Grasping summer’s tail

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.

Be kind, be calm, stay safe.

Stairways to heaven

Steel stairway at the bottom of Nootka Street.

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!!

David Hoy:

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.

Richard Gold:

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.

For my mom, of course

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 …

The virus exchange

The view from Marine Avenue across the low-tide beach.

Whenever we walk the sea walk in Westview, we speculate about the rock structures built up along the beach south of town. There seems to be evidence of both the fish traps and clam gardens Betty Wilson of Tla’amin says exist up and down the coast around here.

Rock walls were built to help soften the sand behind them, stimulating the growth of clams.

 

In Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast, Judith Williams describes the walls of rock built to soften the sand behind them, which enhanced clam production. A 1933 Powell River newspaper article refers to the beach at Grief Point with “clam shell deposits about 10 feet deep and several hundred yards long.” The huge volume of shells signaled sophisticated systems of ownership and cooperation that existed long before the arrival of Europeans and a population large enough to need a sizeable food supply.

The view down toward the beacon at Grief Point, barely visible in the distance. Note the wall of clam shells on the right. This photo from the Powell River Museum collection was taken, I think, in the 1930s. (I need to do more research, but the museum is closed right now.)

Fish traps were built to trap fish at low tide for easier harvesting.

In the midst of fears about Covid 19 and the xenophobia that sometimes accompanies it, it’s especially poignant to think back to what life might have been like here and in the rest of the Americas before European viruses arrived In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, author Charles Mann points out that in the so-called ‘Columbus exchange’ Europeans benefited enormously from the knowledge and technologies of the Americas – including the extensive plant breeding that produced potatoes, corn, squash, tomatoes, and cocoa, to name a few. The single prevailing gift from the Europeans was disease.

1491 is a massive piece of research that uses the written records of the first European arrivals as well as the archaeological and ecological record left by human artifacts, pollen deposits, tree rings, and other data now readable with new techniques. Current research indicates the Americas were heavily populated with estimates ranging from fifty to one hundred million people. The diverse communities diverted watercourses for irrigation and flood protection and to enhance fisheries, cultivated and bred corn, potatoes and other plants to produce higher yields and adapt to local growing conditions, and used fire to manage forests. In many places tens of thousands of people gathered together and built elaborate cities.

Initial records of European explorers and settlers, especially those written before Indigenous populations were decimated by illness, include descriptions of landscapes and communities that support Mann’s theories. Post-plague narratives, however, often tell a very different story. Conservative estimates now suggest that more than eighty percent of the population across the Americas perished.

By the time Europeans arrived on the northwest coast, the plagues had preceded them. BC geographer Cole Harris’s Voices of Disaster: Smallpox around the Strait of Georgia in 1782 outlines how smallpox arrived here long before the first wave of settlers in the mid-1800s. What they saw was the aftermath of a holocaust, not the kind of thriving civilizations that had existed before and were able to support larger projects like the building of clam gardens.

In his introduction Mann mentions visiting Gitxsan Neil Sterritt in Hazelton at the Ksan Carving School just as the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en title case was beginning. The research for that case revealed a complex cultural, economic and political system, now recorded in the court transcripts. Mann credits that visit as one of the events that stimulated him to try to uncover some of the hidden or forgotten stories of the pre-Columbus civilizations.

When I told Neil about Mann’s book, he recommended I take a look at Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? by Bruce Pascoe. Pascoe describes how the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, like the people of the Americas, were organized into societies much more complex than the settler myth of a few hunter gatherers scattered across the land. Knowing this, he argues, benefits both settlers and Aboriginals alike. “If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.”

It’s not so very long ago that Chief Justice Allan McEachern in his (since overturned) decision on the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en court case exemplified the way many Canadians thought (and still think) about First Nations. He said that the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en did not exist as a people: “The plaintiffs’ ancestors had no written language, no horses or wheeled vehicles, slavery and starvation was not uncommon, wars with neighbouring peoples were common, and there is no doubt, to quote Hobb[e]s, that aboriginal life in the territory was, at best, ‘nasty, brutish and short.’”

He could not have been more wrong. As new evidence comes to light and as old sources are re-examined, Mann, Pascoe, Williams, and others urge us to re-evaluate how we think about Indigenous cultures.

We haven’t done such a great job of managing a wonderful food source, one we just might need in the future.

