postcards, the Fraser Canyon

One of my favourite drives on earth, through the tunnels, along the Fraser River,  the Ponderosa beginning around Boston Bar and fringing the highway like Japanese wood engravings. The smells, every element in its place — the river and a few raindrops, the soft air (and every house on the Siska Reserve with a screened shed for drying salmon), ochre and flinty soil, the smoke from a distant fire on the west side of the river, brought back to life by the wind. Here’s the Alexandra Lodge, more derelict every year (and for information on the Lodge and its storied history, here’s a wonderful site: http://www.michaelkluckner.com/bciw6alexandralodge.html ) :

alexandra-lodge

 And here’s the Thompson River, losing itself in the grey Fraser:

rivers

It was the Two Rivers Farmers Market in Lytton so we stopped, bought seed garlic to plant when we get home (an Uzbek variety), listened to Willard play old rock numbers on a guitar while the wind blew and the sellers were friendly and you could see why the market was named best small farmers market in B.C. last year. Then we took Highway 12 from Lytton to Lillooet, driving along the river where rabbit brush grew dense and yellow along the roadside, and finding ourselves in the least charming motel we’ve ever stayed at in all our years, though it did look out on a river and even had a single metal chair on its tiny balcony  — though not a single picture on the wall or any kind of decorative element which made me glad we paid a little extra for one of the “view” rooms because we slept with the sliding door open all night to the wind and the sound of a single train below us.

“Where on the map”

One book released to the world and another finding its way into my daily life, another novella, The Marriage of Rivers. I began it some time ago but put it aside because I had the work of editing Patrin and then I also wrote a long essay. I’m never sure why some work agitates its way to the front of the line but it does and other writing goes quiet. But on a fall morning, this morning in fact, I woke excited about this novella again and there it was, waiting. I’ve finished the first half. And I like where it’s going, in actual terms and in narrative terms. In actual terms, here’s a glimpse of the main character (who doesn’t have a name. I don’t know why that is but maybe she’ll find one…) in country I’m thinking of these days, with that kind of longing you feel as keenly as anything.

across the Fraser River


“Ever since I could remember, it was my joy and the joy of all of us to stand on this strong iron bridge and look down at the line where the expanse of emerald and sapphire dancing water joins and is quite lost in the sullen Fraser. It is a marriage, where, as often in marriage, one overcomes the other and one is lost in the other. The Fraser receives all the startling colour of the Thompson River and overcomes it, and flows on unchanged to look upon, but greater in size and quality than before.”

I had the map I’d drawn for my thesis, rough but fairly accurate, and I was marking it with the places I’d identified in Hetty Dorval. I’d left my car at the Totem Motel and walked to the bridge. An osprey nest was unoccupied, though birds fished over both rivers, dipping and plunging. On the far side, the Lillooet side, a man was walking towards town with a dog beside him. I could hear the ospreys whistling as they fished, a surprisingly thin sound for such a big bird. There was such power in their wings which formed a kind of sail for the birds to ride the currents of air and watch for fish. Emissaries, beacons, gods of the sky. I wondered if they saw you, James, as you fell from your kayak and tried to fight the wild water, tumbling against rocks, your head thrust up, and up, their impersonal gaze casting over you as you drowned.

I made my mark on the map. Then I walked out the Lillooet Road, along its narrow shoulder, grass and pines above my shoulders, and everywhere the scent of southernwood, its blossoms just finishing. Dry air, a dry wind as I walked. Where was it Frankie Burnaby first met Hetty Dorval on the dusty highway, Frankie riding back from her home ranch in Lillooet to where she boarded during the week when she attended school in Lytton, and Hetty, recently arrived in Lytton from some mysterious past, out exploring on her mare. Ethel Wilson wrote of hairpin turns and the hills dotted with sage and it could have been anywhere along the road where the two met and witnessed the long arrow of migrating geese in the autumn sky. As I walked, I looked up, hoping for the same arrow. But saw only the blue vault and a few high clouds.

From a letter you wrote to me: Sometimes we head up to Keatley Creek to see what they’re doing. Man, what a place. Huge village – probably around 1500. When the creek meets the Fraser, the fishing would have been amazing. In a kind of funnel which would have dried the fish in no time. I love that place. And you can drive by and never know that it exists.

A I walked out the road, I thought how our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers – thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of morse code – dash, dot, long dash — countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depression where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current. Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds. A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and were changed forever by it.

What do you call?

What do you call an essay that’s 48 pages long? And no, that’s not the opening line of a really great (literary) joke. I’m serious. Because I woke this morning with such good ideas for wrangling a recently-completed first draft of “Euclid’s Orchard” into shape. Maybe it was the cool breeze. Or the strong coffee. I sat with the pages on my lap — I can’t edit on my computer, or at least not at this stage, when I need to know how things are balanced (or not). I like to have the whole thing on paper so I can make notes in the margins, cross out words, use arrows to indicate that I want sentences, or even whole paragraphs, to move down a bit, or else to simply disappear.

