We knew there was a bear in the valley because we’d run into one on the trail two days earlier. We were bashing our way up the cutline trail from the Sheep River to the alpine meadows above Burns Lake when J, walking a little ahead of me, shouted “hey bear!” and a grizzly stuck its head up from the alders about a hundred meters in front of him. It only took the Griz a second to decide what to do and it was off, running into the woods and gone.
J and have walked thousands of kilometers in the back country together over the last two decades and this is the first time we’ve ever spooked a grizzly. We’d been around them before, like the time we hiked from Moraine Lake to Marble Canyon in a day and encountered hundreds of school-bus sized diggings, the delicate plants still green, still alive. That bear was somewhere in the narrow, storm shattered valley with us, but we never saw it.
I’ve also hiked above a big grizzly on Specimen Ridge in Yellowstone, and watched one from a kilometer or two away from a hilltop in BC’s Muskwa-Katchika region. But neither of us had ever walked into one on the trail like this before.
We stood in the heavily overgrown path together and discussed what to do. It was about this time that J realized that his bear spray was missing. To me it seemed like the sort of thing that you’d check right off when you see a bear, but that’s me. Sometime in the two hours since lunch it had come off the waistband of J’s pack without him noticing. Maybe this had happened when we made our way through a twenty foot high tangle of logs and other flood debris where an unnamed creek met Burns Creek? It didn’t matter: we didn’t know where it was and had no interest in going back to find it. The track was steep and our packs were heavy and we knew we’d never find it anyway.
What to do? Keep going? Wait a while and then proceed? Turn around? We’d rather take our chances with the bear than make our way back down the Sheep River, where more flood debris from the 2013 catastrophe awaited us. I took off my pack and stood on the trail, peering into the woods. All my adult life I’ve been hiking in these mountains and I’ve never really been afraid of bears; I wasn’t now. We decided to give it a few minutes – just to let the bear make some distance on us – and continue up the track.
Burns Creek is remote; it takes some effort to get into it. J and I had come via a long, undulated walk along Mist Ridge the day before. We were going to take five days to traverse the length of a notched massif of peaks called the Mist Range. The night before we’d intended to camp high on Gibraltar Pass but from above we could see clearly there was no water to be had there. We dropped into the basin ringed by Storm Ridge, Rickert’s Pass and Mist Ridge, hoping that the blue line on the map would materialize as real, cool, fresh water: no luck. The dry conditions that spring meant there was no water to be found, so we had to descend towards the Sheep. This was made all that much harder because the meadows just below the pass were filled with thick mats of wildflowers. I wanted nothing more than to camp among them so I could be there at first light: the photographers lament. Instead we had to sleep on the bank of the Sheep River, its braided course piled with logs and debris from the flood.
We reached Burns Lake without further fury encounter. Our path brought us to a high plateau a few hundred feet above the lake itself and before dropping J found a triangle of snow thirty feet high wedged between limestone cliffs. Beneath it clear cool water emerging from a crack in the earth. Elated, we made camp at 8,000 feet on the dry grass overlooking the serrated edge of Storm Mountain, the parade of gendarme on Mount Rae’s eastern ridge behind us.
Being in the alpine, there were no trees to hang our food cache from. This wasn’t a new problem and in the past we’d simply lowered our food bags over a steep cliff, but we couldn’t find anything suitable, so we improvised. Using a long length of cord, secured to a heavy stone, and employing the friction of the snow, we dropped the food bags over the edge of the triangle of snow, dangling them a few feet from the water below. A bear or other marauding animal would have to work really hard to get at this arrangement. That said, if the rope gave way we’d have a hell of a time retrieving our kibbles from the depths of the ice cave below the snow, but sometimes you’ve got to roll a hard seven.
The following day we explored the basin, hiking through the high, barren cirques above the lake, encountering a pair of mule deer bucks, somewhat out of place at 8,200 feet, which lead to some Brokeback Mountain comments, and then and climbing a 9,000 foot ridge that dropped 2,000 feet, straight down into Rae Creek on its eastern flank. I mean: straight down. In fact, I’m pretty sure the angle was more than 90 degrees by the look of the surrounding rock walls.
We scree-skied back down and walked through the basin to a tarn for lunch and commented that there didn’t seem to be much for a grizzly to eat up here. Mostly rock and lichen, through we’d seen a few pods of hedysarum closer to our camp.
After lunch we got caught up in a storm and made it back to our tents to dry out and nap and listen to the wind. Before supper we went for another hike and explored the little tarn below the Royal Wall and the high col that provides a faster, if not masochisticly steep egress into the Burns Lake region from Highwood Pass.
We turned in early, the weather growing foul again, the wind cleaving at the fabric of our light weight tents. I had just bought a new one-man job that weighs only three pounds and was pretty excited by its sleek design and compact size. As a genuine storm blew up I started to wonder at its tensile strength. The gales came in waves, alternatively ripping the tent from the west and then turning around and quickly coming back at me from the east. Lightning flashed across the sky, lighting up my little oblong bubble, and the thunder was simultaneous. Rain pelted the world around, driving in sheets and rapid staccato bursts. J’s tent was thirty feet from mine – just far enough so snoring would be inaudible – and from time to time we would yell to each other over the rampage outside to see if the other had been blow down valley. When the poles of my tent got pressed down by the wind so that the sidewall nearly touched my face I started to question the wisdom of camping so high.
The next time J yelled over the storm it was to ask, “What was that noise?”
You’re kidding me, I thought. There’s a gale storm blowing through the valley, thunder and lightning and a pelting rain. The noise is the world, I thought. “What noise,” I yelled back.
“Sounded like a bear.”
The next thing I said was pretty stupid in hindsight. “A bear would have to be crazy to be out in this storm.”
Where else would they be? At home by a cozy fire?
The storm died down around 2:30 and I finally fell into a restless sleep after that. I pretty much ignored my 5:30 alarm, poking my head out of my tent momentarily to confirm that sunrise was about the same as the day before and there was no need to shoot it.
I woke around 7:30 and retrieved our food cache and made tea. J was still asleep and I went back to my tent to patch up the blisters on my feet for what would be a long day on a hard trail. As I was doing this I was sitting, tent flap open, looking north. I had my head down, absorbed in my task, when I hear J’s voice.
“Steph, get your camera.” He sounded earnest. Then he added, almost as an afterthought: “And you might want to get your bear spray too.”
I’d been lugging a 300mm lens long the trail for the last few days and it quickly came to hand. I looked up to see a grizzly bear just 25 meters from my tent. It was sitting near the snow patch where we’d hung our food and drawn water for the last few days. The bear was looking back at us.
We all sat there for a few seconds, me in my bare feet (the bear in its), and my camera clicking away as fast as I could work it. Then the bruin got up and walked off. There was no panic in its stride; if the animal was in any way perturbed by our presence it didn’t show it. Curious, maybe, but stressed? No.
