At its most extreme, summer in Vancouver can reach just beyond a comfortable heat. Rain disappears for weeks at a time, lawns yellow and a smoky haze settles over the city, obscuring the mountain view. Though the signs are there, summer in Vancouver is hardly a litmus test for the catastrophic shift in the global climate — but follow the smoke that hangs over our urban heads back to its source and the urgency sets in.
Just a few hours east of the city, nestled in the Kettle River Valley, the town of Rock Creek marked its sixth year hosting Ponderosa Festival (actually fifth — the festival was cancelled in 2015 due to wildfires). Known for bringing together a diverse array of A-list and up-and-coming Canadian artists in intimate showcases in the picturesque Southern Okanagan, Ponderosa was one of the most comfortable, welcoming and impressive festivals I’ve attended. And while I didn’t see a single disappointing performance over the course of the weekend — club sofa’s Sunday afternoon set guaranteed my attendance at their upcoming album release show in Vancouver, and k-os’s only show of the year was a truly chaotic trip back to 2004 in the best way possible — the music was quite literally overshadowed by the smoke pluming out of nearby wildfires.
On Friday afternoon, driving along the Crowsnest Highway, I left the slight haze behind, travelling through the clear and crisp Manning Park and straight past Princeton. As I crested a hill, just before the town of Hedley, a thick cloud appeared on the horizon. Too detailed and too defined to be a normal summertime cloud, I soon realized that it was a pillar of smoke, not a cloud, that dominated the sky. Snaking through the mountains, the plume grew larger overhead until finally the highway descended into a smoke-filled valley. Like a curtain being drawn on the afternoon sun, the smoke enveloped the landscape. The light dimmed and browned, and a fine ash started drifting down from above.
The conditions only grew worse as I neared Keremeos. It was only 3PM, but the sun couldn’t penetrate the smoke. An orange glow peaked over the mountains to the south with the faint flickering of flames slowly crawling over the summits, the ridge of a fire 13,000 hectares and growing.
All the way to Rock Creek, the smoke lingered, causing the entire region, and the entire festival to smell like campfire.
The festival carried on, though. Campsites were erected, blankets were laid out on the grass and the music began. The morning chill lingered a few extra hours, before a stagnant, indirect heat settled over the grounds. At night, the stage lights extended out, casting crisp beams of colour into the absolutely colourless sky. As entertaining as acts like Douse and Blue Hawaii were, the music seemed only to serve as a distraction from the obvious crisis looming just over those hidden hills. At Ponderosa, it was impossible not to pay attention.