This blog recently auto-renewed itself. Had I been thinking ahead I might have returned the blog to a free state. Now I feel as though I need to make use of my inadvertent purchase. Like a new year’s resolution I move forward with naive determination. I’ve found myself ruminating on youthful experiences lately. The following is one of those. As I nag my children to get outside, to be adventurous, to put down their devices I’m drawn to my own childhood. Those were days of the Sega and Nintendo but we couldn’t download games from the cloud. We collected enough pop-bottles to cash in at the store for the deposit money. We walked clear across town to the video store and rented games that we played for as long as the rental allowed. I am left with a sense of nostalgia and longing for the 90s. Will my children tell stories like these?
Today is Pioneer day and a holiday here in Utah. It marks the entry of the saints into the Salt Lake Valley and coincidentally the day I arrived home from my two year mission. It is an auspicious day, indeed. I’ve learned that some Utahns are near sick of the pioneer stories and one can hardly blame them. We tend to drag out the same stories year after year. It turns out there are many stories we’ve neglected as a result. If you are interested in Mormon history in the slightest I highly recommend the Pioneers in Every Land series on the Church history website.
That said, this is one of those traditional pioneer stories with wagons, persecutions, and walking… so much walking. I won’t apologize for it. This is a story of my direct ancestors. Separated as we may be by several generations their choices still reverberate through my life. Their stories are still very much mine.
Five generations ago my parents were refugees. They’d been refugees before and they would be again. They were driven by mobs in Missouri twice. Homes were burned, crops destroyed or stolen, and they, their friends, and families harassed and forced at the point of bayonet into Illinois and onto the banks of the muddy Mississippi. It must have been a desperate sight, this beleaguered group of settlers spread out in hovels and makeshift tents, sick with cholera and malaria. One might be tempted to call them a broken people.
Their prophet leader was imprisoned on false charges in a jail poorly named, Liberty. In a cell too low to stand up straight, covered by thin blankets at night, and weighed down by the knowledge of his people being scattered and smitten by the hand of a wicked and unforgiving people he, Joseph, pled:
Oh God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? D&C 121:1-2.
God would buoy him up and he would emerge from that prayer and those six months imprisonment to lift his people from despair. The saints, as they were called, drained the mire and built a beautiful city, Nauvoo. My parents were there toiling to build Zion, a city of peace and prosperity where even the bells of the horses, they imagined, would ring with holiness to the Lord. In spite of the well known opposition many flocked to the city of the saints for a chance to live among them and worship the Lord.
In the midst of that town the saints would erect a temple. It was an ambitious enterprise for a people so poor. Yet, they were determined to build a House of the Lord. They were not content to wait till death to live with God, rather, they would invite Him into their city and into their lives. To the saints God was not an abstract idea or an impersonal being beyond the comprehension of humanity. Their God was a personal being, an approachable Father. Like Moses at mount Sinai or Peter on the water they felt called, and so they gathered. A swamp is no place for deity, only a temple would do.
This is where we meet my many-great grandfather, Robert Egbert, working on the construction of the temple. He was 24 years old. It is here, too, at the unfinished temple that he would meet 17 year old Seviah Cunningham. We know nothing of those meetings but we can imagine; Robert labouring under the humidity of the mighty Mississippi and Seviah in a full length dress and bonnet aghast at her perspiration. Did she carry water to the men building there? Or was it not such a Hollywood scene. Was her back bent with the swinging of a hammer, her hands blistered with the friction of a horse hair rope? Certainly, that relationship began with stolen glances and smiles. Perhaps they talked during breaks and meals about their ambitions and dreams. Undoubtedly, they spoke of this temple they built and of the lives they hoped to build with it. Good lives.
They were married in early April 1846. They’d finish that temple under guard and when it was done they’d walk away from it to become, once again, refugees.
You’ll need just a bit more context to really understand this story. The saints had been driven from one place to the next for over a decade and they had repeatedly sought redress and assistance from state and federal governments. Joseph Smith himself travelled to Washington to lay the problem before President Van Buren and Congress. It all proved futile. The federal government refused to intervene citing states’ rights and in this case the state was the abuser. There would be no assistance.
Joseph the prophet and his brother Hyrum the patriarch were soon gunned down by a wicked mob. So it was that the saints, broken and poor, streamed out of their beautiful city under the leadership of Brigham Young. They were heading west into Mexico and points yet to be determined. Such a venture would require money, of which, they had precious little. They were leaving behind farms and houses, shops and schools and a granite temple to be used to shelter farm animals. Though, the saints were not wholly friendless. Assistance came in a peculiar way.
The United States had declared war with Mexico and wars require soldiers. It just so happens that soldiers get paid. Thomas L. Kane, a Mormon sympathizer and by all reports an honourable and decent man, worked with John C. Little to convince President Polk that the Mormons would be better in the United States army than fighting against it. Polk would authorize the recruitment of a Mormon Battalion to fight in his Mexican American War. The proposal was made to Brigham Young and he, undoubtedly, saw the hand of God in the offer. About five hundred men were recruited and advances were made on their pay. Brigham promised the men that as long as they remained faithful none of them would be required to fight. They would, however, complete the longest overland march in US military history, from Iowa to San Diego, over 2000 miles.
Robert was among those five hundred recruits. He left his young bride at Council Bluffs in Iowa to await his return. It must have been a heart wrenching departure. So often in her short 17 years had Seviah seen her dreams snatched from her hands. At about five years old her mother died. A year later the family joined the Church in Oxford, Ontario Canada and soon emigrated to Missouri to join the gathering saints. By the time of Robert’s necessary enlistment she’d been a refugee three times and had suffered the loss, one way or another, of all her loved ones. Seviah’s father had tried to persuade her not to follow Brigham Young into the wilderness but her faith had outgrown her familial ties. She had left her family for Robert’s and like Ruth to Naomi had made covenants, “for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” Ruth 1:16.
Yet here at the edge of the frontier Robert had to leave her with only the hope of a distant reunion. We consider the story of Job and marvel at the faith required in the words “the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Seviah, it would prove, had the strength and faith of Job. She would not wait for Robert’s return. She was going to Zion.
With the assistance of Robert’s brother, Joseph, she harnessed her oxen and prepared the wagon. She drove that team herself not as a refugee but a pioneer.
No one is all stoicism and strength. Those people don’t exist. So Seviah found herself somewhere on the prairies driving her oxen onward and losing a battle with a deep sadness. The tears that dropped from her chin and splattered on the reigns fell like silent prayers for relief. As she cried she noticed a man approaching the opposite direction and tried to hide her swollen face as he passed.
He hailed her and asked if she were not the wife of Robert Egbert. Surprised, she replied that she was. He handed her a letter from Robert which she gratefully accepted. She recognized Robert’s handwriting and cherished every word. The letter told her that he was well and would meet her at the Sweet Water River. She carefully placed the letter in her apron and drove on with renewed hope. Later that day Seviah went to read the letter again but it was nowhere to be found. It was a terrible loss but the letter was all she needed in a moment of painful weakness.
Robert and the rest of his Mormon Battalion remained faithful. by the time they reached the coast the war was over. True to Brigham’s prediction they never joined a battle. Their soldier’s pay sustained their families and supported the saint’s exodus. Released from their obligations they turned to Zion. Robert, I’m sure, was anxious to get back to his young wife and at last begin the life they had hoped for. He’d left her in Iowa, it would be a long walk. At some length he arrived at the Sweet Water River. A party of immigrants had also arrived and he thought to greet them before pressing on to Iowa where he was sure Seviah remained. Soon he saw an ox team that looked quite similar to his own. He tentatively approached the wagon and to his great joy found Seviah very pleased to see him.
Robert apologized for not having had an opportunity to write in the nearly two years they’d been apart. This naturally confused Seviah. She had received a letter and it had told her he would meet her here at this very river. Neither could explain it but they were both grateful for such a tender mercy.
Life would not be easy. Carving a livelihood out of a desert beyond all civilization must have been daunting. However, Seviah’s father soon joined them in their new Zion. Perhaps he had been inspired by his daughter’s faith. Their story doesn’t end here. Under the direction of Brigham Young they were sent on, some years later, to settle in California only to find themselves driven from that state too. Seviah and Robert would go on to have 8 children. The sixth of which would be my great-great grandmother Sarah Catherine Egbert.
We look back on these intrepid ancestors and think pioneer not refugee. We think builder not beaten and victorious not victim. Their lives were filled with hardship and deep sorrows but it seems they had higher joys. They drunk from bitter cups without in turn becoming bitter and their children’s children have reaped the benefits of their faith.
Egbert, Seviah Cunningham. (Circa 1913). Seviah Cunningham Egbert Biographical Sketch. Dictated to Carrie Despain before 1913. (Manuscript). Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
Metcalf, Brandon J. (2018). Four things to know about the journey of the Mormon Battalion: An expedition of faith and sacrifice. Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed May 23, 2018 from https://history.lds.org/article/historic-sites/journey-of-the-mormon-battalion?lang=eng
I’d been chasing that little red blinking light for a couple kilometers. A three quarter moon was shinning brightly and the once inky black sky was giving way to infinite deep blues. My last leg of Ragnar Wasatch Back was a little mind numbing. It followed an old train track with less than a 2 percent incline. I beat back the monotony by chasing down the little red lights flashing in the distance. Each runner is required to wear a taillight.
I could see the finish line grow larger as I approached but that little red light wasn’t going to make it there before me. I turned up the speed slightly. Soon I was pulling in beside this last runner, his Ear Pods protruding from his head, his breathe in time to some silent beat. A few hundred meters away and I felt bad about passing the poor guy so close to the finish. Would his last memory of this epic race be my back flashing past him to sour his victory? “Let’s go! Don’t let me pass you right at the end!” I called.
He seemed to come to, to shake out of his dull cadence. He put on a burst of speed and I pushed harder. We seemed to drop through successive gears as we pressed our acceleration. The crowd at the finish line loved it as we barreled through shoulder-to-shoulder breathing hard and having fun. This was a near repeat of a scene from Ragnar Zion. In fact, it ended the same way. Where was my team? There was no one there to pass on the baton to. Could this really be happening again?
I called our team number. I called the name of my next runner. Nothing. Just as before the crowd thought this was just as enjoyable as whipping my opponent across the finish line. Their absence was my own fault. It was cold and my body was miserable at the start line so I estimated I’d be rather slow. A near flat 7.9 kilometers in my current shape and attitude might take me 50-55 minutes. I had no plans to run hard. I crossed the line in a little more than 41 minutes. Still slow but much faster than I imagined I’d be. In the end we burned up at least 5 minutes before the team realized I was there already.
Ragnar Wasatch Back is a different beast than Ragnar Zion. Our team of 12 was split across two vans. Where the trail run had us all start and end in the same spot Wasatch Back is a point-to-point race. Race teams elaborately decorate their support vehicles but no amount of bling would mask the odor of a can of ripe runners. I barely knew any of these folks before we started. They all know me a little more than they’d probably like to now.
Ragnar didn’t disappoint. The atmosphere was party like. The trail was stunning and the test was formidable. The many legs of the course made it possible to customize the run to the skill level of each runner. Our less seasoned runners could take the 2-5 mile legs or the down hill portions and those with a little more grit the 6-9 mile legs and torturous uphill. One 7-mile hill was so grueling the race provided a special medal for the runner from each team who tackled it. In our case this was the team captain and he dominated that hill. I was impressed. Next year that thing is mine.
We had a fellow on our team who stepped in last minute for us. He took the place of two runners. His first leg was more than a half-marathon and he’d end the event having covered more than 26 miles. I hammered out an easy 15 miles and my legs are still very annoyed with me a few days later.
