The creek is rising

We woke up to snow this morning – and the roar of a rising creek. No rocks rumbling, though, so it’s not out of control. Last night we saw a pair of harlequins up by the log jam, sitting a few feet apart on a tiny gravel bar.  Just beside them, a willow branch was flailing in the current and we figured it had been ripped out upstream. Then a dark shape rose underneath it, dragged it over to the bank and disappeared. A beaver. We watched for several minutes, but it didn’t re-appear.

This morning, standing on the bridge at Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park looking downstream – a pair of harlequins. We assumed it was the same pair we saw last night. Turning to walk up the creek, Lynn spotted another pair, just a few metres above the others – the first time we’ve seen two pairs at the same time on the same stretch of creek.

We’ve often speculated about their nesting habits – and wondered what effect high water has on them. I’ve excerpted this from The Bizarre Life of the Harlequin Duck by Gary Turback. It answers many of our questions:

Although classified as sea ducks, these avian mariners weigh anchor each spring and migrate inland to breed. The Pacific birds wend their way to rushing, tumbling mountain streams, while the eastern birds settle on turbulent rivers primarily in Quebec and Labrador but occasionally in Newfoundland. The Pacific harlequin is the only duck in the world that divides its time between sea and mountains.

In spring, breeding-age western harlequins–those two years and older–leave Pacific coastal waters for mountain streams in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. A few even cross the Continental Divide to nest. Researchers believe some harlequins journey from sea to summit as anadromous fish do–by following streams.

Harlequin society is matriarchal, with adult females returning salmonlike to their natal streams to reproduce. “While on the coast, a young female picks out a bachelor to take home,” says John Ashley, a wildlife biologist at Glacier National Park. Because nesting females are more vulnerable to predation than are males, plenty of unpaired males also show up on the mating grounds, although they rarely get a chance to breed.

A harlequin pair may remain together for years, apparently with great loyalty. In 1992 on Washington’s Morse Creek, Schirato and fellow Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Matt Nixon captured a female in a banding net, but her mate escaped downstream. Seeing his partner detained, the male returned to the net, repeatedly called to her and eventually became entangled himself. “I’ve never seen other ducks do that,” says Schirato.

In May or June, the female lays about six eggs in a nest expertly concealed in streamside vegetation, a hollow tree or logjam. The male now returns to the ocean, precluding any possibility of renesting if the eggs are destroyed. Oddly, some unpaired females choose this late time to migrate inland. “It’s possible,” says Ashley, “that these females might pass the ocean-bound males headed in the opposite direction.” The tardy females, which are young birds looking for future nest sites, do not mate.

With luck, a mated hen will produce a few new harlequins. “Generally, harlequin reproduction is rather abysmal,” says Reichel. “They don’t breed until they’re two years of age or older, they lay relatively few eggs, and they can’t renest if they lose their clutch.”

Mink, goshawks and other predators likely kill some ducklings, but probably a greater proportion of harlequin young fall victim to cold weather or high water. Raging streams do not bother the adults, however, thanks to swimming skills that sometimes seem almost fishlike. For them, no torrent is too turbulent. “Harlequins routinely navigate rapids–with water spraying and foam flying–that few kayakers would ever enter,” says Ashley.

The duck even feeds in the seething current, diving to force its way to the stream bottom. With wings held tight against its body and feet pumping rearward like propellers, the bird noses troutlike from rock to rock, searching for aquatic insects to eat. Meanwhile, the water churns around it. “It must be like swimming in a washing machine,” says Ashley. After 20 or 30 seconds, the harlequin bobs to the surface for air, then dives again.

For adults, the swift current provides the best defense against most dangers. When threatened, a harlequin simply swims into the watery maelstrom and is swept downstream to safety. On the relatively rare occasions when stream-dwelling harlequins fly, they remain low and follow the stream’s every twist and turn.

Practicing in quiet backwaters, young harlequins soon become adept at negotiating tricky currents. Before they learn to fly, however, their mother may return to the coast, leaving the youngsters to fend–and navigate–for themselves. “Some hormonal urge must tell the female to migrate now!” speculates Cassirer. “Fortunately, the young somehow know where to go when they later learn to fly.” The prevailing theory holds that hens (and the males before them) must return to the coast before their annual molt renders them flightless.

