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Travel: Looking for Happy Hans in Kimberley

Mascot for Kootenay town too busy enjoying himself to act as spokesman



If you want to talk about Kimberley, you'd think Happy Hans would make a good spokesman. As mascot for this quaint town of about 7,000 souls nestled between the Purcell Mountains and the Rockies in southern B.C., Happy Hans is to Kimberley what Quatchi, Miga and Sumi are to the Olympics. Kind of.

But there's a lot going on in Kimberley in the winter, so you're going to have to track down the elusive mascot first. Like most Kootenay residents on a nice February day, he's probably outside playing in the snow.

You might try to arrange a meeting with Happy Hans under the giant cuckoo clock in the platzl . Yes, THAT cuckoo clock, the largest one of its kind in North America. And, yes, THAT platzl , the Bavarian-themed pedestrian-only plaza in the middle of town, that would make Hansel and Gretel feel right at home.

You might want to ask him: "What's with all the gingerbread-kitsch?" Happy Hans would be happy to tell you that it wasn't always like this. Kimberley used to be home to the world's largest lead and zinc mine. It was the economic engine for the area for almost a century. In 1971, a group of downtown retailers were worried about the imminent mine closure and felt Kimberley needed a "hook" to attract visitors. They decided to create a Bavarian theme and the town centre was redesigned to look like a German village to increase tourism.

While tourism is an important part of Kimberley's economy today, you'd be hard-pressed to call it a boomtown. Kimberley is the kind of mountain resort where you can still find a single family home in the low $200,000 range, you can bring your dog into the hardware store and many days you can still enjoy fresh tracks on the ski hill at noon.

Pierre Garsonnin, owner of The Bean Tree, a local coffee shop/art gallery, says "There's something about Kimberley. It's a different kind of place." He explains that a lot of people expected that with the ski hill, the international airport in nearby Cranbrook and its proximity to a major centre - Calgary is only a four-hour drive away - the town would "take off." But that never happened and, for many locals, therein lies Kimberley's charm.

"People who live here love it," says Garsonnin. "It's fantastic." It's the kind of town where "Whatever it is, if something's going on, everyone wants to be involved."

Happy Hans would be a great one to talk about town spirit, community involvement and all the activities the area offers, but don't bother trying to catch up with him on a Friday. That's when he harnesses himself into a skijoring belt, clicks on his skinny skis and zips along the golf course trails behind his dogs in a thrilling combination of skate-skiing, dogsledding and water-skiing. He's training for the skijor competition at the upcoming Bootleg Gap dogsled races, Feb. 20-21. Last year's inaugural event thrust Kimberley onto the map in the Western Canadian Dogsled race circuit. The Bootleg Gap race features six-dog, six-mile races, four-dog, four-mile races, a two-dog, four-mile skijoring race, a two-dog, two-mile junior race, plus a nail-biter of a kid-and-mutt event. Last year's competition attracted 2,500 spectators on the first day alone - all out to cheer for 49 competitors racing 69 teams of excited purebred and mixed-breed huskies. There was a waiting list of people who wanted to volunteer and $17,500 was raised for charity. The popularity of last year's event inspired many locals to see what their dogs could do; today it's not uncommon to see Kimberley residents dogsledding or skijoring with their labs, border collies and retrievers on the wide, groomed golf course trails.