Ghost trails

 

It’s that time of year again – the light longer in the canyon, the wind gusting in the spruce trees. Walking on our old snowshoe trail, its rounded track still intact while the snow has melted all around it, I remembered this poem I wrote many years ago now.  It was for a friend, Margaret Churchill (now Oversby) who was moving away from beside Driftwood Creek. I remembered it too when I was writing a yet unpublished novel – I called these remnant trails ghost trails, and so decided give the novel the same name. It’s out there now, looking for a home.

 

vapour trail

down on the snowbound creek
I see the tracks your skis left
already blurring

like the vapour trail we watched that day up high
our skis clattering on ice

it rose from behind the mountain
thrusting across the bitter sky                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       our faces lifted to winter blue
we watched in silence

the vapour trail
softened into a path
as fat and indolent as the wake of a summer boater

 it made you hot you said
let’s get moving

it was kind of you to include me in that let’s

I stooped to gather
wind-smoothed shells of ice
weathered like shards of glass tossed up by ancient waves

I snapped a fragile tether
and then another
and another

stored them carefully in a pocket
as if they would not melt

Driftwood Creek Bush Mills

Thanks to Lynn Shervill and Hans Tugnum for putting this piece of history together.

Today folks accessing the Babine Mountains via Driftwood Creek can be forgiven if they fail to notice the several log-hauling roads branching off the creek below Sunny Point. Alder thickets, devil’s club and wind falls have obliterated them. But 40 years ago, when my wife and I moved into Driftwood Canyon, they were obvious and each ended in a sawdust pile and a story of enterprise, hardship and, sometimes, tragedy.

Working up the creek from the winter parking lot (just above the third bridge crossing of the creek on Driftwood Road), there were a couple of mills on the bench above the true right side of the creek. One was owned by George Sharpe and Louis Wick and the other by Emil and Steve Mesich.

bush-mill-one-2The next mill, owned by Bill Hickmore, was located between the third and fourth bridges,  and there was another one, again to the north of the creek,  just above the fourth bridge.

We often roamed through these old sites, cutting firewood and wondering what life must have been like for the people who lived and worked here. Maybe not so bad, we thought, having once found a decaying piano at the site near the fourth bridge. It was at this same location we managed to bury a neighbour’s borrowed pickup to the axles at the edge of a sawdust pile, sawdust we wanted as mulch for our hand-watered garden.

bush-mill-2-2Smithers rancher Bill Morris had a mill just above Driftwood Creek on the Lyon Creek Trail, the remnants of which are still visible, and Onie Leighton ran mills part way up the Harvey Mountain Road, just past the fifth bridge, and at Sunny Point.

 

Between the end of World War Two and the mid to late 1950s there were almost a dozen bush mills along the creek, each cutting from 2,000 to 10,000 board feet of lumber a day.

According to Hans Tugnum, whose family emigrated from Switzerland to the Bulkley Valley in 1936, there could be six sawmills operating along the creek at any given time, employing 40 to 50 people.  A typical mill crew consisted of one or two fallers, a skidder using horses or a cat, a sawyer, a slab packer, who disposed of the outside cuts in a fire pit, a swamper (labourer) and a cook.

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Gordon Jewell

Top price was $35 per 1,000 board feet of prime spruce or pine two by 12s or two by 10s, according to Tugnum.  Two by fours and two by sixes went for about $30 per 1,000 board feet. Mill owners – men like the Lubbers brothers, Jake Zust, Ralph Dieter, Al Fletcher, Jack Thomas and Danny Lemire – sold their lumber to a local buyer such as Gordon Jewel of Northern Interior Forest Products in Smithers where it was planed before being shipped out by rail.

Mill employees were often paid according to daily production, say $3 per 1,000 board feet. If the mill was producing 5,000 board feet a day, the employee would get $15 a day.

Tugnum, who owned a mill located between the Driftwood Creek corridor and Old Babine Lake Road, said employees lived on site in bunkhouses and worked from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. “Supper,” said Tugnum, “was served in the cookhouse about 6:30 or 7 and then the guys would return to the bunkhouse to BS or play a little poker.  About 8:30 or 9:00 cook would leave a fresh pot of coffee or tea on the stove.”

On Saturday the crew worked until noon and then headed for home and their families. “And yes,” said Tugnum, “some of them headed for the bar. But they were on their way back to camp on Sunday afternoon or evening.”