P1120038And it was such a pleasure to work my way through and to understand where the gaps where but also that I believe the essay has some strengths, some originality. (Last week I felt I was simply writing the same old story over and over again.)

So I’m finished a second draft, which is so much better than the first (which went through a number of stages before it even became an entire first draft). My writing practice has always been to work on something for myself alone, to follow a thread into the maze (or knotted tangle, depending…), and try to understand its pattern, its relevance. I don’t show others my early drafts and mostly not even my later ones. I’m the one who has to figure out the way I need to do something and I don’t think it would be useful for me to try to work by consensus, even if it’s in a generous context. I do live with a writer, though, and sometimes we give each other our writing when we think it’s finished. John taught composition for years and he’s a wonderful grammarian. My own understanding of language is intuitive. Don’t ask me what a gerund is, or a prepositional phrase. (I don’t know what a gasket is either or a universal joint but I’ve been driving for almost 45 years without an accident and I’ve only run out of gas once.)

I know there are lots of writers who write only for themselves. I write by myself but not necessarily for myself. I can’t explain why but I’ve always thought of my work as truly complete when it’s been accepted by a publisher. For individual essays, this is generally a journal or magazine. For novel, well, I don’t try to publish chapters of those but I do always intend the whole thing to be published eventually. It’s not in my mind while I’m writing but when I’ve finished a work, then I begin to wonder about where, how, when. This is me, wondering.

In the meantime, the weather has changed again. The cloud cover at dawn and the cool breeze of the morning have both disappeared and the sky is clear blue. It’s not as hot as it was yesterday but there’s no sign of rain. I think of the beautiful Fraser Canyon south of Lytton on fire and I wish I knew a charm for rain. A tiny frog has huddled under the eaves on the upper deck and I’m going to put out a bowl of water for it. And then label the jam I made this morning (between editing and another cup of coffee). Gooseberry (we have the green variety) with ginger. A batch of jam, though it’s not even summer yet…

P1120036

“…deeper than anyone knows.”

P1100565We know autumn is coming. The sun comes over Mount Hallowell an hour and a half later than it did when we drank our coffee on the upper deck and thought about all the things we would accomplish in summer. So much of it is still undone, at least from my perspective. Garden unweeded, relationships untended, some of them. But the pantry shelves are lined with preserves, the tomato plants are still producing their beautiful red fruits, I’ve filled a basket with squash,
P1100566
and the flowers bloom as though frost was simply a rumour — as it is at this point in the year.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
                                               (from “The Beautiful Changes” by Richard Wilbur)
On Long Beach the other day, I thought of the way I wanted to write the novella I’ve recently begun, a reflective (and reflexive) book about a brother and a sister and a river. It will pay homage to writers who’ve explored the same territory — Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. I’m thinking of Lytton and the place where the Thompson River meets the Fraser, how it looks this time of year, the sumac turning red and the rabbitbrush vivid yellow on the roadside between Lytton and Spences Bridge. The beautiful changes. It’s always exciting to be at the start of something — a season, a story. And to feel the cadences of both begin to pull me in.

“…a god of water”

Sometimes books we’ve read in the past call to us again, asking to be re-read, re-experienced, savoured in new ways, and old. Ethel Wilson’s books are like that for me. They are so, well of this province where I live, where I’ve travelled extensively, always finding places that call up such yearning in me.  Years ago I had the honour of having one of my novels shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize — it was 2005, for A Man in a Distant Field, published by Dundurn in 2004 — and I re-read EW’s Swamp Angel to pay homage to her particular quiet genius.

And now it’s Hetty Dorval I’m half-way through and trying to make last as long as possible. It’s a novella, 92 pages in this MacMillan Laurentian Library Edition I found in Russell Books in Victoria a few weeks ago. I”ve had other copies of Hetty Dorval but it’s the kind of book you want to give to others, wanting them to love it too, maybe even enough to take to the highway to travel to Lytton to try, as I did, to figure out which house was Hetty’s. I don’t think it was this one but this is the house I have in mind when I read of Frankie Burnaby’s clandestine visits to Hetty. It’s old enough, though Ethel Wilson stresses the bungalow was “all alone above the river, just east of Lytton.”

 

probably not Hetty Dorval's bungalow...
probably not Hetty Dorval’s bungalow…

In some ways, this is an old-fashioned book. It was first published in 1947 and its narrative takes place in the 1930s. But Ethel Wilson was also so modern. Or maybe I mean timeless. She had a profound love for the natural world and she understood how it was an important shaping force of character.  When Frankie Burnaby meets Hetty Dorval on the road from Lillooet to Lytton in late September when Frankie is 13, the two of them form a bond of sorts when they see a skein of geese flying south:

The valley of the Fraser lay broad below, lit by the September afternoon, and the geese, not too high, were now nearly overhead, travelling fast. The fluid arrow was an acute angle wavering and changing, one line straggling out far behind the other. It cleft the skies, and as always I felt an exultation, an uprush within me joining that swiftly moving company and that loud music of the wild geese. As we gazed, the moving arrow of great birds passed out of sight on its known way to the south, leaving only the memory of sight and sound in the still air. We drew a long breath.

