Words by Jill Macdonald. Photos by Ange Percival.
Hadih. This Wet’suwet’en greeting gives you an immediate sense of place and makes you feel welcome. Smithers is one of those towns where you can roll in and instantly feel that people are interested; if you want to share, they are curious to know who you are, why you’re visiting and what drew you to the area.
At Two Sisters Café it’s easy to get started; long tables seat friends, relatives and strangers elbow to elbow. Within a short conversation you can be well on your way to discovering resources and links to whatever interests you. Everyone knows someone or something, and everyone has a story.
Take Christoph Dietzfelbinger, owner and operator of the Burnie Glacier Chalet. He arrived from Germany with a very “limited and specific skill set. I was a (UIAGM/IFMGA) Mountain Guide and I had a Masters in Medieval German.” Not exactly in high demand. “Somehow the Canadian government decided that Telegraph Creek needed a mountain guide, and that is how I was allowed to stay.”
While that area didn’t have demand for his profession, Christoph eventually settled on Smithers and the Howson Range as a place where he can “actually be a mountain guide. It’s very complex terrain, not just ski touring laps.” In few words, he corrects common misconceptions. “First of all, this is not the north; it’s central BC. Secondly, it is not wilderness. It is the home of the Wet’suwet’en people.”
Yinta means connectedness. It describes the sensation of interacting with the landscape here. Altered by clearcuts, power lines and other forms of industry, there exists an overlying, tangible presence of something larger and more enduring than here and now. David de Wit is the Natural Resources Manager at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. He explains the system of hereditary governance that has been passed on for thousands of years, a system that unites five clans and thirteen leaders, who are watched, taught and mentored by their elders. “One of the principle laws by which we make decisions is waggus – respect. Respect of self, others, and nature. We are the stewards of these resources for future generations.”
The permission status of Burnie Glacier Chalet on Wet’suwet’en land is unique. It demonstrates the character of the people: diverse, educated, bridging and forging new relationships. Life is not easy. Strength and knowledge of self is required to persevere long winters, shorter intense summers, cycles of abundance and scarcity; the same challenges that knit small communities into extended families. Dietzfelbinger approached the Chiefs with his dream of operating a remote commercial hut and it was met with scrutiny, as all new ideas are, to test their merits. Smithers is not a one horse town driven by industry or a single school of thought.
The chalet was built by volunteers. It has everything a person needs to be comfortable. Heat, shelter, water, a sauna, rooms, an outhouse and a wood cookstove from which chef Monika Loschberger pulls apple torte, spätzle, gourmet soups and roast chicken (for twelve people) with disarming ease. What she enjoys about working in the hut is the people. “No matter how people leave in the morning, when they come back they are happy.” Her job makes “the winters go by faster. I learn all kinds of stories and I am in the mountains.” She arrived in Smithers as an Austrian mother of two young children, a teaching career on hold and a husband who gave up his university Director’s seat to become a rural piano teacher. “I flattered myself that I was an adventurous woman.” She lets out a delightful laugh. “My upbringing was to bury emotions. Here, you must embrace all of them. I love it.”
Her sentiments echo those of many who spend time at Burnie Glacier Chalet. Being in a hut for a week with strangers, or friends, results in a new family and a daily rhythm that makes perfect sense. At the end of the day, Monika is happy to have her solitude interrupted; guests appreciate the warmth, food and genuine welcome that greets them. Life settles into eat, sleep, ski, relax and take care of each other.
There is a Wet’suwet’en story about traveling through the mountains. When headed to the alpine, take some charcoal from an old or new fire and smear it on your cheeks to acknowledge the ancestors present on the land, and to show them respect. In turn, they will help your safe passage with good weather, shelter and direction.
“It’s symbolic that (Burnie Glacier Chalet) sits on the edge on the Coast Mountains, looking east onto the interior mountains Interior; there is a frontier feeling that adds to the lack of fanfare.” Anthony Bonello, filmmaker, has traveled the world, to places wild, remote and rarely visited. “Effort is required to get here, and to spend a week witnessing the weather and the solitude makes me appreciate more fully that Smithers is not a mountain town. It’s its own place.”
When the skies clear, an ocean of glacier ice occupies the horizon. In shifting light it is an illusion, a powerful suggestion of movement. Up close, the deep blue, black and transparent formations are a record of time that is incomprehensible in many ways. Mike Ridsdale is the Environmental Assessment Coordinator for the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. “Our ancestors knew when to travel by the height of certain plants at certain locations. They knew that they needed two weeks of walking to get to the next spot and their customs included this knowledge.” Cultural practices that spanned thousands of years of time are why it is so important, for everyone, to encounter wilderness. Yinta. Waggu.
As the week draws to a close, a happy sadness sets in. Friendships have formed and a new comfort zone established, one far broader than before encountering these peaks, these people. Going home, but leaving home.
The Burnie Glacier Chalet is situated in the Howson Range of the Coast Mountains, near Smithers, BC.
Owner/operator and mountain guide Christoph Dietzfelbinger built the chalet with the permission of the Wet’suwet’en people.
The Howson Range is very complex terrain, with lots of glacier travel mixed with alpine passes and treed gulleys. Storms blow in and the weather can vary from mild to extremely cold. Built entirely by volunteers, the chalet has everything a person needs to be comfortable. Heat, shelter, water, a sauna, sleeping rooms, an outhouse and a wood cookstove from which chef Monika Loschberger pulls apple torte, spätzle, gourmet soups and roast chicken (for twelve people) with disarming ease. Monika, in her late sixties, loves her work because, “No matter how people leave in the morning, when they come back they are happy.”
The Wet’suwet’en people have a word that describes what it means to be part of the natural world and the cycle of life. Yinta means connectedness. This is what happens at Burnie Glacier Chalet.
Experience the Burnie Glacier Hut through Virtual Reality (best played on YouTube app on mobile or using Firefox, Chrome, MS Edge or Opera on your desktop).