As we all face this Covid game-changer, as the manufacture of all the cheap junk we are so fond of slows down, air travel shrivels, and we stay closer to home, it gives us an opportunity to find out what we can about Indigenous cultures in our own communities. We can look to earlier Indigenous practices to model more sustainable ways to function in our ecosystems and marvel at how resilient those cultures have proven.

And we can hope we don’t need to re-live the horrors our First Nations experienced. Instead we can hope the generosity and compassion our political leaders are showing (for the moment) are carried forward and we continue to invest in the well-being of our community and our planet.

 

 

 

Bravo!

“As the majority of people infected … have no symptoms and are unaware of their infection, the virus may spread through a large population before even being recognized.”

Sound familiar?

It’s not about Covid-19; it’s a reference to Canada’s polio epidemic. Most people with the disease had no symptoms; about five per cent developed mild symptoms and less than one percent developed limb paralysis. Of those, five to ten percent died. Between 1949 and 1954 about 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed and in 1953 alone, 500 died, the most serious national epidemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.

My dad with my brother and sister a couple of months before he got sick.

In 1953, about six weeks before I was born, my dad, a millwright in the paper mill here in Powell River, got polio. He had mild symptoms for several days, my mom says. “He’d be standing in the bathroom shaving, saying his neck hurt. I finally got the doctor who thought it might be meningitis.”

While Dad was hospitalized, Mom noticed he wasn’t moving one of his arms properly. His symptoms were classic. He was flown to Vancouver and put in an iron lung as muscle function in his lungs deteriorated.

“It was quite bad because after he got flown down, we’d phone and they said he hasn’t reached the crisis yet – it was about ten days until he reached the crisis. It was,” she says, “a terrible time.”

My mother remembers standing beside a man, both of them looking in at their spouses lying in the iron lungs, the ventilators. The next day, the man wasn’t there and the nurses explained that his wife had died.

Mom and my one-year-old brother and three-year-old sister were injected with gamma globulin, an immune booster. There was no vaccine. I was born in December and six months later taken to see my father for the first time. My mom loves to tell me how the sight of my chubby red cheeks cheered him right up.

Dad lived, but he was one of the unlucky ones whose paralysis was permanent. It’s not like spinal cord paralysis that cuts off all feeling below the injury; the polio virus kills the motor neurons that activate muscles and they don’t regenerate. Rehab can bring some improvement and after about three years, my dad could walk, with support, and use his arms and hands.

Outside our new house.

By the fall of 1957, he was able to move with us into the house he’d been building when he got sick. Mom had gone back to work teaching and we managed quite well. Dad was able to be home on his own during the day and he was there when we came home from school.

It wasn’t easy – he had a temper and would get very frustrated as he tried to get us to do chores around the house or painstakingly teach us to do something he could have done in a second.  But I suspect the tensions were no more than was normal in most houses. Our family activities were limited, but he found ways to extend his mobility. He had a friend build him a wheelchair made of copper pipes that was very light and easy to pack when we went visiting. One summer Mom drove us all in our Vauxhall station wagon to Saskatchewan to visit his family. I think she had just learned to drive. He encouraged her to continue with summer school courses and finish her education degree, and later to apply for a job as a school principal.

While Mom was at school one summer, Dad stayed at Pearson Hospital where he had spent time in rehabilitation. Many polio survivors had been there for years, some in iron lungs or rocking beds. We felt lucky indeed we could bring our dad home.

When we had a house built down here at Grief Point in 1968, he and a neighbour, also a millwright, designed its elevator. But less than two years later, he developed symptoms of post-polio syndrome, which no one knew much about then. He died suddenly in his sleep Feb. 11, 1970.

My father had a life beyond his wheelchair; he worked as a bookkeeper, he read, played bridge, and loved a good argument. He was also very aware of how people with disabilities were judged and taught us that labels mattered. Cripple was still a common name for folks like him; he hated it. He was a paraplegic, he insisted. Disabled. Today, we often imagine how much fuller his life could have been with an electric scooter and a computer.

As of today, there are over half a million confirmed cases of Covid-19 around the world and about 25,000 deaths. According to the Canadian International Immunization Initiative, at the peak of its spread, polio “paralyzed or killed over half a million people worldwide every year.”

