Prose

Tubing on the Cowichan River

 

I reach the ramp to the dock and walk down it, not paying too much attention to the handful of teens waiting there. My tube, which was once bright red, has faded closer to orange but still holds my breath of two summers past when I last inflated it. I place it on the dock beside the ladder and climb into the water to wet myself down. At this time of year, late August, the water is warm enough not to shock but to soothe, even on this slightly overcast and cooler day. It’s a sensual frisson that gets my nerves tingling though, so I waste no time in grabbing the tube from the dock and placing it just so, while I move into position, and lean back into it as I shove off from the dock. A little wiggle of adjustment and there I am, trailing hands and feet in the river, floating in my tube. The current is slow so I paddle out into the centre of the current, looking at the weir that marks the transition from lake to river. This year has been a dry one and I’ve heard that they’ll soon be raising it to store more water. Now, the lake is low and the river lower, making it a challenge for fish, for tubers like me, and threatening the mill downstream with imminent closure if they can’t maintain the water flow.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about. I’m remembering my friends Manjeet and Janice who graciously walked with me partway along the trail that runs into town from their place, until they had to turn back as they were expecting a call. I’m thinking about the growth of the town of Lake Cowichan that I’ve seen over the years, as businesses go bankrupt or are born. I walked past the new library on the way here, smiling at the thought of the excavated dirt from the site ending up at my friends’ place for a landscaping project. I paddle along, watching the riverside homes and wondering about the lives lived and love shared in them. The water is clear and I can see the bottom except in the deepest pools. Although I’m enjoying the river, the slightly cool temperature and high clouds have kept the usual crowds down and I’m virtually alone on my journey this afternoon.

Of course, nobody is ever really alone. My restless mind chatters internally, I hear the sounds of people on shore, the splashes of children swimming and the drone of traffic in the distance. Insects fly. Birds swoop close to the water to catch them.

I let the sensuous pleasure of the water distract me, luxuriating as I feel the water flow through and around me. The Cowichan River is extraordinarily clean at its source, made from snowmelt and raindrops in a valley at the edge of the continent, at the edge of the world. I keep paddling, using my arms as oars with a sporadic power ten to speed me along, then drifting, occasionally letting the tube turn in a circle so I can get my bearings. The first footbridge comes and goes quickly and by now I’ve adjusted to the water temperature so that the wet just feels like heavy air on my extremities. Up ahead there’s the larger bridge where the road through town passes. Last time I was here, boys were jumping off it but now with the lower water levels they aren’t taking any chances, at least not at this moment. A few other tubers wallow in back eddies, drinking beers, but I continue to press on, moving through the big wide pool, passing the floating garbage buckets which always make me smile for some reason. It takes a while but eventually the first of the rapids appears. I spin the tube around and face this obstacle head on. I draw a bead on what seems to be the deepest part of the current and squeeze past a few rounded boulders that don’t quite break the surface. The riffle of the waves sends splashes of water up and onto me as I speed my way around this bend in the river. Now the houses thin out, and more trees bring more birds to listen to and observe. The ravens are noisy today, as are the Stellar Jays. Dragonflies encrusted with turquoise and sapphire dart across the surface, at times seeming to draft along in my wake. More rapids up ahead grab my attention and I hustle to move into a better position. Stroke, stroke and whoosh, down I go through the sluice box of river rocks into the next pool. From here it’s easy to see the mountains that line the valley. I notice the cutblocks logged decades ago and the new growth coming in. Along the top ridges, a few clearcuts register, spilling over from the next valley where Mother Nature is as bare as you’d expect after a visit to a Brazilian wax parlour. Bald isn’t sexy I think, and spend a few minutes ruminating on our obsession with skin and hair, while I splash and kick with my feet which are wearing ridiculous looking but practical foot gloves in place of the watershoes I once used. I enjoy the absence of music and talk and listen to the rhythm of the riverwater tumbling over the rocks, the birdcalls overhead and the hum of the crickets. Up ahead there are a few other tubers that I’m catching up with as they stretch out their time here. I know I can always come back and besides, I need to travel another half hour at least from the usual pullout spot at Little Beach. Now there are another set of rapids to contend with and I follow the general advice to stay left, managing to avoid either getting tipped out, or even worse, puncturing this vulnerable craft. For a second I remember coracles and other lifetimes as I continue my hedonistic drift downstream. I use my feet to kick off from a boulder that looms up in the green water and continue down through towering hallways of hemlocks and firs, bigleaf maples and cedars. The green spikes of golden irises line the side of the river. In some places the banks have given way and tipped themselves into the river, along with the burden of whatever trees were reaching up to the sky overhead. Now they have been turned into weapons, sweepers that threaten to scuttle me or stab me below the surface. This section of the river requires concentration, as I’ve learned on previous trips, and I paddle and plan, selecting each angle I take with care. I think about Manjeet and Janice’s friendship and the times I’ve spent here on the river with them, and feel a bittersweet tug as I remember the impending sale of their house. The river pulls me along, past the splash of a river otter sliding off the bank across from me. Another swimming hole appears, where supple children swim unfettered by concrete edges and lane markers, desultorily watched by dozing parents. A dog barks as I drift by. More rapids and I read the river carefully, looking for telltale markers that help me get by the rocks. The tube splashes down the river as I navigate, using my hands to manoeuvre past the stony obstacles. I thank the creator for the absence of other dangers; there are no crocodiles, alligators or caymans here, the fish are innocuous and even the snakes aren’t poisonous. Of course, on shore it’s another matter, what with the bears, cougars, elk and deer all of which have their own risks for humans. The sun is fading into the west and the shadows spill across the river. Trees tilt at impossible angles out from the shore, leaning like it’s getting close to last call. Hold on, I think as I slide by, don’t let the weight of that butterfly tip the scale today. Up ahead, Little Beach comes into view, with its long, deep swimming hole dotted with kids swimming and jumping with the eternal enthusiasm of innocence. I continue past the pullout, while some folks look at me askance, as if to say, “that way lies monsters”. The most immediate of which is the shallow river, causing me to develop a crablike hop and lift technique until I’m able to float freely. From here I am much more alone, as the houses become less frequent and the birds more so. Eagles are soaring overhead, woodpeckers are tapping into stumps for meals of insects and just a few feet off the water a heron cruises upstream. I hear the rumble of the next drop in elevation before I see it and manage to luck out on the path I choose, slipping as easily between the rocks as I did when the river was a foot higher. I float along, finding peace and tranquillity. The river washes and absolves, cleansing my worries and leaving me with love and gratitude as I pass the boathouse turned artist’s studio, not too far upstream from my friends’ place. Now it’s my turn to go slow, letting the river drag me along, until up ahead I see the familiar landmarks of my destination. As I leave the river, I pause, sending a prayer downstream with each drop I shake off. Later, I’ll drive home over the infamous Malahat Highway but for now I look out at the river, listen to the sound of creation and give thanks for this day.

