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.

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.