Miles from NowherePrint
On a return trip to the wilderness of British Columbia, the author revisits a rough and exquisite landscape
By Edward Hoagland
June 1, 2006
In 1966, at the age of 33, the essayist, novelist, and traveler Edward Hoagland spent three months in the remotest parts of northwest British Columbia, west of the Rockies and south of the Yukon. His goal was not only to drink in a landscape beautiful and harsh, but to talk with the old-timers who had sparsely populated that country, to record their stories of prospecting and trapping, and to document their makeshift existence, which had not changed much since the 19th century. His journal of that trip, Notes from the Century Before, published in 1969, would become one of the best known of his nearly 20 books. Having finished the book in 1968, newly married and about to become a father for the first time, Hoagland made a return visit. He found that many of the old-timers had already passed on, and that the wilderness, although still rough and beautiful, was disappearing too. But many of the changes he detected were in himself. What follow are excerpts, about one-eighth of his journals from that visit, published here for the first time.
June 6, 1968
Left New York on a smoggy but hot, cloudless day, from Kennedy Airport—this the day after Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Everyone stupid with sorrow, poring over the papers or glued to the interminable radio commentary, and silent. The parting from my wife was doubly disconnected because of the discomforts of her pregnancy (beginning fifth month), though doctor yesterday said it was all right for me to leave. The baby is wanted, now that our hasty, belated wedding is past, and we have love. We live in a quiet bit of Manhattan, at the eye of a hundred-mile hurricane of suburbs, etc., so that one begins by getting out of and above all this flux. I like living right at the hot center, of course, but I’m also very tired of it. With the baby coming, I expect to be gone only a couple of months; that is our agreement, sealed after she chose to conceive. I’m tired physically and emotionally from an enormously productive spring, and I find, too, less of the boyish readiness that activated my travels to British Columbia two years ago. But the encouraging thing, if you read memoirs, journals, and such, is how very much people accomplish in a couple of months. This was true for some of the major explorers of the past like Alexander Mackenzie, as well as John Muir, and various eccentric side-figures like James Capen Adams, whose adventures I happened to read yesterday. Two concentrated months are potentially a long time. Whoever I see, whatever I write, I’ll be exhausted by August. As usual, my plans are informal, except that they open up possibilities—as will fatherhood, next November!
Good flight. Over the Great Lakes, lots of clouds and a really white sun. Outer Edmonton—gray-black fields, as we land, cold air and cloud cover, remote-looking, empty and primitive; parking space downtown is $5 a month. Farm faces, men’s club medallions in the lapels.
A five-hour train trip toward the heights of the Rockies. Great platform scenes—two kids 17 having a fistfight, straight from the country—a fistfight! Little kids wave, wave, at the train. The prairie runs by in incremental mounds. The soil is black where it isn’t green, as we roll through rain squalls, the train whining like a musical dog. People are traveling to visit their kin. A woman is reading aloud to her children, and outside some kids ride two-on-the-bare-back of a horse. It’s mostly all forest after Edson, sparse jack pine, poplar, and birch. Then the Front Range of the chockablock Rockies appears, and a wider corridor winding in.
The headlines have followed me here. The flags are at half-mast for Bobby Kennedy and people are telling me that they’re sorry for me as an American. The murderer of Martin Luther King was captured today, in London, of all places. Of course there are always going to be those with an impulse toward martyrdom—a murderer’s martyrdom—the notoriety and the rigid straitjacket of the law—people who long to be grasped and bound. Art in the past has been concerned with form. Now it involves the documentation of formlessness—ski jumps from the roofs of department stores and visionaries and glamorous personages murdered. Chaos and Brownian motion.
I’m at Maligne Lake, one of the showpiece lakes of the northern Rockies. My father and I stayed here in 1952. It was rather a bore for him because he didn’t fish and he couldn’t hike as I did; but afterward we took a three-day pack trip on horses with a half-tamed wolf running alongside. I found the tumbled skeleton of a bear that the wolf packs had killed on the mountainside and brought the skull home: also a dead eagle’s feet, a set of elk antlers, and a mountain goat’s horn I found in a cave. It was all very real, indeed. Animals are becoming figures of speech, or educative symbols that children meet in their picture books. Although I don’t like to confess it, my curiosity fails in regard to the future. I turn back from visualizing that life of mere spectatorship, watching the astronauts voyage, perhaps, and the Super Bowl game.
