In the summer of 1992 we pushed off from shore late in the afternoon of a long early August day, and paddled down the Columbia. Myself (about 9), my Brother, and Dad in one canoe, and our neighbour GG and his son CG in theirs. We started down the Lake, in the light chop of boats, past the last of the cabins and Pete’s Marina. At that point the mouth of the River started to draw us along and the paddling became easier. Around one bend, the sound of boats and cars was no more, there was just the river, a baking hot day, birdsong from the wetlands on either side.
A beautiful bald eagle high up in a mighty fir on the right bank, that may have been the first bald eagle I had seen, on that trip I remember counting three, the Columbia wetlands were then, as now, a superb habitat for birds. The water that flows from the lake is clear and warm, but I remember the water getting muddied with grey silt starting right at the where Toby Creek flows in, cold, freshly melted and unsettled.
We needed somewhere to camp. The River is mostly bordered on both sides by wetlands that don’t afford much in the way of a high and dry spot to pitch a tent and have bunch of kids run around. It was getting time to camp, and we charged up the churning Horsethief Creek. I remember pulling hard on the paddle at my Dad’s urging as we follows the G’s canoe onto a sandbar some ways up the Creek. We parked the canoes and waded across the kneedeep water to check out the wetlands on the North side of the Creek. The bugs were instantly all over us, that would be no fun for camping. However, the sandbar, having no vegetation or standing water near it, was bug free. We decided to make camp.
The first thing we did as kids was dig a latrine. This we did on the narrow upstream point of the sandbar, which was perhaps 80 feet in length, and fanned out towards the downstrem end. The Dad’s set up the tent, a big blue wall tent, in the middle of the sandbar. We shot the bb gun and made a fire. Then we went to sleep.
When I woke up in the morning, the sand was dark and wet and the sandbar seemed to have a slightly different shape to it. Apparently, we had to get up three times in the night and drag the tent to higher ground. It was touch and go and we almost had to bail into the canoes, as the glacial melt of the day had reached our point in the creek in the middle of the night. I was so zonked from the long day on the water that I didn’t even know about this until years later, without exaggeration I was sleep walking moving the tent in the middle of the night with everybody else.
We ate breakfast and left the sandbar, the current of Horsethief Creek giving us quite a push back into the main stem of the Columbia, which was further silted and cooled. I remember behind approximately Dry Gulch, where old cars had been run down a steep hill for kicks and abandoned to rust out. Nine year old me thought this was the best thing ever. I think a few old wrecks are still out there like that, though people don’t really do that so much any more. This was back in the time when the dump wasn’t open sundays and there was a tippage fee, so people would shove old refrigerators and couches of the hill at the back of town, out of sight out of mind, back when there was a shanty town up the Toby beyond the industrial park in Athalmer, where people lived in tiny shacks made of whatever they could put their hands on, we called it ‘Hillbilly Heaven’ and it brought an odd sort of wonder and incomprehension to a young lad.
We made it to the bridge across the River at Radium where we were supposed to meet our ride. I remember waiting there and shooting a fishing spoon that was tangled up in telephone wires above the river. I still remember connecting with that lure, a shimmering bluish white with a red streak. We drove back and stopped in Radium at the grocery store. GG went in and said, I’m going to get you boys a treat. We were famished from the camping and paddling, and my mouth was watering at the thought of a Mars bar. When he came back he had green apples for us, and said this is a real healthy treat. I remember being disappointed at the sour taste but taking the underlying wisdom and humour to heart.
This is a trip I look back on often. When you are young there is adventure around every corner. I remember coming back from a movie in town in the Winter, and looking up at the infinite stars, the cold winter night quiet, across the Lake, the vast forested Purcells, where I believed wolves lived. Back then, it felt like a new frontier, we saw nobody on the river. Now that’s an easy afternoon trip. The Purcells, the mountains, I have been deep into on foot, I know where the roads are, have been to the ghost towns, the old mines, have been to Jumbo Pass, have climbed, camped, skiied and scrambled, have been to the other side of the pass, Kootenay Lake, and so on. Exploring the world in some ways closes off the frontiers with understanding, maturation, a sense of your abilities and the demands of the world. You look across the Lake and know there is a road, know that there is a ski resort on the other side of the mountain, on the far other side of the pass, a road, a town. In some ways there are no frontiers left, striving to find them means risking death and is really a job for a youth that is already slipping from your fingers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel the adventure if you look with the right kind of eyes.