Plus Ash (on jacket)
A memoir written in the style of Sarah De Leeuw, whose book Unmarked is based on short descriptions of personal experiences in various towns along Highway 16 in Northern British Columbia. Her style is descriptive, location-based, and first person narratives; full of run on sentences, commas galore, and the not-infrequent use of alliteration.
Written as an English course assignment in the fall of 2015.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing.
One of the last remaining placer gold mines in the province of BC is located at Easy Lake. If you trace your finger along the map North, you will see the highway veins stretch out through endless miles of trees and isolation, a whole day’s journey from the family farm I knew to be home. The journey started each year in the spring when we knew the ice to be off the lake; so at four in the morning while the day is still dark and kids are heavy in slumber, they are hauled from beds to be buckled in car seats and placed back seat of a faithful pickup; Fourwheeler on fifth-wheel trailer, fifteen Rubbermaid bins filled with everything from pampers to pickles to hipwaders lego lifejackets propane oatmeal and novels enough to last a summer all packed carefully among the cargo.
If you trace your finger up the highway and find the finger-like lake, you’ll see Easy Creek two miles more, still following North. The creek cuts the lake in two, spilling out an ice cold sluice in a wide delta of soft sand. It is this point the moose swim to, land jutting out just enough to make a difference in the distance across the lake. In the late night mist the massive forms of these long-legged beasts look not much more than dark shadow-shapes paddling towards the shore. Charcoal outlines, bold heads bob with each thrust of hoof underwater, heading steadily for delta. It is us – the little bodies of my brother and I snug in lifejackets, tucked on the tin boat floor, parents in warm hats and windbreakers, seeking out the shore in foggy night – it is us who are the trespassers here.
This is the North. A wilderness of spruce pine and poplar, the smell of juniper and cranberries, rushing water and ancient graves left by the Tahltan people and outcasts of gold rushes before. A decrepit cabin tucked in the bush, rotting, roof fallen in, a police outpost of a century earlier. The name of Begbie murmured, Chinese coins, ancient nails, found in dirt. These are the remnants of the people-history here, evidence of souls come before.
My five-year old imagination is active and I am caught often looking over my shoulder, watching for faces peering out of the woods. I am sure they are there – the rugged characters of the gold rush, outlaws hiding in the bush. I see the dancing shadows, softened by plush moss that grows deep underfoot and the whispers of poplar leaves in the wind, white limbs extended high and exalting, embracing the sun. The birds stay silent but the trees still whisper. Moose rubs and porcupine chews are the signs of life now, yet juxtaposed with the ever-present growl of the excavator and persistent hummm clank of the washer, as scoop after giant scoop of gravel is sifted in search of that luxury mineral – gold.
Yet it is not this gold that remains in my memory. Easy lake is the place of treasure and lore, but apart from the search for iron pyrite in the gravel-spread path to the rickety outhouse set back in the trees, past the shrub that catches shadows in the corner of your eye to look exactly like a black bear ambling among the mossberries – apart from this collection of fools’ gold selected by grubby five-year old fingers and hoarded in an empty mayonnaise jar, there is no eminence placed on the gold. There were flakes found, yes, and some nuggets too, but the precious stones are no match for those moments of soggy raincoats and gumboots, squatting by cesspools to carefully swish the silt and brown water from a gold pan, child and pan cradled between the knees of the man who was my father. Big hands, chaffed from the rain and spray from the washer, burly in coveralls vest logger hat to keep warm, and me. Petite and scrawny, garbed in plastic blue rainpants pigtails kitty shirt and rainjacket too big, sleeves falling past little fists, then rolled up for panning.
“I don’t want to wait until I’m sixty and retired to do what I want to do.” he told my mother the year before I was one. The year they first looked at the claim. “Why wait?”
And so they did.
They packed up each spring and left family, comfort, warmth, electricity. Three kids and a dog crammed among spare parts, a sluice box, and powdered milk packed to avoid the sky-high northern prices. We were isolated, but warm. Together, tucked away in the vast wilderness in a cabin that smelled of fresh bread and pine smoke, where we fell asleep to my mother’s voice reading out loud by candlelight. Our days were measured not by events such as birthday parties or ballet recitals, but by the time the wolverine was stuck in the tree, the day the generator broke or we visited the delta, the Thursday the grizzly circled too close. It was not adventure. It was a way of life.
The summers before I was six, spent where the only lines on the map are a highway and some rivers crisscrossing the mountains. The map free from dots of cities and towns and markers of civilization. Clean. Sparse. Vast. Yet teeming with detailed life and abundance. The years free from cities and towns and hospitals, before the scent of machine oil and fresh bread turned to disinfectant and Vancouver streets, the lingo of bush kids turning from F150s and sluicing to oncology, radiation, lymphoma. Those were the golden years, shining like fools’ gold among the gravel.
“Would you go back?” they inquire. Would I chase that highway north, park by the gravel pit and cross the boat in the mist, shivering in a lifejacket once again? I would go, I say. I would go to smell the juniper, say hello to the neighbours, catch up, feel the jade, take off my shoes and walk in verdant moss. But I would go no further than the police detachment, that rotting slump of logs, overgrown but still vivid in memory. I always was suspicious of that place, convinced that if I peered through the crusted window the carcass of some long-forgotten convict would still be inside. But more than that, I would be always looking over my shoulder, feeling watched, waiting for a small face to peer back at me out of the woods, pigtails high, curious, with a grubby jar of fools’ gold held tightly in her hand.