Generally just down-to-earth, genuine people

Yesterday I wrote a blogpost about some of the challenges I have had taking photos in a small town here in Canuckistan. And I was given a real dressing down by a friend later who took umbrage at me generalising about Canuckistanis and how impolite and unfriendly they can be.

Of course, one should never generalise about an entire population, and that was most definitely not my intention – I was just reflecting on some of the less welcoming, sometimes suspicious individuals I encountered in this tiny pocket of Canuckistan.

The majority were interested in where I came from and actually happy that I would take the time to document their lives and the town they called home. Like the older couple I saw walking hand in hand on the riverfront trail one evening. I pulled over, grabbed my camera and jogged over to them to ask if I might photograph them. He answered in the affirmative, with flowery language that would have made a sailor blush. But I loved how down to earth both of them were, and just how in love they seemed to be.

There were the golfers with equally as expletive-laden language and the two wheelchair-bound women fighting for better facilities and access for the handicapped in town. The twenty-something lady walking her dog under the golden canopy of Ceal Tingley park humoured me by going back to do it once, twice and a third time so that I could get an angle with which I was happy. The dragon boat paddlers invited me, a complete stranger, onto the boat with them and the yoga ladies at the local recreation centre made sure to show their best form. The group of skateboarders were only too happy to show off their moves for the camera, and millwright students took time off class to pose for my camera. The most accommodating and pleasant though, were the staff and interns at the local hospital.

Those were just some of the people I didn’t know who let me photograph them.

In addition, over the course of a month and a bit, I cajoled a whole bunch of friends to come out and help me to stage photos to show off some of the best this town and its surroundings has to offer too.

And after weeks of photographing, I realised that it’s not nature, buildings or facilities that make the town beautiful. It’s its people. I know that sounds twee, but it’s a simple truth I hope I never forget. The main memories I take from my last four months Cruising Canuckistan are of the new people I met, and the friends I got to know better as we spent time together photographing the city.


Paper – at the core of a city

The lifeblood of Quesnel, the little town in the middle of the Cariboo, in the middle of British Columbia, in the west of Canuckistan has to be the lumber industry. Originally founded on the back of the 19th century gold rush, the town was known as Quesnellemouth, which was shortened to Quesnelle and finally Quesnel by the early 1900s.

Although Quesnel has always been tied to the timber industry, it was only in the 1940s that it really took off. This is how the local museum describes it: “In 1948 there were 33 registered sawmills within a 30 mile radius of Quesnel. By 1952 there were 180, plus 5 planer mills. As the decade progressed the number of mills declined as operations were consolidated into larger companies … Today, Forestry is the leading industry with two pulp mills, five sawmills, a plywood and MDF plant. The City’s main industrial area is the most concentrated wood-products-manufacturing area in North America.”

Once upon a time wood chips from the saw mills were simply dumped outside of town in ginormous landfills. Now they are all transported to one of the pulp mills around town and turned into pulp.

Cariboo Pulp and Paper Company

I visited one of those mills, Cariboo Pulp and Paper Company, recently. Pulp is produced either through a chemical or mechanical process. Cariboo Pulp uses the chemical method to produce 170,000 Metric Tonnes per year of what is called Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft pulp (NBSK). The pulp is made by mixing wood fibres with a solution of chemicals, and cooking them inside a digester. The solution is then washed, bleached, rolled into a huge sheet, dried and finally cut into smaller squares for transporting. Paper products, including printing and writing paper, as well as a range of tissue products are typically produced.

Apart from its core business, the mill is also responsible for the treatment of the city’s sewage.

Probably the most amazing thing to me, though, was the handful of employees I met who had worked for the company for over 40 years – especially considering the hot, humid, noisy environment.

Here then a little peek into the bowels of a pulp mill.

Mesmerising. Eerie. Smoky. Soup.

Last year this time I was sitting in South Africa reading people’s reactions to the smoke lying heavy over British Columbia (B.C.) because of wildfires. And I thought to myself, “I sure am pleased I’m not there for that. My lungs would be a mess!”

This year I am here, and the wildfires are back with a vengeance, and not far from town. Here is today’s graphic of all the fires burning in B.C. (We are around half way up, just south of Prince George on the map and east of the two “wildfires of note” right next to each other.)