I love how the “I” of this paragraph unconsciously includes the other, whom she has just met. And despite all that happens to both of them, I can’t help but thinking that the experience of seeing the geese together has linked them one to the other.

As I said, I’m trying to make the book last. I’m a little more than half-way through and I’ve just read these two sentences:

My genius of place is a god of water. I have lived where two rivers flow together, and beside the brattling noise of China Creek which tumbles past our ranch house and turns our water wheel…

the two rivers meeting
the two rivers meeting

 

heaven

We’re back from several days away in the dry B.C. interior where we met up with Brendan and Cristen in Lytton to go white-water rafting on the Thompson River.  The air temperature on Friday was in the high 30s (celsius) and at one point, the owner of the motel where we stayed said it was 40. The water temperature in the Thompson was 19. It was heavenly to paddle down the river, anticipating the rapids, and then enter them, feeling them cascade over the raft, heart racing and skin tingling. We were able to swim at several points and that was so wonderful — to feel my body bouyant in the green water of the Thompson River which I’ve loved all my life. John heard a young woman from another raft say, while swimming, “I am so happy.” I knew just what she meant — we are not often so alive in our bodies, so immersed in air and water and light. It’s 35 km. from Spences Bridge, where the expedition set forth, to Lytton, where we ended up, and Brendan and Cristen laughed when I told some other guests at our motel that we’d paddled that distance. “The river did all the work,” they exclaimed. And yes, it did most of the work, along with our amazing guide, Steve. But we did paddle and my shoulders ached at the end of it! (One of our raft-mates took photographs with a waterproof camera and she said she’d send me some later next week when she returns home so I hope to post some here.)

After saying goodbye to Bren and Cristen yesterday morning — they were continuing on home to Edmonton where they will be preparing to move into the house they just bought —  John and I drove to Lillooet where we saw a bighorn ewe along the road, her lamb beside her, and where grass and pines were so fragrant in the dry air. We took the Duffy Lake back to the coast and were rewarded by this beautiful view of the Place glacier group beyond Duffy Lake.

P1080494

Up this morning to gather the vegetables which ripened in our absence, a basket of summer colour on the worktable.

P1080498

the marriage of rivers

We’re on a little road trip, a spur-of-the-moment whim to travel into the Thompson-Nicola area for a few days. We drove up the Fraser Canyon, a route that is deeply nostalgic in all kinds of ways. Signs remind the traveller of the goldrush and the building of the Cariboo Wagon Road begun in 1860 and the highway winds past the old Alexandria Bridge, the lodge, a hundred small reminders of those times. And this was the route my family took regularly when I was a child  — I recall my father announcing various places along the way (“Children, look at Jackass Mountain!” or “We’ll stop in Spences Bridge to stretch our legs” or “If you don’t talk until Boston Bar, we’ll have ice-cream…”). I loved the hot air — the Canyon is like a funnel in summer and there are wonderful archival photographs showing how the Native people used the heat and wind to air-dry salmon on racks above the river. I always hoped to see a rattlesnake but had to wait until I was an adult to see one on a road near Cache Creek. I loved the pines and the wildflowers and waking in our tent in the mornings to the smell of sage.

This is also the route John and I took on trips to the Interior with our own children so there is an added layer of nostalgia as we remember camping at Skihist, stopping for ice-cream at Boston Bar, walking a length of the old Wagon Road near Lytton. And there’s now another layer too as we stood at the Skihist picnic area and looked down to see the Thompson River racing towards it marriage with the Fraser and recalled rafting that length a few years ago with Forrest, a special gift to celebrate his successful defence of his PhD dissertation on British Columbia history. Here’s the Thompson, seen on a cold March day:

the Thompson River

We’re looking forward to taking Brendan and Cristen on the rafting adventure this August (to celebrate their defences a few years ago and now Brendan’s appointment as a tenure-track professor of math at the University of Alberta) when I hope the water will look less forbidding than this. (Seriously, that raft trip was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done! We paddled from Spences Bridge to Lytton, swirling out at the end in the wonderful confluence where the Thompson and Fraser Rivers meet, two colours of water flowing side by side for a time, then merging…)

And here’s the little pre-1900 Nlak’pamux church at Pukhaist which I’ve looked at in its isolation below the talus slope as long as I can remember. My father pointed it out when I was a child and I pointed it out to my children and I hope it will still be there in years to come so I can show it to my grandchildren…

old church at Pokhaist