Another watershed and thirty people gather at the Crooked River’s outlet at Summit Lake. It is Hilary Crowley’s birthday and Floyd and Hilary’s anniversary. They have been part of this community for over forty years and are one of the few families still living at the lake year round. The sun is shining and twelve canoes and two kayaks splash over the first riffle into the river. Grandparents and grandchildren, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, young friends. It is the second trip of 2011; the first, a month earlier, travelled between banks of snow. There’s plenty of water in the river, even for this time of year.
We’re back in country we camped and hiked in 25 years ago, back in the place that first really made me think about watersheds. Nothing as dramatic as the Columbia Icefields where the scale of the landscape declares itself as a power spot, a place where weather is made, where great psychic and geographic shifts are inevitable. Driving north of Prince George along Highway 97, the land flattens itself into fields and black spruce swamps, and the only visible mountains are called Teapot and Coffeepot. The nine-mile Giscome Portage that marked the crossover from the Upper Fraser to the Parsnip/Finlay/Peace passes through this unremarkable terrain to Summit Lake at an elevation of about 2330 feet, one of the lowest points on the continental divide.
Summit Lake has a venerable history in river freighting. Up into the 1960s, until the completion of the highway north through Pine Pass, and of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam which flooded the lower reaches of the Parsnip River, it was the main route for freight into Finlay Forks, Fort Ware, Fort Graham and all the trappers, prospectors and First Nations people calling that country home. Special 40-foot long river boats were designed and built to navigate the shallow water and dramatic turns the river takes as it searches out a downhill trajectory in a terrain that can’t seem to make up its mind. The resulting wetlands are rich and protected country for birds, fish and wildlife. Old cabins, the remnant wing dams made when the freighting traffic worked hard to keep the river clear, the brushed in trails and camping spots speak of a disappearing history. Cherry Corliss, whose father, Dick, was one of the foremost of these river freighting men, is with us on this trip, skirted into a tiny kayak.
The low hills also hide the relentless clearcuts and pine beetle kill on the land just beyond the willows. As we slip into the river, we are afloat, half our own height above the waterline and as close to being part of the river as we are able. Buttercup, our yellow canoe, is glad to be afloat. She has been neglected for Mango, our long tandem sea kayak which rides like a Cadillac on ocean swells but would lumber and wallow in a river like the Crooked.
We had taken Buttercup down to the lake earlier and she is a flighty thing – moves so much more quickly than Mango. She is light and lovely and you don’t thunk down into your seat, you perch or kneel, you, too are more sprightly. We paddled around Corning Island, which belonged to Cherry Corliss’s grandmother and where she still has a place. The sun, hardly any bugs, smooth water, lots of summer cabins up here – A-frames with large, solid docks, lawn chairs out on them, a place to drink morning coffee.
We have never paddled in moving water before, we tell our companions.
We get instructions:
- If you’re heading for a beaver down aim straight for the V and, when you go over, the person in the front leans back to keep from tipping.
- When there’s a log jam, hold onto the reeds at the side until Floyd clears it.
- When there’s a sweeper, duck.
We are told not to worry, and we do find we can make those turns, Buttercup does ride right over those submerged beaver dams without a hitch, and sometimes we can find the dark V of water and follow it down the little rapids. We begin to think we know what we’re doing.
How do we stop? I ask as Buttercup bumps into another canoe waiting for us to catch up. It’s like the way I used to stop when at the skating rink – by crashing into the sideboards. The expert looks at me, not really registering the question. “Paddle backwards or just go to the back eddy,” another paddler says. Brilliant.
Many of the paddlers with us enjoy the faster water, but we are happiest when the river widens into a lagoon and we can look around a bit. Enjoy the sunshine, watch for warblers in the willow thickets, and visit with the others. Many of them are avid canoeists and have paddled northern rivers for years: the Fraser, Driftwood, the Nahanni, the Spatsizi, the Skeena, the Morice, the Stikine, and the Nechako.
When the ice finally goes off the Nechako, one woman says, I can’t wait to get on it. It feels like I’ve come home. I don’t realize always how much I’ve missed it.
About 20 km downstream (as the crow flies) or 28 km as the river twists and bends, the proposed Enbridge pipeline will cross somewhere downstream of Caine Creek, Alford Creek, and Little Dell Creek. Near the upstream end of Davie Lake, upstream of Angusmac, Chuchinka, Redrocky Lake, Redrocky Creek, Kerry Lake, and McLeod Lake, the site of BC’s oldest colonial outpost. It takes a cognitive shift to think of downstream being north. North and east.
We make it to the takeout spot, the old BCRail line to Tumbler Ridge jammed between the river and the highway. Only two fellows tipped out of their boat on the way down, mercifully behind us, so we didn’t notice until we were past that tricky spot. We gather back at Hilary and Floyd’s for dinner and birthday cake. People tell stories of how and when they met Hilary, who came to Canada from Britain to work as a occupational therapist forty years ago. For a short visit. She loves England. She loved Montreal, where she spent her first year. She had mixed feelings about Vancouver and took a locum in Prince George. A three-week stint was all she planned. Like so many of us, she surprised herself by staying. She waters her garden with water drawn from Summit Lake, with water from that threshold opening into the Arctic. Summit Lake water may be upstream of the proposed pipeline crossing, but the river doesn’t move in only one direction. The river is as threaded into the landscape as Hilary herself.