The watershed of my childhood

My dad stands with his hand on my shoulder in the front yard of our new house. That’s Charlie and Fiona Kirk’s house in the background. Sharon Kirk is on the left beside my sister Susan. My brother Herb is on the right beside Joanne Kirk, who’s looking up.

In 1957, when I was three and a half, we moved into our new house* on Lakewood Avenue, now Quebec Avenue, in Powell River. (My mother still has the same phone number I memorized as a child, and it is once again mine.) Our street was a sandy lane, really, with bush on the top side. If you look closely at the photograph above, you can see the darkness of the big conifers beyond the alders. Huge trees – Douglas-fir, hemlock and western red-cedar – and luscious moss underfoot. It was, for us kids, paradise.

Flanked by the curving arms of that forest above our house, we could look through the big window above the kitchen table down toward the square kilometre of our whole world: the corner store (Fairweather’s), elementary school (J.P. Dallos), church (Westview United), our grandparents’ place (Omineca Avenue) and a quick scoot down past the bowling alley and the Westview Hotel to my aunt, uncle and cousins’ house right above the harbour. We didn’t own a car until 1960.

My brother and I in front of the new house – you can see the big kitchen window looking toward the ocean.

To the east, sand banks and the frog-filled drainage ditches beside the brand new Max Cameron High School playing field. The Super Valu grocery store, liquor store and drug store at what was then the town’s only shopping mall. Across Duncan Street to the west, the Pickles lived on seven acres of bush in a house with oil lamps, gravity-fed water, and a wood stove. They had a big vegetable garden and chickens. A creek ran through their property. With trout. We didn’t know it was called Squatter’s Creek. According to the BC Geographical Names office, the name was “Adopted 2 November 1950 on 92F as an established local name and as identified in the 1930 BC Gazetteer. Apparently referring to a man named Joyce, a squatter on this creek in what is now surveyed lot 5122.” (More on this in an upcoming post.)

Flowering currants, an early sign of spring.

We lived in the watershed of that creek. Flowering currants to pick in the spring and bring home to Mom. Red huckleberries on a bountiful bush growing out of a huge stump on Pickles’ property. Below them on Duncan Street, City Transfer (in its former location) where my brother and I would pull our wagon to cash in pop and beer bottles for two cents apiece. In the dimness of summer evenings we’d play in the musty smell of the empty wooden trailers lined up along loading deck. Below that, Goffin’s Lumber yard where we were told of the danger of stacked lumber falling and crushing unwary children.

Everything was in a fluid state and our games shifted with the shifting landscape. We spent what seemed like several months playing rocket ships, the control deck a massive root pan in a tangle of fallen logs, from which my brother had to pull out my blonde doll in her blue satin gown with his fishing rod. Was it clearing for Max Cameron, which was built about that time? Or making way for the dump, which appeared beside it? When our neighbours, the Kirks, cleared a couple of acres, the bracken ferns made fabulous spears. Badminton on our lawn. Apple, plum and pear trees. Sorrel seeds gathered to store in the make-believe pantry I hid in a sandy opening in a bank created by some other building project. Perfume made of steeped pine needles. Tadpoles lovingly housed in a tub set deep in the moss – and the damn things always disappeared just as they were getting interesting. I never observed the magic moment when their tails fell away and they were fully realized frogs. Duh. Trying to grow carrots in the sand beside our house. Afternoons spent leaping off the sandbanks, feet usually bare. Struggling to learn to ride a bike on our sandy road.

Sand was what our houses and our playgrounds were built on.

The sandbanks are still there; in the foreground, the dog park built on top of one of the nearby dump sites. Our old house is just outside the photo at the far left.

The day I woke from a dream (it must have been 1963) thinking nuclear war had begun and how could Mom be brushing her hair as usual, making the radio go all staticky? The siren at the city hall, just across from our school. The Comox air force base twenty short miles across the strait.

I rarely went into the bush alone. But I remember the creek, the way it twisted and turned, sandy bottom, logs forming shaded recesses for the trout my brother was so interested in and would sometimes bring home to eat. Bridges to balance on. We must have played on a stretch that was just a couple of hundred metres long – I don’t remember it ever emerging anywhere – but my brother says it did. Up by Fernwood and Duncan – pouring out of a culvert, collecting water from up near the airport. That tributary of the creek is gone – buried under another dump.

