Say the Names...

Al Purdy wrote a wonderful poem called "Say the names say the names" which celebrates the names of Canadian rivers - Tulameen, Kleena Kleene, Similkameen, Nahanni, Kluane and on and on in a celebratory song.

Enbridge is planning to build a dual pipeline that will carry bitumen and condensate across hundreds of waterways between Edmonton and Kitimat. Some of these waterways are rivers like the Parsnip (or what's left of it), the Nechako, the Morice and others are smaller creeks whose names are often known only to the folks who live along their banks or who fish in their shadows or who bend to wash or drink as they cross paths.

I want to collect the names of these rivers and creeks, to collect your stories, your poems, your songs so we can collectively give voice to the land living under the line Enbridge plans to draw.

People have also sent me copies of their presentations to the community oral presentations. If you'd like to add your voice, email me ( your stories and I'll post them for you. The copyright remains with you.

All the best.
Sheila Peters

Friday, May 27, 2011

Morice River aerial photos

Brian Huntington

The first time I saw Morice Lake and the Morice River was on an overflight of the proposed pipeline route. It was September 2009. This was before there were Enbridge t-shirts, before the flurry of films and rallies and webpages and spokespeople dedicated to raising awareness about the threats to regional ecosystems and communities from the proposed pipeline.


I knew then that the Morice River flowed into the Bulkley and then the Skeena and the Pacific.  I guess I thought I understood that connection. I understood that the bulk of wild salmon migrating up the Bulkley spawn in the Morice River system, that the villages of Hagwilget and Moricetown exist because of the access to Bulkley River salmon in the respective canyons of those ancient and current village sites. I knew that the construction of a pipeline along the Morice River would produce a dangerous and potentially catastrophic impact to the spawning and rearing habitats in the Morice system.
Morice Lake from the air felt like an oceanscape in the mountains. It is the most impressive element in a horizon wide landscape of breathtaking scenery and impossibly huge lines and shapes. The chinook dunes that cover the river bed for a few kilometers below the lake's outflow are the direct result of thousands of years of salmon spawning kinetics. These dunes are as striking a landscape feature as the glaciers hanging into the head of the lake. 
Seeing the dunes, I realized that my sense of the connection between the river, the salmon and downstream communities was tremendously simplified. It's like I was thinking something along the lines of "my finger is connected to my body".

But my finger isn't connected to my body, it is my body.     


Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Mystery of Necoslie, Nak’azdli

Joyce Helweg

The long expanse of valley between the rock ridge and the river has always held a secret or two. The old grey barn that still stands wafts a hint of manure from cows long departed. The rusty nails and worn roofing from the prevailing westerlies, help the large rooted Spruce and the towering Douglas Fir guard the secret of why so few people live here.

The old settlers have passed on, their ashes scattered above the land they love and worked to death on, happy. They desired nothing but the damp soil running through their fingers in the spring, the sweet smell of hay in August and the welcome snowfall in October, putting their bodies to rest for the winter. They knew the answer and they took the secret with them.

In the olden days, it was a serene place. No one knew when the river ran high, nor did anyone care. It doesn’t drain the high country that everyone worries about, only the local hills and the run off from Margaret Lake. It threatens no one. The silent clay cut banks deposit an even mist of mud with each wash of the down stream current, flushing itself into the river called Stuart. The spring concoction of mud and debris has been accused of making the Necoslie a river of low fisheries values. The salmon once ran here. The elders said so, and who are we to not believe.

Necoslie in English and Nak’azdli in Carrier is the First Nations name for “where arrows go floating by”. Was that another secret of this valley? Had there been an ancient settlement upstream at some time in the distant past that was wiped out by neighbouring tribes? All we do know for certain is the name, Necoslie,Nak’azdli.

Occasionally there are the whispered rumours of a lone cabin where a murder took place. No one is sure exactly where the cabin stood, but it was agreed that it did stand and that a murder took place there. Everyone that spoke of it was absolutely certain that it happened somewhere in the annals of time, part of the mystery of the valley.

There are no name boards on the creeks but the settlers have left hints of their existence on home made signs at the end of their gumbo driveways. Necoslie River Ranch, Olie Creek Ranch, Cranberry Creek Ranch, Silver Spring Ranch, and Fish Creek Ranch are all names of small farms that dot the valley, somewhat interrupting the expanse of loneliness. A glance down the lane, past the ancient signs would leave a traveller wistfully dreaming of the unseen farm house around the corner, smelling the boiled coffee and fresh baked pies, both adorned with freshly churned cream.

