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

We had a long breakfast in New Hazelton, waiting out a steady rain. A table full of loggers said this is the wettest summer they remember, and the mosquitoes are the worst ever. One guy told a story about killing 18 with one swat. Oh boy, lucky us.

We’re beginning to build something of a tolerance for the little buggers. It begins with constant swatting at a very few mosquitoes, and after a few bites are survived, and scratching at them gets old, you begin to tolerate more. Some locals here in the North tell us they don’t even notice the bites anymore. Others say they tolerate them, but have never become accustomed to them. I fit that category. I’m usually driven into the tent before Claire. They do seem to prefer my blood, or maybe my blood is just hotter. One thing I don’t understand; I’m a tough old bird, and Claire’s skin is still soft as a baby’s. Not fair.

We talked for a long time to one man about the local weather and terrain, and he asked quite a few questions about our travels. He was in his 40’s and youngish, fit looking, and talked about taking his daughter, who’s going away to college, for a long hike over the weekend for a good-bye. I thought that was a good father thing to do. He now lives in a six bedroom house alone; he’s thinking about downsizing.

Here we learned that Canadian commercial salmon fishermen had blockaded an Alaska Ferry in Prince Rupert, a day or so after we’d left.

They are angry over the US position in salmon treaty talks. It seems the US and Canada get together to divvy up the salmon catch in the Eastern Pacific, in an attempt to manage the resource for the future, and still provide fish for their respective fishermen. Sometimes the negotiations get rough. The issues are complex, because the returning adult salmon were spawned in many hundreds of streams from Northern California (not many) through British Columbia to Alaska. Canadian fishermen were contending that Alaska fishermen were intercepting too many Skeena and other Canadian spawned fish.

The blockade was a shocking event, even to Canadians. Ever polite Canadians don’t usually act like this. Times change. The new BC premier was even threatening to deny access to areas used for US military exercises, under lease agreements. “The Mouse That Roared,” read one newspaper headline. “What do you do when you sleep with a giant. Pray he doesn’t roll over,” went one joke. Many thought the premiers language excessive, and were embarrassed for him. But, they all agreed the fish agreement needed work. They all also agreed, that the US would come out on top in the end, as always. There is a certain resignation about it, little bitterness that I could tell. Certainly we didn’t notice any difference in the way we were treated during the crisis. I suspect it was the same for Canadians in the US at the time. Let the governments fight, we’re neighbors.

On the way out of town we had rain for the first hour. The plastic bags over our boots worked (picked them up in the produce section at the grocery), we hold them up, with rubber bands Claire got from a Canada Post office. She told them we were doing a mass mailing? Claire is a first class scrounger.  I never question her methods.

At Moricetown Canyon Falls, we found several men cutting driftwood from boulders blocking the Bulkley River at the head of a deep narrow gorge. It is the place where they spear and dip-net salmon and steelhead as they attempt the falls. We met Terry Brown as he came up the bank, empty handed, from testing the waters with his net.

“No fish today for me. They’re in there, oh you bet they’re in there. In a week we’ll have a big party, bake salmon on the river bank and go all night.” He smiled, happy at the thought, and the sharing of it.

Later, Roy Morris Junior, a tribal monitor for the fishery told us there would be five species of salmonids up the falls in the next two months: spring chinook, sockeye, pinks, coho and steelhead. He was eager to tell us all about the fishery and the traditions of the people associated with the taking of fish.

“Well, its pretty old, gaffing, we try to sort of keep it traditional, well it’s pretty well traditional eh. When I grew up eh, we always did the gaff fishing till the dip nets come along.”

He looked up, past us, and his face changed. A young woman was walking toward us, scowling at him. We smiled at her. It was not returned. She glared at him once more, folded her arms and turned away from us.

“Gotta go now.” And he was gone after her, following back up the hill. We could only assume she was upset with him for talking with whites. I imagine many tribes and families are split on the question of having friendly interactions with whites. Too bad.

We stayed and listened to the river, ate squeeze cheese on tortillas and apples, some candy. and rode upriver into a dark cloud that never would catch us. Not far on, some native teens stuck out their thumbs to us for a ride and we laughed with them.

