The case of the missing dam and the great stick rescue

The backroads from Plattsburg to West Winfield follow a wide rocky creek called the Bouquet River that appears and vanishes and curls under low bridges and behind tall pines.

My friend Laurie and I had a very loose roadtrip schedule — 24 hours to do a five-hour drive — so we were open to spending some time closer to the water on one of the first hot days of spring.

“Let’s go there!” one of us said with the enthusiasm of a mom set free and desperate for adventure when we passed a sign for Thrall Dam. Except was the last and only Thrall Dam sign we would see. We watched for it, but maybe the whole dam thing was a hallucination. All we wanted was to get closer to the water, and we wanted it five minutes ago, and there was that river coiling just out of our reach like a housecat. We swerved into the first pullout we found and climbed down grass, dirt, and tree roots to get to the Bouquet.

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Upstream were pockets of calm and a picturesque bridge. Downstream, a glassy pool into which a young fisherman wearing khakis and flat sneakers was casting his line, a beagle-shaped dog at his side.

Yet there we were between the two, where the rocks were at their thickest and most uneven and the ice-clear water had to bubble and force its way to tumble loudly down a two-storey-high waterfall.

00bouqet river ny stick1Laurie had taken her sandals off at the top of the embarkment; I let my rubber soles slide over the moss till I found sure footing.

“There’s a walking stick in there,” Laurie said, pointing.

“Huh,” I replied. I had nearly fallen while standing still on a rock. I was mortified. Plus, I wasn’t sure where she was going with this whole walking stick business.

“Or it could be just a stick stick. Look at it.”

I squinted into the blurred brook. There was a good-size stick in there, indeed, that looked smooth and straight, with a slightly pointed tip and what could have been a thicker handhold.

“I’m going to get it,” she announced.

It was smack in the middle of the river, at the head of the waterfall, and so I said (as is my custom), “Don’t kill yourself.”

If she rolled her eyes at me, I didn’t see it, so busy was I staying soberly upright as I attempted to take pictures of the rushing river with my phone. She stepped into the glacial water and set one dainty foot on a large, slippery rock. I was paying attention now — I didn’t know how I’d get my friend from the bottom of the waterfall if she tumbled in.

“Be careful,” I said again, in my best mom voice.

She threw me a look made of humour, annoyance, and self-preservation and stepped back onto the rocky bank.

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The story should have ended there, but I felt bad. She clearly wanted that stick badly enough to risk a bloody head injury and hypothermia. Plus, you know, I really love it when rocks and water come together to make something beautiful. I kicked off my sandals — nearly falling on my own head again, and stepped ankle-deep into the water.

It was the kind of icy that forces a lump into your throat and sends chills up your sciatic nerve, along your spine, coming to rest somewhere at the base of your neck like a hunk of snow that gets in under your scarf and coat that you know is going to melt and run down your back and make you freeze from the inside out.

I scanned each rock just below the clear surface, planning a path to the stick that avoided stepping into a wild whirlpool between me and it. It wasn’t going to be possible. Doubled over, with each foot on slick stone and fingers castled over rocks that turned their faces to the sun, I did an awkward slippery dance in a half-circle toward our prize. It was almost in reach. One foot was in the vortex, pulling me with more strength that I’d imagined toward the waterfall and the fisherman, who had thrown in the towel and was climbing the embankment with his dog. He either ignored our girlish squeals or couldn’t hear them over the roar of the falls.

I was wibbly-wobbly, but the stick was just there. Laurie was yelling encouragement in the form of hilarious taunts.

I developed this very non-graceful method of sliding my foot down a sharp rock till it found the place where it met another rock, then lifting my other foot to a stone on the opposite side, sliding till I found a similar foothold, all the time bending nearly double to steady myself with other rocks. I spent a good minute in the vortex, trying to plot my next move.

Two stones later, I leaned — closer closer closer — no longer concerned with my numb ankles, or the jagged stone on the soles of my feet.

Closer, till my fingertips like a lover brushed the sweaty tip and it was that gentle touch that renewed my resolve and with one more push forward and down my palm grasped it at the slippery base. Rather than recoiling at its wet and waxy flesh, I held it aloft and yelled something savage and triumphant as Laurie captured the moment digitally.

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Aglow, I looked down to check my footing, only to discover one side of my tank top had been yanked down during my passionate dive.

“AH! My boob!” I yelled. “One more without the exposure!”

I posed, and though it didn’t document the exact moment of triumph, the photograph drips with the residue of my joy.

