W. O. Mitchel’s classic novel of the above title was forced on generations of Canadian students as a rite of passage. Contemplating the days ahead living in my small tiny camper I recalled a character from that novel named Saint Sammy. He lived alone in a discarded piano crate out on the bald prairie. I managed to find a copy of the book in excellent condition which had come from an old Cowichan school library dated 1947. I paid five dollars. What a treasure! I soon realized that what is regarded by most as a dreary piece of reading is in fact a brilliant novel that should be reread by any adult who appreciates a good book and a wonderful story. Here are some windy images from the Old Man River area. I will go back there.
After my boat inspections were complete and truck repairs were finished I sallied forth hoping to take a day or too just for being and taking some photos. I love the foothill country of Alberta and actually concede to a growing affection for the wide open flat country and the big blue sky overhead. I also hold a delight for old buildings and there are still a few of those standing. Eventually I found a place to park for the night where I could see for miles in all directions. I hunkered down to watch the ever-changing light and the sun setting through an approaching storm. The next day I poked about in the Old Man River area. The weather flipped between snow squalls and exquisite warm sunny spells. It was an exquisite day. Here are some of my photos.
The mission, which I chose to accept, was to drive to central Alberta and inspect some boats for a potential buyer. I have never before driven through the Crowsnest Pass. It was beautiful and dramatic. The mountains capped with an entire winter’s load of glistening snow towered dramatically. Wildlife bounded all around and driving required open eyes. I emerged to turn north onto highway 22 which leads toward Calgary and all points beyond. I braced myself for the dull prairie drive ahead. I was heading for a town near Red Deer well into the belly of the province. It is a long way and I thought I’d be driving on and on, consumed with white line fever. But I did stop, repeatedly. There are winning photographs everywhere. Eventually you concede that you’ll have to leave most of them behind. This drive must be among the most beautiful in Canada, with the Rockies in the background, peaks peeking up behind the foothills and the rich ranch land in this rolling country. For me, it is the quintessential Canadian cowboy West. Perhaps all those rolling vistas remind me of being out on the open ocean. In any case I was driving in country new to me and I loved it.
I finally arrived just before dark at a motel near where the boat was supposed to be and settled in for a night. The long forgotten sounds of a nearby railway kept my weary head awake for a while but those rumblings and hootings are the anthem of the prairies. I drifted off with snatches of ancient cowboy songs about trains drifting through my brain.
A morning rendezvous lead me up rolling dusty gravel roads to where the boat sat. Water is a far more precious commodity than the copious supplies of oil and gas in this province. I was amazed at how dry everything was for early April. But then, they’re having a drought and I’m a coastal boy. All the dry brown and sepia tones unsettled me but there is a stark beauty everywhere. At the end of a long country road there sat the boat, high and dry, looking incongruous and sad. The young man brokering this amazing find from Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan had it towed to his uncle’s Alberta farm. He had apparently traded it for some Harley Davidson motorcycles and then hauled the old classic the hundreds of miles on a beautiful trailer which had no working brakes and jury rigged tail lights. I commended his temerity and he said that he reckoned folks would be “So amazed at seeing Noah’s ark rolling across the prairies that they’d never notice the trailer.” Uhuh!
The farm itself was a rambling collection of old trucks, farm machinery, a jumble of shipping containers, and a few mobile homes jammed together. The inhabitants I met were a few young men in steel-toe boots and baseball hats who were surrounded by a swirling mob of large pitbulls. Despite those boy’s angst I was easily able to befriend their four-legged pals and soon learned that their “Pig farm” raised giant razorback hogs which were then sold to various groups who liked to release them and then hunt them down. Sport? They are infamously vicious critters, (both the hunters and the hogs.) The boar was easily three hundred pounds and stood staring me down with his tiny pig eyes and clacking his six inch tusks. I asked if I could photograph them and after glances among themselves, the young fellows reluctantly agreed. I was told that they do not go inside the fence with these infamous creatures without a stout stick and someone standing by outside with a rifle. I began to remember the movie ‘Deliverance’ and remembered the part about being asked to squeal. Much to everyone’s relief, including mine, I left. I mused that maybe this could pass for a movie set of a meth lab. The place did not have a warm and fuzzy feeling.
After a sojourn to Calgary to inspect some more boats that day I found myself in Cochrane, about thirty miles to the West. It had been a very long day. The slogan on the community’s welcome sign says “The West as it is now.” That is very sad. Endless rows of enormous shit-brindle brown houses are jammed together in a way that is reminiscent of old industrial English row housing. Eeech! Each house id large and verey comfortable but Geez Louse! There’s a whole prairie out there. There are many long beautiful hiking trails, moose are often seen in local parks, the mountain views are spectacular, but I repeat, eeech! I remember this place as a quaint little old cow town of less than five thousand folks. Now God knows how many people have swelled its borders and continue to infect it like a virus. A bedroom community for sprawling Calgary, the downtown of Cochrane has been made-over with a faux western theme now that lends a Disneyland effect to what was once a real cow town. Now everything is about impressions. Malls with all the box stores, car dealers, industrial parks and pretentious clone-box suburbs spread like cancer across rich farming country.