There are no directional signs for the Canada Geese, Snow Geese, Wood Ducks, Whooping Cranes, Trumpeter Swans or Mallards as they have their own inward signs which guide them. It was quite a mystery why the Golden Plovers arrived quite unexpectedly one year, lost, and only stayed until one of the females of the group asked for directions.

The cow moose and her twin calves have taken shelter in the old dwelling house by Olie Creek, devoid of inhabitants for many years and used for a hay shed by a nearby farmer. The mother moose didn’t know the name of the creek but enjoyed the shelter, food and water amply provided for her family during the past extreme winter. It was her secret place. Could it have been “Olie” the female moose calf that was trussed up in a cargo net and flown to the Necoslie from an island on Inzana Lake in a de Havilland Beaver aircraft? The pilot found her stranded when the mother had taken the other twin and swam to the mainland. If it isn’t Olie, it could easily be one of her descendents.

The small sawmills that lurked in areas containing large timber, water for skid horses and flat spots for a bunkhouse and cook shack are now overrun with second growth. The original site would be complete with a steep bank over which the unwanted slabs could be cantilevered leaving a decaying archive of industry that once provided meat and potatoes to the tables of the nearby families who knew timber and hard work were the secret to success.

Fences sprung up out of the ground as if planted, delineating boundaries of ownership. Power lines were run, phone lines were run, the once muddy for 10 months of the year road, improved. New farms were added: Willow Lane, Panorama, Dead Dog, Kanaka. You could now hear the laughter of children riding horses, steers, pigs, bicycles, go carts, motorcycles, four wheelers and snowmobiles. Although the quiet of the valley is sometimes shattered, the new inhabitants are people who help neighbours in need. That is no secret.

Wandering along the north bank, high above the river a beam of sunlight cast itself from behind a cloud, through the heavy canopy of evergreens and aspen. The eyes of the hiker quickly follow the shaft of light to find one of the greatest mysteries of the valley, lady slippers!

The elderly gentleman on the north side of the valley was born in Switzerland and spent his life working as a civil engineer throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Having a slight heart attack early in life he set out to find the perfect place in the world to retire. Every year he travelled to a different country until he came to Canada. He was smitten. Each year thereafter he spent his holidays in Canada starting on the east coast, province by province he searched until he found the Necoslie. There he purchased a quarter section with no power, no telephone and no access. He calls it “His Hill”. He slowly carved a home out of the wilderness with all the amenities. It is no secret to him that he lives in the best spot in the whole world, and I live right next door to him.

The Home 1/4

Barbara Robin

Good morning Sheila, Joyce has told me that you’re collecting stories from the areas  where the Enbridge pipe line is slated to cross, in our case the Necoslie or Nak’azdli as the First Nations people know it. Joyce suggested I send you this story poem I wrote back in 1996. At the time I owned a small real estate office in the ‘Fort and one of the properties I had listed was a ¼ section on the north side of the Necoslie River. It was like many larger parcels out in that country in that it had been logged in the early 1980’s under an agricultural lease. The spring I listed the property my partner, Roger Clark, and I hauled our horses out there on a beautiful Sunday in May, saddled up and crossed the Necoslie River on the old log bridge to the south side and spent some time exploring old abandoned homestead.  Several years later when the river was in full flood the bridge was swept away and was never replaced. 
Out on the Necoslie Road
about 8 miles east of town
I had listed a ¼ section
that was neglected and badly run down.

It had been logged in the early 80’s
and once seeded to alfalfa and brome
but now only rose bushes and willows                                                                                                                                                                           
were all that seemed to be grown.

It was ¾ of a mile from hydro
along a rutted dirt trail
and the moose and the deer had finished
any sign of a fence post or rail.

Now, I like to think I’m a good Realtor
at least that’s what I’ve been told
but I knew it would take some fast talking
to get that 160 acres sold.

Then one day a couple walked into my office
it was getting on late in the fall
they said they wanted a little homestead
a place to get away from it all.

Well, have I got the property for you I said
as I hustled them in to my truck  
and off we went in pursuit of their dream
with no mind to the ruts and the muck.

