Folks who live in seaside towns are very fond of driftwood. Driving along coastal roads you see artful root clusters displaying house numbers. Flowerbeds are bordered by curving logs, fences constructed from salt-weathered timbers. It inspires us to rearrange our small domestic landscapes to display its surprising shapes, to fill its cavities with garden ornaments or tiny succulents. In a small way, it illustrates our desire to bring the wild, the feral into our domestic spaces.
In his wonderful book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deacon’s chapter on driftwood begins with a climb up the stairs to Margaret Mellis’s studio in Southwold, one of the most easterly English communities on the North Sea coast. Towards the end of her long career, she began to create objects out of driftwood. Deacon writes:
Everyone in Southwold used to bring the driftwood harvest of their beach walks to Margaret’s doorstep, leaving it in the front garden for her. The best of it would find its way upstairs to the studio, where Margaret separated the painted from the natural wood, the former bleached and muted by the sun, the latter chamfered, flayed or shattered by the sea.
Deacon, who also wrote Waterlog, an actual log of his year of wild swimming in Britain, comments on the relationship between Mellis, the water and the wood:
As a sea creature herself, in that she was a regular swimmer, Margaret Mellis felt a natural affinity with driftwood. She took part in its life and knew what it was to float in the tidal currents off the Suffolk coast. Over time, water imparts an abstract quality to wood by sculpting away its inessential, softer parts, emphasizing the sinews of grain until the knots stand out like inset pebbles. Driftwood maps the movement of water around it in its own grain.
The forces that bring it to our shores are often equated with violence and rage. The same power could be said to embody the great eureka moments of love, joy, understanding – likely why we are so invigorated by standing at the shore, sucking in that turbulent air, filling our blood with its chaotic energy.
Deacon compares how important driftwood is to the ocean’s ecology to the pivotal role fallen trees play in the life of the forest. Their structures provide shelter for small animals and birds, their decay provides nutrients for all kinds of creatures. Sea and shore birds love it, ride on it, flip over the smaller bits in search of food. In the sea, small clams like the Teredo navalis or shipworm and crustaceans like the gribble worm break down the wood. Their chewing produces sawdust which adds nutrients to the ocean environment. Far from shore, small fish will congregate around driftwood because the microbes and worms it harbours provide food and shade. In turn, the small fish attract larger ones to feed on them.
Even a tree, which we think of as a fixed point, rooted as anything can be to a single place on Earth, can be imagined into a drifting nomad, nibbled by fish, wandering the oceans, ending up anywhere from Southwold to a remote beach on Hokkaido.
Or on a qathet* beach. Remote by some standards, I guess. The larger pieces that get lodged into the edge of the terrestrial world, often, in fact, protect it from the battering winds and tides. They provide very handy back rests, something to sit on or duck behind when changing out of a wet bathing suit. Children run, balancing, along their lengths, jumping from one to the next in a kind of beach parkour. I remember riding logs as a child when the warm southeasterly summer winds stirred up the water and set them afloat.
In her final years, driftwood gave Margaret Mellis a whole new way of working. It connected her to the physical place she lived and to its people. It also gave that community a way to show respect and appreciation by contributing to her work.
Whether we travel the world, or settle, wedged into a refuge of sand and blackberry vines, we are like driftwood thrown loose in the spring freshet, the rush of laughter and sorrow that make up our lives. We are everything we’ve experienced, and even as we diminish, shrink and fail, we’re returning all that we’ve been back to the world around us. We’re returning home.
*qathet is a name given to the regional district (formerly Powell River) by the Tla’amen people. It mean working together. Many regional organizations have adopted this name.
We’ve had a couple of good blows in the last few weeks along with high tides – 17.7 feet here at Grief Point, which is as high as we’ve seen it. Luckily they didn’t coincide. The wind and the tides. Still, everything has shifted. Hundreds if not thousands of logs moved northwest up Malaspina Strait over the past month. Sometimes whole trees, root clusters and branches taking the shape of mysterious vessels. Sometimes a seagull riding.
Walking our usual stretch of beach is like opening the pages of a new book – pages shining with unexpected images, mysterious conjunctions, peculiar stories. Twisted plots expose deep roots, once hidden. Massive logs block stone stairways. Oyster catchers mine the seaweed, tumbled into heaps along the tide line. The peculiar kale plants that grow in the gravel are freshly salted. Still growing.