I was also added to this team at the last minute. I didn’t tell the team I’d be making this post so I won’t list the names of the team members here but I’ll say that it was a fun group of writers, editors, historians, students and this lone librarian, so, a bunch of nerds. Our team name is a play on an obscure quote of Joseph Smith’s though less obscure since the publication of Richard L. Bushman’s acclaimed biography of Joseph by that title, Rough Stone Rolling. We were the Rough Stones Running. Sufficiently nerdy, I’d say.
I thought I’d be able to say which race I preferred (Zion or Wasatch, road or trail). Turns out, I enjoyed both of them on their own merits. If I take my kids in the future it will probably be to the Zion trail run. I think it’s much less dangerous. Though, I’d be up for another Wasatch Back anytime.
Things that could be improved on:
- Better finish line management. So often the finish lines were crowded with spectators and it was hard to tell exactly where to stop or transition
- Something besides water at aid stations. You pay a good deal for these races. I feel like there could be more food and freebies along the way
- Food trucks at the busier transitions. That epic hill run could have used a handful of food trucks – so many people
- Double the number of portable toilets at those busy transitions too
Things that I really liked about the race:
- Being packed into a van was actually good fun – road trip!
- People really got into it and the sportsmanship was inspiring
- Some great scenery on the trails
- The high-school gyms that allowed for sleeping and showering. Those were awesome. Sleeping on a mat in a gym isn’t really great but it did look like a makeshift morgue dealing with a pandemic – which was kind of cool (only because it wasn’t actually a make shift morgue)
- They’ve got great medals
I caught the Frontrunner train out of Salt Lake to Provo after work on Thursday. A borrowed backpack with its sleeping mat strapped to the side and a sleeping bag hanging from my arm painted a strange juxtaposition to my white shirt, tie and polished dress shoes. On the way out my colleague commented I looked like a business hobo. It’s a good look for me I think.
A couple hours later the son-in-law of an old friend, Harri, from Dubai picked me up at the train station. Aside from Harri I’d never met anyone else on our 8 man Ragnar team. I’d spend the night at this stranger’s place before making the 5 hour drive to Zion National Park and the relay trail running race I was easily talked into.
Turns out I’d be the most experienced runner on the team but a good bunch of guys nonetheless. One of the team had come down sick so we were short a body to make a full team. The race officials were chill about it. We simply added a “shadow runner” which would take us out of the competition but we were never really in it from the start. Our only competitors were ourselves.
That missing member moved me up in the relay. Instead of an early evening run I’d start on the red loop at about 3pm and the worst of the heat of the day. Let me back up a moment and explain how this race works. There are 3 loops of progressive difficulty (green, yellow, red) all starting and returning to the same point. Your team only ever has one person out running at a time. Based on your current runner’s loop and ability you can estimate the time of return and the next runner’s start. When a runner reaches about 400 meters from the finish they cross a RFID mat which relays their imminent return to TV monitors in the start line tents. There teammates wait anxiously for the appearance of their team name so they can enter the start gates, and put on a colored arm bracelet indicating the loop they’d run. The teammate coming in removes a race belt with the RFID bib number and passes it on to their teammate before heading out on the trail.
Each runner runs each loop. My team’s skill level meant that I’d have about 6 hours between runs. My first run landed on the red route, the longest and most grueling. It would have been a challenging but enjoyable run had I not been out in the heat. That heat was powerfully oppressive. The trails were a mix of single and 4 wheeler tracks with a few sections of dirt roads.
The first mile floated away easily but then the terrain rose sharply through the pine where the dusty track exposed the veins of those trees and the rocky bones of the mountain beneath it. Runners of every sort tackled the trail. Women and men of every body type some pushing hard up the long hills and others nearly crawling up it, sweat matting their hair, and their breath deeply labored. Brave to be out here, I thought.
The trail would climb nearly 750 meters and most of that within the first third of the loop (about 4 kilometers). The hill forced me into a walk many times. It finally spit me out onto a long ridge with impressive views of beautiful semi-arid desert valleys. Signs encouraged runners to stop for selfies but I couldn’t be bothered. The valley was impressive, inspiring even, but that picture could never do justice to the living sight of it. I’d take mental images and file them away with the thousands of others only glimpsed by intrepid adventures. Besides, it was hot and I wasn’t hanging around in the sun any longer than I needed to.
The remainder of the loop was a roller coaster trail down the mountain and passing through, at the valley bottom, the tents of the thousands of Ragnar runners camped out for the weekend. My adopted team cheered me on as I ran past.
I pushed hard through the last 1000 meters of the 12k loop. I passed my race bib to Jake, Harri’s son-in-law, and then collapsed into a chair in the shade of the race tent. Volunteers filled my water bottles and brought me a cold wet cloth for my neck. I lingered there in that chair working to bring my body temperature under control. I was hovering on the edge of heat exhaustion, I could feel the edges of it like an old familiar friend. Much like you know the approach of your father or other loved one by the sound of their foot falls or the pattern of their breathing before they come into view, heat exhaustion and her sister heat stroke were approaching quickly. I hid in the shade and covered myself with cold water. I was grateful that the loop had not been any longer. I don’t think I could have out run them had it been. I completed that 12 kilometers in about 81 minutes. Not a great time but given the terrain and the heat I was happy with it.
I now had about 6 hours before I’d run again. There were 425 teams (4-8 people per team) out running. That many people meant the event had a carnival like feel. The race fee included a dinner which I gladly devoured with my team. I was grateful for the showers in the park and doubly grateful that I managed to walk straight into one of these showers without standing in a line. I caught it at the right time – there seemed to be a perpetual line there for the remainder of the event.
I managed an hour’s rest in the tent before making my way back to the start line to head out on the yellow loop. It would be a little after 10 before I’d start. With a borrowed head lamp I cautiously moved into the night. The cool air was heavenly. This yellow loop followed a trail along the inside of the red loop which made the route shorter (about 7 kilometers) but it also meant the first third of this trail would make a staggering climb up to the ridge of a great hill. The steepness was greater than even the red loop but the cool air was invigorating and I bounded to the top.
At the top, along the ridge, the trail snakes through desert scrub. I asked another runner aloud, “who put this beach here?” The trail was soft sand and it swallowed your shoes and stole your strength. Up and down along the ridge I went. Cresting a hill I dared for a moment to remove my eyes from my feet. The trail dropped before me along the ridge and then snaked its way up and up over the next hill. Evenly spaced along the route moved headlights strapped to struggling runners. It reminded me of a late night pilgrimage to the top of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. What were these pilgrims seeking?
The rest of this course went nearly completely down. A single track of soft sand wound down the mountain to the finish line. I don’t have the best depth perception so was being uncharacteristically cautious. Then I looked at my watch. I’d been running for 31 minutes and I had about 3 kilometers to go. Harri had completed this loop earlier in the day in about 48 minutes and I suddenly intended to beat that time. I abandoned much of my caution and lengthened my stride.
I was smiling. This was immense fun and I seemed filled with boundless energy. I poured it all out. I was feeling that elusive runner’s high and I relished it. Soon I was crossing that 400 meter marker and I really poured it on. The finish line was before me and so was a young lady who hearing the fall of my approaching footsteps quickened her pace. A challenge, I smiled and egged her on. “Let’s go” I said. “Dig deep!” She did. In the last 50 meters I was just behind her and the crowd was erupting with our enthusiastic finish. I could not help it. I bellowed behind her, “come on!” She answered by driving forward and we entered the finish line to the cheers of an amused crowd. She gave me a quick thanks as we looked for our running mates.
Where was Jake? He wasn’t there to claim the race bib and I waited impatiently. It wasn’t uncommon for runners to miss their handoff. I waited for ten minutes and then left the race bib at the announcer’s table with a handful of others and began to head back to camp to see if I needed to wrestle him out of bed. I met him about half way there coming up to the start line. They’d been watching for me to pass the camp before he’d head up. I guess I was traveling rather fast as they hadn’t seen me run by. Eventually he figured he’d missed me and started to head to the line.
I was still experiencing a terrific runner’s high. I felt like I could run it all over again. Instead I cracked a bottle of coke, found a chair and rode out the remainder of my high before washing my feet and crawling into a warm sleeping bag. I’d rolled in with a time of about 46 minutes. I’d won… though Harri wouldn’t know it, I knew it, and that was enough.
I rolled out of bed at 5am and headed to the start line. The others would take a little longer than we’d hoped. I hung out at one of the campfires near the start line chatting with other runners until about 7:30am. The air was chilly but I stripped down to a single layer as Harri came into the start tent. I traded my bag for the race bib. I was ready to crush this final race. It was about 5.5 kilometers and I’d heard it was relatively tame but for some tricky switch backs in the last mile. The trail was largely soft sand that stole your power like water to a sponge. I did what I could to regulate my breathing and to enjoy the feeling of power flowing through my body.
It was a quick run, though it still took a little more than 27 minutes. Jake took the race bib and headed out on our team’s final run. A good weekend that could only be made better with the presence of my family… and maybe if I’d brought a towel.
I’d recommend a Ragnar trail run. It’s a party like atmosphere coupled with a shared adventure. I expect I’ll be back next year and am already hoping Jaron will be ready to join the team.
I should have known something was wrong when I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. I skipped breakfast and I knew that was a mistake. Adventures like these require fuel for the body, a steady supply, and I was starting out on the wrong foot. Brenton pulled up to my place a little after 7am and we loaded up our sleds for the 3 hour ride to the Bowron Lake Chain. The sleds contained everything we’d need for the 5-6 day round trip of this chain of lakes and rivers nestled in the Cariboo mountains. When we made this trip 2 years ago we had a third man, Greg, and our sleds averaged about 80 pounds a piece. This year it would just be the two of us and our sleds both came in at about 70 pounds. We wondered aloud what we might have forgotten. Nothing really, experience tends to lighten the burden of any adventure.
It was a little after 10am when we pulled into Bear River Mercantile. We stopped and chatted with the always friendly proprietor, Sandy. Last time we staged our adventure from here. We spent the night in one of their rustic cabins before heading out on the chain early the next morning. This time we’d go straight at it. We knew this would bring us into the distant, 24 kilometres distance to be exact, Moxley Creek trapper’s cabin a little after dark but we know the terrain well enough that the dark is easily cured by headlamps. Besides, the moon would be a waning full and reflecting off the untouched white canvas lakes. The dark wouldn’t be a problem.
We parked the truck at Bear River Mercantile having dropped our gear a few hundred meters up the road where the provincial park begins and the snowplows end. Giddy with excitement for the adventure ahead we pulled on our snow shoes and clipped into our sleds. 120 kilometres of lakes, rivers, and trails lay ahead of us filled with the familiar and the unknown. Sunsets that fill a man with awe, starry skies that roll out across the heavens as if a painter brushed them into existence, pounding waterfalls that throw clouds of freezing mist hundreds of feet into the air, and misty mornings filled with stillness awaited us. All we needed to do was walk into it.
We begin with a 2.4 kilometre portage trail with a gradual climb that ends with a slight drop into Kibee lake. The trees, heavy with snow, groan under the pressure of their loads and create a tunnel of sorts beneath their bows. Brenton easily outpaced me. “I should not have skipped breakfast” I thought. Yet, the thought of food made me a little queasy. As we pulled up to Kibee lake I forced myself to eat a little cheese. No matter how I felt I would need the fuel to push through the next 22 kilometres.
Kibee lake is also 2.4 kilometres long and begins with a few hundred meters of reedy wet land. In the spring and summer this area is a good place to spot a moose as you snake your way through the reeds in a canoe. That is, if you arrive early enough. The stream of campers making their way onto the chain tends to push them away from this place. Today it is just us though and a heavy blanket of snow that brings a pronounced calmness with it. Kicking off our snowshoes and sliding into skis is a welcome change. The snow is thick but someone has been out this far on the chain before us and a faint track has already been laid out, slightly easing the burden of blazing a fresh trail.
