The following article was written by Aaron Shepard who is currently taking creative writing at the University of Victoria. The article is intended for commercial publication in an environmentalist periodical, but Aaron kindly allowed me to use it on my website. It deals with his reminiscences of his work on Skattebo Reach Trail.

The Contemplative Walker:
imagining and designing the Skattebo Reach Trail.


"To my mind, a well designed trail has to meet several criteria. It has to offer scenic views as it courses through a natural landscape. This landscape should not be monotonous, but rather it should display variations in terrain and a diversity of ecosystems....The history factor was always at the back of my mind. I was not interested in building simple pathways from one point to another; there had to be a deeper significance attached." - Walter Volovsek, 2005

I get homesick sometimes. Not so much for the town of Nelson, where I lived for nine years, but the places where I worked, especially the forests near Castlegar, where me and two friends built hiking trails during the late nineties. I miss crossing the Kootenay River early in the morning in our red canoe piled with tools. I miss the feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day as we'd walk back along our trail. I even miss the back-breaking labour - although maybe I just wish I was still that physically fit.

In July of 2005, Walter Volovsek, my old boss from the hiking trail days, created a website called Trails in Time. It's filled with descriptions, photos and the history of the many trails he's developed, including one that I helped build - the Skattebo Reach Trail.

I keep returning to the photos. There's the talus slope above the Brilliant Dam where we spent three days making a passable route by stacking and hammering rocks - a smell like gunpowder in the air - until they lay flat.

There's the viewpoint that overlooks the Kootenay River before it meets the Brilliant Dam. I remember seeing blue-tailed skinks and garter snakes while I rested under some cottonwoods. Now, a bench sits there, in that same patch of shade. The trail has changed a lot: it's been more than eight years since Walter blazed the trail, eight years since I first swung my pulaski into the soil above Skattebo Reach.

***   ***   ***

It's late June, 1997, and finally, we're employed. Two months have gone by since Chris, Jeremy and I graduated with our Recreation, Fish and Wildlife Diplomas from Selkirk College in Castlegar, B.C.. Instead of becoming timber cruisers or Provincial Park fee collectors like most of our classmates, the three of us decided to start our own business as outdoor recreation consultants, whatever that meant. We spent most of April, May and June desperately calling BC Parks and the Ministry of Forests to see if they had trails for us to build. They didn't. Our mornings were spent on the phone, the afternoons on the porch, drinking beer and debating whether or not collecting welfare was morally reprehensible for three fit men in their early twenties.

Now, here we are, in the woods above the Brilliant Dam just east of Castlegar, about to start our first contract: building several sections of the Skattebo Reach Trail, a proposed 14 kilometre route that will run northeast from the Brilliant Bridge to the small community of Glade. While we won't take part in building the bridges or benches that will eventually augment the trail, we get to clear the brush and carve the trail out of the formidable landscape. Today we do a reconnaissance, and get a preview of the land we'll be working with.

With us, or rather, ahead of us, scooting through the trees like a mule deer, is Walter Volovsek, the man who hired us. Older than us by almost thirty years, his wiry body bounds up and across the slope of Brilliant Canyon as he scouts ahead. The three of us follow tentatively, kicking at the soil and pondering the difficulty of working the steep, rocky ground. Beneath the thin dirt layer lies a bed of jagged granite colluvium. The Douglas firs and birches all have that pistol-butt shape, an indication that the entire slope is creeping downhill.

Walter hangs pieces of orange flagging tape in tree branches to mark the route. At the crest of a hill, he lifts his green ball cap and wipes the sweat that drips from his thinning hair, then removes his glasses and cleans them on his shirt. He grins.

"Well," he drawls in his Slovenian accent. "Think it can be done?"

***   ***   ***

In 1995, Walter, a Faculty Assistant for Environmental Sciences at Selkirk College, joined The Friends of Parks and Trails Society, a local organization that develops and maintains recreation trails through volunteer efforts and corporate sponsorships. Before that, he had been quite active in the college's environmental club, which had built some hiking and ski-touring trails in the mountains around Castlegar. Joining the Society gave him the opportunity to pursue his interests in both conservation and history. His first big project was creating the Waldie Island Trail, a series of paths and boardwalks navigating a wetland along the Columbia River.

That's where I first met Walter. During my first year at Selkirk College, our Recreation Resource teacher, Gordon Gibson, brought our class to the Waldie Island trail for some hands-on experience at trail-building. Walter showed us how to grub a flat walking surface out of the side of a hill with a pulaski, a tool with both an axe blade and a thin grub hoe blade.

The Waldie Island Trail begins in a lodgepole pine forest and leads down to the Mill Pond, a large pool of calm water where Waldie Island is situated, just above the Tin Cup Rapids. I immediately saw the ecological importance of the land: the abundance of rushes, horsetail, grasses and forest provided habitat for herons, turtles, cougar and deer. But I was indifferent to the old wooden posts that stuck out of the water, or even the kekules, the shallow pits that mark ancient native winter dwellings.