Driftwood. Having lived for over forty years on a road named Driftwood beside a creek with the same name has focused my attention on the stories those jumbled piles contain: the seed that germinated, the soil that received it, the sunlight it processed into stems and leaves and bark, the years it witnessed, the creatures that climbed it, rested and nested in its branches, the music the wind played in its foliage. There, in Driftwood Canyon, it all originated within the few miles between the creek’s alpine beginnings and our home.
Here, beside the ocean, the whole coast sends driftwood our way. Some trees ripped out by wind, erosion or machinery. Straight cuts on the huge ones tell another tale. Men and chainsaws. Trucks on precipitous roads. The big boom logs, holes at either end to tether the others. The ones that escaped. Then there’s the lumber – wood that could have travelled the world before it arrived here. A boat torn apart in a storm, construction garbage tipped down a bank, a summer cabin bulldozed onto the beach. Decorative fences, seashore patios for viewing the sunset, washed away. The bottom step of a stairway suddenly a chasm.
Children build forts with it all.
For each scrap of wood, there was, somewhere, sometime, a tree. That one in the forest everyone questions. Whether or not we heard it fall, that scrap of cedar or Douglas fir contains hundreds of years of stories. The composting berries birds deposited in its canopy. Globe-travelling rain dripping nutrients through the lichens dangling from high branches. Traces from the salmon carcass a grizzly brought inland to share with its cubs. Calcium from the shells seagulls dropped. Everything on the forest floor adds its own note to the song the tree sings. A pile of grouse feathers flung from the owl’s roost. A mouse skeleton under an alder leaf. Someone’s old leather glove decomposing under the moss. A forgotten sandwich. A dog, lost.
Its stories are like the ones languishing in folders in my desk. Some abandoned under a tangle of blackberry vines. Others unfinished. Just resting for a few days, weeks or months until the wind and water, stirring my imagination, set them free again.
After the big wind and tides, the sand is packed hard for pleasant walking and the beach is a library made new. Old favorites, brought out and dusted, seen in a new light. New arrivals, waiting for our imaginations to open them up and make their stories part of our own.
Suddenly, sunrise. Light streaking across the water, a moment of colour and then the silver of mercury. All these shrinking days, the light angling lower and lower, the water turning and turning under the sky as if alive with creatures stretching their bodies toward the light. A living layer of sinuous and sensuous curves catching the brief brightnesses under winter clouds.
Trying to make sense of it, to see the patterns, takes a lifetime. They mark the trajectory of the planet itself, rolling under the great rising and falling wave of the tides. The tug of the sun and moon. The currents. The wind. Often right here, creating a hullabaloo in the downpipes, on the water.
Occasionally distant winds set waves down the fetch to come ashore, noisy where the flags hang limp. The turn of the point itself, an obstacle with submerged diversions, creates eddies and refractions.
Sometimes a layer of water moves across the ripples, a smooth, flattened line tracing some invisible trajectory, some invisible desire, some secret momentum. A stream crossing the currents that pull the strait in its customary path.
And then there’s a moment when it all stops. The water and the shore sit side by side in the great theatre we inhabit, one as calm as the other, unruffled. And you look through to pebbles as clear under the water as they are under your feet. A sea lion rises, rolls over and slips back under. A harlequin tucks it head and dives, a neat little plop. Ripples. All light, marvelous light and the shadows it creates. Movement and silence.
When I arrived in Smithers in 1977 to begin work at the Interior News, one of my tasks was to report on council meetings. Among the colourful cast of characters sitting around the table was a low-key man named Harry Kruisselbrink. Always prepared with impeccable research and clear thinking, his quiet voice cut through the bluster and impatience of larger and more powerful men.
As well as welcoming a new reporter to the community, Harry also welcomed me and my soon-to-be husband into his and Audrey’s home. I remember watching Lynn’s forehead break out in hives after he put too much oelek sambal on his nasi goreng, the Indonesian dish Audrey made for us. Oelek sambal is still a staple in our house. Audrey also gave me good advice about transplanting seedlings, and I think about her every time I pour water over the roots of a tomato plant or petunia before piling on the dirt. Harry took photographs of our family over the years, as he did for many others, and on many a New Year’s Eve we sat at their table to enjoy olie bollen, watching the children grow, the grandchildren arrive.