By late September, virtually all harlequins are in coastal wintering areas, where they congregate in substantial flocks and feed in the nutrient-rich intertidal zone. Often, they forgo protected bays in favor of the roaring surf. Violent water, it seems, is in their blood.


A mist drifted up the canyon a couple of nights ago. I’m not sure where it came from – it wasn’t one of those cold air, warm water ones. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the creek or, lower down, the river. It drifted up and turned everything dark; the cottonwood branches spooky black lines disappearing into grey, the evening early, quiet. No frost at night. Then it rained. Rained hard.

Everything changed.

We catch a whiff of cottonwood buds fattening up, the nettles pop out of last year’s tangle, the wild currants are in leaf. Chickadees, of course, and juncos. Nuthatches and robins. The racket of hummingbirds at the feeder, sapsuckers, flickers, even snipes in the distance. White-crowned sparrows scratching for seeds. The ravens nesting just up the creek cruise through, looking for dinner.

We can hear the creek now from our bedroom window. It’s rising, darkening, foaming at obstructions. A pair of harlequins are courting just above the log jam where yellow-rumped warblers flutter and snatch at the surface of the water. A spotted sandpiper stares at us. Golden-crowned kinglets buzz in the spruce trees beside us. We wait for the lone Pacific wren to begin its aria.

The lobaria, ashy flakes just last week, is plumped up green and luscious. Alectoria and usnea, glittering with raindrops.  Xanthoria’s orange, even brighter.

The air is soft and alive with colour, with movement, with music.

Thanks to our neighbour, Greg Wedlock, for the harlequin photos.

Walter Faeh – above the mouth of the creek

If you’ve ever been to Smithers, you’ll have seen the man blowing the alpenhorn at the highway end of Main Street, you’ll have seen buildings faced with white stucco, false shutters stenciled in floral motifs,  decorative balconies, and pitched roofs – all the result of an official alpine theme adopted by the town in the nineties.

Why the alpine theme? Well, the mountains, obviously.  And those picturesque dairy farms dotting the surrounding rural landscape. Sure. But, really? A little Switzerland motif smack in the middle of Wet’suwet’en territory? Seems crazy.

But I have to admit, it doesn’t seem to have ruffled any feathers. Both the Office of the Wet’suwet’en and the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre offices follow the guidelines.




Which all goes to show that the Swiss immigrants, who mostly arrived in the mid-thirties, have maintained a strong cultural presence in the community. And a strong presence in the Driftwood watershed. A survey of the early owners of rural properties within its drainage includes the L’Orsas, the Nagelis, the Sturzeneggers, and the Tugnums. In fact, they are all still here, the Nagelis and Sturzeneggers still raising cattle. But they weren’t the first. In 2006, the Bulkley Valley Swiss Club published Stories of Swiss Settlement in the Bulkley Valley 1910-1960. The first entry tells the story of Walter Faeh – I’ve reproduced much of it below, with their permission.

Walter Faeh was the first Swiss known to have settled in the Bulkley Valley. He was born in Basel on 19 November, 1887. After attending a commercial college there, he started a career in business. However, he was not born to earn his living in an office. In 1909 he left for Canada and found a job on a farm in Saskatchewan, where he worked very long hours for $10 a month. When word reached him that railroad construction labourers were getting 15 cents an hour and only had to put in a ten-hour day, he packed his bags, walked four miles to the railway and flagged down a train. In Saskatoon, he was hired on a Grand Trunk Pacific Railway construction crew. He soon found his way to Vancouver after stops in Edmonton and Calgary.

In 1910 he took a boat from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, where he boarded the newly built sternwheeler S.S. Inlander and steamed up the Skeena River to Grand Trunk Pacific construction Camp 166, where he worked for a few months. There were still about four years of railway construction to go before the last spike was driven in April 1914, and Walter could have been employed for some time if that had been his wish, but he had heard about the excellent farm lands being made available to settlers in the Bulkley Valley and that is what really interested him.

