Sandpoint’s hip Canadian sister Nelson

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

I’ve been visiting Nelson, B.C. regularly since high school. Back then, I owned the worst fake ID ever created, which was purchased from a shady store in Spokane during my sophomore year. The “Sprague Special’’ was obtained at a strip mall business wedged between a check cashing place and a massage parlor. All you had to do was tell the clerk that you lost your license and they’d put together an ID without asking for any documentation, relying solely on your verbal responses to questions. 

When I got mine, I was so nervous I gave them the wrong birth year and wound up making myself 19 years old instead of 21. Since British Columbia had a drinking age of 19, it only seemed natural to try it up there the first time (fun fact: the first bouncer who saw it laughed in my face and cut it in half). It was almost a real-life “McLovin” situation.

Despite that, the warm feeling of “away” washes over me the moment I cross the border into Canada. Geographically, there isn’t much difference to be found in the country north of us. The highways are carved between rivers and valleys lined with trees as far as the eye can see. Quaint slow-down, speed-up towns dot the countryside, each with the obligatory small gas station. If the speed limit signs weren’t posted in kilometers, you might not even know you were in a foreign country.

Once you board the ferry and cross fjord-like Kootenay Lake for the final stretch into Nelson, the similarities of that region and ours are striking. Both Sandpoint and Nelson are situated beside a beautiful lake and surrounded by mountains. We are both within spitting distance of a ski resort. We both celebrate the small-town way of life in the shoulder seasons and endure an onslaught of tourism each summer — and to a lesser degree, every winter.

Nelson and Sandpoint share “sister city” status, but after spending some time in our northern sibling, you realize that if these two are sisters, Nelson is the younger and hipper of the two. Sandpoint seems almost prudish by comparison.

One immediate difference is the amount of international culture in Nelson. On a typical bar crawl up and down Baker Street, you might stumble across a server from Australia and a bartender freshly arrived from the U.K., then eat at an authentic Indian restaurant and receive directions from a Pakistani couple. 

Because Canada is a member of the Commonwealth, young people from other Commonwealth countries often move out West to live the ski bum lifestyle.

Of course, from the tourists’ point of view, everything seems a bit rosier than reality. Nelson has its problems just like Sandpoint does; but, at heart, I can’t help but long for a version of Sandpoint that went the direction of Nelson. Instead of so many separatist retirees and political refugees moving here to escape the problems they see in the world, what if we had young people joining our community to attend college, work in emerging tech industries or even to live the ski bum lifestyle (which is all but impossible in Sandpoint anymore unless you have enough money to pay exorbitant rent, in which case, you’re not a bum at all)? 

The fact that we were never able to make a college work here in Sandpoint probably has more to do with our stiff political makeup than anything, because young people often want nothing more than to get the hell out of Idaho when they graduate high school. What if they could stay here? What if there were actual jobs for them here?

So how do we embrace our inner “Nelson-ness” while keeping true to the Sandpoint way of life? One way is to celebrate those who are different rather than fearing or creating outcasts of them. Some do a great job of this in Sandpoint, but overall we tend to view outsiders and newcomers with a large dose of skepticism. Even though it has been cast as a dirty word by the fearful right wing, diversity is a good thing. 

Each one of us has a particular lens through which we see and experience the world. It is this mixture of varying viewpoints, opinions and life experiences that helps us solve problems, execute new ways of thinking and become more empathetic people. It is one of our greatest strengths.

Perhaps someday, in the near future, Sandpointians won’t have to drive three hours north to experience culture in a resort town like Nelson because it will also be here in Sandpoint. Perhaps then our young people will realize this place is where they want to live and work the rest of their lives, and they’ll build communities of their own to ensure Sandpoint stays a bit more real, like it’s cool sister to the north.

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