It was good work, according to Tugnum, that paid reasonably well. But it could be dangerous. “George Sharpe was killed when a slab flipped the wrong way, was kicked back by the saw and hit him in the head.  A cat driver working for Onie Leighton was killed at Sunny Point when his machine rolled on him and another guy, working for Bill Morris, was killed when a tree fell on him.”

Safety standards, according to Tugnum, were non-existent. “You took what you got,” he said. “The mill owners paid into the workers’ compensation but there were no safety rules.”

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Harry Haywood (l) and Ben Miller.

Tugnum said there were probably 100 small bush mills in the valley like the ones on Driftwood Creek during the ten years after the war. But then it slowly came to an end. More restrictive BC Forest Service regulations and big industrial mills, like the one in Houston, made it impossible for the little guys to keep their books in the black.

“Bowater & Bathurst bought Harry Hagman’s big mill in Houston,” Tugnum said. “And after that all the timber started going to Houston.

ralph-dieter

Ralph Dieter contributed to many a musical evening all up and down Driftwood Creek, including at our place. This was taken in 1983.

Another mill owner, the late Ralph Dieter, who operated three different mills during the 40s and 50s, said the big mill owners bought up all the quotas held by the independents. “They spent millions just buying people out. They’d offer almost anything to get rid of you.”

The last logging operation on Driftwood Creek – a small clear cut in the fifth bridge area – was done by Tony Mesich in  the mid-1970s, just about the time work started on creating the Babine Mountains Provincial Park. For many years, we could still drive up the road and happily picked huckleberries there, often meeting the Yeker family. Like many of the other roads, it too is long lost to sight.

Silver King Basin

lynn-going-into-silverking-1976-001Cleaning out some old files at the turn of the year, I came across this old photo of Lynn Shervill packing a new airtight wood burner into what was called the foreman’s cabin in Silver King Basin in the fall of 1976. The photo was taken by Steve Whipp, the reporter I replaced when I moved to Smithers in January 1977.

I think the log bridge crosses Driftwood Creek at Sunny Point – in the background it looks like the road descending from left to right.

 

It was just a few months later in January 1977 that Lynn took me into the basin, a ten-mile ski that started out gently but climbed steeply for the last stretch before we emerged into the basin itself. I hadn’t skied more than once or twice before we went. I borrowed long skinny skis and an oversize backpack from Steve and set out, convinced I could do anything. I don’t remember much about the trip in except feeling pretty good about things by the time we reached Sunny Point, the easy first half. Suffice it to say that we finally got to the foreman’s cabin a couple of hours later than Lynn anticipated. I was exhausted.

 

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The trail we followed up Driftwood Creek was one of three main prospecting routes into the Babines, as far back as the late 1800s. By 1905 several claims had been staked in the Driftwood drainage, including those of C.G. ‘Peavine’ Harvey after whom Harvey Mountain is named. In 1914 Peavine, his wife Kathleen20170204_114616_hdr_resized and infant son Gordon moved to their homestead on Driftwood Creek just up the road from our house. One of our snowshoe trails follows that old road, still visible as it leaves the hay fields and descends down to the creek near the old Harvey homestead.

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One of Gordon’s rakes, abandoned on our neighbour’s property in what was Gordon’s hay field.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the Driftwood route into Silver King is a popular skiing and hiking trail into what is now the Babine Mountains Provincial Park, it was probably even busier in the 1920s. As Joe L’Orsa wrote in his unpublished history of the Babines, “In the words of Axel Elmsted, who was one of them, ‘The hills swarmed with old fossils.’ The Oldtimers, short on both modern-day geological techniques and clairvoyance but long on energy and elbow grease, dug innumerable trenches, tunnels, shafts, and pits, often on a little quartz stringer or bit of copper stain.”

The Lyon Creek Trail was once called the Gale & Lifton Trail and is thought to follow an old Wet’suwet’en route to hunt marmots in Ganowka Basin. A new trail was built to the Harvey mineral claim from the wagon road up Driftwood Creek, now known to hikers as Harvey Mountain Road.The McCabe Trail was built from the wagon road below Sunny Point along the back side of Harvey Mountain by Red McCabe on a trail grant under the provisions of the Mines Development Act.

The claims in Silver King Basin were among the earliest staked. According to L’Orsa,  a working adit was driven in at 4960’ in for 252’ where it “hit promising mineralization.” From the basin, the wagon road followed what is now a footpath zigzagging up the northeast wall over Hyland Pass to the Cronin mine. Exploration activity continued in the basin into the 1980s, hence the foreman’s cabin.

foremans-cabin-600x597

This is what the foreman’s cabin looked like in the summer of 1980. Sam?, Sheila and Daniel on his first trip to the basin.

