Archive for the 'Britannia Beach' Category


The Queen was right about my home town

I couldn’t agree more:


Talking to a 14-year-old about Canadians and Americans

Girl: There’s this boy in my class. He’s SUCH a jerk!  All he talks about it how great it is in America and how lousy Canada is.  He even said he was going to do a class report on how much better the USA is than Canada.

Me: He must have been joking about that part.

I guess so.

–Does he know you’re also Canadian?

Of course!

–He’s just trying to get a rise out of you.

I know.

–Has he even been to the States?

Probably.  Yeah, I think they went to Florida on vacation.

–Florida!  They probably saw more Canadians there than Americans.  They all come down to escape the winter.

Girl laughs.

–You know, when I was a kid in Britannia Beach we had American families living among us.  The mine was owned by Americans.  Some of their kids would brag to us all the time about how great it was down in the States.  We used to roll our eyes every time and then talk about them later.

Laughs again.

–Americans are always shooting their mouths off about something, but Canadians don’t like it when people brag.  Actually, it used to be that way, but now I’m not so sure.  Last time I was in British Columbia I noticed how they now put The Best Place on Earth as a slogan on their license plates.   Canadians always used to be so modest, and now they’re trying to tell everyone that BC’s the best place on earth?   I mean, when you know you’ve got something special, you don’t go around bragging about it.  That’s the way we grew up, anyway.


The berries and why I pick them

Back in the thick of summer a colleague at work looked at my bare forearms and asked, “Did you guys get a cat?”

“No,” I answered, inspecting the tiny red scratches, “just been berry-picking.”

The blackberries were beautiful this summer.  They started to ripen during a long heat wave while I was away at some shin-dig late June in Toronto, a hot, sticky blanket that lingered over the north of Germany for another couple of weeks after I got back until the third week of July.  Riding by my usual patches I’d always stop to inspect the crop, checking to make sure the bright green buds were on their way to red.  Then, as the red ones at the apex of each bunch started to blacken, I knew my free time for the next couple of weeks would be filled with picking, baking pies and making jam.

I have three main patches to pick in rotation.  One is a five-minute bike ride from the office, so after work I’d ride my bike into the thickest part, change into my old clothes and start filling the empty containers.

My main patch is a five-minute walk from home on a huge empty lot near the commuter rail line.  A third is a little further out of the way and much smaller, but worth it because the bushes are up against a building that catches and intensifies the heat of the sun, making the berries especially sweet if you wait long enough before picking them.  For the main patch near our place I’d carry a stepladder to throw over the bushes and gain access to the juiciest ones at the top that, without aid, always remain just too far out of reach.

Since I’ve been old enough to pick up a pail I’ve been heading off to pick blackberries, bringing them home so my mother could cook them up.    To be able to carry on so many years later something that started behind our house in a little mountainside Pacific coast village in Canada gives me a connection not only to my earliest past, but with the place it all started.

I also like the calming, meditative effect of being focused on one task.  In this age of continuous partial attention and constant interruption, having a couple of hours to concentrate on something as simple and timeless as gathering food for your family is quite rare.   I took the little red-haired girl along one morning and noticed that after the first few minutes of chatting and joking about little things, she too became relaxed and quiet as we worked our way along.

In bringing her along I also think I’m showing her how important it is to seize the day, to do things when it’s time to do them, because if there’s one thing that won’t wait for the next day, it’s berries.

There is also a great satisfaction in serving up a warm blackberry pie for dessert while a stack of jam jars cools on the counter, knowing that when you go to open one the following January you’ll be able to enjoy something that truly is the fruit of your own labours, and which costs nothing but the time you spend on it.  I go to markets and see trays of perfect berries selling for €8 a half-kilo and give a little inward smile.   Of course it’s easier to just buy them, but the pain of a few thorns and scratches that go away in a few days are worth it to get a lot more than just the berries.


Vancouver 2010 Olympics: who hell would ever want to drive up here?

