Teetering past the solstice


Oh, it can be dark here in the canyon in December. Three hours of direct sunlight if we’re lucky. And cold. The solstice arrived with, finally, a dipper on the creek below the bridge up the road from our place. The one where the outlet of the ground water seeping out of Gordon Harvey’s old park enters the creek and makes an open spot even when everything is frozen. The old park where little bridges used to cross the creeklets trickling through tall spruce and cottonwood. A carved bear, long gone. A guest book anchored to a tree, also gone.

The solstice also brings a plane landing into the -14 winter evening. On it, our elder son and his fiance. Vancouver kids shivering in the cold. Life in the house doubles. That night, wolves howl nearby. It feels like a sign, a return of life and light. The next day, -20, we climb the hill and look for tracks. We don’t find them but we relish the sunlight as we look across the valley, its murky air.

The other boy arrives with our almost six-year-old grandson, wild with Christmas, keen for everything. We walk over to the creek, throw chunks of snow off the bridge into the open spot just under the bridge’s arch. No dipper.

The birdfeeder is a circus of colour and movement: Steller’s jays, whiskey jacks, redpolls, nuthatches, chickadees, hairy and downy woodpeckers, a magpie and pine grosbeaks. On the fringes, a pine marten. A pair of ravens. Look, we say to our grandson, whose first language was raven squawks he made with his grandpa, raucous squawks the ravens answered. Look. There they are. Your old friends.

The house is quiet as we come to the end of the year, the boys and the girl gone. The temperature stays low and the creek is quieter and quieter. The openings all closing. But the light is returning and I know somewhere on Driftwood Creek a dipper is dancing in the new year.

… some lines from an old poem of mine … Why are some rivers?                                                                            

A quiet seepage –
too quiet, really, to be called a spring –
can unlock the earth’s own heat.
The ice exhales and opens
a sudden pool for this dipper
bobbing on a splintered stone.
It dives right in and finds a current
that’s warmer than the winter air.
There’s spirit in there somewhere
and bouncing back, the bird
it dipsy doodles
on the slippery dance floor
tapping out some bebop riff
we all wish that we could follow.

Happy New Year from Driftwood Canyon!

Engineer’s Trail

I think it was Gisela Mendel who first took us down Engineer’s Trail – the trail that angles down from the McCabe Trail  to a spot where the engineers camped beside Driftwood Creek the summer in 1919 when they were building the trail. You can find the entrance by hiking the McCabe Trail as far as the big rock slide, then backing up just a few metres. Or you can scramble a few metres down the rock slide to find the trail below.

It’s not much of a trail really. On the first couple of descents we trimmed back a few small sub-alpine firs and clipped the alders that close in on the lower parts. Ann and Alan Pickard helped us, Renee Granlin too.

Once you emerge at creek level, the trail disappears into soft moss and small waterways that often don’t freeze all winter – they seem to be the result of some extensive beaver activity a few years back and natural springs like the ones that cross the Silverking Trail above Danny Moore bridge.

You have to make your way across the creek to find the camp itself and there’s not much left of it – a round of wood where a wall tent might have been anchored, a few rusting vessels of indeterminate function. Almost one hundred years ago now – it’s likely others used it over the years for there to be anything left of it at all.

One November, we walked down there with our boys – teenagers at the time. Very little snow and a heavy frost created the most wonderful illusion. It was a special day and resulted in a poem, one of the ones included in the weather from the west.


one step down
from the named trail

we trace a lost descent
its perfect grade
tangled in alder
huge tracks
no dog wanders here    alone
where wolfish breath
clouds the glittering air
hot paws melt through
to thrifty November earth
hoarding its heat
beneath a dusting of snow
after a season of rocks

we follow the tracks
and the earth
to water
burrowing in its own cleft
towards the center
tricked by beavers
and winter into extravagance

ice floods the trees
a window to the earth
spread naked and surprised below
bubbles stilled




my boys slide on their bellies
and spin
their whoops shattering
the silence of indrawn breath

wolf tracks measure the beaver lodge

they too mark the surface
they too sing their wildness
into the ringing winter air

The song of C’ede’i Kwe

I started this poem a few years ago and set it aside, as I often do. Yesterday I sat in at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Smithers. Heartbroken at the stories, I was also proud of the Witsuwit’en welcome to the participants, proud of their healing spirits. We are so lucky to live in their territory. Somehow the music C’ede’i Kwe/Driftwood Creek makes as it forms the boundary between the territories of Wah tah K’eght and Woos seems to speak of both gifts and great loss. Of what passes and what remains. I offer this in the spirit of healing.



