Part of the on-going project Back To The Land
On my first few days in Val Maire, Saskatchewan my days were spent visiting the cafe's and the local hangouts introducing myself to locals, getting a good feel of the surrounding landscape and deciding on who I could potentially photograph. One thing I find interesting about this Back To The Land project is each place I visit for any period of time, I know immediately if I'll be staying for five minutes or five days. This is purely based on intuition and gut feelings. I have always wondered where does this gut feeling come from and why does it happen? I do sometimes think about what might have transpired in life if I ever chose to ignore that little voice that sits at the bottom of my stomach. Would I be living in Canada, would I have found photography, where would I be mentally and physically? Myself and I'm sure many others as well have ignored that "gut feeling" at least once in their life and in my own personal experience, nine times out of ten that decision was always met with regret. From these regrettable decisions in the past, I now listen to that voice regardless of the severity of the decision, even if the outcome that I hoped for does not show itself immediately, however in the end it always works out and for the better.
One morning as I was staying in Rockglen, Saskatchewan, Neil Jones, Jan, Leary and I met up for coffee at the local diner Burning Hills Cafe and we started talking about other people who they might know and would possibly be a good fit for my Canada project. Neil mentioned I should check out a place call Big Beaver, Saskatchewan. I stopped him in mid-sentence asking him to repeat the name of the town as I thought I was hearing things. Neil laughed and reassured me the town was called "Big Beaver". The four of us all must have laughed for a minute or two all while repeating the name several times just cause it was fun to say. Neil said there was a general store in the small town where you could buy anything from a box of Cheerios to gun ammunition. Still trying not to laugh, Neil went on to explain a gentleman named Ron Aust owned and operated the store and it was called "Austs General Store" with a slogan that made the store quite famous and could have not been more perfect. "If we don't have it, you don't need it".
After hearing this my gut was screaming to check this place out from which I immediately jumped into my taco and headed east. The drive itself to Big Beaver was beautiful, passing through a couple other small towns along the way all while taking in the beautiful prairies of Saskatchewan. The town is located just off highway 18 and you have to keep your eyes open as there is only one small green sign that marks the turn off a couple hundred meters before you head North 1 km into the town. Once I arrived I was shocked on how remote and small this little town was. There are only a couple of streets and avenues with an array of random houses on each of them. You can't miss the Aust General Store as you pull into town and as I parked out front, there were already a couple of families loading supplies into their trucks. As I walked into the store, it was quite the scene where I had to adjust my eyes and take a few minutes of what I was witnessing. There was canned fruit, toilet seats, knick-knacks, clothing, hunting gear, kitchen utensils and everything in between stacked floor to ceiling high. The store was by no means messy but very organized with every item having its own intended space and position. I spent a good 20 minutes carefully looking at everything on each shelf down each corridor and isle making a few laps just so I didn't miss anything.
As I made my way back to the entrance, I noticed a man working the front and asked him where I could find Ron Aust. The gentleman said "Yah I'm Ron, how can I help you". I proceeded to tell him why I was in town, my project, and if he would be willing to sit for a portrait. Ron happily agreed and I told him I just needed 15 minutes to set up. Ron went about his business helping other customers until I was ready to take his photograph. Once I had my lights set-up which was quite a challenge given the very limited real estate in the shop, I called Ron over and as I was taking some test shots I asked him a little about the store and its history. It turns out his parents owned it before passing it down to him and has been in the family now for 56 years. Even parts of the building date back to 1928 as the store now spans across the neighboring buildings to house all the supplies and inventory.
Along with all the merchandise Ron also shared his guestbook which hundreds of visitors have signed over the years along with personal messages from all across North America and even some parts of the world. It was an honour and pleasure to photograph Ron one place I will never forget and hope to visit again very soon.
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