You come into the bush early in the season like this and you feel a little spring rain on your face but you have the trails to yourself. I saw three moose, which with their legs hidden, looked like long-nosed wild boar with bleached manes. Also several deer, patches of whose fur had rubbed off after the winter. They have eyes like a rabbit, but they run like a llama. I talked to the forestry warden and he says that if the coyotes have gathered into a pack and can keep the deer out of a creek or a pool, they can kill them—deer can fight in the water, just as moose can. The wolves don’t come through often, because these high narrow valleys, he says, don’t give them the space and the meadows they want. Moose, caribou, and elk come up, however, and the moose stay in the high country even in winter unless they feel the snow belly-deep. He says that he goes on snowshoes or on skis sleeved with skins for climbing, not with a sled, because the dogs (like wolves) need a more open, windswept type of country, and anyway the service frowns on feeding your dogs Jasper Park moose meat. He’s lived alone for seven winters in this park.
“You learn to put up with yourself. You learn to tolerate your own company,” he said.
“Do you have hallucinations?”
“No,” he said. “If you have hallucinations you get squirrely, and if you’re squirrely, you can’t tolerate your own company.”
The mountains look dramatic and incisive today. No sun, but a high ceiling, almost windless. I climbed in the Opal Hills, so-called, to the basin under the top ridge. Snow occasionally to my knees in drifts, otherwise gone. Saw some old black bear tracks on the path—hind foot the size of one of my hands. Very still today, woods quite empty, panorama on top, the lake green and white. I’m enjoying being alone, although thinking about New York literary politics, and the Kennedys, of course. Saw the tracks of a coyote and heard a short bark. Rubbed shoulders with some Maligne mosquitoes. Am glad to know I can climb to the places I climbed 16 years ago, when I was 19. My reactions are quieter and smudgier, though, and the park is developing like Yellowstone.
If a person has just been married, like me, he kicks himself if his new wife isn’t constantly in the front of his mind, when, as a matter of fact, it wouldn’t be natural for her to be. The symbiosis comes with time. As it is, I think of how pretty Marion was in the three dresses she wore during the weekend of my sister’s wedding. We marry for ambiguous reasons, most of us—partly because we’re lonely, we’ve reached a dead end, we feel that we ought to have children already, or perhaps we’re afraid of some unfathomable element in our makeup, such as homosexuality, or a more general malaise and panicky despair. It takes a few years for the marriage to rid itself of its beginnings. Two people 35, gradually falling in love, who recognize some of their mistakes of the past and are sick of a sex life of fleeting affairs, start from a better position, but they still need to play it by ear.
I have two strengths in managing my personal life: my reluctance to act and, on the other hand, my beelining directness if I do decide that the time is ripe. I was trained in the world of my gentle father, who never did battle with life, and yet, early on, I seized the principle of living to the hilt, of sampling it all, not shirking. Life is short; so I rise out of my fussy, cautious existence about once a year to do something.
Passed close to moose again, two cows who keep company. Their humps wiggled as they trotted off. They forded the river, legs jutting at angles. The windfalls were so thick as I walked in the forest that it seemed a log fort had fallen down. Moss underfoot—the moss itself was the soil. In the breaks, no marmots but many ground squirrels. And wasteland areas—old rockslides, with marmots. There were footprints of coyotes and moose, though you couldn’t tell when they were made. In the soggy June snow even fresh prints like my own don’t look very crisp. Since the wolves of the winter are gone, there were no kills. On the steep slopes spruce replaced the lodgepole pine, which have a shallow root-net holding them up.
The heart is an accurate meter, registering every few degrees’ change in the pitch of the land, but I was pleased to see how strongly I could still climb. I did get a dim glimpse of the me who climbed for the same goal in 1952—fearless, an innocent, a rather good woodsman, and even more of an optimist than I am now. At that time I was convinced that no animal was going to hurt an animal lover like me, not with the sixth sense I had. Now, while I’m eager enough to see grizzly tracks, I’d just as soon not see the bear himself. There’s that fine line—wanting to be where he was yesterday. You try to walk loudly enough so as not to catch him by surprise, though not so loudly you won’t see the other game.