He was soon on the move again. He walked upstream along the Skeena River, presumably on the newly surveyed rail right-of-way, to about Skeena Crossing. There he found a Native who rowed him across the river for fifty cents. The following day he walked to Sealy Landing where railway contractors Foley, Welch and Stewart had a large depot and construction camp. In the barber shop Walter mentioned his intention of taking up land in the Bulkley Valley, and the barber offered him a quarter section there that he had optioned. For $100 the barber would cancel his option and Walter could file on it. Walter decided to investigate, walked up to the mouth of the Bulkley River, crossed on the ferry to Old Hazelton and visited C.G. (Peavine) Harvey’s real estate office, where he saw that most of the best Bulkley Valley land had been preempted. He decided to take the barber’s offer. The final cost of this quarter section (Lot 1182) was $300, because Walter was obliged to pay the government one dollar per acre, plus 25 cents an acre for the legal survey. Additional conditions of the preemption required that, over three years, he had to make certain improvements to the property and reside there six months each year. When those conditions were fulfilled, he would receive a deed to the land.

Around Christmas-time Walter bought about 1,000 pounds of supplies and equipment at the Hudson’s Bay store in Hazelton and had the load transported to the Cronin ranch (Lot 859) at Glentanna for $20. He apparently accompanied his outfit and packed the supplies down to Joe Matus’ place (Lot 855) on Driftwood Creek. From there he had to find his land, which he did by following the new survey lines to the northeast corner of his Lot 1182, where he constructed a rough shelter and stored his things. After exploring his property, he chose a good place to build a cabin. After a few days, Joe Griffin came down to see if the greenhorn was frozen yet, because the temperature was about 40° below zero. Not quite, but a few days later Walter froze a big toe and had to move into Matt Malkow’s cabin on an adjacent homestead, which was empty for the winter.

In the spring of 1911 Walter built his first cabin. When he needed supplies, he had to walk to Aldermere (about 18 km) or Hazelton (about 65 km), until the railway was constructed through Smithers and the townsite was established in 1913. Snake Road, which went past his farm, was also constructed about 1913. Walter spent his summers clearing land, erecting farm buildings, haying and fencing. He eventually cleared about sixty acres of land, all by hand. He used the cleared land to grow hay, which he sold, saving only what he needed for his team of horses. When the Swiss Settlement Delegation visited him during their survey to determine the suitability of the Bulkley Valley for Swiss settlers, he is reported to have pointed to his modest hayfield and said, “There, twenty-five years of hard work.” Walter was, at times, hired on as a faller in a logging camp during the winter, and he worked underground at the Telkwa coal mine in 1943.

Walter never married. He seemed to be a perfectly contented bachelor. His only known vice was an addiction to Copenhagen brand chewing tobacco, or “snoose” as it was called. In addition to farm work, he spent much of each summer prospecting for mineral deposits, using a pendulum as a guide. He found coal along lower Driftwood Creek and did a considerable amount of work on that prospect, but he never found anything that he could sell. Walter enjoyed being out in the hills, and it is doubtful that he really cared whether he found anything of serious economic interest or not. He was quiet and unassuming, with a sparkle in his eye, a ready chuckle and a philosophical optimism that made him a well-liked and respected member of the community. He was very much a free man. He dressed very well when he went to town. He did not own a car. He walked to town or caught a ride with a neighbour or, when Wall’s Taxi used to make the Glentanna-Driftwood loop on Saturdays, he joined Bill Bruce and others and paid 50 cents to go to town that way. He had no telephone, no electricity, no running water and no debts, and that was just the way he wanted it.

In the mid-1970s Walter sold his farm to Leroy Taylor, but he still lived there during the summer. He started spending the winters in Smithers in the Bulkley Hotel, accompanied by his friend Bill Bruce. He tried one winter in Vancouver, but he did not like it enough to go back again. Eventually, he moved into the Bulkley Lodge extended care home in Smithers, where he enjoyed the companionship of many friends and the luxury of someone else doing the cooking. Walter passed away on 8 October, 1984.

Bill Metcalfe, an old friend of ours, lived in Jim Briggs Sr.’s  old farmhouse across the road from the beautiful driveway leading through pasture and aspens to Walter’s cabin. When he took us for a walk there more than 35 years ago now, we went right down to the river where the underbrush opens to the wreck of an old cabin in a clearing beside the Bulkley, between its confluence with Canyon Creek and Driftwood Creek. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of property in the valley. Leroy Taylor lets us walk or snowshoe through there every couple of years.