 

 

David Trudel     ©   2014

 

 

 

 

 

Miss Carruthers

Dust motes danced in a spiral pattern, a bebop model of the DNA of want, as the afternoon sun shone through the torn and yellowed curtains that hung over the room’s only window.  The boy sat on a braided rug on the floor.  The rug had once been patterned with a vaguely country and western motif and could almost have been called a piece of folk art, with bright orange and red highlights running through the two-toned brown stripes.  Now, however, it was merely brown, worn with use, uncared for and filthy with dirt and scraps and god knows what.  The boy was playing with the one toy in the room, which happened to be a toy pistol in a stamped leather holster.

 

He knew that he wasn’t allowed to leave the rug, because she had told him not to and what might happen if he did.  He sighed, because he was hungry and he had been there for a long time.  He didn’t know how long, nor did he care.  Time was a fluid concept to him.  If he needed to, he could get his mind to switch off, like with the radio or the lights, and he wouldn’t notice the dirty old rug anymore.

 

It was late summer and the window was propped open with a wooden spoon, letting the traffic noises and shouts and cries from the neighborhood in.  If there had been music appropriate to the location it would have been an edgy piece of Coltrane’s or maybe one of those numbers Bird came up with that evokes something almost as terrible as this place.  But there wasn’t any music here, just the sounds of the cars and trucks rumbling by, punctuated by angry cries and curses.

 

The room was part of the small apartment the boy lived in.  The apartment itself was a third floor walk-up, in a gritty tenement in the City’s most notorious part of town; the Skids.  The apartment consisted of two rooms and a small water-closet that was far too small and primitive to be given the name bathroom.  Certainly there was no chance that anyone had ever considered the idea of having a bath there.

 

A bedroom held an iron bed-frame with a tumble of frayed blankets on top of a saggy mattress, a nondescript chest of drawers, and a chair that did double duty as a laundry hamper.  Behind dirt-encrusted Venetian blinds on the wall opposite the door was a cracked window that looked out on the brick wall of another equally squalid building.

 

The other room, where the boy was sitting, held a small countertop along one wall, upon which rested a two-burner hot plate and a toaster.  A small rubber tub, like the kind used by busboys in cafes to gather up dirty dishes, was used as a sink.  This array rested on a cabinet that had been lacking doors for some time now.  A small sofa sagged against the other wall, in front of which was the rug where the boy was sitting.  A scratched and dented card table with two chairs completed the furnishings.  There was a fridge down the hall shared by all the apartments and rooms on the floor.

 

Most days the boy never left the apartment.  He was permanently dirty, although often his face and hands were scrubbed to give an illusion of cleanliness, which sufficed as long as the casual observer was to keep their distance and pass by quickly.

 

Often the boy went hungry for long periods of time, until he passed out  and went into a dark place where nobody could follow.  Today at least he had been fed a bowl of porridge at breakfast and a lunch of a piece of white bread with a thin layer of butter topped with a minute sprinkling of sugar.  This, along with a small carton of milk had left him feeling quite satisfied, at least in the only terms he knew.  But it had been hours and hours since lunch, when she had left him on the rug, with a stern warning not to leave it.

 

He kept his sense of playfulness and curiosity carefully wrapped up in a warm place in the back of his mind.  On the few occasions he had let them out, there had been trouble.  He understood the language of pain, just as she understood it as an art form.  When she took the trouble, she could make sure that the pain was bright  and intense and sharp, so much so that even he would remember.

 

He was three years old.

 

He heard steps coming down the hall and tensed into immobility.  The door opened and she thrust herself forward into the room, flinging her coat onto the sofa.  “So, my little man”, she addressed her son, “have you been good?  Did you stay where I told you?”  His eyes betrayed his fear as he nodded curtly at her.  “Yes, stayed on the rug”, trickled out in barely audible tones.  “Good, good.  By god, you might be getting some sense finally,” she exclaimed.  He tried to sense her mood, but for a moment she stood over him, staring out the window without moving and without betraying the direction her emotional compass might be pointing.  He waited, passively.

 

She might have been a beautiful woman if not for the nose that had been broken more than once and the mouthful of cracked and broken and missing teeth.  She might have been a beautiful woman if not for the years of brutality and  abuse and torture she had suffered, first in her uncle’s house in Krakow, then under the German troopers, then under the army of liberators lustily celebrating victory.  Nowadays she worked sporadically as a seamstress, but the streets were her real workshop and the back alleys of the Skids were the office where her true pay was drawn.  She might have been a beautiful woman, if not for that, but she was not beautiful or pretty or cute.  Her face was god’s reflection as the world hurtled into the second half of the twentieth century, blown there by holocaust and conflagration through pain and sorrow and bullets.

 

With the swiftness of a ghetto survivor seizing a loaf of bread she grabbed the boy by his ankles and began twirling around in circles.  “Momma takes you for a ride! Momma takes you for a ride!” she began chanting as the boy went spinning around the tiny living room, his head coming dangerously close to the few pieces of furniture that might have impeded his dizzying revolutions.  Over and over she spun, her head thrown back, chanting her cry.  Finally the boy began to send his consciousness to rest in the darkness and his hands relaxed their hold on the toy pistol.