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That dam stick set the tone for the rest of our journey, which saw Laurie conquer a giant tree stump, the threat of skinny dipping upriver, the crossing of a rickety, rotten bridge for no reason other than to cross it … but never a stop at the mysterious, missing Thrall Dam.

A walk in the park: Sentier Inter-Centre and Liberator Harry crash site

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

The Montreal Gazette of Oct. 22, 1943.
The Montreal Gazette of Oct. 22, 1943.

We know for sure it was a Tuesday in 1943. What’s less clear is whether the plane went down in the morning, sometime in the early afternoon, or in the dark of night.

We know for sure the weather was terrible and that the good people of St. Donat heard a large plane fly low over their town. It was wartime and they might have been afraid to look outside, and those who weren’t afraid wouldn’t have known which way to look — sound is tricky in the mountains and muffled by heavy fog. Though reports were made, no one in authority appears to have paid them much mind. It was just a little village with a lot of loggers, after all, and there was important war stuff going on, like the loss of a giant Liberator B-24 somewhere near Mont-Joli.

The Liberator was a U.S.-built monster designed to take out U-boats. It became a popular part of the Allies’ arsenal, though some reports say pilots and crew didn’t love it — it was harder to fly than others of its class, and they felt there was a smaller chance of survival in the case of a crash.

Liberator Harry was a training vehicle that flew out of Gander early that October morning, headed for the darling town of Mont-Joli on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. On board was the pilot and 23 soldiers. The weather was terrible, though, as we’ve said, and the flight was diverted to Montreal, 550 kilometres southwest of their destination.

But they got lost in the fog and rain, and sometime — morning, afternoon, evening? — the giant plane roared low over St. Donat and hit the hard rock of la Montagne Noire.

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As the 24 soldiers lay dead on the frozen mountaintop, confusion reigned below. It is clear from a report in the Montreal Gazette two days later that “the most intensive air search ever carried out in eastern Canada” was focused in the wrong place, in the river near Malbaie, 500 kilometres away.

“Every available plane of both the RCAF and the Royal Air Force Transport Command battled ‘diabolical’ flying conditions in a vain search of the missing Liberator.”

The Malbaie police chief told the Gazette travellers told him a big passenger plane had plunged into the river near his town. Dozens of reports came in saying the same thing, but it made no sense. The area had been well searched, and Transport Command figured the plane had crashed in the morning, not afternoon or evening. “A most thorough search of this area has been made and we have found nothing to indicate they are true.”

It would be more than two years till Liberator Harry and its men were found. June 26, 1946, search crews looking for another crash caught a glint on the mountainside and soon spotted Liberator Harry’s unique tail. The mission to the top of the mountain determined that the men had died on impact, and that the plane had caught fire. Only three of the soldiers have been identified.

It remains the greatest military aviation accident on Canadian soil.

A wing of the Liberator B-24 that crashed near St. Donat in 1943 still bears the American star — it was new enough that the Canadians hadn't had time to repaint it.
A wing of the Liberator B-24 that crashed near St. Donat in 1943 still bears the American star — it was new enough that the Canadians hadn’t had time to repaint it.

four wheels

Sentier Inter-Centre, the trail that leads to the crash site, gets four stroller wheels for story, on the understanding that this is a hike not well suited for younger kids who might not be able to walk uphill for six kilometres and absolutely not for people who need to bring their stroller with them.

We went in the middle of spring, but experienced three seasons on our way uphill. The lower two kilometres were an easy walk on wide trails covered in last fall’s leaves and woven through with green shoots. The middle two were a good combination of thick mud and some snow, forgiven because of the beautiful way the sunlight, unobstructed by leaves, glinted off golden birches and kept our backs warm even as our feet got colder. The last two kilometres were a serious slog through knee-deep snow, but well worth the time and effort, especially if you’ve packed food, water, and dry socks.

The crash site is in two sections about 100 feet apart, the second featuring a monument and interpretive plaques. We picnicked at the summit — 2,925 feet — overlooking a wing and landing gear in the sunlight and were not bothered by ghostly chills.

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A walk in the park: Cathedral Grove & Little Qualicum Falls

cathedral grove101Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

You can almost taste the green. There is the nearly yellow of new growth and the nearly black of the moss, and every shade between those. It’s inside your nose, sweet but wet. Heavy.

It is raining, but the forest canopy keeps you drier than you expected. It is made of shadows and it is muffled, like there’s loose cotton in your ears. Like you’re in church.

This is Cathedral Grove.

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This is our nation’s ancient architecture: 800-year-old Douglas firs and the red cedars that were once used to carve totem poles and hollow out canoes.