I don’t think we realized it was the same creek that flowed through the J.P. Dallas playground and along Westview Road to emerge at the ocean where the seawalk now begins. Forty years of living beside Driftwood Creek near Smithers taught me to look closely at the way water moves through the land. In writing this and subsequent posts, I hope to keep exploring this first watershed of my life, Squatter’s Creek, to find a way back into the community where I grew up. Watch this spot.

Kirk’s house is still there at the corner of Duncan and Quebec Avenue, as is ours. The Pickles’ seven acres are mostly paved and much of the bush is gone. But the trees you see in the far left of the photo are at the edge of a wonderful patch of forest with some of the creek still intact. We’ll go check it out soon.

*My father began building a new house for our expanding family in 1952. When he contracted polio just before I was born in late 1953, the local credit union found a contractor, Noel Stickland, who was looking for a place to rent. They arranged for him to complete the house; he and his wife Kay lived in it until my father was able to return home almost four years later. They did a good job, my mom remembers. See Bravo!

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.

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 Five Dipper Day

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I might as well name the American dipper (Cinclus americana) my spirit animal. I frequent streams, especially the “clear, rushing, boulder-strewn mountain streams, within tall conifer forests. [I]float buoyantly and swim on the surface (poorly) by paddling with unwebbed toes. [I] frequently walk about on the gravelly bottom of streams.”

Chunky, fairly nondescript, not very musical except for moments in the spring when it even surprises itself.

The dipper is our only aquatic songbird. It feeds on the little creatures that live in the water – caddis flies, mayflies, mosquitoes (whoopee!) and also dragonflies, worms, fish eggs and even small fish. In winter, it’s hard to believe there’s anything in that water, but if you can find  a pebble to flip, you’ll see little shrimp-like wigglers squirming for cover.

I’ve only seen two nests – one in winter when we snowshoed down the creek all the way to the Bulkley; the other, the parents actively attending to the chicks inside, was behind a noisy waterfall in the Rockies. The nests are always near, and usually overhanging, a mountain stream, but they are easy to miss because they look like a clump of moss. Under bridges is another good spot to look.

Males and females may work together to build the ball-like nest, often in freezing temperatures. Materials are dipped into water before being woven into two layers: one, an outer shell, 8-10 inches in diameter, made of moss, and the other an inner chamber with a woven cup, 2-3 inches in diameter, made of grass, leaves, and bark. Once the nest is finished, the mossy shell absorbs moisture and the coarse grass keeps the inside dry.

Every birding book and website says they are mainly solitary, that after a pair brings its chicks to fledge, the parents usually divide the brood and head off to separate territories. But this fall and winter, we’ve seen two and very occasionally three foraging within a few feet of each other. We find one almost every day.

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Sunday was special. A grey and gloomy morning, the road an inch-thick crust of ice. At the first dipper viewpoint, I spotted one in a newly opened pool just above a big log jam. We watched each other for a while and then I looked up the creek to where our snowshoe track had collapsed into another pool. Another dipper. And then, further up again, a third one.

Another km up the road, at an opening where we always look but rarely see them, there was another. And on the way home, looking downstream from the bridge that crosses the creek just below a tiny stream flowing out of a trickle of little springs, springs that never freeze, a fifth.

The dipper. Industrious. Likes the outdoors. Tends to stay resident all year round. Enjoys poking around under rocks in creekbeds. Spirit bird indeed. Almost forty years of turning over stones, tossing them in and skipping them across Driftwood Creek. Listening for the bird’s sharp alarm call.

Last fall, my grandson and I were both hunkered down beside the creek lynn-and-casey-at-creek-2-399x600when I started telling him about dippers. Just as I had told his father and uncle more than thirty years earlier. How they dive under the water and walk around on the bottom, how they blend right in with the stones they stand on, how they squawk as they fly up the curve of the creek.

One popped out of a nearby pool and looked us over, tilting its head, one eye zeroing in. The white eyelid. It hopped closer and closer. I held onto my grandson’s arm, stopping the pebble he was about to throw. We all watched each other for several seconds, me doing the little bobbing dance we always do when we see one: dip, dip, dip, dip, dipper!

The boy’s shout of laughter made that moment even better than a five dipper day.

(Thanks to Uncle Dan for the dipper photographs)

After reading this post, Mark Tworow sent this lovely reminder of summer and the creek in a completely different form.