By 1977, the foreman’s cabin was the most weather-resistant shelter left; there was an old cookhouse and a bunkhouse – the cookhouse by this time was full of packrat stink and porcupine quills and the bunkhouse was so big and drafty it was impossible to heat in winter. It was cold that night and my new sleeping bag wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

In the morning, we explored the basin on skis – how nice was that without an oversize pack? – and then headed back down the trail. Anyone who has skied the trail knows about all the little divots along the way – seepages that melt the snow and form dips in the trail that are exciting for some, but were disastrous for me. I spent quite a bit of time either face down in the snow with the pack shoving me deeper in or face up like a beetle on its back, legs scrambling for purchase. The snow was deep. It was hard to get up. By the time we reached Sunny Point and the gentler sections, I was ready for a gentle cruise back to the car. No such luck. The trapper’s snowmobile had turned the track into an icy moguled death run for the unskilled. I seem to recall finally removing my skis and walking.

What’s truly a surprise after that inauspicious introduction to back country skiing is that I eventually married the fellow who took me in there. He was such a natural athlete he never thought to show me any technique to slow down or make even the gentlest turns. The only way I really knew how to stop on skates was to run into the boards; the only sure way I could stop on skis was to fall. And perhaps that’s why, now, my preferred winter footwear are snowshoes.

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Silver King Basin holds the headwaters, the beginnings, of Driftwood Creek. It also feels like the place where my life in this part of the world began. Where the stream that carried me from the coast east to Ontario and finally to the northwest set a new course, creating for me a confluence with Driftwood Creek, with Watsonquah (the Bulkley), with the Skeena.  With home. So maybe it isn’t such a surprise I married Lynn. He was the first to take me into the mountains, into those mountains. I’ve never lost that feeling, felt for the first time on that trip into Silver King. A love for high places, for their loneliness and often desolation. For the way they remind you just how precarious and precious our tenure is. Here’s what I wrote the evening I got home:

sheila-in-cabin

Sheila in the foreman’s cabin, July 1977

It was worth it, as are most efforts which result in a high clear place where the wind blows from the top of the world and carries nothing but the air with it. It is eerie and lonely, almost frightening as I remember it from this warm house with the radio chirping away and my impatiens plant blooming. Skiing down into a vast white bowl, over marshes, creeks, boulders and a million varieties of mosses. Sinking not at all into the smooth white crust which covers the entire basin. The cabin was cozy with orange firelight flickering over golden walls of unfinished wood. But I couldn’t sleep – a funny scary feeling about all the things that could go wrong.

We have been back to Silver King Basin many times, though the foreman’s cabin is long gone. Over the years hundreds of visitors inscribed their names on the walls of the old buildings and wrote notes in the log book each new place holds. An elegant log building now provides luxurious shelter for folks who make their way in there, as they do in all seasons. And the basin is even more beautiful now as more and more of the old mining debris has been removed.

silverking-from-dc-headwaters-1977

The headwaters of Driftwood Creek above the mining buildings in 1977.

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Lynn looking across toward Mount Hyland from Silver King Lake.

sheila-at-silverking-lake

Sheila at the outlet of Silver King Lake, July 1977.

Outflow winds

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When the pressure falls
bringing in the clouds,
the air softens. Ten above.
If you hunker down and listen
you can hear the crystals shift.
The snow slumps in on itself
and the creek, well, the creek
perks right up and so do the chickadees.

When the pressure rises
to clear the sky for the night’s big show
the temperature slips to fifteen below.
The snow gleams like beaten egg whites
and cold air stirs the hair against your cheek.
Pretty soon it’s slipping down the creek
toward the river,
the air that is,
and just as the river collects its creeks
at every confluence
those outflow winds
haul each other along
and pour toward the estuary
whipping up the waves against the tide at Tyee
white caps all the way across Flora Banks
out into Chatham Sound
until the Green Island light
is rimed with frozen spray.

In Hecate Strait
crab pots slide across treacherous decks
men and women holding on as best they can
below the glittering conjunction of the moon, Venus
and Mars.

 

 

 

 

 

A Five Dipper Day

dipper-1-600x400

I might as well name the American dipper (Cinclus americana) my spirit animal. I frequent streams, especially the “clear, rushing, boulder-strewn mountain streams, within tall conifer forests. [I]float buoyantly and swim on the surface (poorly) by paddling with unwebbed toes. [I] frequently walk about on the gravelly bottom of streams.”

