A creek runs through it

Squatter’s Creek in June 2021

We’ve seen the harlequins and other ducks returning from their summer breeding grounds to the ocean in front of our house. When we lived in Smithers, we’d see them in the spring, the harlequins chugging up the turbulent melt waters of Driftwood Creek on their way to nest in the alpine meadows of the Babine Mountains.

Here in Powell River, the small creeks drain watersheds that begin and end within a short run to the ocean and don’t offer much that harlequins seem to need for breeding. But they do offer what many children need and love. Moving water to splash in, to fill their boots, to float their pea pod boats and dream of bigger voyages. 

Squatter’s Creek, the creek of my childhood, did that for dozens of kids, especially because for a few short years it ran across the southeast corner of the J.P. Dallos school playground. My mother, Betty Anderson/Peters/Berger, taught there from about 1956 until she moved to J.C. Hill (now the Music Academy). She likes to tell of a six-year-old named Victor being very pleased with himself when he produced two or three little fish for her after a recess fishing expedition.

My sister Susan and several of her classmates remember when their Grade One teacher, Mrs. Winegarden, had them write the word Can’t on little pieces of paper and troop down the steep bank to the creek to send the word downstream; they were encouraged to never use the word again.

Susan’s friend, Judy Thompson, wrote, “I certainly do remember the creek behind J.P. Dallos and we did play there on weekends as well as sometimes ‘illegally’ at school! The kids were always getting into trouble for playing at the creek and it did flow quite fast at times … it used to flow right past my Auntie Connie and Uncle Bob Lyons’ property on Westview Road. We just took all that for granted … I remember the water was quite clear …”

In those days, both branches ran clear.

 

This 1931 map shows the two branches of Squatter’s Creek joining above Joyce Avenue just east of Courtenay Street before crossing Duncan, Joyce, Westview and Marine, entering the ocean where the sea walk begins today.
Map courtesy of the Powell River Historical Museum and Archives
2013.63.5     
Westview  Light Power and Water Works District
01/10/1931

 

Stewart Alsgard remembers playing and swimming in it when he visited friends who lived beside it near Joyce and Courtenay. The Tom Pickles family moved onto seven acres of land above the creek just west of Duncan in the late 1940s. Tom Jr. hunted, fished and trapped in the bush around his home throughout his childhood. He remembers crossing one of the bridges (likely over Joyce) when he was coming home from visiting his friend Glen Husband down on Westview Avenue (see Boxwood Gardens below). After dark, he said, he’d run like crazy because there were deep shadows under that bridge and he imagined trolls living there. He also told of the time he and his friends decided to create a swimming hole on the creek above his house. They built a dam that included stakes, logs and sandbags. When he caught wind of it, Tom Sr. made them tear it apart – it was holding back quite a bit of water and could have flooded the houses down below if it broke.

By the time we moved to Quebec Avenue (1957) some of the creek had been piped under Duncan and Joyce; we had to go through Pickles’ property to get to it. My brother remembers walking there as a five or six-year-old, having been given a hatchet to protect his mother and a friend from bears. Later, I’d follow him to balance on logs and peer into their shadows in search of trout. Slow, silent movement was essential to not spook the fish.

The creek was supposedly named after “squatter” William Joyce, whose property it ran through. Joyce was, however, no squatter. According to his granddaughter Mary Carlson (nee Douglas), who came to live with him in 1931, Joyce was a pioneer of the Westview area. He had forty acres of land, which he had bought for $10 an acre. It was waterfront property; its width was defined by Duncan and Fairmont Streets.

My grandfather had 200 fruit trees, five or six hives of honey and a large garden on his property. He also kept chickens. A log house (situated on the spot where J.P. Dallos School stands today) was the main building; he later added on a complete house to provide extra space.

Squatter’s Creek ran through the property. WJ built a dam and a waterwheel on the creek; this fed through pipes to our house and others on Fourth (Duncan) and Fifth (Egmont) Streets. He charged 25 cents a month for those who wished to have piped water.

In the 1920’s and 30’s he laid out his 40 acre property into lots. He sold the water front lot for $250 for a location for the oil tanks [Andy Culos’s Esso tanks were just above the south harbour]. He sold other lots for $100.