I haven’t gone out much and my lungs have (mostly) survived, because of well-insulated homes with air conditioning. But every morning one finds one’s car coated in a fluffy grey film. Today seemed worse than the previous few weeks, with ash dancing like light autumn snow in the dusk-like morn. At around 1.44pm everything went burnt-orange dark. It reminded me of the solar eclipse I experienced a few years ago, but this was caused by a thick cloud of ash and smoke apparently blowing down from the Shovel Lake fire west of Prince George, estimated at 79,000 hectares.

Wrap your mind around the sheer size of the wildfire, and the impossible task firefighters face in bringing it under control. And this is only one of around 550 wildfires currently burning in B.C.

While others were lamenting the conditions on Facebook, I grabbed my camera bag and something to wrap around my face and drove to shoot my “favourite model” – a gutted church on “First Nations” land not far from where I am staying.

Very dark. And very orange. Quite eerie!
Around ten minutes later, with things clearing up a bit. One friend on FB called it mesmerising, and it was.
20 minutes later, and more like what we have seen many afternoons for the last few weeks.

The B.C. government declared a state of emergency this week, and there is no end in sight of the wildfire season, with hot dry conditions predicted for at least the next few weeks. With my lungs finally bemoaning the bad air, I think I’m going to take myself down south to the cleaner climes of the lower mainland and Washington State.

See you back here in Autumn.

Not the rodeo I’ve grown to love

Five years ago I attended my first rodeo here in Quesnel, British Columbia. I had no idea what to expect and absolutely loved it – especially as the sun went down across the arena, blanketing the riders in a golden glow. A couple of years ago I went back and had a blast playing with different shooting techniques with only a 105mm macro lens. Although the results were a bit different to the norm, I was still very happy.

When I heard I’d be in town at the same time as this year’s rodeo I immediately pencilled it into my mental calendar. But this year was weird. It was a dull, overcast day, which seemed to affect both riders and animals and a lethargy hung heavy over the event. Several of the bulls or broncos simply refused to exit the stalls, and new rides had to be organised. There also didn’t seem to be as many competitors as normal, which meant several rode twice. I know of a handful who would normally have competed but didn’t.

Maybe another reason I just wasn’t as into it was that I was there alone, so couldn’t turn to anyone and say, “wow did you see those roping skills” or “how awesome was that ride?” And strangers never seem to appreciate my unforeseen cheery banter.

But hey, I was there, so I shot away as I always do. And there are a few classic moments captured. Enjoy!


Quesnel’s Bridges

Quesnel, the Cariboo town of around 12,000 inhabitants, lies at the confluence of the Fraser and Quesnel rivers. It also lies on the main route to northern British Columbia and the Yukon, with Highway 97 running right through town.

Originally the commercial centre of the Cariboo Gold Rush, Quesnel now owes its existence mainly to the forest industry, including several mills. As a result, the rail yard is a hive of activity for the distribution of plywood, MDF, pulp products and lumber.

Obviously this means that the town boasts several bridges – three road, two rail and one walking – over both the Fraser and Quesnel rivers. Sadly, most of them are not very pretty bridges, with the exception of the walking bridge – but I decided to document them anyway.

All the photos were shot handheld.

The Quesnel River Bridge (part of Highway 97) in the foreground, with the rail bridge behind it. Shot from Red Bluff.

This rail bridge links Cariboo Pulp and Paper with the rail yard.

The rail bridge from upriver.
A nice sloooooow shutter speed at dusk, shot from the south shore of the Quesnel River.

Next, we have Highway 97’s Quesnel River Bridge.

This was shot late at night. The golden colour is purely as a result of the bridge’s lights.
Quesnel River Bridge and a passing truck.

Downriver from the Quesnel River Bridge is the Johnston Bridge, which links the city to Johnston Sub(division). It is without doubt the most unappealing of them all. The first (wooden) bridge in this spot was built in the 1800s, with the current bridge, built with steel beams and open deck grating, being completed in 1974.

All I got was a sunset photo across the Johnston bridge towards town.

A few hundred metres downriver is the CN Railway Bridge, the main rail route out of the city.

The CN Railway Bridge at dusk.
The bridge served as the perfect backdrop for wedding photos last year.

Next across, and on the Fraser this time, is Moffat Bridge, which links Quesnel to West Quesnel. It opened to traffic in 1971. Again, not really one of the more photographed bridges in town, but fortunately the evening I went to photograph it, a light fog drifted in, making for some nice moody shots.

Moffat Bridge shot from the Fraser River’s east bank.

