by Ann M. Colford

Ah, it's early summer in Nelson, B.C., and the weather is sunny and warm. Area golf courses beckon, and Kootenay Lake sparkles in the shadow of the surrounding Selkirk Mountains. Recreational opportunities abound in this valley, but not all of them involve the great outdoors. For the first week of July every year, visitors travel to bucolic and beautiful Nelson to spend several hours each day indoors at the local ice rink participating in the annual Midsummer Bonspiel, or curling tournament. There are other summer curling events across Canada and the northern U.S., but the Nelson event is the oldest and the biggest, says Bob Fortin, the Bonspiel's volunteer coordinator.

"At this point, we have approximately 70 teams coming in, but the registration is still open," Fortin says of this year's event, which is the 57th annual summer competition sponsored by the Nelson Curling Club. Teams come mostly from British Columbia and Alberta, but some travel from more far-flung places, says Fortin. "We have three teams coming in from Switzerland this year, and one of those teams came in second in the world."

A curling tournament is called a bonspiel for reasons that seem to be lost in the mists of time. At first glance, the word appears to be a combination of the French word "bon" (meaning good) and the German word "spiel" (meaning time). Although no one knows exactly where the word came from, curlers like Fortin all agree on its meaning.

"Oh, it means good time," he says without hesitation. "My wife and I looked that up not long ago."

Curling is played on a long, narrow ice surface with a circular target area or "house" at the far end. Two teams of four players each take turns directing large polished granite stones down the length of the ice, aiming for the center of the house, under the direction of the skip, or team leader. As the stone glides along the ice, two team members sweep the ice ahead of the stone, to help the stone move smoothly. The highest score goes to the team that gets closest to the center of the circle.

"Curling is like a combination of chess and shuffleboard," Fortin explains. "Strategy is very important. You can make your shots, but if you don't know what the other guy is going to do, you're not going to win."

The origins of curling are murky, but most theories point to Scotland as the sport's birthplace. Curling stones dating back to the 1500s have been found in Scottish archaeological sites, and the sport is mentioned in civic and religious documents from around that period onward. Curling made its way to Canada with Scottish immigrants, and the first curling club in North America was founded in 1807 in Montreal. Later in the 1800s, as the railroads brought European settlement to western Canada, the settlers brought curling with them.

Although curling has not reached the popularity of hockey, Canada's national sport, some adherents argue that it places a close second. The sport is particularly popular in the western provinces. "Out in the prairies in winter, people don't have a lot to do, so they go down to the local curling club," says Fortin. There, he says, they find camaraderie, along with competition and social activity. "It's not as competitive as some sports, and there's more emphasis on fun and on the social part." There's also a lower level of physical exertion in curling than in hockey, so players can continue to participate well into their senior years. In fact, a Senior Bonspiel is taking place this week, just before the main event. "It really appeals to all ages," Fortin continues. "We have some people in their 70s who curl."

The Nelson Curling Club has been active for more than a century and now counts about 350 members, Fortin says. League play is a big part of the curling club experience, with leagues for men, women and mixed teams, in adult, junior and senior categories. In addition, the club regularly plays host to the provincial championships. More than 100 volunteers from the club pitch in to keep things running smoothly at the bonspiel, Fortin says, and even the winners don't walk away with extra cash in their pockets. In fact, only one person gets paid for working at the bonspiel -- the icemaker. "Without him, none of this would be possible," Fortin laughs. "It's about a two-week project to get the ice ready in the summer." Winners may not earn cash, but there are prizes for the top teams, including trophies, televisions and tickets for travel on Air Canada.

Fortin says spectators -- even those from south of the border who may know little about the sport -- are welcome at all curling events. "We had a lot of Americans in last year," he says. "They'd sit and watch and ask questions, and a member of the club would sit with them and explain what's going on." Festivities get under way at the curling club on Sunday, July 1, with a salmon barbecue for the participants and their guests. The wider community of Nelson will be celebrating Canada Day that same day, so events are planned all over town. The curling competition begins in the morning on Monday, July 2 and continues all week long. Semi-finals are planned for Friday, July 6, with the finals held on Saturday, July 7.

The Nelson Midsummer Bonspiel takes place in Nelson, B.C., July 1-7. Free

Call: (250) 352-5700.

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