J came over to my tent, where I was now standing, watching Lord Griz make its way down a rocky game trail eastward. “That’s one crazy bear,” he said, or should have said, mocking my comment from the stormy night before.
We watched the bear go for another few minutes. He was on the trail we would be walking after we tore down and tents and had breakfast. We no longer felt any rush to be on our way. The Griz never looked back and seemed to care less about us as it walked off toward the Rae Creek Hills.
We never saw it again. The next morning we found a massive pile of very fresh – not steaming, though I would have loved to write those words – bear crap near our camp at Rae Lake. I had walked the path an hour before while out photographing sunrise and the dung wasn’t there, so that bear and I crossed paths sometime around 7am. There’s no way to know if it was the same bear.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written these words: the world is a better place for the presence of these animals in our mountains. They make the landscape come alive. A mountain with a bear somewhere on its flanks is a bolder, more dramatic, more energized place. The bear make the country flush with life. We flush with life because they are there; big animals, with powerful jaws and claws that from time to time do us harm, but almost always pass us as the bear did that morning in our camp: with mild curiosity.
It turns out that this bear came over the mountain, as well as went that way. The tag on its ear appeared in other photos I had taken earlier in the spring near Highwood Pass. That means this bear walked up through the alpine meadows of Arethusa Cirque and meandered over the high col between it and Burns Lake. I love the way one valley and another can be connected by these narrow ribs of stone.
I got to thinking while following the tracks of that grizzly the rest of the day, imagining – hoping? – that we might catch sight of it one more time. What I thought is this: how great is it that we have a place like the Elbow Sheep Wildland Park – and on the other side of the high col Peter Lougheed Provincial Park – to provide a sanctuary for a wild creature like this bear?
In the early 1990s’ the Alberta Wilderness Association made damn sure it would stay that way when they fought for and won protection for the headwaters of the Elbow and the Sheep Rivers. It was a decade’s long fight against a government that didn’t give a rats’ ass about wilderness, and only decided to protect the place when enough Albertan’s stood up and shouted loud enough that Premier Klein couldn’t ignore them any longer. Klein didn’t act until he was certain he could still lease oil and gas in the new “Park” which he tried to do a few years later.
Back then I was a long-haired, wet behind the ears, fire-brand radical environmental jerk that lived by Dave Foreman’s mantra of “no compromise in defense of mother earth.” I learned that leases had been written for areas of the Elbow Sheep to a Calgary oil giant and somehow managed to get a meeting with one of the companies most reasonable voices. I got a look at a letter from the company to then Minister of the Environment Ty Lund outlining concerns they had that the leases were in fact in prime grizzly country. The company, trying to do the right thing, asked to swap the leases with ones that would be less damaging to grizzly habitat and less destructive of their public image.
The area leased wasn’t the valley above Burns Lake, but further east, along the western slopes of Forget-Me-Not-Ridge.
Minister Lund had written back explaining that if the oil company didn’t drill the lease he’d find someone who would. There would be no swap. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he said.
I leaked the information to the press. The public went bananas. I spent two years fighting with the Ministry and with the Freedom of Information agency to get the letter, but never was able. Just the same, I ruined my reputation with the oil company (no loss), and the reasonable man who I was dealing with there would never trust me again, and for good reason (that was a loss) but the lease was never drilled.
That was nearly twenty years ago. I’m no longer long haired, nor am I all that wet behind the ears. I’m even less of a jerk. But after seeing the grizzly at Burns Lake, just sitting there outside my tent, I know for certain I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries were born of adventure and exploration in Utah and Arizona’s magnificent wilderness, such as the Escalante National Monument, described here in this tale of mis-adventure.
“Do you think we can get down that?” I ask.
I’m sitting behind the wheel of “Toro Azul,” – the Blue Bull — my trusted and dependable 1989 Toyota SR5, gripping the wheel with white knuckles. The road slopes down at a twenty percent grade, but it’s anything but graded. It’s sandy and deeply rutted, and in addition to the downward pitch, the whole road lists to one side, tilting precariously towards an arroyo, a dry wash that once or maybe twice a year floods with water the colour of blood, and then goes dry.
Greer Chesher is sitting beside me, her border collie Bo at her feet. It’s early spring, and we’re exploring the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, a 1.9 million-acre swath of wilderness in south-central Utah. Greer is doing research for a book on The Monument and I am along for the ride, such as it is. Greer and I met in the early 1990’s when she was a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park and I was a volunteer there. We’d stayed in touch, and when I wanted to spend a month in the Escalante, she agreed to show me around.
And now we’re driving down the Red Breaks “Road,” which is really a couple of sandy ruts that snake across the desert, around stunted Juniper trees, and up over bare red rocks. We’re trying to get as close to a place called the V, where Harris Wash meets the Escalante River.
When we get to a point where we can drive no further, we’ll hike the remaining miles.
“Do you think we can get down that?”
It should have occurred to me that this was that point. But it didn’t. Instead, Greer said cheerfully, “Yeah, we can get down that.”
What I didn’t think about, at least until we were down, was – gravity being what it is – can we get back up that?
I shifted into first and crept down the grade in four-wheel drive, leaning to the right to avoid being pressed against the driver side door, steering to keep the tires in the ruts of the road. The moment we were down, I knew that getting back up was going to be a serious problem. I should have just cut to the chase, turned around, and begun the 12-hour ordeal of driving that twenty meters of road right then and there. Instead we drove on another mile, parked where the ruts disappeared into slick rock cliffs, and wandered over the canyon country towards the V. We didn’t make it, for whatever reason. That isn’t important now. Instead we rendezvoused with the truck an hour later and began the return journey.
When we got to the place where the road was perched on the edge of the dry wash, I stopped. That was a mistake. If I was an experienced off-highway driver I would have just kept driving, and might possibly have used momentum, horsepower and a devil-may-care attitude to make it to the top of the grade. But I didn’t. The image of the sand giving out under the truck, and Greer, Bo, and I tumbling sideways into the wash made me let up on the gas and roll to a stop. The fall wouldn’t have killed us. But we were 40 miles from the town of Escalante – population 400, including dogs – and I was rather attached to my truck. I didn’t want this arroyo to become henceforth known as Legault Wash with my battered truck as a monument to my stupidity.
After a few minutes of study I geared down into compound low and began to creep up the grade, hardly touching the gas. Even at this snail’s pace the tires dug into the loose blow sand, and we ground to a halt. I backed down – nerve-wracking at the pitch and angle of the road – and tried again, this time giving the truck a little more gas. We went up. We stopped.
We tried again, and again we dug into the sand.
Cursing. Back down. This time we got out to survey the scene. The sand was loose and dry and the wind was picking up, blowing in more from the desert all around.
