Three Months in Nelson, British Columbia

Meghan and I just spent three months in Canada, living in a small town in eastern British Columbia called Nelson.

I know what you're thinking:

Canada? That's lame.

For the record, I initially had the same hang-up. But sitting here three months later, I'm happy to report that our Canadian excursion was a great success. This is the thought process that led us there.

  1. After half a year of "flashpacking" in Southeast Asia, we learned that adventure travel is a full-time commitment.1 We initially expected to have time for more existential activities, like reflecting on life, but instead we found that we had little free time. We were either busy exploring the current destination or planning the next one. We therefore decided to change it up in the new year and locate in a single place for an extended period, enabling so-called sabbatical pursuits. (I was also looking forward to getting away from Southeast Asia's godforsaken heat.)

  2. I'm big into "skill building" generally and it's always been a dream of mine to learn to ski. I'm also a big believer in immersive learning. Combining the two, this winter was the perfect opportunity to learn to ski in an immersive format.

  3. Given the tilt of the Earth's axis, skiing this winter this meant we had to find a place in the Northern Hemisphere. We wanted to go to Europe, but even Europe's budget destinations were excessively unaffordable. Same story in Japan. That left the United States and Canada. We obviously weren't going to stay in the US, so Canadia it was.

  4. In addition to skiing, I've always harbored a "cabin in the woods" fantasy. In fact, much of the inspiration for this whole sabbatical and certain life changes have come from Thoreau's book Walden.2 I knew Canada could fulfill such a fantasy.

So yeah, Canada might not sound as exciting as backpacking in Burma or drinking yak butter tea in Nepal, but it made sense for us.

Once zeroed in on Canada, we were able to quickly rule out the mega-resorts like Whistler and Banff because they seemed too expensive and touristy for our tastes. That left us looking for something more obscure. On the internet, we stumbled on some compelling descriptions of Whitewater Ski Resort and the town of Nelson. The pair seemed to check all the boxes:

  • Remote, small town with a healthy, crunchy vibe3
  • Beginner-friendly ski resort
  • Affordable

There were also some great places for rent on Airbnb and Homeaway. In particular, I found an adorable house on a five-acre homestead. The residence had been restored by a couple that was leaving to backpack Europe with their two boys. I know from experience that renting a primary residence can be a perfect setup: higher quality for a discounted price.

After a week of deliberation over the holidays, we decided to roll the dice. On Whitewater, on Nelson, and on this property. For three months.

It was risky, but it paid off. Everything worked out better than expected: the skiing was excellent, the town was quaint, and our place was cozy.

Nelson?

If you're like me, you're probably wondering: Where exactly is Nelson?

Nelson is in the eastern part of British Columbia, nowhere near Vancouver, in a region referred to as the West Kootenays.4 We got there by flying into Spokane, renting a car, and driving 3.5 hours north. If you are familiar with the burgeoning ski resort of Revelstoke, Nelson is approximately a 3 hour drive south.

Despite a population of 10,000, I found the inhabitants of Nelson to be rather a progressive and intelligent bunch, different from what you might find in a typical "small town." Also, in addition to its natural beauty and outdoor activities, Nelson offered more amenities than you'd expect to find in a town of similar magnitude. There was a relative abundance of restaurants, bars, hotels, coffee shops, and boutiques. I'd definitely recommend a visit sometime.

Nelson from above The lovely little Nelson as seen from the top of the town's signature hike, Pulpit Rock.

The two homegrown establishments that the local community are proudest of are the Kootenay Co-op and Oso Negro. The Co-op claims that it's one of the most successful co-ops in North America. Working in real estate, I've heard enough far-fetched "most successful" spins to raise an eyebrow at this claim. Regardless, the Co-op is a powerhouse in the community and we frequented it often for our daily servings of locally sourced black kale, fermented daikon, grassfed butter, and Kootenay Kombucha.

Kootenay Co-op I don't know why I felt compelled to include this photo

Oso Negro Oso Negro, a Nelson landmark

Sailing Nelson even has sailing! That bridge in the distance is another Nelson landmark: BOB aka Big Orange Bridge.

Skiing

I'm happy to report that both Meghan and I loved skiing. We started out as complete novices and after ten lessons and over thirty days on the slopes, I'd say we're now "solid intermediates."

While I have no other skiing experiences to compare Whitewater to, we were told it was a great season in terms of snowfall. There was fresh powder constantly, the instructors were awesome (and affordable), and there were almost never any lines (except for the days after it dumped over 20 centimeters overnight and the town would shut down).