These trees are alive. I mean really alive — they watch you and I think they laugh a little behind your back. Be still and you’ll see their faces in your peripheral vision. Rounded trunks become laughing bellies, moss-covered branches are arms, knots are eyes and noses, eyebrows are carved by nature into the bark.

“Cathedral” is a European invention, but the godliness you feel here is older. So much older.

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Just down the road from Cathedral Grove is Little Qualicum Falls. It is just as powerful, but it is not quiet and it is not peaceful. You can hear the angry cascade as you approach the forest, like static on a radio turned up too high.

We are still in rainforest here, and it’s dark under the canopy, so the white water shines as it bubbles and races down the mountain, eroding rock and devouring plants that have the misfortune to fall in.

It’s not safe here. That water is hungry, and some of the paths are steep and marked with tangled roots that can trip a careless traveller. The thick black mud under your feet is slippery and makes a threatening sucking sound every time you lift your shoes.

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I’m awarding MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove) and Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five), with the caveat that I went alone, without children or strollers, and walked only a small part of Qualicum Falls at the tail end of a rainy day.

There are kilometres of trails at the Falls, and although I spent my time in the dangerous portion right by the falls, there are apparently lovely swimming holes and wider, family-friendly paths throughout the park. There is also a campsite. The parks are midway between Parksville and Port Alberni on Highway 4.

If you do both parks, as I did, save Cathedral Grove for the end. Its quiet beauty will offset all that raging water and close the day on a spiritual note.

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Carrot campaign helped bridge North Island’s ‘incredible gap’

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The northern tip of Vancouver Island is isolated by perception as much as by distance. When I told people where I was going, responses ranged from “Good heavens, why?” to “all that way?” to “do you realize how far that is?” It’s a five-hour drive from Nanaimo, if you’re counting, and those five hours are spent on smooth, fresh blacktop with sea to your right and mountains to the left.

This North Island Highway was a long time coming. Politicians used the construction of it to woo voters starting in 1897. Mile by mile the highway came into being, with asphalt eating away at pockmarked gravel, with contracts awarded and budgets adjusted to make it happen. Till the mid-1970s, that is, when funding was unceremoniously dropped with just 22 miles to go. The good citizens of Port Hardy were as isolated as ever.

carrot campaign letters clippingsWith residents up in arms, the Port Hardy-based North Island Gazette ran opinion pieces and news stories citing the “missing link” and “incredible gap” and reporting breathlessly when the highways minister said, “You have access, by land and water.”

By land, sure: The unpaved road on which was held a race — the Annual Missing Link Rally — to Port Hardy. By water? Yup, and when the ferry hiked its prices, the uproar was so loud they had to scale it back by 10 per cent.

In April 1976, the Gazette had had enough with politicians using the highway as a carrot to garner votes. It used prime advertising space, an entire inside broadsheet page, for a screaming headline: DO YOU CARROT ALL and a list of 10 ways citizens could put pressure on the provincial government in Victoria. Send postcards, it said. Telegrams. Write letters. Organize petitions. Make phone calls. Send some carrots.

“Anyone who can afford a dollar more on his phone bill is urged to telephone the minister and leave a message: ‘I want the rest of the carrot.’ Don’t be afraid, you’ll only get as far as his secretary” and “When you answer your phone, say ‘I want the rest of the carrot’ and you could be a winner of a year’s subscription to The Gazette. We will be calling 22 people a week (one for each mile of road left).”

It kept the pressure on for months. It had postcards printed and urged local businessmen to include them in all their mailings. Other residents were encouraged to send a postcard to Victoria every time they sent a letter. People sent carrots, carrot juice, and carrot seeds to the provincial capital. The Gazette ran carrot-centric recipes. They arranged a march over 6.5 miles from the end of the pavement along the Incredible Gap.

carrot campaign clipping

And then in June, it happened: Victoria announced the highway’s budget had been reinstated: a consortium called the Missing Link Road Construction Co. won the contract to pave the last 22 miles. They started that October and the last mile was completed on schedule in 1979.

Port Hardy is Mile 0 of the Trans-Carrot Highway. It ends at Carrot Park, right there by the giant carrot statue commemorating a great moment in public-service journalism.

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(Newspaper clippings are screen grabs from Google’s newspaper archive, North Island Gazette)

The ill-fated marriage of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw and Kwakiutl

It’s fitting that Thomas Point is so rocky; so was the marriage that was established here in the 1960s.

Arranged by the government, it was shortly thereafter dissolved with hollow-sounding apologies and “we meant well.” I guess they thought the shared history of the betrothed would be enough.

Thomas Point near Port Hardy.
Thomas Point near Port Hardy.