It was splendid to visit with some very dear friends who live in one of those boxes. They, at least, have a spectacular view from their corner lot. The light and the clouds change incessantly. That panorama is mesmerizing but they want to move. Folks in their area have an aggressively friendly manner. They peer into windows as they walk by and wave at you inside. They lean over the fence and gormlessly speculate on what my friends are doing in their own yard. Everyone means well I’m sure, but it’s hard to live with after a while especially if you treasure your privacy.
After a wonderful visit it was time to move on. My truck was reloaded, final hugs and promises were made. The starter on my truck decided to expire right there in their driveway. My finances are tight and it was certainly not what was needed but instead of being parked in a distant backwoods mud puddle, or a razorback hog farm, there I was on a dry concrete slab, among friends, in town. Their very gracious help allowed me to make repairs right there in the driveway. By that time late in the day they were stuck with me for another night. You’ve got to wonder how the god’s minds work. I’m not complaining. Thank you so much Ann and Randy.
The next morning I sallied forth with a few days to point my cameras at whatever I liked. And so I have. Eventually that day I parked on a level patch within the void between an intersection between two gravel country roads. These roads are smoother than many paved ones in BC and the locals hurtle along them at amazing speeds. They’d slow right down to ponder the spectacle that I must have presented. “Git the shotgun Doreen, there’s a stranger squattin’ down on the corner of Seemore and Didless! Dang tourist I reckon. Need to run him off afore more turn up. Goldang it anyhow.” I slept in the camper feeling as if I were in a boat, the wind buffeted and moaned all night. In The morning greeted me with a skiff of snow and dramatically changing light. It was wonderful.
I ambled along the back roads in a sort-of homeward direction contentedly taking photos and chasing windmills. This is a notoriously windy area and there are spinning windmills in all directions for many miles. Don Quixote rides on!
Throughout the day, several snow squalls blew out of the north. In one place I hiked a kilometer from the truck to video a row of whirling windmills. I returned to the truck as another vicious squall struck and realized that I’d dropped my glasses, somewhere. I hiked back, bent into the wind and worried they’d be covered in the pelleting snow. Exactly as far back as I had first gone, I found them winking at me.
After one final stop in Pincher Creek I drove westward looking for a good place to park for the night. I’m writing this near noon of the next day parked beside the CPR mainline in Crowsnest Pass. It has snowed several inches overnight and more flurries continue. I’m in no hurry.
I’ve edited my heap of photos and videos and sit writing while wondering what to do with the remains of the day. Perhaps I should drive back up the hill to the highway before it snows more. Did I mention that it is April eleventh?
I have far too many photos for one blog so the next few will be a series of photo essays. I will be able to fill my evenings posting them while I settle into my new fate at Lake Kookanusa. Happy trails indeed.
Instead of my usual ending with a quote here is a link to the time-worn sound of Wilf Carter singing ‘Springtime In The Rockies.’ It’s corny, but Wilf was a father of Canadian country music and his songs are the sound of a life much simpler. I, for one, miss it.
My recent peregrination along the most southerly highway in British Columbia offered many delights. I am fascinated with old farms, mines and towns along the back roads I love to travel. Bittersweet feelings fill my head at times about the tremendous industry which goes into building dreams that eventually fall into decay and ruin. I marvel at how all that effort is so easily abandoned. But then that has always happened with civilization and someday our endeavours will merely be another mound to be explored by future archaeologists.
This blog is a simple photo essay on the town of Greenwood. Once a bustling wealthy mining center with a smelter it is now a quiet, remote community struggling to stay alive. Photos of Greenwood are usually of its smelter and huge hideous slag piles. I chose to share a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon strolling around the main blocks of its downtown, where people lived. It typifies a lot of small North American communities stubbornly clinging to a time which was very different and is rightfully cherished. Have a look, maybe find an ice cream and get a tattoo. Then drive on.
“No child on earth was ever meant to be ordinary, and you can still see it in them, and they know it, too, but then the times get to them, and they wear out their brains learning what folks expect, and spend their strength trying to rise over those same folks.”
I was loading up my old camper when a neighbor three doors down began yelling at her dog. It’s a lovely German Shepard which never gets a walk and barks incessantly from the confines of its back yard. The owner is a woman who has a loud penetrating smokers voice, full of gravel and venom. “Stoppit, STOPPIT!” It has occurred to me that she might be shouting at her husband. This barking/shouting routine has become neighborhood white noise through the years. It may even be missed when it ends, rather like a cancelled train.
