Have you ever been on vacation somewhere and thought, “wouldn’t my life be so much better if I lived here?” I’m sure most of us have had these types of thoughts, but few of us actually act on them. I recently drove 3,500 km from my hometown of Ottawa to spend the winter in Fernie, British Columbia. I am one of the crazy few who actually do turn their vacation dream into a reality! In this post, which will be a bit different to my pure birding posts, I’ll share the details of how the experience of moving across the country is going so far.
Before I even get to the why, most people ask what/where is Fernie? Fernie is a city of 5,000 people nestled in East Kootenay region of southeast British Columbia. Fernie was founded as a coal mining town and is named after a 19th century prospector, William Fernie. Nowadays it is more famous for its ski resort than for coal, but there are still 5 active coal mines in the region.
So, why Fernie? I’ve been an avid downhill skier since I was a teenager. After graduating from University, I spent an incredible winter living and working in the French Alps. I then pursued the more conventional path of getting a career and living in a city. But, in the back of my mind I always had the dream of returning to the mountain lifestyle that I so much enjoyed in France.
A few years ago I had to give up my career due to a dizziness condition. About a year after that, My boyfriend Pete and I took a vacation to Fernie. We started to talk about whether we should move to the mountains. We had already spent a lot of time at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians, but we began to set our sights on bigger mountains. I can’t even ski very often anymore, but mountains and an outdoor lifestyle still calls to me. There is also something to be said for seizing the day when life throws you a curve ball like a chronic medical condition!
We looked into other mountain towns in British Columbia – Whistler (too expensive and crowded), Revelstoke (too remote), Canmore (too far from ski resorts) before settling on Fernie.
The thing about making a vacation dream a reality is there is a lot of work involved. This sounds obvious, but it truly is a lot of work! When you visit a place while you’re on vacation, life is easy. You are there temporarily so there is no pressure (or much less pressure). But, when you move out of your house, pack your things into a car, drive 3,500km, organize your mail, your insurance, your bills, your health coverage, sign a lease and say goodbye to your friends and family, it better be worth it when you arrive at your destination. Each step, each decision and each part of the long process to uproot your life adds a measure of pressure and expectation to the experience.
The first thing that strikes you when you drive into Fernie is the mountains. The city is surrounded in 360° by mountains! It is stunning. Looking at those snow-capped peaks can make even a bad day seem insignificant.
We had various small trials during our first couple weeks in Fernie that now seem insignificant, but at the time were tough. We were supposed to get WiFi on our first day, but it took over a week before it was finally connected. I came down with the worst cold I’ve had in years which put a damper on things (especially with no WiFi). The city of Fernie has rules about which side of the road you are supposed to park on during a snowfall. Our neighbours told us that they don’t follow the rules and “by the way, don’t park in front of our house!” Should we risk getting a parking ticket, or follow suit with the neighbours and just park in front of our own house? No matter what we seem to do, our car gets plowed in!
Lastly and arguably the biggest trial I faced was putting up a bird feeder and nothing coming to visit! LOL. This ‘test’ is ongoing and I’m experimenting with placement (there are no trees in our yard so everywhere is very exposed) and type of food.
Good Fernie Days
Despite the initial bumps in the road, we are starting to get settled into our new home. I found that the first couple weeks I had “bad” Fernie days and “good” Fernie days. I wanted to love it so much right from day one that it was easy to get frustrated when everyday wasn’t perfect (this goes back to the pressure I mentioned earlier).
The other challenge is that sometime before April 30th we have to make a decision about whether we are staying or not. Everytime someone at a grocery store is a bit rude, “I hate Fernie, we aren’t staying here!” Or, after seeing my first Steller’s Jay, “I love Fernie, we should definitely stay!” I am exaggerating, but we do end up continually evaluating if Fernie is a place we want to stay.
Coming from a bigger city like Ottawa with a well-developed birding community, Fernie is a complete change. Yes, there are a handful of birders here, but it is nothing like the large network of birders and photographers I had in Ottawa. In a way, this is pretty exciting! There is no worry of running into a crowd of photographers or coming away with the same photographs as 10 other people. But, it also makes it more difficult to find the best spots for birding and photography. There aren’t professional guides here that you can just pay to show you the best birds the way you can in Ottawa!
Given the time of year, I was able to participate in two Christmas Bird Counts during my first month in Fernie. These were excellent opportunities to network with other birders and get some ideas of places to visit. I’ve also quickly come to realize that a lot of the action at this time of year is at feeders and on the many Mountain Ash trees throughout the city. I walk the streets of Fernie peering into people’s yards trying to get a glimpse of their feeders. It is hugely awkward, but a birder’s gotta bird!
My birding highlights so far are:
An abundance of Pine Grosbeaks
Harris’ Sparrow (totally unexpected and rare for this area!)
Not a bad start. On my wishlist are:
Gray-crowned Rosy Finch
In Ottawa I have a great network of friends and family, but we moved to Fernie without knowing a single person. It’s easy to take your friend-base for granted, but when you move to somewhere new you realize just how important having that is. Making a new group of friends is never an easy task, but we’ve already taken steps like signing up for activities and events in town. Earlier in December we did a “fun” “easy” Christmas run with a group of locals that was the most grueling run of my life (I didn’t anticipate that in Fernie, running means heading up a mountain!) haha. I’ve met birders in Fernie and Cranbrook and I’m working on getting to know some photographers too.
Fernie is a SMALL Town
It goes without saying that moving from a city of 1 million people to a city of 5,000 is going to be a big culture shock. So far, I haven’t found this aspect to be overly challenging but the “shock” factor may increase with time. One day I will want to go shopping for a new pair of jeans and it may sink in that there is nowhere to do so in Fernie. Things here also don’t seem to run as smoothly as in a bigger city. The snow plow comes when the snow plow comes and if they want to pile all the snow in the middle of the road and deal with it a week later, so be it. They also don’t deliver mail to houses in Fernie – you have to get a PO box at the Post Office. The list goes on, so maybe there is more of an adjustment required than I realized!
Bird, bird, bird, rest, ski, rest, bird, bird, bird, rest. Repeat!
Aside from local birding in Fernie, I plan to head over to Cranbrook again soon. The CBC there was awesome – we had non-stop bird activity all day. There is also exciting birding within a 2-3 hour drive of Fernie, so I would like to start exploring further afield. Montana is only a 30 minute drive south of here and there is a great winter raptor scene there. Calgary is 3 hours away and also has great winter birding.
As for what happens after April 30th…. only time will tell! In the meantime, the mountain views are already starting to get under my skin 🙂
Have you ever done a big move like this? How did you settle into your new home? Please share your experience in the comments below ↓