Well, we walked every foot of that quarter
tho, I may as well not have been there
with them talking of horses and cattle
and the work and the fun they would share.

So, we went back to town and I wrote up the sale
they offered the owner full sum
he accepted their offer, we had a deal
and they thanked me for what I had done.

I see the new owners in town now and then
and they look pretty content I’d say
they’ve built a big barn and a little log house
and this year had their first crop of hay.

Their happiness just goes to show you
there’s a place for everyone
where I saw only weeds and neglect
they saw a place to call home.    

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Imagined spring

Sheila Peters

Mid-May, 2011

As you drive Highway 16 and think of creeks, especially in the spring, you notice the culverts as well as the bridges. The ephemeral streams of spring: ephemeral – an ethereal kind of word conjuring visions of wispy veils and maidens dissolving into wreaths of mist – doesn’t really describe the muddy water bubbling, gurgling, busting out into hay fields, into swamps just blurring red and yellow with willow bark and the fog of pussy willows exploding into yellow-gray pollen. Try tracking which way the water will flow from under or over a pipeline and which way the leaks would run. It’s complicated.

Just this morning on the radio – talk of the Bulkley River originating in Burns Lake where people are on a floodwatch.  The reporter doesn’t know which way the rivers flow – the ditch water running into the storm sewers, into sewage treatment systems, into lakes, into fields, into marshes – doesn’t know where it goes just so long as it disappears from their crawl spaces, the puddles in their driveways, the pools in their lawns, just so long as it disappears.


Meanwhile, roads are washed out; the one metre between the road bed, the rail bed and the accumulating water shrinks. The water table rises up above the surface and becomes a place you could launch your canoe. The pasture, a pond. The cows huddled on eskers.

Semi-abandoned car lots, tire stores, and then down into Burns Lake (the new sign, an insipid substitute for Eternity, says Jesus Cares For You) and the bridge across the river, the spot where Burns Lake begins and right between the arena, the skate park and the water, a small municipal campsite is shoehorned in: fires burning for hotdogs, a threadbare place, a warbler in the scraggly cottonwood beside the bridge, the kids playing and tail gate parties beginning. A traditional spot, I bet. A gathering place here where the lakes narrow and become two, a balloon animal twisted to turn in another direction. But they wouldn’t have gathered here in May – still too early. The land waiting for them to return, the land unchanged. The land patient, breathing in and out with the seasons; not this returning to find strangers living there, railways cut across the creeks, fences and survey lines. This is his, not hers, this is mine, this is theirs.

Decker Lake, Burns Lake, fragile aneurisms on the artery that we call the Endako, snaking and curling its hair around its fingers as it makes its way towards Fraser Lake and the Stellako River. The land is so flat, so turned round and round upon itself, the Endako, Chilako, Endako, Nechako, Endako, Stellako, the Nautley, Necoslie, all trickling, bubbling, snaking their way to the Fraser and what was its name I wonder before it was the Fraser?

It meanders through miles of swamps and wetland, brief glimpses from the highway as we pass at 100 kph. All the side roads, all the back roads, all the favourite fishing holes along those roads, until it finally flows into the Stellako just before it enters Fraser Lake. Then the Nautley River, the shortest in the world, and before the Nechako was dammed, damned, at high water it would reverse its flow and flood back into the lake depositing sand at Beaumont Park. Now the picnic tables and benches are awash. A Bronco drives out onto the boat launch, a plume of water rooster tailing behind its tires, backs up, drives out, backs up and emerges washed clean. God’s carwash.

Oil and water don’t mix, they say.

As we enter Fort St. James we see tree planter trucks beside the road and big clearcuts edged by beetle killed pine – frayed poles standing slightly wonky, tilting after a big wind, too much to drink.  Water, water everywhere, every culvert come to life, every dip in every hay field alive with water, with ducks, the red-winged blackbirds calling, croaking, the flash of red on the reeds at the edge of brand spanking new sloughs.  

Joyce told us stories of the ways land has changed hands, people fighting over this and that. One story was about one of their trips north. A fellow came running to get her, telling her she needed to come right away. A guide-outfitter was claiming ownership of a cabin and wanted the snowmobilers to pay rent; they refused and he’d drawn a gun. One of the snowmobilers made a noose and threatened to hang him, I guess. Joyce settled things down and determined that he hadn’t built the cabin and it was an illegal cabin anyways; it ended up that the outfitter burned it down.

