enjoy!

 

 

 

Wes Olson | Back To The Land

The go-to bison guy Wes Olson

On my first few days in Val Maire, Saskatchewan I continued my pursuit in finding people with interesting stories. I managed to find Wes Olson randomly by one of the ladies that runs the coffee shop at the local museum just off the main highway as you pull into Val Marie. Usually when I decide to stay in a town for an extended period of time, I usually hit up the local spots getting a good feel for the area and the people who call each town home. As I ordered just a drip coffee from the lady at the counter, I also asked her about various people in the town and if she knew anyone that stuck out in her mind within the community who had an interesting story to tell. She immediately mentioned two men, Wes Olson and Jim Commodore – I’ll get to Jim in a later blog. She gave me Wes’s phone number and once I finished my coffee I immediately gave him a call. We spoke on the phone briefly, I told him what I was doing, my intentions and if he was willing to have his photograph taken. Wes was intrigued and we made arrangements to meet at his home to talk about it more which was just down the street. When I first met Wes I was quite surprised how tall he was as I’m sure most people are. He had a gentle face with the most amazing cowboy moustache you have ever seen. I also met his wife Johanne who was very kind and made me tea as the three of us talked more about my Back To The Land project.

It turns out Wes Olson is quite the “go to guy” when it comes to anything Bison. Already retired, he has worked with bison for over 30 years which has taken him across the country and globe working with various species of Bison. This knowledge that Wes has gained started by growing up in and around the outdoors his entire life. He worked as a wildlife technician for the Yukon government for several years, then in 1981 worked for Parks Canada as a National Park Warden in Banff, Waterton Lakes, Elk Island, Prince Albert and Grasslands National Parks retiring in 2012. On top of all this, Wes is also an incredible artist with his inspiration coming from the natural world that has surrounded him his whole life. If you want to see more of Wes Olsen’s work you can visit his website here.

When Wes happily agreed to be part of my project, I could have not been more thrilled and when I told him what I had in mind for a photograph he assured me he knew exactly where to take me to scout the location. Wes having been a park warden for the Grasslands National Park, he had access and knowledge of every square inch of the park which was a huge bonus for me because I could explain exactly what I wanted and Wes calmly would say with a subtle head nod “Yes… I can find you that”. When we headed out to take his portrait, we stopped at one particular spot that I thought was ideal. The sun was in the best possible position, the plains looked beautiful, and the sky was flawless. Wes however had a different opinion and immediately spoke up “I don’t like it” he said with intent. I was a little confused and when I cautiously asked his reasons why, he said “I refuse to have my picture taken with a species of plant that is not native to the grasslands” as he pointed to a bunch of yellow sweet clover. I was humbled and so proud by his response as it clearly showed his love for this landscape which he himself helped maintain over the years. We proceeded down the gravel road, Wes re-assuring me he as he did with a chuckle that he knew a spot where all the surrounding plant life were native to the land.

We arrived at our location and it was beautiful. We also brought along a bison skull to add another element to the photograph. I took a few photo’s with just natural light and a bunch using my portable studio light. In the end we only spent 20 minutes taking photo’s and once I was happy with the results we packed up and headed back to Val Marie. The drive back was actually one of my favourite moments with Wes. I asked him questions about his experience with bison, his life as a warden and after every passing minute he seemed to open up more and more. I found Wes to be one of calmest people I know. Saying only what needed to be said but leaving you wanting to know more about his past. He went on to explain his experiences living in the bush, setting up a bison breeding program in Siberia and his love for travelling with his wife Johanne, who turns out is also a photographer. To this day I still wish I asked Wes more questions and had the opportunity to pick his brain for weeks, I enjoyed the time spent with him and is one that I will always cherish.

I hope you enjoy the photo’s and feel free to subscribe to this blog if you want to see more from this project “Back To The Land”.

 

Wes Olson from Val Marie, Saskatchewan

 

Wes Olson from Val Marie, Saskatchewan

 

Wes Olson from Val Marie, Saskatchewan

 

Wes Olson from Val Marie, Saskatchewan

by Jeremy Fokkens

show hide 3 comments

August 29, 2015 - 9:38 am

Connie Henuset I have known Wes and Johane for 30 years and I am blessed to have them as friends. They are very unique in their own ways.

I like the colour of shirt Wes worn for the photo shoot. The blue is subtle against the blue sky which reflects Wes’s personality – never one to stand out in a crowd (however it is difficult not to notice him because of his physique) and goes about in a humble way doing his work.

Thanks for giving a well deserved friend the spotlight!

August 29, 2015 - 11:44 am

Gail Beuhler I met Wes and Johane about a year ago and heard Wes give a talk on bison. I agree that the information that he shares leaves you wanting more. A very interesting couple and I am pleased to have met them.

January 24, 2016 - 7:49 am

Jane Kawalauskas Please let me know when your book is finished and on sale.
It’s very rare to see ‘portraits’ anymore. This series has moved me deeply. I feel my history in these photos. Thank you.

UA-22540063-2