I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”
You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
“Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis (no, not Tennessee Ernie Ford, Big Bill Broonzy, or Interstate Brickface)
Editor’s Warning – Earl visited the Fernie Museum during this visit, and got a little carried away with the history lesson.
From February 7th to 12th, Betty ‘n’ Earl drove from Ontario to Fernie, BC for a ski vacation. They were the advance party for 11 family members on a university reading week ski trip.
Having left Mabel in Texas, Betty ‘n’ Earl were without a trailer to stay in, instead staying in cheap-and-cheery hotels along the way. They chose to drive through the US to shave some time off the drive, and to take advantage of cheaper fuel. It was an uneventful drive through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Saskatchewan, with perfect (although very cold) weather the whole way.
Noon in Saskatchewan
1:15PM in Saskatchewan
4:06PM in Saskatchewan
Ice road in Saskatchewan
View from hotel room in Saskatchewan
The final leg of the trip took them from Alberta to BC through Crowsnest Pass. This pass was long used by First Nations peoples, then by rail companies, and eventually by automobiles starting in 1917. The road passes by the site of the Frank Slide, Canada’s deadliest rockslide that happened in 1903, with 82 million tonnes of rock falling from the summit of Turtle Mountain into the Crowsnest River valley below, killing 90.
Betty ‘n’ Earl’s only danger through the pass came from the 18-wheelers determined to maintain near supersonic speeds despite snow-covered roads and occasional whiteouts. They were fortunate that Kevin has winter tires and all-wheel-drive, which contributed to a safe arrival in Fernie, a picturesque town of just over 5,000 full-time residents location near the southeastern corner of British Columbia. As well as having a fantastic view of the nearby Mount Fernie ski hill, the town is also within sight of several other mountains, including Castle Mountain, Mount Hosmer, Mount Proctor, and the Three Sisters. Legend has it that the last two mountains were formed when a young Ktunaxa Chief found great difficulty in choosing a bride among three maidens, and the gods punished his indecision by turning him into a mountain. The maidens’ grief was so great that they prayed for, and received, the same fate.
The Elk Valley region surrounding Fernie was first settled by the Ktunaxa tribe (often Anglicized as Kootenay, Kutenai or Kootenai), who were closely allied with the Shuswap tribe. A century after the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century, coal was discovered in the region, and William Fernie founded the coal industry that continues to this day. Five area mines, now run by Teck Resources, produce metallurgical coal that is shipped to China for use in steel production (too early to tell what Trump’s new import tariffs on Chinese steel will have on this). Whereas the mines are not visible from Fernie, the long trains that roll through the town several times daily are a constant reminder of the importance of coal mining to the area’s economy.
Throughout Fernie’s history, coal mining has led to prosperity, poverty, incarceration, misery, death and salvation. In the early part of the 20th century, the town and surrounding area suffered a series of catastrophes, including two fires that devastated the downtown, and a series of coal mining accidents and explosions that killed over 500 miners in aggregate. The most devastating mine explosion occurred in 1902, with 128 men and boys losing their lives. After a second major fire devastated the downtown core in 1908, survivors sought refuge in the only major building left standing; the coal company’s head office, now Fernie’s Town Hall.
During the first world war, miners originating from Germany, Austria and the Ukraine were kept in internment camps under brutal conditions in nearby Morrissey. Fernie fought through these setbacks and others, including economic blows caused by fluctuations in demand and pricing for coal. In the late 1960’s, Heiko and Linda Socher helped start and eventually ran the local ski hill, which now has a well-earned reputation for some of the best powder skiing in North America.
The success of the resort has provided greater economic stability for the Elk Valley, and employment for many (although most seem to be Australian!). The town has a thriving downtown core with art galleries, a museum, ski and mountain equipment stores, and clothing and furniture stores.
As they had arrived in Fernie a few days before their chalet rental was available, Betty ‘n’ Earl stayed with their friends Brenda ‘n’ Harry. Their house has idyllic views of the surrounding mountains, and is adjacent to trails that lead to the top of Castle Mountain. Betty ‘n’ Earl spent several days hiking and skiing with Brenda ‘n’ Harry, getting to know the hill and the town.
Fernie has a vibrant arts and music scene. Brenda produces original ceramic art, and Harry is active in booking bands for area venues, also playing several times a week at local pubs. Having been in a couple of bands with Harry, Earl joined him on stage a few times through the week, fueled by some liquid amber courage.
After the rest of the ski party arrived, the whole group hit the slopes (except for Betty, who had injured her knee). The resort is huge, with 5 large bowls and many ridges that can be traversed or hiked to access fresh, unspoiled powder. There are some world-class off-piste runs, many of them beyond the ability of even the best skiers in the group.
At the end of the week, the rest of the group flew back to Ontario, and Betty ‘n’ Earl drove their son back to Revelstoke where he is currently living and working…and, of course, skiing.
Betty ‘n’ Earl then drove through Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to Boulder, Colorado (more detail in an upcoming blog) and flew back to Ontario to move to their new home before resuming their travels.