They go up north on a hunting trip every fall – one of their horse trailers can carry four horses, has a wood stove, a big bed and a jury-rigged kitchen. Once they arrive, she says, she cleans out the horse stall and uses it for a living room. There’s a king-sized bed up in the bunk space and blankets piled up – it looks very inviting and would feel good on tired bodies after a day on the horses in the back country.

They have five quarter sections of land; they bought one from a couple who had built their own place. Her husband wondered why every piece of wood in the place was three feet long – she said it was obvious. The man owned a Vega and worked at a local sawmill – nothing bigger would fit inside. The same people built a lovely A-frame overlooking a beautiful meadow but they did something wrong with the foundation and it flattened. Another fellow cut the trees down to the meadow and used the run to practice hang-gliding.

She tells us these stories as we wander around, checking her fence line. She is packing an over-under rifle – a rifle barrel over a shotgun barrel. She is careful to explain what she’s doing and shows how the rifle works, how it won’t go off, and she suggests we don’t walk on her right side, the side the rifle angles towards.

She loaded it – the shotgun shell is the first thing she’d fire, she told us in the bear’s face and if that didn’t work, she’d kill it with the other bullet. At the writers retreat last fall, she told a story of shooting an attacking grizzly at close range. She said she has a close encounter about every ten years.


The big beautiful meadow down beside the river is flooded with the Necoslie water, the river a rippled lagoon; it flows into Stuart Lake right near the outlet of the Stuart River. They run almost parallel for a while, in the opposite directions. The land is so undecided. The pipeline would cross both rivers.

Back home, we see the creeks rising, we hear the radio reports of flood warnings, rainfall warnings and look up to our mountains and see nine feet of snow sitting there, and last night it snowed so there’s more up there now. We are talking floods. We are talking washouts. We are talking water. It goes where it will. When you start to think about water and all the places it goes, snow and how, as Morgan Hite writes in his “Winter River” piece, it is all river, at least around here, unless it evaporates, it is all river.

Oil and water don’t mix, they say.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

You Can Claim This Ocean

Jane Stevenson

You can claim this ocean. When you have slept in a boat, curled in the bow, between bait coolers and beer cases. When your hands have bleed because of traps so heavy, ropes so rough, fish so big. 

You can claim this ocean. When you remember the underwater trench the king crabs crawl out of every spring. When you have seen the ocean so calm and flat with mountains and clouds mirrored so perfectly in the still waters you feel like your boat is soaring in the sky.

You can claim this ocean. When the sight of petroglyphs and ancient stone fishing weirs make you cut the engine, fall into silence. When you can’t meet the eye of the nesting eagles. When you stop trying to get a picture of the whales. 

You can claim this ocean. When you stop worrying about how a salmon so big will fit in the frying pan. When you start worrying about how the salmon will be next year. When you see the weather buoys anchored up in a cedar snag after a storm. When you stop believing the weather reports and start believing the ocean sees, feels and hears you. 

Because really. This ocean claims you. When you hear the engine roar and lift over the top of a wave and spin shrill in the air. When you are surprised over and over again that your bow can sink so far into the trough of the wave and still pop back up. When the waves are so tall you see no horizon. When you feel no up or down, no crest or peak, no throttle or slack. 
This ocean claims you. When your bow stays below the wave and all at once you are in the boat yet under the ocean. When you are wave lifted and left wet on the tide line. When you are so cold you can’t sense your limbs, you can’t feel your face on the rocks. When the ocean almost took you in, considered holding you down but didn’t. When your nose streams salt water, your lungs cough up ocean spray. 

This ocean claims you. When you can shift your stiff body around, slide a little on the seaweed and look at the ocean pounding beside you.

When you know that you are not spared, you are not exactly saved but that the ocean has a piece of you now slamming around in the deep and someday she will ask for you to remember and ask for you to stand up and claim what is yours.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Swiss Fire

From Marks of a Century: A History of Houston, BC 1900 – 2000 by Grace Hols

From Sunday, May 29 to Friday, June 3, 1983, the Swiss fire burned approximately 18,000 hectares of forest south and west of Houston. Six homes were destroyed in the Buck Flats area, with many of the families leaving home at a moment's notice with only one pick-up or carload of belongings.

