Register Monday | July 4 | 2022

Hell of a Thing

Chris Koentges talks about loss in the Crowsnest Pass

Chris Koentges writes about the journey from Calgary to the Crowsnest Pass in the Rocky Mountains for the funeral of a cousin he's never met in "Lower Me Slowly, Sadly and Properly" (Issue 16). Amidst the dominant landscape and the almost unbearable sense of history, he discovers the resolve of the communities still living in towns in the pass. Recently, Jessica Block invited Chris to share the backstory on his trip west.

If you had never met your cousin, why did you go to her funeral?

On a whim. I don't think there's one specific reason. On one level, out of respect, and on another, out of interest. Maybe too subtly, the story talked about wanting to prove how much I'd been affected. Not just by the death, but by the stories I'd heard about this part of my family for so many years. I go out there for a couple of weeks in the summer but I wasn't as close with that side of the family.

So this wasn't the first time you had visited since the time you were a child with your grandfather?

I've been through quite a few times. Hiking, fishing. Even though it takes longer, it's a more interesting route to drive if you're headed west than the Trans-Canada. There used to be a gas station with a three-legged cocker spaniel, a friend of mine called him "Tripod." One time, I asked this kid who was pumping gas what happened to the dog, and he eyed me like I was crazy. He said: "You've never seen a three-legged dog?" Not until then.

Did you know that you were going to write about the Crowsnest Pass?

I've always wanted to write something about the area. I've done quite a bit of travelling, but the pass is possibly the most evocative place I've been. One summer, I went through a bunch of old archives, invested in some panning equipment and went looking for this legendary gold mine. If there had been more space, it would have been interesting to juxtapose the search for the buried gold with the burial.

The basic timeline of the mining story was that in the spring of 1870, Frank Lemon and his partner Blackjack set out from Tobacco Plains, Montana, in search of gold. They strayed from a more established route and stumbled into the area we now know to be the Crowsnest Pass. They found the mine to end all mines. I had it pinpointed at a bend in a river around Coleman-just East of Coleman. I won't tell you where, exactly. Anyway, Blackjack and Lemon celebrated their find late into the night. By sunrise the next day Blackjack was dead, and Lemon was stark raving mad.

There are a bunch of versions of the story, but the most common has Lemon taking an axe to Blackjack's skull because he didn't want to share the gold. After committing the deed, he was immediately tormented by these "ghastly moans" and the sight of "disembodied glowing eyes" in the forest around his camp. He left the gold and the body and rushed back to Tobacco Plains where he confessed to the murder.

Wow! I don't know if you talked to people about their history in conversations during this visit, but if you did, how open were they to talking?

They were very open, some of the best storytellers I've met. The identity they have is so strong. They love to talk about everything. Just don't ask them where their secret fishing hole is. But if you want to hear about the Frank Slide or what mines their parents and grandparents worked in, they're so in touch with their immediate history and the terrain around them. Most people have hiked up all the mountains and are proud and excited to talk about it. Their stories are always laced, like the best stories, with exaggeration and I think their legends are told more factually, as if they are fact. Like the story about the baby being found on top of the boulder. It's a story that a lot of people tell there as if it were a fact. It has become a fact.

You said, "their identity is so strong." I guess I just want to get more of a picture of what this identity is ...

I think with any mountain community, there's a sturdiness that is obviously attributable to the landscape. There's a humility too-of living at the base of these giant peaks that we don't have in the city. In the city, we guzzle these peaks-whatever capital comes from them, anyway. We build peaks. There's very little to remind you of your fundamental grand-scheme-of-things significance. In Calgary, where I live, we're forever ripping apart our immediate history, trying to grow into a bigger more world-class version of ourselves-one that always exists five years in the future. The blend of mostly Eastern European cultures that originally settled the pass has long since fortified into something of the area. With the exception of some of the ghost towns like Michel-Natal, which have actually vanished, their long-term history is scratched all over the mountains. You can viscerally feel the continuum from when the pass was settled, when it was booming, right up until present day. There's more a sense of a shared experience than where I live. A "we're invested in this area together" kind of thing.

Also, storytelling seems to be a big part of their identity, why do you think that is?

