Timothy Taylor, Enroute Magazine, October 2005
The curling rink in the abandoned mining town of Kitsault, uninhabited for almost a quarter-century now, offers a very particular variety of isolation, of aloneness. An hour north of Prince Rupert by air, up the tendril end of Alice Arm, there is manifestly nobody around. Here inside, the Maple Leaf Pub is dark. In through the lobby, pas the “Sunny Kitsault 2nd Annual Mixed Bonspiel” sign, I push open a creaking door and find myself on iceless rinks, the stone stacked uselessly in the ends. Even the structure itself announces emptiness with those thousand clicks and wheezes that empty buildings emit; high beams move microscopically in the light wind; a pipe shifts in joists underfoot.
And yet, I’m imagining this place full of occupants, against my will. I hear footfalls, purely illusory. I see flashes in the corner of my eye as if a door has just been opened. Outside in the parking lot- the handle of the front door stalagmitic with petrified gull guano- I find myself peering anxiously into the swaying saplings that are trying to take back the parking lot, to reclaim it as wilderness. For a moment, I can’t see where I’ve parked my truck and my breathing quickens. I turn again, a motion right there at the eye’s periphery.
Nothing, nothing and nothing. I’m not being observed. I can’t be seen. Here, in the very middle of the most nowhere nowhere I’ve ever been- in a place that used to vibrate with the life of a thousand residents but where, one day, a mine closed and everything stopped- I am, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
It’s a hard status to achieve: geographic invisibility. Last May, I introduced the place branders, a priesthood risen up to serve a new hierarchy of location that is building itself in the world today, a hierarchy that links geography in one competitive grid of tradable locations. It’s a new reality that stems from our greater freedom of movement over the surface of the world, from the globalization of our business and culture. But’s its also a reality where Point Grey is Fulham is Pacific Palisades- not as mere comparables on the map, but as locations that could actually substitute for one another. These are places that are nearly interchangeable, parallel universes where virtually identical lives might be led. Queen East, Hackney or Williamsburg. Alberni Street, Lakeview or Butlers Wharf. Who doesn’t read the real estate listings when they visit other cities and imagine plausible lives?
Picture a place that doesn’t link to the grid. Not because it is remote; after all, remote places often acquire special value precisely because they’re hard to reach. The summit of Everest is so remote, you need to book five years in advance to have the experience of standing there- and even then, it’ll cost you. I mean off the grid in the microeconomic sense, unreachable by the market. A location that’s off the grid is, by my definition, one that’s invisible for its refusal to compete with other locations for attention.
Kitsault used to be one such rare location. Ever heard of molybdenum? It’s used to make industrial lubricant and the hills around Kitsault are loaded with the stuff. In 1980, an entire operation was completed to extract it: a mine facility, 100 houses, and a few hundred more apartment suites, a shopping mall, a recreation centre, a school, and yes, a curling rink. Just 18 short months later, the market for “molly” crashed and burned. Everything was locked up and mothballed; people were shipped back to their originating locations. Kitsault before was a hot locale. Kitsault after was a blown-out candle. The best you can do is lean in close and get a whiff of a flame that used to be visible for miles.
A whiff not easily obtained, either. I read about Kitsault, ironically, because 25 years later, the mining company finally decided to sell its 322 acres, including more than a mile of Alice Arm waterfront. It’s a three-and-a-half hour drive from Terrace, BC, which mind you is more that three-and-a-half hours from almost everywhere else on earth. And I didn’t have the $7 million being asked for either. But still, I was on the phone immediately to selling agent Rudy Nielsen of Niho Land & Cattle Company Ltd., a man who specializes, appropriately enough, in the marketing of unique parcels.
Rudy is a straight-talking, no-bull kind of guy, but even he proved hard to pin down on my proposed visit to that bit of invisible geography he controlled. We played voice mail tag for all of three months. And when I finally got him, a note of hurry was introduced when he told me that Kitsault had been sold. It would not be invisible for much longer. There was development talk in the air. A resort was being built. I was imagining cruise ships turning up Alice Arm, throwing down anchors in waters deep turquoise from glacier runoff.
The Kitsault caretaker is Hank. He’s fine with me exploring on my own as long as I take a truck on account of a town resident named Beefer. I ask, “Beefer?” Hank says, “That’s his name. B for bear.”
