Put a lump of Cole in someone’s stocking this year

This Christmas season, put a lump of Cole in a friend or loved one’s stocking: some Cole Blackwater! The Darkening Archipelago – the second Cole Blackwater novel – is a fast paced environmentally themed murder mystery perfect for any reader on your list. Set amid the convoluted knot of islands known as the Broughton Archipelago, on British Columbia’s jagged mid-coast, the novel joins the often heated debate over salmon farming and the demise of wild salmon stocks.

The Darkening Archipelago as described by readers:

This book changed the way I buy salmon!”

“If you have not yet discovered Legault’s dark and deliciously sinister writing, and if you enjoy gritty realism, treat yourself to his new book for a good [Christmas] read.”

“Having bought the book I could not put it down – a truly excellent read. I will be buying this book as a present for many friends this year.”

If that sounds like the perfect stocking stuffer, then here’s what you should do:

1. Email me and tell me how many you would like and who they should be signed to. The books sell for $19.95 CND each.

2. I’ll email you back and tell you what the total will be, including postage, and give you a link to my Pay Pal Account. Cheques are acceptable, but slow the process down.

So to read about what new lumps Cole must endure in The Darkening Archipelago, drop me a note today!

Why Move Again?

In the early 1990’s I was keenly interested in the idea of bioregionalism; the premise that political, cultural, and environmental systems could be based on naturally-defined areas called bioregions, or ecoregions. Bioregions would be defined through physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries and soil and terrain characteristics. “Bioregionalism stresses that the determination of a bioregion is also a cultural phenomenon, and emphasizes local populations, knowledge, and solutions,” according to Wikipedia.

I had read, and reread Kirkpatrick Sale’s groundbreaking 1985 book on the subject Dwellers in the Land, and remember clearly his definitive advice to those wishing to make the world a better place: You must not move. Find a place that feels halfway like home and stay (I quote from memory). The idea being that people who affix themselves in place will work to better that place, and defend it, and when home is defined by natural borders, such as a river valley, we make decisions that tend to improve rather than despoil it.

I was living in the Kawartha Bioregion at that time; an area of south central Ontario defined by drumlins and moraines and a sinuous river that snaked across the tableland on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. It was pocked by the Kawartha Lakes, altered by the Trent-Severn Waterway, and boasted a reasonably good chance of being agriculturally self-sufficient, had it been so inclined. I was on contract to Sir Sandford Fleming College working as the school’s first Sustainability Advisor, a post that I had pitched to them the previous fall upon completing my diploma in Natural Resource Management. Along with some a band of fellow students and professors at the school, and colleagues at nearby Trent University, a bunch of us got pretty serious about the notion of promoting the Kawarthas as a sustainable bioregion. We created a newsletter called The Root (whose layout I did by hand cutting and pasting articles for photocopying) and created a map of our region for discussion.

And then I moved. I got the call that my seasonal position as a Park Naturalist in Banff National Park was starting up so I packed up my bags and hoped a flight for Calgary and never again considered the Kawarthas my home. That was six or seven moves ago, but most of those have been within the Bow Valley of Alberta, with the exception of the six months spent on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1993-94, and the last five years I’ve spent on Vancouver Island.

And now it’s time to go again. When we moved to Victoria in May of 2005 my world was very different. Having spent the better part of 14 years in the Bow Valley, my family and I were looking for a change. Kat – my partner then – had family in Victoria, and my best-friend Josh was finishing his PhD at UVic, so the coast made sense. I’d always dreamed of living by the ocean, and this seemed like a good place to raise children.

Almost immediately upon moving to Victoria I began to miss the mountains. Tiny refugia such as Mount Doug and Mount Work were fine for running, but what I craved was wildness. Big open ranges of mountains such as those in Strathcona were just too far away to be a part of my daily life.

For reason’s now long since put to rest, Kat and I separated a year or so after our second son, Silas, was born. A year after that, I fell in love with Jenn and she with Andy; both of whom we imported from the Bow Valley.

We all missed the mountains, small town life, and the wildness of having Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country – a 4,000 kilometer matrix of mountains and foothills, parks and multiple-use areas – as our backyard. So we came to an agreement: all six of us would move back to Alberta when the time was right. Kat was going back to school to become a teacher, so we set the completion of her practicum as the target for our exodus.

And that date, for Jenn and I, is December 10th.

It’s a leap of faith. Canmore, Alberta is a small town and though we have a lot of friends there, both Jenn and I are leaving very close friends behind. As a consultant I’ve worked with more than 35 businesses, governments and non-profits since starting Highwater Mark upon arriving in Victoria, but only two of those have been Alberta based. Job prospects in that town are better than most centers of twelve thousand people, but they are still limited. And the more trying aspects of living in the Bow Valley – very long, cold winters, and the reality that it’s very much entrenched in the rest of Alberta’s wildly conservative politics makes living there difficult at times.