Harry’s partnership with Joe L’Orsa began a long connection between the locals and those of us newcomers who wanted to protect what we all valued about the Bulkley Valley. Lynn had coffee almost every morning with Harry during the years he worked at Interior Stationery and the Telkwa Foundation and we worked together on many environmental campaigns to save the Bulkley from Alcan’s plans to re-route upstream rivers, to protect the Babine Mountains, to stop Telkwa’s coal deposits from being exploited.
His keen interest in history got him to conscript Lynn to write the seminal history Smithers,From Swamp to Village to celebrate the town’s sixtieth anniversary. Harry provided many of the photographs.
Harry also played a pivotal role in my fledgling forays into writing. My first published short story featured a young man delivering telegrams, a job that gave him a window into the secret life of a small town in the fifties. I tried to create a sense of Smithers back then, how the railway and the telegraph lines it carried were at its centre. Harry’s willingness to share his own work experiences grounded that story and taught me much about place and connection, how apparently unrelated events draw people together or set them apart in ways we might never imagine.
The collection of short stories in which “Delivery” was published illustrated the environmental link further. Efforts to slow down logging in important habitat resulted in a visit from a Montana economist; he talked about how small towns were often torn apart by resource extraction projects that come and go, leaving the locals Tending the Remnant Damage. Harry took the cover photograph.
Research for more stories led to many conversations in Harry’s office in the old CN station (now Trackside Cantina) surrounded by the walls of batteries, wires and flashing lights used to run the CNCP telecommunications network he helped maintain. One of the central characters in Shafted, a mystery published in 2014, combined Harry’s love of the outdoors, his environmental ethics and that deep rootedness in the town with his past as a telegraph delivery boy.
I need to say that the characters in my stories are nothing like Harry, but his willingness to share his own past gave me a great gift to build upon. Harry never seemed to worry about people thinking he might have been thinking my characters’ thoughts. In fact, he seemed tickled by his contribution.
Over the years Harry continued as a friend and a strong voice – always willing to say what he believed with clear evidence for those beliefs. He brought that clear thinking and tolerance for disagreement to the last Creekstone Press project we worked on together. Shared Histories: Witsuwit’en-Settler Relations in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973feels like a bookend to Swamp to Village. Harry was part of a committee that worked with the author to present another kind of history by connecting Witsuwit’en stories to those of the town’s settlers. Harry’s memories of Smithers through his own long residence and his patience and understanding as we all struggled through a very difficult process was integral to the book’s completion. Plus he was the best damn proof-reader an editor could ever hope for.
It seemed especially fitting that the book’s author, Tyler McCreary, was the grandson of one of the councillors sharing the table with Harry back when I began reporting.
The people who love Harry and have benefited from his contributions come from all parts of the community. His example of how to live in a small town, how to bridge our differences, brings us all together. We will miss him terribly.
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.
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.
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.
Today, the creek above Joyce and below Joyce are entirely different watercourses.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1957, when I was three and a half, we moved into our new house* on Lakewood Avenue, now Quebec Avenue, in Powell River. (My mother still has the same phone number I memorized as a child, and it is once again mine.) Our street was a sandy lane, really, with bush on the top side. If you look closely at the photograph above, you can see the darkness of the big conifers beyond the alders. Huge trees – Douglas-fir, hemlock and western red-cedar – and luscious moss underfoot. It was, for us kids, paradise.
Flanked by the curving arms of that forest above our house, we could look through the big window above the kitchen table down toward the square kilometre of our whole world: the corner store (Fairweather’s), elementary school (J.P. Dallos), church (Westview United), our grandparents’ place (Omineca Avenue) and a quick scoot down past the bowling alley and the Westview Hotel to my aunt, uncle and cousins’ house right above the harbour. We didn’t own a car until 1960.
To the east, sand banks and the frog-filled drainage ditches beside the brand new Max Cameron High School playing field. The Super Valu grocery store, liquor store and drug store at what was then the town’s only shopping mall. Across Duncan Street to the west, the Pickles lived on seven acres of bush in a house with oil lamps, gravity-fed water, and a wood stove. They had a big vegetable garden and chickens. A creek ran through their property. With trout. We didn’t know it was called Squatter’s Creek. According to the BC Geographical Names office, the name was “Adopted 2 November 1950 on 92F as an established local name and as identified in the 1930 BC Gazetteer. Apparently referring to a man named Joyce, a squatter on this creek in what is now surveyed lot 5122.” (More on this in an upcoming post.)
