A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Cassiar - The Product & Ron Johnson's Shake 'N Bake Chicken
Wednesday, February 07, 2007

As an artist/teacher for the Emily Carr College Of Art Outreach Program (that was the name of Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design then) for 13 years in the 80s and 90s I went to teach photography in BC's interior. I visited many communities but perhaps one of the most interesting was Cassiar where I went in the middle 80s and then again in 1991, a year before the mine closed and the town became a ghost.

The first time around the town and mine were thriving. They mined "product" and only when pressed was the word asbestos uttered in whispers. In the prosperity of the time (it seemd that the Japanese used asbestos for drum brake linings) the town had a company cafeteria that served some of the best food and most delicious home-baked bread I have ever had in my life.

I quickly realized that besides satellite TV (soaps were most popular), the most active passtime was going after someone else's partner, taking advantage of the mine's shift system. Driving in and out of town there was a huge, ugly mountain that was not a mountain at all but simply a pile of mine tailings.

I was given a tour of the mine, which was thousands of feet above sea level, and then when one got there, one descended into what for me resembled a freezing hell that Dante could have never imagined. The equipment, which had to operate in minus 40 Celsius, was all electric. The big tractors and excavators had long, thick power cords that had to be man-handled by workers who had to work all bundled as they had no heated cabs to protect them. I returned to watch a night shift. Those miners deserved every penny they earned.

To get to Cassiar I had to drive from the Watson Lake, Yukon Territory airport in what was mostly (then) a gravel road. When driving on it I noticed I had two options. One of them was to drive safely and have every truck around pass me, blind me with enormous clouds of dust and then spray my incredibly cracked windshield with gravel. The second option was the one I ultimately chose. This was to drive as fast and recklessly as possible and make others bite the dust.

It was in Cassiar that I saw for the first time and for several nights the beautiful Aurora Borealis. At right I am posing with my class and above it's a self portrait by the Cassiar post office. I took the picture at midnight using a technique called extended range night photography.

The second time around in 1991 (I arrived on Friday night) I had the worry that no matter what the weather did I had to be at the Watson Lake airport on that Monday morning. I had to be in Vancouver by noon to photograph the person who was seen as the second most important man in BC. Ron Johnson was organizing Mike Harcourt's and the NDP's bid to wrest away the province from the Social Credit Party. I was to photograph Johnson for Equity's series of important shakers in Vancouver called the Power Elite. I was instructed to take a candid photo of Johnson at home.

After teaching Saturday and Sunday, a massive snowfall blanketed Cassiar and my terrible motel (it was called The Last Chance) was buried up to the windows. I knew I had to try to get to Watson Lake, no matter what. The only advantage I seemed to have (even though my students thought I had little chance of success) was that my rental car was a new-fangled front-wheel-drive Ford Taurus.

I made it by never applying using my brakes and using the car's momentum to carry me over deep drifts of snow on the highway. When I gassed up at the Watson Lake gas station I was approached by many asking me about the road conditions. The fingers in my hand were throbbing . I had been holding on to that steering wheel for dear life.

It began to snow and the airport attendant told me he did not think the small airplane coming from Vancouver would be able to land. But it did. As I was looking through the window I noticed a woman stepped down from the airplane. I mentioned to the man that the plane was small but it still had a flight attendant. I remember him telling me with a smirk, "Sonny, that there is your pilot and you better pray that she decides to take off in this weather or you will miss that job with that Ron Johnson guy you were telling me about." The plane's wings had to be de-iced several times and we took off.

A few hours later I photographed a cool Ron Johnson making Shake 'N Bake chicken.


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