Chunky, fairly nondescript, not very musical except for moments in the spring when it even surprises itself.

The dipper is our only aquatic songbird. It feeds on the little creatures that live in the water – caddis flies, mayflies, mosquitoes (whoopee!) and also dragonflies, worms, fish eggs and even small fish. In winter, it’s hard to believe there’s anything in that water, but if you can find  a pebble to flip, you’ll see little shrimp-like wigglers squirming for cover.

I’ve only seen two nests – one in winter when we snowshoed down the creek all the way to the Bulkley; the other, the parents actively attending to the chicks inside, was behind a noisy waterfall in the Rockies. The nests are always near, and usually overhanging, a mountain stream, but they are easy to miss because they look like a clump of moss. Under bridges is another good spot to look.

Males and females may work together to build the ball-like nest, often in freezing temperatures. Materials are dipped into water before being woven into two layers: one, an outer shell, 8-10 inches in diameter, made of moss, and the other an inner chamber with a woven cup, 2-3 inches in diameter, made of grass, leaves, and bark. Once the nest is finished, the mossy shell absorbs moisture and the coarse grass keeps the inside dry.

Every birding book and website says they are mainly solitary, that after a pair brings its chicks to fledge, the parents usually divide the brood and head off to separate territories. But this fall and winter, we’ve seen two and very occasionally three foraging within a few feet of each other. We find one almost every day.

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Sunday was special. A grey and gloomy morning, the road an inch-thick crust of ice. At the first dipper viewpoint, I spotted one in a newly opened pool just above a big log jam. We watched each other for a while and then I looked up the creek to where our snowshoe track had collapsed into another pool. Another dipper. And then, further up again, a third one.

Another km up the road, at an opening where we always look but rarely see them, there was another. And on the way home, looking downstream from the bridge that crosses the creek just below a tiny stream flowing out of a trickle of little springs, springs that never freeze, a fifth.

The dipper. Industrious. Likes the outdoors. Tends to stay resident all year round. Enjoys poking around under rocks in creekbeds. Spirit bird indeed. Almost forty years of turning over stones, tossing them in and skipping them across Driftwood Creek. Listening for the bird’s sharp alarm call.

Last fall, my grandson and I were both hunkered down beside the creek lynn-and-casey-at-creek-2-399x600when I started telling him about dippers. Just as I had told his father and uncle more than thirty years earlier. How they dive under the water and walk around on the bottom, how they blend right in with the stones they stand on, how they squawk as they fly up the curve of the creek.

One popped out of a nearby pool and looked us over, tilting its head, one eye zeroing in. The white eyelid. It hopped closer and closer. I held onto my grandson’s arm, stopping the pebble he was about to throw. We all watched each other for several seconds, me doing the little bobbing dance we always do when we see one: dip, dip, dip, dip, dipper!

The boy’s shout of laughter made that moment even better than a five dipper day.

(Thanks to Uncle Dan for the dipper photographs)

After reading this post, Mark Tworow sent this lovely reminder of summer and the creek in a completely different form.

Hi Sheila

I’ve attached Driftwood Creek in the Summer, one of the largest paintings I’ve ever done. (48 x 72)

driftwood-creek-in-the-summer-800x533

If you walk from the summer parking lot towards Sunny Point there’s a a small climb down a rocky slope to this pristine view of Driftwood Creek. The painting at such a large scale hoped to capture a small part of the feeling one has of this beautiful crystal clear creek tumbling around the water smoothed boulders. How many years has the creek flowed through here? The smooth boulders give a small answer, though the course of the creek has probably changed through the years. If you pass this place one summer, stop and pause here. It is a full place.

I think you might likely spot a dipper here too.

Mark

Sheila,

You can tell Mark that dippers live, fly and dive all along the Driftwood cinclezenrock_francoidepeycorridor…and yes indeed right downstream from the location of his painting by a place some locals refer to as Zen Rock.  I was lucky enough to catch one of them with my camera a couple of winters ago.

Cheers,

Françoi (Del Pais)

The Mystery of Water

A soft mist of rain falling on even softer snow. The road a sheet of ice.  A pair of resident ravens squawk from the spruce trees down in the gully.

The January thaw, Joe L’Orsa patiently explained during my first winter here.

Great plops of snow slip off the roof, off the drooping alders. You can hear the crystals shifting.

