Flights that always land. Fish that fly. A high-minded hub of academia, culture and nature. KMC futurist Fletcher Fitzgibbon touches down in the Kootenay’s next supercity.
It’s July 2045, and I’m in Castlegar to cover SculptFest, the town’s wildly popular annual arts festival. I’ve had to physically travel here, though, since the festival refuses to stream a live VR of the event. But that’s okay. I’ve heard this is a rare town, one where it’s still possible to be alone in nature and experience big-city culture in the same day—and I want to see it with my own eyes.
As our plane touches down, the old man sitting in the capsule beside mine knocks on the glass. He wants to speak with me, I mean, have an actual face-to-face conversation. “You know, this place used to be called ‘Cancelgar,’” he says, with a noticeable twang of nostalgia. “Before the university developed the new radar, you could barely get into this place.” He sighs. “But maybe that’s why it’s so great here.”
I wonder if this is true: Castlegar’s hard-to-reach location is responsible for its current charms. I pose this theory to Ravi Sodhi-Kalmakoff, Castlegar’s mayor. She laughs and shrugs. “Possibly,” she says. But she prefers to credit the town’s visionaries of the 2010s and 20s. These leaders, she claims, such as the founders of SculptFest, helped the town resist becoming “yet another upscale retirement village,” a fate that has befallen so many formerly awesome small towns. (“Nelson,” she coughs.)
Between each whoosh of a fish flying through the air, I hear nothing but silence.
Encouraged by the success of Sculpture Walk, which was SculptFest’s predecessor, the town devoted large tracts of prime real estate as nature and sculpture parks instead of giving in to developers’ demands to build luxury homes. The result? Higher density in the downtown core, leading to more overall housing units and greater affordability, all while keeping development from encroaching too heavily on the surrounding landscape. “We don’t want sprawl,” says Sodhi-Kalmakoff. “Part of what makes the ’Gar so awesome is its proximity to nature: the river, the backcountry, the mountains. And young people, especially makers, builders, artists, they all kind of flocked here as soon as they realized they could afford to live here and still be close to nature.”
Besides the fresh air, the maker culture is the first thing you notice upon arriving to the town. First, there are the sculptures: they’re everywhere. Even the new bridge between the university and downtown is a sculpture; it’s a huge conceptual coyote, a nod to the story of the origins of the Columbia River, whose waters it spans, and it was built using an open-source design. There’s the old pulp and paper mill, converted into a giant maker lab, with housing and studios for over a thousand artists. The town’s main drag, Columbia Avenue, is lined with solar-powered LED trees that serve as electric-vehicle charging stations, and a light-rail system that runs on recycled 3D printer filament. Selkirk University, one of the first in the country to fully embrace an open-source curriculum, now hosts a cutting-edge aviation program.
And then there is the fish cannon.
I visited it on my last day in Castlegar, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Located on the southern edge of a hydroelectric dam about 10 minutes outside of town, it is one of a series of giant pneumatic vacuum tubes that suck up salmon and spit them out 200 feet in the air over the dam’s concrete walls, allowing the fish to return to the Columbia and its tributaries to spawn for the first time in over a century.
Between each whoosh of a fish flying through the air, I hear nothing but silence. I look around; I’m the only one here. I haven’t been alone outside since…I can’t remember when. It feels strange, but I like it. And as I watch each silvery aquatic arrow pierce the brilliant blue sky, I realize why some Castlegar residents are sentimental about the days when this place was hard to get to. Suddenly, I find myself a little nostalgic, too, wishing that from now on, or maybe just for tomorrow, all flights are cancelled.