Just last week Leroy told me the story of a man who owned the clearing. He grew potatoes down there (it used to be land right down beside the river would have about two more frost-free weeks on either end of the growing season, Leroy says, but that seems to have changed now) and would haul them up every fall to sell. One year an early frost killed them all so he packed it in and sold the land to Walter. The property came to Leroy when he bought Walter’s place.

“Come spring Walter would go out and cut down some poplars and haul them over to his cabin. When he had enough firewood to get through the next winter, usually in May, he’d start doing his prospecting – he went all over the place doing that.”

The Briggs’ place is gone now – and Walter’s cabin is beginning to fall apart. But it’s positioned in such a way to tell the story of a man with an unerring sense of beauty, his windows looking out across a hard-won clearing to the mountain across the river. And still with plenty of space for the most restless of spirits.






The harlequins are here again

Just this past week, we’ve spotted the harlequin ducks on the creek, within a week of the time they show up every year – shortly after the sandhill crane migration has moved further north. Friends on Haida Gwaii report seeing over 200 of the ducks just offshore from Sandspit. Why some choose mountain streams and others stay on the coast is a mystery. Maybe for the same reasons some of us leave the salt chuck and head for the mountains.

I wrote this post for my Say The Names blog back in May, 2012 and thought I’d share it here.

We’ve been out looking for a couple of weeks now, wandering the edges of the creek, noting the rise and fall of the water, the muddy and nutrient foam tricking our eyes into seeing ducks bobbing in the back eddies.

This morning, just across from a small viewing platform in Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park, we saw the usual three: two males and a female. We stood high up on one bank of the creek; they hopped up onto rocks on the other side and we all had a good look at each other.
There’s a fascinating Species at Risk Study that outlines their use of creeks for breeding – they tend to form long-term bonds and the females will take up to four years to reach reproductive maturity. Having clear, fast-flowing streams seems to be essential to their survival because they feed on the “invertebrates in the substrate” – i.e. all the little creatures wriggling around in creek gravel. Dippers eat from the same table.
They are both markers of the ways in which home is one specific and familiar place connected to the greater world in ways we barely comprehend.

Stories looking for home

We writers are always talking about the importance of stories. Of the ways in which stories reflect a culture back to itself – for teaching, for entertainment, for the record. For thoughtful commentary. So we’re always tickled to find anyone who agrees. Especially a couple of law professors. Of course common law is really based on old stories, so I guess it makes a kind of sense.

In “Indigenous Law and Legal Pluralism”, Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland illustrate ways in which indigenous legal traditions can be respectfully accessed by “applying legal analysis and synthesis to … stories, narratives, and oral histories.” (Napoleon and Friedland are part of a movement trying to build a bridge between indigenous and western legal traditions. Val is the director of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic; Hadley was its research director until last year.)

The article opens by quoting George Blondin from When the World was New: Stories of the Sahtu Dene:

It used to be that every family with a living grandfather or grandmother possessed a storyteller from another time. The duty of storytellers was to tell stories every day. That is why Dene tradition is so complete, as far back as the days when [Naá]cho–giant now-extinct animals–roamed the world.

Over the years, we have heard many stories from the Driftwood watershed. The year Cronin mine mailman Joe Pekoe was killed in an avalanche. Other men killed in sawmill accidents. The time Katherine Harvey stole her husband Peavine’s chimney from his cabin beside his mine workings because she and their son Gordon had run out of money. Instead of coming home, he had her charged with theft and she spent the winter in jail in Vancouver (this may be apocryphal as there’s also a story about him breaking an arm and Katherine using a stove pipe for a splint). The time two women stood outside the foreman’s cabin in Silverking Basin at night at 30 below, their ski boots in their hands, ready to depart because they got the old airtight burning so hot it was a reverberating bright red.

Hadley and Val conclude “Indigenous Law” with a reference to a statement in Harold Norman’s article, “Crow Ducks and Other Wandering Talk”. Creek elder John Rains saw ten dead and mangled crows on the snow in the bush: “Some story will come along and find those crows, and use them,” he said.