We tried a few more times, me nervous and watching out of the corner of my eye the dry wash twenty feet below looming out of the passenger window.
What came next was an hour or two of road work. We hauled rocks from the wash and the surrounding desert, and found loose brush that could be used to build up the road to give the truck some purchase. The wind picked up and more sand blew in, burning our eyes and filling our hair with grit. It was exhausting work, with the nagging concern of being stuck out at the end of a road that saw maybe one or two vehicles a week (or less, who knows!) gnawing at the back of our minds.
When we got the road to where we thought it could support our weight, we mounted up and took a bit of a run at it in four-high. We climbed nearly to the top, the truck swaying back and forth, the engine revving as it worked hard to keep its momentum. Just as we reached the crest our handiwork gave out, the tires left the rocks and brush and dug deeply into the sand, and we lurched to a halt. I tired to reverse and couldn’t. I switched to compound low again; nothing. We were stuck deep.
Stepping out of the truck into the blowing sand, I could see that we were going nowhere. On the driver’s side, the back wheels were pushed to the very top of their wells and half buried in sand. On the passenger’s side, there was a two-foot gap between the top of the wheel and the bottom of the well, and it was likewise buried. The axle was completely obscured by sand.
Hiking. Greer and Bo guarded the truck and I began the hike towards Greer’s vehicle – also a Toyota SR5 (our expedition was not sponsored) – parked six or seven miles away. The plan was to return with her truck and use it to pull mine from the sandy quagmire.
After just four miles, at the trailhead for Harris Wash, I flagged down some hikers and they offered to give me to Greer’s vehicle. One of them had been stung by a scorpion and they were on their way to Escalante to find medical attention. I had a snake-bite kit and did first aid while be banged over the rough road. I wished them good luck, and they me.
Behind the wheel again, I started back with Greer’s truck, over the rocky and pitted road as far as Harris Wash, then down through the creek and up past the sign that warned travelers that the Red Breaks Road was four-wheel drive only.
Who was it that told me that that four-wheel drive just gets you stuck deeper, further from home?
As I drove Greer’s truck back towards my own, I noticed with some dismay that the tracks from my morning’s passing were already gone, blown over as more sand drifted across the pathway.
Down and around the stunted Juniper tree and up over the slick rock, I finally got to the place where my truck rested axle deep in the road. We hooked up a sturdy tow rope, and I got into my truck while Greer pulled with hers. Nothing. We were in too deep, and her four cylinder SR5 lacked the chutzpa to pluck mine from the desert’s greedy clutches.
Driving. We made our way in Greer’s truck over 40 miles of sand, rock, ruts and bad attitude and finally reached the asphalt and Escalante. We ate a pizza and drank coffee at the town’s only Espresso Bar – a sign of the times with the creation of the Monument attracting new business to this tiny town. And then we called the tow truck. Singular; there was only one.
Greer suggested offering one of the sturdy Escalante men, with a muscular Ford, Chevy or Dodge truck a hundred bucks to drive out into the desert and pull my dinky import from the clutches of the Monument. I always felt out of place in Escalante with so small, and so quiet, a truck. But I lacked the guts or brains to give this a try. The tow truck seemed so much safer.
That’s when Darrell showed up.
My first response was one of tremendous relief. The tow truck was massive. Its wheels – all six of them – were up to my shoulders! Good news, I thought, this rig will do the trick.
When Darrell emerged from the cab to discuss the particulars of the situation I noted that he looked ready enough. He smiled a wide grin and I noted that he was missing two teeth on top and two on the bottom, just about where you might land a well-placed punch. Excellent. He either fought enough not to care, or so rarely that he was really bad at it.
I drove with Greer, Darrell followed behind. We had to stop at the Conoco on the way out of town so Darrell could pick up a friend who could help with the job. That’s when I met Steve. Another affable chap, despite the fact that most of his teeth were present and accounted for.
When we got to where Greer and I were camped in her trailer dubbed the “Adventure Pod” I climbed in with Steve and Darrell, and we left Greer behind. No sense in getting two Toyota’s stuck. It’s not like there was a two-for-one sale on in Escalante that day.
We groaned along in low gear over the rocks and ruts of the road to Harris Wash. I inquired after the workings of the big rig, and learned that indeed it was four-wheel drive, but all the wheels that “drove” were in the back. The front two were for steering only. Then and there I should have seen the trouble brewing.
As we crossed the wash I was ruminated on cold beer, which I mentioned was in a cooler in the back of my truck. Darrell couldn’t drink, a condition of his recent parole from prison.
Further into the desert.
Down and around stunted juniper, blow sand accumulating quickly at the bottom of that swale, and up over the slick rock we ranged, the wind beginning to howl. By this time it was late afternoon. Sundown was just a few hours away, and ahead was the last long, straight stretch of sandy road before the steep decline, the wash and my truck. We drove headlong into sand, and stopped. The front wheels of the massive rig burrowed into the soft sand and the back wheels spun and we were rendered motionless.
The tow truck was stuck.
We clambered out and found some rocks and brush and used a couple of four-by-fours that Darrell had on the back of the truck for just this sort of situation and drove again. We made a solid four or five feet of progress and then down went the rig into the sand again, hub deep in the powdery grit.
Suddenly the couple of hundred yards between us and my Toyota seemed like the distance to the moon. For two hours we dug, hauled rocks, moved the four-by-fours, gunned the engine, lurched forward, dug in again, and repeated. Each time we made a few feet of progress. Once we drove twenty feet with loud raucous cheering before sinking back into the desert. We bonded.
We fixed bandana’s over our faces to keep the blowing sand out of our noses and hauled more rocks, reorganizing the desert as we went.
When we finally reached the Toyota it took all of a minute to pluck it from the Monument’s greedy fist. It popped out like a cork. I pulled the top from a couple of Mormon 3.5% microbrews and those of us not on parole enjoyed them, the watery suds washing the sand down our gullets.
We three stood side by side looking back over the road we had just spent several hours transforming. It looked as if it had been carpet bombed. The sandy ruts were churned up several feet deep from the tow truck’s massive tires.
“I can’t drive my truck over that road,” I said.
“Just drive it like they do in the commercials, man,” grinned Darrell.
I didn’t have the heart to tell these fellows that I had never actually seen a Toyota commercial.
I handed the keys to Steve.
I’ve never seen my truck do the things that Steve made it do that evening. Somehow he got it going fast enough to surf over much of the loose sand, and when he did get stuck once, he shifted into compound low so fast that the momentum of the truck seemed to propel it out of trouble again.
Darrell pointed the tow truck toward to the side of the road and roared across the desert, avoiding the hazard all together. I groaned at the thought of the hardworking men and women at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance ever learning of my malfeasance.