After about four hours, I was up on the grand, goaty slope of Leah Mountain where I’d found the goat cave in 1952. Every small knoll was littered with droppings, and sometimes white tufts of hair. This manuring, and the southern exposure, has produced a luscious expanse of grass, but pitched at 60 or 70 degrees. It was slick where the snow was just off and there were intervals, equally slippery, of steep, shaley scree. Only one tree, with the top broken off, and spitting rocks bounded down, as fast as pitched balls from under my feet and also separately. I dislike tricky heights and had some scared moments. Then when I was coming around the corner of an escarpment, something stood up on the ledge just above. All very naturally, there was my neighbor, a bighorn ram. He possessed an immense, muscled neck, a neck as thick as my shoulders—a big wedge-shaped neck—and his ears were lost inside the circles of his huge horns. He was no laggard youngster; he was absolutely prime and heavy and grown. He wasn’t 20 yards away, so I could see the cowlicks in his fur, and recognize that he’d give a wolf plenty of trouble. In fact, he was so unafraid I began to wish he were more afraid. It was like one of those sightings in a virgin valley. He was pushing his tongue in and out of his mouth, as a dog will do when prepared to fight, though this was not necessarily his reason. But, hearing my approach, he must have thought I was another sheep. Now, when he wasn’t looking for a way up and out, he edged closer to me, magnificent in his musculature and posture, and more formidable than I could have imagined. He had that full heavy curl to his horns, as high as a helmet, a proper, unintellectual face, a Society face, except for the open, flat nostrils, and a clean, white hind end. I talked to him in a friendly voice, partly in hopes that he’d step back a bit. I had my own head thrown back, as one does when talking to somebody on a ladder. He was a living trophy; he was the finest bighorn, and surely the closest, I’ll ever see; and yet I was the one who moved off first. He kept coming closer, and I had no trees to play monkey in, only a fall behind me, a drop-off, and my horns and my muscles were no match for his.
The goat cave would have been anticlimactic, if it hadn’t been larger than I remembered. The rank smell announces it before you get there, and it has a sweeping, southerly view, good protection from the cold winds, and a grassy green promontory just in front. Smears of black dung go up the walls 15 or 20 feet, where the goats clamber during the winter. There were some old bones of goats that didn’t make it, much matted hair, and empty birds’ nests in the stone niches. One is the home of a furry-tailed pack rat who foraged boldly among the goat droppings. He chewed for fleas in his white belly, watching me with his soft eyes while I ate my lunch, with more than a dozen mountains in sight. I remember in 1952 I saw a prowling wolverine from the same spot, and two annoyed eagles swooping at him, and I went to a higher valley, full of boulders, so it looked like a river of rock, and saw two wolves crossing.
Not only am I not describing the peak-studded view that confronts you when you look down the lake—I don’t look at it much. It’s too stunning a sight to be useful in a novel. I wouldn’t situate a character here because it’s about as uncommon a scene as a table of 10 movie stars would be, if you are a fellow who likes pretty women. The beauty is so concentrated, excessive, it is slapstick.
Today the train makes a special stop for me at Vanderhoof. About 180 miles north of here by gravel road is Manson Creek, an old-timer’s town. But the first people I asked didn’t even know it existed, though that’s the reason I’m here. Vanderhoof has a Chinese-owned restaurant, where newspapers are sold, a couple of five-and-dimes, “Smed’s Auction Room,” a couple of trucking warehouses, and one or two logging supply stores. The raw streets have 1930s cars, and big-brimmed hats, and barrel-chested, melodious-speaking, slow-mannered Indians with crusted boots and unwashed faces. People in winter coats, clodhopper boots, with beleaguered expressions. One burly apparition in his 70s—white hair to his shoulders, and a long beard—walks down the street, his head bent forward, with heavy momentum. That circle of hair is as big as an inner tube round his face, and he has prominent eyebrows and a straight forehead the complexion of beef. He’s a prospector from Manson Creek, he says, so the place does await me, like a diamond mine, just as Telegraph Creek did two years ago, any time I want to go there.
Fort St. James is a very pleasant town physically, open and historical, with Stuart Lake, wide, long, and pretty, and settlements of Swedes and Estonians that have been abandoned along the sides. More meanness lives here than in Telegraph Creek, however, more mockery of the Indians and moneymaking scheming, more summer visitors, and not the same self-contained effervescence. But it’s another gold mine of lore and adventure. And these people are the real thing, the real pros in the bush, compared to the Colorado cowboys I met last summer.
There’s only a small group of old-timers left in this country—a 100-year-old Indian died just last year, and Fred Aslin and Agate Alexander the year before that. And now Bob Watson is dying, and also another guy. You cross the names off your list of the locals, who it turns out are already dead or are comatose or incoherent.
With some of these old-timers, it’s a little like seducing a girl to get them to talk to you. They want to, but they don’t want to. The tradition is to be modest and taciturn, so they think they oughtn’t to, and there’s been so much bullshit told and written that they haven’t much respect for the written word—between the boasters and the grizzly-story pulp writers. Yet at the same time they know it’s the only way of preserving history. I dangle my map in front of them like bait—ask them first just to describe a particular river for me, so they won’t draw back. Or I use one of the key names, like Skook’s, and watch that irresistible smile spread across their faces. They’ve drawn back and bridled, but then they put on a studying expression and begin to talk. I huff and I puff with my stutter, and that may help too, because handicapped people have a history of being quite effective here. And since I can’t talk, they do. Just like the circus was, this frontier country is a place where misfits gather, and they accept my problem as brotherly.
