It’s National Forest Week (Sept. 23 – 29) and this year’s theme, “Healthy Forests — Healthy Communities”, couldn’t be more appropriate for the Lakes District. The forests absolutely define life in Northern B.C. They sustain industry and define the landscape. We carve out our recreation sites in them and demarcate our parks by them. We hike in them, ride our bikes in them and access our lakes through them. In the winter we ski in them, snowshoe in them, sled through them and some of us even heat our homes with what we take out of them.
I moved west, a long time ago, from a part of the country a lot like the Lakes District. My earliest memories of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where I was born and raised, are of the forests, lakes and rivers that set the backdrop for life in northern Ontario. The rugged north shore of Lake Superior and the small forestry towns that pepper the Trans-Canada Highway between the Sault and Thunder Bay would strike anybody from Burns Lake as being a lot like home. I didn’t move west straight from the Sault. There were a lot of stops and detours along the way and I can say from experience that it’s easy to forget what really defines you if you’re not careful.
I wasn’t here during the fierce mountain pine beetle tsunami that tore through the forest, and I wasn’t here last January when the tragedy of the Babine mill explosion rocked all the mill towns of B.C. What happened here could have happened anywhere and everyone was paying attention. But it didn’t affect me or anyone I knew directly so it all remained abstract. I didn’t know what to expect once I knew I’d be going to Burns Lake, but I sure didn’t expect what I found.
Moving here was an eye-opener. Except for a few signs lining the highway you wouldn’t know that less than a year ago the town had lost its biggest employer. Every where I went I found positive and strong energy. Burns Lake doesn’t feel like a town on its heels, it feels like a town that’s moving forward no matter what happened in the past. That’s a hard thing to do.
Friends who I left behind when I moved to Burns Lake ask me what it’s like to be here where so much has gone terribly wrong, at least as seen through the news media. I tell them that they don’t get it, that this isn’t a town that has forgotten what it is about and become defined by something terrible that happened to it. I tell them that it’s inspiring to be here and that the people I meet everyday make me feel great about the future of this town and of other forest towns that share its spirit.
Last Sunday, about a dozen Lakes District Secondary School students and adult volunteers swung pulaskis, moved rocks, cleared brush and hammered boards as they worked hard to shape a new section of trail through the forest up at Boer Mountain. If you consider the network of community, provincial and private efforts that made it possible for those young men and women to spend a weekend afternoon working hard in their forest backyard to create something good for tomorrow, you feel a lot of optimism for the future.
National Forest Week? I’m sure a lot of people need a reminder about how interconnected we are with the forest, but the people here aren’t among them. As an outsider coming in it’s clear to me that Burns Lake has never forgotten that, the very thing that defines it.