 

The toy holster and gun left his hands just as she increased the speed of her dervish-like whirling.  It was flung in an arc across the room and, crashing through the grimy single paned window, continued on its inevitable course to the sidewalk below.  The pistol did not, however, hit the sidewalk directly.  Instead, the tweed-covered shoulder of Miss Alice Carruthers intercepted the missile, which only then dropped to the ground with a thud.

 

Miss Carruthers turned around, seething in immediate anger.  She assumed that one of them had hit her, but as the gun bounced to rest she realized that someone had thrown something, some object, at her.  She grabbed the holster, still holding the pistol, barely registering what exactly the thing was.  She scanned the sidewalk behind her but the nearest people were a block away.  She became aware of a rhythmic chanting coming from overhead and looked up.  One of the upper windows of the tenement she was standing beside was cracked and broken and a wisp of yellowed and tattered fabric flickered in and out, as if describing some kind of semaphore message.  She measured the distance from the window to the spot on the sidewalk she was standing on and rendered her verdict faster than a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a fallen gladiator at the Coliseum.

 

She strode toward the entrance to the building and bounded up the stairs, if one can use the word bounded to describe the deliberate movement of a severe looking spinster, wearing a tweed suit, tortoiseshell glasses and with her hair done up in a bun under a practical rather than stylish hat.  Just as she reached the door, it opened and an unshaven man wearing a torn sweater and dirty blue jeans scuttled out.  Miss Carruthers seized the door handle, pushed through the doorway and rushed up the stairs.  On the top floor landing she immediately turned left, as she had an excellent sense of direction and had already mapped out where the offending window must be.

 

Not bothering to knock, she opened the apartment door and looked in, ready to confront her attacker.  Inside, she was confronted by a scene that she was later to describe as almost Hieronymous Bosch-like in its horror.  A woman was in the center of the room holding a small boy by the ankles and twirling about in circles while over and over she chanted “Momma takes you for a ride”.  The boy appeared to be dead, or at least unconscious.  The place stank, was not just uncleaned but truly filthy, and was obviously no place to raise  a child.  “What is going on here!” Miss Carruther demanded.  The dervish noticed the intruder, ceased her spinning and dropped the boy onto the sofa.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“What do you mean, “who are you””, came the retort. “I am Alice Carruthers, of the Children’s Aid Society.  I was walking down the sidewalk when I was almost killed, by this!” she said, exhibiting the holster and gun.  “It obviously came from there,” she said, pointing imperiously at the window.  Then she turned at pointed at the boy, “And from him.”

 

The boy’s mother strode to the door and demanded “Get out, you nosy bitch.  You got no business here!”  Miss Carruthers squared her already formidable shoulders, drew herself up, and said with steely determination, “Oh no, dearie.  That’s where you’re wrong.  It just so happens that I’m a social worker and it’s my job to protect children like this from people like you.  Of course you probably don’t know anything about that do you?  No, you wouldn’t have people like me where you come from.”

 

The boy started to come to, amazed to see someone actually arguing with his mother.  He waited expectantly for his mother to lash out at the strange lady, but amazingly the defiant light in her eyes flickered and went out.  She walked over to the window, drew back the tattered remnant of curtain and stared out.

 

Across the rooftops rose the looming bulk of Hamilton’s Department Store.  The waning sunlight caught the landmark’s golden H that towered on a spire over the store and the sun’s ray was, in turn, reflected back to the dusty tenement.  The boy’s mother turned back to the room, laughed bitterly and said to Miss Carruthers, “Well if you want him so bad, take him.  He’s more trouble than he’s worth.  What the hell.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Star Maidens

Chapter One

Falling Star got up earlier than usual from her pallet in the great longhouse she shared with the rest of the Eagle Clan. She was brimming with excitement and hurried to complete her preparations for the camas harvesting expedition she was going on.  All the other women were also rousing themselves and getting up.  They were going to be spending the next two days on the annual camas harvesting, now that the camas flowers had done to seed.  The harvesting was done by pairs or small groups of women, who would fan out across the great, rolling meadows that surrounded their territory.  Dotted with the characteristic oak trees that co-exist in camas meadows, the ground was occasionally broken by rocky up-thrusts of the shallow bedrock.  In the meadows, the women would harvest the camas by uprooting the plants and slicing off the precious bulbs, stowing them in the cedar-plaited baskets worn on their backs.

This was the first time that Falling Star wasn’t going to just be accompanying her mother or her aunts, and she felt almost grown up with the responsibility.  Plus, she’d have two whole days with her best friend, Starlight, who lived in the neighboring village.  Starlight was also a member of the Eagle Clan, and they were both being trained as healers, since the two of them came from a long line of shamans and medicine women.  As much as she liked learning all about the ways to heal sicknesses and bind wounds, Falling Star also enjoyed the simple, laborious task of gathering camas bulbs.

She packed up her supply of baskets, along with some food for a couple of days; smoked salmon, oolichans and bright red huckleberries.  She had her cutting knife that she’d be using in the camas meadows, and a few other more general purpose implements, a sleeping roll, and for fire, a slate lined basket that contained a glowing coal that was nesting on the center of some damp moss.  Falling Star loaded everything into the canoe she had been told to use. She pushed off from the gently sloping beach and guided her small craft out of the bay and into the sheltered harbor. Paddling up into the harbor reaches, past the rocky crags she admired how the smooth red trunks of the arbutus trees stood out in marked contrast to the deep shiny green of their leaves. Staying close to shore, she soon saw her friend, Starlight, who was making her way to the small, pebbly beach that was their meeting place.  Falling Star expertly brought the canoe in, just barely grounding it on the beach so that Starlight could load her things without getting wet. The two girls greeted each other excitedly, talking over each others’ sentences, which caused them to break into peals of laughter. “Oh Starlight, it’s so good to see you, again! This is going to be fun!”  “I know, Falling Star, ever since my grandmother gave her permission, I’ve been looking forward to it.  And no more memorizing and lessons for the next couple of days!” said Starlight in return.

