Patrick the Blacksmith
Blacksmiths has been around for hundreds of years, but have you ever seen anyone forge, bend, and form metal by hand with your own eyes? Neither have I until I met Patrick McIvor. I found this man through other locals while I was staying in the town of Ymir. I was asking around trying to find people who are devoted to a craft and creating a living from what they do. When I found out where Patrick’s shop was, coincidently, I had a beer at a local pub in Salmo no more than a hundred feet from his studio two days prior. Also turns out we both share the same birth city of Calgary, Alberta.
I stopped by Patrick’s studio sometime between eight and nine in the morning on no particular day, pulling up to a small building that looked like an abandoned mechanics garage. The exterior was weathered with paint peeling from the exterior stucco, small growth peaking through the concrete slabs out front, and various random small debris outside its open bay doors. As I approached, I saw a man meticulously working on a sheet of copper with a flat ended hammer. The man pulled back his safety glasses and asked “Jeremy?” I replied, “Patrick?”. We both smiled and shook hands. Patrick’s firm hand shake alone was enough to wake you from a night of heavy drinking, gripping my hand like a boa constrictor; sucking the life out of it, only for a brief second before casually letting go. Inside the shop there were pieces of steel and metal strewed throughout on various bench surfaces, which can only be described as organized chaos. The machines Patrick was using were almost a 100 years old along with various other hand tools that have been collected and never discarded; it was though I had stepped back in time.
I explained to Patrick about the project Back To The Land and how I was going to take his photo. I only asked for an hour or so of his time, so while I was setting up my gear, Patrick could continue to work on a copper hood fan he was making for a client of his. As I set up my photography gear I watched him meticulously heat the sheet of copper while gently hammering out small defects and dents in the metal so it all formed into one seamless piece. Growing frustrated on a particular section no larger than a square foot, he pulled it apart and started again from scratch cursing “If I can’t get it perfect the first time, what’s the fucking point”. As the day went on, I asked Patrick more about his life and it turns out by the time he was eight, he already knew blacksmithing was what he wanted to pursue. His first experience working with metal although started in shop class during high school. The school had a forge and anvil which then led to the creation of his first set of knives and axes; this is all it took and he was hooked.
Patrick is a self-taught blacksmith and now resides in Salmo, BC., however before committing to the hammer and anvil life, he dabbled into other areas of work and trade that required some sort of technique, especially the attention blacksmithing required. These other trades included farming, fire fighting, and rock climbing instructor. When he was 29 years of age that’s when the conscious decision was made to commit to the craft full-time. When I asked him if blacksmithing was a dying trade he responded with this. “Blacksmithing is having a resurgence with those who know, are interested and know where to look, but for the most part a large portion of society neither knows we exist or what we are capable of. As the population becomes more educated to whats possible and that we exist, the demand and interest grows daily”.
To see more of Patrick’s work you can visit his website by clicking HERE.
Ymir’s most interesting man.
I randomly met Brian Henderson through a series of introductions that all started with the wonderful Michelle Colley (previous blog post). After one introduction after another, a domino effect occurred and within 24 hours of arriving in Ymir, I felt as though I already knew half the town. This is how I came to meet Brian Henderson and his wife Sharon; they live just behind the town off a steep back road that hugs the base of the forest-covered valley. Carla (a local) helped with many introductions within the town of Ymir and suggested a friendly surprise visit to their home would be a great idea. The sudden visit was very brief; Brian and Sharon were intrigued about my project Back To The Land and suggested I return the next day to chat more as they were pre-occupied teaching a group of local kids how to make garden ornaments. The next day, I pulled up to Brian and Sharon’s home noticing my surroundings in more detail. Their home reminded me of something from a children’s fairy tale, featuring a structure similar to a log cabin with colourful stain glass exterior windows. The property itself was quite substantial, surrounded by forest, boasting a large healthy garden out front, several mature apple orchard trees, chicken coop behind the home and a large workshop to the right of the house as you ascend the gravel driveway.