Right now the creek is mostly silence. Snowshoeing just a couple of days ago, before this thaw, its voice is hard to track. At times the path is as quiet as any terrestrial winter trail when the snow is powder. At times the creek gurgles on our left from under that big old spruce curving way out beyond the bank. Then on our right, where the creek turns against its own current. At times a pool opens and we watch water moving over a sudden clarity of stones. Even when we’re breathing air that measures minus twenty. No wonder the dipper dives in.

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Dan Shervill photo

The mystery of water. How can it run at all when it’s been well below freezing for several weeks now? How can this side hill ooze moisture even after the frost has burrowed in deep? And why has our snowshoe path from a couple of days earlier disappeared into a new opening?

You think it’s going to happen again when the solid thunk thunk thunk of your snowshoes and the trail’s responding crunch shift into the hollow sound echoing from an air pocket under the ice. You hold your breath and hope the ice holds. You wonder, how big is the air pocket? If the ice suddenly opens, you hope the drop won’t be too far. But you know it’s there. And no matter how hard you try, you’re never ready for it.

The January thaw. The strangeness of rain falling on the snow still covering the ice under which the creek flows. The mystery of water.

Forty Years: A Celebration of Driftwood Creek

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January 1977 – I moved to Smithers to work as a reporter at The Interior News, a paper with a venerable history and a crack reporter on staff. I was a new graduate and needed a mentor. A month later, he quit and I was the senior reporter. Now that was fun. Five months later I moved into a ratty little cabin the crack reporter (now working at the local bookstore) had purchased. A year later, I married him. And we’re still here, deep in the heart of Driftwood Canyon.

Our home is in Laksilyu territory of the Wet’suwet’en people in the House of Tsee K’al K’e yex (House on the Top of Flat Rock); the chief is Wah tah K’eght (Henry Alfred). Across the creek is Woos’s territory.

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This morning we strapped on our snowshoes and travelled a few kms down the creek. Minus 16 and the sun was shining up high on the canyon rim. The alders have grown about as big as they get around here – thirty years since the big Father’s Day flood scoured the creek clear of the small stuff and a few huge cottonwoods besides. But a route that we’ve skied and snowshoed many times is wide open. The log jams we used to clamber over are gone, the tricky rapids solidly frozen. It hasn’t been this cold for this long for years. It’s wonderful.

 

When I started thinking about a new writing project a few weeks back, stalled as I am on a series of poems, on a stubborn short story, on an unpublished novel, I was in the middle of reading Dart by Alice Oswald. A book-length poem Oswald compiled/created over three years, it traces the Dart River from its origins in Dartmoor in southwest England about twenty miles to its estuary at Totness and on for another nine miles to the English Channel at, of course, Dartmouth. She collected stories and narrates the poem in the voices of those who have lived, worked and played along its length.

Near the beginning, she speaks in the voice of an upland hiker:

What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and down the contours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can’t get out

listen,
a
lark
spinning
around
one
note
splitting
and
mending
it

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones

What’s not to love about that?

We’ve all spent a fair bit of time thinking about the Sacred Headwaters over the past years. The Skeena, the Nass and the Stikine all rising out of a series of wide wet meadows high up in Spatsizi country. Many of us watched on film as Ali Howard searched for the Skeena’s beginning to start her epic swim to tidewater. Coalbed methane at the top end, fish farms proposed for the bottom end and the damn Northern Gateway project proposed to run right across the watershed’s eastern reaches. All done, all sorted. (I’m not going to start about Lelu Island here – the proverbial elephant in the room.)

snowshoe-hare-400x225Instead, I’m going to hunker down beside Driftwood Creek as I have so many times over the forty years I’ve lived here. In the early days, I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I loved the intensity with which she examined that creek flowing out of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. But I’ve got to tell you, the aquatic life is a little harder to find in a mountain stream that drops from an altitude of about 5000 feet in the Babine Mountains to its confluence with the Bulkley River at about 1200 feet in under thirty km. It never gets much warmer than ten degrees and I speak from experience.

small-creek-225x400Thank god for the dipper, which I thought was a tall tale when a couple of friends told me about it for the first time. A little grey bird that dives into the water and walks around looking for food, even when it’s forty below and there are only one or two openings in the whole damn creek. No way, I said. The water ouzel. I saw one a couple of days ago singing like it was spring.

 

So many stories. It’s too late to say, “Don’t get me started.” Instead, I’ll raise a glass of creekwater to celebrate its stubborn beauty.

PS. I’d be glad to hear your stories too – I’ll happily post them here.