Of course there was very little money around during the Depression years when the mill was working two weeks on and two weeks off, so he sold the lots at $5 down, and $5 a month until the $100 was paid off.

He gave approximately two acres of land for a school. The second Westview school was built on the school site, where the Municipal Hall is located today.

(From Rusty Nails & Ration Books: Great Depression & WWII Memories 1929-1945 by Barbara Ann Lambert; Trafford, 2002, pp 151 – 152.)

By 1950, instead of being a valuable resource, the creek was an impediment. When it came to building a new school, a central point in Westview was deemed the best area. A solution seemed apparent when a major portion of Joyce Farm was purchased by Powell River Municipality for parkland. The Powell River Co. Ltd. then generously provided a huge waterpipe to divert the creek which flowed through the farmland. The area was cleared, and fill was used to level the area. With completion of these renovations the remaining ideal school site was purchased by the Board, and construction [of J.P. Dallos, now École Côte-du-soleil] began. (From Powell River & District Schools: 1898-1983, collected by Alice Cluff p. 30.)

The remaining creek wasn’t fenced off and still tempted the kids to infractions through the 1950s.

Landfills

As far as I can tell, it was during the late fifties and early sixties that the creek became a convenient site for a series of landfills. I’m not sure in what order they happened. When I asked members of the Facebook page “You Know You Grew Up In Powell River” about their memories of Squatter’s Creek, Greg Coomber wrote, “they put the dump behind J.P. Dallos school and later behind Max Cameron School. Above the dump there are fish still to this day but below it is a yucky mess from all of the leaching. I used to fish in our back yard to get trout for dinner ’til they polluted it.”

Greg’s sister, Jody Coomber Turner wrote, “I remember trout when I was little, but also remember taking a jar of water from there to science class at Brooks years later. Mr. Ramsay’s class. Everyone had to bring a sample in so we could see what developed in the water. After a week, I was told I had to take mine away! It was full of long, skinny, segmented worms! That’s when there was long brown gunk flowing off the rocks in the stream! Yuck!”

Ed Dunn told about “falling in the creek behind J.P. Dallos when we use to play there. I remember when they were filling in the field with garbage, and we would grab the old 78 rpm records and use them as Frisbees.”

Bob Dice has more detailed memories:

At J.P. Dallos School in my Grade 1 (1958), the south west corner of the property was forested with trails – at recess the boys would run into the trails in a game of chase and tag – I once caught my friend, the very fast but small Bobby Rentmeister, who must have known Judo because in an instant he had me flipped over his back and on the ground. Other kids of my grade – Harvey Coomber, Wayne Rourke, Murray McNeil, John Straathof, Herb Peters. On the school’s south east corner – where the baseball field is now located – were dozens of mounds of dirt that were trucked in and dumped on otherwise level ground (maybe for the purpose of preload compacting the land which was possibly over top a garbage landfill for a future playing field?). The game the young boys played on the mounds was a very physical ‘defend the hill’ – several boys would race to be the first on top of the hill and the other boys tried to capture it. Lots of rolling and tumbling – a fabulous game that was ruined when the mounds were levelled a year or two later.

Clifford Lang wrote a letter to the editor Dec. 4, 2013 headlined, “Memories of Squatter’s Creek.”

I lived on Redonda Avenue in 1972, and always walked through to Duncan Street  to Speed and Stan Toyota. I remember the smell of rotten garbage behind Adams Concrete and across Duncan where the old city bus garage was built. When Speed and Stan Toyota shop was there, there were holes drilled in the back through the concrete to let the methane gas escape. I was there getting my car fixed when that was happening.

I know Max Cameron Secondary School was built on a floating slab because of the landfill. The soccer field was always leaching methane and was wet and sloshy. It was never a good field. As a long-time resident of Powell River, I  remember a lot about that area and played soccer on the Max Cameron field.

The 2004 map below shows those landfills as outlined blocks (filled in with +++). The buried sections of the creek are indicated by double lines through those blocks. The yellow blocks of type are my inserts. You can follow the north branch down through the Boswell Street block; the rest of the buried section continues through the Franklin block, across Duncan below the dog park, across Joyce and down past what used to be J.P. Dallos. I vaguely remember rummaging through the dump, but can’t remember exactly where it was. I don’t remember when they began filling in the north branch, turning it into the infamous Boswell Street dump. By 1966 we had moved to stay with my grandmother while my parents built our current home.