The old Indians aren’t so coy, however. They’re natural and hearty. John Prince is 82. He carried the mail to Finlay Forks every month for eight years, a three-week round trip for a couple hundred dollars. He had a toboggan and several dogs (pack horses in the summer), and would pick up extra money packing grub for the trappers and several miners too. When the river opened and the mail went in on boats, he’d work for somebody else on a claim or just carry in food. He’d stay with Billy Steele en route. Then he had a store at Tachie but went broke, and worked on the steamboat at Quesnel on the Fraser River for $1.25 a day. (You could buy a bottle of Hudson’s Bay rum for that. Now it’s $7.00, he says.) Or he’d trade a bear hide for $6.00 worth of grub at Hudson’s Bay and travel round for Hudson’s Bay buying furs.
“Billy Steele died long time ago, you know. He didn’t die rich; he died poor. The Indians liked him. Lots of bullshit stories; and he drink too, you know. And he buy furs from Indians in the middle of the winter when they running low and sell to him for grub. Indians good then. Now steal, drunk all the time, break into stores, shoot people,” John Prince says. “Everybody likes me, especially whites. I never crooked.” One of his sons was killed in World War II in Italy. The other seven kids have died by now. “All alone now,” he says. Goes to all three masses at church, Sundays, collects the collection, getting ready to die. “Priest couldn’t get along—wouldn’t hold the service without me.”
Schooling, he says, has wiped out the old Indian stories. The kids don’t know them, and he has forgot; he used to know a long, long story he’d like to tell me. He says a caribou in the winter can put its nose down and smell when a snowslide is coming and run back—the rest of the herd is waiting in the meantime in the trees. And a beaver knows how hard the winter’s going to be. “He cuts lots of sticks for hard one—you go out and see.” And, “There are lots of wolves again. Indians aren’t trapping them—I don’t know what they going to do.” He ends the interview by closing his eyes, yawning, and saying he hasn’t had his breakfast.
But I’m in Hazelton again! It’s a town steeped with memories of my previous wife and therefore bittersweet for me because we were happy here on our honeymoon in 1960. In the evening sunlight, with the mid-June grass up to my knees, the trees full-leaved, and the luscious Skeena River hustling past, noisy as a narrow ocean, and the horses in the river drinking, the mountainsides still swashed with snow, it’s just about the loveliest town I’ll ever see. Steep brief roads, log cabins 80 years old, and the happiest childhoods that anyone is spending from here to Hannibal, Missouri—Chinese, Indian, towhead kids. I went up on the hill by the graveyard and felt the most exhilarated—sheer exhilarated—that I’ve felt for weeks and weeks.
I wanted this to be an introspective journal and a rather introspective summer, too, what with my first child on the way, and my father 12 months dead. But so many stories and people and facts keep crowding me that I’m simply too busy paying attention and writing them down to do much of anything else. I’d have to lose interest in all of this jump and life and adventure. But if I’d lost interest I wouldn’t be here.
The prospecting bug has hit this North Country again. What with the ubiquitous bush pilots and planes for these huge roadless reaches, a flood of investment money, and a boom in the price of metals, everybody who’s ever been out in the bush remembers some outcropping he once saw, or that a Caribou Hide Indian took him to, and has flown back and staked it. Tomorrow Jack Lee and Frances, his endearing wife, are taking me out to do just that.
The planes on the little Bulkley Valley lake look like beetles, but they take off with a bold prolonged roar, like a trombone’s blare. Finally it’s our turn, and Lee’s sipping whiskey to quiet his nerves (Seagram’s Special Old—or “ground-softener,” as the prospectors call it), and, with Wally, a Love family man, along, we jalopy into the air: the lake brown but sparkling underneath us. I have the usual nervous sore throat and flu stomach this morning, but forget them, looking down at the thousand shades of green and the pale green gullies. The plane is a Beaver and the pilot a bluff blond, Bill Harrison, of Omineca Airlines: charges 72¢ a mile. We climb east into an ore-red pass, cutting in close to save gas. There are brilliant snow splatters across the rock, then tiny, aquamarine-colored creeks that braid through the flats. Snow speckles the conifer forest. We cross an irregular burn, our lives filled with the engine’s roar, and cross some mountains—Blunt, Netalzul and Thoen—each striped like a zebra with snow; and see Babine Lake, as long as a river.
