“Where in the river is its privacy, its unknown side-channels…”

above the fraser

Last night I dreamed of the Fraser River, the stretch between Pavilion and Lillooet. Before the pandemic, we drove that way at least once a year, part of a road trip we’d take through our favourite parts of the province. This fall we plan to drive to Edmonton but we won’t do our usual meandering route. Maybe the dream was part of sense of dislocation I’ve been feeling. What do you love if everything is changed? Do you remember stopping at Lytton for the farmers market, do you remember ice cream at the Pavilion store? Do you? Yes.

Later in the week I expect to begin working on the copy-edited manuscript of Blue Portugal. In some respects it will be a way to spend time in beloved landscapes, here and in Europe, in and on rivers I may never visit again. Perfect fall work. In the meantime, here’s a passage from one of the essays, “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”:

12. The Fraser River, below Mile Zero Motel, Lillooet, B.C.

…in the perpetual slide of mountain and forest, in the erosion of mountain and gumbo rangeland, in the impact of whirlpool and winter ice, the river is forever mad, ravenous and lonely.” — Bruce Hutchison, The Fraser

The first time we stayed at the Mile Zero Motel, we were driving to a wedding in the Nazko Valley. That was the first day of the McLean Mountain Fire and we were uncertain whether it was a good idea to stay in Lillooet that night. We could see the flames on the mountainside, we could hear the crackling and explosion as trees candled and burned. A constant hum of activity as fire crews were dropped into the area and buckets of water were dumped from helicopters that carried them from the Fraser River flowing beneath the motel. But the town was lively so we decided to stay overnight. After checking in, we walked to the Greek restaurant for a very good dinner on a patio made cool with green vines. We drank golden retsina. After dinner we ambled along Main Street where many residents were sitting on lawn chairs arranged on the sidewalk, with coolers of beer and soft drinks beside them. It was like a parade but all the action was on the mountain – the helicopters edging close to flame, the smoke, huge plumes of orange flame, and the sizzle as water hit the hot spots. We hardly noticed the river.

A year or two later, in October, we returned to Mile Zero and its sad clean rooms. We had a little balcony off our standard queen and we sat on old chairs, drinking a glass of wine before heading out to dinner, and looking down on the wide Fraser River, and across where Simon Fraser observed “the metropolis of the Askeeih Nation.” It was a different river from the new green rush of water near Mount Robson. It was brown and steady, rippled like an animal, but not wild and turbulent. “This River, therefore, is not the Columbia,” Fraser wrote sadly. “If I had been convinced of this fact where I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned from thence.” But we, who’ve seen both the Columbia and the Fraser, in different seasons, were happy to be there, sipping wine from the Fort Berens vines across the river, the grapes made plump with its waters.

In the morning, before an early start to Pavilion, we took a trail down below the railway tracks, through pines and sage, choke-cherry and small rocky gardens of prickly-pear cactii, to the river’s edge. There were deer tracks everywhere and what were these, the black-ish red piles of damp matter, still steaming? Ah, bear scat, with the whiff of the animal still in the air as it grazed on choke-cherries just ahead of us. We returned to the trail and quietly ascended.

But to have seen the river in early light, close enough to dip our hands, to have skittered down the trail like returning deer, to have looked even briefly across this wide particular expanse while ospreys fell to the surface and rose with breakfast in their talons, was to continue the history of its watchers, its explorers, those who scavenge and forage on its banks, those who love its waters in every colour and tenor. The individual Nations Simon Fraser passed through, with the kindnesses shown him, and still memory of him in places where people have lived for tens of thousands of years:“We had every reason to be thankful for our reception at this place.” Green, frothy aquamarine, bottle dark, olive green, brown. To have shared for a moment its loneliness, its virtue, its solitary madness while a bear ambled along its shimmering

length, eating cherries, was to be grateful for water, even as we followed the restless river again, passing the fishing ledges and chasms and the remnants of an ancient village in the grass at Keatley Creek, past the mountains Simon Fraser had described as “the most savage that can be imagined.” Of course he did not linger. Where in the river is its memory of its young beginnings, a trickle to make men ravenous for what they imagine it contains or promises? White sturgeon, Chinook, pink, sockeye salmon, trout and char, seals as far upriver as Yale, osprey, herons, gold, transport, dominion. Where in the river is its privacy, its unknown side-channels, a place where a person could wash up and begin again?

2 thoughts on ““Where in the river is its privacy, its unknown side-channels…””

    1. These are the nicest words to read on a grey morning when a mama bear and her cub have just created havoc and a mama deer and her twins have discovered a way to pull netting away from a box of tomatoes…

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