Monday, April 22, 2013

A view from the river

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.

For seven summers I guided whitewater trips down the Thompson gorge and the Fraser River. Our Fraser River trips started in the north, near the old Cariboo town of Williams Lake. Seven days later, we reached the take-out in Yale. We landed our boats in the same back-eddy where Nikaia sees the sternwheelers dock and unload their cargo.

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:

"Life is a river, Harv, sometimes there are obstacles that you have to get around, and a few bumps along the way.  But the energy of the river always finds its way through.  You may feel like you've fallen out of the boat, a bit out of control, but your family is your life jacket, they will help keep you afloat and your head above water.  So face downstream, follow that flow, maybe close your eyes and hold your breath a bit through the bumps and splashes, and you'll come through fine.  We'll see you in that deep, green pool below the rapids."

Thank you, friend, for that bit of river wisdom.

Stone and Silt is scheduled to be published in Fall 2013.


  1. Love the blog, Harv! Your love of the river comes through in your writing. And love the picture of you on the river. Can't wait until the book comes out. And GFW!!!

  2. Thank you, Betsy! My sister took that pic a loooong time ago. :)