The blaze began at the north end of the Parrott (Widen) Lakes, went west over the top far end of Morice Mountain, and down the mountain to cross the Morice River at the 23 km point. Initially the flames travelled in one direction. Then the wind direction changed and the whole length of the fire became the front, moving it in a wide swath toward Morice Mountain.

More than 500 persons, including firefighters and other personnel, worked to contain the fire, many of them coming in to the Forest Service office to volunteer their help and equipment. Within 30 hours more than 60 machines were at work, but it was a difficult fire to manage from the start. Unusually warm temperatures in the 30 degree C. range did nothing to help control the blaze.

Six Buck Flats families lost their homes: Steve and Caroline Oben, Frank and Sofia Ebermann, Henry and Glenda Ferris, Cecil and Joyce Sutherland, Neil and Ruth Sutherland, Lee and Dorothy Rose and Mrs. Rose Sr. Some of the victims had just minutes to evacuate their homes, and escaped the flames only by taking the road through the Equity Mine site. Many other families along Buck Flats were evacuated, but not all homes were touched by the fire. Three families on the Seinen farm at 13 km on the Morice River Road were also evacuated but the fire chose a different route over Morice Mountain and their homes were spared.

While there was considerable property loss, there was no loss of human life in the fire. The people of Houston rallied and came out to support a benefit dance to help the fire victims. Boxes of clothing, food and other goods were donated. All who lost their homes eventually received compensation from the provincial government, although they had to wait almost ten years and were finally compensated in July 1994.

The fire was named after two Swiss tourists who had been smoking fish near their Parrott Lake campsite. Apparently the fire in the smokehouse got away on them, and word was they left the country as soon as they could after the forest fire broke out.
The fire burned 3.5 million cubic metres of timber with a market value of $140 million. Close to $3 million was spent battling the fire.

Salvage logging operations began soon after the fire, and by 1986 most of the salvageable wood had been removed. By 1990 reforestation programs were well underway. It was estimated it would take 25 million seedlings and 100 years for the newly planted trees to reach maturity.
Arnold Amonson was the District Manager at the Houston Forest Service at the time of the fire, and made these observations:

"The fire was caused by two visiting Swiss tourists who had been shown how to smoke fish and beaver tail in a lean to located in a small thicket of spruce trees. When they were shown how to do the smoking, the weather was cool and the fire hazard was low. A very rapid change in weather occurred, with the temperature rising to the mid 30 degree C. range and the humidity dropping rapidly. The Swiss tourists, now on their own, did not have the expertise to recognize the fire hazard, and at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the fire spread to the spruce trees. The two fellows tried to take action with pails of water but to no avail since the fire was already some 60 or more feet above the ground.

"The fire behaviour was so drastic that the best efforts to control it were fruitless. By luck only, there was a forest officer on the scene in a helicopter within two minutes. He immediately called for an air tanker, but the fire spread so rapidly it could not be contained. By 10 p.m. that night, the fire had reached the Morice River, some 15 kilometres away.

"The public concern and the media coverage quickly jammed the office phone system, and we had to have more phone lines installed. This interfered with control action, but even so, we went from zero to 60 machines and 600 people in about three days. The trouble was, much of the fire action did no good and we were forced to regroup and try a different tactic on an hour by hour basis.

"All of us involved felt terribly that we could not control the fire and save all the heartache for those who lost their homes and belongings. No matter what anyone did, the fire was going to burn a lot of area. Luckily, the weather changed after the second day, and the fire action taken was successful."

At the time of the Swiss fire, Henry and Glenda Ferris and their two sons had lived in the Buck Flats area for ten years. They escaped the fire, saving only their clothes, some heirloom china, some fishing equipment, and their camera, but they lost the log home they had built themselves.

The kids were little, but they helped peel the logs. All the Christmas ornaments were homemade and I had to get a big tree every year because we had so many. We lost them all. Those are the things that really bother you.

We were told five hours before the fire took our place that we were okay. We didn't evacuate because the wind seemed to be blowing in a direction away from our house. We didn't know the fire was so big that it was sucking all the air into it.

There's a hill about a km behind our house and we knew that if it got to the top of that, we were leaving. All we could see coming from behind the hill, though, was smoke, not flames.