Around here, the creek across the road
sings the prettiest.
From the bedroom window it’s a blur of sound
but if you move closer –
say down to the picnic table in the canyon’s park –
it has a rise and fall
that seems to follow the rise and fall
of your breathing,
the pulse in your throat as the sun heats up your face
and the hand moving this pencil.
It soothes the chitter going on inside your head when you’re trying not to think,
trying to be here, be now,
as they say,
and not to wonder if that prickle on your ankle
is a late-season ant or fly or cranky wasp
disturbed by the arrival of your restless feet
under the table.

It’s like that in this small park.
Mostly refuge, mostly haven, mostly peace.
Until the sudden chaos of field trips or family picnics,
kids heaving boulders into the creek.
Burnt picnic tables, an overturned outhouse.
Lovers leaving crumpled tissues, an empty bottle.
That time there was the little black dress,
a rag on the morning grass, the police searching the underbrush
for the woman who picked it out of some closet
and slipped it on. What could she have been wearing
when she left this place?

When you go down to the shaded gravel bar
and crouch to listen,
individual songs emerge.
You close your eyes and try to single out
her voice. One clear chord
still echoing between the canyon walls.
You wait, watching for a sign.

This gravel bar has somehow survived
forty seasons’ floods and ice.
All the children tossing rocks into the water.
Another variation on the theme of kerplonk
that makes our grandson raise his hands in glee
aha, he crows, aha
his small body stretched tight, quivering
in wonder at the chorus he makes
with a handful of pebbles tossed high
to fall into the creek.
It’s a wonder there’s anything here but sand.

I’ll pack up my songs
and drive into town to sing, join voices
and sound a charm against the pain that sometimes happens
just across the road. Against the coming winter
when the creek sinks deep under the ice
so quiet, so still, that even the dipper has to look hard
to find an entrance into the concert hall.







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

Ghost trails


It’s that time of year again – the light longer in the canyon, the wind gusting in the spruce trees. Walking on our old snowshoe trail, its rounded track still intact while the snow has melted all around it, I remembered this poem I wrote many years ago now.  It was for a friend, Margaret Churchill (now Oversby) who was moving away from beside Driftwood Creek. I remembered it too when I was writing a yet unpublished novel – I called these remnant trails ghost trails, and so decided give the novel the same name. It’s out there now, looking for a home.


vapour trail

down on the snowbound creek
I see the tracks your skis left
already blurring

like the vapour trail we watched that day up high
our skis clattering on ice

it rose from behind the mountain
thrusting across the bitter sky                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       our faces lifted to winter blue
we watched in silence

the vapour trail
softened into a path
as fat and indolent as the wake of a summer boater

 it made you hot you said
let’s get moving

it was kind of you to include me in that let’s

I stooped to gather
wind-smoothed shells of ice
weathered like shards of glass tossed up by ancient waves

I snapped a fragile tether
and then another
and another

stored them carefully in a pocket
as if they would not melt

Outflow winds



When the pressure falls
bringing in the clouds,
the air softens. Ten above.
If you hunker down and listen
you can hear the crystals shift.
The snow slumps in on itself
and the creek, well, the creek
perks right up and so do the chickadees.

When the pressure rises
to clear the sky for the night’s big show
the temperature slips to fifteen below.
The snow gleams like beaten egg whites
and cold air stirs the hair against your cheek.
Pretty soon it’s slipping down the creek
toward the river,
the air that is,
and just as the river collects its creeks
at every confluence
those outflow winds
haul each other along
and pour toward the estuary
whipping up the waves against the tide at Tyee
white caps all the way across Flora Banks
out into Chatham Sound
until the Green Island light
is rimed with frozen spray.

In Hecate Strait
crab pots slide across treacherous decks
men and women holding on as best they can
below the glittering conjunction of the moon, Venus
and Mars.






The layers of Lax Kwaxl

dundas island (300x225)A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from Richard Overstall, a Smithers lawyer who brings to his work a deep knowledge of the layers that contribute to the rich upwelling of culture we call the north coast. His comments on The Bathymetry of Lax Kwaxl certainly enriched my admittedly shallow understanding of the Melville Dundas area. I thank him for that.

Richard is currently involved with the LNG assessment at Lelu Island.

September 23, 2016

Dear Sheila:

I very much appreciated your chapbook, The Bathymetry of Lax Kwaxl. It so gently and firmly sets one on the shores of this archipelago of North Coast islands. It also immediately caught my eye as I have been reading and note-taking about Lax Kwaxł for some time as it is a key location in the development of the northern North Coast indigenous legal order.