The time was around 4pm and when I arrived, Brian and Sharon were just finishing their day as I found them both under a tree, casually sipping a beer amongst the shade with their two dogs. I joined them and began finding out more about what they do, their story and their wonderful abode hidden in the Kootenays. The conversation with Brian and Sharon was easy and both were very open to answering anything I curiously asked. Brian went on to say “I also have fish”. I was a little confused because gold-fish was the first thing that popped into my head thinking that was a random thing to say, he then added with a small chuckle ” I farm fish”. I enthusiastically asked if he could show me. Brian and Sharon then gave me the million dollar tour that started on a path disappearing into the thick of the forest behind their home. Once past the tree covered trail head, the forest and space within opened up and we continued towards the back portion of their property. That’s when I noticed several ponds and in each pond were hundreds of fish of various lengths and sizes. The ponds ranged in size comparable to a backyard swimming pool, to another ten times its size. The water supply came from the Kootenay mountain runoff and it turns out Brian started this hobby of his since the 80’s. It was quite the operation and something I have never seen before. The system itself looked flawless with a considerable amount of detail and careful planning into its design. Brian reassured me farming fish came with many challenges especially when he had to regularly chase bears and birds away as to not eat his healthy stock.
After the tour, Sharon graciously invited me over for dinner the following day and Brian even agreed to have his photo taken. Sharon expressed her excitement mentioning Brian was not the easiest to photograph given the very few photo’s she or the family had of him. I re-assured them both this was not just going to be a quick photo, but definitely something they would enjoy.
The following night I arrived and immediately started setting up. While I was photographing Brian, Sharon was prepping dinner. Fifteen minutes before sitting down to eat, she handed me a fishing rod and said, “Ok now you need to go catch your fish”. I thought she was joking until she said “No I’m serious and hurry up, dinner will get cold”. With haste, Brian and I went to the backyard and caught six small trout from one of the smaller ponds and brought them to the back door of the home where we gutted, cleaned, and prepared the fish for the BBQ. That night we enjoyed some amazing home cooked food along with some incredible stories upon which I asked to record our conversation because the wine was getting to my head and was worried I wouldn’t remember anything in the morning.
That night I heard stories that could not have been written by Hollywood’s greatest imaginations. I would require hundreds of pages to give you just a taste of what kind of life Brian and his wife have experienced. Brian was born in Victoria, BC and just like any high school graduate couldn’t decide on anything let alone what he wanted to do with his life. With nothing to lose, he hitchhiked onto a freighter and traveled to Japan on a forged Norwegian ID, then sailed across the pacific and landed in Tokyo for what would be the start of many more adventures.
Throughout Brian’s life he has managed to hitchhike thousands of miles around the globe by car, boat, and plane spending several years abroad in his 20’s. He has been mistaken for Davy Jones from band “The Monkeys” which led to several Japanese woman violently fighting over him, to hitchhiking across Canada with a goat that needed to be delivered in the Maritimes. Upon marrying his now wife Sharon, the two hitchhiked from Ireland to Afghanistan (Pre-Russian invasion) and back to England with many stops along the way; working for as little as two dollars a day to help fund their free-spirited lifestyle. One particular story I loved was when the two were hitchhiking in France. One day as they were trying to flag down a ride, they were picked up by a man driving a large windowless van. Once the two hopped into the front seat, immediately they noticed an odour in the vehicles interior. Upon closer inspection, the two turned around and a couple feet in front of their faces was a male African lion with no cage separating them. It turns out the lion was sick, the driver worked for a zoo and was transporting the animal to get treated a few hundred kilometres away.
It was then in the mid 80’s they visited Ymir, fell in love with the place and luck would have it an opportunity arose where they were able to join and buy into a commune. Years later the commune dissolved due to other members leaving, so they bought their share of land out right and have been living off the land ever since.
Ymir is one of those places that finds you rather than you finding it; the locals here survive and thrive. The community is wonderful, supportive, and everyone I met had a story to tell. The town’s energy is infectious and I hope it continues to be a place of community, discovery, and sustainability.
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.
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.