Far from the comforts of big city living, nestled away in the misty mountains of British Columbia’s Golden Triangle, lay a handful of settlements known for their history, their potential and the prosperity they can provide. I first arrived in Stewart, BC at the beginning of August, 2020 – the first of several towns in Skeena/Tahltan country that I would become very familiar with over the next few years…
I was broken, fresh off a disbanded business and not long past the closure of my last (and final) CDC posting. Riddled with anxiety and with almost no idea what I was getting myself into, I agreed to follow a group of scientists into these misty mountains to keep them fed. I told myself it was an excellent opportunity to fund a career change, but in retrospect, I was just looking for a free ride that would take me as far away from the pretension and vanity of the city as possible.
To be blunt, I ran away.
At first, I lived off the knot in my stomach – not eating, and working from before the northern sun rose until after she finally dipped below those jagged peaks. As days turned into weeks, and the weeks to months. I struggled to feed 17 people out of a kitchenette, keep the fridges stocked with fresh food, and prevent the grizzly bears from tearing the door off my garbage shed. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually found some rhyme, reason, and rhythm to keep it all together. My nerves calmed, my experience took over, and even the sting of failure finally dulled as the leaves turned and the days grew shorter.
While time ticked by, it slowly dawned on me that I was finally in the exact position I’d been dreaming of all those years while I was standing over a gas range flicking sauté pans and racing against the menacing chatter of a kitchen printer. I was on the adventure I’d often fantasized about, and the monotonous exchange of chits for food had been replaced by something much more palpable. It was not the camp food that they had expected and my efforts did not go unnoticed. I wasn’t “home”, but if I was going to be anywhere but home, this was it.
This self-imposed exile exposed me to people and culture I would otherwise never have gotten the chance to connect with, and for that I am eternally grateful. People from all walks of life come together in these remote communities, and the end result is an extremely rich culture, very foreign to those glued to the 49th Parallel. The way of life up there is still very firmly rooted in – and not far removed from – its origins. The Indigenous people still hunt, fish, trap and forage to provide for their families, and gold fever employs everyone from janitors to geophysicists. The winters are harsh, the roads are long, the terrain unforgiving, but the resolve absolute. Being immersed in this culture provided me with many lessons about life and a great deal of perspective that has helped me overcome my own insecurities. Many of the characters that I have crossed paths with along the way have inadvertently contributed to this perspective. A few of them have stories I want to share:
Maya, Harbour Lights
Once I had agreed to take the job in Stewart, I had to solve the puzzle of how exactly I was going to pull it off. There was no framework laid out and very little information to work off of. I started by calling the only restaurant in town to ask a fellow cook, “How do you guys, uh, order food?”
To say I was going in blind is an understatement. After several days of lamenting the local grocer’s limited and sad selection of produce, I discovered a corner shop across the street called “Harbour Lights” and the wonderful woman, Maya, who runs it. It’s exactly the kind of store you hope to find in a small town at the end of the road – stocked with lots of great dairy, produce and a surprisingly deep catalog of pantry items. It significantly eased my ordering dilemmas. Maya’s mother would even pick mint from their garden for me when I needed it. Over the years, Maya and I have developed a great relationship, usually centred around our mutual disdain for our wholesaler, Bulkley Valley. She’s bailed me out of a few jams by giving me a bit of extra fridge space or lending me her deli slicer, and even once absorbing an entire order of mine that was delivered to our Stewart camp instead of Telegraph Creek (a mere 500km off the mark – thanks Bulkley). “That’s what we do around here, we help each other out,” she said. Those words have stuck with me. There’s an inherent inconvenience to most things in these remote communities, and if you don’t help somebody out of a jam around here, chances are they won’t get out of it. That’s exactly why you should always pay it forward.
