"Where are you headed?" a Canadian border patrol agent asked when my family rolled up a few months ago, heading north from Washington.
"Nelson," I told him as he began his search of our car.
"It's OK," said the officer, unenthusiastically. "Kinda hippie-ish. Very laid-back."
Not a problem, sir. The town of Nelson, semi-Victorian, substantially bohemian, sportier and more artsy than your average hamlet of 9,700 souls, sits in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, about 30 miles north of the U.S. border. Picture a college town that has misplaced its university.
FOR THE RECORD:
Nelson, Canada: In the Oct. 16 Travel section, an article about Nelson, Canada, misspelled the last name of Nelson resident Ernest Hekkanen as Hekkaman. —
It has dramatic leaves in fall, skiing in winter, swimming and boating in summer, hiking and mountain biking much of the year. Thousands of American draft resisters and back-to-the-landers chose this area as a haven 40 years ago, and hundreds are said to remain, but it gets barely a trickle of U.S. tourists.
Just below the town lies the west arm of photogenic Kootenay Lake. Just above town rises Toad Mountain, where the discovery of silver prompted the founding of Nelson about 125 years ago. Nelson's stone and brick Victorians, once the province of off-duty miners and loggers, now house or neighbor eccentric shops, galleries and restaurants. The Sacred Ride (on Baker Street) peddles bikes. Downward Dog (Front Street) offers pet supplies. The Funky Monkey (Front Street) grills burgers. ROAM (Baker Street) promises gear for rivers, oceans and mountains.
Summer may be the busiest season, but "fall is the most beautiful time," said Virginia Wassick, who, with her husband, Duncan, runs the three-room Grand Lakefront Bed & Breakfast in a rambling old house near the lake's edge. In September and October, Wassick said, the guests "come and stay a week or two and sit on the deck, look at the colors and read books. I love the September-October people. They're so laid-back."
Nelson — about 150 miles north of Spokane, Wash., more than 400 miles east of Vancouver, Canada — is too little and isolated to stand as a major destination by itself. But you can fly into Spokane or Castlegar, British Columbia (about 25 miles south of Nelson), and spend a few days driving a 135-mile loop from Nelson past the mountains, lakes, rivers, meadows and towns of Kaslo, New Denver, Silverton and Slocan. Or follow the 280-mile International Selkirk Loop (www.selkirkloop.org), which includes handsome chunks of Idaho and Washington.
For us, Nelson was a three-day respite at the northernmost point of a 1,200-mile road trip that began in Seattle and ended in Portland, Ore. We window-shopped on Baker Street; bought many "Magic Treehouse" volumes in Otter Books for our 7-year-old daughter, Grace; paced the little pier that juts into the lake; took a skiff for a buzz around on the water; and drove across the big orange bridge — which locals call "BOB" because, remember, it's a Big Orange Bridge — toward the postcard views at Pulpit Rock overlook and Kokanee Creek Provincial Park.
With more time, we would have soaked at Ainsworth Hot Springs (about 30 miles northeast) and caught the free ferry at nearby Balfour (a 35-minute ride across the lake to Kootenay Bay). But we did ride an antique streetcar along the Waterfront Pathway to Lakeside Park, where you'll find an organic concession stand (summer only) and busy playground. Downtown, we shared a good but pricey brunch at BiBO, followed by a great (and pricier) dinner at the All Seasons Café, Nelson's top restaurant. Uptown, I took a ride on old BNSF railroad track that has been converted into a mountain-biking trail.
One day I drank hemp ale. Another, I ate a hemp cookie. But there were no purchases at the hemp boutique on Ward Street, so no hemp hat trick.
We stayed at the Prestige Resort, a pricey hotel at the water's edge that should be the greatest place in town, given its location. Instead, it felt like an opportunity squandered — a dull, dark building best suited to the housing of Dunder-Mifflin business travelers. Next time we'll look more closely at the New Grand Hotel (more character, lower rates) or a local B&B.
This being Canada, the town has a hockey team and a curling club, both busy from fall through late winter or early spring. The Whitewater Ski Resort, about 20 minutes outside Nelson, is a small operation (three chairlifts, 1,184 skiable acres, no lodgings) that gets big powder — an average of 40 feet of snow per winter. The resort's Fresh Tracks Café is a favorite among B.C. foodies, many of whom revere the "Whitewater Cooks" cookbook by former resort chef Shelley Adams.
