Just wanted to share my article about the Nechako River in northern British Columbia, and actions by local First Nations to restore this historic waterway. I spent many years living on, or near, the Nechako, and have a great affection for this beautiful river.
I’ve spent a lot of time searching for the Glaucous Gull. This Arctic visitor shows up on the west coast semi-regularly, but I just could never seem to, as Owen Wilson says in The Big Year “nail that sucker.” And I’ve really tried, really tried. I’ve gone to windswept Oregon beaches in January, landfills in March, Goldstream River with its spawned-out salmon lots of times. I followed up every report, within reason. I even spent the better part of a day at a sewage lagoon in Duncan, afraid to leave, but punished for staying, if you know what I mean. My reference picture might have been part of the problem–it’s possible.
In any case, I finally caught up with the culprit at Goldstream, the place where I had tried so many times before. indeed, the first bird I saw when I pulled up to park was the Glaucous Gull! The river was very high, drowning the more recent remains of spent Chum and Coho, and keeping all gulls close to the picnic area. My young bird was tugging hopefully at an almost bare fish skull, and getting very little sustenance from it, or so it appeared.
I must say that the bird didn’t closely resemble my reference pic except, maybe, for the beak, so I couldn’t really be faulted. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway!
Finding my bird, after so many failed attempts, had a curious effect. The marvellous sense of birding adventure that consumed me when, six of seven years ago, I rejoined the hobby had suddenly returned. I even posted a picture of the subject on my bulletin board! So, although it took awhile – “thanks Pal!”
the dusk-deepening, stone breaths
of this steel-hard species of limestone,
Hart’s Tongue and rare orchids
survive in the cracks and crevices
of coral reefs marooned,
ages and ages past.
Of pre-things left behind
dampened under northern light,
and broken by northern ice.
I’ve seen limestone in other places,
where the rock
blazes white beneath the sun.
Pharaohs used to plate their tombs with limestone
pyramids made white-bright with limestone
you could go blind from that limestone;
no one ever went blind from dolomite.
The Garafraxa Road loops over the old reefs,
a ragged ridge of tomb-grey skeletons,
once swarming stuff
that hated winter and hated ice
waiting, without patience, until the poles move
little by little,
when all of us are gone,
the warm oceans will return
to drown these fields
where, for a hundred years,
farmers’ children stooped a thousand, million times
to fill stone boats,
to build stone fences,
around their Garafraxa farms.
I had a friend once, killed by dolomite.
He fell, and a great squared tower stone
fell after him, and crushed him.
In those casual days
such things happened more often,
Towers built by forgotten men
to burn rock
square towers made of blocks
all loosened through age,
standing like castles.
Richard, climbing there in the evening, alone.
His father tied him to a wide plank, I heard,
and, harnessed to it, dragged his son home
desperate against death, long ago.
stonemasons took those towers down
to save other boys from falling
the fatal blocks cut up and used,
in the cemeteries,
along the Garafraxa Road.
The window sashes, once eggshell white,
have faded to cracked and curdled cream.
Memories of Moorish Spain
sleep in the peaks and arches of these windows,
now softened by time and the Caribbean salt air.
Likewise, the stuccoed walls,
tagged with graffiti,
assaulted by lianas and ficus,
have crumbled in places.
The gate of sapote wood gleams darkly solid
In the bright Mexican morning,
while an aggressive sun bleaches the lesser wood to spectral gray.
Not long for this world, this old queen of the avenue
Succubi of broken masonry and twisted rebar surround her,
ravenous building lots, chewing up the old ways
and disgorging money.
She waits her turn, a still substantial ghost,
one of the walking dead, so to speak,
half-hidden by those walls
with their cascades of bougainvillea—
scarlet, foam-white, shocking pink.
The polished gate still protects one sanctuary,
a vain hope,
like the studded door to an tenth-century English abbey
surrounded by Vikings.
Then, from within, an antique lock clashes,
the massive gate trembles and opens.
Two Maya women in embroidered huipils exit and open their parasols
The elder, her hair wound in a tight bun,
wears a heavy gold necklace and pendant earrings.
A shawl of watered olive silk loops under her right arm
and across her left shoulder.
