On a not so particular day in May 2016, the search for people from small towns and remote areas continues. This next story and subject come from a place in British Columbia’s Caribou Range. An area of beauty that is nothing short of breathless. After recently getting hitched in the previous Fall, to the woman of my dreams, I asked my partner in crime to join me on this next leg of Back To The Land to Northern British Columbia. I wanted to show her the process and logistically how everything comes together when finding people from small towns and remote areas; If I didn’t extend the invitation I would be sleeping on the couch for the first year of our marriage. I’m very particular when it comes to how I travel, especially when searching out random people that may be more sensitive when being asked to have their portrait taken, and I set some guidelines just so we didn’t have a domestic on day one as I normally do Back To The Land solo. We headed north on HWY 93 from Calgary and continued through Jasper making short stops along the way to eat, pee, and take a few pictures to get into the road-tripping groove. What I didn’t know, my wife had never been anywhere North of Golden B.C. so for her, this was like going to Disneyland except with only one weird gregarious character sitting next to her. The plan was to stop in McBride for the first night as I had a contact there who graciously offered to host us. As we were on the outskirts of coming up to McBride, a sign read “Dunster”, that gut feeling waking my senses from the monotony of driving that sometimes endless roads create, I looked at my co-pilot, we smiled and made the turn.
The road immediately took a steep descent towards the valley floor with lush green trees surrounding us with its winding curves making it impossible to pull your attention to the mountains in the distance. We reached the bottom where we crossed the famous Fraser River and the afternoon sun warming the surrounding farmland with everything in full bloom. We followed the road slowly passing crops, animals, weathered country homes and a small rural school, stopping at a little building that looked as though could have been storage for small farm equipment. The sign above reading Dunster General Store. Upon entering, it was a place to find your last minute supplies when you can’t be bothered to make the hour-long drive to McBride. The shelves carried fresh vegetables, various household items along with some hand-made pottery that caught my wife’s eyes. I asked the cashier behind the counter about the area, the people, and if she knew anyone who might want to share their story. It turns out she mentioned someone and coincidentally it was potters work we were admiring moments earlier. Given this was a small town, the cashier said: "I’ll call her at home for you". Waiting for someone to answer on the other line, no one picked up. Five minutes later, a woman walks through the door which was the person we just tried calling. This woman's name is Steficia McLean and she is a potter from Dunster.
Steficia, or Stefi as she likes to be called, was born on Vancouver Island in 1945. She went to the University of British Columbia and received a degree in education. She taught in various schools and hospitals but quit suddenly as soon as she reached the five-year mark. Back in those days, they had teachers in children hospitals for patients that couldn’t attend school. “When Springtime arrived on the island, I always felt twitchy and I always had this urge to travel”. Sick of the city and after conversations with some friends, she packed her things into her van and decided to do her own Back To The Land inspired lifestyle. Stefi then found herself in Dunster and at the time, there was no telephone, only hydro, and water had to be fetched from the creek. Her home at the time consisted of a two-bedroom skid shack for $25 a month. “In Dunster, I feel solid, it’s home”… “Life out here has its challenges however we don’t have to worry about certain things like clean water, as it comes directly from the mountain behind us. It’s sweet and cold cold cold. We have enough room to grow food and we have peace and quiet. The other night Archie and I got up in the middle of the night, and we could see mars clear as day along with the bazillion stars that lit up the night sky”. Stefi met her husband Archie after he and a friend came over for supper after a long day of ski touring in the mountain range behind where they both live now. Stefi jokes that is must have been good soup because he kept coming back regularly. Three years later they moved in together.
We spent that morning in Stephi’s studio where she showed me some of her work and how everything works. It’s a separate building behind the house amongst a beautiful garden that was just starting to explode with green growth and colour. As you enter the space, there is a small gallery where she exhibits her final pieces that are for sale for anyone stopping by. In the back is where the work is created and she gives my wife and I the grand tour showing us the clay she uses, the kilns, where she works and explains her process on a typical day. As I set up my gear we talk about her work, where she exhibits her pieces, and why she doesn’t have a website, upon which she explains it’s such a pain in the ass; we both laugh and I love her candidness and the no bull-shit attitude. When taking Stefi’s portrait her body language suddenly changes and she becomes a little self-conscious, however, I re-assure her to just relax, pull my eyes from behind the camera so she can meet mine, and we start a conversation, randomly taking the odd photograph. She starts to open up and the interaction becomes both instinctual and engaging for both of us. The portrait took 15 minutes but we continued to chat more about her life in Dunster and after, gave us a tour of her property that rests amongst some of the most beautiful landscapes in Canada I have seen to this day.
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