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.
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.