We lived in the watershed of that creek. Flowering currants to pick in the spring and bring home to Mom. Red huckleberries on a bountiful bush growing out of a huge stump on Pickles’ property. Below them on Duncan Street, City Transfer (in its former location) where my brother and I would pull our wagon to cash in pop and beer bottles for two cents apiece. In the dimness of summer evenings we’d play in the musty smell of the empty wooden trailers lined up along loading deck. Below that, Goffin’s Lumber yard where we were told of the danger of stacked lumber falling and crushing unwary children.
Everything was in a fluid state and our games shifted with the shifting landscape. We spent what seemed like several months playing rocket ships, the control deck a massive root pan in a tangle of fallen logs, from which my brother had to pull out my blonde doll in her blue satin gown with his fishing rod. Was it clearing for Max Cameron, which was built about that time? Or making way for the dump, which appeared beside it? When our neighbours, the Kirks, cleared a couple of acres, the bracken ferns made fabulous spears. Badminton on our lawn. Apple, plum and pear trees. Sorrel seeds gathered to store in the make-believe pantry I hid in a sandy opening in a bank created by some other building project. Perfume made of steeped pine needles. Tadpoles lovingly housed in a tub set deep in the moss – and the damn things always disappeared just as they were getting interesting. I never observed the magic moment when their tails fell away and they were fully realized frogs. Duh. Trying to grow carrots in the sand beside our house. Afternoons spent leaping off the sandbanks, feet usually bare. Struggling to learn to ride a bike on our sandy road.
Sand was what our houses and our playgrounds were built on.
The day I woke from a dream (it must have been 1963) thinking nuclear war had begun and how could Mom be brushing her hair as usual, making the radio go all staticky? The siren at the city hall, just across from our school. The Comox air force base twenty short miles across the strait.
I rarely went into the bush alone. But I remember the creek, the way it twisted and turned, sandy bottom, logs forming shaded recesses for the trout my brother was so interested in and would sometimes bring home to eat. Bridges to balance on. We must have played on a stretch that was just a couple of hundred metres long – I don’t remember it ever emerging anywhere – but my brother says it did. Up by Fernwood and Duncan – pouring out of a culvert, collecting water from up near the airport. That tributary of the creek is gone – buried under another dump.
I don’t think we realized it was the same creek that flowed through the J.P. Dallos playground and along Westview Road to emerge at the ocean where the seawalk now begins. Forty years of living beside Driftwood Creek near Smithers taught me to look closely at the way water moves through the land. In writing this and subsequent posts, I hope to keep exploring this first watershed of my life, Squatter’s Creek, to find a way back into the community where I grew up. Watch this spot.
*My father began building a new house for our expanding family in 1952. When he contracted polio just before I was born in late 1953, the local credit union found a contractor, Noel Stickland, who was looking for a place to rent. They arranged for him to complete the house; he and his wife Kay lived in it until my father was able to return home almost four years later. They did a good job, my mom remembers. See Bravo!
In The Magnitude of All Things, one of the films featured in the Powell River Film Festival this year, director Jennifer Abbott draws a parallel between losing her sister to cancer and the losses brought about by climate change. She takes us to the melting Arctic, wildfires in Australia, the Amazon, the island nation of Kiribati, coral reefs, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion protests. She shows how we all grieve as beloved creatures disappear, as places we love are irrevocably altered. She introduces us to the people who bear witness to that loss and do what they can to stop it or at least slow it down.
Her parallel is apt. Faced with illness, some rage against the circumstances that brought it to them. Some fight for recovery, a cure. As the possibility of a cure wanes, people often despair. Flip that over and introduce hope. People can move from hope for a cure, to hope for more time, to hope for a sister’s hug, to hope for an easeful death.
In the environmental movement, we are always setting deadlines. We have x number of years to do a, b, or c before a species, an ecosystem, humanity itself is doomed. But with climate change, our hope can no longer be for a cure. It is already happening and will continue to happen. We can hope to reduce its effects, to slow it down – we can plan for what looks like is coming our way. Grieve, yes. Despair, no.
