The title of this post is a line from “Fraser’s River”, a poem by the late Charles Lillard. Sometimes we forget that a river runs through, and by, Vancouver, a river as mighty as any in the world. It rises near Mount Robson in the Rocky Mountains and winds through mountains, some of the most beautiful grasslands on earth, forests, for 1,375 kilometres until it empties into Georgia Strait. It’s a river of salmon and the white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus, the largest fresh-water fish in North America). Eulachons (or oolichans, oolachons, even hooligans!) run in the river — Thaleichthys pacificus, a fish so important to coastal cultures as a trade item, a fuel source (one common name is the candlefish, for the habit of burning them as candles during the fall spawn when their body weight is 15% fat), and as a valued food item. Howard White asks in “Oolachon Grease”, “…are empires/sustained by condiments?” and in the case of eulachons, I think they were. The grease trails connected coastal British Columbia with the Interior and the small fish, caught in spawning rivers and creeks and dried, were traded for copper, furs, and other materials. More than fish travelled the trails. Cultures exchanged ideas, stories, languages met and influenced one another; in fact Chinook or the wawa, a jargon developed for the purposes of trade and communication, and served as a kind of connective tissue for the Pacific Northwest. We still hear its echoes in our place-names and the words we use every day unknowingly. Skookum, chuck, cultus, muckamuck, illahie, potlatch, tyee, the language of this place with its fish and salt water, its high talk and big stories.
Yesterday we walked along the Fraser River in New Westminster with my brother and sister-in-law after a night at their home. It was a true coastal morning, mist over the river and everything else, several tugs wrangling a long log boom upstream,
and it wasn’t really surprising to encounter Simon Fraser himself with his back to the river:
In “Fraser’s River”, there are a couple of lines I thought of as we walked:
Back at the headwaters
the door was still there
to open, to close…
Some mornings history is so close we can feel it in the mist, can hear it in the creak of cedar logs agitating in their boom, wanting escape, the head of a sea-lion poking up out of the water and gazing around as though in wonder at where he’d found himself on a Sunday morning. As I did, watching this little downy woodpecker on an bare tree, hard at work while all around people walked their dogs, a child raced by on a skooter, and trains made their slow way along the tracks:
Several years ago, I read Stephen Hume’s wonderful book, Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia. It’s both a record of a journey taken by Hume over four years, tracing Fraser’s route in 1808 in search of a navigable route to the Pacific in the service of the North West Company, and a meditation of the processes of history. I loved Hume’s passion for his subject and his alert mind. It’s the kind of the book that sets the soul on fire and you find yourself wondering if you should also set out in a canoe in search of the landscape and human encounters and exchanges that shaped the place you call your home — not just your own small piece of the coast but all the grand waters and high grasslands, the austere mountains, the remnants of old communities and the sound of train whistles in the night. Short answer: no, you won’t. But how wonderful that someone did, and wrote about it. And that you had the chance to walk the river in good company on Sunday morning, the door still there, to open, to close.