Kurt Van Ember slices some ham for Cathy Hamel as guests dressed in gaudy attire help themselves to the Yuletide dinner with all the fixings. (Sage Birchwater photos - Williams Lake Tribune)

Season’s Greetings: Historic Chilcotin Lodge hosts Ugly Sweater contest

Owners Brenda, Kurt and Kris Van Ember hosted an Ugly Sweater contest and Yuletide dinner on Nov. 23


Special to the Tribune

A hearty meal and a night out in one of the Cariboo Chilcotin’s great establishments is an excellent way to celebrate the holiday season or any other special occasion for that matter.

Brenda, Kurt and Kris Van Ember, owners of The Historic Chilcotin Lodge at Riske Creek, wanted an early start to Christmas this year, so they hosted an Ugly Sweater contest and Yuletide dinner on Nov. 23. It was an extravagant affair, complete with all the trimmings.

To be honest I had no clue what an “Ugly Sweater” contest even was when I accepted the assignment to cover the event for Williams Lake Tribune’s Christmas supplement.

I found an old poncho that lives on the back of our couch for my contest entry, and my companion Caterina donned an old hand-knit Peruvian sweater crafted in the Andes. It was somewhat ragged and required a small repair to the top button. As we set out Caterina confirmed that my poncho looked downright ugly.

Once we arrived at our destination we learned that “ugly sweater” in the context of Christmas has a very specific meaning. It’s all about the bling. The most esteemed attire is measured by its gaudiness and splashy wild colours. Some sweaters even sport blinking lights.

It’s about emphasizing the glitz of the festive season, our hosts explained to us.

Caterina and I decided to go for the full meal deal option, which meant spending the night and getting treated to a scrumptious breakfast in the morning. We didn’t relish the idea of trying to navigate the 50 km back to Williams Lake dodging deer in the dark.

So Kris Van Ember showed us to our room on the second floor of the lodge that turns 80 years old next year. It’s one of the last grand buildings remaining in the Chilcotin.

More guests arrived and Brenda showed us to our table. Soon there were two dozen of us including a spray of young children filling the cozy dining room.

The joy of a gathering like this is the opportunity to get to know people more personally. Joining us at our table were Randy and Linda Isfeld. I have known Randy for decades in his former role as Williams Lake fire chief, but we only knew each other superficially.

Conversation revealed that Randy and I both hale from the same hometown of Victoria and are both about the same age. Randy told us he pursued a career in retail and was managing Fields Store in Williams Lake when he discovered his passion to become a firefighter.

Linda said she is a member of a local writers group and enjoys exploring interesting places around the region. She belongs to an informal walkers club known as the Wanderers. Bike trails screaming off Fox Mountain are some of the interesting places they navigate.

On the comical side, Randy and Kurt Van Ember were both wearing identical “ugly sweaters”. While this might cause awkwardness in some circles, they quickly saw the humour. The sweater front sports a caricature of a reindeer head, while the back portrays a reindeer’s hind end depositing a pile of deer droppings. It takes a bit of figuring because the droppings more resemble a helping of Dairy Queen ice-cream. But the concept is definitely ugly.

Randy said he’s had his “ugly sweater” for several years. That being said, the deer pooper sweaters didn’t make it to the winners’ circle.

We were all issued name tags and that’s always handy in a room of strangers. That also allowed us to identify our pick for the People’s Choice award, and gave us the incentive to meet and greet people and give their attire a scrutinizing once-over.

The call for appies sent us scurrying to the far end of the lodge where delectable morsels awaited us. A warning from a fellow guest to keep room for the main course went right over my head. Like a goat prone to foundering, I went back for seconds.

Conversation around the dining room drifted into accounts of the 2017 wildfires. Not surprising since Riske Creek was one of the hot spots in the province that year and there were many stories to tell.

The Van Embers had just bought the lodge when the wildfires hit. It’s like they received a baptism by fire into the community. It gave them the opportunity to see firsthand how a rural community like Riske Creek pulls together in a calamity. Very quickly Kurt and Kris became part of the action.

Read more: New Chilcotin Lodge owners find themselves in the thick of it

At the table next to us the Jasper Family told harrowing tale after harrowing tale of staring down a wall of flame. The fire claimed the home of Pat Jasper while he was helping save the home of other family members and neighbours. There was nothing they could do to prevent the loss.

Kurt Van Ember said the lodge was directly in the path of the raging inferno three different times. It approached from three different directions, he said. For reasons unexplainable the maelstrom stopped abruptly each time before reaching the lodge.

Did I mention the Christmas dinner? It was divine. I should have heeded the warning to go easy with the appies.

Brenda masterminded the whole thing in the lodge kitchen. She says she loves to cook and entertain. Of course her whole crew pitched in, including Kris’s girlfriend Olivia Huber from Austria and her mom, Christina.

Once again guests retreated to the back room where the entrees were laid out smorgasbord style. Kurt carving the ham, added to my already overflowing plate. The danger of foundering was no longer a question.

While we were eating Brenda announced she got a call from Lisa Hamel, the daughter of guests Rick and Cathy Hamel. She said Lisa offered to pay for her parents’ meal because it was Rick’s 70th birthday. Of course we broke into song wishing him many more. Cathy quipped later that she didn’t mind getting old because it was one less day you have to die young.

It was while we were indulging in the lodge’s signature cinnamon bun dessert that the Ugly Sweater winners were announced. For us it was easy as three-year-old Quinn McClure had the glitziest, lights-flashing sweater, accented by her infectious smile. She was declared the people’s choice winner.

Brenda announced two other winners chosen by the lodge staff. Jazmyn Lyons from Williams Lake and Leland Jasper from Riske Creek were invited into the winners’ circle.

We were all winners really in that lighthearted yet robust celebration of the Christmas season.

We had a restful night on our comfortable bed once my over-stuffed tummy got around to forgiving me.

Did I mention the breakfast?

Brenda worked her magic there as well.

Eggs cooked to perfection, ham, toast and coffee. And of course a Harvest apple cinnamon bun. Caterina and I managed to share one and brought the other one home. The Van Embers started a new tradition during the tourist season by opening the lodge for lunch four days a week, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday to Sunday from June to September. They market this as the Tea House Bakery Café. A poster board on the highway identifies when the tea house is open.

The lodge is actually open for meals and lodging seven days a week throughout the year on a reservation basis. It’s a good vantage place to explore the grasslands, Farwell Canyon and Junction Sheep Range Provincial Park.

The Van Embers credit the cooler, wetter summer for lack of wildfires in 2019 and the restitution of the Bella Coola to Port Hardy ferry for giving the lodge its most successful season yet.

The facility will be closed in January and February 2020 for renovations as the Van Embers continue their efforts to make the historic lodge into a comfortable year-round destination.

“We’ll be installing an outdoor boiler heating system and heated floors,” Kurt says.

To learn more about The Historic Chilcotin Lodge or to make reservations check out their website www.thehistoricchilcotinlodge.com or find them on instagram or facebook. Phone 250-659-5646 or e-mail: chilcotinlodge@gmail.com.


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Virginia Solomon holds Conor McClure while Santana Johnny and Quinn McClure get ready for the fun to begin.

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