Hi Sheila

I’ve attached Driftwood Creek in the Summer, one of the largest paintings I’ve ever done. (48 x 72)

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If you walk from the summer parking lot towards Sunny Point there’s a a small climb down a rocky slope to this pristine view of Driftwood Creek. The painting at such a large scale hoped to capture a small part of the feeling one has of this beautiful crystal clear creek tumbling around the water smoothed boulders. How many years has the creek flowed through here? The smooth boulders give a small answer, though the course of the creek has probably changed through the years. If you pass this place one summer, stop and pause here. It is a full place.

I think you might likely spot a dipper here too.

Mark

Sheila,

You can tell Mark that dippers live, fly and dive all along the Driftwood cinclezenrock_francoidepeycorridor…and yes indeed right downstream from the location of his painting by a place some locals refer to as Zen Rock.  I was lucky enough to catch one of them with my camera a couple of winters ago.

Cheers,

Françoi (Del Pais)

The Mystery of Water

A soft mist of rain falling on even softer snow. The road a sheet of ice.  A pair of resident ravens squawk from the spruce trees down in the gully.

The January thaw, Joe L’Orsa patiently explained during my first winter here.

Great plops of snow slip off the roof, off the drooping alders. You can hear the crystals shifting.

Right now the creek is mostly silence. Snowshoeing just a couple of days ago, before this thaw, its voice is hard to track. At times the path is as quiet as any terrestrial winter trail when the snow is powder. At times the creek gurgles on our left from under that big old spruce curving way out beyond the bank. Then on our right, where the creek turns against its own current. At times a pool opens and we watch water moving over a sudden clarity of stones. Even when we’re breathing air that measures minus twenty. No wonder the dipper dives in.

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Dan Shervill photo

The mystery of water. How can it run at all when it’s been well below freezing for several weeks now? How can this side hill ooze moisture even after the frost has burrowed in deep? And why has our snowshoe path from a couple of days earlier disappeared into a new opening?

You think it’s going to happen again when the solid thunk thunk thunk of your snowshoes and the trail’s responding crunch shift into the hollow sound echoing from an air pocket under the ice. You hold your breath and hope the ice holds. You wonder, how big is the air pocket? If the ice suddenly opens, you hope the drop won’t be too far. But you know it’s there. And no matter how hard you try, you’re never ready for it.

The January thaw. The strangeness of rain falling on the snow still covering the ice under which the creek flows. The mystery of water.

Forty Years: A Celebration of Driftwood Creek

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January 1977 – I moved to Smithers to work as a reporter at The Interior News, a paper with a venerable history and a crack reporter on staff. I was a new graduate and needed a mentor. A month later, he quit and I was the senior reporter. Now that was fun. Five months later I moved into a ratty little cabin the crack reporter (now working at the local bookstore) had purchased. A year later, I married him. And we’re still here, deep in the heart of Driftwood Canyon.

Our home is in Laksilyu territory of the Wet’suwet’en people in the House of Tsee K’al K’e yex (House on the Top of Flat Rock); the chief is Wah tah K’eght (Henry Alfred). Across the creek is Woos’s territory.

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This morning we strapped on our snowshoes and travelled a few kms down the creek. Minus 16 and the sun was shining up high on the canyon rim. The alders have grown about as big as they get around here – thirty years since the big Father’s Day flood scoured the creek clear of the small stuff and a few huge cottonwoods besides. But a route that we’ve skied and snowshoed many times is wide open. The log jams we used to clamber over are gone, the tricky rapids solidly frozen. It hasn’t been this cold for this long for years. It’s wonderful.

 

When I started thinking about a new writing project a few weeks back, stalled as I am on a series of poems, on a stubborn short story, on an unpublished novel, I was in the middle of reading Dart by Alice Oswald. A book-length poem Oswald compiled/created over three years, it traces the Dart River from its origins in Dartmoor in southwest England about twenty miles to its estuary at Totness and on for another nine miles to the English Channel at, of course, Dartmouth. She collected stories and narrates the poem in the voices of those who have lived, worked and played along its length.

Near the beginning, she speaks in the voice of an upland hiker:

What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and down the contours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can’t get out

listen,
a
lark
spinning
around
one
note
splitting
and
mending
it

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones

What’s not to love about that?