Starlight got everything stowed away and took her place at the bow, after giving the canoe a hearty push and swinging her lithe young body into the craft.  She had brought her own paddle, of course, and was soon settling into a good steady rhythm that worked for both of them.  She turned her head around, and said, “Let’s pick up the pace so we can get through the Cammusack narrows before the tide turns.  Otherwise we’ll have to wait.” Falling Star didn’t need much encouragement, since she didn’t want to get stuck on the wrong side of the reversing falls either.  The place was mysterious and full of strange magic and they both wanted to get through it quickly.  It was the spot where the harbor tightened down to a narrow passageway, beyond which lay the more expansive waterway, leading to the upper reaches of Portage Inlet, where they were headed.  When the tide turned, the water surged through the gap, creating a waterfall effect that was too strong for even the mightiest warriors to paddle through.  The girls starting singing a paddling song and the canoe darted forward as if it had wings.  Falling Star guided them into the center of the flow, just as they felt the almost imperceptible shift of the water, so close beneath their thighs.  “Come on”, she yelled, “Give it everything you’ve got!” Both girls were really digging in on each stroke, keeping up the momentum as best they could.  But with each stroke, the force of the water grew more and more intense and the canoe started to slow down.  It was as if invisible fingers were reaching up through the cold grey water to grab the canoe.  Starlight managed to find an untapped reserve of strength and started to pick up her rhythm a little, which sparked the competitive urge in Falling Star to do the same.  Slowly, they began to pick up speed and gain back the momentum they had lost.  With a final mighty effort they suddenly broke through the narrows, with a spurt of speed that really did make it feel like they were flying, or at least about to lift off the water like the geese and swans that scattered before them.  The girls whooped in glee as they realized they had won the race with the rising tide.  Now that they were able to relax, they began to talk, picking up a conversation that had been dropped some two moons ago, when they had last spent any time together.

Chapter Two

“Oh Starlight,” exclaimed Falling Star, “that was so much fun! I’m exhausted but it was as if we were in some kind of battle, and then it was like we were flying over the water.”  “I know, I felt it too!” replied Starlight.  They talked for a while about each other’s family, and what had been going on with them, since it seemed like the people of both villages were all related one way or another to each other.  Falling Star’s little sister, Raven, had fallen out of a tree and broken her arm, but Falling Star had managed to help her back to the longhouse, and had helped her aunt to set and bind the break.  Starlight exclaimed in sympathy as the story unfolded.

They paddled along the waterway, admiring the broad silvery pathway that led the way through the forested banks.  “Falling Star, I have some pretty big news myself.  I was visited by the moon spirit three weeks ago and had my ceremonial sweat in the woman’s lodge!” “Starlight, that’s wonderful!  Congratulations! That means we’re both women now!” exclaimed her friend, who had gone through the same rite of passage a few moons earlier.  “I think that’s why my grannie and your auntie allowed us to go harvesting together, we are getting pretty grown up now” continued Starlight.  “Yes, but you know what that means don’t you?” countered Falling Star.  “No, what do you mean?” said Starlight.  Falling Star continued, “Why, now they’ll want to marry us off, and I don’t know about you but all the boys around here are so, well, dull.  They never do anything really exciting, like in those stories the elders tell around the fire.”  “Now that you mention it” said Starlight, “I haven’t been much impressed either.  Most of the boys I know are just boastful and arrogant, who push each other around and fight a lot.  And they make all those disgusting noises!”  “Hahaha”, laughed Falling Star.  “You’ve got that right!  And what about the smell!” she continued, which made them both laugh some more.

By now, they had swung around the last corner and the rapidly emptying tidal inlet spread out in front of them.  Starlight shielded her eyes from the sun and saw the channel she was looking for. “Over there, Falling Star, over there” she said, pointing out the deeper water that marked the course of the creek that fed into the inlet.  Eerily, the water around them continued to drop and the mud flats emerged around them.  By sticking to the creek, they managed to traverse the last hundred paddle strokes and reach their destination, which was a little beach near the mouth of the creek.  They ran the canoe up onto the bank and jumped out, hauling the canoe up as far as they could.  Then they took the cedar plaited rope out from the bow of the canoe and fastened it to a tree.  After securing the canoe they prepared their camp not too far away, making sure to cache their food high overhead.   They knew they’d be tired when they finished their work so they took a few moments to gather some firewood and made sure that the slumbering coal was still glowing.  Then they each took about half of the baskets they had brought, and their cutting tools, and set off on the trail that led through the fringe of trees that marked the creek, to the start of the expansive meadow they had come to harvest.  The camas bloom was over but the regal purple flowers were still a sight to see, even if they were drying up in the summer heat.  They fell to with the same hardworking spirit they had shown during the race with the tide.  As they worked, they amused each other by making up verses to the harvesting song they were singing.  After a while, the verses started to get stuck on certain male body parts, and pretending to be cutting them off like they were doing with the camas, which was funny at first but soon left them both a little embarrassed.  “Gee, Falling Star, we were making fun of the boys for being as crude as they are, and now we’ve been doing the same thing pretty much.” “I know” she replied somewhat abashedly, “and we are supposed to be training to be healers.  Let’s get back to work.”  On and on they went, filling basket after basket with the precious morsels.  Soon they had beaten a well-worn path back to the camp. As the long day finally surrendered to dusk and twilight, the girls brought in their last baskets of the day’s harvest.  They took the basket with the coal over to their firepit and placed it carefully in the middle.  Carefully, but with the assurance of experience they built the fire up into a cheery blaze.  They shared each other’s food, and relaxed together after their long day.  “That was awesome Starlight” said Falling Star, “I am tired but I had so much fun today and look at what we accomplished.  All those baskets filled, all by ourselves!”

Chapter Three

As the campfire danced in front of them, the girls lay back on their bedrolls and continued talking about the boys and young warriors they knew, or knew of by reputation in the case of some of the other nations up and down the coast.  First, Falling Star asked about one of the young warriors in Starlight’s village who she thought looked pretty handsome.  “But of course I really don’t know anything about him at all.  What’s he really like?” Starlight was giggling uncontrollably but managed to choke out, “Oh, is it ever a good thing you asked me first.  Not only is he stupid, he has the worse case of the farts you could ever imagine.  Believe me, he might look good but he smells so bad you would never want to be near to him!”

