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do trees and people really disappear? or, do not touch this display! or, what a Tree Cookie has to do with colonization.

Carrie Karsgaard

Last fall, upon strolling to my first ever university course in environmental sociology, one of those hallway displays that add ambience and culture to our institution took me right out of the prairies and back to BC: a wide cross-cut of a Douglas fir tree with a shiny mahogany finish, standing nearly nine feet high. Placed in the heart of an environmental sciences building, the display is fitting – the Tree Cookie, as it is affectionately known, is an impressive slice of life that fittingly alludes to studies in dendrochronology (tree rings!), forest sciences, and conservation.

However, upon a closer look, the tree surprised me with its story.

Surrounding the tree were plaques embedding this Douglas fir within the context of Canada’s national history, particularly the advent of European explorers. Descriptions talked about the “disappearance” of both Douglas fir stands and Indigenous peoples – a word that conjured up, well, conjuring (think of Hermione waving her wand and commanding, evanesco), instead of intentional processes.

Did the trees really disappear? Did the people vanish? Or were the trees chopped down and the people impacted by tricky Canadian policies? I’d say this tree might have been telling some tall tales.

To add to the conjuring, the Douglas fir were amazingly “first sighted by early white explorers such as Captain James Cook in 1778,” and were subsequently “discovered” by European naturalists and botanists on expeditions in the Pacific Northwest. This was a teeny bit surprising considering the long history of various Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest, who (I imagine) were long aware of trees as massive as this one (it doesn’t take a microscope to spot a Douglas fir).

In fact, no connection of the Douglas fir to Indigenous peoples was mentioned. Resistance of Indigenous groups to deforestation (aka tree “disappearance”) on Meares Island, Haida Gwaii, South Moresby, and Stein Valley was absent from the Douglas fir’s story, which neatly bundled all Indigenous peoples together – in the past. In fact, “Native peoples” were said to live in the area until only 1400 (I had a feeling more than a few living folks may beg to differ).

to 1400 - Canada inhabited by Native peoples

to 1400 - Canada inhabited by Native peoples

The tree instead told a story worthy of Canada Day, linking our nation to scientific work in botany, forest ecology, and resource management, eh. This story (for intrigue?) kept up the “disappearance” hocus pocus, promoting preservation of Canada’s “wilderness heritage,” as if we were a blank slate of bushland ready for the taking before mister James Cook got here. Funny thing, but even in a forestry building, not one plaque referenced histories of industrial logging, which have negatively impacted ecosystems, climate, and the Indigenous peoples who have called and continue to call these forests home.

This tree was tricky. Fancy yet deceptive.

Being so massive, the tree was also ancient, and this was indicated on the display with dates and brief descriptions of what were presumed to be notable historical events, aligned with the rings of the tree (reminder: dendrochronology). All of the plaques – wait for it – featured feats by white, European men. Oh, except for Joan of Arc, who was dead as this Douglas fir much before her time. So, of course, the plaques featured the first man on the moon and military victories such as the First Crusade. (What the designers missed, however, was the irony of including Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press on a tree. Yeah.)

While this display sounds absurd, every day, hundreds of students, staff, and faculty – in a university (and country and society) (supposedly) dedicated to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action - repeatedly and inattentively pass by this tree as we proceed to classes and research projects pertaining to conservation, resource management, and environmental sciences (we do! we have places to go! papers to write! I’m serious.). As we pass, this magnificent display and its colonial story turns banal; even the tree’s warning, “Do not touch this display!” appears superfluous in the tree’s disregard by passersby.

After all, isn’t this what most of our plaques look like? Isn’t this the story of our museums? Of our national parks? So routine, the story on the Douglas fir becomes hidden in plain sight – disappears, you might say – part of the normal way of doing things around here. Hm.

This blog post is dedicated to Mary Pinkoski, who shared my indignation over the Tree Cookie, along with a few months of scheming, organizing, stickering, and researching it.

NOTE: Since last fall, the plaques on the Tree Cookie have either been covered or removed, as the faculty is aware of the display’s problematic nature and are eager to redesign in a way that more accurately features current research.


the skirts. or, when running is a feminist issue.

Carrie Karsgaard

Hey, it’s the Skirts – looking good, girls!

I acknowledged the comment unthinkingly, with a wave and tired smile over my shoulder at our new friends on the trail.

By Day Two of the 2015 Gore-tex Transalpine run, being A Skirt was already old news for my teammate, Rene, and I. Out of the blocks, on a particularly rough and toasty climb, some local hikers looked us up and down in our fluorescent salmon skirts and other matching get-up. A German competitor translated their chuckling comments as they stepped aside for us to pass: well, they're not the fastest, but they sure are the prettiest. 