That's probably a rural thing as much as anything. Conversation-sharing the tricks of what's a highly local experience is more of a survival mechanism. A lot of the stories seem to culminate in hard-learned lessons relating to something very specific in the area. A logging road you shouldn't take in February (and this is what happened to me ...). How such and such a part in the river will flood on whichever week (I know this because ...). There's an obvious element of one-upmanship with these stories too.

Do you think your storytelling abilities or desire to tell stories comes from this side of the family?

Maybe. Their storytelling ability is more oral. I can't actually tell stories very well. Which is why I write them down in such an excessive way. It's overcompensation for not measuring up on that more traditional way.

You said in the piece that "nowhere is the expectation [of sad luck] so pronounced as in the towns of the Crowsnest Pass," then do the people see these events as inevitable?

They are certainly more accepting of their mortality. People in the pass have an expectation that the mine will be closed down, that the mountain will fall, their friends will die. I don't think this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, they are just more exposed to it and consequently more equipped to deal with it better.

Even though they have this coping mechanism was it challenging to write about the people of the pass without coming across as too pitying?

It was maybe the biggest challenge because, I mean, they are not people who pity themselves, and even saying that sounds so condescending. When you're writing about death the natural reaction is to feel sadness and pity, but quite quickly when I began to write the story, I realized it wasn't a story about pity but more of a celebration of the strength of humans.

You call the landscape overbearing, do you think that some people feel trapped in these towns?

I think so. I mean there are people who feel trapped and leave and there are people who relish that overbearing landscape. They hate to leave. There's a guy who comes to Calgary every so often and he hates it. He hates to drive with traffic lights and traffic. It stresses him out and makes him angry. I think what I mean about overbearing is on one level-physically-the towns are in the middle of a very narrow pass, so there's mountain coming up from every direction. It's often very cloudy and the sky is very low; whenever I go there, there's a fog, and even when there's not, there's the density of the forest. It feels claustrophobic to me. The second level of the overbearing feeling is [that] the history is so evident everywhere you go. Long sections of the road are taken up with the boulders from the Frank Slide. You're driving through the slides every single day. There are ruins of old mines and that evidence of tragedy that people take for granted struck me as overbearing.

What does the Burmis Tree represent for you?

It means the pass is minutes away, so it's like a city-limits marker. It's a very evocative tree to look at. It almost looks evil, like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe poem, like there should be a crow on it ... They say it could be 750-years-old, so it's a tree that's seen everything around here. Of course, it's a tree that's dead. It's remarkable that it grows out of stone. Because it's such an iconic piece of the landscape, people of the pass put steel brackets over the roots to make sure nothing happened to it. Very sadly, a couple of years ago, some kids from the area came and sawed off some branches and really vandalized it. So now there's talk of actually pulling it out and making a steel sculpture of it.

That's terrible.

Yeah, I think it would be really sad. Even a stump would be better.

So did I read too much into it then? I thought of it more as a metaphor for the people or the place.

It can be taken as a metaphor that it is dead and it's growing out of rock. It is perhaps representative of a certain way of life, the mining life. It holds on. I did want to convey its resolve.

You piqued everyone's curiosity in your contributor's note [in Issue 16] when you mentioned communism and bootlegging. Can you say a bit more about that, maybe a few examples or an anecdote?

Blairmore had a communist mayor in the nineteen-thirties. The mayor later went on to the Alberta legislature. The city council, which was also heavily communist, decreed that the name of the main street that ran through Blairmore would be changed to Tim Buck Boulevard, [Tim Buck] was the general secretary of the Communist Party of Canada at the time, so that's that connection. During the nineteen-twenties, because the pass is so close to the American border and also because it's laced together with old logging roads, there were a million places for people to make getaways and do their own thing without worrying about the authorities. The area became a bootlegging hotbed, and there was actually an opera that was written about the famous bootleggers of the time called Filumena.

Were there any repercussions after the illegal burial?

Not to my knowledge. It was so innocuous. Maybe if you did it in a cemetery in a big city, people would be up in arms. Everyone knows each other [in the pass] and I think the last thing the local authorities would want to do was stir that can of worms.

What redeems the Crowsnest Pass?

It is the resolve and the grace of the people who live there. It is a harsh place, but it's a mountain town. There's nature all over. It's not the hell maybe I made it out to be. It's magnificent. To live there over generations and go through these tragedies, I guess your redemption is your reaction to what happens. It's rebuilding and being proud of where you live.