We stopped in at the trappers cabin at campsite number 1 on the north shore of Kibee lake. The dozen or so times I’ve been through here and I had no idea there was a cabin there. I thought I had memorized the park maps but clearly I’d overlooked the cabin marker on this lake every time. How could I pass by this place so many times and never notice this little gem? It is less than 5 kilometres from the trail head and would be a perfect winter get away with the kids or my wife. For some reason they tend to bulk when I suggest winter retreats with 10-12 kilometres of hiking or up mountains.
The 2 kilometre portage from Kibee to Indianpoint was another winter wonderland. This trail begins with a long climb away from Kibee and then a quick drop to Indianpoint Lake. Again I felt a little lethargic and was unable to keep pace with Brenton. I forced down some almonds. I was in a fuel deficit and I knew I was not eating enough to climb out of it but I figured I could have a heavy meal that night and a good night’s rest.
Indianpoint Lake was excellent skiing. A couple years back the lake was a solid sheet of ice with a thin layer of snow on top. Those conditions meant a very speedy crossing. This year there was several feet of snow and we were breaking trail. Still good skiing conditions but requiring substantially more effort with our sleds in tow. This lake is 6.8 kilometres long with a trapper’s cabin sitting on a knoll over looking the lake on the north shore at about kilometre 6. Brenton stopped in at the cabin to find it was well stocked with firewood. if you’ve been keeping track we’ve come about 12-13 kilometres but our goal lay at twice that distance.
We decided to push on from Indianpoint. Like the beginning of Kibee the end of Indianpoint is a reedy marsh land and the sanctuary of waterfowl and ungulates. These are my favourite places in canoes. On skis or snowshoes they tend to be choked with willows and other brush that seem to wilfully reach out to snare your feet or hook up your sled. Nonetheless we made a quick passage through the area and the start of the Indianpoint portage trail over to Isaac Lake. This portage is a quick mile but still as stunning as the others. As much as I love to slip on the skis after each stint in the snowshoes I am equally as happy to slip on the snowshoes after a few hours of skiing. Change really is as good as a rest.
About this time I began to notice that my heart rate was tracking a little higher than usual. I was also completely out of water. At the start of this portage the water is generally accessible. There must be a small spring here feeding the lake and keeping the ice at bay. the area is muddy and the ice thin but I could get close enough to the edge to reach out and scoop up enough fresh water I could treat with iodine tablets. At least that was the plan. I wedged my feet into the snow pack at the edge and reached out only to have both feet kick forward and onto the thin crust of ice at the water edge. Both feet easily punched through the ice and drove down into thick cold mud. I threw myself backward but it was too late the water rushed up over my boots and seeped in at the seams. The suction of the mud held me fast as I struggled to inch my way free. Curse words in this lovely spot reverberate like immorality in the walls of a church. The trees don’t get angry but there is a sense of offence floating in the air.
I managed to get my water but I paid a heavy price. Brenton suggested a possible retreat to Indianpoint’s cabin but I knew once we got moving my feet would warm the water around them and all would be well.
Issac Lake is formidable at the best of times. Its north western arm is about 6 kilometres long when it makes a sharp southern bend and runs an additional 32 kilometres. Moxley Creek and its accompanying trappers’ cabin is on the eastern shore of that southern arm about 9 kilometres from the end of the portage trail connecting Isaac and Indianpoint. By the time I hit Isaac Lake I was feeling the edges of a runner’s wall ahead. This is nothing new to me. I understand how to scale these types of walls. It wasn’t surprising either given how I had fuelled throughout the day. Though, there was an added element I was not used to, a heart rate that seemed unusually high. I’d been taking short video clips all along the route and as I review them now I can spot my decline but am also impressed with the clear joy I am experiencing right up to the end.
3 kilometers onto Isaac Lake the sun was rapidly sinking and casting an intense glow over everything. I record a video here trying to capture what I am seeing but the camera is unable to do it justice. This is a sunset without the typical reds and purples that compel the most amateur photographers to stop and snap a thousand photos. Anyplace else this would be an unremarkable sunset but here. Here, I was skiing through a celestial hue incapable of being captured by a photo or a thousand words.
My skis passed through an area of slush on the lake that instantly froze to their waxed bottoms. That ice gathered snow and soon I was walking my skis across the lake all glide gone. I pounded and shook and stomped to break them free but to no avail. Finally I stopped and pulled the skis free of my feet. I broke the ice away and applied some glide wax. Soon all would be right again. I carried on for another kilometre or so when again my skis became unusable as they passed through slush. The ice built up on my sled too and suddenly it felt as though it weighed two hundred pounds. I was hitting that wall I could feel the edges of earlier and hitting it hard. I sat down on my sled and pulled off my skis. There was no sense in cleaning them again the conditions were no longer ideal for the skis. The water in my boots was beginning to freeze and with it my feet.
I decided it was time for a change of footwear. Large chunks of ice had formed around my pant legs where I’d soaked them in the lake and the velcro straps holding on my boots were frozen solid. With bare hands I worked the material to rid it of ice and extricate my feet. I could not get the straps all the way open but, I thought, maybe just enough. Ski boots zip up. Those zippers were frozen solid too. I used the tip of my ski pole back and forth across the zipper until I could zip them about half way down. I was locked in these boots. With some serious effort I pried my feet free.
I am sure I chuckled a little to myself. Dry socks and warm boots. Heaven. Brenton had noticed my plight and was back tracking to give me some aid. I was feeling that wall again but there were just 4 kilometres to go. I didn’t bother with snowshoes, the track Brenton was creating was stable enough to make them unnecessary, I thought. I clipped back into my sled and soldiered on. My heart rate shot way up and my sled was an anchor at my waist. It’s just a wall, a wall I’d overcome countless times before. It’s just a wall. That wall broke but unlike anything I’d experienced in this type of situation before. The wall did not move aside to hidden stores of energy and clarity of thought it broke like a damn and expelled everything I had in a torrent of unmitigated disaster. The point of Issac Lake where the western arm turns sharply south was a kilometre off. I could see it in gloomy shadow at the outer edge of Wolverine Bay nestled beneath the snowy peak of Wolverine Mountain. In the bay, 3 kilometres on, was a shelter and an unoccupied ranger’s cabin and 4 kilometres away Moxley Creek Cabin but I had nothing left.
I was sweating profusely and my heart rate was uncontrollable. The world swam around me as I unclipped from my sled and stumbled forward. Brenton had turned around for me again. I was on my knees, broken and sick. “Brenton, I am dizzy” I said. “I think I am sick.” To his immeasurable credit Brenton did not hesitate. He did not try to bolster me with useless words. He did not prod me to get up, to shake it off, to just try harder. He saw my need and changed into his snowshoes. He clipped my sled to his and we reasoned we must press on to shelter. 140 pounds was the combined weight of our two sleds and Brenton pulled both. Surely there was ice built up beneath those sleds exacerbating the challenge but he pulled on and I followed shakily in their wake. We continued like that for a kilometre to that point of land connecting the western and souther arms of the Isaac where we stopped to counsel together, though I could not have been in my right mind.
Brenton ventured out around the point untethered from the sleds to assess the conditions on that long southern arm. The fog was rolling in and the wind was biting. It was clear that this would be as far as I could go. I have vague memories of helping to erect the tent. I pulled off my wet and sweaty clothes and climbed into dry replacements and my sleeping bag. I was floating in and out of consciousness. Brenton wrapped my sleeping bag in light tarps to help retain whatever heat I could generate. I could here the roar of the Whisper Light stove. Brenton handed me chicken soup and I drank it. Next came a mug of Neo Citron taken from my essentials bag. Then he handed me my water bottle full of heated water. I slipped it into my sleeping bag and felt the warmth spread through me. I lost consciousness, swallowed by peaceful oblivion.
The next day Brenton and I made the 3 kilometres to Moxley Creek’s cabin. Brenton broke trail the whole way. A few times along the route I contemplated abandoning my sled but I persevered. 3 kilometres. The little wood stoves in these cabins are perfect. Brenton got a fire going and headed out to find more wood. I took in as much fluid as I dared and fell asleep. I slept off and on the rest of the day. Brenton kept busy gathering wood and pondering his poor life choices. He is a good man. He made the most of being cooped up with an invalid while our plans of making our way around the chain drifted away. We should have been at Moxley Cabin the night before. That day we should have been pushing through a gruelling 28-29 kilometres of Isaac Lake and then down the Isaac River with a final hurdle over the mountain to McCleary lake and the trappers cabin on its shore.
McCleary Lake, pinned in by the Isaac River and Isaac Falls to its north and towering snow capped mountains to its south in whose shadow it pours its contents into the sweeping Cariboo River is my favourite place on the chain. It doesn’t get more remote than little McCleary lake. I wouldn’t sit on the porch of that cabin and watch the moon as it burst over the mountains. The next day, weary though we’d be, we would beat our way down the Cariboo River hugging as close as we could to the toe of the northern mountains. It would be gruelling pulling the sleds over and under logs and passing through stretches of deep snow. There would be frightening moments where our snowshoes would break through some weak part in the marsh land and we’d have to scramble to avoid soaking feet. There would be moments of anxiety as we raced against the setting sun to break away from the river and out onto Lanezi Lake. In the dark we’d likely trudge down Lanezi to the shelter at Turner Creek transfixed by a night sky completely free of the light pollution of our homes.
Turner Creek’s enclosed shelter can be difficult to heat but we’d make do. The trek across Lanezi would blend into Sandy Lake where we’d hug the short side of its kidney bean shape. From Sandy the Cariboo River picks up again and we’d follow it to the ranger’s cabin on its small tributary, Babcock Creek. Babcock marks the end of the southern arm of the Circuit where we’d take the last remaining portage trails through to Babcock Lake and then small Skoi Lake to emerge on the shallow and sandy Spectacle Lake. It would be evening there on our 4th day and the sun would now be falling in front of us. Perhaps like our last trip there’d be an inch of water over the icy lake creating a mirror effect so startling that you’d swear you were skiing across a brilliant pink and purple sunset.
The division between Spectacle Lake and Swan Lake is amorphous. There is a long sandbar stretching out into a bay. There you’ll find a little cabin at a place called Pat’s Point. That sandbar would be invisible under the ice and snow but in summer it is a favourite place to swim. With one group of young men we played a game of tackle soccer there. The water of the lake barely covered the ten foot wide sandy surface beneath our feet stretching a couple hundred meters into the bay. From a distance it might appear as if we played the game on top of the lake.
Pat’s Point would be our last stop before heading the final 18 kilometres across Swan Lake to the meandering Bowron River and on to Bowron Lake. These places have a softer beauty than the hard mountainous lines of the Chain’s eastern arm. We’d drink in the cool air and haul our sleds through the marshy Bowron water ways glad to be done with the journey but happy with the experience, weary in body but invigorated in mind. Each time I complete the circuit I look forward to these final kilometres. There is a deep sense of gratitude and peace that I can’t quite explain.
These were my thoughts as we left Moxley Cabin the next day back in the direction we’d just come. The distances and the stress of our planned adventure was too risky in my condition. What if Brenton fell ill? What if I could not physically handle the hardships or my sickness grew worse? We headed back toward the cabin at Indianpoint 12 kilometres away. I started strong that day but 12 kilometres was about all I could handle. No sooner was the fire lit and I changed into dry clothes did I lie down on the plywood shelf with my head on a drysack of winter gear and fell asleep.
When we arrived, the snow was falling thick and heavy and a bitter wind gave the air a bite. The scene was idyllic from the comfort of a small warm cabin. The temperature rose and the snow turned to rain. That night it rained hard. Rain on a tin roof is supposed to be soothing but the drumming was relentless. The rain turned the snow in the tall spruce surrounding the cabin into large ice balls which fell from the trees like ordinance from a bomber, bang! bang! they went against the roof. Best to stay inside. A little after midnight the rain seemed to stop and I could sleep. At 4:30am we were up to prepare for an early departure. I opened the cabin door to find that the rain had turned to snow and the temperature in just 4 hours had dropped to 10 below. The wind chill made it feel much cooler.