But it feels like home. And it’s where the four adults who are working hard to raise two beautiful children can all agree that we can live in peace. Jenn and I were married in the adjacent Spray River Valley last year, and our fantasy is to spend the next part of our lives together exploring, and re-exploring, the sublime splendor of snowy mornings on a Nordic track and long summer days high in the alpine.

It’s not going to be easy to say goodbye to Vancouver Island. Jenn’s parents live in Nanaimo and they have become a regular part of Silas and Rio’s lives. I’ll miss watching the boys running on the beach, and I’ll miss running along the ragged coastline, or up and over the region’s balding domes with Josh. I’m looking forward, however, to sharing with the boys the comfort that wilderness is as essential to the human soul as food and water is to the body, and love is to the heart. We can leave the Big Island behind knowing that its only a day’s drive away, and that our lives our richer for these past five years.

There is no guarantee that this move is the last. I’ve stopped making such pronouncements. But the Bow Valley, as Kirkpatrick Sale says, feels half-way like home. It’s a community of good people who care about one another and about the land that defines them. It’s where the love-of-my-life and I feel complete. It’s time to head back over the mountains and set down some roots and see what grows.

Our Brief Lives Beneath the Oceanic Sky

Maybe it’s a once in twenty-five year event.

The last time I had the dream I was sixteen. I got up and went about my morning, making my way to M.M. Robinson High School much as I did every other day. My presence in the halls felt oddly detached; even more than usual. I recall wandering as if directionless, not certain which class I was supposed to attend or where my friends were. At one point I recall touching the face of a friend and saying goodbye.

Then I was in my buddy Greg’s car, in the passenger seat, while other friends crowded in the back. I could hear them laughing, carrying on as we often did, but I was apart from it, watching Hamilton’s industrial skyline from the Skyway Bridge. The world beyond the windows of the car passed in a translucent kaleidoscope of light and colour. I knew that Greg wasn’t driving me home; I was traveling towards whatever comes after death. I didn’t feel panic or fear, just sadness that this life was over. The feeling was oddly peaceful.

I awoke in tears; it was the last time I woke my mother up after a nightmare.

Fast forward nearly twenty five years. I’ll be forty in a few months. Now I cradle my own children in my arms when they awake in tears.

I’m dreaming again; it’s my birthday party, hosted by my friend Jason Meyers and his partner Brianne. Other friends are there. There is music and light and colour. Someone says that we’re going to sing and shortly Brianne picks up her guitar and I’m excited because I love music. But the moment is cut short and I realize it’s not my birthday. It’s my funeral. Jenn is there and she’s holding my hand and I don’t want to let go but I don’t have any choice. And I can feel that same calm sadness in my gut that I did more than half a lifetime ago. The feeling has a signature that I’ll remember forever. And I am thinking as I let go that I thought I’d have more time.

When I awake she is with me. Jenn thinks the nightmare is about the kids and says that they are fine and that she just checked on them. I tell her my dream and repeat that I just didn’t want to say goodbye so soon.

I’m halfway through the journey. Maybe more. And there’s still so much to do. I feel as if I’m just getting started. And I’m not ready to say goodbye yet.

I remember my favorite quote, from Edward Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress:

I want to weep, not for sorrow, not for joy, but for the incomprehensible wonder of our brief lives beneath the oceanic sky.

Maybe it’s a once in twenty-five year event. A reminder, as if I needed one, that life is short, and there is a lot to do, and many, many people to love, and that I am blessed beyond words to be alive.

A Nation Still too Young?

Yesterday was the first National Railway Day in Canada. November 7th 2010 marked the 125th anniversary of the driving of the last spike at Craigellachie, British Columbia. On that day a century and a quarter ago, Donald Smith, William Cornelius van Horne and a few dozen dignitaries from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), along and hundreds of honest, hard working navies gathered there to mark the completion of Canada’s national dream.

I visited Craigellachie last year, after driving by it no fewer than a hundred times, racing between the Coast and the Rocky Mountains. It’s a surprisingly picturesque and peaceful spot, and seems the perfect location for the two length’s of track to meet. There, on the banks of the Eagle River, the commemorative plaque, restored train station and pick-nick tables are typically Canadian in their approach to history: unpretentious and inconspicuous.

This understatement was brought home for me last winter when some dignitary associated with the 2010 Winter Olympics commented that the games were Canada’s greatest national undertaking.