The road from Vancouver to our little village of Britannia Beach was punched through in the late 1950s.  It finally ended a half-century of isolation, because until then the only way in or out was by a freighter that used to dock here:

But the trek seven miles further north to Squamish was little more than a glorified logging road until I was about 10 years old when they finally opened the new highway.  This photo, taken from the top of the Stawamus Chief this past summer, looks south to Britannia at what they used to call Snake Hill – or as my mother used to laugh and call it: Reptile Incline.  It’s a four-lane straight stretch now.

North of Squamish to Whistler the road was a treacherous dirt track full of potholes, throat-cracking dust, flying stones to form spider cracks on your windshield, and dips so sudden we lost our entire exhaust system once as the fully loaded car bottomed out on the way home.  At one point you had to drive on a one-way lane over the lip of Daisy Lake dam.  You can get a good look of the spillway on the right as you head north going over a bridge.

Our family has a story about that road I like to tell about Whistler whenever people start to brag about their investments.

It’s because it’s the anti-boast, the how-could-you-have-been-so-short-sighted scenario, and it goes like this:

Despite the crappy road we used to cram into the family car and head up to Whistler for picnics.   One day we arrived at our usual spot and had a picnic under a huge sign: Future sight of Whistler Mountain Ski Area.  Selling shares for $500.

At the time skiing had yet to catch on to the masses.  It was still a sport for the very rich, those who could afford the expensive clothing, the gear, and of course the leisure time.   Reading that sign after dodging a thousand potholes that day, they laughed and said, “Who the hell would ever want to take the trouble to drive up that damn road just to go skiing?  It’s not even fit for a goat trail.”

My parents weren’t skiers, and to be fair to them they were too busy raising four kids on one income living in a rented home to even consider buying into a ski development, but they also had a good laugh for the same reason over the Lots For Sale signs.

As a two-year-old, too bad I didn’t have the wisdom or foresight to pipe up with the old adage: Gee Mom, real estate is like sex!  Get lots when you’re young!

Photo credit sign: virtual


Drive the Sea to Sky highway to Whistler in less than a minute

What you are about to see is a road that no longer exists the way it’s shown here.

The skiing and Nordic events for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics are going to take place 110 km up the road from the city at Whistler, so since this video was shot they’ve widened the road in most places and straightened out others.

Still, it is an amazing stretch of highway.  Clinging to the side of a fjord, you are constantly rewarded with ever-changing views of ocean, mountain and sky.  Hold on to your seat!

Sharp-eyed viewers will catch a glimpse of my mother, who after picking him up at the airport is driving her drowsy son to Squamish, half-way toWhistler during my trip home in 2007.  Those who know the road will recognise the hair-pin turn we all used to call suicide corner, now bypassed and spread out to four lanes in the upgrade.  It also shows a stretch along a sheer cliff at Porteau Cove that they couldn’t widen even to three because the old British Columbia Railway line – now Canadian National – runs alongside between the road and the ocean.   When I was 4 years old in 1964 there was a huge landslide there that blocked the road for several days, once again cutting off our tiny village from the Big Smoke of Vancouver.

Unless something major gets in the way – like chronic procrastination – from now until the Winter Olympics are over I hope to post about this road. Every member of our family has had at least one near-death experience over the more than half-century we’ve been driving it.

I’d also like to post a couple of stories of skiing during the old days at Whistler, and anything else related to the Olympics that happens to cross my path.  For the few who come across this blog I hope it will offer a personal historical supplement to the show-off glitz that’s overtaken the event.


Back from British Columbia

But still heavily jet-lagged.   A couple of photos from my hometown are about all I can muster right now.

canada bc howe sound anvil island defence islands trees

Now taking bets as to when this old shed finally gives in:

canada bc howe sound britannia beach crumbling dock

And one from around Kamloops, where my mother went to school during the war:

canada bc kamloops sun peaks hazy view


a walk in the snow

In this summer without summer, a story from a winter without winter.  I guess you could call this a prequel to my railway memoir series, which is slowly getting under way.

She looked across at me and started to cry.