We’ve all spent a fair bit of time thinking about the Sacred Headwaters over the past years. The Skeena, the Nass and the Stikine all rising out of a series of wide wet meadows high up in Spatsizi country. Many of us watched on film as Ali Howard searched for the Skeena’s beginning to start her epic swim to tidewater. Coalbed methane at the top end, fish farms proposed for the bottom end and the damn Northern Gateway project proposed to run right across the watershed’s eastern reaches. All done, all sorted. (I’m not going to start about Lelu Island here – the proverbial elephant in the room.)

snowshoe-hare-400x225Instead, I’m going to hunker down beside Driftwood Creek as I have so many times over the forty years I’ve lived here. In the early days, I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I loved the intensity with which she examined that creek flowing out of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. But I’ve got to tell you, the aquatic life is a little harder to find in a mountain stream that drops from an altitude of about 5000 feet in the Babine Mountains to its confluence with the Bulkley River at about 1200 feet in under thirty km. It never gets much warmer than ten degrees and I speak from experience.

small-creek-225x400Thank god for the dipper, which I thought was a tall tale when a couple of friends told me about it for the first time. A little grey bird that dives into the water and walks around looking for food, even when it’s forty below and there are only one or two openings in the whole damn creek. No way, I said. The water ouzel. I saw one a couple of days ago singing like it was spring.

 

So many stories. It’s too late to say, “Don’t get me started.” Instead, I’ll raise a glass of creekwater to celebrate its stubborn beauty.

PS. I’d be glad to hear your stories too – I’ll happily post them here.

Lelu Island Lace

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I’m just coming to the end of a lace project called Estuary, by designer Emily Wessel. I was first drawn to knit this shawl by its name. Emily describes her inspiration for this design: An estuary is an in-between place, not ocean, yet no longer river. It is a fertile habitat where sweet and salt water mix, and many species thrive. Estuary combines two lace patterns to create an ambiguous shape: not quite a shawl, yet something more than a scarf.

There are more beautiful – extravagant, filigreed, starbursts, leafy, vine trellised – lace patterns. But I’ve been knitting this shawl to honour the Skeena estuary. In it, I see the Flora Banks emerging as the tide retreats, the salmon finding their way back up the river after their time at sea, all the young smolts collecting in adolescent jitteriness after their first river descent. Both coming and going they feed the eagles, the sea lions, the gulls, the seals. And us too. So many of us fed for thousands of years.

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Photo courtesy Tavish Campbell

The shawl has been a difficult project for me, partly because I’ve picked it up and put it down many times over the past year, but also because the pattern is complex. By combining two different patterns, it mimics the sweet water meeting the salt and you need to pay very careful attention as it grows.

Lace is often like this. Lose concentration and you can find yourself and your stitches in a muddle. And the thing about knitting lace is it’s almost impossible to correct mistakes. The structure, with all its intentional gaps, the pulling together and drawing apart of threads, means you can’t just unravel it and pick it up again like you can with a plain sock or sweater. The structure you’ve laboured so long to create disappears.

skeena-estuary

Photo courtesy Tavish Campbell

Which brings me to the Skeena estuary. It is re-drawn daily by the tides, weekly by the weather and seasonally by the collection and release of the rain and snow that has fallen throughout the watershed. It has a long history, a place more layered and complex than any lace. You can’t break the pattern and expect to be able to fix it later.

 

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If you plunk an LNG port* on Lelu Island, stretch a bridge across Flora Banks and the eelgrass where salmon smolt gather to the tanker dock at the edge of Chatham Sound, drill, blast, dredge and set up a huge humming structure complete with gas flares and tankers, well you’ve unravelled something that’s taken thousands of years to emerge from the debris of our last ice age.

How ironic to even consider building this example of Anthropocene hubris in this spot. If you add the expansion to the fracking chaos of northeastern BC this project will necessitate to its enormous greenhouse gas emissions, you’ll be speeding up the final melting of ice that began the process, thousands of years ago to create the Skeena estuary. The melting could well see the whole LNG structure itself lost beneath tidal surges within decades.

Maybe we should send Justin Trudeau, Catherine McKenna and Christy Clark each a fragment of unravelling lace and see how well they can pick up the stitches to re-establish the pattern. All while treading water.

* If you want to know more about Petronas’s LNG project, a project approved by the Canadian government just days before it ratified the Paris agreement on climate change, check out Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition’s video.