Perhaps my presence may be missed when it ends as it does this morning. I’m leaving on my next adventure today. Ladysmith will have to struggle on without me. Yeah right! The clear sky brightens slowly with a dull pink then turns to a subtle gold. A heavy dew covers everything and this is near the moment when it may suddenly freeze. I fell into a deep sleep in front of the television last night. I awoke in the middle of a documentary about the work of Sebastiao Salgado, the renowned photojournalist. I was in a peculiar state, neither asleep nor fully awake and unable to move as a parade of stunning black and white images moved in front of me. Each shot was more dramatic and surreal, a thousand views of hell and the unspeakable cruelty and suffering of the human race. Those images are still racing in my brain this morning. I try to distract myself while I finish packing. Somewhere up the back alley more dogs bark. The dew freezes and all the roofs are suddenly white.
A first night sleeping in the camper just east of the town of Hope is followed by a drive through the mountains and over the passes into the interior. I miss the ocean dearly, both the smell and the idea of it. Enough said. The light of the rising sun draws me on into breathtaking vistas, over passes and into dark winding valleys. There are spectacular scenes of an entire winter’s snow lining ice-crusted clear streams but snow holds no fascination for me. I’ve had more than enough in my life time. Emerging into the high open country of the Similkameen I miss a stunning shot of eagles and ravens milling around the carcass of a road-killed elk. I double back but they are gone. In a few more miles there is a puff of dust high up on a rocky slide and a herd of Big Horn rams melee about like school boys at recess. It’s a glorious day and I amble onward, the truck with its full camper and overloaded trailer a sight from a ponderous odyssey.
After visiting with a friend in the South Okanogan for over a day I head eastward up the steep passes and down into the next valley beyond. I’m either burning up the truck’s motor with my heavy load or trying not to cook the brakes while racing down toward the next tight bend. There is deep crusted snow near each summit and sad little towns in each valley. I drive until past another ruin of a community named Yahk where I found a good place to park for the night. I sleep well.
On day four I arrive at my destination, Lake Koocanusa. If I can’t be by or on the ocean this is country I can love. Open grassy land with open forest of ponderosa or bull pine, tamarack also known as larch, and small fir. I find myself longing for a horse. Although I have not ridden for decades this is a broad wide valley leading southward which draws one’s heart onward. This lake is man made, the reservoir is behind Libby Dam on the Kootenay River in Montana, one hundred forty kilometers to the south. Incongruously the river then arches northward back into Canada where it joins the Columbia River near Castlegar. My first glimpse of it is a sailor’s nightmare. There are shallow sandbars everywhere and from my high vantage point I see only safe passage for tiny boats. Of course spring runoff has yet to begin when the lake’s surface will rise almost forty feet. In a seaman’s perspective these waters have only one annual tide with high water late in the summer and low slack right about now. The dam releases water as required to generate electricity and to offer some flood control, good things I know, but my heart aches for what this beautiful broad valley was like when it was untouched.
Judging by the copious amount of elk and deer droppings it would have been a treasure to first nations people and the early settlers. It was indeed a valley worth fighting for although there should have been plenty for everyone. But need and greed are very different notions. The miners have torn at the bowels of this rich country, the loggers have raped the timber clear to mountain tree lines in places, the ranchers have fenced nearly everywhere. Politicians and industrialists flooded and destroyed the rich river bottom. Yet this valley still holds a rare beauty and I in turn will exploit some of that grandeur while I am here.
The balmy winds of afternoon were pushed away by a wall of lowering grey cloud bearing down the valley from the Northwest. It brought a piercing cold and soon I sheltered in the camper. It was buffeted by pelting horizontal rain on one side and a while later the onslaught came on the opposite side. “Springtime in the Rockies” I abandoned my notion of sitting by the campfire to admire the sunset over my new kingdom.
Often, I find, it is the morning after arrival at a destination which reveals a first true impression of the place. Perhaps one absorbs some sort of local cosmic energy or maybe a night’s sleep allows one to fully open their eyes to their new environment. “Holy shit, I never noticed that yesterday!” This morning dawned clear and cold. The sky was wide and blue, the northwest wind was a gentle knife. The dried cow pies in this meadow all bore a glint of sparkling frost. I soon retreated back into the warmth of my little man box. I feel fine. If the plan uncoils as anticipated I start a new job here for the next half-year. So here I am. Sixty-nine years old and starting over once again. Fools and newcomers line up on the left, old farts on the right and all of the above in the middle. Haar!
A week after leaving Vancouver Island I find myself on a bleak, cold morning in the center of Alberta. I’m going to survey a boat this morning and yes, I feel a very long way from the ocean. I’m now behind by two or three blogs, there is no shortage of material. The blog goes on.