When I grow up

COLUMN: My eight favourite stories of 2014

When my colleague Greg Nesteroff asked me to compile a list of my favourite stories of 2014, I was initially stumped.

When my colleague Greg Nesteroff asked me to compile a list of my favourite stories of 2014, I was initially stumped. I’ve been involved with so many eclectic, bizarre and fantastical stories in the last eight months at the Star that sometimes it seems impossible to keep track.

But after spending a few hours spelunking through our archives and scrolling through the 4,000 photos I’ve taken since arriving in the Kootenays, I finally whittled my list down to these eight personal faves.

8. Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao:

During my first week at the Star, a copy of The Ever After of Ashwin Rao arrived on my desk. My co-worker Tamara Hynd quickly snatched it up (she was a fan of Padma Viswanathan’s earlier novel The Toss of a Lemon) but I scored the interview.

“My first memories are of Nelson, and then we left, and so it has remained for me a place of romance in my imagination,” she told me.

Viswanathan’s novel is set in a fictional Nelson locale called Lohikarma, and features local landmarks such as the Big Orange Bridge and the man-sized gargoyle Dorkmyer on Front Street. The novel (which I’ve since read and loved) explores the inter-generational grief experienced by the families of those killed in the Air India terrorist attacks of 1985.

It was eventually short-listed for the $100,000 Giller Prize.

7. Scarlet Mary Rose and the Heavy Petal Burlesque:

Early in the summer I met a burlesque performer named Scarlet Mary Rose. She was throwing a pirate-themed party at Spiritbar, and during our interview she filled me in on the history of her art form.

“Any time I’m taking off my clothes in front of an audience, I’m making a statement. And that statement is empowerment, freedom, liberation,” she told me, noting that she comes from a Doukhobor family.

I learned that Scarlet was hosting a local “boob camp” for aspiring dancers, many of whom were appearing in shows. Shortly after telling my partner Darby about this, she jumped at the chance to participate. In November, Darby performed in her first burlesque alongside Rose and burlesque legend Judith Stein.

I’ve never been more proud.

6. Kootenay Country Craft Distillery and their Valhalla Vodka

For the fall issue of Route 3, my editor asked me to write a profile of Winlaw distillery Kootenay Country Craft Distillery. They had recently won a gold medal from the Beverage Tasting Institute of Chicago.

One afternoon I drove out with Darby to meet the distillery’s owners, Kevin and Lora Goodwin.

“We went against vodkas all over the world — Poland, Russia, the US,” Kevin told me. “I don’t think we realized how big of a competition it was at first.”

After giving me a fascinating tour of the still and the grounds during which I took plentiful pictures, they offered me a taste of their award-winning product Valhalla Vodka.

“The North American palate is pretty boring. We buy vodka to mix with sugar and soda and all this stuff to cover up the taste of terrible vodka,” he told me.

He did no such thing to our samples, which were exquisite and delicious. (This mostly has to do with the amazing local ingredients they use.) I now recommend it to everyone I meet.

5. Nelson’s avian namesake

I’ll admit to initially having very little interest in the life of Nel and her nestmates, who were being filmed via live webcam atop a power pole on Highway 3A. Darby would routinely tell me how the chicks were doing, and pointed out the massive social media audience the little family was accumulating

Then something dramatic happened. Nelson (our avian namesake) went missing. It was days before we learned his fate: a collision with a high voltage line had electrocuted him on his way to delivering food to the nest.

A rainbow trout was still in his claws when they discovered the corpse days later.

Let’s not fixate too long on the tragic death of the first two chicks. The stories I wrote during that period were not fun. But then came the good news. The last remaining chick was being flown to the coast for rehabilitation.

I was there the day fledgling Nel was re-released into the wild in Kokanee Glacier Park. (It was my day off, but there was no way I was going to miss the chance to see her in person.)

I was really worried my shutter speed wouldn’t be fast enough to get a good shot of her mid-flight. I ended up compressing the shutter button as I heard a swish of feathers, and miraculously I captured her at the exact moment she erupted from her kennel, wings spread.

We ran that photo on the front page of the Star a few days later. It’s my proudest accomplishment of the year.

4. Obsidian, the pirate ship

As soon as I moved to Nelson, I made it a priority to track down the owner of Kootenay Lake’s comically small pirate schooner Obsidian.

It took me three months, but finally captain Gary Ramsbottom got a hold of me via Facebook. He was raising the masts on a Sunday evening with his son Lucas and wondered if I wanted to tag along.