Really? Building a railway 3,200 kilometers across Canada, at a cost of one-hundred-million dollars, employing 30,000 workers – with as many of 12,000 working at a time – and all in just five years of construction, doesn’t rank as Canada’s greatest national undertaking? It’s clear that we need a National Railway Day to refresh Canadian’s memory about some of the more seminal events in Canadian history.

I was first entranced by the history of the railway while living in Lake Louise from 1992-1995. I worked for Parks Canada, and while my primary role was as an interpreter of natural history, I was equally fascinated with the human history of the place. Lake Louise was the site of a winter camp at the height of the construction of the CPR: on December 8th, 1883 the laying of steel came to a halt near where the present railway station, and most of the ten thousand souls who had driven the rail across half the prairies and into the mountains that season returned to Fort Calgary, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg, or journeyed south to Fort Benton, Montana. Five hundred remained behind in what was known as Holt City or the Summit at the time.

Having lived in relative comfort through a few Lake Louise winters, where it got so cold that I had to use my camp stove to thaw out the oil pan and engine block of my tiny car, I couldn’t imagine how those five hundred men endured that winter without central heating, fluffy down jackets and hot drinks after skiing. By all accounts it was a deeply challenging experience.

But they persevered, and the following spring the population of Holt City swelled once again to over ten thousand men as they tackled the most ambitious section of the railway: the decent of the Big Hill and on to the Lower Canyon of the Kicking Horse.

It was during that time, living a stone’s throw from the CPR mainline, that I began to wonder what it would have been like in that camp. That musing turned, more than a decade and a half later, into the creation of The End of the Line. The setting for this end-of-steel murder mystery was inspired by my early, and ongoing, fascination with the staggering task of constructing Canada’s first transcontinental railway.

In many ways, writing The End of the Line is my way of publically stating my enthusiasm for Canadian history. I’ll never be a historian, or even the next best thing: a serious history writer. What I can do is create stories that inspire others to learn more about what actually transpired in places like snow-bound Holt City, and how those tales created our nation. I can use the voice of characters like the Garnet Wolsey (who will likely be renamed for publication), the enigmatic Englishman who, in his capacity as engineer, is proving out the survey line through the Valley of the Kicking Horse River, and finds himself assisting with the investigation into the murder at the end of the tracks:

Garnet Wolsey became suddenly more sober. “Sergeant Wallace,” he said, “I think you might be the only other man besides me, here at the end of steel, who can appreciate what is happening. We are witnessing history unfolding. This country is too young yet to appreciate this, but in time it will. This railway will almost certainly be the defining moment in its inception. We are breaking the back of these mountains with this thin ribbon of steel, sir. It is indeed the most glorious time to be in the Dominion of Canada.”

Maybe we are a nation still too young to appreciate such an extraordinary undertaking. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to self aggrandizing statements of our own accomplishments and have forgotten that 125 years ago we built a railway that galvanized a nation.

Garnet, and Durrant Wallace would appreciate that November 7th is now National Railway Day. The End of the Line is slated for publication next September, and I hope that they will make an appearance in support and celebration of that event once in print. It was indeed one of the greatest moments surrounding the birth of this extraordinary nation, one that deserves a fitting commemoration.

Rewriting History

This morning I finished reviewing edits to The End of the Line, the first Durrant Wallace historical mystery. This was a fantastic experience, working with Touchwood Editions editor Frances Thorsen (who also owns Chronicles of Crime bookstore here in Victoria, so she really knows the genre) and who made significant improvements to the manuscript. In the coming week I expect to sit down with the completed manuscript and be able to go through it once more, scouring the novel for consistency and style.

And reading it for fun, because that’s what this historical novel has been to pen: a great deal of fun. And all the while, thinking about the second book in the series, The Third Riel Conspiracy.

In September Jenn and I took a road trip to Saskatchewan. While Jenn wanted to go somewhere sunny and warm where we could surf and lie in a hammock and drink fruity drinks, I wanted to go to Saskatchewan, where I could immerse myself in the settings of the North West Rebellion. Jenn, being supportive and enthusiastic about my writing career relented, and we drove 2000 kilometers across mountain ranges and aspen parkland and out onto the great Canadian prairie in pursuit of our nation’s magnificent history.

Salmon at Baily's Cutte, Well's Grey Provincial Park

Along the way we stopped in some of the West’s most amazing places: Well’s Grey Provincial Park, where we watched the vanguard of this year’s tremendous salmon run jumping Bailey’s Chute on the Clearwater River; Mount Robson Provincial and Jasper National Park, shrouded in fog and cloud; Elk Island National Park, its bison passing like ephemeral ghosts in the night; and the highlight: Prince Albert National Park, with its wild lakes, spectacular forests and magical wolves.