Claire read a bear brochure a few days ago (Safety Guide to Bears in the Wild), and spent all day ringing Zippy’s bell. The next day she forgot to ring the bell so much, until she saw a grizzly track (dinner plate sized) beside the road, then suddenly she was ringing the bell again. We’ve seen some black bear crossing the road in a blur. They don’t seem interested in us, nor we them. Mostly we worry at night, and hang our food far away from our tent. It helps that we eat only cold stuff: canned beans, tortillas, squeeze cheese, apples and raw cabbage; lots of cookies and hard candy for desert.

The Hazelton mountains are alpine high and sharp through broken clouds. West of Smithers we saw our first hanging glacier; it has receded rapidly recently, leaving bare rock below the terminus. The valleys opened up in Smithers; we’re about to break out on the Interior Plateau until Mt. Robson. I doubt that means its flat.

A hard rain swept in curtains off Eagle Peak, keeping us at the campground, and from a much needed salad-bar back in Smithers. We noticed that the motor home parked next to our tent had a handicapped sticker in the window, and were curious, wondered if we could be of assistance, should we offer…

We didn’t see him that night, but in the morning we made a friend. Claire was oiling the chain when he came out and offered her some disposable gloves so she wouldn’t get her pretty jersey black. He pantomimed most of this, writing on a pad that he had a speech impediment and asking us to tell him to write if we needed.

Robert Snow

Robert Snow is a tall dark man, lank with sunken cheeks, a week’s growth of salt and pepper beard and brown teeth. The scars under his chin and neck were covered with a scarf. He could be frightening to some, and I think he is sensitive of that.

He told us he’d had cancer surgery seven years ago that left him without use of his tongue and much of his throat. His tongue hung mostly limp at one side of his mouth and he had paper towels at the ready always. We were able to understand most of what he said.

The cancer changed everything. Robert’s wife left him, and he came to understand that the things he had valued most in his life, status and possessions, no longer had meaning. He decided to live the rest of his life, however much was left, doing exactly what he wanted. “People don’t realize what life is, until they think they are going to lose it,” he said. “I wish I’d known sooner.”

He began painting pictures by the hundreds, removed all the fancy furniture from the living and dining rooms and turned his home into a by-appointment art gallery.

Part of every year he travels alone in his motor home. “It’s very practical. I can’t eat solid food you see. I have 12 cases Ensure in the back and because my diet is all liquid, I have to go to the bathroom a lot.” He smiled. “So the motor home is perfect for my needs.” He likes to get out of Los Angeles, but misses his gallery and painting and is heading home for awhile. We took his address and will write, though we declined to visit him in Los Angeles, telling him our experience of being robbed there once. He understood. But, I would like to see that gallery.

Before we got out of the parking lot, Claire rang out, “So there you are!” to a small boy in a yellow motorcycle helmet standing beside his dad and motorcycle. He was exited to see us also. We had seen them several times in Prince Rupert and twice on the road, and it was a mystery to us, why they were riding around so much, and where they were going.

The boy was about seven or eight and excited to find out what Zippy was all about. We talked for a long time, Claire with Chester while I talked with his father, Daniel. They are going to Edmonton and Calgary and then to a dinosaur park. Chester likes dinosaurs, and it is his reward for doing well in school this past year. He is in a special French language school for kids of parents that are fluent in French. That means Daniel when it comes to help with his school work, since his mother is native and speaks English. Daniel is French Canadian and is bilingual.

Chester is learning about his identity and about how people are different and why. He will grow up being proud of both the native and the French Canadian sides of his identity. Daniel and I talked about the challenges facing Canada and America concerning race relations and Canada’s unique language and culture issues with Quebec. He believes, from the perspective of the French Canadian living in BC, that the problems should not be as difficult as they seem to be now, and he has hopes for the future. He hopes Canada does not come apart over the issue.

It was fun to put an end to the mystery of the little boy with the yellow helmet on the back of the motorcycle. An altogether pleasant conclusion to a mystery.