The Babine River is brown and seems scaled, lizarding along. Swaying in a silly-dilly fashion, we cross over Mt. Lovell and the Frypan Range, not too high but a long snowy line of concise cusps. On the other side is a large flat valley with green shallow rivers around Takla Lake, amoeba-shaped. Beyond is the Driftwood Valley, still larger. Then Bear Lake, which consists of long twists and one loop. Then some green pocket lakes and a low cloud front; a large belt of snowy highlands, and another big churning river with a burn on one side and a forest on the other. Now there’s a regular wilderness of mountains everywhere, with the steep irregular valleys between; the gray-green Sustut River, and a lush rug of forest. Then an absolute ocean of mountains strewn and feathered with snow, which the pontoon below me seems to move sedately across. Then a brown muskeg valley, practically treeless, and brilliant snow on the next ridge. Then two expansive green valleys which meet like a carpenter’s rule. Thutade Lake is a giant long wiggle of water in a gently sloped valley that is forested heavily except for a burn at the northern end, heading the Finlay River.
We slant over a murderous-looking pass and bank steeply down, yawing, the mountains sunless and black, the choppy land crazily angling underneath us. By a small lake is a neat mining camp of even white tents. Each has a wooden floor built up on logs, when we get inside. This camp is a few hundred feet below timberline. The cindery, blocky mountaintops, Graves and Estabrook, cling close around, streaked with snow. Toodoggone Lake (pronounced Toodeegone) is only a couple of miles long, but simmers with shadow and shine in the wind.
Jack and his partners have six claims and we’re here, quite simply, because 33 years ago Jack was working through these valleys above the Indian village of Metsantan as part of a survey crew ($4 a day) and saw, about quitting time, from where they were camped in the timber, a sort of white stain on the mountainside above him—almost like a stripe that somebody might have made with lime dust. He climbed up there and dug two feet down with his shovel, finding a lead-silver-zinc or galena vein. It was “native lead” that you could peel with the blade of your knife, he thought. With a double ore like that—or tungsten-gold, for instance—the company that works the mine will hope to pay the expenses of the operation eventually out of one of the metals produced, and the other can give you your profit. But he’d covered over his discovery carefully then, even to replacing the tussocks of turf, because in those days, before you started to think about a mining company paying you lots of money for your claim, you were trying to prevent them from beating you out of it. And finally, last year, chartering a plane and running around for six hours, building cairns (or “witness posts”), he did the proper staking, to the best of his recollection. We’re here now to try to find the lead again and see if his memory was right, after three decades.
The hill has “got steeper,” he says, because one mile is like 10 miles was to him then. No white stain shows and he talks about needing x-ray eyes—Superman eyes. There’s a thick overburden of soil and turf even above timberline, which is furred with ground scrub, ground balsam, or junipers. We dig down to the frost line several times and chip below that with a miner’s pick. The ground is spongy, above, and soft; the snow maybe two-thirds off. Also, the grizzlies had knocked over an interloper’s stone cairn, which the guy had built not very much better than a bear would have.
I spent the day by myself, walking up and partly around a spur of Claw Mountain—nothing too strenuous. It was the first sunny day in a week. I took hotcake sandwiches, and also an ax, for the idea that I was protected, and spent a layabout day, mostly sitting by brooks, looking into the pools, at the moss and the bright-colored rocks on the bottom. There is practically any noise you want to hear embedded in the noise a brook makes—a thin wavering scream; a jolly tuba-voiced conversationalist. I saw lots of moose and caribou sign but started up nothing but ptarmigan—that shallow, quarrelsome cackle. The trees age fast in this brutal climate and don’t grow very high, and there are frequent breaks in the forest—mossy, grassy, lichenous clearings link up with one another and are well marked by the caribou as wintering grounds. It’s a very open country. All around are unnamed, unnumbered little mountains speckled with snow and enclosing side valleys, too many to explore even if you had the whole summer to do so. The animals have moved out (it’s easy to see why so many travelers on these trails have gone without fresh meat for periods of weeks), and since the helicopter from Toodoggone dropped us, no sign of another human, either.
It’s such an anachronism in this contemporary world to worry about grizzly bears as one walks in the woods. Here I am, taking a Contac pill with its thousand “tiny time capsules” for a cold and worrying about meeting a bear tomorrow. Yet it’s no more strange than walking the streets in fear of a beating, as we do in New York.