Then I remembered that I was standing in the desert, Steve was sitting behind the wheel of my truck, and Darrell behind the wheel of the tow truck. 40 miles from town. I hurried to catch up, congratulated Steve on an impressive display of manly driving, and resumed control of Toro Azul.
In the failing light and blowing sand we made our way back towards Harris Wash. But our misadventure was not complete. Remember the ‘down and around the stunted juniper’ part of the road? The down and around went fine on the way back, me in the lead and the boys following close behind, but as I gunned the Toyota on the uphill side (I was emboldened by Steve’s driving and the thought of what a Toyota commercial must look like) all the gear in the back of the truck slammed against the tail gate, which popped open, spilling my stuff in the middle of the road.
Run it over! I yelled, as Darrell piloted the tow truck around the Juniper. But he didn’t He stopped. And didn’t get started again.
More brush, more rocks, more deep and abiding guilt. It took us another hour to free the tow truck from the incline that it was marooned on. The winch came in handy. It’s amazing how sturdy stunted juniper trees are.
It was past 10 pm when we finally reached Greer’s Adventure Pod. She handed me what money she had and I drove on ahead of my new friends to Escalante, drinking 3.5 and singing the saddest Ian Tyson songs I could as the wind buffeted my Blue Bull.
At the town’s only bank machine I took out all the cash I could – Darrell could take neither cheque nor credit card – and paid nearly $500 US for the privilege of their assistance that afternoon. I gave them each a $20 tip – all the cash I had left – for their trouble. Then we parted. Muchacos.
I stopped at the Conoco for more beer, courtesy of Visa, and finally reached the Adventure Pod and my sleeping bag near midnight. As I closed my eyes I could feel the sand grating over my corneas. The following morning we drove back to town to shower and I deposited bright red sand from the Escalante Monument into the corners of my shower stall.
Two days later we were driving out to Egypt Point, over a washboard road, when my muffler, loosened by being buried in blow sand and unceremoniously wrenched from the desert, fell off and I drove over it.
But at least now my truck, braying like a jack ass, fit in around Escalante.
Rough Breaks on the Red Breaks Road was first published in I Sold my Gold Tooth for Gas Money, an anthology of adventure travel stories edited by Matt Jackson and published in 2006 by Summit Studios.
Greer’s book – Heart of the Desert Wild – was published in 2000. My Toyota SR5 blew a head gasket climbing a steep mountain pass and was sold for scrap in late 2004. Now I drive a 1993 Nissan 4×4, but for how much longer?
In the fall of 1993 I applied for a position with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) to volunteer, full-time, in one of America’s red rock canyon National Parks. My love affair with Edward Abbey firmly entrenched, and a couple of years of seasonal work with Parks Canada under my belt, I thought I was a good fit. I applied to Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks and waited for a call. Grand Canyon was my fourth choice, and I only included it because there were four spaces on the application. I didn’t really want to work there: After two summers in Banff, at busy Lake Louise, I was already developing a healthy distaste for what Abbey called “industrial tourism.”
I shared his sentiment that “there was a small dark cloud on the horizon [whose] name was progress.”
I feared that Grand Canyon would just be more of the same.
Of course, that’s where the SCA sent me. Their explanation was that because I wouldn’t have a car, stationing me in remote Arches or Canyonlands would mean I couldn’t get to town to buy groceries or beer. The beer part was my concern. Grand Canyon, they explained, had all the amenities I could want within walking distance.
Perfect, I thought. I purchased a ticket to Las Vegas, Nevada, which I thought must be the nearest airport to the Canyon (it wasn’t; Phoenix would have been far easier), and in October of that year, said goodbye to the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and flew south.
I arrived in Las Vegas and into a strange new world. I was twenty-two years old, and had spent some time on the east coast of America, in places like Boston, and rural Connecticut and Pennsylvania. That year I had even convinced a friend drive 6-hours out of the way to visit Home, Pennsylvania, the birth-place of Ed Abbey. There wasn’t much there except a cross-roads sign, but at least I could say I’d been.
But those foray’s didn’t prepare me for what I found in Vegas. The massive billboards in the airport cautioning me to relinquish my firearms were my first sign that I was no longer in Canada. I wasn’t packing, but kinda’ wished I was. I missed my shuttle bus for Flagstaff by mere minutes, so was forced to find a place to hang my hat for twelve hours before I could get a Greyhound into Arizona. I decided to drop my bags at a hostel and explore the city without my heavy pack on my back.
After trying unsuccessfully to sleep for an hour I set off to see what I could on foot. I spent a week in Las Vegas that afternoon. For someone who had just spent his second summer in the back country of Banff National Park, leading hikes and doing camp-fire talks, Vegas was a kick to the nuts. It was everything I’d ever heard, but revved up on speed. I got out alive, but not before leaving five dollars in nickels in the slot machines at the Sands and having a massive cola thrown at me by a passing car-load of college frat boys. My ninja skills kept me from being soaked.
Around midnight I collected my gear and hauled it to the bus depot and boarded a Greyhound that would take me as far as Kingman, Arizona. It was a congenial trip, with a nice girl sitting behind me, and I thought that if the rest of the trip went this well, I was in luck.
It didn’t. I wasn’t.
The transfer in Kingman happened at four am. That’s not an ideal time to get on a bus under any circumstances; when the bus you are boarding is being driven direct from LA to New York – five days of overland hilarity and mirth – then you, as the interloper, are pretty much screwed.
First off, everybody on the bus wanted to know who the jack-ass was who necessitated the stop in the first place. 43 sets of eyes glaring at me as I politely – excuse me, pardon me – made my way down the aisle, searching for a seat. I reached the back of the bus without finding one. The rear bench, next to the john, appeared to be only partially occupied. But the dark set of bloodshot eyes that peered menacingly at me from beneath a musty blanket were all the silent caution I needed. I looked to my left and found a seat directly in front of the loo. My seat mate, leaning against the window, was either in a booze-induced coma or was dead. To this day I’m not sure. Drool leaked down the window from his open mouth.
I sat down as the bus lurched back into the night. The lavatory behind me reeked of vomit and faeces and I soon realized that there was something under my seat. To my horror discovered a child asleep there. Curled up in a blanket was a girl not more than two or three years old. I looked around and discovered – I swear to God – four more children sleeping in various non-Department of Transportation approved locales, including the overhead luggage rack. I tried to settle in but feared that I might start an international incident if I stretched out my hiking-boot clad feet.
I didn’t sleep a wink between Kingman and Flagstaff, a trip that lasted another three hours. I later learned, while chatting in the bus depot with a fellow passenger, that the children belonged to five Hispanic woman who were traveling straight through from LA to New York. Five days. I got off lucky.
