Star reporter Will Johnson picks his favourite stories from 2015

COLUMN: My top 10 favourite stories of 2015

This year I've covered everything from forest fires to music festivals.

I love being a reporter.

This year at the Nelson Star I’ve covered everything from forest fires and music festivals to school board politics and the influx of pot dispensaries into our downtown core. Two years into my job here, I routinely find myself amazed at the stories that come out of this community.

These are my top 10 stories from 2015.

#10. Wayne King achieves ascension

I never got a chance to meet Kootenay artist Wayne King, but I feel like I knew him. When he passed away this June, the outpouring of love from the community was immense.

“Wayne was one of the most prolific artists in the Kootenays. His work was split three ways between landscape paintings, visionary paintings and woodcuts, many of which had little aphorisms for daily life. My favourite was ‘leave no turn unstoned’,” King’s close friend Dustin Cantwell told me.

“He could basically elevate anybody’s consciousness, from a skate punk to a single mother to an elder. He was able to shift a person’s thoughts from the mundane to the spiritual. That was his amazing gift to people of this area was raising people’s consciousness.”

The good news: Wayne’s art is proudly displayed all over Nelson, both in homes and in local businesses. The Facebook page Wayne H.E. King also features a number of photos of his work, as well as tributes from his friends and family.

The legend lives on.

#9. On losing my Shambhala virginity

My partner Darby and I donned bison and elk spirit hoods, loaded up our RAV-4 and drove out to the Salmo River Ranch to lose our Shambhala Music Festival virginity last summer. It was even crazier than I expected.

“I can’t believe this is real,” Darby said, as we took our first walk around the grounds, amazed by our surroundings. “This doesn’t even look like Canada.”

I found I didn’t have time to process one startling visual before being faced with a new one: a leather-clad woman hanging from a giant spider web, C3PO’s head bouncing over me on the dance floor, a cross-eyed cartoon bird squawking while the beat palm-thrusted my throat.

I honestly can’t believe they pull it off every year—it’s like a city-scale trust exercise where nobody’s betting in their favour—but Shambhala has claimed its spot as one of the best music festivals worldwide.

Next year I’m going for longer.

#8. The #WeAreReady campaign

When Mount Sentinel students started the #WeAreReady banner campaign to demand climate action from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, their message garnered attention from the likes of Naomi Klein and Margaret Atwood on Twitter.

“Canada’s rank on the environmental performance index is 24th out of 178, falling below Greece. This is a considerable feat considering Greece’s recent economic troubles,” Grade 12 student Petra Hartley told me.

“Our first goal is to get Trudeau’s attention on both us and focused on the environment. Secondly we would want to see action, whether that means protecting more of Canada’s wildlife and wildlife habitats or stricter regulations around Canada’s carbon footprint.”

These are some inspiring kids. I have a feeling this won’t be the last time we hear from them.

#7. Tom Wayman’s Appledore

Tom Wayman has spent the last 26 years writing from his Winlaw estate Appledore, and when he released his latest collection The Shadows We Mistake For Love this year I drove up there to see it in person.

“When I moved up here in 1989 I was coming out of a relationship in Vancouver and taking the geographic cure,” he said.

“In a place like Toronto, it’s full of people who have come from the rural and made a decision to go the city because they felt nothing cultural was happening out here.”

That’s not what he thinks. I was fascinated by what he said about writing in a rural context.

“The tensions that go on in the city, you can see them in the country much more clearly because there’s not so much haze and anonymity. You know a lot more life arcs, you get to know different generations and people from a whole variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.”

#6. Cam Penner’s House of Liars

When Blewett musician Cam Penner checked out Stonemouth, the BBC miniseries that features some of his songs, he was thrilled to see the way his tracks complement the story-line.

“It’s kind of awkward because in one scene it’s this couple in a van, they just blew something up and then I start singing and it’s like I’m there in the backseat or something,” he said.

Penner told me he works at Stepping Stones shelter, and his experiences there inform his work.