Thanks to Graeme Pole for the images from No More Pipelines.

Go outside. Get high.

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We went for a hike on Thursday. The garden is mostly done except for a few lettuce plants and a small plot ready for the garlic. Oh yeah. Pull up the fading sweet peas, say adios to the glorious clematis and kiss the one volunteer sunflower goodbye. Not yet, I tell them, not today. Summer comes to an end soon enough in Driftwood Canyon. Today I’m going into the mountains.

Which means I can ignore the itch that drives me upstairs this time of year. The itch and that damn caterwauling on the landing, the cat telling me to get my arse up there and into the chair. Or she’ll find something precious to knock off my desk.

I’m in that miserable stage of a writing project where a dozen ideas are roiling around inside what passes for my mind, and I’m scared to begin because once I do, well, all sorts of possibilities are lost. So hiking is a great distraction. It’s perfect this time of year. No mosquitoes. Not too hot. The flowers are mostly gone, but the colours of fireweed, huckleberries, willow and those red-leaved blueberries light up the alpine meadows.

the-trail-281x500The trail we pick is a gentle one – it follows the northern contour of Harvey Mountain with lots of views across Driftwood Creek to the mountains on the other side. No snow yet, and great swathes of red and yellow. An iron streak right through the mountain range. The roar of the creek fades as we climb high above its passage. A varied thrush lifts off the trail into a sub-alpine fir, letting us get a clear look. We hear them ringing all spring and summer, but rarely see them as anything but shadows.  A male spruce grouse, its red eyebrows still visible. Across the way, two mountain goats and then two more.

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When you’re walking, though – climbing, sweating and puffing – it’s not all wonder and delight. Hips hurt, feet stumble, and you find yourself thinking about writing after all. The doubts that ring louder as you get older: the growing pointlessness as you see what a broken place the world is, what broken creatures we are. The millions of words thrown out to see what they might hook.

You never know when writing might bring you to a sense of intense connection and understanding – the words feeling like wisdom from a far off spectral being – but often you wonder just what the hell you’re doing as those words shiver and dissolve. Forgotten.

So too the trail. You find moments of pure joy when everything clicks and your feet feel a passage created by thousands of footsteps following the same path, some of them your own. How it takes you across a precipitous traverse and deposits you in wildness. In beauty, the blueberries sweet in your mouth. The trail opens you up, even if sometimes it’s rough, sometimes wet, cold, and sometimes frightening: the huge bear scat purpled by the same kind of berries you’ve just eaten. The fear that makes wildness what it is. The fear that gives any good writing the edge it needs, the fear that underlies everything we do. Knowing it will all get along just fine when we’re gone.

But, oh god, that feeling.

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That fist in the air hurrah when the trail emerges into the glorious alpine meadows we get around here. The feeling when the writing falls into place, all the dead-ended game trails, all the boot-soaking bogs, the bruised shins and blistered feet forgotten. That feeling when it not only makes sense but makes the new kind of sense you want to study a bit farther. Use as a prism to refract what you think you know into something different, something bigger.

It’s always worth it.

 

Kayaking in the snow

I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading, I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.
From “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” by Charles Lamb, 1822

So there we were at the far end of Maligne Lake south of Jasper just last week.

We left on a Monday morning from the boat ramp at the end of the long road from Jasper, the calm water reflecting the stunning mountains that surround the lake. One of the classic images on postcards advertising the beauties of the park. Turquoise water, a tonsure of conifers and the grey stone twisting its way into the sky. Barely any snow.

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As we sorted and dithered and stuffed our food, tent, sleeping bags, thermarests, tarps, clothes, camera, books, water bottles, cooking gear and toilet paper into the resistant nooks and crannies only a kayak hatch can create, we worried. The forecast was not good – some sun, yes, but rain, too. And it was cool. About 10 degrees.

Finally loaded, booted, spray-skirted, life-jacketed, a big cooking pot at my feet, a bag of wine between my legs, we departed. There’s a funny weightlessness to kayaking (until you try to haul yourself up and out). You are tucked into a boat loaded with all the stuff you feel you need to survive and you’re floating. The boat becomes your lower body, your arms as long as the paddles. It’s a lovely feeling once you’re underway.

