horses in the Nicola Valley

We’re back in the Nicola Valley, staying at the Quilchena Hotel — a birthday treat for Angelica. For so many years we camped in the valley every summer and gazed across the lake at Quilchena from the campsite at Monck Park. The hotel is an old-fashioned pleasure: the rooms have high ceilings and lazy fans; the saloon serves cold beer and snacks and there are bullet holes on the lower part of the bar. The provenance of the bullet holes is unclear. I know that Bill Miner and his two accomplices were held in the earlier Quilchena Hotel — this one dates from 1908, two years after his capture on the Douglas plateau (readers of my novel Sisters of Grass will be familiar with the story!); the original hotel hosted a jail in its cellar. And I can’t imagine the Grey Fox shooting it up in a gracious hotel. Still, this place has lots of atmosphere. Yesterday we walked over to the barn and saw a corral of foals — I want to say they’re about 6 months old but I can’t rely on my horse-sense anymore — as skittish and pretty as anything. We heard other horses — their mothers? — calling from a field and these guys raised their delicate heads to the sound and answered. The old story of the young leaving the safety of their mothers.

Later, while I visited the dead in the Murray churchyard, Angelica visited two horses in a paddock behind the old Courthouse at the Nicola Ranch.

I love everything about this country. We drove up the Pennask Lake Road and the shadows on the hills were so palpable somehow, like buckskin. We watched a hawk whirling over the golden grass and then another. Our windows were open to the smell of dry grass and pines. I felt my heart widen as we drove back down to Quilchena. And on a more practical note, I wondered how to get the sense of the grass, the hills, the flowering rabbit brush, soft sage, reddsih trunks of Ponderosa pines to translate to a quilt. I’m going to try when I get home.

Jewels

This afternoon, we saw a bull elk up above the Malaspina trail where we were walking. We often spot the herd of Roosevelt elk in that area, as many as thirty, and even when we don’t actually see them, their signs are everywhere: the print of their cloven hooves in the mud, their droppings, and even the smell of them, dusky as horses.

But today, it was just the bull, still in his yellow summer coat, with a huge set of antlers. Once I heard the whistle the bulls make during the fall rut and it was both eerie and beautiful. This guy saw us too and then ran along the bluff, keeping us in sight before he disappeared into the maples.

I love the fall. The Steller’s jays return from wherever they spend the summer and announce their arrival with a squawk. Here’s one gobbling the peanuts I put out to welcome him back.

            And here are the true jewels of fall. Our pantry shelves are lined with jars of the summer’s bounty: blackberry jam, salal jelly, herb jellies, peach salsa, tomato salsa, peach and apple chutney. Such a gift in winter, to take a jar from the dark shelf and open it for its concentrated flavours of sunlight and warm earth.

Last days of August

Returning to a beloved landscape is always risky. For nearly thirty years, my family has been drawn to the Nicola Valley. We camped at Monck Park on Nicola Lake every summer and often in the fall, too, occasionally in the company of my parents. One memorable evening, my parents stayed with our children in the campsite, helping them to toast marshmallows and then putting them to bed in our tent, while John and I went over to the Quilchena Hotel for dinner. I remember delicious beef and a bottle of sinewy Australian cabernet sauvignon. Always there were stars, the sky storied with them. We’d wake to Clark’s nutcrackers kraaaa-ing in the fragrant Ponderosa pines around the tent and everything we’d brought was golden with pollen.

We go back to that country as often as possible. It’s haunted. Old buildings, dry and weathered, provide small echoes of the past, and the kikuli pits on Nicola Lake have their own story of winters in the shadow of the volcanic hill above. Even when we don’t see them, there are always horses.

This time of year, the rabbit brush is in bloom and everywhere fields are ridged with new-cut hay, raked and waiting to be bailed. We spent three nights at the Quilchena Hotel with Forrest and Manon, driving the road to Douglas Lake, to Nicola Lake, to Lundbom Lake, watching for bears (we saw one near Marquart Lake), coyotes, and hoping for the creak of sandhill cranes as they move south for the winter, scribbling the sky with their elegant farewell.

Forrest, Manon, and I went riding one morning, Sarah the wrangler taking us up the hill behind the hotel to see the old cabins near the copper mine, and pointing out the new golf course, the housing development on the other side of Nicola Lake, the cluster of new houses below the highway leading to Kamloops. How the heart resists change! I squinted my eyes in order to see the vista I’d always known –- lake-shore fringed with wild roses, hills soft with sage.

On our last night, we drove up the Pennask Lake road to watch the sun set. It happened so quickly that we were caught in darkness on a grassy slope some distance from the car. But this moon helped us find out way back and best of all, there were three small owls on the road, maybe flammulated owls, eating grasshoppers on the warm pavement.