For Walter though, the history was equally as important as the ecology. Native burial sites, an old sawmill, the remnants of an abandoned settlement - all of this could be found along the Waldie Island Trail. Walter began creating his interpretive panels, large sign boards filled with photography, illustrations and text. He researched the archives of the hydroelectric dam companies, newspapers and museums, and interviewed local old-timers for his material. He designed the signs and made the metal frames himself, combining the skills and knowledge he'd learned as a film/darkroom technician, a biologist, a steel fabricator, and a woodworker who had built his own home.

After finishing his first signboards on the Waldie Island Trail, he decided that the Skattebo Reach Trail should also have interpretive panels, and he searched for the stories that would give a new significance and substance to the trail, beginning with the enigmatic name "Skattebo."

I realized that I would eventually have to find a face behind that name, and, hopefully, to dredge up details that would round out the image with an appreciation of the personality behind the haunted-looking face which emerged from the mist. From many sources, the image of Ole Skattebo took its shape in my mind's eye." - Walter Volovsek, from his website, Trails in Time.

***   ***   ***

Ole Skattebo was a Norwegian immigrant who worked as a prospector and fishing guide on the Kootenay River in the early 1900's. When he first began operating a fishing lodge for the Canadian Pacific Railway at the Slocan Pool (a legendary fishing hole where the Slocan and Kootenay Rivers meet), salmon were still running up the Kootenay and Columbia rivers from the Pacific Ocean. But soon, the two great waterways were much as we know them now, cluttered with hydroelectric dams, their shorelines scraped bare by unnatural tides. The last salmon in the Slocan Pool was caught in 1935, and Skattebo's career as the most popular fishing guide in the West Kootenays came to an end. He returned to prospecting and lived by the river in a cabin. There are still men alive in Castlegar and Nelson who remember chopping the old man's firewood and delivering food to him on sleds when they were boys. He died in 1950 at the age of 96, face-down in the snow on the way to his outhouse.

***   ***   ***

Walter believes that his panels can connect hikers with the past, and perhaps awaken their reflective minds. That is the meaning behind the subtitle of his website - "dedicated to the contemplative walker." But he also knows that some people are more inclined to use his trails as a place to jog while tuning out the surroundings with their I-Pod. Still, he's unwilling to tailor his vision towards people with a limited attention span. Someone complained to him recently that his panels had too many words on them. "No one wants to read that much information," she said.

"If they can't stop and take two minutes to learn something about where they are," replied Walter, "that's their loss."

***   ***   ***

We blaze a trail, but not all of it is new. Much of the Skattebo Reach Trail follows an old workers' path that dates back to the 1940's, when Doukhobor labourers travelled south from Glade to work on the Brilliant Dam project. From all their footsteps, a faint track remains, partially concealed beneath the brush. With a chainsaw, pruning shears and pulaskis, we'll uncover and widen the trail; today's hikers will be retracing the steps of the men who helped shape Castlegar's development and history.

On the dry bluffs high above the river, rotting wood slats and wire coils snake along ground across the hillside and into the forest. It's an old Doukhobor waterline, built in the 1920s to supply the village of Ooteschenia (which sat on a dry plateau high above the Columbia River) with gravity-fed water from Big McPhee creek, eight kilometres northeast. Walter explains this to us as we take a rest from trail-blazing. He brushes his hands along the metal coils with a hint of reverence. With some regret, he leads our route away from the waterline and down towards the river, so we can follow the workers' trail to Glade.

***   ***   ***

That summer, following Walter's flagging tape, the three of us worked on some of the shallowest, rockiest sections of the trail. Each time we struck the ground with our pulaskis, sparks would fly, and our shoulders went numb from the vibrations. The finished product was a rough scar along the hillside, a narrow mess of exposed roots and half-buried boulders. Still, we were proud of our results. We hoped that time, weather and the stamping of many hiking boots would eventually tamp the trail into something prettier.

The Skattebo Reach Trail was never intended to be an easy hike. In many ways, Walter even discouraged it: he didn't want to make the trail tempting for mountain bikers, ATV enthusiasts or dirt-bike yahoos. For one thing, the soil is prone to erosion, and it wouldn't take long for careless wheels to destroy the trail. But, just as importantly, the presence of those loud, fast moving engines would have ruined the feeling of wilderness - which, in a way, is just an illusion. The trail lies close to civilization, with the highway, train tracks and the community of Thrums on the other side of the river, a few hundred metres away. In many places along the way, you can hear cars, even the occasional lawnmower.

But if a path is rugged enough, primitive enough, it can push those sounds out of your mind: you have to watch where you put your feet, avoid the sneaky roots and ankle-turning stones. This hypnotic, intense concentration brings you trance-like into the deep forest, where, suddenly, all you can hear is the chiming of creek water, or an osprey calling to its mate. You feel as though you're walking in a different era, where the tattered remains of an old waterline seem more alive than the sounds of vehicles, which come in whispers through the trees.


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