I visit the hospital first. I climb the front steps and enter the lobby. The door bangs shut behind me and I’m introduced to an utter sense of abandonment that haunts the town: the vibrating sense of former lives. Surrounded by empty examining rooms and hallways, I venture into the operating theatre. I open labeled drawers still full of syringes, finger cots, lemon and glycerine swabs, and, in one, a saw and a set of pliers with long handles and biting teeth. Outside, the entire time, the forest is completely shifting, sighing. Distant waves slap on a stone shoreline.
In the shopping centre, I find myself fighting a sense of nearby malevolence. I’m reminded of how strictly our urban cultural training enforces the idea that emptiness is unsafe. Who might be hiding in the Payjack Sports store or the Town and Country restaurant. The rules seem suspended with the dust particles I’m stirring up in the Hospitality Foods outlet. Empty aisles, empty shelves, an abandoned pricing gun: I peel off and apply a neon green Previously Frozen sticker to my lapel, then turn and catch my reflection in the produce section mirrors. Scare the hell out of myself.
In the residential sector of town, I consider which of the houses to enter. From the hilltop, bands of green wilderness roll away from me and into the impenetrable hills, growing darker with each ridge line, cooling out into grey and blue as the forests climbing toward the brilliant white of three vaunting snow capped peaks. I choose number 48 because it winks at me. The glass storm door shivers in the wind and catches the light. Of course, I whip my head around- hypersensitive to the presence of all those who now are missing from the place. I swivel in the street , kicking gravel, and find nothing but a faded two-level split with a once bright red door now bled cool by the sun to terra cotta. Inside, I spy chocolate brown wall to wall carpet, a back deck collapsing under rampant moss, a half-finished basement in which a bar had already been installed- completed with glass shelves and an alcove where the bottles should have gone.
Outside, the air smells different. I admire my own acclimatization to this place and then take one step off the porch to find something very soft, very fresh underfoot.
It’s hard to stay invisible. The market abhors isolated zones that refuse to link into the great, tradable whole. What then will Kitsault become? New owner Krishnan Suthanthiran has a lot of ideas, but we discuss such a range of them that I leave our meeting with no certainty of what kind of visibility it will enjoy in two or even 10 years. He mentions tourism, a resort, kayaking, skiing, sport fishing and a wellness centre. “It simply boggled my mind that it wasn’t being used,” he tells me of this place with its “absolutely gorgeous, breathtaking scenery.” He knows he wants Kitsault to be full of life again, occupied and used. “A lively, vibrant community,” he envisions.
Seduced by the invisibility itself, perhaps? The wildness of the area is a complicated part of its appeal. With each passing day, the wilderness advances on the town. The saplings have not only taken the curling rink parking lot, but entirely obliterated what used to be the school’s playground. When I fly out in the charter Beaver float plane, we bank a last corkscrew turn over Kitsault, and I see it again, threatening to overwhelm the structures entirely. “Things left alone out here get grown over,” the pilot, Karl, observes. “Trees up here are basically big weeds.”
And so, a tension surrounds Kitsault’s status at the moment. What is wild presses in each day to claim it, to keep the place invisible, while Suthanthiran has ushered in a countering force. It is one fully exerted by the grid of trading places, which, for the first time since it was shut down, Kitsault has again been plugged into. In this grid, Kitsault is like any number of remote places used for recreational experiences. And in the competitiveness of this grid, Kitsault must fight for survival, through pricing and profits, through the attraction of visitors and branding.
Who can say which side will ultimately win? Check back in five years. In the meantime, the final image I take away is from the Kitsault library, where the books are all still stacked and sorted. Where a book open on the librarian’s desk, painfully, turns out to be The Canadian Mines Register of Dormant and Defunct Companies (2nd edition). Where the card catalogue may still be browsed, which allows me to report that the only Margaret Atwood in the Kitsault Library at the time of its closing was her 1979 novel, Life before Man.
Downstairs, the pool- which Hank tops up regularly to keep water pressure on the tiles- is floating with a thousand dead spiders. The whirlpool is empty. Thinking of that card from the catalogue, I sense no others, finally. I am in the belly of a building that once teemed with people and I feel entirely alone.
And already beavering away in my mind, across the bands of untouched forest from here to Prince Rupert and on towards home, I wonder if I might someday find myself in a very busy place- Michigan Avenue, Madison Avenue, Oxford Street- spinning through a revolving door out to a sidewalk crammed with people, fully embedded in the grid, the hierarchy of tradable locations. And if, with a freak flash of sun and angled blue sky, I might suddenly get a ghosted image of this: nothing, nobody- the genuine rarity, the empty space. Would I crack my neck around looking for an invisibility that is no longer there?