As a historical centre of northern coastal peoples, Lax Kwaxł at one time may have rivalled the cluster of villages in Metlakatla Pass. Carbon dating from archaeological work currently has the oldest Lax Kwaxł villages appearing before 5000 BC, about a millennium earlier than the oldest found around Metlakatla and Prince Rupert Harbour.[1]

In the region, only the small settlement on Lucy Island, Laxspano, has, so far, found to have been older at around 5600 BC. Interestingly, the oldest human remains found on Lucy Island (4100 BC) have the same rare mtDNA haplogroup (inherited through mothers) as the even older (8000 BC) human remains from On Your Knees Cave in northern Prince of Wales Island in south east Alaska. No living North Coast people have been found with this rare mtDNA haplogroup. One could speculate that these peoples were members of the Wudisaneidi (Old-age beings) who, Tlingit elders told Lt. Emmons, came from off shore and settled on Dall Island, west of Prince of Wales Island, later to be joined by interior groups to form the Tlingit Wolf Teikweidi Clan.

You mention a memory of salmon smoking. This activity may not have occurred on Lax Kwaxł. Before about 1000 BC, the salmon bone density in the surveyed archaeological sites is very low, close to zero in many cases. The faunal remains and the small size of the villages at that time suggest to the archaeologists that the people were year-round marine hunters and gatherers. This view is supported by oral histories. When famines from this time are mentioned, they were not caused by lack of food resources but by series of winter storms that prevented people from travelling by canoe to their resource sites. In later times, while the proportion of salmon bones in the Lax Kwaxł middens increases, the oral histories give evidence that the people living on the Dundas Island group had salmon fishing sites in the Prince Rupert Harbour area – Tuck Inlet, Work Channel, Khutzamateen River and Kwinamass River. These areas are a more likely source of the salmon and where the fish were likely smoke-dried before being transported to Lax Kwaxł. As you know, the Dundas group has very few salmon streams – certainly not enough to support the number of large villages that for a long time existed there.

Oral histories from Kitkatla record that the ancestors of certain Tlingit Ravens were living on Dundas Island before the mythic flood. Tlingit people call the Dundas archipelago Waklt and called the Raven group that lived there, the Wakldeidi. Whether this name is a loan word from the Tsimshian waxł, meaning beaver tail, or vice versa is not clear to me. The Tsimshian Lax|k|waxł literally translates as on|place of|beaver tail, although the word waxł does not incorporate as elements the Tsimshian word for beaver, sts’ool, or the Tsimshian word for tail, ts’uup.

Tlingit oral histories record a group of Raven people migrating south along the western shore of Prince of Wales Island to its southern tip. Here they met another group of Ravens, the ‘old settler Houses’ who had “lived there a long time.” Some of the old settlers moved on to Duke Island and eventually to the Dundas archipelago where they met the Wakldeidi. Meanwhile, in Metlakatla Pass and Prince Rupert Harbour, Tsimshian histories refer to a time “when only Wolves lived at Metlakatla.” One Wolf Clan group led by Asagalyeen was eventually “chased out to sea” by Raven people led by Ayagansk. Other Wolves remained, as up until about two millennia ago, Wolf Clan and Raven Clan peoples living at Lax Kwaxł, the Harbour and adjacent areas appear to have spoken a predecessor of the Tlingit language. While each clan group was exogamous and intermarried with the other, their relationship was fractious and unstable. Both Lax Kwaxł and Metlakatla were comprised of year-round villages, aggregated probably for defensive purposes. From these bases, people set out in the spring and summer to various camps to get eulachon, salmon, sea mammals, and other foodstuffs, which they stored in their village houses for over-winter use.

Between 200 and 600 AD, however, all the permanent settlements on the Dundas archipelago were suddenly and completely abandoned.  At the same time, there was a hiatus in the occupation of many Metlakatla and harbour sites with archaeological artifacts and human remains showing evidence of warfare. The impetus for this increased conflict appears to have been a movement of people from the lower Skeena River into the Prince Rupert Harbour area. They were very soon joined by migrants from Temlaxham, who originally lived around the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena rivers. These newcomers to the coast eventually joined with others to become the Gispwudwada Clan – the Killerwhale/Fireweeds. They may well have introduced what is now the Tsimshian language to the coast, as well as the concept of “royal” Houses, which exclusively provide the Chiefs for each Tsimshian tribe. Later migrants, including some originally from the area at the confluence of the Stikine and Tahltan rivers, formed a fourth Tsimshian clan, the Lax Skiik (Eagles), who also contributed royal Houses.

