In Stone and Silt, Nikaia and her family live in a cabin alongside the Fraser River - the longest river in what is now British Columbia. The Fraser is central to their lives in many ways... and even plays a part in the murder mystery that Nikaia finds herself swept into.
The sound of a river has always triggered thoughts of home for me. Like Nikaia, I was born in Lytton - the place where the Fraser is joined by its largest tributary, the Thompson River.
First Nations people called the town Camchin, or the Great Fork. It was also known as the Meeting Place - fitting, because not only did the rivers meet there, but so have thousands of people through the ages as they followed the ancient trade routes of the two rivers. An old postcard from Lytton gives it the cheery motto "Where Old Friends and the Rivers Meet."
The Fraser is home to one of the world's largest salmon runs. Local First Nations fishermen would come to our home in the fall, offering fresh sockeye - caught by dip-net and still dripping with river water. Mom would refuse fish that hadn't been gutted, but if the fish was cleaned I'd come home from school to find Mom hovering over a silver-green sockeye salmon on the kitchen counter. Mom would soak it in cold water and finish the cleaning. The fish were huge and had to be bent to fit in the sink.
In the book, Nikaia and her sister Klima are warned by their parents to be careful around the water. As a child, I never swam or boated in the river - even though the soaring summer temperatures of Lytton made that a temptation. I finally got to know the river more intimately when at the age of fifteen I started working as a guide for the local river rafting company.
The rapids on both rivers are thrilling - especially Hell's Gate on the Fraser, and the long stretch of whitewater on the Thompson known as the Devil's Gorge.
But my favorite times were drifting downstream in the calmer stretches of the Fraser, where the guests and I would lean back into the sun-soaked pontoons, and talk about the layers of history unfolding as we passed the canyon walls. Our musings would be interrupted by the sight and sound of hydraulics - boils and surges of water - that always gave an impressive display of the river's power.
Occasionally the drifting raft would get caught by a small whirlpool, and get launched into a sudden spin. The panorama would rotate around us, giving everyone a new position for viewing the canyon. I always enjoyed the guests' reactions when they felt the great boat - a couple of hundred pounds of wood, rubber, and steel - being tossed about by the river like a child's toy.
In the quiet moments, when the breeze subsided, a gentle but distinct hissing sound could be heard. More often than not I'd be approached by a worried-looking guest, asking if the raft was leaking air. But the sound was the whispering of the Fraser River silt, as it scrubbed against the banks and the bedrock below. If you're ever near the Fraser, take a moment to sit by the banks and be still. You'll hear the river whispers.
A year ago I was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. When one of my old rafting friends heard the news, he sent me this note:
Thank you, friend, for that bit of river wisdom.
Stone and Silt is scheduled to be published in Fall 2013.