Historical Lifelines of Kootenay Lake

A review of Connecting the Kootenays: The Kootenay Lake Ferries, by Michael A. Cone, non-fiction/regional history, 2022.

For thousands of years prior to the building of the Roman roads, humanity’s highways were rivers, lakes, oceans and seas. It simply made more sense—it was faster and less labour intensive to sail a craft along known water routes. Well before the Age of Exploration, when sailing ships finally broke the barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, people in ancient times were maintaining extensive trading networks from the Mediterranean to the Orkney islands of northern Scotland. Cobalt glass beads found in Scandinavian Bronze Age tombs reveal trade connections between Egypt and Nordic countries 3,400 years ago.[1]

So it’s no surprise that during the European settlement of the Kootenays the primary mode of travel was by water. This made eminent sense given the steeply mountainous terrain, and indeed, the region’s Indigenous peoples—the Ktunaxa and Sinixt—had already been navigating Kootenay waterways for thousands of years by canoe. Explorer David Thompson first charted the region in the late 18th century from the seat of a canoe with the help of Indigenous guides. Then, with the advent of the steamship era, the lakes and some of the rivers of the Kootenays were traversed by humble steam tugs and the more majestic sternwheelers, cruising at a gentle speed. For settlers living along the shorelines of Kootenay Lake, their only communication and supply line to the outside world came from these steam-powered craft. Lake dwellers would put up an agreed-upon signal on the beach and the shallow-draft steamboats would land to pick up or deliver mail and supplies. You can imagine the excitement of seeing one of these gleaming white structures—some of them with three or more decks topped with the wheelhouse—arrive on your lonely stretch of graveled shoreline.

Nasookin

The Nasookin, queen of the Kootenay Lake fleet during the heyday of steamboat operations dominated by the CPR, approaching Procter on her morning run to Kootenay Landing. Image courtesy Michael A. Cone

Until the invention of the automobile and the profound transformation it wrought on transportation networks, Kootenay roads were little more than glorified pack trails—impassable to all but the hardiest of souls. Sadly, the impetus given to building proper roads and linking them all together provided by the automobile would spell the end of the noble steamboat era on Kootenay Lake. There was a brief crossover period during which the old steamboats such as the Nasookin—once practically a floating four-star hotel—were repurposed as car ferries. If you were a Greyhound bus driver during the 1930s and ’40s it would have taken a great deal of stamina to watch as your bus was chained across the bow of the Nasookin for the crossing from Gray Creek to Fraser’s Landing near Balfour. During a storm Kootenay Lake can be as dangerous as the sea. But as the price of automobiles became more affordable to the average family, car traffic exploded and a new and better kind of ferry had to be sought.

Michael A. Cone has done a superb job of chronicling the history of Kootenay Lake ferries, leading us from the crossover era through a century of ferry service up to the present with the state-of-the-art Osprey, launched in 2000. This is a beautifully put together and well-written book. The large, colour format of Connecting the Kootenays is a visual treat and its wealth of historical photographs help the reader chart their way through the chronology of the ferries, even what to the untrained eye would be subtle alterations to, for example, the Nasookin and the more modern Anscomb. Having researched and written two books of regional history and one of national history, I can attest to the work that goes into sourcing historical images, quite apart from the often-daunting task of composing the text.

Anscomb ferry

Provincial Government ferry Anscomb making her approach to the Balfour wharf circa 1956. It would faithfully serve Kootenay Lake residents until its replacement in 2000 by the Osprey. Photograph courtesy of Michael A. Cone.

Like the best histories, the book transports you back in time, giving you an almost palpable sense of what it would have been like to ride on a sternwheeler cutting through the waves of Kootenay Lake. The reader learns a lot about the operations of steamboats and ferries, especially the critical roles played by deckhands in assuring safe passage across this mercurial inland sea. Even though I grew up with two grandfathers who worked on the Kootenay Lake ferries—Roy Fisher, who worked as a relief captain on the Anscomb, and Herb Brown, an engineer on both the Balfour and the Anscomb—like most people I took for granted the work done by ferry staff, with little conception of the vital functions they fulfill. What may seem a simpleton’s job—guiding vehicles onto the ferry deck—is in fact an important way of creating stability for the vessel by ensuring the greatest weight is kept over the ferry’s centre of gravity. These skilled crews are a literal lifeline when things go wrong.

My beautiful picture

Herb Brown on the day of his last shift on the Kootenay Lake ferries, 1976. Image courtesy Joyce archives

On a personal note, it was great to see Herb Brown repeatedly cited throughout the text for his contributions. One has to remember that Brown was a farm boy who never finished high school, raised in Alberta during the “dust bowl” conditions of the Great Depression. Yet due to an innate genius for mechanics, he was able to work his way up from dock labourer and deckhand to engineer. In fact, as Cone writes, some of Brown’s mechanical innovations not only improved the Balfour’s efficiency but lasted decades without needing major repair. Cone also relates the incident Herb used to tell me about when I was a boy—the exciting tale of the day the ferry was blown far off course on Kootenay Lake and he had to rush up from the engineering deck to help steer the ferry back on course. From Herb’s beaming countenance in some of the photos in this book, it’s clear that this was a man doing exactly what he was born to do in life.

Roy Fisher the Captain

Roy Fisher, who served as relief captain on the Kootenay Lake ferries from 1964–1970. Image courtesy Joyce family archives

It’s unfortunate that Cone had not heard of Roy Fisher, who served as relief captain on the Kootenay Lake ferries from 1964–1970. But there’s always the second edition! Fisher earned his qualifications at Vancouver, serving on a passenger freighter called the Princess Patricia that ran north to Dutch Harbor in the Alaska islands chain. After qualifying as steamship master, he joined the Kootenay Lake fleet, first serving as relief captain on the Anscomb. Roy was an affable, gregarious personality who relished the look on children’s faces when they were allowed to come up from the car deck to ‘steer’ the ferry. I remember being one of those kids, maybe five or six years old, breathless with wonder at the man in his brass buttoned uniform and peaked cap, as I hung on for dear life to the wheel with its seemingly endless spokes.

Balfour ferry copy

The launching of the new auxiliary ferry Balfour at the CPR’s Nelson shipyard, June 25, 1954. Photograph courtesy of Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History.

Cone’s book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in West Kootenay history or steamboat history generally. Just as the Mississippi had its classic era of the sternwheel-driven riverboats, we had our graceful era of steamboat travel in Western Canada. And it’s a reminder that newer is not always better where technology is concerned. I for one would far rather have been living in the classic age of the Kootenay Lake sternwheeler, riding from Nelson to Kaslo on the Moyie, leaning over the railings as the miles ticked lazily past with the froth, or having a four-course dinner in the luxurious dining room on the Kuskanook. Newer ferry technologies are probably safer and certainly faster, but they will never recapitulate the old world elegance and class of these steam-powered vessels that were a literal lifeline to Kootenay Lake residents prior to the development of public highways.

[1] Philippe Bostrom, “Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker,” March 9, 2016: https://oldnorse.org/2020/11/17/beads-found-in-3400-year-old-nordic-graves-were-made-by-king-tuts-glassmaker/

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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