Prince Albert National Park

But the unexpected centerpiece of the trip was the discovery that this chapter of Canada’s history took place in some of the most amazing landscapes and verdant locations I’ve visited. It stands to reason: though there were many origins of the Riel Rebellion – or Resistance, as many in central Saskatchewan call it – the spender of the land, and the Métis and woodland Cree’s relationship with it, was certainly central to their complaint with the Dominion Government. The distant bureaucracy in Ottawa wanted to impose a square lot survey on a landscape and a way of life dependent on the serpentine Saskatchewan Rivers. Here, as they had in Upper Canada, the french speaking Métis organized their farms and their lives along elongated rectangular river lots. This way, each farm got access to the necessary river corridor for transportation and irrigation.

Standing on the hilltop overlooking the historic town of Batoche, the location of the decisive four day battle between General Middleton’s Dominion forces and Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont’s Metis and Cree, its plain to see why these men were willing to fight and die for what they believed in.

For three or four days Jenn and I drove the back-roads of Saskatchewan, touring various historic sites.

Fort Pitt, on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River, was our first stop. As we raced along the never-ending dirt roads of this beautiful area near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, we were concerned that we might arrive after the Interpretive Centre closed. It being cold and windy on the plains in late September, we fanaticized about a hot chocolate in the cafeteria after our tour of the site.

Arriving to find that Fort Pitt sported little more than a cluster of (well written) interpretive signs and some four-by-four timbers laid out where the buildings of the Hudson’s Bay post once stood was a wake-up call.

We’d left the sometimes over-presented world of the mountain National Park’s behind and were on our own. That made more room for our imagination.

Later that afternoon, with the sun setting low, we visited first the old town of Frenchman Butte, and then the swell of land after which the town is named. There on that bluff a band of woodland Cree, retreating from the Alberta Field Force and the dauntless Sam Steele, made a brief stand. Riffle pits can still be seen amid the undergrowth.

The South Saskatchewan River from Fort Pitt

Fort Carlton

Next we made for Fort Carlton, where there is more than just the outline of the Fort, but where we were too late in the season for an actual tour inside the ramparts. Better still, however, was the walk through the woods to the North Saskatchewan River, where an unidentified owl swooped low across our path, or  through the grasses and brush on the bluffs above, where we jumped a red fox from his resting place.

What ensued was about what I expected: I fell in love with the landscape, which is what happens almost every time I visit a new part of this country. And as I did, the landscape itself started to tell its story to me, and those tales became entangled with the history of the place, and wove their way into my fictional recreations.

Constructing a historical murder mystery, set in what today is known as Lake Louise, but was in 1884 called Holt City, or the Summit, and doing it again on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, in Batoche, posses numerous challenges, but conveying the glory of the place is not one of them. Canada’s history is set amid fabulously beautiful landscapes that have, these hundreds of years, preserved the essence of our stories in their stone ramparts, as in Lake Louise, and their dips and swells and mottled forests, such as at Frenchman’s Butte.

What I do find to be a challenge is this: how do I preserve the essence of Canadian history while weaving a wholly fictional narrative around it? How do I present Canadian history in a way that is thrilling and inviting – which is my purpose with the Durrant Wallace series – while remaining true to the key events of the past?

Finding an answer to this question was my purpose in our final stop on our pilgrimage in Batoche.

The Cemetary at Batoche National Historic Site

This would become the centerpiece for the mystery behind the second book in the Durrant Wallace series, set during the North West Rebellion. Durrant Wallace, Sergeant in the North West Mounted Police, is requested by Superintendant Sam Steele to travel with haste into the fray of the battle in order to assist with an investigation. Arriving at Batoche Durrant is perplexed by the strange circumstances surrounding the demise of Reuben Wake, far behind the line of battle in the defensive structure called the Zereba. When the Mountie begins his own inquiry into what motive there might have been for the assignation, he learns that there are many who wanted Wake dead, and had the opportunity to commit the crime during the chaos of Batoche. Those motivations, and the men Durrant suspects of committing the crime, mirror the various causes of the Resistance itself. In this way I can allow Durrant to trace the history of the battle, and the Rebellion itself, back through time in order to present the actually history of the period, while telling the fictional story.

It’s still a fine line. Without revealing too much of the plot of either book (The End of the Line will be published by Touchwood in the fall of 2011, with The Third Riel Conspiracy following a year later), things happen in well known places such as the famous Kicking Horse Pass, on the Continental Divide between present day Alberta and BC, and on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River at Batoche, that may stretch fact and blur the lines between history and fiction.  My purpose is to tell a good story, and if in doing so a few more people can see that Canadian history – even without the brash and ill-tempered North West Mounted Police Sergeant barging through it – is fascinating and important reading, then it’s worth the literary risk.

Follow these stories and more on Twitter @stephenlegault.