Zoe Miles was born on Salt Spring Island and has spent most of her life on the West Coast, but she is no stranger to Watson Lake.
She lived here for five years when she was a child.
“I was 12 when we left to go back to the coast, so I have clear memories of the years I spent here,” Miles says. “And those memories are happy ones.
My family lived at the lake; the people who lived near us had kids my age, so there was always someone to hang out with. I liked taking the bus into town for school, and I loved having the lake outside our front door and the ski hill outside our back door.”
During those years, Miles not only swam and boated in the lake with her family and friends, but did a school trip climbing the Chilkoot Pass and participated in an outdoor program where they canoed the Yukon River.
Her family enjoyed the outdoors, camping and boating; she has vivid memories of a trip the three of them did on the Frances River.
“The ski hill was fantastic! We had instructors come from all over the country,” says Miles. “I took it for granted at the time, but now I see what a privilege it was to have that facility available. And with the lake for a front yard, we snowshoed and cross-country skied as well.”
She also remembers her school years at Johnson Elementary with fondness.
“You just couldn’t have had better teachers than Barb McCrae, Gary Bauer and Ernest Bordnyuk, to name a few,” says Miles. “When I started school back on the coast, I was ahead in every subject but math.
“Actually, I am still behind in math, so that was no reflection on the education I got in Watson Lake!”
She graduated with honours from secondary school in Nanaimo, combining her schooling with volunteer work and summer jobs with environmental organizations.
“I attended conferences, I demonstrated, I worked with Save the Strait,” Miles says. “I met people like David Suzuki and Jane Goodall.
“I went to Europe. Those were good and busy years.”
It was while attending Malaspina University College in a liberal arts program that Miles discovered she had endometriosis.
“It changed my life; I was too sick to go to school and too sick to work and I kept trying to do both because I didn’t get a diagnosis for a long time and I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” says Miles. “A naturopathic doctor helped me learn to control the condition through diet and, finally, I could make some plans for myself again.”
She attended a school for estheticians in Courtenay, finding in the work an element of healing for clients and for herself that made such employment rewarding. She moved to Vancouver and worked in one of the city’s top spas.
Travel has always inspired Miles, and now that she was feeling better the travel bug bit hard.
“In April of this year I left Vancouver and came back to Watson Lake with two clear objectives,” says Miles. “I wanted to spend some time with my mother and her family here, and I wanted to save money to travel.
“I have a little cousin here who is five years old now and I had never met him, and a niece that I hadn’t seen in years. My grandmother is here, and aunts and uncles; it’s been really good to spend some time with them.”
Although she had been told she would not likely have any difficulty finding employment here, she was amazed at the many and varied opportunities this small community has on offer.
“I’d never worked in a lumber yard; I don’t think I had ever even thought of working in a lumber yard, but that is what I did,” says Miles. “I started two days after I arrived. It was an interesting job; I learned a lot, and it was fun, too.”
There was work at the local spa and hair salon as well; as a trained esthetician, she enjoys keeping her skills honed.
In July, she got a position at Help and Hope for Families - the local women’s shelter - where at the time of this interview, she is still employed.
“This is another job I had never thought of doing and I am grateful for the opportunity and the training. I love this job; it feels meaningful to me. It’s good to work in a place that represents an ethic I believe in. I feel proud to be a part of a team of women doing their best to make things better for women in Watson Lake.”
Although Miles returned to this small town with an agenda for herself, she was surprised to discover how much she is enjoying and appreciating being back here.
“I really didn’t know how stressful living in a city is until I wasn’t doing it,” she says. “I like the quiet ... no, I love the quiet, and the air is clean and the streets are safe. I can walk and ride a bike nearly everywhere I have to go - no more hours a day commuting.
“The library is really good, and the recplex simply awesome. I go there three times a week to work out and to sauna and I have come to feel like it is mine; there is hardly ever anyone else there.”
What is different about being back here as a adult?
“As a kid living here I wasn’t really aware of the issues of drug and alcohol abuse and its impact on the community. Now I know about it and it saddens me,” she says.
“On a more cheerful note, when I was a kid here I took it for granted that everyone knew everyone else. This time around I have become very aware of it, and though I find it sometimes annoying, mostly it makes me laugh. I don’t know where else you can call a wrong number and find you know the person who answers. Or, when you ask someone for directions, they drive you to where you want to go.”
What does she miss about city life?
“That’s easy: the coffee shops. I am not much of a drinker, so the bar scene doesn’t attract me - either here or in the city. Coffee shops are great places to hang out and meet people or just sit and watch people. I miss being able to get Indian food delivered - any hour of the day or night. I miss having a variety of fruit and vegetables available. I miss live music. I miss businesses being open longer than nine to five,” says Miles.
“I thought I would miss the sea, but I haven’t yet.”
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer who lives in Watson Lake.