The Gwa’sala and ’Nakwaxda’xw people were forest-dwellers and fishers in the region now called Smith and Seymour inlets, tucked into the B.C.’s mainland. They traded and intermarried with the dozens of other aboriginal bands that line the coast and participated in the trade with white men, especially here, a base of operations for the Hudson Bay Co. And though they lived in relative isolation, they were not shielded from the European introduction of residential schools, disease, and liquor.

The Fort Rupert band — the Kwakiutl — lived here next to what would become Port Hardy, though to them it was Tsaxis, as it had been for the 8,000 to 10,000 years they called it home. The sharp mountains of Tsaxis were veined with coal and the Hudson Bay Co. coveted it. Though the Kwakiutl won the right to mine and trade with HBC, it wasn’t without cost: the residential schools, disease, and liquor taxed them as they had the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw.

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But neither band disappeared, and by the mid-1940s, the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw were getting stronger and recovering from a half-century during which their customs, artwork, and forests had been plundered. Canada began to pitch in some social programs, though the First Nations who were not willing to fully assimilate into European culture were still consigned to reserves.

Bands like the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw were far less likely to assimilate because they were isolated in their hidden inlets. Thus the marriage was proposed: Move to Tsaxis, Canada urged, and we will give you land, housing, education, health care — the sort of life you’ll never have in your backwards back country. But if they chose to stay on their ancestral lands, all social programs would be cut off.

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I imagine the boat ride across strait was long, quiet and cold. Behind them, their homes were being burned to the ground. There was no going back. Thomas Rock, here at the edge of Fort Rupert, is cold and black and must have seemed like the end of the world.

This may surprise you (if you’ve never opened a history book), but the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw say they got far less than they bargained for. And the Kwakiutl? The marriage was forced on them, too. They lived eight miles apart, like a couple that must remain in the same house so retreat to separate beds.

According to a Gwa’sala website, a government staffer wrote a book about the situation that was called, “How a People Die.” He must not have met these people.

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The unwanted marriage was dissolved in 1969. Their joint council was dismantled and the hard work of splitting land and resources began.

“What was done was honestly believed to be the best thing at the time,” Port Hardy’s director of community affairs told the North Island Gazette. “I think the fact you are dissatisfied now indicates that after it’s over, looking back on it, it was wrong. … It was an honest mistake and we’ll correct the things that are wrong now.”

Let’s not pretend things have been completely corrected in the past 45 years. But let’s celebrate alongside the First Nations who are finding a way to renew their customs and languages by rebuilding their communities with schools and other resources.

“Families hold potlatches and young people are learning to dance and sing, learning their names, so that they can potlatch when their time comes.”

The boxer who was feeling his age

“Man, am I feeling my age today,” the boxer said, tossing his skipping rope on the floor in front of the windows.

horseshoe bay ferry terminal bc 31His hair was short and neat, flecked with grey, and his face was the sort of tan you get from spending time outside, living — an almost rusty colour with paler lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth and running across his forehead, where crinkles weren’t touched by the sun.

The ferry hadn’t launched, but he had a sea-sway, standing in front of the big windows trying to decide whether to talk to me or the bay. He had a milk bottle of the sort you pick up in gas stations, but I don’t think there was milk in it.

I looked up from my book about body language and I guess my palms were open or my eyebrows lifted slightly, because he kept talking.

“I was boxing last night. You know, at this new place. Guy got me right here.” His hand was against his side, on his lower ribs, and there was a bit of wince left in him. “I just smiled, you know? I didn’t want him to think he got one on me. He was 22. You know.”

I had opened my box lunch and was eating, not making much eye contact. I wanted to hear the end of the story, but I didn’t want to make friends. He went off on a rant about boxing matches being fixed and I thought, “Ah, so you lost, then.”

“It was a new promoter, you know, so usually I get paid in cash, but this guy gave me a cheque for $45. I woke up this morning and it was gone. I lost it.”

This time I know my eyebrows lifted, and he assured it was going to be okay, that a cheque is a lot easier to replace than cash. But I was just surprised the going rate for being punched in the ribs is $45.

“My dad owned a boxing club,” he went on, and I could tell his drink was almost done by the way he tilted it up to try to get the last bit at the end of each sentence. “He taught me how to fight right, no cheating bullshit. He retired when he was 51.”

He put the milk bottle on a chair two seats away from me and started rifling through his pockets, pulling out a $10 bill and a dime bag of pot. He shoved the money back into the pocket. “You smoke marijuana?”

My “nope” was the first thing I’d said to him, but I said it with a smile. He shrugged, scooped up his rope and swayed on back to the smoking area just as the ferry’s horn announced we were set to sail.

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