After that, we were off (as it were) to the races. Hikers stopped us during the race to take our photos as we curtseyed, men’s teams encouraged us to run ahead so they could follow (if you catch my drift), and other racers greeted us as The Skirts from Canada while they fell in with us for bits of each stage. Nathan (my husband) and (his teammate) Dan sidled up alongside us when they could, enjoying how their male competitors stepped aside chivalrously for us – a mini-skirted women’s team – allowing our boys to ride our petticoats and pass more easily than otherwise.

Among those who didn’t have good sight lines to my name on my race bib, I became A Skirt instead of Carrie – a new name for a new landscape, for eight days of running from Germany to Italy. We were one of 30-some women’s teams in a race with nearly 250 teams – and our skirts, common back home but a novelty in the European landscape of white spandex, announced our presence on every stage: The Skirts are here!

Do you hear me?

A Skirt. A Skirt.

The boys following in line at TAR 2015.

The boys following in line at TAR 2015.

Back home, skirt or no skirt, I’m back to being Carrie. Whether at our training clinic or in a group of friends, I settle into a conga line of grubby runners where I’m just another body on the trail. Nobody cares what I wear – and there is neither celebration of my ability as a female runner nor condescension towards me as a girl. I have been elbowed competitively by Kevin and by Alana, held up by my shorts when I'm tired and picked off the ground when I've fallen, chased up a hill and offered an extra fig newton, been pushed and supported by all manner of runners in our group.

When I asked some of my homegirls how they felt being – well – skirts in Kelowna’s running community, they nearly all answered: I never think about it. I just feel like a person when I run – not a girl

That being said, none of us have signed up for a running group for skirts, where participants are motivated to train by promises of glittering necklaces, congratulatory hugs from firemen, pink headbands, and universal sisterhood. We’ve chosen to run in a mixed group that trains according to fitness and ability, not by gender. Now and again, a guy joins the group who takes a week or two to realize (with more than a few huffs and puffs) that the girls run with the boys in this scene – that we all run together – but for the most part, they tend to come around.

Which is maybe why, in the Alps, I didn’t mind so much being A Skirt. While the responses to our flouncy mint gelato or blue accordion numbers may have been the stuff of pop culture (fueled, at least to some extent, by our predilection for dancing - however nervously - in start lines), Rene and I felt nothing less than solid respect and recognition from our fellow runners. As we swung from Marilyn Monroe-ing for tourists to churning through cow shit as fast as fast can be, so did the guys around us abandon masculine posturing for - well - skirtier behaviors. At one finish line, a new friend cried as we slouched together in reclining chairs, thankful for the encouragement that buoyed him through a tough stage. Another day, along a technical, rocky ridge, a flatlander from the Netherlands shared his fear of heights with us (literally: Carrie, I'm scared). We ran chunks of stages with men's teams, mixed teams and women's teams, bumping beers at finish lines with the runners who shared our race bubble - our pace bubble - throughout our journey.

As at home, we felt strong  - perhaps doubly strong - both as female runners and as simply runners - gender set aside for the online stats of women's rankings and taken off the trails, where we could simply run.

Skirt scrambles on McCrae near Revelstoke.  

Skirt scrambles on McCrae near Revelstoke.  

trail names against humanity; or, what Kelowna's trail names have to do with reconciliation

Carrie Karsgaard

I’m no mountain biker, but trail names appeal to the blend of English teacher and dirt bag in me. Too slow on the draw to create puns myself, I can’t help but nod appreciatively at Jabbarocky, Tumbelina and Berm Donor (bonus points to the first two for also being literary allusions – BAM!). As for my dirt bag side, I’ve taken photos at the Dusty Beaver, discussed whether Moose Knuckle should be renamed Camel Toe, and imagined an entire back story to Brian’s Worm (think: Brian’s ex built the trail and left a warning for all who may be eyeing Brian up as a future partner).

I certainly don’t head out on MTB trails expecting the peaceful, natural names of hiking trails – the rockwalls and ridges and rims. Instead, I get a chuckle or two at the trail signs and concern myself with making adequate airplane sounds (or racecar – it’s open to interpretation) while banking corners by foot. Follow it up with a pint of Backhand of God and a dirt tan, and I’ll sleep easy.

So it’s been a bit of a thing for me that I haven’t slept so well since hitting some local MTB trails a couple of weeks ago. A few of us were running through the Gillard trail system, where we could have been skipping down technical downhill trails with names like Roller Coaster or Drops-a-Lot. Instead, using a combination of trail signs and the Trailforks app, we found ourselves on Squaw Hollow.