Norman continues:

To the Cree, stories are animate beings. One could tell a biography of a single Cree story (which would be a story in itself) just as one could tell the natural history of an animal.  In this respect, one could ask, What do stories do when they are not being told? Do they live in villages? Some Cree say they do. Do they tell each other to each other? Some Cree say this is true as well. Certain stories live out in the world, looking for episodes to add to themselves. Therefore, we can understand John Rains’ belief that eventually a story would find the torn crows. Later that story would find a Cree person, inhabit that person awhile, and be told back out into the world again.

What a tantalizing concept for a writer! Stories do seem to find themselves, to create themselves and some of us are lucky enough (or not) to be inhabited by them. Think of the possibilities.

Now think of all that stories that might find their way into the creek: the water running, slipping and sliding down, down, down as it always does, some splashed up into the air, some going down your thirsty throat, some pausing in a back eddy or a quiet pool. It parts and connects, parts and connects in a most lively manner. Think of the stories swirling down its path to find their way out into the world.

The time our neighbour, in the wild spring freshet, launched his canoe, paddled down to the fossil beds, and survived. You’ve heard that expression, three sheets to the wind? Years later, we found a half-crushed canoe beside the creek. Not his, he swears. I still have a piece of it my office. Now I know why I’ve kept it all these years. I’m waiting for its story to stop by and pick it up.

Think of the gossip in every back eddy.

Did you see the moose stumble and fall? Ah yes, that moose is nothing but bones now and see, here comes a trickle of its blood. Did you see us tear that bridge right off its footings? Oh yes, we shoved it right up against that house, they were all asleep and we scared them silly. Remember those kids throwing rocks for the big red dog, how he scrabbled to retrieve them? The mud he churned up? Well, here he comes, look out!

And swoosh, those molecules of hydrogen and oxygen are thrown back into the melee, molecules that held shape and form in three dimensions, snow that held a preening whiskey jack, snow that was eaten and pissed out by goats, by moose, by thirsty skiers and sawyers.

Remember, says the muddy stream, thick with memories, carrying a spruce branch drunken with sorrow, travelling together long enough to tell about the mittens snagged on the branch, the smell of wet wool bringing back the spruce’s memory of the sawyer stripping off his shirt in the heat of the work and tossing it down on top of the tree when it was barely bigger than a twig, and now the branch is useless, no needles, no purpose, a forgotten vestige broken off in a skier’s passing, dropped onto the snow on top of the ice and here it is telling the creek about the smell of horses, of diesel and the cries of working men.

Around and around it all goes until something – a pebble tossed, a rubber boot slipping off a stone, a fox bending to drink – sends it all off again, the water and the stories together.

And this time of year, the whole world, it seems, is dripping and melting and water is trickling, burbling, sending little creeks running through the woodshed, under the deck, down into the garden, into the pond, under the road and into the still half-frozen creek. Past the old spruce tree where raucous crows are nesting. Everywhere, winter stories looking for a home.


The stories I miss – the ones I hear only as rumours – are Wet’suwet’en stories: rumours of sacred places, of marmot hunts, of goats, of the vanished caribou. C’ide’ Yïkwah or Driftwood Creek marks the division between two territories, that of Wos of the Gidimt’en Clan and that of Ut’akhgit of the Likhsilyu Clan, a name currently held by Henry Alfred. You know it carries many stories. It’s time to listen up.

“Indigenous Law and Legal Pluralism” appears in a special issue of the McGill Law Journal, 61:4.

Driftwood Creek watershed – the map

What exactly is a watershed? When I asked map maker extraordinaire Morgan Hite to make a map of Driftwood Creek’s watershed, he did indeed make a beautiful one. But he first had a few words to say about the concept itself:

Sometimes I like the theoretical abstraction of the watershed, but other times it troubles me. The theoretical bit is this: If you hike up into the mountains, sit down on a convenient rock, and pull out your water bottle, and then you empty that water bottle onto the ground (because you’ve just, perhaps, found a spring of better-tasting water), where will that water go? And the theoretical answer is that it will run downhill, into the nearest creek, and thence down to a river and on to the ocean. It’s kind of like Paddle to the Sea, where the tiny canoe goes from the Ontario uplands to the Atlantic. Everywhere From Which Downhill Leads To Here: that’s a watershed.