The wind and snow completely obliterated our previous path. We set out from the cabin a little after 6am in the dark. I followed Brenton, my headlamp illuminating just a few feet in front of me. The snow, driven by the wind, obscured our vision and froze to our faces. The darkness pressed in on us like a shroud mourning the loss of our adventure. We pushed on. Over dressed for the strenuous work we stopped to shed a layer or two in spite of the wind. I put down the head lamp to pull off my fleece and the glow of a near full moon pressed through a thinning overcast. The shoreline began to take shape.
We skied the 6 kilometres across Indianpoint in great conditions. We pressed through some slush but arrived largely unscathed at the portage trail. We’d complete the remainder of the journey on snowshoes. Kibee Lake was a ruin of slush that turned to large balls of ice under our feet and weighed us down severely but we were in good spirits. The sun was shining and the snow reflecting the light of a beautiful winter day.
Looking at a map of the Bowron Chain you might be inclined to believe there was an intelligence behind its making. Did God smile when he carved it out of the mountains? I like to think so. In spite of my evident mortality it sure felt like God was smiling when we drove away from the Bowron that day. It wasn’t the adventure we’d planned but what adventure goes to plan?
A few related stories from my adventure on the Bowron Chain:
The following post is a work of fiction – duh. I’ve toyed off and on over the years with writing a novel. I’ve even hashed out a chapter or two from time to time. This chapter I found amongst some old files and thought i’d post it here, hoping for some motivation. Writing is hard work and I tip my hat to any one that can produce a fully formed novel. Perhaps one day I’ll have a story worth telling and the motivation to get it out there. For now here is a rather morbid prelude to a saga currently confined to my own mind.
The house smells like death. The air conditioning quit along with the power a couple days ago and it must be 46 degrees Celsius outside. That would make it somewhere over fifty in this death trap. There is that word again, death. I’ve never seen a dead person before but mum keeps telling me to be prepared because we are going to see lots of them. I don’t want to think about it but it’s hard to think of anything else. We’ve been trapped inside for 27 days now. At least the water is still running. I wonder what dad is up to… I miss him. Is he safe? He must be coming for us. He must be.
Anna tossed the journal on the coffee table and went back to staring out the closed window. Her mother refused to open the windows and doors despite the heat. Sweat was trickling down her back again and she was thinking of taking another shower. Her mom, Katherine, didn’t like it when she did because they didn’t know if the water supply was still functioning and they could just be wasting the water in their buildings’ holding tanks. The bathtubs were full and they kept all the water bottles topped up just in case. Using the Shower was a compromise. If they couldn’t open the windows and doors then she had to have some way of cooling off.
The couch Anna occupied in front of the large living room window was cluttered with books, paper and candy wrappers. Except for toilet runs and the occasional trip to the kitchen she hadn’t left her mess in days. The candy had actually run out some time back but she couldn’t be bothered to throw the wrappers away. She stared across the street to the big picture window in unit 10. Raji hadn’t come to the window all day and that had Anna worried. Raji and her hit it off the moment they met just 3 months ago. She was from India, someplace in the south. Her dad was a professor at the university and her mom stayed home with Raji and her little brother all the time.
Anna used to wish her mom was one of those stay at home moms. She had this fantasy of her mom always working in the kitchen, stopping only to talk with her over a plate of cookies or to help her with her math homework. She hated math.
That dream was distant now. They had been trapped in that oven posing as a home for too long. They hadn’t shared more than a couple words in weeks and there were definitely no cookies or fresh baked bread in the kitchen. Was Raji’s mother making bread right now? Perhaps that is why she was not at the window today? Maybe they worked out a way to cook with the power out. She suspected they had been out in their backyard using the barbecue a few times. She’d seen Raji eating hot meals at the window.
Their backyards were small but surrounded by 10-foot high walls. They didn’t have a barbecue so there wouldn’t be any outdoor cooking. Even if they did have a barbecue her mother would never allow her to open the door anyway. Her mom was paranoid. What could possibly happen to her in the backyard? Even if the disease was airborne the walls were 10-feet tall. Someone would have to breathe on you or something before you could catch it, she thought. It wasn’t worth the fight; she was tired of fighting.
Anna and her mother had been fighting ever since they left Canada. Anna just finished seventh grade and her parents announced that they were moving to Dubai. To Anna this was the end of the world. Her parents kept telling her that the world was a smaller place now, she could call her friends with the Internet and they would come home for visits every year. They just didn’t get it. She was finally going to leave elementary school. She had imagined going to the big school with her friends Sara and Carmen for forever and now they were going to move to the other side of the planet. Besides, Dubai was in a desert. Deserts had big nasty spiders. She’d seen it on the Discovery Channel.
Anna’s mom was a librarian. When her dad was told the company wanted him in Dubai in six months she started looking for work right away. Katherine always wanted to travel, to see the world but every time she made plans something came along to wreck them. So she was thrilled when everything seemed to just fall into place with their move to Dubai. There was a job opening for a reference librarian at the American University of Sharjah just 15 minutes north of Dubai. She had three videoconference interviews and the job was hers. They wanted her to start work at the beginning of July because all the other librarians wanted to take their vacations in the summer. Anna didn’t understand that until they arrived. It is so hot she wondered how anything survived outside of the range of an air conditioner.
Anna was pretty upset when her parents told her about the move. She was crying when her dad came to tuck her into bed that night. “Anna dear, don’t cry,” he said in that way that told her he was really concerned. They talked forever that night. She loved talking to her dad. By the end of that conversation she knew they had to move because it would make her dad happy. The company needed her dad and he really wanted to go, she could tell. So she told herself to be happy for him and tried really hard not to complain about the move. Then her mom got this job at the university and it was no longer about dad. It was all about mom. So dad was staying behind while Anna and her mom were going to Sharjah all alone. Dad would join them in a few months.
The university provided them housing on campus. Anna let her mind roll over that first day in the United Arab Emirates, the UAE. She had been tired from all the travelling and the time change. She was so tired she felt sick. The town-house, they called it a villa here, was nice though. It had a grand sweeping staircase and big bedrooms. The walls were bare and institutional but the cool air-conditioned breeze coming from the vents in the ceiling was heaven sent. The thought of it pushed her off the couch and down the hall to the bathroom. She didn’t bother to remove her shorts or t-shirt as she stepped into the shower.
Where was her dad? The last they talked he said he was coming for them. He hadn’t said how though. When the TV was still showing the news they said all planes had been grounded and some countries were shooting down any planes that dared to disobey. They said it was to stop the spread of the disease. If they stopped the planes would they stop ships too? How was he coming for them? When was he coming? She shut the water off and sat in the bottom of the shower wondering how everything had gone so wrong so fast.
She was still wet when she climbed back onto the couch but she didn’t care. She went back to staring across the street at Raji’s place. There was a red cloth tied around the door handle of Raji’s neighbor to the left and a red piece of paper stapled to the door to the right. The mark indicated that someone in the house had the disease, which really meant that everyone in the house had the disease. No one inside those homes would ever come out again.
Raji’s front door opened. Anna was startled. It was Raji’s dad. He looked small, thinner than she remembered him. His clothes hung off him and he had a coarse black beard. He looked straight at Anna but he didn’t see her. The windows were tinted but he probably would have missed her if she’d been standing right in front of him. He turned and closed the door and then walked around his block of homes, gone from her view.
“Mom, mom.” Louder, “Mom!” Katherine was next to her.
“What is it, hun? Are you OK?” Katherine stared out the window trying to see what Anna was seeing. “What is it?”
“Raji’s dad, he just left the house and walked that way.” Anna wasn’t sure whether she should be scared or excited. Something was happening.
They stood at the window and waited. Katherine was worried. She thought again about hanging the red t-shirt on the front door. If the Multanis were out of food and he thought the disease had passed her and Anna bye would he think it worth the risk to come for their food? Could she spare him any if he did? Would he take it by force if she refused him? They had little enough as it was. They hardly ate anything now and she practically had to force Anna to eat. She thought they could last another 3 weeks. After that they would have to leave the house. They could maybe last a few more days but if they waited too long they wouldn’t have the energy to find food once they did go.
He was back. Katherine realized that she didn’t know professor Multani’s first name. She had spoken with him several times but never asked him. In his hand was a shovel. He stepped off the curb before he reached the path to his door and began to cross the traffic circle toward them. Katherine slipped her arm around Anna’s shoulder and focused on her breathing. The middle of the square block of row homes all faced the traffic circle, which was, lined with spaces for residents’ cars. The middle of the traffic circle was a large patch of grass. A place where the neighborhood boys played soccer… or football, she reminded herself, in the evenings. At least they did before all this began. Professor Multani stopped now in the middle of the circle and stared, hollow eyed, at their window.
He couldn’t see them, could he? Katherine thought. His eyes moved back and forth across the homes in their row. Were there red marks on the doors of her neighbors’ homes? She hadn’t really met any of them in the few short months they had been there. She had been too busy. She only knew Professor Multani because Anna and his daughter had become friends. She could never be too busy to know what was happening in Anna’s world. Katherine almost smiled at the memory of Anna and Raji running off to the faculty pool together the first day they met. Anna was usually so shy and Katherine had been worried that she would have a hard time making friends but Raji had a beautiful disarming smile and was the opposite of shy. Raji had pulled Anna out of her shell immediately.
Professor Multani pushed the shovel into the sod and turned it over. With slow methodic movements he broke the ground. Katherine was confused for a moment but only a moment.
“Mum, what is he doing?” Anna broke her eyes away from the window to search her mother’s face.
“I don’t think you want to watch this, sweetie.” Katherine made to pull her back from the window gently.
“No, I don’t understand, just leave me.” Anna pulled away slowly and took a grip on the back of the couch. Katherine made no further attempts to move her. They stared fixedly on the gaunt, disheveled man digging in the grass. Katherine was in shock. She had seen images on the news in the first weeks of the pandemic of bodies in the streets, of crying mothers and distraught children. The images would not leave her. Until now the death that must be all around them was hidden behind closed doors. It was represented by pieces of red cloth or paper. She watched with stoicism as he turned every shovel-full over.
It was late afternoon but the sun and the heat was relentless. Sweat ran off the professor’s face and flattened his thin hair against his head. The most difficult part was removing the sod. He was afraid he would not be able to complete the grim task. His body and mind were numb though and he hardly noticed his rapidly failing strength. Katherine wondered what she could do for him. It was too soon to leave the house. She dared not risk it…
“Professor Multani” Anna said. Then again, a little louder, “Professor.”
He paused and looked up from his work. It took him a few moments to understand what he was looking at. Raji’s friend was standing beside him holding a milk jug filled with water and a red shirt.
“I brought you some water.” She said. “I would help you dig but you have the only shovel.” Anna opened the milk jug and poured water over the red shirt before handing it to him. “This should keep your head cool.”
He reached slowly for the shirt doing his best not to touch the girl. He waited until she set the jug on the ground before he reached to take a drink. He could not remember the girl’s name and that pained him. He did not bother to ask it now though. “Thank you,” he offered weakly as he removed the jug from his lips and tied the cool wet shirt around his head. He went back to shoveling. Now that the sod was gone the digging was much easier. The sod was brown and dead too but the roots still held the little soil together. He arranged the blocks of sod to the right of the hole and began to throw the fine sand it rested on in a pile to the left.
“If I could find a couple more shovels could Raji and I help you dig?” Anna asked tentatively. Anna suspected why he was digging but wasn’t sure. She could not bring herself to ask directly.