When we thought we might have to leave, I put the tractor in the creek and my wife put some stuff in the back of the pickup. A helicopter went over the hill to look at the fire and turned right around and told us we had ten minutes to get out. We were in such a hurry that we almost forgot the dog.

If the helicopter hadn't been around, I don't know what we might have done - probably stood in the creek with the tractor; it didn't get burned.

On the way out, we ran into forestry personnel running away from the fire. We couldn't see anything because there was so much smoke in the valley. The house must have burned within half an hour after we left. We were definitely impressed with the speed of the fire.

Next time we will build a house out of porcelain. We found a porcelain bird in the middle of the house that wasn't even damaged.

The fire was no one's fault and I hold no animosity toward anyone.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Winter River

Morgan Hite, May 2011

Although it's covered in snow, you can see that no trees or bushes grow in that strange, long, thin, wandering field that goes down the centre of the valley. After your car has warmed up and the heat is working, you can relax as you drive from Smithers to Quick, and notice that no fences cross that field. If you have lived in Winter all your life you might wonder about it. And by March it sometimes feels like we have lived in Winter all our lives.

Rivers get closed down in winter. Like an amusement park where the rides are boarded up, silent and still, the river goes under its white tarp for the whole season. The employees are gone, the children are gone, there's no noise or light.  We drive past put-ins or over bridges and pay no attention, as if there were a sign saying “Closed until Spring.”

You won't learn that the river is there in the winter by listening to people tell stories about it. You hear that flow went up quite fast one week on May, that a certain rapid got washed out, that it took four hours one September to go from Walcott to Telkwa by canoe. Someone talks about coho making it past Moricetown, or which hole always contains a steelhead; another tells a story about going from Morice Lake to the Skeena in a kayak. There are guides to paddling, books about fishing...   Perhaps the river is just a summer phenomenon.

Come examine the winter river. It's quite silent here. The ice is lumpy and jumbled along the river edge. It piles up in strange shapes which, like snowflakes, never repeat and don't last long. The air is cold and a slight breeze blows from the south. Snow is moving in. Like the curving back of a big beast, water surfaces briefly in the centre of the channel, grey and muscly. It rides along in the air for a few metres, then dives again beneath the ice.

You shouldn't go down there in the dark water, but someone has; and we know that down in the gravels, steelhead are waiting out the winter silently, holding their territories. Salmon eggs are hatching. The nearby Lake Kathlyn elementary school sets up a tank to hatch salmon eggs, and it is completely covered from light, a refrigeration tube inserted into it to keep the water frigidly cold. Quietly bubbling outside a classroom for months, it reminds us what it's like on the bottom of the river.

Up on the surface people are skiing on the ice, or perhaps just meandering down the edge of the river, cautiously avoiding the uncertain centre when ice can be thin. In Telkwa a snowmobile trail gets set up on the ice of the Telkwa River, and the village has a new trail for a few months. When it's solidly frozen, the river could be the ideal highway for dog sleds or foot travellers because, as I said before, there are no fences.

You might think that the size of the river is the same in winter, but don't be fooled. In winter, the river is a much different size. It's not smaller. It's bigger. Because what is a river? It's the contiguous waterbody as far as it stretches. In summer it stretches merely from bank to bank; but in winter, water, in some form or another, frozen or liquid, continues contiguously far beyond the bank. Sure, there's  liquid water in the riverbed, and then ice on top; but there's snow above that, and the unbroken blanket of snow continues,  climbing the banks and setting off across the fields and through the forest. It's all river now, all river water, getting ready to flow downhill, sagging downhill already. There's nowhere you can draw a line and say, “This is river and that is not.” We are inundated: the snow and ice in turn stretch up the hill, around your house, over your car, across the road, up the mountains, over the pass, down to other rivers. It's all river now. And the summer river is a mere remnant of the real river, the Winter river.

Eternity: where will you be?

Sheila Peters

In the fall of 1976, I was on my way into the northwest for a job with a Terrace newspaper when I passed that sign planted on a hill just above the highway somewhere between Burns and Decker lakes. Where would I be? Well, I knew it wasn’t going to here. After a few months, I was heading back down south, back to school, back to a place stinking with sin. Vancouver.

But before that, I had a trip to complete. Coming down the from the China Knows summit, the muffler on my first car – a rusted-out Toyota Corolla crammed with clothes, books, a wicker basket stuffed with fleece, and a spinning wheel – dropped into a dragging banging rattling sparking percussion accompaniment to my precipitous descent. Instant punishment for my sneer at eternity. At the bottom of the hill, I found a house and some wire to bind the muffler back in place until I reached the little garage in Topley.