The 24-km trip down to Coronet Creek was long, but uneventful. No rain, little wind and a couple of easy landings for rests and food. The water was so calm, we were able to cut across some of the bays to shorten the paddle. What could be better? Our kayaks floated, our bodies more or less worked, and the weatheLeaving Coronet (600x450)r cooperated. An osprey, a noisy family of Clark’s nutcrackers and those mountains. Here in the Bulkley Valley, the mountains are mostly gentle, rounded by glaciation. A few sharper peaks rise dramatically to heights that weren’t covered by the great ice sheet that filled the valley anywhere from twenty to forty thousand years ago. But those Rockies! Paddling through the jagged explosion of stone, it’s easy to visualize the Pacific Terrane inexorably moving into what is now Alberta, pushing and pushing until the rock shuddered, twisted and shattered, throwing those impossible peaks into the air. About 85 million years ago. Everything is insignificant in the shadow of those mountains.

Of course, it’s still happening – the movement that is. Our continents are really stone plates riding on top of earth’s molten core. Deep in Jules Verne territory. You can believe almost anything geological as you paddle down Maligne Lake, every few kilometres revealing a new view, our heads turning to trace new contours.

 

Maligne Day One through the narrows (600x429)

Coronet Creek itself creates an alluvial fan treed with scrubby conifers, Labrador tea, willow and juniper. We pull ashore, haul ourselves out and begin to set up camp. We’re good at this, each of us doing a series of tasks in sync with the others. The campsite is basic – some tent platforms, an outhouse, a few picnic tables and food lockers (we’re actually more accustomed to wilderness camping, but this is a national park). By the time it starts to rain, we’re all done and gather with the other campers under our tarps: Ontario honeymooners on their third canoe trip here; a grandfather, son and grandson whose family have been fishing the lake for decades; and two mountain guides from Jasper on a busman’s holiday.

Coronet Creek (600x450)We trade stories under the din of rain on tarps, drink a little wine, eat our various dinners and go to bed early, hunkering into the pockets of heat and cold a down sleeping bag creates. We don’t need our head lamps to read because we’re only a week away from the solstice.

It was with some uncertainty I embarked upon the book I’d brought along – Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon, a memoir about life with his severely disabled son: Walker Henry Schneller Brown. I was immediately transplanted into a world whose difficulties made my unease in a tent on the cold shores of Maligne Lake shrink into insignificance. Afflicted with the very rare cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC), Walker is unable to communicate, is fed through a stomach tube and, as he gets older, begins to beat himself so badly he needs to wear a helmet and tubes on his arms that don’t allow him to bend his elbows. Within a few paragraphs, we enter the long dark tunnel of loving this boy.

Brown leaves no emotion – guilt, anger, resentment, joy, awe – unexamined. He explores the ways we deal with such children, the ways they have been cared for, neglected or abused over the centuries, the unlocking of the human genome and what it might mean if all “defective” fetuses can be aborted, theories about how the interrelationship between the brain and the external world produce the mind, strategies to provide for children post parental death. He pins down every sugary sentiment and excoriates it. While he finds that being in the presence of and caring for people with such disabilities does teach us a lot about ourselves, he rejects the idea that these children are somehow “sent” to teach us. Rather, he argues, they are truly human, like all of us. They are on their way to becoming who they are and, like all of us, are vulnerable creatures faced with death. This is why they scare so many of us. They remind us, he says, of our own vulnerability and mortality:

I do not see the face of the Almighty in Walker. Instead, I see the face of my boy; I see what is human, and lovely and flawed at once. Walker is no saint and neither am I. I can’t bear to watch him bash himself every day, but I can try to understand why he does it. The more I struggle to face my limitations as a father, the less I want to trade him. Not just because we have a physical bond, a big simple thing; not just because he’s taught me the difference between a real problem and a mere complaint; not just because he makes me more serious, makes me appreciate time and Hayley and my wife and friends, and all the sweetness that one day ebbs away. I have begun simply to love him as he is, because I’ve discovered I can; because we can be who we are, weary dad and broken boy, without alteration or apology, in the here and now. The relief that comes with such a relationship still surprises me. There is no planning with this boy. I go where he goes.

The questions people with severe disabilities are always asking, he surmises are: Do you consider me human? Can I trust you? Do you love me? The technology most desired are electric wheelchairs, he discovers. Not for the mobility they offer, but because they enable their users to go toward the people they love and stay away from the people they don’t like.

