Should we stay or should we go?

It’s been a tumultuous few months in Driftwood Canyon. About a year ago we began to think about moving to the coast. Back to Powell River, the town where I grew up. Indeed, back into the house where my mother still lives. Where I’m writing this now.

No one was more surprised than I was. For years I thought the farthest I’d move was the fifteen km into Smithers. Anyone who’s read my blog here, or my other writing, can’t help but know how much the Bulkley Valley has been part of our lives; I met my husband (t)here, our kids were born and raised (t)here, we’ve hiked and snowshoed the hills for over forty years, we have deep and richly satisfying roots (t)here. I agreed with Wendell Berry and Pete Seeger advising us to settle in a place and stick to it.

But priorities shift. And while obstinance is a familiar stance for me, I am adaptable. And my mom, approaching 95, lives in a large house beside the ocean. So here we are.

I cringe a little when people say something is meant to be. It’s nice when things fall into place, but I don’t believe there are forces in the universe re-arranging the furniture to open up new opportunities for you or me. But when we talked to the ducks, they lined up in a lovely row.  One day I met an acquaintance in the drug store, told her we were moving, and asked in jest, do you want to buy a house in the country? She looked at me funny and we both laughed. The next week she appeared on our doorstep with her partner; we had tea and showed them around. They began to arrange financing. And that was pretty much it: we had four months to choose what to keep and what to clear out from forty years of feathers, skulls, stones, nests, books, toys, letters, photographs, and internal combustion engines. We had four months to finish editing, designing and printing Creekstone’s latest book. We launched Song of the Earth: The Life of Alfred Joseph by Ross Hoffman at the Hagwilget Gathering Place the night before we left.

As for the signs:

The winter was long and cold.

A fellow whose property touches Driftwood Road decided to log down the steep bank right to the road, haul out a few truckloads and leave a mess for his neighbours to enjoy.

Another fellow had been logging on his property further up the creek; he wasn’t allowed to haul his logs out Driftwood Road, but the wetlands we snowshoed in for years are now islands within cut blocks.

The willows are dying; the beautiful scrub willows that have given shape to a landscape of straight trees – spruce, pine, aspen, birch and cottonwood – and made enchanting nooks and crannies and forts and benches of lichen-spattered bark, the host for the fragrant fungus that sets you sniffing at stray wisp of something like vanilla. The beautiful smell of willow burning in the stove. The willow borer has laid waste to them and their dead lie strewn across the steep canyon walls, just waiting for another kind of fire.









The spring turned dry and dusty, great clouds rising off roads and parking lots.

And then there’s the wheelbarrow. I’ve been rewriting the ending of my wheelbarrow poem for twenty years – and when we celebrated our fortieth year beside Driftwood Creek, it became “Forty years: one house, one husband, one wheelbarrow.” We’d had many discussions about what to take to Powell River. What to give to friends, to the thrift store, what to throw away. A week before the moving van was scheduled to arrive, we talked about that wheelbarrow. It seemed silly to take it; my mom has two. The next day, Lynn brought up a load of firewood and returned to the woodshed with the empty barrow. One of the handles fell off.  I’m not sure what that signified. A certain kind of obstinacy of its own.

Choosing to move didn’t mean it would happen. Or that it was meant to happen, as tempting as that thought is. I became particularly fond of the idea of unexpected connections years ago, reading parts of David McFadden’s Great Lakes Suite: A Trip Around Lake Ontario, first published in 1988, as well as A Trip Around Lake Erie and A Trip Around Lake Huron, both first published in 1980. McFadden always found significance in seemingly random occurrences. But perhaps find isn’t the right word. Perhaps create is more accurate. Which is what writing does, at least for me. Creates significance, meaning.

We’re here now and beginning to get our bearings. The harlequins we looked for this time of year in Driftwood Creek are floating right below my mother’s house. White-crowned sparrows that cleaned up under our bird feeders in Smithers forage under her shrubs. But the mammals we see are seals, sea lions, orcas, otters. The birds we feed are gulls and crows. And after all those years living in a canyon, watching the evening sun play across the trees down the road, we can stand outside and watch sunsets that go on and on.


Into Silverking

After reading Mel and Evi’s memories of Gisela and Silverking, we set off on Sunday to see just how far we could get into the basin before the snow defeated us. Last year this time, remnant snow appeared just after the Danny Moore confluence and we were only able to get as far as the cabin because a handy troupe of high school students had snowshoed in a few days earlier and a hard frost the night before solidified their track very nicely for us.

This past Sunday, we once again had a nasty frost down in the canyon; luckily I responded to the cold and clear sky just before I went to bed and covered the marigolds and zucchini. Ice furred the perennials and froze any standing water. Most plants survived, though I’m sure they’re all just a little shocked. But I checked back in our weather diaries – about 20 years worth – and June frosts appear regularly. As do days with highs of 30.

Elderberry bursting into leaf.


We had easy walking most of the way. Saw a harlequin pair just below Danny Moore creek, rays of light illuminating the male’s colours. A spruce grouse in a sub-alpine fir  – red eyebrows flashing in the gloom. The greenery exploding; yellow violets, some budding lupines.

If you look closely, you can see the harlequin pair.

Then, just below the basin, snow. And postholing. It’s like walking a tightrope strung about three feet above the ground … stepping lightly, balancing, holding your breath, arms out until wham, you break through, thigh deep in snow. Haul your leg out and recommence the breath, the light steps until you’re down again. You look ahead at your companions who stagger like drunks, lurching and cursing.


But it was well worth it, eating lunch on the deck of the Joe L’Orsa cabin, sun shining, no mosquitoes. I notice in our weather diaries this time of year, all the notes about bugs or the blessed lack of them. We were lucky.


The cabin is beautiful – a log structure that is much more than a cabin. Built by local log house builders, Wes Giesbrecht and Dennis Clark, I well remember the day they helicoptered the huge logs from Wes and Dennis’ building site right over our house into the basin. More on that another day.


There are three log books in the cabin now – all telling stories of visits to the basin, summer, fall, winter and spring. School trips, visitors from around the world, people re-visiting their youth, remembering loved ones, out for adventure. The ones who come year after year. Notations about birds, plants, snow depth, avalanche risk, the state of the cabin, animal sightings.


Just as we walk the same stretch of road day after day, year after year, noting both returns and losses, seeing how the freshet changes the curve of the creek, tumbles old trails into the water, we walk year after year into Silverking Basin. Remembering when the big flood took out the bridges. When the road was re-routed and new creekbeds carved. Grateful to still be able to make the journey.

Lynn inside Joe L’Orsa cabin.





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.

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.