My chapbook of poetry – The Bathymetry of Lax Kwaxl – is being launched, quite literally, into the Bulkley River this coming weekend – the day before Mother’s Day by chance. We are going to fold the poems into boats and send them down on their way to Prince Rupert. As we made plans for the launch I remembered this piece I wrote many years ago to honour my mother, who still lives beside the beach where we gather to swim – she’s coming up to 92 years old. “On Folding a Rowboat” was published in a Prince Rupert anthology called North Coast Collected (thanks to Jean Rysstad for choosing it) in the early 1990s.
I sat at my kitchen table laboriously folding an origami rowboat. I had bought a book demonstrating the nautical equivalent of the art of folding paper airplanes. Ostensibly for my children, the book was really for me. I love following the instructions, figuring out the folds and angles, producing a perfectly engineered ship from a leftover scrap of paper.
I needed an excuse, however. A Mother’s Day present lay waiting to be wrapped, and I decided to decorate it with paper boats. So, naturally, I started thinking about water, my mother, and – inevitably – swimming.
I was a child and the sea was home to my body. Its salt supported me as I thrashed my way to buoyancy; it cleansed my scrapes and cuts; it washed illness away. My mom never took us to the beach and said, “Now, don’t get wet.” Yes, I have seen this, have heard parents tell their children they can’t go swimming because they have a cold. Or it wasn’t warm enough.
Why were they there, I wondered, if not to swim? To torment their children? I was an adult before I understood that people go to the beach for reasons other than swimming.
My family firmly believed that swimming in the ocean, even in cool water, was a tonic; refreshing and curative. It would certainly never cause any harm.
Perhaps I should clarify here that it was my mom’s family, weaned on North Sea beaches, that made the summer evening trips down the terraced streets of Powell River to the beach. Since we lived farthest away, my mom would begin the walk with just the three of us kids in tow. On the way down towards the water we would pick up Granny, and sometimes Grandpa, and then join our aunt and her three children at the beach just below her house. But the sons-in-law, men who worked outside on log booms summer and winter, day shift and night shift, were intent on keeping their bodies out of the salt chuck; it would take more than a warm, idle summer evening to re-route those neural paths.
Unnecessary modesty was scorned on these outings. We changed behind boulders or the massive roots of beached cedars, struggling to pull clothes over damp salty skin before a shielding towel fell or was blown away. My grandfather would change beneath a towel even at the most public beach on a Saturday afternoon. One summer, while his wife was back in Scotland, my mom had to force him to buy a new bathing suit; his old one was so full of holes it was no longer decent. In his late seventies at that time, thin, wrinkled, and almost blind, he appeared the next day in brilliant blue satin trunks, their cut clearly intended for young hunks. It was, I think, his last bathing suit.
As I grew and was exposed to a wider array of summer social activities, I was astonished to discover that many people didn’t like to swim at all, and of those who did, most preferred lakes. As wealth grew, swimming pools.
As for myself, I have never trusted fresh water. Not even swimming pools. The sight of small children toddling along the slippery tiles, a stumble away from eight or ten unforgiving feet of bleached water, makes me cringe. What will happen if I leave before their sundazed parents wake up? Or if the lifeguard is distracted by a teenage commotion?
But watching children play beside the ocean is as comforting as seeing them curled up, dozing in the sun against salty women’s skin.
The beach at the bottom of Third Avenue where we used to swim was protected and benign. I could not fall in off the edge; at high tide there were no sudden drops, just enough slope so the water got comfortably deep before I was too far away from my mom for reassurance. The ocean could not carry me off because each wave pushed me back to shore. Its secrets were revealed at every tide’s ebb, its furtive crabs and limp slippery weeds, its smooth stones and gravel washed twice daily, as orderly as my own ablutions.
There were no rip tides, no undercurrents, just waves, logs to ride and dive from, and buoyant salt cradling young bodies. It seemed to me the only people the ocean claimed were those foolish enough to go too far from shore, and then what could you expect? Storms, too much drink, holes in boats, these killed people. Not swimming.
Because we live so far from the ocean now, and my need for immersion is so strong, my children learned to swim in lakes. But growing comfortable with lakes has taken me years. There were oceans for swimming and puddles for puddling. On the clearest calmest day the ocean never reflected anything but fractured light. Lakes, being fresh water, were closer, in my family’s pantheon, to puddles. Not entirely clean and reflecting a different kind of light. A child peering in, wonders how deep is this puddle, are my rubber boots tall enough or will the water rise to slip over the rims? Then seeing the whole sky waiting in that calm reflection, the depth unimaginable, the child teeters terrified at the edge while feeling that pull down, down into the sky.