They clipped some promising silver-ore fragments today out of a bed on Dedeeya Creek. Wally was busy scratching information on the metal claim tags they will put out tomorrow. I’m stuttering badly, as I generally do with nonbookish people, unfortunately, so I don’t say much. And I let lots of misinformation go past unchallenged: than which nothing is more galling. The subjects range from the origins of granite to wolves and snakes to local geography. Seven caribou, including two well-antlered bucks, were seen today by the others.
Here I am, right where I wanted to be, in the midst of the central experience of this summer that I’ve looked forward to so. We’re approximately a 200-mile walk from the nearest road. We’re really alone—almost as alone as it’s possible to be physically on this earth nowadays—and is it so different? Of course it’s not as savagely lonely as the city can be, because if you’re lonely in the city there’s no hope. For me it’s a period of gassing up. I have to gas up on solitude just as I do on company at other times. But, actually, when you come right down to it, could I do just as well if I were only 10 miles from the nearest road instead of 200?
When I was 19 and took care of three or four tigers, I was fearless during the day but dreamt horrendously about them at night. Here it’s the opposite. My dreams are placid, but I walk in the woods in considerable trepidation—it’s that the grizzly, in what we know about him, is so manlike. As everyone says, “You can come on him everywhere.”
The exuberant friendship and openness of the last day. The plane was due at six, so we began waiting at four A.M. The rising sun shone for only a moment. Wally stretched out on the grass again to sleep like a farmer boy. When you’re expecting to go, you’re ready to go; you’re primed to go. In this country, with its weather combinations, pilots often don’t arrive on the day they are scheduled to. Sometimes they don’t arrive at all. One of the helicopter pilots I knew in Atlin in 1966 was killed last year in a crash; and one of the Fort St. James pilots was lost for 59 days a few months ago and froze off the fronts of his feet. As it got toward dusk, Jack cut wood for a long siege—night wood. He hits the log with the blunt end of the blade of the ax to knock it free of the rest.
At 8:30 the next morning, when we were still glumly stuck in our beds with our energy gone, the plane arrived, circling twice. Then, having waited an extra day, we hurry-hurried, like the army. The pilot, a saturnine, quiet mestizo with a blocky face and a clippered haircut—a stolid face like a dogsled driver’s—gunned it down the lake and we swayed away. He had been socked in for two days at the village of Stewart, en route to Telegraph Creek, and then on to us.
I alternate—on the same day—periods of intensive, joyful interviewing and lonely, spinning near-despair: this from being so alone. Today I was over at Mr. Dickinson’s comfortable home in Fort St. James, looking at photograph albums. He’s got pictures of the hockey and lacrosse teams he played on in the Cariboo Country in 1911, and the diamond drilling he did at Germansen Landing in the 1920s. (The bartender was goaltender.) And Peter High Madden himself—an emotive, untidy-looking man, like a Neapolitan organ grinder. And a redheaded commercial traveler, quite an old card, with muttonchop whiskers, who suffered a heart attack by his longboat. (Dickinson speaks of it as though it were a battle wound.) And there’s Cap Hood—a big gross fellow of 300 pounds, the fat folding around his sarcastic mouth, his belt high up under his chest, and a sagging suit coat. And little Billy Steele, with a crewcut, a long nose, a malign face, a little mustache. And the stern, dependable, workhorse Indian wife of an early Hudson’s Bay trader. And Cataline’s pack train, the predecessor of George Byrnes on the Telegraph Trail. And Jimmy Alexander, a tall raffish-looking central figure, with a curved pipe, long arms, a flat-brimmed hat, and husky legs, who looks rough and ready to go to work in an instant. Frank Swannell in 1911 has a matinee idol’s mustache and wears a bandoleer of bullets. The Chinese cook is there, with a little round bandit’s face, unsteady about the eyes, like an Old South slave’s. There are pictures of wintering camps, and human pyramids that they used to make on Sundays for fun, and the WWI outfit Dickinson went overseas with. Then there’s a late picture of Swannell with some of his shawled lady friends, looking like a plumped-out old roué and showman, a crude P. T. Barnum. And a whole three dozen “clooches” grouped complaisantly about a teamster’s trading wagon, dark and giggly in their blankets. And an Indian camp—at Prince’s second trapline layover on the Second Nation River—with a white fly and tent, pots, beaver skins stretched on round frames, and beaver meat and trout drying on racks.
