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.