"I just moved here to retire," Aza Samchuck told me one afternoon as he sat astride a bicycle and watched teenagers leap from a piling into the chilly water. He is 35, Samchuck said, but because he's done well in his profession, he can arrange a few lucrative days of out-of-town work per month, then hang loose in Nelson the rest of the time. Of course, I had to ask his profession.
"I tattoo people," he said.
For a less bohemian, more Victorian Nelson, head to Vernon and Ward streets, where you can nurse a drink inside the stone-faced Hume Hotel (1898) and gaze north to the old ivy-cloaked courthouse (1902) or east to the Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History (1902 again). Nearby on Victoria Street, there's the restored Capitol Theatre (1927) and the old jail, now Selkirk College's Kootenay School of the Arts. Near Latimer and Ward streets, there's the big, old red-brick fire hall (1913) and the old brewery (1899), now home to the new Nelson Brewing Co., which specializes in organic ales.
As the buildings were going up, Nelson and environs were getting more than the usual influx of miners and woodsmen. A Pacific agrarian sect of Russian Christians known as Doukhobors also arrived, about 5,000 of them, and with them a militant fringe group, the Sons of Freedom, that staged hundreds of nude marches, arsons and anti-government bombings. Then during World War II, the Canadian government set up internment camps and imprisoned about 8,000 Japanese Canadian men, women and children.
As the Vietnam War stretched from the 1960s into the '70s, came the Americans — perhaps as many as 10,000 draft resisters (a.k.a. draft dodgers, a.k.a. conscientious objectors) by some estimates, along with others eager to start communes in the countryside. Most of the communes fell apart fast, and President Carter pardoned the draft resisters in 1977. But like many Doukhobors and Japanese Canadian families before them, many of these immigrants stayed, raised families and worked as farmers, artisans or entrepreneurs.
In the late '70s, Nelson boosters started tidying up the town's then-bedraggled old buildings. By the summer of 1986, the renewed downtown was fetching enough to attract Steve Martin, who arrived with a prosthetic nose and film crew to work on "Roxanne." The film, released the following year, features Martin as the big-nosed chief of a bumbling small-town fire department and Daryl Hannah as the bespectacled astronomer of his dreams.
After learning all that, it was a letdown to meet no avowed draft resisters, Doukhobors, Japanese Canadians or movie stars. But I did hear plenty about the furor of 2004, when Isaac Romano of Nelson proposed a monument to the draft resisters, stirring scorn from many sides, prompting denunciations from local business leaders and inspiring a New York Times headline that dubbed Nelson "Resisterville."
The monument idea was quickly shelved, but in 2006 a reunion of resisters was staged (with Doukhobor help) in nearby Castlegar. Locals say a 3-foot-high bronze model of artist Naomi Lewis' proposed draft-resister memorial now resides at the Vallican Whole Community Centre in the nearby Slocan Valley, a favored haunt of countercultural folk.
Yet when author Ernest Hekkaman and his partner, Margrith Schraner, were looking to relocate from Vancouver 11 years ago, Hekkaman told me, they chose Nelson "because it's a small town with an active arts community and literary community.... I didn't realize there was such a large antiwar population here, so many draft dodgers from the '60s and '70s."
But since Hekkaman is a draft dodger himself — having moved from Seattle to Vancouver in 1969 — that was hardly a problem. He helped underwrite the 2006 reunion and briefly housed the model draft-resister sculpture at his home-gallery. When I reached him by phone after our visit, he estimated that perhaps 300 draft resisters remain in Nelson and surrounding areas. But good luck spotting them among the other free spirits.
On our last morning in town, we grabbed breakfast at the Kootenay Bakery Café (vegetarian), then watched as the real firefighters of Nelson — an entirely competent-looking bunch, noses unremarkable — fanned out from their truck, shut down Baker Street and sent a man skyward on the ladder. His task: to string up a banner for an upcoming event.
Half an hour later, amid nods of approval from a dozen sidewalk superintendents, they reopened the street. Through it all, traffic was unaffected, and you could nearly hear, on the surrounding slopes, a billion leaves fluttering in the Sunday morning breeze. Nelson was at peace, and we were due to head south again.