A Canadian Love Affair: British Columbia and Alberta Mountains (draft)(prairies soon)

Next morning we were ready for the road again. The only route inland follows the Skeena River for  many kilometers (clicks they’re called here) until after Hazelton, when we will follow the Bulkley river. After Houston we will enter the drainage of the mighty Fraser until we cross the continental divide into Alberta.

The Skeena is a spectacular river, large and long with a huge volume, it makes me think it is what the Columbia would have looked like if it were not dammed. Why BC Hydro has not dammed it, I don’t know for sure, but it was probably the fishermen and the natives who use the river and love the river. Canada has been just enough behind the U.S. to learn from (some of) our mistakes.

All of us in the Northwest US have been paying subsidized electricity rates since the great dams were built. What a deal. Taxpayers from the rest of the country built the dams for us, and we got the cheap juice. We are just now learning the true cost of that subsidy. The eventual total loss of the Columbia River wild salmon runs; an irreplaceable natural and cultural resource to both native and white Northwesterners.

Our first day up the Skeena, we saw three long and brightly painted native dugout canoes slicing current, bound for the open sea, and eventually Victoria. I have never seen one of these canoes except as a static exhibit in a museum. These craft were not the same thing! Alive with people and color and life, they darted through brief rapids, slid sideways on bright waters and sped downstream with power and grace. What a people, to invent and power such a thing, below mountains and over rolling seas in the rain, under the cries of eagles and rainbows. Form follows function and perfect function must lead to perfect form; these canoes are perfect form and perfect beauty, like the people who power them, when seen against spruce and hemlock, rapids, willow islands and rainbows… If you ever get a chance to see one of these live canoes (they are alive in the water) do so. You will never see coastal native peoples the same again.

At a viewpoint on the river, we met a manager for the Ministry of Forestry for this district. He was there waiting for a helicopter to pick him up to explore some “difficulties” on the other side of the river in a log sale he was overseeing. We pointed out a clear-cut running down to the river’s edge, and he frowned. “Not on my watch,” he said, and paused. “There’s been some of that, and it won’t happen again.”

He had recently returned from a tour of Washington state forests. He said our federal lands were well managed, but that the best managed lands were the privately owned lands. The worst managed, in his opinion, were the state lands. He believes BC manages its lands, called Crown lands, much better than we do in the states. From what I can see, he appears to be right. They also have the luxury of a huge amount of forests to work with. I hope they will husband their resources well. If they do, BC should be prosperous forever.

The Skeena has a tidal influence 65 kilometers from the sea, a product of flat lower reaches, and a nearly seven meter tide range. Another influence indicated the power of such a huge amount of water between tall mountains. There was an outflow (headwind for us) because the tide was going out and the lowering water was creating a vacuum that was pulling wind from inland. The lowering water is like a huge plunger sucking air toward the sea. Amazing to visualize, and to feel.

Many blue tarps and wisps of smoke betray fishing camps all along the Skeena. The fish are running and the people are out to harvest; what it once was like on the Columbia.

John Angus Gillis

It was 91 degrees Fahrenheit, 33 Celsius in the town of Terrace. Wonderful day. After finding a BC campground, we went to a laundry that had showers (the campground didn’t) and there I met John Angus Gillis killing time on the patio, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

Before long John was telling me his life story, and pulling up his shirt to show me the scars from 12 stomach surgeries. He is very proud that he has given his body to the University of British Columbia medical school to be used as a cadaver, though he didn’t use that word. He carries in his wallet the letter from the acting head of the anatomy department, thanking him for the donation of his body.

I asked him what led him to decide to donate his body?

“In my lifetime, I’ve had twelve operations on my stomach, I came from a broken home, I’ve lived on skid road, for quite a few years I’ve lived the life of an alcoholic, I’ve just celebrated two nights (!) of sobriety, I’ve had prostate cancer, skin cancer of my nose, and I’ve had so much help from people, from churches and from private individuals, that I’ve thought that the only way I can give back from what I have received because I’ve never given much in my life, I’ve always been a person who received everything, that I thought by giving my body to medical students that could maybe discover something I might have that they could use for somebody else, that might be helpful to some other person that might need it.

“My life has been a very rocky life, I’ve been married three times. I was married when I was 17 and had a son hung himself September 15, 1983 here in the Terrace Royal Canadian Mounted Police (hereafter RCMP) cells. I was married again when I was 34, I was married for 14 years and I have a son who is an RCMP officer in Prince George and a daughter which works in the catering business. I desire now to… I just now had a operation in which they put a mesh in my stomach and I’m getting tired. In my time, I’ve seen a lot of pain, I’ve seen people die from overdose of drugs, I don’t take drugs myself now, I’ve seen things happen that you would think happen only in Somalia, I’ve seen happen here in Canada. Sometimes I feel a little bit disgraced by being a Canadian and seeing all the things that’s happening to the native people in the province of British Columbia and throughout Canada.

“I was a single parent person living in Vancouver. I drank at the time, but I looked after my children because their mother at the time didn’t want to have them…

“I was opened up the last time and because of some things that they found, closed back up again.

“I just want to say that, today I feel proud of myself,  because if I was to go tomorrow, if my maker was to come and get me tomorrow, I have been through the program I have gone to, I have learned the spiritual part of the program. I have shed many tears, when I was told I had cancer, prostate cancer twice, I cried a lot and asked God for help and had a lot of support from the churches, lot of support from the people of the churches, lot of support from the community in Terrace and other places and I feel that what I have done in my life I will, that I will, be able to give back to society something that I can’t give back to them because I’ve had a lot of people put their hands in my pockets, uh, put their hands in their pockets and help me and who hand me money. Christmas come and we had no money down in Vancouver, somebody come along and give me 1,000 dollars to buy Christmas presents and stuff like that..

“My life has been a life of loneliness…

And it went on, and on, and on… It is hard to separate truth from fiction with some people, and John was one of those people. John vacillated back and forth from being a victim and taking full responsibility for his life. He felt the donation of his body to the medical school was a redemption of his failed life.

He has learned some thankfulness along the way.

“I’m happy with what I got, I got peace of mind, the fact the Good Lord has worked miracles in life, along with the doctors hands, and I just thank God today that I am able to be here as an individual, being able to live and breathe the fresh air that we are experiencing, and not to cry about anything that has happened. I feel very hurt when I see native people falling down on the skid road, and I feel very hurt when I see my own race of people falling down on the skid road drunk, and I think that the government has a lot of work to clean the mess up that they have cause, because there are a lot of people out there that need a little help and a little love and understanding and someone to sit down and listen to what they have to say, and someone to sit down and, and you know when I go to AA and somebody puts their arms around you, a total stranger, it makes you feel like you’re a person.”

John is seeking attention, probably always has been seeking attention, and love, not always in the best ways, and with bad results. Now he’s born again and sober and want’s to tell the world. Could be worse. If he can find peace, in his last few years, by talking, well I didn’t mind listening for an hour.