By 1967, complaints about rats, smoke, seagulls and smell from the Boswell dump were a major source of concern for the town, as the minutes below indicate:

January 3, 1967 Sanitary Land Fill. Mr. A. Graff, the spokesman for a large group of residents in the area of Boswell Street, expressed dissatisfaction on the present method of sanitary land fill. He pointed out that the residents in this area were suffering many hardships as a result of seagulls feeding on the garbage and depositing droppings on the houses, cars, clothes, etc. Dogs and cats were also congregating at the dump and feeding on raw garbage. Rats were also noticeably present in the surrounding area. After each member of the delegation was given sufficient time to ask questions, Reeve Pike expressed the opinion of Council. He pointed out that the Municipality had recently purchased property in the area of the previous sanitary land fill and, just as soon possible, the Municipality would enter onto the new property and the present dumping area would be abandoned. After the municipality have moved to the new area, the property owners in the area adjacent to Boswell Street will be consulted regarding damage that may have occurred during the time the land fill was located in the Boswell Street area.

The new area was, I think, not far downstream:

Reeve S. A. D. Pike stated that a property owner had volunteered the use of a gully on his property on Duncan Street for use as a sanitary land fill site. The Municipal Engineer was instructed to approach this gentleman and have this offer officially confirmed in writing.

Subsequently, the offer was accepted:

Letter from Mr. C. F. Cheshire regarding sanitary landfill on his property. Moved by Councillor J. Court seconded by Councillor R. J. Tucker that an agreement be drawn up between the Municipality and Mr. Cheshire regarding sanitary landfill on Mr. Cheshire’s property. Carried.

Cheshire’s property was near Franklin Street where it crosses Duncan. But I haven’t figured out exactly when the different sites were in use. Bob Dice remembers his friend Murray MacNeil, who owned a pellet gun: When we were ten to twelve (1964 est) he invited me on an interesting rat shooting party at the landfill at the end of Franklin Street. Murray scored a couple of kills.

The Squatter’s Creek landfills have come back to haunt the city. Gino Francescutti, an engineer with the municipality for many years, confirmed Clifford Lang’s story about Speed and Stan’s. They noticed when they dropped tires from the storage spot in the rafters, the floor bounced along with the tires. Drilling down, they found high levels of methane; the fire department was brought in to seal it off. It had to close down because of dangerous landfill gas emissions getting into the building through cracks in the cement. But when people were ready to sue the town, Francescutti went down to the old archives in the basement of Dwight Hall and found a report from Mac Campbell, Powell River’s first municipal engineer. The method he proposed (clear the bank of the chosen ravine; dump in the garbage, burn it, repeat) was state of the art garbage disposal for the times. When Campbell submitted the plan to his professional organization, he received accolades. So lawsuits were off the table.

But those plans have left several sections of city land unusable without major reclamation costs and continue to cause difficulties.

Bob Dice kindly shared much of his father’s archives about the creek. It included this 1995 article from the Powell River News.

It still goes on. This from Bob Dice: Around 2015 a sink hole developed on the J.P. Dallos grounds near Egmont and Joyce property corner– the sink hole was cordoned off – Herb Gawley and my dad assumed that the Squatter’s Creek culvert was leaking.

There isn’t much of Squatter’s Creek left above ground, as the map below illustrates.

The blue lines are the daylighted portions of Squatter’s Creek; the underground sections are traced in green; our old branch entered just where the upper daylighted section goes into the storm sewer. (Westview Watershed Drainage Master Drainage Plan, 2007: Drainage Overview Figure 3-1.)

Today, the creek above Joyce and below Joyce are entirely different watercourses.

Upstream

The western branch, which once drained swampy land east of Alberni Street, now drains the runoff from the various parking lots of the Town Centre Mall, Hotel, and apartments. The daylighted section of creek just downstream collects water from those parking lots, mixes in a little spring water from further up Barnett and runs along just above Joyce until it enters another storm sewer behind the Salvation Army. That water is pretty clean and still supports a small trout population with attendant raccoons and blue heron.