After a moment Starlight asked Falling Star about a boy in her village.  He was already promised to another girl. Falling Star asked about a young man from the Sooke territory but Starlight had heard that he had drowned on a whaling expedition. Back and forth they went, listing every single possibility but for each one they found something wrong, and so one by one all the names were crossed off the list.

“You know, Starlight?” said Falling Star, as she gazed up into the heavens, “We might as well wish to marry one of those stars.  I kind of like the looks of that one over there.  I want to marry him.” she said, gesturing.  Starlight responded by saying, “I think that one over there twinkles in a really nice way.  I want to marry him.”  The girls laughed and sat up.

“You know what Falling Star?”

“What?”

“We should do a promise dance for our star husbands before we fall asleep.  Maybe they will come for us.”

So the girls got up, and started dancing around the fire, repeating their wish of marrying the star husbands.  They danced and danced until the fire burned down to glowing embers, and they were so exhausted they collapsed on their bedrolls and fell asleep instantly.

The girls were both tired from their long day and were soon snoring away. The fire’s embers dimmed and the silence of the night was complete. In the middle of the night, when the black was at its blackest, and not even the chipmunks were stirring, something happened that had never happened before.  There was a crackling noise around the campsite, like small branches being broken, and a strange blue tinged light appeared in the sky overhead.  The girls sat up, rubbing their eyes in amazement as the light descended closer and closer to earth.  As it approached, they saw it was some kind of floating canoe holding two young men.  It settled on the ground near them, and they looked at each other in amazement.  “It’s them,” said Starlight, “the star people heard us!”

David Trudel    © 2012

The Wreck of the KonTiki

Life was so different back then, growing up in Haney.  Nowadays parents keep a pretty watchful eye over the kids and in many cases practically every waking moment is scripted and monitored and everyone is in constant touch.  Back then, in contrast, we’d leave the house after breakfast and come back for supper.  In between we’d climb trees, build forts, swim in the river, ride horses, wander the streets, pick fights, sneak cigarettes, swear like sailors, go to the movies, and generally misbehave.

One of those moments I remember with particular fondness involves the demise of one of the best elementary school projects ever made, and I should add that it was my friend Chris Clarke who was the architect behind the project and who deserves most of the credit.  It had started as one of those class assignments to build something to illustrate something we’d been studying and since we had all had to read Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his voyage on the original KonTiki raft we decided to build a scale model of the KonTiki.  Between our parents’ basements and workshops and garages we had just about everything in terms of supplies, but I also recall cutting down a number of trees in the forested lot that lay between our two houses.  Try doing that today!  The raft was a work of art that came together over a couple of weeks of hard work. When we loaded it into the station wagon to bring it to school, the seats had to be flipped down, as it was almost six feet long.  Now I readily admit that being the Doctor’s kid may have earned me some soft A’s on some other projects but this time Chris (mainly) and I really did feel we’d earned the A that our project did finally receive.

However we were boys and mischievous and sometimes downright dangerous, kind of typical for kids growing up in Haney in those days. That being the case, we came up with an appropriate plan to send the KonTiki to a greater glory, once it had been retrieved from school.  It was sometime well into spring and the evenings were growing long so we had lots of time to meet up after supper, not just Chris and I but an assortment of siblings and friends who were in on the fun.  First we made our way to the workshop out back where we kept the lawnmower and saws and tools and weapons of small destruction.  It was also where we kept all the empty bottles so it was easy to make up a six pack or two of Molotov cocktails using the gas for the lawnmower and from the various rags that were always at hand. We ceremoniously carried the raft to the gravelly banks of the Alouette River, splashed some gas over the bamboo thatched cabin and pushed it off into the middle of the current, below the rapids that ran downstream from our place.  We hightailed it along the trail on the bank and made it to Crystal Pool near the gravel pit well in time. We lit first one bomb and then another, pitching them at the beloved craft with at least some semblance of accuracy.  The first couple didn’t do much damage but then somebody managed to get the cabin full force and a couple of others actually managed to explode on impact, to our great delight. Before long the entire raft was ablaze and we hooted and hollered as it burnt in the twilight shadows.  We followed along as it was swept away and watched as it broke apart and disappeared in the dwindling flames and the smoke in the eddies and currents and splashes in the river.  It felt a little bittersweet but it felt right too; we had given the sacrificial torch to the craft as a badge of honor, a token of esteem.  Not only that, it was pretty dramatic and risky and we would have been in so much trouble if we’d been caught.  So now I look back fondly at that scene, even though I realize that it was extremely dangerous and environmentally nasty and not at all what I’d ever condone today.  But I’m glad I had the chance to grow up with that kind of freedom and exuberance, when fear was just a goad to greater folly.

Alouette Lake

Haney is, for those who know it, a special place and as I’ve said before, to my mind it represents the archetypal small town of North America.  One of its features that proves this assertion, at least to me, is the lake.  Or should I say, “The Lake”.  After all, every Hollywood movie that is set in a small town invariably has a lake where local teens congregate, swim and are occasionally eaten by wayward monsters.  None of the cinematic versions come close to matching the glorious reality that is our own Alouette Lake.

Set within a provincial park, surrounded by forested slopes and towering peaks.  Alouette Lake is clean, cold and infinitely welcoming.  It features a great beach area; picnic sites galore, broad paths for strolling, and magnificent views.  There is a boat launch a little further up and the lake is well used by ski-boats, canoes and kayaks, sailboats and other watercraft. Further along still is the main campground.  A classic provincial campground, laid out in a familiar suburban pattern of roadways with campsites carved out of the woods each with its own table, fire-pit, and tenting area.

Elsewhere along the lake were various other campsites, for cubs and scouts, brownies and guides.  Then there came the trails leading off into the mountain peaks themselves.  What a place – I could go on but you know it just as well as me, I’m sure.