While anxiously waiting in the cramped seat of a Dash 8 airliner – debating whether or not it would be more beneficial trying to sleep or attempting to visualize how I was going to get four-grand’s worth of food into a few residential refrigerators – a friendly face peered into the aisle and back towards me. “Are you Rhys?” he said. I nodded, trying my best to present normally, despite the ball of anxiety performing acrobatics in the pit of my stomach. He introduced himself as Kyle, a geologist. He seemed to be as in the dark as I was about what was about to happen. Oddly, he was completely calm, cool and collected about it – the complete opposite of myself. The rest is history. We’re three seasons in now, and our schedules have always ended up nearly identical. We’ve traveled all over north western BC together, made countless trips to clear out the nearest grocery store, and he’s always been around to help me out of a bind. This summer, I finally had the opportunity to reciprocate the favour. He needed a hand collecting some rocks from above a massive glacier – a standard endeavour for most in these parts, and a fun opportunity to help a friend out. I agreed to help, and off we flew in a helicopter, up and over the Bear Glacier to an abandoned driller’s shack decorated by the hair of the goats that had since claimed it for themselves. Now, I’d like to think I’m a fairly sure-footed and coordinated person, but I have since come to realize that, in the grand spectrum of “two left feet” to “twinkle toes”, I’m in the middle, at best. This was made abundantly clear to me when I found myself falling in the exact place I was told was the most dangerous. “When I talk about exposure, this is what I mean,” Kyle said, as he pointed down the steep, icy snow chute towards the comically large cliff that it spilled off of. So there I was, sliding feet first down the snow toward my impending doom, when Kyle hurled himself on top of me and somehow managed to keep us both from tumbling off the side of the mountain. He laughed it off, once again un-phased.
The whole time I’ve known Kyle, he’s been as laid back as the day I met him. Never one to complain, or avoid going the extra mile, or to let the circumstances of the situation get the better of him. He saved my ass out there. Although he makes his living scrambling up treacherous mountains and crashing through the engulfing bush below, his unflappable nature has served as an excellent example of one of the best ways to make your job easier: by not worrying so much all the time.
Matthew “MJ” Wesley
MJ is a very proud, yet soft-spoken Nisga’a man who has garnered the respect of myself and many others in these parts. He’s no stranger to the ubiquitous trials and tribulations that unfortunately befall many young Indigenous people in Canada, but has risen above them and emerged as wise as the dog days of summer are long. He’s a family man, an incredibly proud father and a role model to all for what it means to be a provider. If he’s not in the mountains, at work or at home with his kids, you’ll find him fishing and foraging in the Nass Valley. Such is the way of life around here – make hay while the sun shines to be comfortable during a long cold winter.
I said some time ago that my days in restaurants are done. An unfortunate part of that decision is that my opportunities to pass on what I have learned over the course of my career have diminished entirely. The universe does, however, work in strange ways, and I now find myself with a bull-cook: “Chef Betty”, more affectionately known as “Miss Betty”, “Aunt Betty”, or “You old bag”, when I’m feeling cheeky. She’s a tough Gitxsan woman who decided to make a career change later in life. Recently having completed the first level of courses en route to a Red Seal Certification, she was green as they come. This became evident during one of our first days together, when I caught her muttering “I have no fucking idea what I’m doing” while preparing lunches for the crew. She needed some guidance, and since then we’ve become quite the dynamic duo. She’s progressed exponentially in a short amount of time, and has put out some truly delicious food, straight from the heart. She’s got a lot of kids, the youngest of which recently left the nest. I can’t help but think we’re sitting at her kitchen table when she serves up salmon and bannock for a snack. Her maternal instincts are strong, and she looks out for me constantly. She buys me time to rest when I work too much, makes me a sandwich when I don’t eat, and has coffee ready for me when she knows I’m busy. Her presence has been a blessing and our time together, combined with progression, has been a great reminder of how rewarding it is to share knowledge, and how nice it is to have someone watching your back when you’re too busy breaking it to look around.
RHYS AMBER | Rhys may have started his career in the restaurant industry as a line cook, but these days he’s using that experience to engage fellow chefs in discussions about what motivates them, what frustrates them, and how the industry can improve.