I used to get upset when people didn’t vaccinate their kids because our family experienced directly what diseases like polio can do. Now, when people talk about how we’re over-reacting, about the low percentage of people dying from Covid-19, I’m even more frustrated. It’s easy to forget that each one of those deaths is a loss to families, friends and communities.

Seeing those images of rows of people in ventilators in ICUs, I can’t help thinking of my father. How much pain he must have felt, how afraid he would have been. We have been through this before and I say, bravo! to those (that includes all of us) trying to stem the tide flooding the world right now.

 

 

 

 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

 

The sea lions have been going crazy off the point here – sometimes leaping right out of the water. The herring are spawning and for the first time in years, streaks of white signaling the milt the males deposit on the eggs appeared in Scuttle Bay. When we went to take a look, we noticed that the sign welcoming you to t’Ɩšosǝm (Sliammon) explains that the name itself refers to that milky water.

Photo courtesy PR Outdoors

In Written as I Remember It, Elsie Paul describes the excitement about the herrings’ arrival, the richness they provided for the whole community of coastal life. “Like when the herring came in – it used to be around February and March, people are watching and ready and going down to the beach and really looking for – “Is it out there?” The seagulls are out so that means they’re here. And the word would get around. People are all hyped up and visiting back and forth and down the beach and it’s almost like you’re welcoming them.” (114)

We’re still in our first year of transition here and word of the herring reminded me of last February’s snowy drive to Gingolx at the mouth of the Nass to the community’s Hobiyee, a celebration in anticipation of the return of the eulachon to spawn in the river.

Unlike herring, eulachon spawn in the farthest tidal reaches up large rivers like the Skeena and Nass – they used to appear from northern California to Alaska. One freezing spring we visited the eulachon camps on the Nass as the fishermen dodged ice floes to set their nets; another year they were drilling through two feet of ice, an outflow wind howling out of the mountains.

The location of the camps are vested in families, the resources to catch and process them shared. This is no work for a lone fisherman – the tons of fish harvested to create the ‘grease’ require a large and organized workforce. The oil rendered from the fish, through an infamous process of rotting and heating, was a valuable trade commodity for coastal people and fed people far inland. The trading routes were called grease trails.

I interviewed eulachon biologist, the late John Kelson, for an article I wrote several years ago: “Eulachon play a crucial ecological role. Offshore, they are a key link in transferring energy up to the higher predators we humans like to eat, such as salmon and halibut. They are the first fish to run in the spring at a time when food supplies have been low and many animals are gearing up for reproduction. They are like the gas in the engine of the estuary and forest ecosystem. A few meals of eulachon can increase the number of offspring in seals and sea lions, otters, eagles, gulls and other seabirds.”

A couple of weeks after our trip to Gingolx, we were at tide water on the Skeena along with thousands of gulls, hundreds of eagles, sea lions and seals.

John Kelson photo

The eulachon spawn in gravel, unlike the herring which, when they haven’t been fished to near extirpation, deposit their eggs on almost anything. Elsie Paul describes how they hung out cedar boughs in the milky water and the eggs would be deposited, then collected and dried. Further north, kelp laden with roe was gathered and preserved.

“Several years ago, they opened seine fishing in this area [1983/84]. This whole area was lit up front of the village from Sliammon to Scuttle Bay and towards Powell River, over to Harwood. There was all kinds of seine boats out there.  And they scooped the herring. We never did get herring after that.” (116)

Powell River Historical Museum and Archives photo

Betty Wilson’s short film, Harwood, shown at the Powell River Film Festival, contained an even more dramatic image of the boats crowding into the strait, their gear getting tangled, and tempers flaring.

It’s no wonder those who spotted the milky water in Scuttle Bay were excited. And little wonder why so many are upset that DFO has once again opened the Vancouver Island herring roe commercial fishery. The herring play a similar role to the eulachon further north by providing food here for chinook salmon, the preferred food of the endangered southern resident killer whales. Humans are fond of the chinook as well.

Looking around Powell River at all the plants budding, the ducks donning their breeding plumage, the male mergansers spluttering and splashing around the females, the eagles sitting side by side, looking out over the strait, we all recognize and welcome what Dylan Thomas calls “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

That force here on the northwest coast is fed at some fundamental ecosystem level by herring or eulachon and links us all.

       A horned grebe. Photo by Carol Reid.