To my child’s eye, back in the day, it seemed like the lake had always been there.  It hadn’t of course, at least not in its present form, or even by the name Alouette before 1915 when it was changed from being called Lillooet.  Prior to the construction of the dam in 1925, there were two much smaller lakes in the center of the valley, the smaller one not much more than a widening of the river.  The whole watershed was intensively logged for quite a few years, hence the many large stumps that line the shallows around the contours of the lake, and indeed dot the parklike surroundings and serve as nurse logs.  The reason for the dam was to power a hydroelectric generator, which it still does, although our dam is not where the power is generated.  There is actually a tunnel at the opposite and northern end of the lake that cuts through a side hill to Stave Lake where the generator is. For whatever reason the BC Electric Railway Company which built the dam refused to make any allowances for the seven salmon species that were affected by the building of the dam and refused to build a fish ladder and did not, for many long years, consider downstream flow rates as something to be much concerned with.  As expected, the fish died off quickly.  It was also argued over the years that several major floods along the Alouette River were exacerbated by poor management of the dam’s spillway.  It took decades of floods and lobbying by various special interests groups to implement a more eco-conscious approach – and it would be interesting to hear what the current situation is, but I digress.

The north end of the lake was where the Boulder Bay Camp was.  Boulder Bay was a special program of the Haney Correctional Institute where inmates lived an intense blend of Outward Bound, Boot Camp and the reality show Survivor for six months at a time.  By all accounts it had an incredible success rate in terms of turning lives around but it only lasted something like a dozen or so years and then the program was relocated and modified considerably.

Having the lake a short drive from town was perfect for those times when relatives from “back east” were visiting.  There was nothing quite like an early morning decision to take advantage of a break in the rain and announce a visit to the lake for a picnic which required preparing and packing up the food and the stuff. Moms and aunts would spend the morning making potato salad, fried chicken, watermelon, packing along some cold cuts and a few crusty rolls from the night before. The kids would be busy locating bathing suits and towels, frisbees, football, badminton sets, umbrellas and beach chairs and then packing everything into the big old family station wagon, while the phone lines were kept busy finding out who else was going to be heading up to the lake and where and when to try and meet up.  The men, back in those days, would have gone off into some quiet corner to have a smoke and talk football and maybe have a quick nip on the sly, since it was a given that men weren’t any good in the kitchen.  But they’d take care of the drinks; a cooler full of Cokes and Orange Crush for the kids and a case of beer for the adults was a likely choice.  Eventually everything would be readied and the overloaded vehicle would set off for the lake.

How many times did we all take that drive up Fern Crescent and stop at the sign that marked the entrance to the park to take a picture?  I bet there are collectively thousands and thousands of images in old photo albums of smiling groups of families and friends posed in front of the sign, scattered from Haney to wherever else we’ve ended up.  Since group shots take a few minutes to set up, especially if your Dad had a tripod and liked to use the ever popular self timer, the large and elaborate wooden sign would start looking more and more like a fun kind of climbing structure to some individuals.  Adventurous kids would climb up to the top and scare the wits out of the elderly relations, which adds a certain sense of joie de vivre to any occasion, I always say!

The road up to the lake was quite excellent and it must have been paved in something like 1960 or so.  I have a vague recollection that some of the labour was supplied by the inmates from HCI but that may not be the case at all.  Whatever, it was quite a fine stretch of highway, where you might be tempted to put the pedal to the metal and clean out the carbon, so to speak. At first the parking lots were all gravel, and on hot sunny days a cloud of circulating dust was a permanent fixture all day long.  Later, as the sixties rolled along the lots were all paved and more improvements were made from year to year.

Families would have their favourite picnic tables and areas, but we always had to be flexible. The picnic area was really quite enormous but in my case we always preferred to grab one of the tables on the fringe, away from the crowd, one of those that had a view.  Sometimes of course the focus was more on swimming than eating, and when not swimming we’d spend the time sun-tanning on the sandy beach or close to it on the grassy lawns.  There was also, of course, the diving float anchored off-shore and the older kids would churn their way out to the slimy ladder to triumphantly haul themselves up and out of the lake to bask on the warm boards for a few minutes before diving back into the glacial melt.  Off in the distance heading towards the dam, you might have seen a handful of teenage boys, stopping to have a beer along the way, but heading relentlessly for the dam where they would perform leaps of faith for the thrill, and if they were very lucky for the admiring glances of the girls who managed to show up nearby just by accident.

Some families had power boats and those of us who weren’t so favoured were always on the look-out for opportunities to get invited along for a day of water-skiing with more fortunate friends and neighbours.  Of course this often involved humiliating displays of extremely poor balance and control resulting in the ingestion of vast quantities of lake water while being pulled face down and flat out behind the boat. Eventually, if one managed to stay upright, a scenic high-speed tour would follow and if you were really lucky you wouldn’t get ditched in the middle of the lake somewhere.  The lake is large enough to accommodate a wide variety of watercraft, and although I’m sure there have been some moments of animated dialogue between the various user groups, in balance it’s nice to have a resource that is open to so many.

I remember one weekend that a friend and I camped at the Boy Scout campground when nobody else was there, having canoed up from the boat launch.  The image that stands out for me is an early morning paddle up the lake, a cloudless early summer morning, the water clear and unruffled, and the absolute perfection of the moment.

Any mention of camping brings back guilty memories of the inaugural camping weekend in May.  How many of us indulged, or over-indulged to be more accurate, in prohibited activities on the May 24th campout?  How many didn’t is probably a better question!  And how many of us learned rudimentary cooking skills at the campground, usually beginning with “smokelled eggs” or something equally appetizing.

But it wasn’t always group activities that I remember about the lake.  Some days it was a just a great place to go and be by yourself, to wander the paths and admire the view and collect your wits to manage a hectic life. In retrospect, the lake was, and hopefully still is, a great source of enjoyment and beauty for Haney and its residents. Of course it is just so beautiful that it attracts all sorts of folks from other places leading to occasional over-crowding, but all in all, the lake is a jewel in Haney’s crown.