Dan skiing

Meghan skiing

Backcountry

CrossFit and Yoga

Testament again to the great vibe of Nelson, we were fortunate that the little town had both an amazing CrossFit box (Power by You) and hot yoga studio (Bambu Hot Yoga). Over the course of three months, we got in over 40 WODs and 15 yoga sessions.

Meghan and Ali

Dan and Ali Meghan and I each with our awesome CrossFit trainer, Ali.

Hiking

Although we were initially sad to see the ski season end, our sadness was quickly replaced with awe as spring took hold. The natural beauty of the interior of British Columbia is unparalleled. Spring gave us an opportunity to enjoy the wilderness through some hiking.

Nelson Airport My father flew up to visit us for a weekend. You can kind of see his plane to the left of the "N" in NELSON.

Top of Pulpit Rock Another shot atop Pulpit Rock

O Canada O Canada. Getting some Vitamin D atop of the appropriately named "Flagpole" hike.

Tree pose Meghan practicing her tree pose

Halfway Hot Springs We trekked deep down a paper road in search of some elusive natural hot springs near Nakusp called Halfway Hot Springs

Sabbatical Pursuits

Other than the activities I've already listed, the remainder of our Nelson experience was Spartan -- somewhat boring when I describe it in writing, but a great experience. Every day, we woke up early and executed a regimented morning routine consisting of writing, reading, meditation, math, and foreign language practice. We cooked all but three meals the entire time, maintaining a wholesome, cyclical ketogenic diet. Oh yeah, we didn't drink a single alcoholic beverage in over 100 days either.5

In true sabbatical fashion, we also spent a significant amount of time working on projects and learning new subjects. In particular, I'd like to point out that the online resources now available are amazing. I already mentioned math and foreign languages: we used Khan Academy and Duolingo for those every single day.6

In addition, I used Coursera to work towards finishing up my Data Science Specialization while Meghan used Launch School and Treehouse for front-end web development.

We also used Rouxbe to study the art of cooking in a serious way, starting with true fundamentals such as knife skills, seasoning, and tasting. My favorite cooking experiment was a fish recipe. We purchased a 5 pound sablefish aka "black cod" from The Fisherman's Market and mastered one of my all-time favorite restaurant dishes: miso black cod. Because we were in Canada, we of course prepared maple miso black cod.

Finally, we crushed several books. The most memorable read was a science fiction epic by Neal Stephenson called Seveneves which we listened to during our rides to and from the ski hill. Highly recommended if you're into that sort of thing.

Our Home

I'll wind things down with some photos of our home.

breadmaking As I mentioned, we spent a lot of time cooking. In the spirit of true homesteaders, we even practiced making bread from scratch. Sourdough made from naturally cultured yeast starter, of course.

Side shot Side of our house

treehouse Meghan in the treehouse. She loved this little barncat.

barn View towards the backyard

kitty in backyard Back of the house

meghan in backyard Beautiful landscape

Dan timelapse I really enjoyed experimenting with time lapse photography. Here's a time lapse of that slug you can kind of see on the ground there.

And finally a time lapse I made in the backyard of the sunset.

Conclusion

Like I said at the beginning, our time in Canada might not sound as exciting as trekking the Andes or whatever, but this is the kind of stuff I'm into. After only three months, both of us feel like we're in top physical and mental shape. Maybe I lack discipline, but that's just not a place I can easily reach while mixed up with all the distractions and obligations of everyday life.

Now we're back on the flashpacking circuit again in South America where we'll deplete the remainder of sabbatical funds. I think we might make it an entire year.

  1. I use the term "flashpacking" in conversation sometimes because it's a solid word describing our mode of travel. Here's a definition from the internet: "Flashpacking is a neologism used to refer to affluent backpacker. Whereas backpacking is traditionally associated with budget travel and destinations that are relatively cheap, flashpacking has an association of more disposable income while traveling and has been defined simply as backpacking with a bigger budget."

  2. I generally quote the following Walden passage when describing my cabin in the woods fantasy: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

  3. Several online sources referred to Nelson as "the Portland of Canada." Sold.

  4. To pronounce "Kootenay," just say KOOT-knee.

  5. I can't even remember how the decision to not drink started. I think it's because I was feeling fat from all the beer in Asia and over the holidays. Either way, not drinking quickly turned into an experiment for me. I was curious (i) if it was possible and (ii) if there'd be any noticeable effects. I'll save my observations for another post or you can email me to discuss.

  6. I can't sing loud enough praise for Khan Academy. Boy do I wish that was around when I was growing up. The guy who started it -- Sal Kahn -- is my new personal hero. Watch this TED Talk and you'll see why he's the man.