And then …

… just a few hours after posting this piece, we walked south along the sea walk toward Grief Point. Sea lions were lounging in clusters, the water seemed to be foaming up and turning milky. As we continued it became more and more apparent, the spawn was happening here as well. The spawn drifted south all afternoon, the sea lions and seagulls filling the evening with their cries.

And then again …

… today, the eggs on the low tide beach at Grief Point.

 

The place inside you

Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Hamish Hamilton, 2019

The Overstory by Richard Powers: W.W. Norton, 2018

I’ve read two astonishing books in the past month; both tell the stories of people trying to save the places they love. Each writer beautifully captures the enthusiasm, knowledge, anger, determination and despair that drive people to protect redwoods in California or tiny allotment gardens in urban England, hornbill nesting areas in India or lynx habitat in North Macedonia. Each is incredibly well-researched with enough facts for the geeks and enough glimmers of hope for those who can’t bear to count the numbers in the species extinction race.

Julian Hoffman’s Irreplaceable opens with a stroll along the Brighton Pier on England’s southeast coast. With all its glitz and kitsch, it’s hard to imagine a place more removed from the romantic ideal of the natural world. But a child suddenly points to starlings beginning their evening murmuration – an apparently random gathering of a few birds at a time until they number in the hundreds and thousands, wheeling and turning in a synchronized shadow moving across the evening sky, inspiring in the onlookers a sense of amazement and joy. All stop to watch until the birds filter away to their night roosts in the pilings under the pier.

The passage illustrates Hoffman’s beautiful writing and also describes the trajectory Irreplaceable follows: he has found small pockets around the world where individuals who, by resisting threats to places they love, gather enough other people around them to bring a halt to seemingly unstoppable forces. Folks might cherish an estuary in the Thames River slated for an airport, a hectare of meadow in a run-down part of Glasgow destined to become a parking lot, or an iron ore mine that would virtually demolish a small island in Indonesia and succeed in fending off their destruction.

Hoffman doesn’t shy away from the irrefutable evidence of species decline and extinguishment, of climate change, of corporate and government corruption. But Irreplaceable not only gives us vivid images of the special qualities so cherished by the locals, his examples give us the hope that we can light small fires of renewal in the most unlikely places.

Richard Powers’ stunning novel, The Overstory, is not as hopeful. Through eight family histories, it begins with the destruction of the enormous hardwood forests of the eastern United States where seemingly endless forests were cut, cut, cut and finally wiped out by invasive pests (think mountain pine beetle). We see how each character is triggered to resist the continued devastation of the coniferous forests of the west and eventually come together in that fight. One treeplanter tells each seedling he inserts into the ground to hang in there until we’ve wiped ourselves out. He finally decides we are doing too much damage and many species won’t outlast us after all and so moves to take more radical action.

Both of these writers powerfully evoke how the beauty of the natural world moves and sustains us. One of Powers’ characters, a research scientist, finds evidence of the vast web of communication taking place within forests – in the soil, the air and the water that sustains the myriad organisms that make up an ecosystem. Hoffman writes about the way children’s excitement about discovering the living world around them calms and comforts them.

 

 

 

Both writers also take the long view – focusing on ancient trees and the time it takes to build a wild forest or any integrated and sustainable place that has room for our richly diverse cultures, but also for its own well-being.

 

My husband and I walked the Atrevida Trail on the Tla’amin lands north Powell River earlier this month. We were initially puzzled by a sign pointing to “The Avenue of the Veterans”. After a while we realized we were in the shadow of huge Douglas-firs. They would have been little more than saplings when the original old growth was logged in the early 1900s – the huge nurse stumps notched where the loggers stuck in the planks to stand on when cutting down the trees. Imagine walking through a forest of trees that big in diameter and thinking, when all you had was a Swede saw, that you could fell them. Cut them down and then move them. What hubris. But of course it was a hubris imported from a Europe that had been severely deforested. Hoffman quotes reports estimating that 95 percent of England’s forests had been cut down by the 1600s.

It is easy to agree with Greta Thunberg when she says all the children demonstrating have not really had any effect; when you see international conference after international conference fail to reach any consensus, when Canadian premiers are fighting even the most feeble efforts to curtail carbon emissions, when what little is left of BC’s old growth forest is being cut and shipped overseas. Despair is not, however, useful. Anger, yes. Despair, no.