Last spring my brother and I went to check it out. On our first trip, we entered from behind City Transfer’s back lot. The edge of the bush had all the hallmarks of such places in the middle of towns everywhere. An abandoned grocery cart, a bulldozed pile of old lumber, a few plastic bags.

But once we passed through the transition, trails appeared.

We both tried to feel our way into it, to remember the feeling the forest gave us, but it didn’t happen. The creek is buried, and the distance created by the lives we’ve each lived in those fifty years have, at least for me, erased all but a very few sensory memories.We followed the trails over to where the upper section of the daylighted Squatter’s Creek curves around the edges of parking lots and backyards near Barnett. We found one tent near a grassy opening.

The bush was tidier than expected – we’d heard people partied in there but there was very little garbage. A few days later we went back in to try to further trace the creek’s passage, entering right behind an apartment block on Joyce and met Michael Gelber, one of the reasons there’s very little garbage. He lives at the top end of the bush on Redonda and walks it pretty much daily with his dog, Arena. When we met him, he’d just moved a cracked safe out of the creek – likely a stolen one that had been carried out of sight before being broken open.

He took us up the creek, pointing out the culverts that spout out of the parking lots, and along the top end where water seems to seep out of the ground. He explained the different plans people had made for the mixture of private property and town lots: apartment blocks, a new firehall, and the bike jumps, well-used before the bike park was built beside the rec complex. And yes, there used to be a homeless encampment in there before the qathet Supportive Housing building was opened at Joyce and Harvie.

A few days later, Herb and I went back in with our gumboots, ready to trace the creek down to its lower culvert. It was both enchanting and disheartening. The creek made some nice sweeping curves with sandy banks and we found racoon and heron tracks, the heron tracks supporting the claims there are fish in there (we looked, but didn’t see any).

But as the creek turned to run along behind the houses on Joyce, it was a tangled mess. Blackberry vines, rotten bridges, garbage, old fences, some falling apart. But there are still signs of children playing there, even a kind of zunga.

And then it disappears into a culvert behind the Salvation Army.

We followed a muddy path up into what seemed an industrial wasteland of abandoned equipment, chain-link fences, and cracked pavement at the end of Franklin Street, much of it part of the old MacIntosh & Norman site. A few offices tucked into corners of what looked like vacant buildings. A spooky apocalyptic film set in the middle of town.

But those initial impressions are wrong. We took some friends through there last week and ran once again into Michael Gelber and Arena. He talked about how wonderful it had been in the summer to see kids playing in the creek. We wandered through the MacIntosh & Norman site and met up with Jordan Arnold, who owns it now. He is, he says, slowly cleaning it up. His mother lives on the other side of the creek and he built a new bridge across so he can pop over to see her. Sometimes pausing to let the bears that enjoy this refuge pass first.

Downstream

Downstream, Squatter’s Creek emerges from the storm sewer just below Scotia Place into the same ravine my sister scrambled down with her little piece of paper. It’s the storm sewer that collects the water flowing under the old landfills and is no longer clean. Ironically, it is this stretch of creek that is much more picturesque. Just before it crosses under Westview Road, it passes through Diana Woods’ lovely Boxwood Cottages and Gardens. Our son and daughter-in-law stayed there when they got married three years ago; it’s a wedding photographer’s dream.

Diana showed me around her place last spring.

Boxwood Gardens in April

The April flowers were in full bloom, blossoms falling from the big flowering cherry tree, birds singing. The gardens flower year round, she said: the camellia blooms in November, December and January and the daphne comes into flower in February. After that comes the riot of spring. And the creek sound is everywhere.

The gardens are a work in progress, as all great gardens are. Gorgeously placed shrubs, stone walls, fences and flower beds don’t hide the implements used to make them, a gas can for the mower, shovels, a rake. Diana likes to use the things she’s grown. Cedars planted years ago are now the posts used to build a small bridge over the creek with a path up to a meditation building. Bamboo canes cleared from overzealous spreading have been used to make a beautiful deer fence around her vegetable garden.

Diana in her vegetable garden.

Her house was built by Glen Husband’s (Tom Pickle’s friend) parents in 1932. Diana moved nearby in the early eighties and became friends with Mrs. Husband. “I had a good feeling about her.”