The troubling bit is that in reality the water you pour out onto the ground will not run to the nearest creek. It sinks into the soil and disappears. Or, if you are on something impermeable, like solid rock or pavement, it runs out until it is spread thin, and then evaporates. Either way it does not reach the nearest creek. You can try this.

So given that water’s actual behaviour is to mix with buried groundwater, or join the vaporous air, is a watershed even a real thing? If we tried to map it, would we have to include all that underground and all that atmosphere? If the concept is irreproducable by experiment, is it still a valuable idea?

I’m still pondering that. It didn’t prevent me from mapping the watershed though. The theoretical watershed.

(It’s a large file – if you click on it, you’ll see the detail more clearly.)

This is how Morgan went about making the map:

With Driftwood Creek I wanted to make a map that presents the watershed embedded in the larger landscape. It should be apparent that you can drive or walk into and out of the watershed, whether you use trails or roads.

From a 1988 map that Marvin George and Neil Sterritt prepared, called the “Territory of WAH KAH KEG’HT,” I was able to draw a few Wet’suwet’en place names. Spellings have changed in the 29 years since then; Wah Kah Keg’ht, for example, is now usually written Ut’akhgit (a chief of the Likhsilyu/Small Frog clan, a name currently held by Henry Alfred). C’ede’i Kwe (Driftwood Creek) is now written C’ide’ Yïkwah. For consistency, I stuck to the old spellings.

I was surprised to learn that, although Driftwood Creek seems to be simply across the river and up the hill from Smithers, it is in fact farther north. If you went due east from Lake Kathlyn and the airport, you would hit Glenwood Hall, the southernmost point in Driftwood Creek’s watershed.

The width of creeks is exaggerated on the map, because water is the main theme. I show Driftwood Creek as 55 metres across. It’s really only about ten.

I wanted to fade the area outside the watershed, but not to fade as much the roads, trails, contours and creeks. So I used two partially transparent masks: one that fades everything equally, and a second that acts only on the basemap of shaded relief and forest type.

The shaded relief, which gives the map its 3D look, is based on measurements made from the Space Shuttle. One of its missions was to use radar to measure the height and shape of every mountain, ridge, valley and depression it flew over. Bright areas and shadows are based on a (hypothetical) sun in the north-northwest.

Unexpectedly, the Driftwood Creek watershed turns out to look like a puffin. Silverking Lake is the eye, and the place where Driftwood Creek flows into the Bulkley is the tail.

Morgan also created a 3D version of the map that gives a visual sense of not only the distance, but the altitude gained if you were to walk or bike from the Snake Road Bridge crossing into Silverking Basin. Thanks for both of these, Morgan.

Christine Holland Buchholz – Ggunek (Hummingbird) Dec. 24. 1931 – January 20, 2017

Joe L’Orsa used to tell us we lived in Upper Driftwood, a joke to make sure we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. But I have to admit, it’s when I turn off the Telkwa Highroad onto Driftwood Road, onto the section of road that follows the creek from the schoolhouse right into Silver King Basin, that’s when I feel most at home. Of the nine families that lived along Driftwood Road when we arrived, four are still here. One of the most recent departures was that of Christine and Herb Buchholtz; they moved out of their small cabin into their granddaughter Cinamon’s house at Moricetown. I think of all of us, they were here first. Which makes sense in a way because Christine, who passed away in January, was Wet’suwet’en and her people have been here for thousands of years.

The family prepared a wonderfully detailed biography of Christine and I have, with their permission, excerpted much of it here.

Christine was born in Smithers, the oldest of five children. Her mother was Esther Baptiste of the Laksilyu (small frog) clan; her father was Joshua Holland of the Tsayu (beaver) clan. Her grandparents, Jean Paul and Sarah Baptiste refused to be relocated to Moricetown; the reserve established at their homesite on Babine Lake Road is named after them. Christine did not have any formal education. Her grandmother chased the priest away with a stick and did not allow her to attend any residential schools. She received the best education a person can ever have – to be taught by her parents and grandparents. They taught her how to carry herself with confidence in the feast hall, how to care for her children and husband.