Just as each starling makes its own way through the intricacy of the murmuration, so we make our own path through our communities, each step we take speaking to everything and everyone around us. At the same time, the world moves us, nudges us along paths we’re often not even aware of.

If we give ourselves enough time and space to step outside our homes, out of our cars into a piece of the world with a few trees, some songbirds, frogs, or butterflies, we’ll begin to understand why people come to love a place, why they’ll stand up for it. They know it’s irreplaceable.

 

The trail to Tees Kwat – finding our way

 

It’s funny returning after almost fifty years to the place where you grew up, a place you visited dozens of times over those years, but now you’re back to stay. Instead of the glance that mid-summer family visits gave you, you now have time to look around, to ground truth fifty-year-old memories. Explore places you rode your bike past on your way … where? Sped past on your way to a party … whose? Find the way to a beach you last visited when you were twelve.

We want to learn the topography of the hills and mountains in the familiar views, figure out where the lakes rest, where the creeks flow. We also want to walk trails we haven’t explored before.

And so, Gibson’s Beach. Last spring we took the turn and drove down to the water. The sun shining. Eagles chittering, harassing a heron, its nest likely nearby. A kingfisher. Gulls, of course.  We spotted a trail sign and followed its direction for a while, twisting around big hemlock and cedar trees, sidestepping roots into an opening where some cedar bark had been stripped. Just south of Tla’amin, we realized, and a beautiful place to demonstrate how cedar bark is gathered.

 

We didn’t go far – having no idea where the trail led – but dropped down to the beach and stumbled back over the slippery rocks to the car.

In July, we walked through the bird-rich Wildwood Bluffs and found our way down to the trail, which my cousin explained went all the way through to the Wildwood Bridge.

 

In October, we decided to walk the whole trail. By this time we’d read about the Tla’amin village, Tees Kwat, that had been at the outlet of Powell River. The municipal plan, showing admirable concern for a more robust history, tells how it was destroyed (I’ve condensed it below):

Shortly after the colony of British Columbia joined Confederation, on July 20, 1871, tensions between First Nations and settlers increased due to the practice of allowing non-aboriginal people to settle and claim 320 acres of land at no cost, providing they signed a declaration stating that the land was not an Indian Village. Unfortunately, this requirement was often ignored. While settlers were allowed to acquire First Nation land for free, First Nations members could not claim land.

One such case resulted in the loss of the Tla’amin village known as Tees Kwat, a major village site at the mouth of what came to be called the Powell River. In 1860, Father Durieu, a Catholic missionary, attempted to convert Tla’amin to Catholicism and move them to Sliammon Creek, a few miles north. Shortly after, a land speculator and one-time Victoria Mayor, R.P. Rithet, ‘discovered’ the area. He was interested in developing a mill site at the mouth of the river and in 1874 was granted a timber lease for the land around Tees Kwat (Lot 450), on the condition that a mill be built there. This lease agreement caused great concern for the Tla’amin people. The head of the Joint Reserve Commission, Gilbert M. Sproat, requested that this land be held for Tla’amin and neighbouring First Nations until he could travel to the area to resolve the issues.

The provincial government attempted to stifle any effort by the Joint Reserve Commission to intervene. Sproat responded that Tla’amin and neighbouring tribes were engaged in hand logging and therefore required their timberlands; and noted that they were anxious about losing access to lands near their village sites.

Through his government connections, Rithet purchased the land in 1878 – in spite of the fact that it was a Tla’amin village site and that the promised timber mill had not been built as required. In 1909, Brooks and Scanlon purchased the site from him and built the mill.

Tla’amin people continued to live at Tees Kwat and use resources in the surrounding area despite the new mill. After 1910, however, much of the value of this site for traditional use was obliterated, when the now-named Powell River was dammed for power generation to serve the new paper mill. By 1913, the salmon run in Powell River had come to a permanent end and a large portion of the land now known as Lot 450 was converted to heavy industrial and urban use, eventually to become the company town of Powell River. Tla’amin homes were burned and the village site was destroyed by the dam and associated development.

We kept this history in mind as we left Gibson’s Beach to walk the old route. Cedars, hemlock, and big leaf maple predominated – the maples’ huge leaves covered the trail. The oceanspray, another new and beautiful addition to the plants we commonly see, had shed its leaves. The trail crosses a creek that I’ve heard called Schonfield Creek, though the name doesn’t appear on any maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After traversing the newish BOMB squad bridge (when my cousin hiked here, the only bridge was a log), the trail crosses a road that leads straight back up to the highway, but the trail continues along the water. Here it follows along below the Wildwood Bluffs.