As Bruce Russell says, the Americans have taken over the North without firing a shot. The choicest property is being bought up, and now here I am after even the myths. These people do want their history recorded, however, so they must take the historian offered, New Yorker and stutterer though he is. Six times I’ve walked to Jack Thompson’s house, because of the wash hung out on the lines, but apparently that’s only a trick so people will think he’s in town—that and the unmade beds. He’s been in Manson Creek all the time. Bruce Russell is the trucker who goes clear to Uslika Lake, which is 190 miles north of Fort St. James, about a 15-hour trip, if all goes well. Last weekend he trucked Bob Watson’s body up for burial, performing the service there himself. About 30 people showed up, which is most of the residents of the Manson area. The only ones who didn’t show were Watson’s closest neighbors, from across the creek, who of course had feuded with him, as bachelor neighbors will. They did get as far as the store, but couldn’t bring themselves into the graveyard. Russell is a sweet-natured, tenor-voiced man; reminds me very much of my college roommate. He’s dogged and dusty, humble, appealing, a toobooloo forgetter, and a battler. He has a trucker son and a schoolteacher son; he’s a grandfather, although he looks 40. He licks his lips a lot, doesn’t charge anyone for their freight if they are poor. A big Canadian Freightways trailer-truck rig comes in regularly, leaves the full trailer in his lot and pulls away an empty one. He speaks of that delivery as “the dogteam.”
Manson Creek, where I am today, is a wide spot in the road without any particular view but very homelike nevertheless, with its several surviving old-timers, and the Los Angeles expatriates, and a couple of other wanderers or lost souls. Big Massey Ferguson mining equipment left about. Gas is up to 70 cents a gallon. It’s a definitely friendly, genial place, and the Owens, the Californians, are chiefly responsible for that. All the creeks around have been worked for perhaps a century, but a young Dutchman brought in a specimen bottle today with an inch of gold grains on the bottom—they looked like grains of tobacco. He had got them by shaking out the mats of old sluice boxes.
We in the city deprive ourselves of air, light, space and green complications, a deprivation of such magnitude one can hardly think what could be worse. But people here are denied the delights of food, and the pleasurable soaking of a hot bath, and conversation, and news of the world, and, above all, the softnesses and amplitudes of women—women in the plural, at least, even if they have a wife. I think if I had to choose one place irrevocably, I might choose to live here, but since I don’t have to, rather inconsistently, I live primarily in New York.
In the highway era to come, of course, we will drive from one town to another and it will be a matter of minutes and miles. At present, in the bush-plane era, the terminology and the destinations are always stated as lakes, even when you are driving along a dirt bush track to get there, not flying and then landing. Before, in the era of hiking, dogsledding, and horse-packing, destinations and geography were generally given as rivers and creeks; they were the valleys, the homesites, the larders (or obstacles).
Today freighter Bruce Russell and I spent another 12 hours going 140 miles. We saw ravens, and reddish ground squirrels, and baby grouse running and flying up, and two black young bull moose, who looked like donkeys from the rear as they ran away on their stick legs. There is snow falling in the North Country today, so we wondered whether our friends Sam and George, on horses, had gotten safely across the Mesilinka, which is a faster river with more fall to it, until the winter puts the lid on again. Already wild rose petals are starting to fall; by August 15, the birches will be turning yellow. Uslika Lake (a surveyor’s joke name?) was ruffled with rain and breezes, and then still again—reflecting the chunky blue mountains to the south—or gray, green, and tawny, with majestically colored reflections from the side hills, the trees like figures in a vastly rich carpet.
Whether it’s false or not, there’s a sense in this country of contact with ultimates, as though all the world’s sources and secrets might be just around the next bend.
Santa Claus Joe Calper just walked by. He looks like the greatest old-timer of all, with his white beard and his bear’s build, but he’s actually a newcomer and a cipher. Doc Bishop Thurber interests me more. He’s a homey, bashful geologist, deep-voiced and unkempt, with white stubble whiskers, doggy eyebrows, and a dirty gray shirt. He looks like the dog in the old Mickey Mouse comic books, and he’s named his dog Viking. He was up here on surveys as early as 1937 and has come back at troubled times ever since. Is obviously a woman-oriented fellow; probably with much marital trouble. Has an inferiority complex and a sulphurous, lava-like cough, an incredibly convoluted and serious cough. What he does best is walk. He lives with Johnny Nielsen, who runs a kind of boarding house for the prospectors who pass through; busily cooks their steaks and gossips with them.