Surprised by the name, I casually raised it with my group and got a boys-will-be-boys-esque response along the lines of – well, you know mountain bikers. Which I do. (In fact, I’m hoping to one day trade my spandex roadie shorts for baggy ones – as soon as I can get over the implications of trail names like Knuckle Duster and Skull Coaster). But this shrug-off seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me. I get that we need our spaces to loosen up and crack jokes at Brian’s worm – and trails are one of the best places for that – but come on now. Squaw Hollow?

A quick culture lesson for the folks who think the word “squaw” is no big deal – or at worst, is a titch politically incorrect. Kind of like the N-word (some folks dub it the S-word), it carries a special zing as it refers exclusively to women (think slut here, not superwoman or survivor). A derogatory term, it’s tied to the casual, insidious and all-too-familiar discriminatory attitudes towards Indigenous women and – let’s be honest here – to serious forms of sexual violence, along with Canada’s shockingly high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tack on the word hollow, as the trail name does, and the whole thing takes on an ominous tone.

A nasty name indeed – but perhaps I’m being too sensitive here? MTB trails are basically a deck of Cards Against Humanity, anyway – have another beer, and they become funny. Shall I return to my Backhand of God and just stick to Kerplop next time I’m in Gillard?


See, the trick is that it’s not just a nasty trail name. Let me elaborate. This nasty name (nastier than Brian’s emasculation - sorry, Brian), like all the other names of the trails, is stuck on a piece of crown land – land I (as a syrah-drinking trail runner) might see as a fine chunk of Okanagan recreation and wine country but that has never (in fact) been handed over to said crown by the Syilx people who know it like the backs of their hands. Who know it because they have inhabited it, lived from it, and traversed it for millennia (before mountain biking was a twinkle in anyone’s eye). So, by naming our trails in any way that ignores this, much less in such a way as to overtly degrade, demean, and dehumanize, we lay one more crust over this fact. A crust that means we continue to forget that this land isn’t ours to name (which could be what we want – is it?).

People across Canada are starting to recognize the name game and are peeling off this crust by renaming everything from mountains in Banff to Toronto city streets, re-minding us that Indigenous people are here now, and many of us are living and working and mountain biking and trail running and Backhand-of-God-drinking as guests on Indigenous land. I’m not always a bandwagoner – but there’s a movement here that I think we Kelowna folks could learn from.

Some of us, I’m sure, think it would be a big waste of time and taxpayer money to put the effort into renaming, especially considering how solidly we’re attached to our trails. With every trail (and its name) comes a memory – whether it be of a wipeout or a great rip. We’ve watched the landscape change as we’ve ridden through the seasons – as the mud dries up and the larches turn – and we might feel that by changing the trail names, we will lose our connection to the trails we call home.

(Funny thing – the names were changed and the land shifted hands a long time ago, in ways that sought to remove Indigenous people’s even deeper connection to their spaces, their lands, their homes.)

So often, unless something matters to us personally, we shrug and move on. Even right now – as I struggle to write – I notice the sun starting to come out, and I feel like closing my computer, downing the dregs of my mocha, keeping the crust where it is, and heading out for a trail run in Gillard, where – if I keep my eyes on the technical terrain and wicked MTB features – I can miss the Squaw Hollow sign entirely, or brush it off again. Damn, it’s a good day for a fall run. I think the larches are turning.


Because you know what? We are in a perfect place to change the name of Squaw Hollow and have a big chat about the significance of names in the Okanagan.

We have a hard-working (and downhill-ripping) local crowd of folks at MTBco who maintain the currently “illegal” Gillard system. They are pursuing Section 57 status, where MTBco will gain the right not to own the land, but the authority to construct, rehabilitate and maintain the trail network. They already know (they’ve expressed to me directly) that new trail names are a must, from Squaw Hollow to the straight-up sexist trail names (look them up – they also have to change – for overlapping but slightly different reasons). So why not do it right? Let’s really think about how we do our naming. And make Gillard a well-maintained trail system that our whole community may be proud of.

To be honest, I thought about doing some renaming myself (I’m pretty sure there’s a hammer and some scrap wood in my garage). But despite my English teacher roots, I don’t have the pun-skills to do the trails justice ( – Berm Donor! How do people think of these things?). Pretty sure I’m not the best person for the job.

Instead, perhaps Gillard provides an opportunity to bring our community together, where people like me may get to know our Indigenous neighbors better and listen to what they have to say about matters like this. Where, instead of naming our trails in a way that continues to erase (or worse: discriminate against) our neighbors, we find ways into meaningful relationships as we build our trails together.

So. Let’s talk.

Can we do this?