Next I got a nice little wide-angle of both Moffat Bridge and the Old Fraser River Bridge. At 831 feet (253m) long, the wooden bridge is apparently the longest wooden-truss walking bridge in the world. It was officially opened in March 1929, with traffic limited to pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, cattle and the occasional motor vehicle. As the lumber industry grew though, the bridge became inadequate for the increased traffic and large logging trucks, eventually leading to Moffat Bridge being built. Finally, in 2010, the walking bridge was restored and a programmable lighting array was installed.

Moffat Bridge on the left, and the wooden walking bridge on the right.
The wooden-truss bridge shot from the east bank.

Et voila! There you have them – Quesnel’s six bridges in vivid colour.

Finally shooting Quesnel’s “little people”

I lived in Quesnel for about two years in 2013/2014 and shot pretty much anything of significance. But, strangely enough, I never got around to tracking down its painted fire hydrants. Until now.

So, what’s the story behind them? In 2001 the Quesnel Downtown Association decided to paint some of the fire hydrants to represent historical figures important to the town. They approached sponsors, who got to choose who they wanted represented, and then artist Leigh Cassidy got to work.

There are now 23 publicly-viewable fire hydrants, several of which have been repainted (and so look a bit different to their original versions). Gas Jockey and Blacksmith look completely different and it seems that the Hockey Player was replaced by a Dogsled Dog.

Oh, there are some funky angles because all I had was a wide angle lens. But here they are. And if anyone can tell me where to find “Betty Boop,” I will go and shoot her too.

If you would like to read more about each fire hydrant, here’s the pdf produced by the city.

To the Beaver’s brook in black and white

I’m trying to take in as much of this area as possible in my last few days here. On a cloudy day this week I drove down to the Beavermouth Creek out along the Quesnel Hydraulic Road. (That was where I saw and shot the fox.) And, what with it being overcast, the photos just work better in black and white. All except the last few at Dragon Lake, which I passed on the way home in the perfect light.

The early bird catches the shot (how hokey)

I am anything but an early bird – ask anyone who knows me. My best work seems to be done anywhere between 10pm and 2am, and I seldom see the sun rise. But I also have gained a reputation of not sleeping much here in Canada. I don’t know where that comes from, but it did come true one Friday night/Saturday morning a few weeks ago when I went to sleep around midnight and then woke up absolutely and completely at 3.12am.

After downing a cup of coffee I decided to grab my camera gear and go out shooting – which took place from just after 4am until 7.30 (I am guessing). I remember a friend (thanks Mr Langley) telling me once that the best time of day to shoot buildings is just before sunrise, because of the faint glow in the sky. And he was right! The best time to shoot anything is just before and after sunrise, I’d say!

I started at my favourite pulp mill, then drove over to the Fraser River Footbridge, which I shot from the West Side. After sharing the river bank with a few curious deer I then headed into a lifeless downtown, on to the train station, and up towards Dragon Lake, before ending at my most treasured model, the burnt-out church in Red Bluff (which I shot from the trees). The colours absolutely popped, unlike in the full light of the day. You can see for yourself below.

(Click on thumbnails to open the slideshow.)

Wild Cow Milking is a thing. Seriously.

Three years ago I attended my first ever rodeo in Canuckistan, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. I had no idea what to expect, apart from what I had seen in movies or on television. I suppose I expected the bucking broncos, bull riding and a rodeo clown, but definitely wasn’t prepared for the event that kicked it off: wild cow milking.

It was complete chaos as teams of three tried to rope a cow, then hold it in one spot as one of the members milked it – all in clouds of dust, while dodging other flying, tumbling cow milkers. Just to make things interesting, the organisers released a few heifers and steers along with the “milkable” cows.

“I want to do that next year,” said one of my companions enthusiastically. He didn’t get around to it that year or the next, but when I heard he had put together a team, “The Udder Brothers,” this year, I promised that I would be there to photograph it.

His trio, consisting of a driving instructor, handyman/mechanic (who you may recognise as one of the drivers from the Crash to Pass) and himself (a church leader and volunteer fire-fighter) put up a good showing – being one of only three teams to actually get milk. Unfortunately they were beaten by a team that hijacked someone else’s cow – doing none of the hard work themselves!

It was the perfect start to a great little rodeo – so good that I went to watch them in action the next day again!