Everywhere along this part of the coast, these outcrops of rock covered with grass, moss, and lichens open to the sky; they’re wonderful spots to stop and look out, as one always does, to the ocean. The way the light sweeps into curves on tidal currents, the ducks diving, resurfacing, the loons flapping, a seal, maybe an otter, and often the bellow of sea lions. The vegetation changes – here we found one nodding onion, some (Oregon?) stonecrop, cinquefoil and even a few aspen.

 

 

 

 

 

Although you can hear it, the mill is still a startling sight from this outlook.

 

 

The trail climbs into long groves of arbutus and we began to see more ivy, broom,  holly, and bindwood (Hedera), a strong smell signalling its presence wrapped around tree trunks and climbing the blackberry brambles.

Then the chainlink fence and the gentle switchbacks down to the Wildwood Bridge.  All the years we drove past the old boathouses on Powell River, I never once thought that a trail crossed the slope up above the river. A beautiful trail if you can ignore the noise and the sometimes acrid fumes from the mill. I don’t know where the old trail came down to the river or where exactly Tees Kwat was situated (more research to do), but can easily imagine the pleasure of descending to the village below.

Powell River is mad for trails, many of which follow old logging roads or railway lines. Others are made simply to amuse us. Most everyone walking or biking these trails is out for the fun of it. The trails are wonderful and the people who maintain them are amazing. But this trail between Tla’amin and Tees Kwat feels different. It feels like one made by people going about the business of living, making a path to the next village to visit friends and families, to trade, to celebrate. Thousands of years of footsteps creating a way through the world as it was. Incremental adjustments to a shifting landscape. It’s a trail to treasure – and thanks to all the people who keep it intact.

 

Walking toward reconciliation

Sunday, we joined about 200 community members in Powell River on a reconciliation walk organized by the hɛhɛšin movement.* The walk, honouring the children of residential schools, began at Willingdon Beach and ended at the Westview wharf. Other participants were there to remember missing and murdered Indigenous women. All were there to take steps on a path that will bring us all to a greater understanding of and respect for Tla’amin and other Indigenous traditions.

Standing on the grass at the beach where my mother used to swim when she was a child, where she brought us when we were children, and where my own sons and grandson have played on family visits connected me to this place I am learning once again to call home.

It was just over a year ago when we still lived in Smithers that our publishing company, Creekstone Press, celebrated the launch of Shared Histories by Tyler McCreary with the Walk to Witset. Shared Histories detailed the history of Witsuwit’en life in Smithers and placed the racism they faced in a provincial and national context, one that applies to the Tla’amin people and Powell River as well. Smithers was a railway town; Powell River a paper mill town. In the early 1900s, each corporation planted a townsite on Indigenous territory without consultation or accommodation. Many of the subsequent settlers and their elected representatives took concrete steps to exclude the land’s original owners from the new communities.

The committee of Witsuwit’en elders and Smithers’ settlers who contributed to Shared Histories wanted to host a book launch that truly marked the process of truth and reconciliation. The book itself detailed some of the truth Smithers’ residents needed to discover, and the walk became a symbolic journey of reconciliation. Smithers’ then mayor Taylor Bachrach and Witset’s chief councilor Misilos Victor Jim joined dozens of others to walked the entire 34 km of Highway 16 that links the communities. The balhats or feast that welcomed them to Witset served over 400 people, more than half non-Indigenous. The book went on to win the BC Historical Federation’s 2019 prize for historical writing.

At Willingdon Beach, Rose Henry began by gathering the children around her to sing a song honouring them as ancestors, explaining that the Tla’amin believe (as do the Witsuwit’en) that children are their elders come back.

Cyndi Pallen (čƖnɛ) spoke about the origins of the walk, how members of the non-Indigenous community reached out to continue the work of bridging the gap between communities. John Louie (yaxwum) blessed the gathering with a prayer in Tla’amin reminding us that children in residential school were beaten for using their language: he asked that we all pray in our own way and respect the way others pray.

