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. Dallos 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!