I had breakfast in the bus depot in Flag, and caught a shuttle to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the US Park Service was headquartered. As I passed through the tourist-hovel of Tusayan, I feared that my worst nightmare about the Grand Canyon had come true: that this plastic-and-Kleenex constructed dump was Grand Canyon Village. It wasn’t.
I was dropped off at the Visitor Centre (this was 19-years ago, before the new Visitor Centre was built). Even still, it was a nice, old, stone building that to my great relief wasn’t constructed of plastic or Kleenex. I presented myself, was welcomed by a straight-brim Stetson-wearing Ranger and shown to my accommodation. I was given a bicycle and told to report for duty the next morning back at the VC, if I could find my way back through the maze-like trailer park that was my new home.
I hadn’t slept for more than an a few minutes since leaving Canada thirty hours earlier, but there was one thing I had to do before I collapsed. I got on my bike and rode towards what I hoped would be the Canyon. It was late in the afternoon, and well into October, so the days were short and the light was fading when I found my way to the Rim. I came upon it quite by accident, and I learned quickly that this was the best way to experience the Grand Canyon.
In all my preparations to spend the winter in Arizona, one thing I hadn’t done was read much about the Canyon itself. I was glad, because what I saw stunned me speechless.
There was a space beyond the rim of the earth that was at once complexly empty and utterly full of light and colour and shape and sound. I sat down on a hump of rock a few feet from the edge of the canyon, where it dropped down one-thousand feet to the next sloping bench, and then fell further thousands to the Tonto Plateau – two-thirds of the way to the Colorado River – and just stared.
It was beyond description, and in many ways, still is. Nothing can prepare you for what you will see when you visit the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. There are so many shapes – domes, reefs, fins, buttes and buttresses of stone – making up the convoluted landscape inside the canyon, that the eye has nothing to rest on. I tried to take it all in, but was quickly over-awed.
The sun set and the diurnal light and colour show commenced, with thousand foot tall walls of limestone glowing orange and red while the dark core of the canyon – the Inner Gorge – where the Colorado River was slowing burrowing toward the center of the earth lay in brooding shadow. I remained stock still for more than an hour until the colour had drained away and the night had eclipsed the walls of stone and all that remained was the dim hum of the River far below.
It was my first Grand Canyon sunset, and every single night that I was stationed there I wove my way through the woods to the rim, hoping to recreate the feeling of surprise and wonder I felt when coming upon the place for the very first time. I came close often, but never duplicated the feeling that somehow everything I knew about the world’s magnificence had been cast into doubt and I had a new benchmark for majesty.
That’s when The Slickrock Paradox and the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series started. Aside from telling a good story, that’s what I want these books to be about: magnificence.
When I was starting off as a writer – seriously starting to think that writing was something that I wanted to do, and not just writing angst-ridden teenage poetry under street lamps – I wanted to be Edward Abbey. Not write like him: be him.
That was more than twenty-years ago. I had taken a summer job, after my first year (of two) of college, at a small Provincial Park called Murphy’s Point, an hour north of Kingston, Ontario. I was a student naturalist: I manned the small visitor centre, talked with people about the park’s plants and animals, especially the endangered black rat snake, and assisted with campground programs. One of the women who lived in the old Junior Ranger camp that served as park housing gave me a copy of The Fool’s Progress and I read it early in my season at the park.
It changed the way I look at the world. Not all of it for the better.
Now, twenty-one years after reading my first Edward Abbey book, I’m awaiting the release of The Slickrock Paradox, my mystery novel set in the south-western United States and inspired by the life and writing of Edward Abbey.
The Fool’s Progress is the thinly veiled autobiography of Abbey, alternately told in first person as Henry Hollyoak Lightcap and a third-person observer, as we watch the dying protagonist ricochet across the United States, from his adopted residence near Tucson, Arizona, to his ancestral home in the “smoky hills” of Appalachia.
It’s a brash, misanthropic, heart-wrenching read about a character who was born a hundred-years too late, and is at odds with nearly everything in his life: his procession of wives, his meaningless jobs, and the industrial society that is engulfing all that he loves; especially the canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. It was in the canyon’s that the fictional Lightcap spent a couple of summers as a Park Ranger and fire lookout, mirroring Abbey’s long on-again off-again career with the Park and Forest services in such places as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lee’s Ferry, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.
I loved every word. I recall sitting on the porch one rainy Saturday, listening to the CBC on a portable radio, drinking tea, and reading the hilarious opening scene of The Fool’s Progress, where Lightcap’s third (and final, he professes) wife leaves him for a computer engineer, and he gets snot-hanging, toilet hugging drunk, shoots his refrigerator and bakes a loaf of bread.
My days at Murphy’s Point were very much like those Ed Abbey described for his character when he took up his post at Arches National Park (then a monument), expect for me the locale was the mixed Carolinian forest of the Canadian Shield. I rose early and watched the sun rise. I started nearly every day with a paddle around Loon Lake, on which the old Ranger camp was perched. I donned the park uniform and proudly, if somewhat ineffectively, introduced visitors the natural history of the place. After work my friends and I swam in the 80-degree water of the lake and many lights I slept in a tent to escape the stiffening heat of the bunk house that summer.
At first I thought I was Henry David Thoreau, filling a 400-page notebook with observations on the mating habit of loons and my observations of giant snapping turtles, great blue herons, fox, beaver and nesting osprey. But as the summer wore on, there was less Thoreau on the pages and more Abbey.
In the middle of the summer I traveled from Murphy’s Point to Toronto to visit my girlfriend, who came up from her summer home near Sandusky, Ohio. It was a terrible trip: Toronto jarred my sensibilities, and lines from Abbey’s book about syphilization kept poisoning my impression of the world. I was grumpy (even more so than usual) and angry and only wanted to be back on the shore of Loon Lake.
I can’t blame Abbey for that: I was a grumpy bastard before I ever read him. But The Fool’s Progress didn’t help.
It did, however, introduce me to a whole new world, both in literature and geography. The next book I read by Abbey was (big surprise) Desert Solitaire. Arguably his most famous book, it’s the mainly true story of Abbey’s three seasons at Arches National Monument, and the surrounding wild country of the Four Corner’s region. I bought my copy at Banff’s Book and Art Den, and read it during my first summer as a Park Naturalist in Banff National Park.
That book, more than anything else, started my love-affair with the southwest. Two years later I applied to volunteer in the US Park Service through the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and was stationed at the South Rim of Grand Canyon. It hadn’t been my first (or even 2nd or 3rd) choice, but because I didn’t have wheels, they sent me somewhere I could walk to get groceries and to work. In the end, it was an extraordinary introduction to the canyon country. I hiked into the Canyon dozens of times. I was sent on a week-long raft trip down the Colorado River with the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies team. Three times I got out of bed around 2am and under a full moon hiked into the canyon to the Tonto Plateau (about 2/3rds of the way down from the rim to the river) to watch the sun rise and then hike up in time for breakfast.
