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Nobody Remembers The Strange Doukhobors

Going through some old notebooks, I found a few scribbles about an assignment of mine in Trail, British Columbia, in the early 70s. My notes are sketchy, but I recall that my editor had sent me up there to do a story about a lumber mill that produced liquid pulp for paper manufacturers in the US. This of course was a totally and absolutely BOR-ing subject, but since he was paying me a rather generous salary, I aimed to give him precisely what he wanted.

After interviewing a mill superintendent, he invited me to a garden party at the mansion of one of Trail’s bigwigs. I recall a three storey white house with gray trim and a sloping lawn with a magnificent view of the glistening dark blue Kettle River, a tributary of the Columbia. I struck up a conversation with a white-haired bent-backed old man in a black suit, vest, white shirt and black tie. In my notebook was this enigmatic, hurried scrawl:

“Old geezer sez nobody remembers the strange Doukhobors.”

When I got back from that assignment I never looked up Doukhobors to find out who or what they were. Until this morning. With ever-handy Google I learned that “Trail had been an "important center of Doukhobor activity in the 1920's and 1930's….”

And more:

Beyond my incomplete notes I have a very vivid memory of a postscript to that trip. The morning following my interviews I overslept, and knew if I didn’t hurry and get to Spokane, about 100 miles down the road, I’d miss my flight back to New York.

Heading south on highway 395 along the Kettle River, and past Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, I stopped a couple of times to take pictures of the logs floating enmasse in the water, framed by the trunks of the forest pines. Then I hurried back to my rental car and sped along the mostly desterted road, going faster and faster to make up lost time. I glanced down at the speedometer. I was going hundred and ten miles an hour.

And then pow! My left rear tire blew out. Both hands in a vise locked grip on the steering wheel, I managed to bring the car to a stop. I knew how lucky I’d been. If it had been the front tire, well, no way would I have been able to keep control. I narrowly missed being killed or maimed, but of course that didn’t scare me. I was still young enough, foolish enough, to believe that I was spared because I was special. Or something.

After a quick change, I tossed the destroyed tire, jack and handle into the trunk and resumed my mad dash. I made my flight with about five minutes to spare.

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Clipping from Jan 2, 1908 newspaper from Fort William, Ontario. The story as I was told was that a group of Doukhobors marched from northern Saskatchewan to Fort William, Ontario, where they rented a house to overwinter. They planned to march to Montreal come spring. To demonstrate their lack of need for material things, they occasionally paraded nude, and on one occasion threw their clothing onto a bonfire. The City appealed to Parliament for some sort of resolution to the situation, and around April they were rounded up and put on a train back to Saskatchewan.

My great-grandparents grew up in northern Saskatchewan, one town over from Verigin. I asked my grandmother about the Doukhobors once. She had a great deal of respect for how devout they were, and how hard they worked. However, she did find their ways strange.

Instutionalized strangeness is not new to human history, but have you ever encountered any explanations for the massed nudity of the Doukhobors? The Pacific Northwest is hardly the place to shed clothing, even in the summer when insects are active.

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