She met Herb Buchholz in 1957. They married in 1962 and were together until her death this winter. They made their home in Driftwood Canyon where they raised their eight children and three of their grandchildren.

Daughter-in-law Heather Buchholz told me that in the very early seventies, Herb had heard there was a cheap cabin for rent out there, by a guy named Gerry Langen. Eventually Langen sold the property to Hans Tugnum [who still lives across the creek], and moved back to Saskatchewan. Their original neighbours, before Sonja and Richard Lester, were a young hippy guy named Thor (who dad used to get quite a kick out of), and Andrew George, who ran for mayor one year, also rented a cabin on some adjacent property.

I remember seeing the grandkids, Cinamon and David, walking to the school bus stop; later Herb and Christine would drive up to the corner to get another grandchild, Damian, off to school. They’d be there waiting for the bus in the afternoon. We’d often chat when we stopped to pick up our mail.

Their cabin had no running water or electricity. Christine helped haul water and kept the house nice and cozy. She always had big meals prepared for her children. Her routine was grocery shopping on Fridays and laundry on Saturdays. She would wash the clothes at a laundromat and bring them back to hang on her clothes line.

Christine loved nature. They had a huge fire pit and every evening the family would gather, telling stories until late at night. Herb would tell stories and Christine really loved that. Herb was German. Two of his sisters came and fell in love with the family and to this day exchange letters and pictures.

Both Christine and Herb always made Christmas beautiful at the cabin. They never forgot birthday parties and all of the other festivities throughout the year. Christine loved to travel, take weekend trips, take the kids camping, even to go out for a load of wood. She just loved to be outside.

They would take trips to Vancouver to visit family. Her favorite places were Stewart, Cook Lake, Telkwa Highroad area, Barkerville and Hankin Lake. They would go to Hankin Lake every year as a memorial trip in celebration of life of their late son Werner. She loved going to Barkerville hotel to play the slots and have breakfast. She always won their meat draws and enjoyed their clam chowder at the Barkerville Legion.

When their son, Lester, started playing hockey, they built a huge outside rink so the boys could play and practice hockey. Christine was the loudest fan when Lester played for the Smithers Totems and Moricetown Canyon Bears. They followed the Smithers Totems when they travelled to Kitimaat, Houston and other tournaments. They were proud number one fans.

Christine worked at the cannery in Prince Rupert. She also worked with the nuns at the Smithers hospital. She would sterilize the surgical instruments, wash and re-roll the gauzes. She also worked at the nursery in Telkwa. She liked to sketch native art work, kind of primitive bows and arrows, warrior figures. A couple of years ago, she joined the moccasins-making workshop at the Friendship Center. She made two pairs and gave them to her daughters-in-law.

Cinamon recalls Freda Huson’s drumming group with Molly Wickham singing the Grouse song, which was Christine’s favorite song; she started crying and told her story about how her grandmother used to sing that song for her. Christine was a firm believer in traditional food such as bear grease, ooligan grease, wildlife food. She thought that people would be healthier if they ate more traditionally. She taught Heather how to pick soap berries.

One day I was driving to work very early in the morning. Just at the curve of the road near their driveway, I saw a deer had been killed by a car. It was still warm. Not wanting to leave it there, I went down to the cabin and knocked on the door, thinking Herb and Christine might be able to salvage its meat. Herb opened the door and, as I explained about the deer, the warmth from the cabin rolled out around me and I saw Christine sitting up in bed, like a sleepy queen. I’ve never forgotten the warmth I felt there and was reminded of it when I read this:

Her granddaughter Cinamon recalls how she would start putting on her makeup and put on perfume and nice clothes every day. Cinamon asked her, “Are we going somewhere, Grandma?” Christine told her no, Daddy will be home soon and I want to be beautiful for him. She taught her children all the wisdom she received from her home schooling. She always told them to never leave the children alone and always try to look their best. Christine loved to buy expensive jewelry and beautiful things. If she couldn’t afford them, she would arrange payment plans and pay for all of her items. She was a devoted Avon customer.

