Every May I pack my bags with a rather unfortunate looking suit and a meticulously embroidered fringed shawl and hit the road to the Kootenays, the ruggedly beautiful southeastern portion of British Columbia.
The suit and shawl are for the annual USCC Union of Youth Festival– known fondly as Doukhobor Festival– and I drive nearly 10 hours, leaving the west coast city of Victoria, and travel almost all the way across the province to attend. The festival celebrates the beloved Doukhobor tradition of a Capella singing, all in Russian, and within 24 hours of arriving in the small city of Castlegar, I’m on stage, belting out the discordant harmonies of a Russian folk song.
The Doukhobors came to Canada at the turn of the last century, a Christian sect exiled from Russia, where their pacifist manifesto found them persecuted and sent to the Siberian gulags. The author Leo Tolstoy took an interest in the Doukhobors, and helped fund their emigration. In Canada they settled on the harsh prairies and, never a people to back down in the face of adversity, worked the land by pulling the plows themselves. Eventually most Doukhobors made their way to British Columbia, where they built communal villages and found the fertile land of the Kootenays a welcome companion to their agricultural prowess.
Turbulent years followed, with a radical sect called the Sons of Freedom breaking off from the Orthodox Doukhobors. The Freedomites’ protests against materialism were scandalizing protests and marches done nude and misguided acts of arson and bombings, creating an infamous legacy of domestic terrorism that still haunts the reputation of Doukhobors today.
My grandparents on my father’s side were born and lived in Doukhobor communal villages, and they raised their children in the unsettled decades of the 1950s and 60s. The Freedomite years were not an easy time to be Doukhobor– literature of the time such as Simma Holt’s “Terror in the Name of God” spread fear and distrust of the Doukhobors throughout Canada.
I, however, know the Doukhobors best through their peaceful and beautiful music. Their songs are filled with lyrics lovingly celebrating nature, evoking their motherland, Russia, and the abundant paradise of the land in which they now called home: the glorious break of a brilliant dawn, the steppes along a river, towering cedars and mighty oaks and blooming roses. In old photos of my Baba and Deda they are often posed amongst the backdrop of nature. Ragged rock lined with thick forest hovering above the tempestuous waters of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, orchard trees thick with springtime blossoms, fields flooded from the swollen rivers– the most surprising thing is how little this backdrop has changed to this day.
The journey to Castlegar is a fantastic tour of British Columbia’s landscapes in itself. One leaves the coastal rainforest of Vancouver Island and surrounding Gulf Islands to pass through the farms and fields of the Lower Mainland, travels the mountain passes around Manning Provincial Park and descends into the hot, dry valleys of the Okanagan. The temperature has usually jumped at least 10 degrees by the time one reaches Osoyoos, where brown hills dotted with sagebrush surround the warm waters of Osoyoos Lake, and the spectacular mountain range in nearby Cathedral Provincial Park can be seen in the distance. Small towns, filled with reminders of mining heydays, tiny churches and quaint heritage buildings, flash by in a blur, and soon enough you’re in the Kootenays, where the rivers, mountains and trees just seem that much more impressive.
In Castlegar, we visit the Brilliant Suspension Bridge, built by the Doukhobors in 1913, and refurbished in recent years. We stop by Verigin’s Tomb, where the bodies of Doukhobor leaders lie in rest, surrounded by blooming lilacs and a chain link fence to deter any would-be bombers (it’s happened before!). We drop in at the Hi-Lite, a Chinese food joint that has remained unrenovated since the 1950s and eat bottomless spaghetti in the nearby town of Trail. We drive the road to Nelson, the verdant waters of the Kootenay River alongside us, taking a detour in the tiny community of Thrums so that we can properly stop and enjoy the placid scenery, and then another detour to admire the Brilliant Dam, where the water falls in violent, pounding cascades.
But most importantly of all, we, the Doukhobors, gather at the Brilliant Cultural Center (known as “the Dom”) and sing. A service is held on Sunday morning, outside, surrounded by fields and mountains, and our voices rise together, songs drifting across the landscape, as wild and beautiful as when my grandparents posed for photographs there many years ago.
If you happen to make the journey from British Columbia’s southwest to southeast, here are some highlights from along the Crowsnest Highway:
- We always stop at Billy’s Family Restaurant in Princeton… but more for the novelty than the actual cuisine.
- Tiny Keremeos is rich with orchards. Stop at a roadside fruit stand to admire adorable hand-painted signs and try fresh fruit picked only a few feet away.
- Osoyoos is home to some of the hottest temperatures in Canada. Jojo’s Cafe is a great spot for a mid-trip lunch or visit N’kmip, an award-winning winery and resort owned and operated by the local First Nations band. Be sure to look for the spotted lake, just off the highway when coming in from the west.
- The Copper Eagle in Greenwood has incredible cinnamon buns and good coffee. Greenwood also happens to be the cutest town on the Crowsnest Highway.
- On a hot day, an ice cream or milkshake from the Tastie Treat in Grand Forks is always welcome.
- In Castlegar you can try Doukhobor cuisine (British Columbia borscht is different than any borscht you’ve ever tried, guaranteed!) and learn more about Doukhobor culture at the Doukhobor Discovery Center. The museum is in a traditional communal village on the banks of the Columbia River. Visit the Brilliant Suspension Bridge and Verigin’s Tomb for further Doukhobor history. More Russian history can be seen on Zuckerberg Island, home to an eerily beautiful small wooden dom. The Doukhobor music festival is held every Victoria Day weekend (the last Monday before May 25) and the public is more than welcome to attend all events. You can hear all the latest Doukhobor hits here.
- Head to nearby Trail for all-you-can-eat Italian food at The Colander. Trail has a large population of Italians and climbing the covered stairs up the rocky hillsides is an interesting way to see the town.