A heavy jade bracelet flashes green on the arm of her daughter-companion,
Reminders of an earlier time,
Like nobility, taking in the morning air, on their way
to church, perhaps,
towards the clanging bell.
elsewhere along the avenue,
bars and cafes rattle open,
and construction workers
buy their breakfast from bicycle carts.
when the lightning
sent you down
the Great Pyramid at Cobá,
and a hard tropical rain obliterated
everything, even the jungle.
A real tempest, that one.
Thunder loud enough to crack stone,
flashing through the black nimbus
like a semaphore
opening and closing,
light under dark, light under dark
We ran shivering
from the old VW
into a café
with too much window
and too much draft,
NIGHT SWIMMING AT SAUBLE
To the east,
the trailing light of shooting stars
and the pale rind of the beach
we can scarcely see each other,
talking philosophy, or some nonsense
enjoying the last of the day’s heat,
up to our necks in the lake
above us, spirits of spangled water
and deeply-rifted space,
one softly dark entity
keeping pace with the Summer Triangle.
With Vega, Altair, Deneb
this planet, this place
In all the universe.
Gosh, the things you think about
Swimming at night, beneath the stars,
MC July 22, 2021
Butchart Gardens is famous, and it’s one of Victoria’s premier attractions. But I knew of the Butcharts long before I came west. The Butchart mansion on 5th Avenue in Owen Sound, Ontario, was a block away from my boyhood home. It had, maybe still has, an indoor swimming pool. I remember once tramping through the snow to the front door in the hopes that I might sell a subscription to the Toronto Telegram.
Even after many, many years, I can still remember smelling chlorine through the half-open door. I probably wondered what living in a real mansion would be like. To be able to take a swim at home rather in the the minuscule YMCA pool – that would be something! Of course, it probably wouldn’t have worked very well in our 2 bedroom apartment behind the factory, but I would have been up for a try. Incidentally, I don’t believe I sold a subscription. Nor did I ever see the inside of the grand house. The Butchards, I think, were long gone anyway.
The Butchard Mansion
Even then though, I knew about the Butchard Gardens, later called The Martins. They were a few miles out of town at Balmy Beach. It was a long bike ride for a 12 year old so I never got there. I hadn’t yet heard of the west coast version. No reason I should.
A few years ago, I finally visited The Martins. It was May. I was birding along the cobbley Georgian Bay shoreline and then, almost accidentally, I was there, walking among the ruins of a grand idea from another time. Half of the real estate had been stripped way by winter ice and freak high water, the there was more recent damage. Winter storms on the Great Lakes can be fierce.
Winter’s Fallout – The Martins, Georgian Bay
About the Butcharts. The brothers, Robert and David, were born in Owen Sound in the 19th century. They ran a hardware store on what is now Main Street (2nd Avenue East), and ranked among the town’s “contemporary and go-ahead merchants”. Solid, likely Presbyterian, moderately well-off. Then they found that marl from a nearby lake bed could be converted into cement, a product in great demand in Canada’s developing industrial heartland. The discovery was huge. Soon, the Owen Sound Portland Cement Company was making some of the best cement in the country. They also shipped the product in bags rather than barrels. This innovation made the Butchards wealthy.
Marly, no longer industrial, Shallow Lake
Rich now, Robert built the mansion with indoor swimming pool on 5th Avenue and lived there until he and Jennie left for the west in 1904. His brother David stayed in Owen Sound and built something grand too. I’m not sure which of the imposing west side Owen Sound houses was his. Jennie, of course, created the Gardens at Tod Inlet near Victoria, BC, but David also created a Butchart Gardens at Balmy Beach on Georgian Bay. I wonder about this family obsession with ‘Gardens’, and where the idea came from.
In any case, the Owen Sound establishment, with its Italian Garden, Sunken Garden, tennis courts, swimming pool, and many other features, was an important tourist attraction until, one winter, unusually heavy lake ice carved away a big chunk of the property. After Hurricane Hazel destroyed much of the rest, the Gardens were finished.
It rained while I was there. Forlorn, a strange, almost haunted legacy of what was once one of the country’s largest cement fortunes, it seemed the last glimmer of the Jazz Age world of the 1920’s. I suspect the property has now been developed; it certainly looked ‘ripe for the picking’. I’ll check on it next time I’m ‘home’. Since this blog is about birds, well, I saw only one on the property, a Common Merganser. The sun flashed out for a millisecond and lit him up, and then it started to pour.