The Udder Brothers (the three on the left) going after a cow.
Facing down the charging herd.
Still trying to catch one.
Running to the judges with a drop of milk in a beer bottle.
The other two teams that got milk (including the women’s team who hijacked the other team’s cow.)
At it again the next day. (The poor cow in the background – being milked by about four teams!)
Two teams, including The Udder Brothers, milking the same cow.

Playing with fairground movement on a Saturday night

A few days ago I featured the photography of a teenager with whom I spent some time shooting the Billy Barker Days Carnival one Saturday evening recently. I showed her a few tricks in terms of what aperture to use, how to use the shutter priority mode to create movement in her photos, and photo framing.

I, on the other hand, had a tripod and so spent most of my time doing long exposures to create really cool effects – interesting images of common fairground attractions. Also, with all those lights around, I had to play with bokeh a bit too!

bo·keh: /bōˈkā/

the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens.

You saw her amazing photos already. Here are mine.

Billy Barker Nights

One of the events I was keen to attend soon after I arrived in Canuckistan was Billy Barker Days (BBD) which I had experienced back in 2013.

BBD, which has been held on the third weekend of July every year since the early 1970s, is billed as “BC’s Largest Free Family Festival.” The billing is a grammatical nightmare, but the event is highly anticipated by children region-wide.

The festival celebrates the city’s heritage and William Barker, its first gold miner to strike it rich. Amongst other events there is a parade downtown, “crash to pass” stock car crashing, a carnival and live music in LeBourdais Park, and a weekend-long rodeo. BBD’s grand finalé is the fireworks display on the Sunday evening (which I featured here back in 2013.)

I attended the crash to pass on the Thursday evening, the rodeo on both the Friday night and Saturday morning and LeBourdais Park on Saturday evening for a photo shoot with a 15-year-old. This is where children buy all-day passes for the amusement park, to ride until they throw up or until it closes at 10pm.

The teenager, who doesn’t own her own camera, was keen to learn a few shooting tricks, and shot everything on either manual, aperture-priority or speed-priority modes (no auto allowed). This was how she captured the park – without a tripod either, let me tell you! First, the milky tones of the evening light – birds flying and amusement park rides standing stark against the serene sky. Then, as darkness settled around the cheery lights and lingering dreams of butter-popcorn & cotton-candy, she captured the warm tones, shadows and movement of the winding down merriment. I was very impressed!

(Click on thumbnails below to see the bigger images.)

Close but no cigar for the redneck racecar wrecker

I said a few days ago that I was going to feature one of the drivers from our local “Crash to Pass” race, but then I hit a moose and got a bit distracted.

But I’m so over that. And ready to keep blogging.

So, I had several options of people to follow and feature. The first I’ve known for a few years – the son of a friend, and driving a car with a pretty cool feature: a moose rack on its roof. He won his first race, so he was a great candidate. But he set his car on fire in his second and was out of the last act.


The second was the car with the best engine – reported to have cost $5000, which is just insane for this type of race where everything is wrecked at the end. But he was targeted by many of the other drivers who were angry that he had spent so much on his car. He also didn’t make it far.

Really, my choice was easy though: the most hillbilly driver of them all. In order to protect his identity, I was going to call him something like Eustice Houston (or “EH” for short) but I think I’ll just stick with Laura K (as per his racing suit).

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Laura K won his first race – his maiden event of this kind – in a car he’d built himself. He had a few other rednecks as pit crew but this was his victory. Laura’s second race saw him lose a major portion of the front of his car, but he and his crew zip-cut that off and strapped the fender tight, ready for the big finalé, where the last car running was to be declared the winner.

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Laura, proudly flying the Canucki Maple Leaf, was definitely one of the best racers on the day, smashing more experienced drivers from the track. In a moment of folly, though, he decided to turn around after being rammed from behind, and got bogged down in a muddy patch on the side of the track. Not allowed to climb out and push his car out, Laura had to watch less-deserving drivers win what could and should have been his race. At least he got to go home with one trophy from his heat, if not the coveted main prize.

And I know Laura’s already devising tactics for next year’s race in a new car …

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Crash, burn, pass, Cariboo hillbilly-style

Of course, one of the first things I wanted to do once I arrived in Quesnel was to see friends I’d last seen in 2014. The second was to attend “Billy Barker Days” events, the first of which was taking place on the Thursday evening – Crash to Pass.

