In the moments after an apocalyptic surge of churned-up earth and toppled trees flattened Mandy Bath’s rustic Johnson’s Landing home, chasing her into Kootenay Lake while a terrified TV crew filmed nearby, she sat trembling in the back of her friends’ boat amidst the settling waves and stared disconsolately at the destruction.
“It doesn’t occur to you that life will end on this day, and it will never be the same again. You just don’t believe it. It was a moment of reality for me. That’s when I realized everything was lost.”
Bath had returned to the site looking for her cat, an endeavour she now recognizes as foolish.
“People in trauma are dangerous because they get mad ideas. I got this mad idea I was going to go search for Ozzie. Everyone begged me not to go, and I didn’t hear any of it. I was hellbent and determined because here was something I could do.”
Nearly three years later, Bath has now published her personal account of the slide’s destruction, Disaster in Paradise. This week the Star accompanied Bath to the landslide site to see how the community has coped in the years since the catastrophic event.
Ignoring the signs
Before rounding the head of Kootenay Lake towards Johnson’s Landing, Bath led the Star to a vantage point ideal for viewing the slide’s path. A coffee-coloured scar bisects the slope vertically.
And though nobody anticipated the slide, according to Bath’s book there were plenty of signs that it was imminent. The trouble: nobody was qualified to interpret them.
“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.”
That denial is typical of humans, she said, as we’ve continued to ignore global warming, pollution and other ecological crises. As disruptive weather events become more common, she feels survivors need to tell their stories as a community service, seeing as readers may one day be in the same boat.
And Johnson’s Landing makes for a particularly unique case, as the event centers around an eccentric rural community ill-served by the some of the government’s policies.
Later that afternoon, while showing the Star the damage up close, Bath said the four people killed in the slide would have had only seconds before their houses and their lives were pulverized beyond recognition.
“As we’re standing here it’s quite dry and gravelly, but during the slide all of this was super saturated. It was gloopy mud that seeped into everything.”
And though giant uprooted trees still jutted out of the landscape like broken bones, freshly-planted trunks 10-inches tall surrounded her on all sides.
“Life keeps going,” said Bath.
Remembering the victims
On the small uncovered corner of Petra Frehse’s property that remains, a small memorial has been erected for her with a bear sculpture constructed from a saw blade, a plaque and a carefully balanced spherical rock.
Bath sat on the bench nearby as she described her deceased friend.
“Petra was from Germany and this was her soul-home,” she said, reminiscing about Frehse’s love of bears and her cute home. And though her body was never recovered, Bath doesn’t believe she suffered.
The same is true of Valentine Webber and his daughters Diana and Rachel, who were killed while eating breakfast. Bath described in detail her memory of the family, and mused about Diana’s burgeoning screenwriting career.
“It was this terrible, totally avoidable thing,” she said, noting the daughters didn’t even live in Johnson’s Landing.
“But it was the same timing that took me to Kaslo an hour and a half earlier. It’s unbelievable to try to comprehend.”
Further down the slope a memorial the locals are calling Diana’s Tombstone marks the spot her body was discovered. Around the base they’ve heaped heart-shaped stones.
“We’re always finding heart-shaped rocks around there. It’s just one of those signs that keeps showing up,” she said.
As if to prove her point, a few moments later Bath found a perfectly heart-shaped rock on the slope and placed it among the others.
Writing as therapy
Bath said she was surprised at first to find nobody else in the community was writing down their recollection of the story. As her research and soul-searching approached a more publishable form, she decided with Kaslo writer Holley Rubinsky to go ahead and interview whoever was willing to share.
The book includes firsthand accounts from many of the survivors, as well as from the local media and emergency response personnel.
Bath said she feels more like a community archivist, and she hopes the narratives will help others cope with their trauma but also think about the implications of extreme weather events and how we might prepare ourselves for them.
In months after the event, Bath found herself lethargic and fogged.
“It was rather like having a physical brain injury. I had amnesia, I walked around in this mental fog, I think it was such a complete overload my brain said ‘I can’t cope anymore’.”
Her response was to stay far away from the place where she had nearly been killed twice in 24 hours.
Now happily settled in Kaslo, she’s at a place personally where she can still reconnect with the land and visit her friends. But seeing her destroyed home still fills her with sadness.
“I have a beige file cabinet that contains my jewelry and my mother’s jewelry. We found everything in the room that was around it, but we didn’t find it.”
She theorized it may have been swept into the lake, but she holds out hope that one day she’ll find a rusted metal corner sticking out of the dirt. Walking around the perimeter she can still identify each shard of pottery and every mangled mess of wires.
Standing in her intact garden, which is overgrown and hosts Ozzie’s grave, Bath gazed at the slide’s path twenty feet away and she shook her head.
“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.
Nelson book launch
Bath will launch her book at Touchstones Nelson at 7 p.m on April 30. The event is a collaborative effort put on by the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival, the Nelson Public Library, Touchstones and Oxygen Art Centre.
Books will be available for sale at the event.