Spirit – after a month of digging
This time my post isn’t about birds. It’s a people story. It begins with a storm, a real doozy. Many of the boats in our bay dragged anchor, and moved. Of course, if your cable broke, there was only one way to go — onto the beach. Surviving that night would be tricky. In the morning, however, when the winds finally subsided and the tide ebbed, only 2 boats lay high and dry.
The little ‘Portuguese fishing boat’ was up near the curve of the seawall. Beautiful lines, high prow, white with blue trim. Eye candy out there, on calm evenings. A problem now for the owner. It turns out there is one, which is not always the case. Half of the boats are probably abandoned. The Portuguese boat was riding at anchor in a few days. Lovely. Back where she belongs.
The yellow boat I’ll call Spirit was not so fortunate. Keel high and dry, and pointing in the wrong direction, the boat is too far from the waterline. No way it’s going to float again. Out in the bay, it made for a splash of bright canary and gave the scene ‘pop’. Up close, well.
I’d seen a guy taking a 5 gallon bottle of drinking water to Spirit the night before the storm. If he’d stayed aboard through that, the experience must have been horrendous. Nothing happened to Spirit for a few days, but then the 5 gallon guy came back. He placed the figure of a seated Buddha near the bow, and got to work. He had a spade, a log fulcrum, some driftwood levers and ‘moving gear’– and a damaged wrist. He refused help. The pandemic was on, and he didn’t want anyone touching the boat.
For a long time, not much happened. A month, or more, of digging every day, of watching the tides, of prying and bumping, resulted in a bigger hole. He was creating a slipway. He had to move, what, a ton and a half of boat. One guy. Impossible.
Then, one morning after a good tide, a miracle. Spirit did move and flipped her keel. Now, with a very high tide, she might get to the sea. And, a week later, she actually floated. Another week and she was off the beach. Not quite in deep water yet, but getting there.
I spend a month and a half rooting for the digger. I admire his spirit. He persevered to save his home. I’ve never seen someone work so hard, fight such ridiculous odds, under ridiculous circumstances. I guess it happens more often that I know. Perseverance is what humans are good at. It defines us. I always liked the Stan Rogers song, ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’. It tells a tale a bit like this one, about people getting on with it. Doing what they have to do. The song cheers us on when we face adversity — And Like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again…rise again. Good luck to you 5 gallon!
Spirit – well and truly ‘off the beach’
Early morning and it’s still frosty. A cool morning, here on the west coast. As I crunch across the meadow, looking for birds, the slight breeze shifts direction. Now it carries a hint of wood smoke. I like that. Instantly, the scent, sweetly pungent, and the warming sun transport me. I’m back in my boyhood–long ago and far away, as they say. Like Proust. Wasn’t it madeleines that jogged his memory?
I’m in memory mode. It’s late morning. I’ve hiked up the Sydenham from my home in town. The snow lingers. No surprise. It’s only the beginning of April and real spring is a month away. But some south-facing hillsides are clear. Rare little islands, already freed from Winter. Comfortably warm where the sun hits them. I’m on one of them now, stretched out on the beautiful, bare dirt. I was in this place last year, and the one before. Below me, the ice is breaking up. Here and there, water pushes up noisily, recreating its channels.
I’ve got beans bubbling in a World War 2 surplus mess tin balanced on a rock, half in and half out of my little fire. This means one side of my meal will be hot as blazes and the other cold as ice. No problem, I’m used to it, and I’m hungry. By the way, all my camping gear is World War 2 surplus.
I catch movement on the far bank. It’s a fox picking his way along the icy river rim. The sun catches him. For a moment, he blazes rufous red, like fire. Alert, he lifts his head. He shoots me a look. Maybe it means that if I don’t watch my beans, I’ll burn them. I glance at my cooking pot. When I look back, the fox is gone, melted into the cold forest. The beans aren’t half bad though. A bit chewy maybe.
Meanwhile on the West Coast…
I’m glad I didn’t quite finish that model of the Bounty I started on fifteen years ago. Now — where did I put that glue?