A Trip to Merritt: Rally Championships Wake Up a Sleepy Town


photography Alec Preissler & Andy Scheier

I’m standing in a snow-covered valley. The sky and surrounding hills are bright pink from the setting sun. My fingers are too numb to fiddle with the buttons of my video camera. I can only watch in fascination as the scene unfolds. My companion next to me wiggles his toes in a futile attempt to keep them warm.

A boy, who looked about ten-years-old, emerged in front of us, holding a sawblade.

For a moment, I wonder if I’m hallucinating. Before I headed to this place, I did three weeks of paperwork, so maybe my fatigue was messing with my sanity.

The wind whistles through the valley and up through my oversized coat. The cold pulls me out of whatever fantasy my frozen mind created. The display in front of me has not changed. The child is still there.

I’m not imagining anything—I even have a witness to corroborate my story.

This took place in Merritt, BC. Steel guitars and Angus steers. Lake trout that live up to fishermen’s stories about “the one that got away.” My destination.

For more than three decades, Merritt has hosted the annual Pacific Forest Rally—an event where purpose-built race cars speed around the muddy roads on the surrounding hillside. Each car would blast through the woods at speeds that would scare even the most boastful of the teenaged stunt drivers in my high school parking lot.

I came here to film a documentary about one of the racing teams. To set up this project, it meant suffering through long nights of producer’s work. Documentary filmmaking can be likened to Thanksgiving dinner—research, outreach, and paperwork are peeling the potatoes. Shooting is the pumpkin pie.

I was ready for that pie.

Alec, my classmate and best friend, accompanied me. I convinced him that his weekend was better spent operating a camera in the mountains with me than whatever sappy plans he had with his girlfriend. To get a head start, I sweet-talked our instructors into letting us out of class early. This was under the guise of practical education. After all, what better way to learn than by going out and doing it?

Alec and I did not prepare for the relentless onslaught of snow, ice, rain, and mud that awaited us. A gentle drizzle of precipitation soon led to snowflakes that skiers could write poetry about. The first shoot day had me in a panic over my camera equipment. We were getting soaked by rain, as well as covered in a layer of ice.

The cold snap was not in the forecast, and it affected everyone involved in the race. Very few cars were outfitted for the roads, which became as slick as a salesman of the month in a used car lot. Alec made sure to pack long johns, but I could see that he regretted not bringing a winter coat and appropriate footwear. Spirits were as low as the temperature.

The snowstorm was a punch in the gut. The documentary is the only thing that kept us going, and I had no backup plan. I talked up this side project for the entire time I was producing it. Everyone was cheering for us back home, so I was willing to do everything in my power to deliver. Alec and I retreated to our dingy hotel room. We had to discuss an attack plan for the final stage of the race.

“We can make it up to Spius and see the cars go by twice before the sun goes down,” I say to Alec, who was shivering. “We’d be able to get the last few shots we need.” Despite his wet feet, Alec nodded, and we piled into my car. He turned the floor heater on full blast as we set off.

Channelling my inner Beau Duke, I braved ten kilometres through the most treacherous road I have ever driven. Twelve inches of snow blanketed the route, where the pavement drooped sharply to the left. Alec was concerned throughout the drive, but he did a good job of hiding it. We eventually made it over the crest of the mountain, coming to a stop at the spectator’s parking.

We waited for the rally cars to tear past us. Only, after all that struggle—the death-defying drive and the threat of frostbitten toes—there were no cars. The snow was too much, even for the racers; they were delayed for more than four hours before they passed us.

Alec and I stand in the snow, surrounded by the pink glow over the horizon of the setting sun. The two of us watch intently at the spectacle before us.

Then we see the child, who is bundled up in winter gear except for his hands. Instead of mittens, he wears yellow leather gloves. In his gloved hand, he holds the ten-inch diameter chop saw blade. With the form of a little league baseball player, he hurls the rusty blade across the clearing like Satan’s frisbee.

Alec and I are dumbstruck. Out of all the risks I took for this project, I found myself relating to the sawblade slinger. Why do we put ourselves through these risks?

We do it because it’s fun.

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