And I read pretty much every other book by Abbey that winter, all borrowed from the tiny public library there on the South Rim.
I wrote my first work of fiction during that winter of 1993-94, sitting at my friend Greer Chesher’s computer. It was she, who after reading my work – an apocalyptic tale of father and son, set in the Rockies, and horrifyingly similar to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, except that the later is one of the best novels ever written, and my short story was abysmal – suggested that my fiction would be stronger if it actually had a plot. I took that to heart.
Later that winter, after my time at Grand Canyon had come to an end, I did a tour of the southwest, traveling from Flagstaff to Tucson to Las Cruses, New Mexico, into El Pasco, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and then up to Santa Fe. While I was in Las Cruses, I visited the achieves at the University of New Mexico and asked for all of the papers they had on Edward Abbey. I read stories published in obscure journals featuring an early incarnation of Hayduke, his bridge-blowing-up Wildman from The Monkey Wrench Gang.
I returned to Utah and Arizona many times between 1994 and 2002, doing month-long trips in Canyonlands, floating the lethargic Green River and hiking its arboreal side canyon’s and sleeping on its sandy beaches under the vast constellations.
Despite the fact that I wrote hundred’s of my own essays and articles – I was started to get published in small magazines and free journal’s around that time – I was never able to become Edward Abbey. Not even a Canadian version of him: a little more polite, without quite so much bile, and wearing a tuque most of the year.
And that’s probably for the best. The world only needs one Edward Abbey. His singular place in the canon of western literature can’t be mimicked. And besides, what every writer must eventually do is shed the influences of their heroes and find their own way of telling their story.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to find a way of honouring the role he played in exciting my love of writing and of the southwest.
In 2008 I was canned from my job at Royal Roads University where I was a Senior Development Officer for the Foundation. It was a syphelized job if there ever was one: I wore a tie to work most days, and tried to convince rich people to give the University money to help them build an art gallery and environmental education centre to honour the wildlife artist Robert Bateman. My position, along with a quarter of the other staff at the University, was cut during the recession of 2008.
The first thing Jenn and I did when I got the lay-off notice, and the fat severance package that accompanied it, was plan a trip to the southwest. And as I was seriously pursuing writing by then (my second book, The Cardinal Divide, was published in 2008, and the Darkening Archipelago was already in production) I decided that now was the time to create a novel that would take me back to the canyon’s that I love.
By the time our two-week trip was in the rear-view mirror, the Red Rock Canyon series had been mapped out. The protagonist, a Canadian named Silas Pearson, is searching for his wife, missing these three-and-a-half years, somewhere in the sprawling American desert around Arches and Canyonlands National Park. Penelope was working on a clandestine conservation project when she failed to return from a hike into one of the locales that Abbey wrote about. Pearson, an absent husband more interested in high-brow literature than the pedestrian Abbey, never paid much attention to his wife’s passion for wilderness and Cactus Ed’s ranting.
Until she disappeared.
Jenn and I visited Arches and Canyonlands, The La Sal Mountains, the North Rim of Grand Canyon, and the Escalante National Monument on that trip. Several days were spent just writing the outline of the first three novels in the series: The Slickrock Paradox, Black Sun Descending, and The Same River Twice. One afternoon I sat in a lawn chair at Cape Royal, watching the vast emptiness over the Grand Canyon, and writing dozens of pages of notes. Another was spent in the golden aspen forest on the North Rim, creating character sketches and plot lines. I would bounce ideas off my wife and she would ask me tough questions to help me firm up the outline.
When we returned, I wrote the first draft of the first book, and my publisher – TouchWood Editions – agreed to pick up the series, bless their souls. In September The Slickrock Paradox will be released.
The book is a murder mystery, and as my story editor constantly reminds me, the point is to create a compelling who-dunnit first and foremost. I think Slickrock accomplishes that. But beneath that drama is an ode to both a dramatic and inspiring landscape and the man who first introduced me to it.
Slickrock, among other people, is dedicated to Cactus Ed. The plot allowed me to use short passages from his various books – Desert Solitaire in particular and One Life at a Time, Please – to point my sleuth in the direction of his clues. But most importantly I was able to use what must surely be my favourite line of prose ever written. It’s from 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.”
There were many other things that inspired the Red Rock Canyon Mysteries, and over the next few months I’ll write about them here. But it was Edward Abbey who started it all, and it’s to Cactus Ed I owe my deepest literary gratitude. We never met – he died the year before I started reading his books – but if you’ve spent as much time crawling over the slickrock mesas and slithering through slot canyon’s as I have, you get to know him a little bit. He’s there in the rocks, down by the river, and up in the sky masquerading as a lonesome black soaring bird.
For updates on the release of The Slickrock Paradox follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the weekend Jenn and I spent time in Nanaimo and then Tofino promoting The Darkening Archipelago. In both towns I got a great response, and the weekend left me feeling a real sense of obligation to booksellers across Canada.
In Nanaimo I met with Father Alen and his wife Daphne who own Nanaimo Maps and Charts on Church Street. This downtown retailer is now expanding to make room for an impressive collection of general interest and west coast books. As is my habit these days, I went into the store to say hello and introduce myself and my books and the good Father and Daphne bought ten copies of the Darkening Archipelago and had them up in the window before I could say goodbye!
Next I met Richard at Back Page Books, a new shop on Wesley Street, just across the highway from downtown Nanaimo. He and his wife Ashley opened the shop in November and recently hosted my acquaintance and fellow Canmore, Alberta resident Jerry Auld whose book Hooker and Brown has been generating a lot of buzz and some amazing reviews. Richard and Ashley have a lovely shop, perfect for sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee and browsing their great assortment of local, national and international titles.
I even stopped at Chapters on the way out of town where I signed five copies of the DA and had a great chat with a sales manager. There’s enough love to go around.
Then it was onto Tofino and to spend some time with Michael Mullin who certainly ranks among my favorite booksellers across Canada (Frances Thorsen of Victoria’s Chronicles of Crime is hands-down my biggest supporter). As well as being an oyster grower, whale watching guide, former seine fisherman and environmental activist, Michael owns Mermaid Tales Bookshop. It’s a warm, inviting store with an amazing variety of books and toys and kites right on Tofino’s main drag. Michael hosted an evening reading for the Darkening Archipelago at Darwin’s Café in the Botanical Gardens’ on Saturday night which was a highlight so far in my efforts to promote this book, and the critical issues that create the backbone of the book’s environmental theme. In addition to Michael, George and Josie from the Garden’s, and Jenn and I, there were fourteen people at the reading, and Michael sold fourteen books. He tells me that’s a great ratio. Michael has taken a shine to Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, which makes me think that I should spend more time promoting that book as I have my more recent publishing efforts.