The permanent winter village complex in Metlakatla Pass and Prince Rupert Harbour subsequently flourished, while that at Lax Kwaxł never did recover. In the 1500 years until now, Lax Kwaxł has been used only for seasonal marine harvest activities. For example, Green Island that you mention, Laxki’I, has been a camp used as a base to harvest seals, halibut and gulls’ eggs. Until very recent post-contact times, these camps had been used by both Tlingit and Tsimshian families.


[1] The earliest Prince Rupert harbour archaeological site, at around 4250 BC, is in Dodge Cove, itself the setting and subject of another chap book, Seahorse by Patrick Williston and Mark Tworow.

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.

more talk (404x600)

gathering at the river (600x512)

We took turns reading the fourteen sonnets in the collection.

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

more shots (523x600)

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!

Poetry Advent

Thanks to bread (432x640)Joanna Streetly for including one of my poems in her poetry advent calendar, a non-chocolate, non-saccharine look at the closing of the year.

The poem is one I wrote many years ago now after a morning making the bread we give to friends and family every Christmas – we call it Driftwood Fossil Bread.

The poem is below: the recipe is below that. And the drawing is by Hans Saefkow – first published in Northword Magazine.




Every year this time

we get out the same battered bowlevery year this time
rescued, I remember, from the ruins
of an anorexic life. We use the same
measuring cups to scoop the flour
out of the special drawer
Emil built. This year, as always,
I knead it on his wooden counter –
there’s an old picture of Michael in an apron
and chef’s hat, grinning at the camera
one shoulder against my hip as we stand together
rolling out pastry at this counter –
and sometimes I have to admit
I wonder what other life I could have
lived in what other way.

But as my hands sink deep into the dough
the flour does not remember all this.
A few months ago, it was a tasseled head
bending in the wind somewhere.
And the water. Who knows what cloud it brought
to fall as rain or snow somewhere up high?
Who knows how long it rested in those sacred places
before seeping into an alpine freshet
missed by my thirsty mouth one summer when I bent to drink
or wash the sweat out of my eyes? Who knows what gravity
brought it to our well?
The air, well it could have travelled the whole world
before it was breathed in
and exhaled into the softened yeast
that will raise this bread.

And so I bend over the scarred wood
hands deep in the beginnings
each of us made new

The recipe

Take about six cups of tap water, potato water or creek water and heat it to yeast-ready temperature.

Pour it over about 1/2 c. each sunflower seeds and flax seeds.

Add 1 T. salt, 4 T. sugar or honey and 1 T. regular yeast. You can also add up to 1/2 c. oil if you like.

Let sit about 10 minutes then beat with a whisk.

Add some whole wheat flour (maybe 4 c. – I never measure) and whisk it in.

Keep adding flour  – you decide how much unbleached and how much whole wheat – 1/2 and 1/2 is about right for us.

When you can’t stir anymore in, start kneading it right in the big bowl you initially chose, until it’s not horribly sticky.

Turn out on a floured counter and knead about 10 minutes, adding more flour as needed, until it has that nice springy feel.

Let rise about an hour.

Punch down, form into 4 loaves and let rise about 1/2 hour.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for about 1/2 hour or until done.

Cool on a rack. (But don’t let it cool too long before you cut that first slice and slather it with butter…

Good luck.

Sandhill cranes (Grus Canadensis)

joan's sandhill cranesIt’s that time of year again – wild onions on the south-facing hillsides, black bears in the anthills, white-crowned sparrows cleaning up under the bird feeder, the snow gone leaving the garden’s soil dark and expectant. A shiver of expectation, a momentary clarity before the tumult that explodes when the long days of spring bring everything rushing to fruition.

 Oh  yes, there are geese honking, ducks flapping wildly to stay aloft, but it’s when we hear that wild noise way up high, see the spiraling flocks rising and rising in the thermals, then we know it’s spring.

another dan crane (600x400)The Bulkley Valley is on the interior flyway for cranes heading from California to Alaska to nest. They pass in the thousands, resting in hay fields, in grain fields, beside lakes and swamps to feed before continuing north. They are stupendous, ancient creatures that link us to a primordial past with a fossil record that goes back at least 2.5 million years.

This poem is from the weather from the west, my 2007 collaboration with visual artist Perry Rath.

Sandhill cranes

dan's crane 2Their cries at night –

the sound snags on difficult angles comes out bent – torn metal screech sparking in the darkness overhead

In the morning standing sideways in a field stripped of barley –

thousands of them – like gods they have descended all unaware

dan's crane 3 Dazed we finally drive away –

their clamouring the bright memory of barley in the sun

  Thanks to Joan Patriquin and Dan  Shervill for the photographs.