The way Abbott made her film thoughtful, beautiful, enlightening and moving is the kind of art that can engender such hope. Just as she grieves over the loss of her sister, the people she featured in her film are grieving. They are also taking action, as is she by making this film. As artists are doing all around the world.
I’ve been trying an antidote of Scottish novelist Ali Smith these days – her quartet of Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer spiral around Brexit, the mistreatment of refugees (how can there be, one of her characters thinks, people who actually raise money to send a ship out to the Mediterranean to STOP other ships from rescuing drowning people?), the terrible hatred and misogyny women face online, the way politicians lie, climate change. In the midst of any of her inimitable rants, the shell cracks open to reveal wonder and joy – when good people find each other and find ways to laugh, and, yes, to hope. She’s grand.
Ali Smith photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian
As I write this, I find myself leafing through Autumn looking for examples to illustrate points I’m trying to make. Rather than gathering data, I soon find myself wandering happily through the ways Daniel Gluck (my favourite character in the series) is present in the world, marveling at his wonderful relationship with the young Elisabeth even as he spends the entire book asleep. I stop at line after line and smile. There is goodness in the world, and wit, and humour, and love in spite of it all, in spite of every single terrible thing we do to each other. In the making of something like Autumn or something like The Magnitude of All Things, the artists make hope available to us. Not for a cure. There is no fixing us or the world. We are all broken. But if birds can adjust their songs so they can still find each other in the midst of urban chaos, then so can we. Just keep singing. Painting. Dancing. Writing …
Riding my bike along Marine Avenue in the mid-August heat, grateful for any breeze the ride can generate, I’m enchanted by the rich smell of ripening blackberries rising from the impenetrable thorns covering the steep slopes down to the beach. Crickets have begun chirping in the early evening and sunset is now around eight o’clock, the brilliant show shifting south as the month dwindles away.
This feeling of something racing to its finish is reflected in the garden, wilting even as the tomatoes ripen and the peppers turn colour. Deadheading nasturtiums becomes pointless – the ground is littered with their seed pods. It’s been so hot, the grass crunches under summer-toughened feet and even the fledgling crow jumps right into the bird bath. The occasional duck flies along the waterfront, returned from wherever it nested.
Contained within the sorrow of summer ending is the hopefulness the turn in the season traditionally brings. A sense of beginning again as children return to school in their new clothes on their new bodies, new backpacks full of fresh starts. Excitement, yes, and apprehension. For the teachers too.
After a couple of years of homeschooling, both our boys, Dan (L) and Mike, started elementary school together in 1987.
Septembers at what was then called Northwest Community College in Smithers saw me organizing activities to welcome new students, to make them feel comfortable and supported. Many were returning to school after years away. Many had lost work, lost partners, lost something that sent them to school, a strategy for overcoming that loss. And for some, their last school memory was of failure. So we worked hard to soothe that fear and, instead, celebrate their hope for a new beginning.
As we’ve all said a hundred times, this Covid 19 year is different. Uncertainty, fear and sometimes chaos. In late May, when wild roses bloomed along that same Marine Avenue bike ride, all the kids were at home with parents struggling to find a way to make both schooling and work continue. The older students Zoomed to develop creative graduation celebrations. It was also a time of hope and kindness.
Even if travel plans, weddings, and funerals were cancelled, we were flattening the curve. We had the summer to relax a little, to forget a little. A summer of building installations on the beach, of hiking shaded trails, of watching birds fledge. Of wearing masks to dish out ice cream to families desperate for an outing. Backyard gatherings, chairs suitably spaced. Those chairs moving closer together as the numbers continued to fall. All of us hoping that by fall, that season of new beginnings, we might have at least a semblance of a plan.
But it’s changed again. As the nastiness in the American presidential campaign heats up along with our own Covid 19 stats, our patience and kindness shrink. People rail against cars with out-of-province or American plates. We question the number of American boats sailing up the coast. We’re all tired of the daily decisions Covid 19 requires: masks or not, visits or not, travel or not, work, if it’s there.
But it’s especially tough for parents and their children facing a September of uncertainty. Some can manage keeping kids at home and safer. Others can’t. And for those teachers returning to the classroom, it’s the toughest of all. You know the kids need you, your own and those who will be returning to school.