But it was the creek that drew her to purchase the property from the family in the mid-eighties. She tried to cut a path through the mass of blackberries and alders down to the creek but had to bring in a backhoe and excavator. She worked with the operator – he’d dig and she’d haul out the enormous blackberry roots. “I’m not afraid of machinery – I studied landscape at UC Davis in California,” she said. They had to build terraces down to the creek so they could get out all the garbage including a bed frame and car doors.

She loves the sound of the water, but Squatter’s Creek is not without its challenges. She had the water tested by a friend who said the water has a thousand times the amount of iron that’s safe. The sand beside the creek and the water itself often runs red. The smell is sometimes bad. When she contacted the Ministry of the Environment, she was told it would eventually clean itself out. To dilute the concentration, Francescutti told me, the town actually re-routed some of the contaminated water underground and diverted some cleaner storm sewer drainage into the current creek bed.

Just before the creek crosses Marine to plummet down under the seawalk and into the ocean, another home has incorporated the creek into its garden with a small bridge crossing.

When it finally enters Malaspina Strait the creek creates brackish pools much favoured by preening gulls, ducks, ravens and crows.

I realize I’ve been trying to give this creek heroic proportions. It isn’t like Driftwood Creek, the creek I used to live beside, with its dozen bridges, mining claims, farms, salmon, dippers, harlequins, frozen pathways for skis, home to fossils, berries, creek walking.

As Tom Pickles said when he and his wife Shannon walked through the bush there with us, it is pretty small.

My brother, Herb (left) and Tom.

But it’s got such possibilities. Perhaps development on the upstream part will incorporate the park-like qualities of the trees, the sweep and slide of the creek itself, or will make a small linear park for people in the neighbourhood. Perhaps one day the iron and methane leaching out of the old dump sites will be done and the lower creek can run clear again. There are many pieces of bush throughout town, some have been there as long as I can remember. Neighbourhood kids and wildlife make paths through them and find shelter there. The millennial trails have two fine little creeks running through them. But this stretch of woods right in the middle of Westview, with its tiny creek, feels like something worth cleaning up, worth hanging onto.

Further comments:

My sister shared some more memories after reading the post:

Right next to where the Moran’s lived in the little house below us, there was an area with lots of scrub and small trees and I remember I used to go and sit under the canopy of alder leaves and branches beside what must have been the remnants of an old beaver dam. There was a little bit of a stream bed or pond bed … about 4 feet long … in the land and although no water was moving or visible most of the year runoff water would collect in it in the fall. It felt like a magic place to me. I always felt very safe there and the moist air made me feel so good.

It may have been   a water way that ran into Squatter’s Creek which would have been directly below it behind the old bus depot.

I can not remember if it disappeared when they cleared the Max Cameron field area or when they built the house next to Moran’s place when I was in my early teens.

John Mee also added a beautiful word image – thanks John.

We lived on the corner of 5th [Egmont]and Michigan before J.P. Dallos school was built, so Squatter’s Creek was a very big part of our everyday activities. I remember the three bridges in our area, the one on Duncan Street which remained standing long after Duncan Street culvert was put in and the new road was complete. The second bride was located on Joyce just south of 5th Street , the third bridge was located on Old Westview Road in front of Bob Lyons family home. Fish were abundant and trees were filled with birds and squirrels, yes even flying squirrels and large red-headed [pileated] woodpeckers. It boggles the mind how city officials would come up with an idea to fill this beautiful stream with garbage.

8 thoughts on “A creek runs through it

  1. It was great when we lived by the Creek when our children were small
    Sheila ~ Now I’m visiting my son son Luc and his wife and their 3 year old daughter Nyima on Vancouver Island ~ 🙂

  2. I used too catch lovely trout in that stream growing up … sometimes my cousin and I would dam up it so we could wade in it … was great till the land fill … great memories. Glen. Johnson. Used to live on 7th street name changed to Gerard.

  3. very enjoyable read with lots of great memories. I grew up on Manitoba Street between 12 and 13th streets. My dad smoked in those days and would sometimes run out. He would give me $.45 cents to ride my bike up to Fairweather’s store to buy him another pack, as well as a couple jaw breakers. Best part was stopping by the creek to see who was there. Can’t remember names but no matter.it was a point of interest.

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