“No, child, this is a task only I can do.” He didn’t know how else to respond to her. He concentrated on his digging and let the slow rhythmic motion shield him from his thoughts. Blisters rose on his hands almost instantly. It had been too long since he’d done this sort of work. The sand found its way into a few of his freshly opened sores. He imagined the sand turning in circles like it does in a riverbed slowly eroding holes in the rocky bottom. Would it do the same to him?
The sun was too much for Anna. She sensed that the professor would not say anything more. She did not want him to. Turning slowly she started back toward the house. Her mom waited in the doorway.
Katherine wanted to slap her. She wanted to hug her too. She was angry with Anna but ashamed that she did not think to bring water. Ashamed that she did not have the courage to act where Anna did. Was it courage? Was Anna courageous or just naïve? She could see the determined look on Anna’s face as she approached the door, the defiance. Naivety yes, but courage too.
“Did he touch you, Anna?” Katherine asked softly not really wanting an answer. Anna didn’t give her one. Katherine stepped aside to let her in the house and they walked back to the couch and the window. In a few hours the professor was standing chest deep in a long narrow hole and only the soft glow of the sun remained. The stars would soon be out in all of their majesty. With the power out it was truly dark when night came on.
Anna was asleep. A mercy, Katherine thought. She would miss what came next. Katherine wished she could sleep, could give up control of her mind for just a while. Images of her bedroom in Canada drifted in. She could feel the soft linens on her bed against her skin. Mark was asleep beside her. She could feel the rise and fall of his chest as it pressed against her back. She did not need protection then but she had it though she had never thought of it that way. Where was Mark now? There last conversation was weeks ago. The Internet failed before the power did. She had fallen asleep talking with him and when she awoke the connection was gone. She had imagined that when they were old, very old, they would fall asleep together one night and when she awoke she would find him passed away in their bed. She might live a few more years but would join him sooner than later. She checked the network every hour after the connection failed until the blackout.
The digging stopped. Professor Multani opened the front door to his home and disappeared inside. He left the door wide open. The moon had crested the rooftops and cast a faint light on the block. In a few moments he emerged from the doorway. In his arms, judging by the size, he carried his wife wrapped tightly in a white sheet. She was a slight woman with a soft voice Katherine recalled. He struggled to carry her now and awkwardly lowered her into her resting place. Then he returned to the house, the door still wide open. Katherine prayed silently that Anna would remain asleep.
He lowered Raji’s lifeless frame slowly until she lay next to her mother. He did not stop then else he may not have the strength for what was left. He returned to the house for the last time. The small body of his son was carefully wrapped and cradled in his arms. The boy was 2 or possibly 3 years old. Katherine had seen him only a few times and now regretted having never paid him any attention. The professor struggled into the hole he had dug to place the body of his son with the rest of his small family. He then struggled out of the hole to sit on its edge and stare down at his life irrevocably taken from him. He desperately wanted to believe in a god or the gods then. He wasn’t after solace but someone, something to blame. In the end he blamed himself though he knew that was as irrational as believing in the gods.
Katherine could no longer bear to watch. She wanted to do something for the man but what comfort could she possibly offer. Standing she drew the curtains closed and then laid down on the rug in front of the couch. She could not think and could not stop thinking. She forced herself to concentrate on her breathing until she could no longer sense the passage of time. She slept, mercifully a dreamless and deep sleep.
As the early morning light crept through the edges of the curtains Anna woke. It took her a few moments to realize where she was and when she did she wanted to be asleep again. She couldn’t sleep though. The memory of Raji’s father digging was a wedge holding her in reality. She made to stand up and noticed her mother lying on the carpet. Looking at her mother’s face, the worry lines relaxed, she suddenly regretted the tension that had existed between them these last few months. Slowly she drew herself from the couch and made her way to the front door.
The professor did not appear to be outside. The door to the Multani’s stood open but she could see no one around the home. There was a large pile of dirt next to the hole he had dug and there were crows perched all around the excavation. Cautiously Anna approached it. The birds scattered at her approach and argued loudly at her intrusion. She caught a faint unpleasant odor as she drew nearer. She feared what she was about to see but could not turn aside. Lying in the bottom of the hole were three bodies wrapped tightly in white sheets and the professor. His eyes were wide open and his face marked by the birds she had scattered. Anna turned aside then and wretched. Her whole body convulsed and forced her onto her knees.
The air was muggy and oppressive and the stench of her vomit almost forced her to vomit again. She dry heaved as she backed away from the mess. Anna felt strangely ashamed at her puking. Raji was in that hole, that grave. Rolling onto her back she lay still for some time, too still. The birds began to return. This made her angry. Staggering up she grabbed the shovel and swung it violently at the foul creatures. The birds evaded her but did not go far.
Slowly Anna began to shovel the sand into the grave. She did not watch the sand land on the bodies but kept her eyes fixed on the pile before her. Her mother appeared after some time with an extra shovel and they worked together on the grave. When it was full they dragged the dry sod as best they could back into place.
Anna and Katherine stood at the grave in reflection for only a short time before the heat of the sun forced them into the shade. “Mom I think there is something wrong with me.” Anna said as they went inside.
“What!” Katherine cupped Anna’s face in her hands and looked into her eyes.
“I have not cried, mom. I cannot cry.” She said weakly.
“Oh dear, those will come.” Katherine pulled her into her arms and fought her own need to cry. She escorted Anna to the table and poured her a glass of water. “Now, Anna, we must talk about what it is that we are to do.”
Today I buried my friend Raji, her little brother and her mom and dad. Mom says we cannot stay here much longer. We are alone.
I am in the hospital. This isn’t the type of place that I frequent, at least not as a patient. The heart rate monitor attached to my finger makes typing difficult but I suppose that is the least of my worries. Or perhaps it is my biggest worry at the moment? I feel great. It appears my travel insurance will cover these couple nights here too. The nurses, doctors and staff at the Logan Regional Hospital have been fantastic. I fully expected to wait in the emergency room for 3-4 hours (standard Canadian practice) before being admitted but I was in the door in minutes and had a doctor almost immediately. Since then the stay has been top notch. Though as we dialed up our insurance company before heading to the hospital and again on admittance (they were actually great too) I wondered whether I would take the 3 hour wait over the anxiety of whether I’d have to pay for this much needed visit out of pocket.
How did I get here in the first place? It started at the end of the Canadian Death Race in 2015. That was my second ultra marathon and it was awesome. My running buddy, Jeremy and I, immediately made plans for our next ultra together and we chose the 100k Beaverhead Endurance Race for the summer of 2017. Then life happened. Jeremy went home to Finland and kept running. The Beaverhead would become his 12th ultra marathon and for me number 3. I’ve got a million excuses. Some of them are even good. None of them matter when you are fighting to catch your breath at the peak of a jagged mountain staring at the next summit in your way. The Beaverhead is reportedly the most rugged ultra marathon in Northwest America. I’m no expert but I’d be surprised to find a tougher race. There were 89 entrants for the 100k option 44 didn’t complete it.
Jeremy and I camped out at the start line the night before the race. The alternative was to take a ~3am shuttle from Salmon, Idaho to the start line at Bannock Pass. Camping out gave us an extra hour of sleep. Not that the sleep was great. We pitched a borrowed 2-man tent that wasn’t quite long enough for either of us to fully stretch out. If it had rained we would’ve been soaked. I was grateful for it nonetheless, it kept the mosquitoes at bay. Bannock Pass is at about 7,400 feet in elevation and looks out on a green rolling landscape worthy of the artists paintbrush. It took the breath away. Literally. I’m used to 2,200 feet above sea level. 7,000 is a stretch. The course offers about 12,000 feet of elevation gain over the 100k distance rising and falling between ~7,400 and ~10,000 feet above sea level. I have zero experience running at elevation.
The bus with our competitors rolled in about 4:20am and we scrambled to get prepared for our 5am departure. The race crew kindly transported our camping gear back to the the finish line for us. The forty minutes before the race went by way too quickly. No time to even visit the loo. We lined up in the semi-dark, our headlamps and a full moon illuminating the way before us and counted off the seconds that slipped away on a big digital clock brought out for the occasion. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” and off we went into the dark, reflective stakes pounded into the ground pointing out the way. What a feeling! Setting off on an immense challenge, feeling the muscles and tissues in your body reverberating with excitement and knowing the joy of being young and healthy. There is always a bit of anxiety of course and for me, on this day, not having put in the training I wanted and should have, there were variables that made me a little nervous. I was elated all the same to be running with my old friend Jeremy. It’s been nearly 2 years!
We soon moved into single track running and within a few kilometers the pack was spread out. The trail winds through an undeniably gorgeous backdrop and those first few kilometers were great for lulling you into a sense of ease. There were a good number of aid stations on this run. I can’t remember them all but they seemed to be spaced fairly evenly throughout the course. Arriving at the first station I was pleased to see PB&J sandwiches and Pepsi – these places were excellently stocked. The folks manning them were awesome too. There were no fancy GPS tracking gadgets so we found ourselves calling out our bib numbers as we came in and out, hoping the folks with the clipboards would get them down.
Jeremy set a manageable pace. We strove to keep the heart rate down by power walking the hills and running the downhills. My immediate goal was simply to keep up with Jeremy as long as I could. After that I planned to shift into a power walk with occasional light jog for the remainder of the race. As kilometre 18 drifted by it occurred to me that every K after this would be the longest distance I’d run in quite a while (a year perhaps). At about 20 kilometres my right toe caught the edge of a rock or a root and the shock instantly threw my right calf into a terrible spasm and cramp. I had to flex hard to keep the muscle from seizing completely. Not cool. It was very clear to me at this point, having hardly done a half marathon, that my fitness level was not where it should be. Jeremy gave me a salt tab and within a couple minutes the cramp began to release. Okay – clearly I was losing sodium more quickly than I’d anticipated. The day was growing hot fast.
Jeremy left me at about the 28 kilometre mark. He just slowly started pulling away. He kept looking back but I waved him on. I thought that’d be the last I saw of him but he was cheering me on as I pulled into the next aid station. He set out walking as I grabbed a few calories. He had to return when he realized he’d forgotten his poles. So off we set once more together. We stuck together for another 10k or so. I seemed to burst through something of a wall and we made some great time on a few long downhill portions of the course. Our drop bags were waiting for us at the 45k mark. Jeremy pulled away about 5k before then. My renewed energy and strength was waning and to tell the truth this is where the trouble really began. The heat of the day was pressing now and I made an error I’ve made many times before. I chose to wear a black long sleeve shirt and black hat when I set out in the morning expecting I’d reach my drop bag with lighter clothing before the heat could catch me. I was close.
With a few kilometres to my drop bag I ran out of water. I was doing everything I could to keep my body cool. At each aid station I would load my hat with ice and leave it to melt on my head. My sleeves drawn back and my collar as wide as it could go yet the sweat was flowing. I moderated my pace to keep my heart rate down but it hardly seemed to help. Worse even was the hot spots forming on my feet. I hate blisters and generally speaking I rarely get them. I’ve never lost a toenail like so many other ultra runners and I very rarely develop blisters of any significance. This one forming on the outsides of both big toes and the back of my left heel was giving me some trepidation. Where was that aid-station and drop bag? I was running on a fairly smooth jeep track winding its way through rolling hills and Idaho scrub when I seemed to spot the stop a ways out and up! My heart sank – “It must still be 2k away,” I thought. I pressed on worried about my growing dehydration and foot soreness knowing that at these temperatures without water a few hundred meters in either direction could spell relief or disaster.
Some race official was walking the course in the opposite direction. I wanted to quip he was headed the wrong way as I passed but I was hurting. “The aid-station is just ahead” he called. I thought him a bit of a Jerk – I’d clearly seen the vehicles at least another kilometre away now obscured by the hill I was climbing. To be fair a kilometre really is “just ahead” but it might as well have been a thousand in my mind. But then cresting the hill there it was hidden in a little bowl in the land like cool crystal waters in a land of fire. I made it and not a moment too soon. I queued up to the table and a volunteer was taking my empty water bottles and another asking after my drop bag. Jeremy was there looking like a master of his element, confident and cool, coiled to strike out on the course. He asked if he should wait for me but I waved him on. I knew I’d be at this station for a while. He pressed into my hand a small black bottle labeled “Hot Shot” and then sped off, words of encouragement lingering behind him.