Haslam Lake, one of the lakes of my childhood, was like that. Still, limpid water reflected trees that crept right up and hung over its edges.
As for unclean, well, it’s not really fair to call Haslam Lake dirty – it supplied much of the town with wonderful drinking water. But when I was younger and still afraid of lakes, its squishy bottom, sludged stones, and logs dead beneath the accumulation of eons sent a ripple of distaste up my spine. Like cold, greasy cutlery at the bottom of a sink full of forgotten dishwater.
To avoid the ooze, we’d swim at a gravelly patch of shoreline resembling the seashore at high tide. And here the lake revealed its true nature; it was a cheap trick, a watery imitation lacking substance and buoyancy. Floating took effort; concentration wavered into floundering panic. All confidence in my fledgling dog paddle dissolved in flailing, sputtering indignity. Because of this, I disliked lakes. As well as muddy, tangled with weeds, hiding leeches of legendary awfulness, they were mean-spirited and dangerous.
Sometimes my mom took us to Haslam Lake fishing – not often, but once or twice. We’d rent a rowboat from a man with goats – the only person who lived on the lake. He must have lived there for years, before people worried about water supplies and had referendums on fluoridation. We rented the rowboat for forty cents an hour, $1 for two and a half hour’s fishing. Plenty of time.
I don’t remember anyone catching fish. Mom would tell one of us to be ready to take her line if the fisheries officers came by, but I never saw a fisheries officer deal with anything as insignificant as fresh water until I moved here to the Bulkley Valley, where salmon and those elusive steelhead battle their way beyond the tides, past the jealousy and treachery of fishermen and sloughing riverbanks.
The road to Haslam Lake was gravel and darkened by overhanging alder and salmonberry bushes. Above this impenetrable barrier the cedar and hemlock pressed in. Other roads led off to marshy Duck Lake and beyond to the preserves of more serious outdoorsmen. But the road to Haslam Lake curved left past the filtration dam, past the goat farm. It wasn’t a real farm, just a shack on a strip of land between the lake and the road, a strip of stumps and logs strewn across bright mossy grass cropped close by the goats. The goats would assume crazy perches on the stumps and run nimbly through the debris as we drove down to the dock of silvered boards.
When we were a little older, we’d ride our bikes up to Haslam Lake to fish or swim on our own. Later still, equipped with driver’s licenses, we’d drive up there in our robin’s egg blue 1960 Vauxhall station wagon with forty (“count them!” we’d laugh) horsepower. It was our first car. My mom and all of us kids learned to drive in it.
Braver now, we’d follow a narrow path to swim back beneath a rocky bluff. This was the place where Neil Mackenzie dove and broke his neck like in a gruesome summer safety film strip. Or was it his back? But he lived and walked and married and has children – I never did understand about broken necks and backs – I always thought it was instant death or paralysis, and yet there are people alive and seemingly well…
We measured our nerve, our maturity, against swimming holes. Powell Lake was a step up. It was a home fit for all the monsters of a child’s imagining. Swollen by a dam and spotted with deadheads, it was deep, prehistorically deep. Some claimed that there was salt water trapped at the bottom beneath layers and layers of unmoving lake water. And I remember hearing there were spots where they couldn’t find the bottom at all. I would imagine skillful, serious men out there in a rowboat, paying out mile after tedious mile of thin line, taut and heavy as it was pulled down into the sky reflected in the lakecalm surface.
Let’s face it. Lakes are creepy.
But they’re amateur freshwater villains compared to silent, sliding rivers. My children play beside and fish in the Bulkley River, one that has claimed many lives on its sweep to Prince Rupert. There are countless stories of fishermen slipping off its treacherous rocks; a mother’s nightmares lurk beneath the mercury sheen of its water.
There is a story of a woman parking on the river bank across the road from a pay phone. Leaving her sleeping two-year-old in the back seat to make a short call, she returned minutes later to find his footprints on the other side of the car, leading to the edge of the ice.
They never found him.
I remember reading another story of a man, helpless, watching his young son slip off a bridge into a river just east of here. He, too, was lost.
I know these sound like stories invented by nervous mothers to frighten children into obedience. But they were reported in the local paper; they are not parents’ imagined terrors. No imaginings can outdo what really happens.