Here is one strategy Perry Rath, an art teacher at Smithers Secondary School with three young children of his own, plans to use.
Got my selection of Back-to-School masks. I think they suit an art teacher, and will be part of my series of precautions to keep myself, my family, my community safe. I’m very wary and unconvinced of the BC govt’s plan for returning to the classroom, yet I also value my connections and support of youth, especially during this time. So I will adapt as needed … and hope and help for sensible approaches to prevail. There are many vulnerable people we need to think of. Baby Yoda Protect!
How can we help? As a grandmother, I echo the sentiments of Luanne Armstrong, a writer from the Kootenays.
As a grandparent, I am just as worried as the rest of the country about kids going back to school. But I have no “opinion” about it. I see my job as supporting my children and grandchildren in whatever way I can, in whatever decisions they make. But that is a very difficult place for me since I am far from a passive person and am used to thinking hard about educating myself about most things … but this such a tough decision for everyone, parents, children, teachers, I feel all I can do is be absolutely as kind and supportive as I can manage.
Yes, nightfall is coming earlier. But a few days ago it brought the most dazzling display – great flashes of lightning in the southern sky and phosphorescence in the water, sparks of fairy dust as we swam in the dark.
It takes time to sink into the layers of a place. After forty years, Smithers felt familiar, known. Work, new friends, love, kids born and raised, their friends, parties, fights, projects – all the ways small communities intersect. Gaps, of course. Lots of them. But unexpected paths still appearing, making the familiar, in some way, new.
I grew up here in Powell River where I live once again. From those first seventeen years, of course, there are memories. Many unreliable, I think, but strong. Riding my bike up to Haslam Lake, lighting fires in the bush above our house on Quebec Street, walking the ditch home from J.P. Dallas, losing a new contact lens in crammed hallways between classes at Brooks, looking down on the silent mill from the Wildwood Bluffs during a strike. After we moved to Grief Point, running home in the dark, the wind blowing through the tall grass, no street lights and few houses. Plus minuscule accretions from all the family visits over the years. Daniel at three months breaking a wine glass on his father’s forehead underneath my grandmother’s cherry tree. Michael at about six, agog at the dozens of presents the same grandmother received for her ninetieth birthday. Fourteen-year-old Daniel with golf clubs standing in front of the roses blooming again this May, twenty-five years later.
It’s like I’m standing on that foundation of memory, breathing in Powell River air. My feet are here and so is my head. But the layers of forty other years in another place surround me, their pressure against my body like a beloved child or dog leaning in for comfort, for reassurance. Pushing me just a little bit off kilter.
I look around trying to see where I’m standing now. Here.
What kind of place is this? Looking to love it like I love the hayfields and mountains around Driftwood Canyon. Looking to know it in the intimate way we watched the creek rise and fall and freeze in that narrowing of the canyon, the way the little hollow in the aspens held the warmth of the spring sun, that view across the grass into the jungle of cow parsnip, the hidden outcropping of spring onions.
At the bottom of Churchman’s Corner.
Powell River is a bit like Smithers in that much of what is loved are the landforms and waterways. We didn’t make the mountains, the river, the ocean, the gorgeous rocky bluffs. But both communities take tremendous pride in the beauty around them as if, perhaps, there’s something insightful about those of us who choose to live beside them.
The folks in Powell River love their beaches. And so, in the couple of kilometres along Marine Avenue south of Westview, families over the past seventy years built about a dozen stairways and paths to bring their families and friends safely down the steep embankment to the beach. Most of them are still intact, though some show signs of the forces the waves brings to shore.
Just north of Oliver at the south end of the seawalk. Gene is Eugene Hyrynk.
The side streets along Marine are named alphabetically from north to south. Before the seawalk was built in the early 2000s, the only way down the steep bank to the beach was on these paths and stairways.
Marcia (Grant) Hogg explained:
Between Massett and Lytton onto the seawalk.
There used to be a set of stairs/trail 1950s onwards between Lytton and Massett. If memory serves me correctly most of the “blocks” had their own trail to the beach which of course is back when the beach was a beach for families. Most of the dads kept up the trails and cleared paths to the sandbars. Every kid could read the tide chart.
My dad and others also built a set of stairs between Lytton and Massett which is long over grown. I grew up on Whalen Avenue (between Lytton and Massett). My folks built the house in 1958 and Mom sold it January 2017.