I thought about Brown’s family all the next day as we hiked up to the waterfalls on Coronet Creek, as I baked cinnamon buns over the spirit stove, cooked spinach fettuccine for dinner. The temperature never rose much above 12 degrees and on the few occasions our shadows appeared we stopped and rolled our tired shoulders in delight.

The book finishes with a scene in one of many hospital visits. Brown is waiting with Walker for an MRI appointment when the boy has a seizure.

I held him in my arms as quietly as I could, and I thought: this is what it will be like if he dies. It will be like this. There was nothing much to do. I didn’t fear it. I was already as close as I could be to him; there was no space between my son and me, no gap or air, no expectation or disappointment, no failure or success: only what he was, a swooned boy, my silent sometimes laughing companion, and my son. I knew I loved him, and I knew he knew it. I held that sweetness in my arms, and waited for whatever was going to happen next. We did that together.

Anyone who has an ill child has felt that sweetness, that exhausted ending of fear and the sinking into a place where waiting is all there is. Waiting and love.

The Boy in the Moon is an excruciating book, but as I lay in the tent on our last night at the far end of the lake and listened to snow rustle on the fly, wondering just how difficult the paddle back to the other end of Maligne Lake would be, wondering if we were going to be turned back like the young couple the day before when the waves broke over the gunwales of their canoe, I was strangely comforted by the book. I heard Brown’s voice as I tried to sleep. I heard him as we listened to the wind gusting down from those ragged mountains. As we set out into snow flurries to paddle back.

Leaving Fisherman's Camp (600x450)I thought about Walker as we braced against the headwind that hit us as we tried to paddle through the lake’s narrow waist. I dug in deep, remembering the insights Brown came to on his family’s difficult journey. And the work of paddling was lightened. We laughed when the wind finally turned and we unfurled our umbrellas to sail back to our usual comforts, our familiar thoughts, our ordinary lives. Our journey had been, for us, an adventure with just enough difficulty and uncertainty to give it an edge. But my journey with Ian Brown took me beyond the small difficulties into a wildness as earth-shattering as the mountains themselves.

Like Charles Lamb, I love to lose myself in the minds of others, especially when they contain the fierce and compassionate intellect of a man like Brown, who also happens to write beautifully.

Thank you, Ian Brown. And thank you, Walker.

 

Anne on Day Three (600x450)

 

Revisiting Canyon Creek

For many years now, I’ve been invited to accompany students from Jonathan Boone’s First Nations Studies class at the Bulkley Valley Christian School on a tour  that includes the homesite referenced in Canyon Creek: A Script. We travel a path following the Telkwa-Morictown Highroad (the old Bulkley Valley Road and part of the Collins Overland Telegraph route), dipping down to Canyon Creek, then up Jollymore Road to Jack and Elizabeth Joseph’s old cabin. From there we can look across a big swamp, some aspen bush to the fields below what’s known locally as the Baptiste Reserve, the place where one Wet’suwet’en, John Baptiste, successfully prevented eviction from his homesite.

Along the way, I usually pull out the 1913 township map, Canyon Creek Mary’s Wet’suweten family tree, a typed transcript from the 1915 testimony given to the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs by John Baptiste, Tyee Lake David, Big Pierre, Tyee Lake Abraham, Round Lake Tommy, Moose Skin Johnny and Jimmy Thomas, son of Canyon Creek Mary and Thomas (Jack Joseph is listed as the translator) and my notes from interviews done while writing the book.

We read the book together, point out features on the landscape (the path of the old trail the Wet’suwet’en used to connect their properties, the site of the burned-out house, the old root-cellar) and talk. Over those years, Jonathan Boone has made a tremendous effort to inform his mostly non-native students about the history of the Wet’suwet’en upon whose territory our community is built.

This year I was especially pleased to accompany students from the Moricetown
I Count High School on this, what is for me, a pilgrimage.

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As we stretched out the very long genealogy chart, some of the students recognized family names. Others remembered stories about Jack Joseph’s capture of the bank robber.

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We usually end our trip at the old Joseph house, still standing after, I suspect, more than one hundred years. Jack and Elizabeth had thirteen children altogether – let’s hope some of the kids had grown and moved out before the littlest ones came along!

 

 

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Things are definitely changing along the old Bulkley Valley road, slow as those changes might seem. Thanks to the staff and students for asking me to accompany them for a few steps on their journey.