Quesnel’s Billy Barker Days is a family festival that takes place for four days on the third weekend of July every year. It includes free events in the town’s main park, a carnival with rides for the kids, dances, a parade, rodeo and aforementioned Crash to Pass.

This fits right in to the hillbilly culture of this region in the Cariboo – a bunch of wild drivers racing around a tiny racetrack trying to run everyone off the track as spectacularly as possible! It had been raining all day and was still pretty gross and wet when we arrived at the track through the muddy parking lot.

I only have a wide-angle, 50mm and macro lens with me on this trip, so I realised immediately that I would get no interesting shots from the embankment overlooking the track without a zoom. I needed to be in the centre – at the heart of the action. I took a friend and his son along for moral support and picked my way across to the pits, wearing my ubiquitous sandals, shorts, t-shirt and ball cap. Of course, I was stopped as I set foot in the pits by an old guys sporting a large moustache and ear muffs.

“You can’t be here looking like that!” he scolded me. “Where are your long pants and steel-tipped boots?”

What if there was a fire and we had to cut off your pants to save you,” he continued. “We’d have nothing to cut off except your legs.

I liked his logic, but just shrugged and grinned my imbecilic grin. “I’m a photographer from South Africa,” I answered, as if that would make all the difference. (I learned that technique while living in France. It was a winner there.)

Amazingly, it did seem to work because he pointed out the long-haired, skinny, boss-man and told me to get permission from him.

Before I could, the walrus with ear muffs called him over.

“This idiot in shorts wants to take photos from the pits looking like this,” he started …

“Again, I was given a grilling, which ended with, “Who are you here with?”

I figured my friend who was standing behind me with his son, pretending not to know me, wouldn’t be of any help, so I pulled out my trump card: “I’m taking photos for Dave.” He also wears sandals to work, just by the way, I thought to myself. (Dave owns the local concrete company and sponsors the racing in a large way. His son also happened to be racing that day too.)

And that was all the boss-man needed to hear. I was in. Given free rein in the pits. Me in my shorts and sandals. Everyone else in their safety work wear.

“Be careful,” he called after me, as I left to start shooting the hillbillies and their crazy cars.

For now, here are a few photos. I’ll feature one specific driver tomorrow.

(Click on images below.)

The things we leave behind

Quesnel panorama from Willow Street in Red Bluff

I moved to the mythical land of Canuckistan for the first time in June 2013 from the very real country of South Africa. Wide eyed, I explored my new land in the height of summer – making full use of the long days to turn the town inside out for photographic opportunities. And find them I did.

The Wild West Riders start the show
The start of the Quesnel Rodeo

I was also welcomed into the church community I found myself in, forging deep relationships. Many of the natives, however, in the Cariboo town of Quesnel, were less welcoming of this stranger from a far off land, with his camera and very long lens. After I had been in town for a few weeks a message went out on the local Facebook page asking who the alien was and what he was doing in town photographing everything (and everyone). I was just doing what I always did, wherever in the world I was. On another occasion I was having a merry old time shooting out on a lake – marvelling at the ‘plane parked outside one of the houses, and three children swimming way out in the emerald water – when owner of aforementioned home jumped into his speed boat and raced over to me to interrogate me about my intentions. I’m told he is one of the most affable residents around said lake. Just not to me.


But I digress. I shot rodeos and dance recitals, graduations and softball games. There were bridges, mills, landscapes and people – many people. I even shot a zombie once in the 19 months I stayed in Quesnel (most of which I chronicled right here on this blog). It was an amazing, profound season in my life – difficult because I wrestled with intense loneliness and several challenging relationships, but one where I left with more constructive, enjoyable experiences and memories than negative ones.

Arggggghhhh! Run for your lives, the zombies have found us! (The result of four photos stitched together post process.)
Arggggghhhh! Run for your lives, the zombies have found us! (The result of four photos stitched together post process.)

It was the months (and year) after leaving where the depth of relationships I’d enjoyed became clear to me. Most acute was the number of children back in Canuckistan that would apparently ask after me. And how I missed them too. In all my travels, from Mongolia to Madagascar, Cape Town to Canuckistan it’s the people I leave behind that I miss the most. Sure, I’ve been to many exotic places, but I always return to my old haunts because of the people.

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Fast friends

And that’s what has brought me back here again now. I will be #cruisingcanuckistan for the next three months – not only visiting friends, but also trying to discover quaint new spots or peculiar people. Please come along for the ride.

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Discover Challenge: The Things We Leave Behind