So I clutch my children’s hands as we stand and peer off bridges and cliffs into the river to see spawning salmon. And, as they grow older, I try to swallow my fear and recreate the same waterside peace my mom gave to me. One spring day I had to walk away as their father stood with them on a bridge throwing stones into the creek far below – walk away with my hands shoved deep into pockets to keep from grabbing them, pulling them from the edge.
You see, lakes are bad enough, but I’ve had no practice with real rivers, no practice at all. Powell River, the town, has no seriously moving water. There were only two bridges I can recall, both over rivers dammed to produce hydroelectricity for the pulp and paper mill. One spanned the memory of Powell River itself, swallowed between the dam above the mill and the brooding lake. The other crossed the shrivelled remnants of Eagle River on the south end of the forty miles of highway between Lund and the ferry out of town, the boundaries of our restlessness. Eagle River drained a chain of lakes filled with ghostly trees, erect and dead in the water.
Below the dam, what remained of the river trickled through swimming holes joined by waterfalls, surrounded by cliffs. This is where we came when hormones sent us jangling down the highway on summer afternoons. By then we were crammed into a friend’s Volkswagen, listening to Paul McCartney’s “Lalalalalalalovely Linda.”
It was upstream in this same river, in a frigid pool, in the tumble of huge debris just below the dam, that we proved our sophistication by swimming naked. Perhaps swimming is overstating it. The leap from rocks to water lasted longer than the panicked scramble to reach shore and huddle shivering under towels.
But behind these tame river adventures was the knowledge the warning horn could go off at any second signalling a release of water from the dam, turning the emasculated trickle into its true river self, a spectacle none of us had witnessed.
The fear was real. One time we climbed back through the bush to the dam itself and walked across. No hand railings shielded us from the bulk of water it restrained, from the terror of the long concrete sweep to the sharp jumble of boulder far below. So we played with one ear alert for freshwater treachery.
I never did hear that horn, and I realize now there was little likelihood of ever hearing it in the dryness of summer. But who thought of such things then? The town faced the ocean and its water levels were as predictable as the moon. We had no knowledge of the ways of rivers.
So, the familiar ocean was where we went for safety, to hide from adults, light fires, talk, drink and swim in the warm black summer phosphorescence. The beach was a path you could walk without fear of ever getting lost.
Every family has its rituals for reassurance. In ours, getting dunked is matter of ceremony and virtue. There are clear rules, procedures. If one toe goes in the water, the rest of the body must follow. Or rather, if you get your bathing suit on and go down to the beach, you have to get wet, even if you don’t stay in.
I do my best to maintain this tradition, and make a point of swimming wherever I can. I have swum in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, the Aegean and the Andaman, the Gulf of Mexico and the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay and the Adriatic, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian, the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Malaspina, the Gulf of California and the Yucatan Canal, Hecate Strait and Desolation Sound. Overcoming my freshwater prejudices, I have swum in Lakes Ontario, Huron, and Superior, though I’m afraid of the polluted soup of Lake Erie. (If its water had been salt, however, I may well have held my nose and swam.) I have shrieked and shivered in countless glacial streams and lakes. I have even swum in back eddies of the Bulkley River, though I cannot bear to watch my family fish at its edge.
I have a friend who shares this desire to swim in every body of water that presents itself. We used to have our most intense conversations treading water out beyond the reach of our children splashing on the shore. But they too are getting old enough to swim out and join us in talk, comfortable even in fresh water.
When we go to visit my mom, who now lives right at the ocean’s edge, I laugh as my children make disgusted faces at the taste of salt; I laugh as they delight in its generous buoyancy, push heavy logs free with the help of the encroaching tide and ride them on the wonderful warm (well, once you get used to it!) southeasterly waves.
All of us go in with my mom, in the evening before dinner. It is ridiculous, this virtue we make of swimming. But we still stand, exhilarated and salty, shaking our heads in astonishment at the fact that although there are dozens of houses along the choice waterfront, the beach is empty. And later, my mom, still in her bathing suit, stands dripping on a towel in the kitchen, mashing the potatoes that boiled while we swam. For a moment, the quiet clutch of fear that underscores all the pleasures of spawning children relaxes in the aftermath of ritual in my mom’s house beside the ocean.
This is a beautiful piece of writing, Sheila. I wish I could be in Smithers to watch the poetry boats launch! What a wonderful idea. Congratulations!