Don’t cry, Jessie, I said. I LOVE you.  I won’t let you down.  We can make it through this together.

Canada Britannia Beach Mount Sheer winter hikeSaying I love you: As the words spilled out I felt my face flush, knew as I was saying it that it was a desperate move, out of place and out of time.  I’d only kissed her for the first time three days before, but it was all I could think of saying to make her feel it was worth taking the risk she had to take.

I can’t do it, she moaned, shaking her head.  I’m so scared I’ll slip.

She was less than six feet away, but between us lay a steep slash of ice, a creek frozen and dusted in snow we’d blundered upon with numb feet and trembling fingers.  What had started out as a happy walk in the woods had turned into a dangerous mountaintop expedition,  unplanned and ill-equipped.

Here, take my hand, I said, reaching out as far as I could while holding onto a shrub poking out through the snow.

I can’t reach it.  You’re too far away.

You’re going to have to trust me, and you’re going to have to trust yourself, I said.   I can go back and get you, but I can’t carry you across, so I’m going to stay here and help you over it.  You have to jump and grab my hand.  Then I’ll pull you the rest of the way.

She leaned into the snow, her head shaking.

Trust me, I said.  We’ll be OK.  Just aim for my hand.

Flecks of snow tumbled into the gap between us as she shifted her feet to a better position.  They whispered down the icy trough like sand on glass, skitting the surface in streaks of turquoise.

Don’t look down.  Just across at me.  Look at me.

I felt shame as her eyes caught mine.  This was all my fault.

It had been such a warm and dry winter, there’d be no snow to worry about even way up there, I’d said.  I know a great place where we can go behind Britannia. We’ll take my old man’s car, we’ll drive up through the forest on a road I used to take when I was just a kid in the back of a truck, past a ghost town where we’ll stop and look at the old swimming pool, the tennis courts, the old baseball diamond, the foundations of workers’ houses, the rusting machinery strewn around the entrance to the mine.  We’ll drive past a dam, up a road I took last summer to another dam, park the car and walk across its lip to the other side to the trailhead that leads to a cabin way up there.  It’ll be so much fun.

Now we’d somehow lost the trail we’d stamped through the snow on the way up, snow I never expected to find.  We could have turned back on the ascent, but I knew there was something to eat and a chance to warm up a bit in the hut if we just kept going a little higher.  Rest our feet, too.  The snow wasn’t deep, but the surface crust wouldn’t hold us.    We kept breaking through, the hard jagged edge scraping our ankles with every step.

Suddenly she lunged forward, aiming for my outstretched hand.

I grasped her arm as she slipped below, then wrenched my body back to pull her over. She landed beside me, covered in snow and shaking, so I dusted her off and held her close.

As she melted into me with relief I could smell the earthy leather of the jacket she always wore, the scent like vapour in the cold, still air.

Let’s keep going, I said, pulling back.  We’ve not a lot of time to reach the top dam before it’s dark.

We walked in silence, our feet throbbing.

As we slowly descended, the snow thinning out to heather and shrub again, I was no longer worried about us not getting home, 16-year-olds having to be rescued and then having to explain what we were doing in a restricted area, driving beyond all those No Trespassing signs, going on a jaunt in the middle of winter without telling anyone, up a trail I knew only from one hike in the glinting flash of summer.

I was thinking more about what I’d blurted out in my desperation.  I love you.  Something instinctive told me that even though that’s what we both were feeling, had felt since we first shut the door behind us to listen to records in her bedroom, I shouldn’t say it.  Don’t be the first one to say it.  Ever.

January 30, 1977 is often in my thoughts, and I still wonder what it meant to her.

Because about two years later, close to the wrenching end and long after we’d begun that slow unwinding of the bonds we’d sealed together that day, she insisted that she’d been the one to first say I love you.  That night a couple of months later when we’d stopped at the lookout on the way home from Vancouver, a breathy whisper in the moment she lifted herself just enough so I could lower her jeans down past her knees, the doors locked, the windows dripping.

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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britbeach / at / yahoo dot ca

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