So, about the sign. Where it used to be. (You know you’ve been around a while when you start giving directions that include where it used to be.) As near as I can tell, it was located right about where the Enbridge pipeline would cross Highway 16, (notice I say would cross, not will cross – the conditional would is essential in telling these stories), would cross the Endako River and the CN track, and continue west across Gerow Creek (still in the Fraser River watershed) to Maxan Creek. Another one of those nondescript heights of land. Maxan Creek flows into Bulkley Lake, the headwaters of the Bulkley River. The Skeena watershed. The pipeline would then cross Foxy and Klo and Buck creeks, Owen Creek and Fenton Creek all on its way to the Morice that used to be called Watsonquah. All the history in those names.

But before that the pipeline would cross Tintagel  Creek, Stearns Creek, the big transmission line, and finally Sauls Creek. A good place for a blockade, I’d think. We could hope for an Enbridge conversion on the road to Damascus…

There’s a new sign there now (I can’t remember what it says) and I’m just a bit tickled to have outlasted the old one. And while I admit my age is showing, the wear and tear of this and that, it’s nothing like the wear and tear on the landscape this pipeline is planned to cross. It’s been burned, logged, fenced, sprayed, flooded, and pine beetled. The constructed veins of roads, railways, transmission lines, and gas pipelines blur the arteries of water that give both coming and going – the water we need to drink, to cleanse ourselves, the arteries that bring salmon deep into the heart of the watershed. The arteries that connect all of us.

Go down to the creeks and listen. They’re asking us the same question. Eternity – where will we be?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

We Tried a Trapline

From Marks of a Century: A History of Houston, BC 1900 – 2000 by Grace Hols
... as told by Ross Merkley

Led by native guides, Ross Merkley and his brother Bill travelled into the Clore and Burnie River country between November 7 and December 23, 1945. Bill Merkley came to Houston in 1937. Ross came in 1940, riding the freight across the country. Older brother Ellis arrived in 1943. All three had grown up in Williamsburg, 40 miles south of Ottawa, but they stayed to become a part of this community. 

In 1944 my brother Bill bought a trapline from an estate in Hazelton that had belonged to a Mrs. Brown. There was no one left in the family to leave it to and so they could sell it. We bought it for $500.

We had no idea where the line was until we looked at maps and seen it was way out in the Clore River and the Burnie River area. Then we had to decide how we'd get out there. 

Well, we bought a boat from Paddy Leon in Topley Landing for $50. It was around 22 feet long. So we hauled it into town, and that fall, as luck would have it, Fay Short from Francois Lake come in to get his winter supply of groceries and stuff with the sleigh and horses, so we got him to take our boat and supplies on his way back. There was brother Bill and Joe Seymour, Art Seymour and I. We had to take food enough for a month and a half, and 45 gallons of gas and three outboards. One was Joe Seymour's - a 5 h.p. They were pretty well antiques already back then in '45. Fay hauled us up to above the canyon on the Morice River, at about 17 mile, I guess, and we all camped there for the night. 

The next morning we decided to let the boat down the slope towards the river. So we tied a rope to the seat and around a tree, and loaded three-quarters of our groceries and everything in the boat, traps and all, and started letting it down the slope. We got it about halfways down and the seat broke out of it and the boat took off down the hill. When it hit the bottom you could look through the front end of it and look through the cracks in the sides. So we had a job on our hands for another day - finding pitch and heating it and chinking up all the cracks we could see through. 

We finally got it in the water, loaded, and took off up the river. We had the 10 horse engine on. On the swift spots two of us would get out with a rope and walk along the shore. There would be one of us running the engine and another one holding the boat out from shore so we wouldn't be hitting rocks or anything with the engine. We didn't want to put our big 22 horse Evinrude on; we were saving that for on the lake. 

Two days of real hard work and we made it to about 24 mile on the river. Art decided he wanted to build a dug-out there for Joe. So we stayed there for five days and made a 16 foot dug-out canoe out of a nice cottonwood. Then Joe headed up the river alone with his traps and his 5 horse engine. It went along really nice. 