As it turned out, the endeavour took about 45 minutes. The whole time I was interviewing Gary, a cigar dangled from his lips precariously.

“Nelson is the only place I’ve ever felt like I’m home and I don’t need to go anywhere else. I’m happy here and doing stuff like this makes me happier,” he said.

After the masts were raised, Gary and his friends took me on a three-hour speedboat tour of the lake.

He regaled me with incredible stories about the pirate ship, pointed out ancient pictographs on the cliff walls, and expounded on his passion for piracy.

“I came to the conclusion, after much thought and many years, that I am a pirate. But I’m a nice pirate. I mean, one day I got a beer off a guy with a fake gun at a party, but that’s about the extent of my pillaging.”

3. Dorkmyer, the Front Street grotesque

After my success at tracking down Obsidian’s owner, and having heard about the couple responsible for the man-sized gargoyle on Front Street from Padma Viswanathan, I decided to just knock on the door and ask what was up.

As it turned out, I’d been using the wrong word. When owner Mike Hames took me out on the roof to see Dorkmyer up close, he pointed out that technically he’s a grotesque.

“I’d always wanted something on top of the turret there,” the 66-year-old retired architect told me. “I had a piece of aluminum flashing, which was a little understated, I thought. I wanted something people would laugh at, enjoy. I never thought about the implications of dressing him up for occasions, but that worked out great.”

He was thrilled the sculpture, created by artist John McKinnon in 2011, had been immortalized in a book. While I was visiting him, he also took me on an extensive tour of the rest of his house. With hidden doors,  multi-storey waterfalls and art on every wall, it was definitely the coolest house I’ve ever been inside.

“I finally made something worthy to set John’s art on,” he said.

2. Imaginarium and the Samurai Fox

Oxygen Art Centre’s Imaginarium exhibit was a little hard for me to wrap my head around at first. There were six artists involved, all of whom had been given free reign to do literally whatever they want wherever they want inside.

“Does that mean you can paint on the roof?” I asked Sergio Santos.

“Of course,” he replied, clambering up a ladder. Without pausing, he started the scribbled outline of a pink man on the ceiling.

During my interview with four of the artists: Sergio, his wife Amber, Chelsey Freyta and Coleman Webb, I got a kick out of their unique approach to art. (I didn’t get to meet the other two artists, Bryn Stevenson and Tanya Pixie Johnson.)

Sergio probably said it best when he gestured at the grey walls of the alley surrounding us.

“Between you and me, grey, it’s depressing. I don’t want people to see grey walls. I want them to see colour. We paint on the wall because that thing represents something to us. It doesn’t matter what kind of picture, I just don’t like grey. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

I couldn’t agree more. Weeks later I found out one of the panels for sale from the exhibit was still up for grabs.

Guess who made the top bid?

I now have a part of the exhibit, which features a fox dressed as a samurai hipster, proudly displayed over my writing desk at home. It is one of my most prized possessions.

1. Chris O’Gorman and his ‘stroke of luck’

On a slow Monday afternoon we received a press release from the police about a river rescue near Slocan Pool. An 84-year-old man had been rescued from his overturned boat by a passerby.

The community was still reeling from four drowning deaths only weeks earlier, but here was an aquatic emergency that ended happily.

The hero that day was an amiable 39-year-old dude named Chris O’Gorman, who arrived at our interview wearing a Davy Crockett-style fringed shirt (which he’d worn during the rescue) and a large stick he’d used in lieu of a real paddle.

I’ve listened to our 10-minute interview multiple times. It’s almost too crazy to believe. O’Gorman described how he ran to the base of the trailhead to retrieve his canoe, miraculously spotted a paddle-shaped stick on the side of the trail, then used it to paddle the man to safety.

“The river’s raging right now,” he told me. “You know, white caps and swirling. I had to cross the main current and it was pretty gnarly. I didn’t have a proper paddle to negotiate it. I was yelling at him the whole time saying I’m coming, hang on. I didn’t know if he could hear me because the current was so loud.”

As it turned out, O’Gorman completed the rescue and delivered the man home to his wife before emergency services could even arrive.

“I called them and I was like hey, just in case there’s a search going on, I got buddy safe. He was the only one there. It’s all good.”

Later Chris was invited to the man’s 85th birthday. And though everyone was enthusiastic about his heroics, he shrugged off the attention.

“If I hadn’t had a boat, there was nothing I could’ve done. I’m just so thankful I had a boat there. It was a stroke of luck for everyone,” he said.

When I grow up, I want to be Chris O’Gorman.