David Trudel   © 2012

Way To Go Willie, Way To Go

I belong to a couple of FaceBook Groups that celebrate my hometown of Haney. Some time ago I realized that we really hadn’t said much about the Katzie First Nation, on whose traditional territory Haney rests. Here is the post I came up after a moment of reflection:

I offer my token of respect and acknowledge the stewardship exercised over these lands for countless years by the Katzie and their ancestors. I’ll also dredge up some old memories of my Katzie friends and offer those in a spirit of reconciliation. When I started school at St. Patrick’s elementary all those years ago, I was by all accounts a pretty energetic kid. These days I’d probably be diagnosed as hyperactive and dosed with Ritalin to slow me down and become more manageable but in those days the nuns probably offered up their exposure to me as a penance. Imagine me, if you will, as a kind of a “Dennis the Menace” inadvertently acting as an agent of God. Although I had enjoyed my idyllic childhood playing in the forest along the riverbank, I was eager to learn, eager to find out how things worked and eager to make friends. School, it appeared, was the apple from the tree of knowledge, the Rosetta stone of adult mysteries and, I hoped, a kind of a clubhouse filled with readymade pals and buddies. Not, in a word. It wasn’t to be the last time I over-idealized the unknown of course, and it took some time before reality sank in. During those first few days under the nuns’ tutelage, I discovered a kindred spirit in the young Willie Pierre, who was one of many kids at the school from the Katzie Reserve. Like me, Willie buzzed with anticipation, and soaked up information with a spirit of joy and delight. Like me, he had a lot of energy and not a lot of restraint. Like me, he valued learning something new over following the rules. Over time however, it became obvious that our very similar attitudes and behaviors resulted in very different reactions from our teachers. I was called inquisitive but Willie was called unruly. I was applauded for my class participation, but Willie was punished for being disruptive. And so it went as Willie and I and the whole class for that matter absorbed the lesson that one plus one doesn’t always add up to two. I regret that I didn’t show more grit and stick with our friendship, but unfortunately it didn’t take long for the status quo to become internalized and in all too short an order my early connection with Willie was broken. This is not to say that my overall impression of the aboriginal community in general, and the Katzie Nation in particular, was uniformly negative. My father, for one, accorded the Katzie a definite respect, which provided at least some counterpoint to the nuns’ swift (and frankly regrettable) judgment. I remember him speaking at some length about both Simon Pierre and Peter Pierre and while the specifics have long since fled my memory, I got the sense that Willie’s forbears were important elders and respected healers. I was always happy enough to accompany my dad on his house calls and from time to time I’d find myself on the rez. Mostly I’d sit in the car listening to the radio but sometimes I’d hop out and talk to whoever might be in the general vicinity. I can only hope that I wasn’t too much of an arrogant little person back then. More generally, it was a time when Chief Dan George of the Capilano stood up in Empire Stadium and delivered a historic exhortation supporting social justice, Haida artist Bill Reid became internationally famous, and Buffy Saint Marie created and sang a defining anthem of the anti-war movement, Universal Soldier. In many respects, aboriginal culture became “cool” although this didn’t necessarily mean that the pervasive prejudice disappeared. It didn’t; of course, it just provided some more contradictions for us to deal with. Over the years I wondered what had become of Willie. There are so many stories of tragedy surrounding aboriginal lives that of course I worried that perhaps life had not been kind to Willie and that the bright spark that had once blazed in his eyes had been dimmed. But a few years ago my mother and sister attended the 50th anniversary of St. Patrick’s School and who was there to give a blessing but respected Katzie elder Willie Pierre! They were both impressed by his eloquence and when I found out that he had achieved that role; I have to say I was both relieved and happy. Then, a while later, I saw a news report on the TV news of the grand opening of the new bridge over the Fraser. There, stationed behind the Premier, Gordon Campbell, was my old friend Willie. As the Premier pontificated and droned on, Willie started engaging in exactly the kind of behavior I remembered from back in Grade one, only this time much more welcomed by most in attendance. It was precisely the kind of thing that would have got the nuns hopping mad – unruly and disruptive behavior. Willie started to dance and chant and since he was right behind Mr. Campbell, he was pretty obvious. His chants started to overpower the political blather and so the Premier curtailed the speech and declared the bridge open. I chuckled and thought to myself “way to go Willie, way to go.”

