Tourists, citizens and sheep mingle in a B.C. mountain town

Road Trips | by Gregory Beatty

Art by Nigel Hood

Thanks to a combination of family and work circumstances, I’ve been city-bound in Regina for over six years. My last trip, in March 2010, was a 10-day visit to see my elderly parents in Victoria.

So I gotta admit it felt weird when I pulled onto Hwy #1 at 5 a.m. on July 13 and headed west for a family rendezvous in Radium, British Columbia.

Situated in the Columbia Valley, with the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Purcell Mountains to the west, Radium is probably best known for its mineral hot springs. I didn’t dip any part of my body into the springs during my 12-day stay, but I did immerse myself in other aspects of local life with five family members — including my brother, who retired to Radium last summer, and served as our tour guide.

While I’m a lifelong Saskatchewan resident, I’ve spent plenty of time on Vancouver Island so I’m no mountain virgin. But when you’re in Radium you’re surrounded by mountains on all sides, so it was pretty mind-blowing.

If Radium has a second claim to fame, it’s the bighorn sheep that have made the village their home. As I learned during one hike on a nearby mountain trail, before the area was settled, wildfires used to periodically clear out all the underbrush in forests. Not only did the fires rejuvenate the forests, they also created space and nutrients for grass to grow, providing attractive habitat for the sheep.

Once settlers arrived, though, steps were taken to limit fire outbreaks so the trees could be harvested. Radium is home to a state-of-the-art sawmill, and while wildfire suppression was good for the lumber business, it clogged forests with underbrush and forced the sheep to lower elevations.

Females and the young still head for higher ground in the summer, my brother said, but the males typically hang around Radium — eating grass, ripe berries and fruit, and wandering pretty much at will. Locals are as blasé about the sheep as we are about gophers, but for tourists, the sheep and their magnificent horns, are a major attraction.

When breeding season arrives in November, the rams get rambunctious and have head-butting contests to establish dominance. But in summer they’re generally well behaved, outside of the odd clash. Although they do poop a lot, so when you’re out and about you have to watch where you step.

Censuswise, Radium has a population of 800. Come summer, though, that jumps to 5,000 as tourists from near and far holiday in local campgrounds. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more campers, trailers and RVs in my life. I even spotted a few tents on some of my hikes, so props to those vacationers for making an honest effort to get back to nature. But some of the RVs and trailers were gargantuan, and I imagine they had every amenity under the sun.

I stayed with my brother at his condo, so I wasn’t exactly roughing it myself. My sisters and a niece and nephew rented a condo. There was no shortage of motels and hotels in the village, but private condo rentals by absentee landlords are increasingly popular.

Radium is a three-hour drive from Calgary, so in addition to tourists, the village and surrounding area has a sizeable population of part-time residents who own cottages and commute for weekend getaways and vacations.

Overall, the mix of permanent residents, tourists and part-time residents made for an interesting dynamic. Invermere, a town of 2,955 a few kilometres south of Radium, is home to Kicking Horse Coffee, a thriving national retailer that prides itself on its environmental ethics. Its coffeeshop in Invermere is partially powered by solar panels, and it wasn’t the only use of solar energy I saw during my stay.

Throw in a healthy dose of art galleries, craft shops, street markets and scenic wilderness vistas — including sandstone hoodoos sculpted by wind and water erosion — and there was a definite laid back, enviro-hippy vibe. I wasn’t there long enough to see how much of a culture clash that creates with tourists and part-time residents, but the disparity was certainly striking.

The Panorama ski and golf resort is a few kilometres west of Invermere, and there are some absolutely massive cottages in the valley. These are part-time residences, remember — their owners spend most of their time in Calgary and other locales. There were also plenty of luxury cars in evidence, along with high-powered pick-up trucks, speedboats, jet skis and other high-priced toys.

With the low Canadian dollar and ongoing unrest in many parts of the world, tourism in Canada is enjoying a boom year. Radium benefits from the influx of outside money, obviously, but the village is experiencing growth pains.

Of particular concern are several stalled condo developments. According to one source (my brother), they were started before the 2008-09 financial meltdown and have sat half-finished ever since. Some are reaching the eyesore stage, and the village council is putting legal pressure on the developers to either finish the projects or tear them down.

Alberta’s oil tap has pretty much been reduced to a trickle for 18 months now, too. What impact that will have on property values for high-end cottages is anyone’s guess. But a correction could be in the cards.

As a village, Radium is a barebones operation with a lot of services, such as the library and fire department, staffed by volunteers. That works for those times of the year when the population is mostly full-time residents, but peak tourist season probably puts a strain on civic services.

The sheep poop situation, for instance, is something the village needs to address — both for aesthetic and health reasons.

Still, Radium is a very beautiful community, with all sorts of outdoor recreation opportunities from hiking and kayaking to paddleboarding, fishing and parasailing. But for me, it was a bit of a surreal experience to visit a place where the local and tourist cultures meshed together.