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 …

Forty Years: A Celebration of Driftwood Creek

creek-freezing-400x225

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.

creek-2-225x400

 

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.

Bathymetry river launch

We had a wonderfully wild and windy day to launch Bathymetry. The morning started drizzly, but the wind whipped up in the afternoon and blew that rain right out of town. However, the trail to the launching spot beside the Bulkley River is like a bowling alley – a windstorm a few weeks earlier had knocked down several aspens and cottonwoods. With some trees bending almost double, we hustled right along that trail to get to the big gravel bar where the trees were not much more than shrubs. As we practiced folding paper boats and waited for our guests, a huge gust whirled upriver and we heard a telltale crraackk back along the trail followed by a very loud crash. Luckily, although folks had to clamber over the downed cottonwood to get to us, no one was killed in the launching of this book.

I told people where the poems came from – a fabulous kayak trip to the Melville-Dundas Islands (Lax Kwaxl) off the coast from Prince Rupert – and was pleased to have several fellow paddlers join us.

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gathering at the river (600x512)

We took turns reading the fourteen sonnets in the collection.

beth, vigil, karen and bill (600x338) Evi reading (474x600)

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nelsie, karen, beth and emily (600x520)

reading 1 (600x347) rick reading (600x295)

Finally, we folded individual poems printed on pristine paper into an astonishing assortment of vessekaren folding (356x600)ls – catamarans, canoes, kayaks,  outriggers – and set them free into the river.

sheila at river

the row of boats

The next week, on a road trip to Prince Rupert, we watched for them all along the Skeena, right down to the estuary. No sign of them, but we hope they are being enjoyed by all the young salmon making their way to the ocean.

upriver 3 (600x338)

Thanks to Emily Bulmer for the great idea!