I found a chair in the shade and downed a litre of water. I was suddenly ravishing. Normally it is a struggle for me to eat after 40k of running but here I found myself struggling to hold back. I ate and I ate and I ate. A volunteer suddenly appeared above me, in his hands he clutched an armful of sweating pop cans, their cool interiors reacting with the oppressive heat around them. We exchanged some words I’m sure but all I recall is the brilliant blue Pepsi can and his smile as it slipped from his hand to mine. A shaded chair, my shoes removed from my feet and the sensation of cool fizzing liquid sugar passing my parched lips combined for the perfect sense of euphoria. This is all I needed. I could stop the race right now. No, I finished repairing my feet and changed into my lighter shirt and hat. My body temperature fell, it seemed, a couple degrees. I was ready to press on.
I peeled open the small black bottle Jeremy had given me. I wasn’t sure what I’d find… a powder, pills, no, an ominous dark liquid. I reexamined the bottled and confirmed I was supposed to drink it. It felt a little Alice in Wonderland as I tipped it back. It burned going down. I chased it down with some water and hoped for the best. I moved off down the trail thanking the volunteers at the aid station and falling in with another runner. Turns out Jeb, this runner, had completed the 55k last year but not without some trouble. He explained that last year he fell in the infamous “boulder field” and opened a cut below his knee requiring 8 stitches. In true ultra form he finished the race regardless, just a little bloody. Much more lay ahead I realized than what came before. I was climbing and my mind and body found a compatible mutual gear. More a walk than a run but my poles worked to push me forward with every step in a stubborn rhythm. I wouldn’t do much more running in this race but I had it in my teeth and I wasn’t letting go.
The next miles are something of a blur. I was racing the clock and much of my time was comprised of math. How fast was I moving? If I moved at 9 minutes per kilometre what time would I make the next aid station and how close to the cut off would that put me (10 minutes, 11 minutes, 12 minutes)? This terrain minus the increase in blister size on my right foot plus the possibility of elevation gain minus possible downhill sections divided by my time at the last aid station would put me into the next cut off with so much to spare. But if this rain storm approaching is at all severe how long might it take to put on the rain gear and what will the rain do to the trail? I hate math by the way. I made it into the 3:30pm cutoff station with hours to spare. I inquired after Jeremy and learned he was about 30 minutes ahead of me. I’d inquire after him at every aid station and watch him pull ever so slowly away from me.
A storm was gathering along the mountain I was ascending, The thought of rain was a good one. I could hear the growing repeat of thunder though. I was running along a high ridge of the Continental Divide when the rain began and I had to put on my shell. I stopped next to the charred remains of a past lightning strike to pull it on. The booming of thunder as I ran through a forest of historical lightning strikes was unnerving. My metal trekking poles lightning rods in my hands. I morosely wondered what it might feel like to be struck by lightning. Would there be any warning? I suddenly could run again.
As the race progressed the race directors seemed more and more masochistic. I seemed to be climbing all the time. I was playing leap frog with what I knew was the final half dozen to dozen runners on the course. Some of us were not going to make the next cut-off. Would it be me? I was starting to hope it would be me. The last cutoff was 7:30pm. I was watching the clock. I told myself I would run for it at 7:15 if I was still not there. It was with mixed relief that the aid station appeared on the hill above me at 7:15. I’d make it. I wouldn’t need to run for it. I’d make it. Was that a good thing?
I collapsed into a chair at the aid station next to a jovial volunteer flipping quesadillas on the barbecue. “You need a quesadilla my friend!” And magically a corn tortilla was in my hand. I’d beat the cutoff by 12 minutes and I thought I might just die right there. 5 minutes washed away as I fumbled with my phone to text Lisa. The urge to let her know I was still alive seemed urgent to me and I was glad to find a weak cell signal. “Um, not trying to rush you but you should know that the cut-off at 7:30 means you need to leave the aid station by that time.” Wait, What? This was news to me and not good news. I looked down at my legs. There were dozens of small flies feasting on them. I looked at my watch. 7:27. I stood and borrowed a can of bug spray to douse my shaking legs. I shoved half the quesadilla down my throat and suppressed a violent gag reflex. The remainder went in a trash bin. “Thanks everyone! #47 heading out!” It was 7:28pm. As I pulled away I heard the volunteers tell the gentlemen right behind me the next cut off was the last aid station 4.5 miles away at 11pm. 3.5 hours to cover 4.5 miles shouldn’t be a problem I thought even if there is some “boulder field” in the way.
There was no trail really. All that lay before me was a field of jagged boulders the bones of some ancient mountain reaching up to stab and slice at those that would dare to disturb their rest. The sun was falling in front of me and I worried that I’d be trapped on these mountains in the dark. To my right the land fell immediately away, a cliff towering above moraine lakes and scree fields below. Beautiful valleys to my left teased with the knowledge that somewhere among them we would descend to the finish line. We final three on the course spoke little. Though we took queues from one another. When one rested the others seemed to receive permission to rest too. When one moved the others seemed drawn to move too. Each peak seemed to be followed by yet another in an endless procession into hell. Planting my poles between a few rocks I bent and pulled for air watching my sweat splash against the parched rocks at my feet. “I don’t care” I said. “I can miss the next cutoff, they can pull me from the course – I don’t care.” #11, smiled. “Yes you do, you care” she said. “Ok, yes I care but I don’t care” I rejoined and raised my head and my poles. It was time this was over.
We came off the boulder field suddenly and in a steep dive. The trail snaked sharply down the mountainside requiring you to use the surrounding trees to arrest your descent. It was nearly steep enough to slide down on your backside. If my quads had anything left it was about to be spent on this. The sun failed and I stopped to retrieve my headlamp. The trail was marked by a series of reflective stakes like glow bugs in some enchanted forest. I pulled into that final aid station about 20 minutes after 10pm having spent nearly the past 3 hours covering 4.5 miles. It was by far the most difficult 4.5 miles of my life. I felt like throwing up. A volunteer handed me a small cup full of fruit smoothie as I settled into a chair. #11 was there reminding me to be pleased with my achievement. I liked her attitude.
This was it. Just 9 more kilometers to go on a trail from all accounts that was relatively tame. I could cover that distance in my current condition in about 100 minutes I calculated. It was about 10:30pm when I stood up. I was going to finish this thing. I found a pace and pushed it a little harder. Down to the finish line. The river crossings at the end were a nice touch. The cool water on my feet was amazing. Soon enough I could see the lights of the finish line in the distance. Every time the trail veered away from the finish I felt the sting of annoyance. I concentrated on the time. No sense expecting the finish line before midnight. Then it was midnight and I was still on the trail. 10 more minutes. 10 more minutes. “Go James.” It was Jeremy’s voice. Jeremy was there on the side of the trail in a chair, the finish line out of sight. Was I hallucinating? “Go buddy, you’ve got 200 meters left.” 200 meters! My poles were in my hands and I was running, running down hill, running to the finish line. Running to my family, to freedom to relief and ecstasy and… I was running. Breathe. I fought tears, joyful tears. There was the clock (19 hours and 11 minutes) and the finish and tears desperately wanting to spill down my cheeks and pour out the last of my energy onto the ground. My girls were there and running with me. I crossed the line and felt my knees go. I was on my back staring up at smiling faces and thanking God for my life, for this body capable of so much. I knew that were I to finish it would be a triumph of mind over matter. It was an epic battle and my mind won. Though I would learn that my body wasn’t going to go quietly.
I won’t try to describe the feeling of finishing such a race. Those moments right after when you chat with competitors (there were only a handful of us left) is surreal. It was after midnight. I hoped to crawl straight into a tent and fall asleep. Lisa informed me we were instead going to drive three hours south to our friends the Anderson’s. She figured the ride would be worth the real bed. I couldn’t argue that. We had already imposed on the Anderson’s for nearly a week and I was reticent to inflict myself on them anymore but who was I to argue. Matt and Yvonne if you read this you need to know you are the embodiment of sainthood. Thank you.
It was a fitful ride back but I was hardly conscious even when I was technically conscious. At some point in the wee hours of the morning I took a shower and scrubbed myself as clean as I could. Then I threw up. That Hot Shot at kilometre 45 seemed to return with vengeance. At least the black vomit that swirled below my parched lips looked, smelled and tasted like the little vial I’d downed earlier. I felt marginally better. We rested at the Anderson’s where I fought recurring episodes of vomiting until about 4:30pm. Then we piled into the van with its poor attempt at an air conditioner to make the 3-hour drive to Logan, Utah where we planned to stay with friends before dropping the kids at summer camp at the University of Utah on Monday afternoon. “If I throw up one more time I think I’d better go to the hospital.” I told Lisa. Then the hiccup fit began. My feet on the dash and a bucket in my lap my chest spasming every few moments threatening to expel what little fluid I had left in my body. I took some anti-nausea meds (Gravol) just before getting in the car but they didn’t seem to be doing much.
I held on as long as I could before puking in the car. Lisa cracked the windows and we stopped at a gas station to rinse out the bucket. It was time for a hospital. We arrived at our friends’ home and announced my predicament. We could not have better friends. Marvin loaded me into his car after we called the insurance company and took me into Logan Regional Hospital. I figured they’d give me some anti-nausea medicine and some IV fluids. I’d be out in a few hours. Dr. Stolworthy had other ideas. He seemed rather concerned when he told me he needed to admit me for 3-4 days and that I’d developed something called Rabdomyolysis. Essentially my muscles had begun to break down and the resulting proteins were too large for the kidneys to handle. Eventually the condition would lead to renal failure, possible nerve damage and other nasty things. Lisa got on the phone with the insurance company and we proceeded as the doctors directed. There were all sorts of folks popping their head in and out of the room before I was officially wheeled off to the ICU. One young doctor appeared next to the bed and announced that Dr. Stolworthy had told her to come by and look at me. That my case was “interesting.” Everyone that saw me over the next couple days mentioned how impressive it was that I’d run 100 kilometres. Naturally, I thought it’d be much more impressive were I not lying in a hospital.
Honestly, I don’t feel any less about that 100 kilometre accomplishment even though it ended in a stay at the hospital. The hospital was about the best thing that could have happened. Sure they came around every few hours to stick needles in me but I slept. That first night I was racked with the worst hiccups I’ve ever experienced but they pumped me full of enough anti-nausea medicine that I did not throw up again. They hung bag after bag of IV fluids and kept a close eye on my sodium, potassium, “CK-protein” and other levels. Sure I had to get up every hour to pee but for the first day someone was there to unplug me and help me wheel the IV stand to the restroom. I was admitted Sunday evening. By Monday evening I was unhooking myself and getting in and out of bed unassisted. By Tuesday I was writing this post and feeling amazing. At least comparatively.
The doctors seemed to think my situation was concerning. They put me through a few tests including an EKG. My heart rate was concerning for me, resting in the 70s when it ought to be in the high 40s. There was some concern about a high “T wave” but in the end everything checked out. In fact, I checked out of the hospital Tuesday evening and Lisa and I headed into Salt Lake City to dinner with an old mission companion. I felt like I’d just been raised from the dead. I’m sure my family will never let me live this down. Most of them have promised to kick my butt when they next see me. I’m not too concerned.
So what have I learned? I’m not sure I know yet. There is the obvious: clearly I need to spend more time and effort on my preparation for these things, my mind is capable of killing me and I’m happy to be alive. Jeremy finished his race in just over 16 hours. I was about 2 hours behind him. The apprentice has truly become the master. What I’ve really been reminded of through this whole thing… how much I love my wife. She cried for just a moment in the hospital and it struck me how meaningless it’d all be without her.
