All's Well That Ends in Wells
Have you ever visited a place a few times and become so enamoured with it that you find yourself looking in the rear-view mirror upon departure, musing to yourself that some day you are going to be more than just a periodic visitor to that community?
I experienced that feeling a number of times over the years when making treks up from Quesnel B.C. to the community of Wells, which is nestled in the mountain terrain surrounding the Bowron Lakes and the historic mining town of Barkerville.
While tapping out these thoughts and observations, I am sitting in a tiny cedar-shake house in Wells looking out at a blustery day and a yard colored by the last standing splashes of magenta from the late blooming fireweed flowers.
Just over four years ago I was on the hunt for a place or piece of property outside the city, and because the prices were still ridiculously low at the time, my focus was on lakes in rural Saskatchewan.
One afternoon while looking at properties on the internet, my phone rang. On the other end of the line was my old friend Danny Mack, the singer who had helped start the psychedelic music scene in Vancouver in the mid-sixties and who had gone on to front memorable acts like Fireweed with Chief Dan George and the rambunctious, renegade honky-tonk band The Cement City Cowboys.
Dan moved to Australia with his Aussie bride Bonnie almost a decade ago, and like clockwork he phones every six months, usually on a Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m. mountain time. I have no idea what day or time it is in Australia when he calls, I’m just happy to hear from Dan.
“What are ya doin’ Pete,” are always the first words that come at me from the land down under.
On this occasion my response was, “I’m looking at property and seeing if there is anything on a lake that I can buy in north central Saskatchewan. A place where I can get away to.”
Silence, at least five seconds worth, was Dan’s initial response.
Then he barked at me. That gruff but warm voice was delivering a bit of a wake-up call.
“Let me get this straight. You’ve spent how much time in Saskatchewan over the years Pete? Not much, right. Who cares how cheap places are in Saskatchewan. You’ve always loved north central B.C.. Have you been checking anything out there?”
That was pretty much the message, verbatim.
After getting caught up on other fronts with Dan, we said our goodbyes and I went back on line, and I started poking around at real estate sites corresponding to north central B.C..
Within an hour I was on the phone with a woman in Wells who was privately selling a small home. It was the same house that I sit in today.
Getting to know this community and the people that make it tick has been incredibly eye-opening and enjoyable over the last four years.
I make my way to Wells three or four times a year to relax, chill out, read books, stain furniture, watch movies, stare at the stars and canoe, and one can’t help but be drawn to the vibrant artistic community that is such an integral part of the town located 75 kilometres east and into the mountains from Quesnel.
In the summer months there are maybe 1,000 or so residents here, maybe a few more this year given the price of gold and the number of claims that are now being mined. After all in the 1860’s, Barkerville, which is only 6 km up the road, was the biggest town north west of Chicago and north of San Francisco when the gold rush was on. There is apparently still “gold in them there hills”.
In the first few days of this vacation I have already attended performances of two shows at the historic Sunset Theatre
. One, a brilliant one-woman show called Jake’s Gift, is headed to Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre for a three-week run this fall. This moving piece of decidedly Canadian theatre will undoubtedly be on the receiving end of glowing reviews from the Calgary press.
The Sunset is one of the hubs of the Wells arts community and the theatre has slowly been restored over the past few years thanks to the conviction and dogged determination of Karen and Dave, a Calgary couple, both diehard professional thespians.
Upon arriving in Wells, patrons of both the Sunset Theatre and The Arts Wells Festival were still talking about a fine double bill presented in early August at the Sunset with two exceptional Canadian talents, Rheostatics founder Dave Bidini and bluesman Ken Hamm.
Bidini and Hamm had been hired by Island Mountain Arts to instruct four-day courses at the end of July aimed at aspiring musicians and songwriters. Bidini guided his students through the finer points of songwriting while Hamm shared his deep knowledge of blues and finger style guitar playing with a receptive crew.
Over the years, these IMA sponsored workshops have been conducted by many musicians well known to the CKUA listening audience. David Francey, Tim Williams and Ken Whiteley are three that come to mind.
The Island Mountain Arts gallery and adjoining offices sit just east of The Sunset Theatre on Pooley Street and every summer the IMA
also hosts summer workshops for writers, painters, and videographers. For 25 years the IMA has received considerable recognition for the International Harp School that brings together harp students from all over the continent. The IMA, as you have guessed, is a beehive of activity.