So Bill and Art and I went on the rest of the way to the north fork and we got there about three days later. We left the boat at the river and walked up to Jim Holland's log trapping cabin there and stayed overnight. The next day Jim's son Joe Holland came along to show us how to get to our trapline, and we made it to between the Nanika and McBride Creek area. We camped in there and I set about a dozen traps to McBride Lake and back. I picked up two marten, a cross fox and a mink, so there was lots of fur in that country. Art said, "All of this around Morice Lake is mine. You can trap any place you want to." Little did we realize it was Matthew Sam's trap line we were on, but according to Art it didn't matter, he'd trap where he wanted to anyway. 

We had taken tools along, an adze and a few other things, because Art wanted to build a canoe. That fellow sure knew how to do that. We stayed about three days, I think, and then picked our traps up and the rest of the fur and headed up Morice Lake. We went across on the other side and up to the end, and when we come around the point there were 28 mountain goat standing by the edge. They were eating moss on the rocks. They ran up the mountain when we pulled in with the boat on a bit of gravel there. There was one about 50 feet up: one shot and down he come. He slid down a ravine to the boat and all we had to do was lift him in. He was sure good eating. Those ribs roasted over an open fire on sticks were delicious. Maybe it was being out in the open like that made it taste way better. 

We proceeded to the end of Morice Lake and trapped there a few days. Then we headed into Atna Bay and made our permanent camp there on the left side of the Atna River for our jaunt into the Clore and Burnie River. Our shelter was just a fly, with spruce boughs on the snow and a canvas on top of that. We didn't have fibreglass tarps in those days. After three days of trapping around the bay we got our packs ready to go over the hump to Atna Lake. We took our traps and as much food as we could carry. The next morning we took off over the pass to the Clore. Well, that was a whole day's walk over and down the other side. We stayed at the big meadow on the Clore. Two days later we got to the Burnie. There we camped for maybe five days, trapping and stretching our skins. We had made boards out of balsam that splits real nice. 

After about five days we returned to the big meadow and picked up our traps and headed back to Atna Bay. We were plenty hungry when we got there as we were just about out of food. We were down to bare necessities and you burn up a lot of energy when you're snowshoeing from daylight to dark every day in fresh snow. It could snow four feet in one day and you never went anyplace without snowshoes. After some struggling we got to our main camp. We had some dehydrated potatoes there and cooked up a big pot of those and threw in a quarter pound of butter - everybody was real hungry - and then we sat down to a feast after not having much to eat for a day and a half.
That night I was sleeping like a log, and about one a.m. brother Bill jumped on my legs and woke me up. A spark had landed on my sleeping bag and it burned about a foot of the covering. We got it out and I had to sew it up with snare wire to keep from losing any more of the eiderdown. The weather was down around zero Fahrenheit, which is about -20 C. 

We survived. About two days later we were heading for home. We put the 22 horse on the boat and had everything loaded. There was about two feet of slush on the lake, and the engine overheated on account of the slush. It took all day to get out of Atna Bay because we had to keep changing engines when one overheated. We finally got to the end of the bay and a big storm blew up and we had to turn and go back. So we just cut some poles and made a tee-pee with a fire in the middle and that's how we spent the night. The storm blew itself out and dawn broke real nice. We headed down the lake and made it to the north fork. 

We got back to town by December 23. Bill and I were staying at E.G. Bellicini's and he bought most of our fur. I sold one marten - a nice coal black one with white guard hairs - to Mike Fenton for $150. The cheapest we got for anyone of them was $65. Usually it was around $100 to $125, which was really a good price for fur back then. 

One thing, out on the trapline you had to be careful because you were 50 miles from civilization. No helicopter, no cell phone, no snowmobile. It was a case of look after yourself so you were real careful with an axe. 

The next spring brother Bill and I with Joe Holland went up the north fork and over by Herd Dome and Gosnell, over the top into the Clore and Burnie, trapping again. After that trip I never went trapping again. Brother Bill finally sold the trapline to Charlie Skinner in town here. 

There are a few things I left out - like getting lice and breaking my snowshoes, but I didn't think anybody'd want to hear about getting lice. I had to throw my underwear into the fire and go the last week with just wool pants and no wool underwear on in winter weather. I'll tell you that wasn't too nice. 

These are all true things that happened when we were trapping. It was an interesting time for me because I was young and it gave me a good idea of what this country could be.