124 years ago today, July 18th 1892, my great grandfather, George Andrew McDonald, came screaming into the world. In his 24th year he enlisted with the Canadian military and entered the Great War. He volunteered likely believing the war would be over by December and thus set sail for England, I imagine, excited for adventure. I know very little of the man though he was one of my father’s principal early care givers.
When I graduated from high school my father gifted me George’s WWI service medal. That gift seemed to somehow connect me to this man. From the regiment number stamped on that medal I obtained his attestation paper from his military enlistment. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has made these available online. I then went on to pay the photocopy fees to obtain his service record from the LAC. Practically everything I know about the man comes from these documents. It isn’t much.
George was five feet six inches tall and likely weighed around 140lbs. He had light brown hair and grey eyes and I imagine that if he and I were standing side by side we might just be mistaken as brothers. He was 23 years old when he enlisted in late November 1915 in Sarnia Ontario. He was assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps and the 70th batallion. His initial medical report indicates that he had no distinguishing physical marks. Within a year there’d be scars: physical and mental. He was discharged August 23rd, 1918 “being medically unfit for further general service” the record states. He had taken a bullet just above his left knee, “external to the joint,” though I wonder if he walked with a limp from then on? He took that bullet somewhere along the Somme, France on the 12th of October 1916 nearly 100 years ago.
The Somme was a muddy, bloody cess pool. Men literally rotted in trenches as we struggled to learn this new “modern” warfare. His record tells a grim story of the aftermath of that experience though in the most clinical and perfunctory way. One doctor reports that he “claimed” to be shell-shocked 4 or 5 times. I know he was at the front but how long exactly I can’t say. He was in France for 5 months. He developed a slight tremor in his hands that could be seen also in his tongue. He couldn’t keep his food down and lost about 20 pounds. He was nervous all the time and easily excited. If he was anything like me his resting pulse rate should have been in the mid to low 50s. After his time at the front it was 108.
When I learned I would be going to France I hoped that my travels would take me close enough to the Vimy Ridge memorial. George didn’t fight at Vimy (that was a few months after he was wounded). Vimy is the Canadian war memorial to see in France. It is widely regarded that our victory there was the birth place of the nation. France gifted the ridge in perpetuity to the people of Canada and on its hallowed ground stands an inspiring monument to the sacrifice made there.
TO THE VALOUR OF THEIR COUNTRYMEN IN THE GREAT WAR AND IN MEMORY OF THEIR SIXTY THOUSAND DEAD THIS MONUMENT IS RAISED BY THE PEOPLE OF CANADA.
It was raining as we drove through the French countryside, avoiding the toll road, toward Vimy Ridge. The country is flat here and well cultivated. We passed through many small French villages where row homes of weathered brick pressed close against the narrow road. The steeples of Catholic Churches rose majestically above each community against the back drop of storm darkening skies. Then suddenly between villages appeared the familiar white font on black background of Canadian government signs, a small red maple leaf in the corner. This could not be a sign for Vimy Ridge as it was too soon but I was intrigued. I made a left as directed and followed the signs to an unknown, to me, Canadian memorial. The narrow road narrowed more and more until it was essentially a single paved lane winding through French fields. Then just off the road was a small plot, maybe 30 meters square, of fenced coniferous trees with close cropped grass. In its centre lay a rock monument with the statue of a caribou dominating its top. Gueudecourt. I would learn that a regiment from Newfoundland fought bravely and won here at extraordinary cost. Newfoundland was not a part of Canada at that time. It wouldn’t become Canada’s tenth province until after the 2nd World War. Yet, a Canadian monument all the same.
The small grounds of this memorial are meticulously kept. Even the shallow trench at the foot of the caribou statue was filled with well groomed grass. The rain fell lightly as I reflected on the beauty now found here. I wondered if George felt the sting of that bullet somewhere close by. Perhaps it was a rainy day much like this one and he was in this trench at my feet. His feet rotting in his boots as he anticipated the command to climb out of the mud and charge the enemy. I learned that this line, this trench at my feet, became the front line of the Somme. Indeed along this line some where George had fought. Along this line now stretching off into well cultivated fields George had sat in the mud as explosions shook the ground around him and men died in squalor. Yet, when he arrived the trench had already been dug and the ground watered with the blood of Newfoundland’s boys and when he was done others would come to make their sacrifice. It was sombering to stand there in the rain.
We drove on to Vimy Ridge. Every Canadian has seen this monument. It is on our 20 dollar bill. Two granite spires reach out of the earth toward heaven and at its base a single tomb to represent the thousands lost here and elsewhere in the war. Above the tomb the lone figure of a woman, Canada, shrouded in her granite cloak mourns the loss of her sons. Her eyes are downcast staring at the silent tomb unable to see the view presented by the ridge she stands upon. It was for that view of the plains her sons had fought and died. Fought and died. Sixty thousand Canadian soldiers; 1 in 10 from a force of 600,000. 1 in 10 from a country of a mere 7 million.
I wandered around the monument lost in my thoughts, grateful for the sacrifices made and saddened that it was ever necessary. I placed my hand upon the names of the fallen carved in that granite and felt a small touch of survivor’s guilt. George was only a boy who likely had little concept of the fate that awaited him when he signed that attestation. Sure there was some courage there, some patriotism, some sense of duty but it was probably the uniform, the call of adventure, the smiles of the girls that compelled him to the theatre of war. The dark clouds roiled above us but did not obstruct our view of the valley which seemed to stretch out a hundred years and into our prosperous lives.
Just a few days later Lisa and I joined hundreds of thousands of Parisians at the foot of the Eiffel Tower to celebrate Bastille Day. A day of freedom. Later that night when the fireworks had ended we learned that a man had used a truck as a weapon at a similar fireworks show in Nice, France. He indiscriminately smashed through the crowds killing and maiming men, women and children. In a great act of evil he took the lives of nearly 100 people and injured twice as many. Tens of thousands more mourn their loss. Their eyes are fixed on the tombs at their feet. It is a new “modern” warfare. There is no trench to climb into and if there were those firing from the other side are surrounded with innocents. Is there a weapon made with hands that could find our enemies without giving rise to more? I won’t claim to have the answers but it seems clear to me that the soil at our feet has an infinite capacity to drink the blood of man.
In January 2007 I completed my graduate work at the University of Alberta in Library and Information Studies. I was a newly minted librarian looking for work and desperate to take whatever I could find. It turned out that I really didn’t need to worry. As I entered my final semester in the fall of 2006 I was very nervous about my prospects for work and a career. Are there really jobs out there for librarians? Turns out there are and I had several offers of work. I had choices and I chose Northern Lights Library System in Northeast Alberta. It is a regional public library system headquartered in Elk Point. Elk Point, it turns out, is a town of just 1500 people and a couple hours outside of Edmonton. It’s oil and farm country.
I arrived in Elk Point in late December looking for a home for my family. Oil was doing well at that time and there was hardly a rental available. What was available was less than desirable. I stopped in at Elk Point Realty hoping they might have a lead on something half way decent. On the window was several advertisements of properties for sale. I was just a starving student; there was no way I could afford anything… But wait… There was an old (1974) mobile home practically across the street from my new employer. The advert said “lot for sale, owner willing to negotiate removal of old trailer” or something to that effect. Clearly the trailer wasn’t meant to be inhabited but how bad could it possibly be?
There wasn’t a proper step up to the trailer. At first I had to turn over a 5 gallon pail as a step held in place by the ice and snow. The power had been off for sometime in the trailer so stepping inside wasn’t much of a relief from the bitter prairie cold outside. It was filthy. Boxes of junk, old clothing and long abandoned personal affects were strewn throughout the house. Entering I found myself in the kitchen. I kicked aside a box to reveal a 2 x 2 foot hole cut in the floor. I could see straight through to the ground. Sometime this or a previous winter the water pipes had frozen and burst. The owner cut into the floor to get at those pipes. “I can fix that,” I thought.
Venturing deeper into the trailer I stepped into the utility room. The floor here was completely gone. There was no clean cut through the floor boards. It appeared that an axe or some other destructive implement was used. I learned later that the pipes, having frozen and burst, were gushing water out of the trailer and down the street. The owner had hacked away mercilessly to get to those pipes. He never did fix the problem. The trailer, to be liveable, would need all of its plumbing replaced.
The bathroom looked in slightly better shape. It was an ugly 1970s green but it might work out. The outside wall the bathtub was set against was clearly rotten. It would need to be replaced. Walking in, just past the sink and approaching the toilet the floor changed. It was spongy, clearly also water damaged and rotting. This would be a big job. A vision was forming nonetheless and I new the place was for us. Fortunately I took a little walk through video after I bought the place. I sent it to Lisa to show her our new home, have a look:
Lisa is the right girl for me. I’m not completely certain she knew what she was getting into when she married me but she takes it all pretty well. When I called her about the trailer she had one condition: there must be running water before she or the kids would come out to join me. How hard could it be? I had no idea what I was doing. It took me a few days of research to figure out how to begin. There is this great plumbing material called Pex. It is incredibly easy to install. My dad was good enough to come out and help me rebuild floors and walls too. So it was, that I was working as a librarian during the day and then retreating to my broken down trailer every night to work into the wee hours of the morning. I think it took about 3 weeks to get the job done or at least sufficiently to convince Lisa to join me.
I took this video shortly after the family moved in:
We survived in this place for about 2 and a half years. Lisa very graciously lived through a stream of renovations until finally she convinced me it was time for a real home. So our little trailer turned rental property and we moved across town to a lovely little place. That lasted about 6 weeks but that’s an entirely different story. Before moving we did what we could to get the trailer worthy to rent. Our first tenant turned out to be a colleague from work. Here is yet another video in the transformation of the trailer:
That video would be the last I’d see of the trailer for about 5 years. In the past 5 years we’ve travelled the world leaving little Elk Point to become nearly a distant memory. Lisa’s sister has been living in Elk Point this whole time (yet another story) and taking care of the place for us. She has done an excellent job. These last renters though were not exactly desirable. Leah is moving away from Elk Point and there are not property management companies in the area. Suddenly Elk Point and the trailer have become a thing in our lives again. So last weekend Lisa and I loaded up the van with tools and drove the 1000 kilometers out to Elk Point to inspect the damage from these last not so great renters.
When we walked in I thought it might be easier to just light a match and walk away. The place was a disaster. Filthy really. It took us 2 and a half days of some serious elbow grease, along with several cans of paint, to clean it all up. We had help of course. Huge thanks to the Coleman family, president West, brother Bullock and sister Hatch. They all turned out to give us a hand getting the place put back together. These are friends made 6 years and more ago who didn’t really know we were even coming to town. We showed up in town on a Sunday and they were out helping within hours. The Colemans even spared us sleeping on thin air mattresses in the trailer by opening their home to us. I like to think sometimes that the success I’ve had in life comes generally from a willingness to take risks and to work hard. I might be tempted to say that I am responsible for any success I have in life but it’s really not the case at all. That risk taking and work ethic comes from a lifetime of support from good family and good friends. The longer I live the larger that network of support becomes. I’ve done pretty well thus far, I’m happy, and it’s not really because of me but inspite of me. I’m surrounded by good people that refuse to let my follies let me fall too far.