One of my first pit stops in Wells is always the Bear’s Paw
, a fantastic diner that delivers many culinary delights. The funky café is, along with the Wells Hotel pub, one of the notable gathering places in town.
The first thing I noticed when walking into the Bear’s Paw is that Dave, who owns the cafe with his wife Cheryl, is wearing a CKUA t-shirt that was made by the Canmore chapter for a fundraising event produced in 2006.
I’d never seen this particular t-shirt design before and Dave mentions that every time he wears it, customers constantly strike up conversations about CKUA and all that the listener supported network offers.
Dave and Cheryl’s musical tastes run parallel to the roots music and jazz offerings of CKUA, and when the opportunities present themselves, the couple never hesitate to host evenings of live music.
Posters dot the A-framed ceiling of one of the rooms in the café and pics of Garnet Rogers, Maria Dunn, Linda McRae, Manitoba Hall and Dave Essig gaze down on the patrons.
Dave had recently moved the Bear’s Paw outdoor summer stage and it is now set against what appears to be a railroad bunkhouse he has no doubt salvaged from some abandoned mining site.
A few nights later a largely attentive crowd of roots music fans would be entertained from that well-lit, canopied stage by a local duo known as the Wingdam Ramblers.
Bob Campbell and Murray Boal are the Ramblers and the two have been part of the northern B.C. music scene for a few decades.
“Bob and I were actually a rhythm section for hire in Quesnel and area for years. Bob played drums, I played bass and any solo act that came to town could give us a call and we would provide backup. Those were the days when six-nighters were abundant and the Quesnel Legion had music every weekend. We had a lot of good times,” says Boal, who one senses, was deep into honky-tonk and country-rock music in those days.
These days The Wingdam Ramblers still have a bass on stage, but the Fender bass sits in a semi-circle of stringed instruments that surround the two singer-songwriters. Guitars, a mandolin and a backless old time banjo all are part of an equal opportunity musical program of original material, much of it incorporating regional references into the lyrics.
Over the course of the two sets I am drawn to Bob’s Same Old Same and Why Can’t We Just Get Along and Murray’s Jack of Clubs Hotel. The latter paints a vivid picture of a local gathering place that went up in flames almost two decades ago. The Wingdams really have something going on. They are in step with each other, as the songs are well crafted and from the heart. The variety of instrumental embellishments successfully colours the pieces, many of which can be found on the Wingdam Ramblers’ disc. The audience is comprised of visitors from Europe and the U.S., and locals, one of them being singer-songwriter Yael Wand who has received airplay on CKUA and guested on How I Hear It with Monica Miller.
The evening of rootsy Rambler tunes ends with a requested performance of the humorous song Dog Shit Season. The tune doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Wells when the winter snows melt away in May, but it does provide the desired laughs.
Chatting after the show, Bob Campbell mentions that there is a banjo maker who lives outside Williams Lake, not far from Quesnel, and his specialty is old time banjos.
“There’s a three year waiting list to get one and they sell for $7,000,” says Campbell while offering up a reminder that so many talented artists and artisans work and create outside of the mainstream.
Gazing into my rear view mirror one more time I recall a stop in Wells in the early nineties with my three kids and their mother during a trip that was taking us to the historic town of Barkerville.
After having dinner in the Wells Hotel we took our ice cream cones out on the main street, only to be lured to the Sunset Theatre by the sound of beautiful trumpet playing. This was incidentally a Sunset Theatre that was in a ramshackle state. Though we didn’t go in, we all peered in through the doors at a multi-instrumentalist who wowed us with not only his horn playing, but his versatility on the violin. We chose to sit on the front steps of the theatre, with the sun setting over the mountains to the west as twilight, heritage buildings and traditional music combined to transport us back to another time.
That musician holding court in the Sunset turned out to be a young Daniel Lapp, who today is one of the most respected instrumentalists on the western Canadian roots music scene.
I had no idea that would be my first of many nights walking down Pooley Street in Wells, but there is still “a lot of gold in these hills", and it comes in many forms.
And thanks to my buddy Danny Mack for making such a timely call and adjusting my rear-view mirror.