I left Tofino feeling pretty good about the weekend’s undertaking. It was the kind of weekend that makes me proud to be a writer: a receptive and interested audience, asking good questions and engaging in the conservation (and laughing at my corny jokes). And book sellers, who despite the reports of ruinous conditions in the trade are not only soldiering on, but are starting from scratch, promoting books about which they are passionate.
In short, it was the kind of weekend that makes me excited to be an author. It makes me want to work harder, both by writing better books and by doing more to promote them and the people who sell them. It makes me want to support those who make my efforts possible by taking the enormous economic risk to open and stock a book store full of wonderful titles. It makes me want to succeed, not just for my own sake and my families, but for them.
Two of my friends are on long walks right now.
Jason Meyers is walking the length of the Bruce Trail, a total of 885 kilometers, through some of the most lovely country remaining in Southern Ontario. He is joined by his partner, singer and songwriters Bri-anne Swan, who will be performing concerts along the way. Jason and Bri-anne’s odyssey is being under taken to raise awareness of and money for research into a cure for Multiple Sclerosis.
Alexandra Morton is walking down the length of Vancouver Island, having started by boat on Malcolm Island at the mouth of The Broughton Archipelago, and will arrive in Victoria on May 8th, after walking more than 450 kilometers and visiting dozens of communities along the way.
Alex is walking for wild salmon. Dubbed “the get out migration” she and dozens – and likely hundreds before she reaches her destination — of others are walking to send a clear message to Canada’s federal government: that open net fish farms are killing wild salmon. These wild creatures are the electric current that charge the Pacific coast. Hundreds of communities depend on them. The only acceptable solution is to get the salmon farms out of wild salmon habitat and onto land where they can be better controlled.
Both of these extraordinary people are pilgrims and I am enormously proud to know them.
Jason is a pretty close friend. We met in 2001 or 02 in Canmore, Alberta where Jason was working for a marketing company and I was working for a small conservation group called Wildcanada.net. Jason came on board as a volunteer to help us get our act together, giving us valuable insight into how to reach new markets with our conservation message. Shortly thereafter we hired him and I think his life went downhill after that. Now he has a thriving web strategy company called Five Stones and lives in Toronto. He has supported me through some pretty tough decisions and rocky times, and I am grateful for his devoted friendship.
He is one of the most earnest, loyal and hard working people I have ever met. He describes himself as “part technocrat, part gypsy, part mountain goat” and is happiest and most at peace while walking. Recently he walked the 900 kilometer Camino de Santiago trail in Spain and I’m pretty sure that journey changed his life. Both he and Bri-anne have people close to them who are affected by MS, and so the He Walks, She Rocks journey is dedicated to them.
I’ve only met Alex Morton once, at her home in Sointula, on Malcolm Island, where she was kind enough to take me in and feed me wild salmon while I was researching The Darkening Archipelago. Alex is the most passionate and reasonable voice I’ve ever met for salmon and the ecosystem that they bind together. She measures her ardor with a scientist’s eye for levelheaded insight into what is destroying our oceans and practical solutions for restoring it to health. She read and latter “blurbed” for the DA, and her insight made it a better book without a doubt.
That these two amazing people are walking, each for a cause that is close to their hearts and critically important, at the same time is no coincidence.
Pilgrimage is a part of most every major religion in the world. Muslims have Mecca, Jews have Jerusalem, Buddhists have the Bodi tree at Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. When we journey to these places, we do so for intensely personal reasons. While the outward journey may be one of self sacrifice, of faith, of community, the inward journey may be about compassion, devotion, and love.
It is this love that is needed so desperately now, at this perilous and profoundly opportunistic intersection in human evolution. When people are capable of such love for life, for friends, for family, for the wild earth that we are inextricably a part of, there is cause for hope, for joy, for our future.
Two people surrounded by many, each on a journey for something that they love. Join them.
The He Walks She Rocks journey: www.hewalkssherocks.ca.
The Get Out Migration: www.salmonaresacred.org.
The Darkening Archipelago has been set loose upon the unsuspecting world. My family and I launched the book at Frances Thorsen’s Chronicles of Crime bookshop in Victoria on April 8th, and then Jenn and I headed east to Alberta where I read at Pages on Kensington in Calgary on Monday the 12th and Cafe Books on Thursday the 15th.
What each of these events lacked in volume (Victoria had about 20 people, but Calgary and Canmore had just a handful each) they made up for in spirit. It was great to celegrate the release of my third book with friends and family.
In Calgary I got to see good friends Blaine and Sarah, and talk with them about Mito Canada, a non-profit organization that they have started to address mitocondrial disease, which struck their son Evan two years ago, leaving him severly disabled. I never, ever talk with these two amazing parents without feeling deeply inspired.
In Canmore I was able to read to some close friends who I worked with while serving on the Board of Directors of Yellowstone to Yukon from 1996-2004, and while working with Wildcanada.net from 1999-2005. I love Joy McLean’s amazing store Cafe Books, which is the last book store standing in the Bow Valley after shops in Banff and Lake Louise went under in the last year.
But the highlight of the week of promotion had to be homebase in Victoria, where my wife Jenn presented me with a cake decorated to look like the cover of the Darkening Archipelago, and where Rio stood up after my reading to announce to the intimate crowd that he thought I was a “very good writer” and that he had recently given his grade 2 teacher a copy of the book because they were studying wild salmon in class.
Finally, on the ferry returning across the Straight of Georgia last night, Jenn and I found a facing of the DA in the ship’s gift shop! Its good exposure for a book about troubled waters just to the north of this passage. Though I asked her not to, I was secretly delighted when Jenn let out a little sequel when we spotted the books. She can get away with it: I can’t.
I could care less if the Globe and Mail ever reviews my books so long as I have family who support what I do, and who think I’m a good writer.
OK, the Globe could pen a review too, if they want….
In October of 2008 my best friend Josh and I hit the road and drove north on Vancouver Island as far as Port McNeil. From there we took a ferry to Malcolm Island, and a few days later took another ferry to Alert Bay. I needed to develop a sense of place for The Darkening Archipelago, which at the time was well advanced in its journey toward publication. Having spent many days among the islands further south in the Straight of Georgia and Johnstone Strait, visiting some of the communities adjacent to the Broughton was an important part of the research for the book.
In writing The Darkening Archipelago, I choose a real landscape and real issues to set the story among. The Broughton Archipelago, and the salmon farming controversy that rages within its troubled waters is very real. But I was also aware that I would need to take creative liberties with the location and with the monumental challenges facing wild salmon and the communities that rely on them for survival to create a plausible story.