The trailer is now up for sale. With the economy the way it is I’m not certain we’ll find a buyer. So a sale may not be possible. Failing that I hope we can rent it out. I took one last walk through video after we got it cleaned up. It is a long way from what it was 9 years ago. If you know someone looking to buy in Elk Point, Alberta we’ve got the place for them. If they just need a place to rent we may be able to arrange that too. One last walk through:
Check out the property listing on Realtor.ca
Thirty hours and eight minutes. That is how long it took Brenton and me to circumnavigate the Bowron Lake circuit last weekend. We should have finished in about 22 and a half hours but when we reached the mouth of the Bowron River (more of a snaking lake) it was nearing 1am and we talked ourselves out of the final 11k to the finish and into a tent. It was dark and I was nervous about the possibility of upsetting in the river (however remote that possibility was). It would be one thing to swim into shore from the lake but the Bowron River is a tangle of brush and swamp that could prove a great hazard in the dark and in our fatigued condition than I think we could handle. We’d been paddling for more than 19 hours at that point and a chunk of that directly into a strong head wind that churned up waves just high enough to cap white as they crested and fell.
It was dark but not nearly as dark as it could have been. In February I found myself with two friends (including Brenton) circumnavigating this same lake circuit but on skis. That trip took about 6 days and several of those consisted of travel that took us into the dark of night. A vivid memory of stars glittering in profusion across an inky black sky is still emblazoned on my mind. This night, though nearly as clear, was framed in the soft light of a full moon. It rose resplendent directly behind us as we raced toward the sinking sun. In the last rays of twilight bats hunted insects around our gliding double kayak. We were crossing the well named Spectacle lake at that point and I couldn’t help but recall the scene a few months back on that same lake. There was about an inch of water covering the ice that looked nearly like a mirror. The red purple sky and the ashen winter greens of the surrounding hills reflected from it as we slipped across its surface. The words are inadequate but perhaps they convey a sense of why I keep going back to this place?
Brenton and I left for the chain at about 2pm Friday evening. The chain is about a 3 hour drive from Prince George. We rented a cabin at Bear River Mercantile just a kilometre from the trail head. We stayed there the night before our winter ski adventure too. It isn’t the Ritz but it is clean, warm and comfortable and the hosts are lovely. I slept soundly. That sound sleep is a reflection of some gained maturity, I hope. In the last couple years I’ve found that I can sleep soundly before races or adventures of all sorts. I used to toss and turn brimming with anticipation and excitement. The anticipation and the excitement remain but they are tempered somehow, by experience perhaps?
Having checked in with the park Friday evening we were up at 3:30am on Saturday to be on the trail before 4:30am if possible. We learned during checkin that there were two other vessels attempting an under 24 hour circuit that day. One of them, a husband and wife team, we understood would be on the trail by 3:00am. The other, a soloist, left Friday evening at 9pm and we later learned had finished before noon on Saturday. Apparently, the fastest tandem time is 11 hrs, 47 mins and 27 seconds (if I’ve remembered correctly). The soloist had the right idea. By leaving at 9pm the sun was setting at his back as he travelled east. By the time the sun was cresting the eastern horizon in the morning he was heading west and racing it to the finish. We on the other were travelling with the sun in our eyes on the way in and out.
The bulk of the circuit’s portage trails are completed in the first 30 kilometres as you walk into Kibee Lake, then on to Indian Point and finally into the western arm of Isaac Lake. The morning cloud and fog on Indian Point Lake was incredible. A thin cloud, a deep blue colour I’ve never seen, snaked through the spruce trees to our left but directly ahead was the scene of some sort of theophany. The fog lifted from the lake in wispy tendrils reaching up to embrace the low dark clouds and blended together as if the lake were pouring itself into the sky. Through it all the sun burst every crack and thin veil to drive beams of light onto the rippling waters which reflected them like frosted glass. We paddled into the light.
At the marshy end of Indian Point we spotted our first moose, a bull. We’d see 8 moose this trip. Though there have been plenty of bear sightings on the circuit this year (both black and grizzly) to our disappointment we saw none. We did get a good look at a young buck and a fat beaver along with a myriad of birds including, of course, several beautiful birds of prey.
The thirty two kilometre eastern arm of Isaac lake is without a doubt one of the more mentally challenging parts of this circuit. Its not as if there is nothing to look at. The water is an aqua marine colour that along the shore is clear all the way to the bottom. Every now and then a gushing white water spills from the steep shoreline into the lake and you are heading directly toward 4 snow capped craggy peaks. You are quite literally paddling across a Bob Ross painting. The problem is you feel trapped in that painting. The lake just goes on and on. We covered the distance in about 5 hours with only two brief stops. The first of which was a Brenton emergency to straighten his poor back. Thankfully a quick stretch seemed to fix him up for the rest of the trip. I know this circuit pretty well now but Isaac lake always tricks me. “The end is just around this point,” I’ll say only to follow it up with “oh I mean this next point or maybe this next point.” Stepping out at the end of the lake and the head of the Isaac River is always accompanied with a sense of gratitude.
The Isaac river is squeezed out of the lake between a rocky shore line to make a 90 degree right turn. They call it “The Chute.” You have the option of portaging around it but, really! Brenton and I debated whether we’d run the kayak through the chute or make the portage. I didn’t press too hard because I knew something he didn’t. From the shore the chute looks rather gentle. Certainly, the right turn is wide and the water though rolling and breaking gives the impression of gentle power. We pulled into shore and I headed over to inspect the chute. When I came back I said “before we unload maybe just stretch your legs and have a look at the river.” Brenton knew what I was doing but he went anyway. It took him moments to be seduced by the river. “Okay, let’s do it!”
The first time I paddled the chute I was with Lisa. We portaged our gear around it to walk back and take our empty canoe down the water. A practical precaution. If you roll over its nice not to send all your gear over the Isaac falls. That first run down the river was a success but not before spinning us around in a complete 360 and graciously spitting us out the other side a little wet but still floating. My skills have improved remarkably since then but my experience in a kayak is next to nothing. As you approach the chute from the lake and feel the immense power of the water push you along you realize the deception of the shoreline view too late to turn back. You sit much lower in a kayak than you do in a canoe. My adrenaline rose rapidly as the chute pulled us in and I waited for the right moment to burry the rudder and my paddle. “Here we go!” My paddle dug in at the bottom of a rolling wave and its crest swamped the back of the kayak. The skirt kept the majority of the water out but the weight of the water gave me a moment of terror that we would roll as we came to what felt like a dead stop. “Pull hard Brenton, pull!” With increased strength and determination he drove us free of the gripping force of the water and down stream. A few hundred meters down the river you run through what they call the “roller coaster.” Its a narrowing of the river that creates a series of rolling waves. Having successfully navigated the chute I had a flash of anger when I thought we were about to be driven against a rock at the edge of the roller coaster. It was a fleeting feeling as the river swept us safely beyond. The nose of the kayak took a bit of a dive and it was Brenton’s turn to have the river attempt to pull him down. he had forgotten to fully zip up his kayak skirt and ended up with a few gallons of water in his lap. In the end we made it safely down the river full of adrenaline and recovered from the gross monotony of Isaac’s 32 kilometres.
A couple portages and a small stretch of river later we passed the deafening roar of the Isaac falls into McCleary Lake. This is my favourite place on the entire chain. It’s a small lake in a small valley. The Isaac falls crashes down just out of view from the lake but the dull roar of it can be heard echoing off the mountains that enclose it. A small trappers’ cabin lies lopsided like a beached boat on its eastern bank. Spruce, cedar and fir trees rise powerfully from the steep hillsides surrounding it. The shore line is reedy and swampy drawing moose to the feed. Those snowcapped peaks seen from Issac lake tower above it all and at their base gently rolls the Cariboo River. There is something restorative about the place that I can’t describe. Its about the half way point on the circuit and thus about the most remote, hemmed in as it is by the Isaac and Cariboo rivers. Should the zombie apocalypse bring modern society to a crashing halt you can find me on McCleary Lake fishing.
In no time we were leaving this little paradise and entering the Cariboo River. The contrast of this trip’s 30 minute ride down the 5 kilometres of the Cariboo and the slog we made in February was palpable. This last winter was a warm one and the river was open when we reached it in February. In snowshoes and drawing our 80 pound sleds we were forced to traverse the rough shoreline down to Lanezi Lake. It took us ten hours to make those 5 kilometres. The river is powerful but not much of a danger if you pay attention. The remnants of the occasional wrecked canoe along the shore are a good reminder to stay vigilant.
The Cariboo River spreads its silt across the entirety of the 14 kilometre Lanezi Lake. It’s a murky green. It is here that you shift from the cooler rougher ecosystem of the east side of the chain to a gentler warmer less mighty western side. By the time we’d traversed the majority of Lanezi we were going on our longest stretch in the kayak without a reprieve (even n the Issac we pulled off twice). We were therefore sore and tired when the wind began to push the lake back up the Cariboo River. We ducked in and out of every bend in the shoreline to escape the wind but it was a tremendous battle. There is a campsite at the end of Lanezi and we pulled in for a bio break and to boil water for dinner. The plan was to boil the water, fill up our freeze dried meals and get back in the kayak. One of us would paddle while the other ate and then we’d switch. The wind made this impossible. It taunted us rushing in in great powerful gusts to then go still for a minute or two before whipping back up. So we sat and ate and lingered spending nearly an hour in hopeful anticipation of a calming of the winds. The winds continued as we climbed back into the kayak and set its nose defiantly into it.
We paddled what remained of Lanezi into the wind and on into Sandy lake where we knew we’d find no protective inlets. We’d have to battle for every inch of that lake. In 2011 Brenton and I as youth leader drug a group of boys around the circuit. When we reached Sandy Lake on that trip we were met with similar winds but also with such torrential rain that it was difficult to tell where the lake ended and the sky began. The rain came with such ferocity that the large drops exploded into the lake sending water shrapnel back into the air. There were storm clouds in the sky on this day too but they were scattered and lacking the power they could have if they joined forces. The sun streamed into our faces with the wind and a fine mist of rain carried from a billowing storm cloud some distance to our right brought a little laughter to my heart. We pulled past the beach where in my minds eye I could see the half dozen canoes, carrying those boys of five years ago, into the sandy shore. The rain brought the boys over their bows like men storming the beaches in some 20th century battle. They fled for whatever cover they could find, (out houses, bear caches, trees) while their leaders pitched an impressive tarp fortress and miraculously built fires beneath them. How on earth did we ever get anything to burn there…? We must have carried the dry wood under tarps in the canoes from a distant wood lot.
One of my favourite pictures is from that youth trip. Its of me sitting in the back of a canoe wearing my favourite leather hat as the rain drips around me. I have the biggest grin on my face. Two of my young men are also sitting in the canoe but looking forlorn and cold. I haven’t seen those two in sometime and I wonder if they’ve yet learned to smile in-spite of the rain. It is true that I said a few silent prayers standing on the beach at the end of Lanezi Lake that the wind might abate and that we could carry on in calm waters. The winds kept on perhaps because that prayer would be answered in the form of strength to endure. You may argue that that hour rest and a good meal were the source of our strength to meet the wind after those first 80k and you’d likely be right but knowing how the miracle is accomplished does not make it any less miraculous to me. I know from whence my strength springs.
So through the wind we travelled down Sandy Lake and the next stretch of the Cariboo River before finding shelter in Babcock creek. We passed that couple that left at 3am on the shores of Spectacle Lake. They’d reached that point when the winds came up and opted to pitch their tent rather than fight that battle. We would meet them the next day at the mouth of the Bowron River and the final sprint to the finish. They passed us there like we were standing still. When we met them at the dock the secret of their speed was revealed in 12 ounce bent shaft paddles and a 25lb white water canoe. I could literally lift their canoe over my head easily with my left hand. I may still be a little green with envy. Brenton and I had to weigh the kayak after that… 98 pounds. The revelation that such equipment existed kept us talking all the way back to Prince George. I’m fairly certain we could complete the circuit in less than 16 hours given the right equipment. Any one out there want to sponsor us? Maybe some company marketing to rad dad weekend warriors… 🙂 we could be the spokesmen for some cool product middle-aged dads everywhere need.
If you’ve managed to read this far your endurance skills could likely take you around the Bowron too. It is perfectly acceptable to take 6-7 days though and completely and utterly worth the time.