Along the route, we stopped to hear a woman’s warrior song, we sang together as we walked, and the group finally gathered at the Westview wharf, beside the Comox and Texada ferry terminal. I remember the wharf as an intimidating landmark for my younger self; it rises high out of the water and older kids fished off it, the braver ones jumped off it. For many Tla’amin children, John Louie told us, it was a place of great pain, the place where they were put on the boat that took them to residential school.

Walking and singing together lifted our spirits. We are beginning to recognize faces, to remember names. Our new home has every right to be proud of its efforts** to build connections between its communities and we are honoured to join in those efforts.

* hɛhɛšin is an ongoing grassroots reconciliation movement that started with a mixed group of non-indigenous people from the Upper Sunshine Coast, that wanted to reach out and connect with the indigenous people of this land, by honoring the teachings and territory of the Tla’amin people.

** Check out the 2011 presentation made to the BC Treaty Commission, the Powell River-Sliammon Experience.

Walking south from Westview

Great blue heron. Carol Reid photo

Hanging out the laundry in a grey, monochromatic morning of ocean, island and sky. I spun around at the blast of a humpback whale blowing not far offshore. Whoosh. Sheeww. A sound full of shshshsh. Two of them, grey backs curving up, the small dorsal fin in the rear, slipping back under. Another whoosh and another arc of grey. Again. Until the tail flukes rose to signal a long descent.

Our family had this house built beside Malaspina Strait over fifty years ago. I lived in it for two years plus one later summer before moving north to Smithers. I often walked the beach, smoked secret cigarettes sheltered in big piles of driftwood, dreamed of writing. There were sometimes orcas, but never humpbacks. Luckily their numbers have risen dramatically since the 1970s and we now see them regularly. And brant geese – I remember seeing those – as well as robins, crows, ravens, gulls and the occasional sapsucker.

Living in the Bulkley Valley, I learned to look more carefully at birds. And birds there were. Jays, nuthatches, chickadees, owls, ravens, waxwings, and the astonishing spring migration of warblers. Dodging rufous hummingbirds at the feeder, the underbrush quite literally a jungle racket. The melancholy song of Swainson’s thrush in the late afternoon. White and golden-crowned sparrows in the alpine. Invisible ptarmigan. Harlequins in Driftwood Creek. And always dippers.

Back here on the coast, I see birds I never saw before. Not birds that didn’t used to be here, like humpbacks didn’t used to be here. Birds I didn’t know how to see. Walking home from Westview along the sea walk, it’s ducks. The tide was at about thirteen feet so they were in close.

 

American wigeons. Carol Reid photo

Just past the Squatter’s Creek confluence, a group of curious American wigeons with their pale blue beaks and the light stripe on the males’ heads. They paddled toward me as if waiting to be fed.  A heron huddled on a rock. A cluster of about twenty-five oyster catchers gathered on a boulder topped by a gull – likely a glaucous-winged, herring, or hybrid. Sparrows in the blackberry brambles and driftwood. The white wing flashes of two juncos.

Oyster catchers and gull.

Next a big raft of buffleheads – the white males dramatic with their long black scarves flung over their backs; the females’ distinctive white cheek patches. They paddled together as if synchronized, then a quick lift of the neck and a tuck under into the neatest little dive. They were gone. A few seconds later, after gobbling some small crustaceans, they were back.

 

Four female and one male bufflehead. Carol Reid photo

Just past the end of the sea walk, dozens of surf scoters, in close. Their exotic beaks, clear identifiers. Over toward Texada, a touch of mist. The water was so calm, so grey, the more distant birds seemed to float above it. They were there. And then they weren’t.

It was pretty quiet until I neared home: a killdeer wailed past, three crows at the tide line, two harlequins, a Pacific loon, and a red-necked grebe. A sea lion huffing and puffing,

North of town, the thrum of the paper mill seems the same as it was when we first lived here, but I don’t remember the bellow of dozens of sea lions, mostly Steller’s, hauled out on the barges and breakwaters around its old log pond. Their winter numbers in these waters are also increasing. I don’t remember them hanging around just below the house. Sometimes at night, we hear them through an open window. As my mother says, “There’s a lot going on under those waves.” And unlike the tracks we’d see in fresh snowfalls, the activity here leaves no trace except for a momentary disturbance of the water’s surface. It’s there. And then it’s not.

 

Thanks to Carol Reid for the photos.