Elvis Presley was her idol. She loved his music and passed that love onto her children and grandchildren. She would attend any Elvis impersonators whenever she could.

When her daughter-in-law Darlene took her name at the feast hall she was very supportive and helped her with the preparations. She was proud of her accomplishments and how she carried herself at the feast hall.

We were always impressed with the family’s resilience through many losses; the children’s and grandchildren’s testimonials at Christine’s funeral speak to the warmth and generosity she provided and how she and Herb made their tiny cabin an oasis of stability in a complicated world.



We love to tell a story that reflects Herb’s ability with the internal combustion engine. The number of cars, trucks and buses on the property finally became a bit of a concern and Hans Tugnum had many of them hauled away when Christine and Herb moved to Moricetown. But Herb always seemed like a wizard to us: one evening in the depth of a 1980s winter, when we were still driving an old Scout, the thing just died and we barely managed to coast over to the side of the road on the hill heading down to Canyon Creek. Lynn struck a few matches under the hood but couldn’t see anything in the brief sputtering light. Herb drove up beside us and felt around under the hood – alakazam! the Scout started right up. Herb remembers the night, Heather says. something about a wire to the distributor. Many of our neighbours helped us out over the years, but that night was something special.


I also need to mention Christine’s Wet’suwet’en name: Ggunek, which means hummingbird. Her grandchildren mentioned its significance in their remembrances of her. Milan told the story of catching a trapped bird in a cloth and bringing it to her: When we opened the cloth that lil bird sat there while she pet it…always wondered why it didn’t just fly away…out on its way it beeped twice, spread its wings and was gone. We laughed so hard…

Jenni’s discovery of her grandmother’s name solved a few mysteries about my grandma, but … also created a few new ones. Watching the hummingbird over the summer since, it seemed that – though small – they could be fierce when defending themselves, their homes, and their children, and they were beautiful, proud little creatures. Like her namesake, grandma was never – ever – afraid to fight for her loved ones and strength hidden amongst dignity and beauty, is a long and ancient legacy of our people. This was my grandma in so many ways…proud, beautiful and strong.


Thanks to Birdy Markert for giving me the biography prepared for Christine’s funeral, and to Cinamon for putting me in touch with Heather who sent photos and memories:

I tried to send something of mom and dad from when they were a younger, to an older couple. The creek pictures are significant, because they represented a lifetime supply of good drinking water, a place to clean their fish, water to clean themselves, and their home year-round. The solitude and peaceful atmosphere of Driftwood lent something good, not only to mom and dad, but also to the rest of us who visited or lived there. 

A date with poetry

In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver opens with a chapter called “Getting Ready.” She writes of Romeo and Juliet making appointments to meet. If they keep those appointments, well, we know what happens. But if they didn’t show up, “there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them.”

She continues to say that “writing a poem is not so different – it is a kind of love affair between something like the heart and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen.” If they “fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.”

This is what I tell myself day after day as I walk to the creek and the dippers fail to appear in their usual places. As I lean way over the railing of the bridge to see if one is hidden underneath. I’m embarrassed to say I sometimes drop a stone to surprise one into flight. To no avail. I suspect they’re off building nests, perhaps already sitting on eggs. The jays are gone too, and the red-polls.

There are robins now and varied thrushes. I expect to see juncos any day and hope, as I hope every year about this time, to see gray-crowned rosy-finches rising and falling, chattering and buzzing in the seeds scattered under the feeders. Mountain bluebirds, warblers and Pacific wrens are all gathering, on the wing, coming this way. And the harlequins, the sandhill cranes!

Dan Shervill photo

Yes, everywhere things are stirring even though the creek is still a silent twist of snow, the openings sparse and quiet.

But still, I’m certain there are dippers on the creek, pairing up, keeping their lovers’ appointments. And here I am, back upstairs.



Outside the wind is doing its spring gusting, its seasonal swagger. In here, I’m listening for the squawk a dipper lets out when you startle it up from its feeding rituals. I might even be flipping a stone into the water. My pen is moving.

            A closeup from a Rick Howell photo

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.


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.”


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 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.




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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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


Lynn looking across toward Mount Hyland from Silver King Lake.


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