July 11 and 12
I returned from Manson Creek to Fort St. James with Larry Erickson, the ablest and youngest hunting guide in this section of British Columbia. He’s personable, enlightened, and educated with regard to game habits and practices, has worked for biologists, trained falcons, and run sled dogs. We stopped to smell wild orchids and roses and pick lupine and paintbrush. Once we nearly had to stop for good because a beaver dam had broken and the road was inundated for 200 yards with flooding water, two feet deep. We talked about cabin fever, which afflicts isolated partners, and about how these cold, rainy springs sometimes kill off the year’s crop of baby grouse with pneumonia. His favorite weeks are those he spends in the summer out with his huskies, hiking. The three of them can carry up to 60 pounds each and, like wolves, need to be stuffed with groundhogs, whole, once every three or four days, and not fed otherwise. He says the grizzlies are doing well on all the moose that people shoot. He’s also pro-wolf.
The newness of our marriage when I started on this trip makes it seem scarcely believable as a fact—rather, it’s a relief to remember that I have a tie to go back to, and the memory of a relationship that was good, and that was saving me, that gave life meaning, with the coming child, and that made the future possible, that had brought the barrenness to a close. (I remember that John Muir, in 1880, came back from Alaska for the birth of Wanda, his first baby.)
My trip, by and large, has been a failure. I’ve learned I no longer like to hitchhike—to subjugate myself to someone else, to have to accept tacitly whatever they say, or let their scheduling be the law. I’ve learned that my boyish luck and glee have worn out, and that unhindered satisfaction from life will be more difficult to obtain from now on. But insofar as I came back to replace the material for a novel that I used up in Notes from the Century Before, I may have succeeded rather than failed, and I also came back to “revisit the scene of the crime” of my book, since I might well never come back again.
Then, a rainy night tearing down the Alaska Highway from Watson Lake, past the usual grim assortment of trucks, with a French Canadian on the bus who claimed to have fought in the Congo with both Moishe Tshombe and Che Guevara. Also a pale foreign boy who doesn’t speak English; a dumbbell from the Adirondacks; and an “animal.” The curiously, endless stick forest, with an occasional single cabin with the word STORE on it. British Columbia has put up signs for each river or creek but the mud bespatters them illegibly.
The road runs alongside or in sight of or at the foot of mountains most of the way. At five A.M. we were at Muncho Lake (Mile 463—Watson Lake is at 642). The road has no intimacy, but it’s wild. There’s a valley full of yellow gravel, with a small creek running in it. This is country 30 years raw—country walked on only for 30 years! And I do recommend the journey for gorging on, gulping down, sheer geography.
Lunch at Trutch (Mile 200), on thin soup served with the knowledge that they’ll never see us again. It’s very painful to leave the bush, even not considering that I’ve not accomplished what I had hoped, and this long, numbing, thousand-mile bus trip is a help to ease me out. The whole northern sky is full of a rainstorm and clouds that do everything except rain: Finally, spitting gusts. Just before Dawson Creek we get into poplared homestead country with soil and green fields and a paved highway—the farmers among the tourists feel relieved. Talk about farmers “going to town.” As we pulled into town, the psychosomatics of relief hit me with a sudden sore throat. I stay overnight in a hotel which has an elevator and a stoplight outside.
So, down from the mountains to the great plains, with three realizations: that my trip was not as I had hoped it would be; that I’ve verged into middle age; and that the wilderness really is finished, done for, right now, and in fact is to be more satisfyingly found or explored in my own imagination than in reality.*
The Canadians are a muted version of Americans, lacking our worst and also our best qualities. I sat, by a clerical error, in the first-class part of the plane east from Edmonton, and noticed how fat the seat belt seemed. It was so easy and quick getting from one place to another by now, but the mechanics and maneuvers—gate to gate and desk to desk—seemed intolerably time-consuming, though in fact I was going to travel 4,000 miles in the amount of time it had been taking me to go 100 by truck. We had tranquilizing music and then the roar of the jet in takeoff, all of us pausing a moment, with the brief thread of our consciousness in the balance. We lived.
Later, we circled over Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an hour and a half because of a strike of air-traffic controllers. My taxi driver got out of the cab at the toll plaza of the Battery Tunnel and got into a fight with the driver behind him. Then, at last, I was home, finally—a mess on the floor, and little accomplished in the way of moving in—even a brief fight with Marion. Earrings on the floor, a kinky necklace rattling from the doorknob. But oh the delicious complexity! The fullness of life again—pregnancy, difficulty, and beauty.
*I did write the novel I’d been after, Seven Rivers West (1986), but in doing so traveled extensively again in wild country on four later trips to Alaska. Also, since writing these words I’ve reveled in five journeys to Africa, two to India, and one each to Yemen and Antarctica.
Edward Hoagland is the author of more than 20 books. His latest, the novel In the Country of the Blind, was published in 2016. He is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR.
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