Just south of Massett.
Jennifer (Thompson) McNeil:
My dad, Ray Thompson, built and maintained the beach trail closest to Massett. We three daughters (Jennifer, Cindy and Cheryl) pretty much lived at that beach across the street from our home on Marine during our summer youth days. Miss my Dad.
Gosh – the summer smells of that trail were really something special – dried fir needles, blackberries, blooming wild roses, and salty beach all wrapped together. We practically lived at that beach every summer since I was a toddler.
Wayne Rourke, whose family moved next door to the Thompsons in 1968, said that back then, there were always kids down at the beach – lots of swimming, beach fires, even a raft out there.
There was also a diving rock, the town had planned to dynamite. Marcia Hogg remembers: My Mom fought the battle with city council early 1960s to save the diving rock between Lytton and Masset. They had gone as far as drilling the dynamite holes in it.
Marcia identified the far rock as the diving rock in this photo. On the top of the rock are the drill holes where the city was going to use dynamite to blow it up. They didn’t reckon on Cynthia Grant lol. I’m thinking very early 1960’s.
Other names that cropped up include Len Hocken, Alfred Cooper, Fred and Dorothy Dunlop, Doug McNair, with local businesses donating material. The one at the bottom of Nootka is steel and cement.
Tracy Timoshyk Bryson:
When I was young there was a trail down from where the road access is now north of Nootka. The stairs that are below Nootka that go to BIG Rock used to be a real challenge to climb back up after swimming. They have been replaced by Blake and Reg, big thanks!!
I grew up on Gordon Ave and am fortunate enough live here again. Went down that trail many times with Ward and company, the trail was known as suicide trail, for good reason, lol. Seems every block had a trail, Gordon Ave between Nootka and Oliver Street had a total of three, shows you how many families lived in the area between Joyce and Marine Avenue.
Just south of Penticton.
In the 40s, 50s and 60s, the stretch of Marine between Nootka and Churchman’s Corner had a series of trails, usually where there were children. We had one just south of Oliver, the Slades just off Penticton, Len Hocken built a wooden staircase just before the corner. If the trails weren’t maintained every year, the undergrowth grew so fast that it would disappear in a year or two.
Richard also talked about the trestle his family and Ken Bradley built. It rested, he said, on two large cedar logs. We rigged it up with pulleys to haul up wood which we harvested from logs washed up on the shore.
People are still making stairways. We found a new one between Penticton and Oliver. It has benches and a swing and a stone firepit. The shutdowns of schools and recreation facilities are bringing families back to the beach. Beach art is re-appearing and more people than ever are swimming in the ocean.
When we lived in Westview, we didn’t need a stairway to get to our family’s regular swimming spot at the foot of what was then Third Avenue. Just north of where my aunt and uncle lived, their house and beautiful weeping willows now gone, all buried under the ferry parking lot. So I don’t remember ever going down even one of those stairways along Marine. I do remember walking home to Grief Point from Max Cameron.
I had it in my head that going barefoot was a sign of spiritual intelligence – if you wear shoes the whole world is made of leather. I’d walk on the hot pavement to toughen them up and then along the beach home. But I don’t remember where I dropped down from Marine. I can’t see my feet. I can’t remember stairs. The last year of high school, I was the only kid left at home. Grief Point with only a few houses. So many memories gone. That’s why I walk these stairways now. Happy to trace the paths that carry memories for others, many of them folks I went to school with.
As if my feet are trying to find a way to a feeling like home.
This path at the bottom of Oliver is disappearing into the underbrush.
Thanks to the people who shared their stories and gave me permission to use them here.
Over twenty-five years ago, when we still lived in Smithers, I wrote this reflection on water. Just last week my husband and I rode our bikes up to Haslam Lake following the old road I used to bike when I was a kid. There we ran into David Holden, cleaning up the picnic site. My mom taught him in Grade One and he told us all about the sixty intervening years. Now that we’ve come to live with her, once more beside the ocean, it seems right to offer this up for Mother’s Day.
At Willingdon Beach last week.
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.
In this crazy Covid time, the beaches are a refuge, a place to express both our isolation and our connection.
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.
Thanks to Wayne Rourke and Bob Dice for their kind words … and reminding me why I write …