“The best part of my day is getting up on that stage and trying to pull the rug not only from under the audience but also from under myself. I want to be moved, you know? I want something to hit me in the chest.”

Also, Penner is my beard hero. I suggest you check out “House of Liars” on YouTube.

#5. Beneath Kootenay Joe Ridge

Kaslo author Mandy Bath invited me up to Johnsons Landing in April, where she wanted to show me the epic landslide that destroyed her home and killed four people. According to her, nobody saw it coming.

“I would look at these giant trees that have been there for hundreds of years, for much longer than this tiny blip when we’re alive, and figure nothing was going to change.”

We walked through the slide’s path, stopping routinely to pick up heart-shaped stones, while I interviewed Bath about her memoir Disaster in Paradise.

“I don’t come here very often because it’s so emotional. It’s such a wonderful place and the view still is unbelievable. As one person said, it’s even better without those pesky trees there. But they weren’t pesky. They were wonderful.”

Bath stood looking out at Kootenay Lake for a long moment before she was interrupted. When she turned back, she was blinking away tears.

#4. The Slocan River snorkeler

This year, while floating down the Slocan River with my friend Leesa Dean, a local snorkeler recognized me as a reporter.

“Well, if you work for the newspaper, then I’ve got something to show you.”

I was curious enough to follow him barefoot a few hundred metres into the woods, his Jack Russell terrier Humphrey bush-whacking alongside us. We eventually came into a clearing where the man had piled river-retrieved empties on to a tarp with a slimy collection of old flip flops, abandoned T-shirts and filthy beer coolers.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he told me.

As it turns out, this snorkeler—who wishes to remain anonymous—has been cleaning up this particular swimming hole for the last 15 years.

“I want more people to know what’s going on at the bottom of the river. You think of the Slocan as being beautiful, pristine, but what’s going down on the bottom is shocking and disturbing.”

#3. Sitkum Fire

Towards midnight on July 4, I sat in the backyard of Bob Tremblay’s house on Highway 3A and watched as a forest fire creeped down the slope towards his home.

Ultimately, Tremblay’s house was spared. But the fire, which was thought to be caused by a tree-toppling storm earlier that week, eventually grew to 770 hectares.

This was my first time seeing a forest fire in person, and I’m not ashamed to say it legitimately scared me. Over 350 homes were put on evacuation alert, including Nelson cultural ambassador Bessie Wapp.

I was as effusive as everyone else when the fire crews—amazing people, all—eventually put it out.

#2. David Laing honoured

Det.-Cst. David Laing received a lieutenant governor’s award this year for his rescue of a suicidal woman on Sept. 14, 2013.

“It’s one of those things you think about too much and for too many reasons,” he told me, during a half hour sit-down at the police station.

“The biggest thing I remember is the loss of control. That really affected me. I don’t drive over the bridge like I used to.”

He told me that most people don’t really understand what life is like for some of the vulnerable people he routinely meets on duty.

“Some people don’t get it. If you had one day in their life, you’d be a basket case. These are broken people, but they deserve respect. The question is how do you give it to someone who is broken? It’s a real mind-bender.”

I have so much respect for this guy, and I’m happy we’ve got cops like him in Nelson.

#1. Homeward Bound in the Kootenays

Blewett resident Logan Lynn spent 18 days searching the wilderness for his beloved 12-year-old boxer mix Boris, ultimately tracking him down with the help of the local community.

“If it wasn’t for the ability to spread the word through social media and the wonderful citizens in the Princeton, Coalmont and Tulameen areas putting up posters and keeping the word out and informing us when they saw Boris, Logan and Boris would have never been reunited after 18 days being alone and lost in the wilderness,” Logan’s sister Nona told me.

When I went by my pet store, Central Bark, I saw they’d laminated a copy of the story on their desk. The clerks told me they cried while reading it. When I think about my own dogs Muppet and Buster, I like to believe I would’ve been similarly tireless in my search for them.

People in the Kootenays sure do love their dogs. Cats too.