David Trudel (c) 2012

Miss Carruthers

Dust motes danced in a spiral pattern, a bebop model of the DNA of want, as the afternoon sun shone through the torn and yellowed curtains that hung over the room’s only window. The boy sat on a braided rug on the floor. The rug had once been patterned with a vaguely country and western motif and could almost have been called a piece of folk art, with bright orange and red highlights running through the two-toned brown stripes. Now, however, it was merely brown, worn with use, uncared for and filthy with dirt and scraps and god knows what. The boy was playing with the one toy in the room, which happened to be a toy pistol in a stamped leather holster. He knew that he wasn’t allowed to leave the rug, because she had told him not to and what might happen if he did. He sighed, because he was hungry and he had been there for a long time. He didn’t know how long, nor did he care. Time was a fluid concept to him. If he needed to, he could get his mind to switch off, like with the radio or the lights, and he wouldn’t notice the dirty old rug anymore. It was late summer and the window was propped open with a wooden spoon, letting the traffic noises and shouts and cries from the neighborhood in. If there had been music appropriate to the location it would have been an edgy piece of Coltrane’s or maybe one of those numbers Bird came up with that evokes something almost as terrible as this place. But there wasn’t any music here, just the sounds of the cars and trucks rumbling by, punctuated by angry cries and curses. The room was part of the small apartment the boy lived in. The apartment itself was a third floor walk-up, in a gritty tenement in the City’s most notorious part of town; the Skids. The apartment consisted of two rooms and a small water-closet that was far too small and primitive to be given the name bathroom. Certainly there was no chance that anyone had ever considered the idea of having a bath there. A bedroom held an iron bed-frame with a tumble of frayed blankets on top of a saggy mattress, a nondescript chest of drawers, and a chair that did double duty as a laundry hamper. Behind dirt-encrusted Venetian blinds on the wall opposite the door was a cracked window that looked out on the brick wall of another equally squalid building. The other room, where the boy was sitting, held a small countertop along one wall, upon which rested a two-burner hot plate and a toaster. A small rubber tub, like the kind used by busboys in cafes to gather up dirty dishes, was used as a sink. This array rested on a cabinet that had been lacking doors for some time now. A small sofa sagged against the other wall, in front of which was the rug where the boy was sitting. A scratched and dented card table with two chairs completed the furnishings. There was a fridge down the hall shared by all the apartments and rooms on the floor. Most days the boy never left the apartment. He was permanently dirty, although often his face and hands were scrubbed to give an illusion of cleanliness, which sufficed as long as the casual observer was to keep their distance and pass by quickly. Often the boy went hungry for long periods of time, until he passed out and went into a dark place where nobody could follow. Today at least he had been fed a bowl of porridge at breakfast and a lunch of a piece of white bread with a thin layer of butter topped with a minute sprinkling of sugar. This, along with a small carton of milk had left him feeling quite satisfied, at least in the only terms he knew. But it had been hours and hours since lunch, when she had left him on the rug, with a stern warning not to leave it. He kept his sense of playfulness and curiosity carefully wrapped up in a warm place in the back of his mind. On the few occasions he had let them out, there had been trouble. He understood the language of pain, just as she understood it as an art form. When she took the trouble, she could make sure that the pain was bright and intense and sharp, so much so that even he would remember. He was three years old. He heard steps coming down the hall and tensed into immobility. The door opened and she thrust herself forward into the room, flinging her coat onto the sofa. “So, my little man”, she addressed her son, “have you been good? Did you stay where I told you?” His eyes betrayed his fear as he nodded curtly at her. “Yes, stayed on the rug”, trickled out in barely audible tones. “Good, good. By god, you might be getting some sense finally,” she exclaimed. He tried to sense her mood, but for a moment she stood over him, staring out the window without moving and without betraying the direction her emotional compass might be pointing. He waited, passively. She might have been a beautiful woman if not for the nose that had been broken more than once and the mouthful of cracked and broken and missing teeth. She might have been a beautiful woman if not for the years of brutality and abuse and torture she had suffered, first in her uncle’s house in Krakow, then under the German troopers, then under the army of liberators lustily celebrating victory. Nowadays she worked sporadically as a seamstress, but the streets were her real workshop and the back alleys of the Skids were the office where her true pay was drawn. She might have been a beautiful woman, if not for that, but she was not beautiful or pretty or cute. Her face was god’s reflection as the world hurtled into the second half of the twentieth century, blown there by holocaust and conflagration through pain and sorrow and bullets. With the swiftness of a ghetto survivor seizing a loaf of bread she grabbed the boy by his ankles and began twirling around in circles. “Momma takes you for a ride! Momma takes you for a ride!” she began chanting as the boy went spinning around the tiny living room, his head coming dangerously close to the few pieces of furniture that might have impeded his dizzying revolutions. Over and over she spun, her head thrown back, chanting her cry. Finally the boy began to send his consciousness to rest in the darkness and his hands relaxed their hold on the toy pistol. The toy holster and gun left his hands just as she increased the speed of her dervish-like whirling. It was flung in an arc across the room and, crashing through the grimy single paned window, continued on its inevitable course to the sidewalk below. The pistol did not, however, hit the sidewalk directly. Instead, the tweed-covered shoulder of Miss Alice Carruthers intercepted the missile, which only then dropped to the ground with a thud. Miss Carruthers turned around, seething in immediate anger. She assumed that one of them had hit her, but as the gun bounced to rest she realized that someone had thrown something, some object, at her. She grabbed the holster, still holding the pistol, barely registering what exactly the thing was. She scanned the sidewalk behind her but the nearest people were a block away. She became aware of a rhythmic chanting coming from overhead and looked up. One of the upper windows of the tenement she was standing beside was cracked and broken and a wisp of yellowed and tattered fabric flickered in and out, as if describing some kind of semaphore message. She measured the distance from the window to the spot on the sidewalk she was standing on and rendered her verdict faster than a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a fallen gladiator at the Coliseum. She strode toward the entrance to the building and bounded up the stairs, if one can use the word bounded to describe the deliberate movement of a severe looking spinster, wearing a tweed suit, tortoiseshell glasses and with her hair done up in a bun under a practical rather than stylish hat. Just as she reached the door, it opened and an unshaven man wearing a torn sweater and dirty blue jeans scuttled out. Miss Carruthers seized the door handle, pushed through the doorway and rushed up the stairs. On the top floor landing she immediately turned left, as she had an excellent sense of direction and had already mapped out where the offending window must be. Not bothering to knock, she opened the apartment door and looked in, ready to confront her attacker. Inside, she was confronted by a scene that she was later to describe as almost Hieronymous Bosch-like in its horror. A woman was in the center of the room holding a small boy by the ankles and twirling about in circles while over and over she chanted “Momma takes you for a ride”. The boy appeared to be dead, or at least unconscious. The place stank, was not just uncleaned but truly filthy, and was obviously no place to raise a child. “What is going on here!” Miss Carruther demanded. The dervish noticed the intruder, ceased her spinning and dropped the boy onto the sofa. “Who are you?” “What do you mean, “who are you””, came the retort. “I am Alice Carruthers, of the Children’s Aid Society. I was walking down the sidewalk when I was almost killed, by this!” she said, exhibiting the holster and gun. “It obviously came from there,” she said, pointing imperiously at the window. Then she turned at pointed at the boy, “And from him.” The boy’s mother strode to the door and demanded “Get out, you nosy bitch. You got no business here!” Miss Carruthers squared her already formidable shoulders, drew herself up, and said with steely determination, “Oh no, dearie. That’s where you’re wrong. It just so happens that I’m a social worker and it’s my job to protect children like this from people like you. Of course you probably don’t know anything about that do you? No, you wouldn’t have people like me where you come from.” The boy started to come to, amazed to see someone actually arguing with his mother. He waited expectantly for his mother to lash out at the strange lady, but amazingly the defiant light in her eyes flickered and went out. She walked over to the window, drew back the tattered remnant of curtain and stared out. Across the rooftops rose the looming bulk of Hamilton’s Department Store. The waning sunlight caught the landmark’s golden H that towered on a spire over the store and the sun’s ray was, in turn, reflected back to the dusty tenement. The boy’s mother turned back to the room, laughed bitterly and said to Miss Carruthers, “Well if you want him so bad, take him. He’s more trouble than he’s worth. What the hell.”

David Trudel (c) 2012

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s