Brian Henderson | Back To The Land

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.


If you’re in Banff between now and March 27th, 2016, head on down to the Whyte Museum as you can see Brian’s and many other portraits from my Back To The Land project exhibited on the walls.


by Jeremy Fokkens

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February 15, 2016 - 5:16 pm

Paul Campeau Great article Jeremy, I grew up in the West Kootenays, Fruitvale to be exact. In the mid 1950’s i & my brothers & friends attended many dances in Ymir, it was a great place then as it is now. Keep up the great work.

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