Early in the creation of the storyline for The Darkening Archipelago I decided that rather than set the crux of the story on an existing island — which would entail knowing that place very well, which wasn’t really feasible for me — that I would image a new one, and create it as pure fiction. I did so, christening it Parish Island and there created the community of Port Lostcoast, where Archie Ravenwing and his daughter Grace live. Like many communities throughout the knot of islands that pepper the BC coast, this one is a resource based community, eking a merge existence from the forests and the oceans that define this part of British Columbia.
Also like many of the communities that line the bays and inlets of the coast, Port Lostcoast is racially diverse; First Nations people are the majority, but a small white community also lives there. That First Nation, in fact, is also imagined. The Port Lostcoast Band and the “North Salish” people are fiction, and while I drew from the broad history of the region and the cultures it has spawned, don’t mistake my fictional representation in the book for the real, complex and animated culture that has lived among the Broughton for more than ten thousand years.
It was on my road trip with Josh that I decided to write the community of Alert Bay into the book. Until that point, several chapters of The Darkening Archipelago were to be set on the “big island” in Port McNeil. But I was charmed by Alert Bay, and the fact that it is a living example of an island that is half First Nations and half white made it all the more interesting to me from the perspective of plot development.
The all too real presence of the the ancient residential school – built in 1829 – which now houses the local Band Office, helped set some of the context for The Darkening Archipelago. Like so many First Nations people in Canada, Archie Ravenwing, and his father and mother before him, were taken from their families, robbed of their language, culture and identify, and raised by strangers in these institutions. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse, and all were subject to the emotional and mental cruelty that is tantamount to cultural genocide. The scars of that terrible period in Canadian history haunt First Nations people, and are a black mark on our progress as a country.
That the residential school in Alert Bay now houses the Band Office, and forms the backdrop to traditional totem carving efforts, dug-out canoe projects, and the U’mista Cultural Museum is a testimony to the real First Nations of the Broughton Archipelago’s resilience, spirit, and sense of place.
In addition to being charmed by Alert Bay, I was likewise charmed by my short time with renowned wild salmon activist Alexandra Morton. It is to her that the spirit of The Darkening Archipelago belongs. During my visit to Malcolm Island Josh and I had dinner with Alex – wild salmon of course – and we spent the evening talking about her experiences taking on the salmon farming industry, exposing the plague of sea ice that infest these waters, and continuing to root herself in her own sense of place.
My own sense of place for The Darkening Archipelago is as much a feeling as it is fact. It is a landscape of myth and magic, or powerful totems and ancient cultures. It is home of Ulmeth, grandfather raven, and of the Salmon people, who for Milena have co-existed with the wild salmon of the Broughton Archipelago in a way that allowed both to thrive. It is the islands fridged with tattered clouds and mountains that rise up from the green waters of Knight Inlet to rip the sky. It is a place real, it is a place imaged, it is a place for things precious and wild and one on the very brink of their existence.
This material is from the Back of the Book section of The Darkening Archipelago: A Cole Blackwater Mystery. You can listen to me read this material and the rest of the back of the book by clicking here.
The Cole Blackwater mysteries were conceived during a rain-soaked trip to Costa Rica in the fall of 2003. Before the metaphorical ink for the plot of the first book had dried, I began to think about what other kinds of trouble Cole might find himself in.
Cole Blackwater is, in the words of his drinking buddy, Dusty Stevens, an environmental crusader — a champion of lost causes. But the greatest compliment anybody gave me after The Cardinal Divide was released was that the environmental message was “subtle.” Because, first and foremost for me when writing the Cole Blackwater series is the plot. If the book is to be just a thinly disguised polemic on environmental and social justice issues, then I may as well just write essays. That said, the Cole Blackwater mysteries are an avenue for bringing important issues facing the future of our society, and our planet, to a new audience. As I continue to develop this series, I find no shortage of subjects to choose from.
In 2003, when I first pieced together The Cardinal Divide, I was working for a small national conservation organization called Wildcanada.net. One of the campaigns we championed was called “Farmed and Dangerous.” On behalf of the Living Oceans Society we helped people take action to ensure a future for wild salmon and stop massive new salmon farming operations from being developed along the bc coast. I began to wonderwhat the illustrious/altruistic Cole Blackwater might have to say about salmon farming, and how he could get involved in the effort to rid the province’s coastal waters of these death traps for wild salmon.
Before I even had a plot, I knew the title: The Darkening Archipelago. The archipelago in question is the Broughton — ground zero for the explosive growth of salmon farming in bc. From the very beginning, I knew that this book would relate an ominous story indeed. The Darkening Archipelago maps out a race against time and overwhelming odds to keep both human souls and wild ecosystems from falling into unending darkness. But it is also a story about redemption. The three protagonists in the story — Cole, Nancy, and Archie Ravenwing — all contemplate their belief at some point in the power of redemption. None of them reach any conclusions.
That is the “what” of the story process. Here is the “how”: during the summer of 2006 I received the gift of time from my friend Joel Solomon. He helped me spend a week at the Hollyhock Retreat Centre on Cortes Island, away from ringing phones and petty distractions, like the need to feed myself. There I sequestered myself in the tiny upstairs library. On massive sheets of butcher paper I drew out a twenty foot long storyboard for The Darkening Archipelago. In the afternoons I would sit on the beach and review what I had written, and work on character development and narrative. The whole story took shape before my eyes. The three converging plot lines featuring Cole, Archie and Nancy formed separate chapter “bubbles” which, two thirds of the way through the book, coalesced into one nar-rative arc.
Because of this preparation, I was able to sit down and pen the first draft of The Darkening Archipelago in January and February of 2007. During a paroxysmal period of scribbling I wrote 310 pages and 90,000 words in 28 days. As winter slowly ebbed on the “wet coast,” I took advantage of the pivot towards spring and the burst of energy it brought, and sometimes rose as early as 4 am to write.
There are many factors that contribute to such voluminous outbursts. It would be another six months before I heard from NeWest Press that the first book in the series, The Cardinal Divide, would be published. The creation of a second book in a series that was yet to have its first volume accepted for publication was an act of pure faith.
But having just received some excellent feedback on The Cardinal Divide from Victoria bookseller Frances Thorsen, I spent the first couple of weeks of the new year editing for the eight or ninth time the entire manuscript. That got me pretty excited about the characters — Cole and Nancy in particular — and I wanted to see what might happen to them in the second book of the series.
While the first draft of The Darkening Archipelago took shape very quickly, it took two more years to finish it. The version I finally submitted to NeWest for publication was draft number nine or ten — I lost track. But every single time I sat down to work on the manuscript was a pure joy.
I owe a lot to Joel Solomon and Hollyhock for the time and space they have given me to work on what I think is important and helpful in this troubled world. You can support other artists, writers, activists and business leaders by donating to the Hollyhock Scholarship Fund held by The Tides Canada Foundation. This fund makes it possible for many individuals to visit Cortes Island and Hollyhock every year.