Treading Water: chapter 1

The axe lies against the chopping block to his left. There is no question: wood is required. He chooses not to think, but instead seizes the axe in a swift movement, the familiar shape fitting reassuringly into his palm. In a moment there is wood on block, axe in air, pieces on ground. But there is the slicing pain on the downswing, as if he has cut off his own foot with the axe, and with the biting shift of weight from foot to foot, the sharpness of the day rises, then falls.

It was not the first time that day he passed out from the pain.

Later, Gus labours in the glow of the oil lamp, one side of him toasting from the freshly cut wood burning in the stove, the other catching the chill of the early spring. The boards of the table push up through the old ledger paper, teasing penstrokes into wild aberrations. This table was never meant for writing, stained as it is with the blood of animals. His leg on a bucket prop jackknifes his torso as he bends forward. It’s uncomfortable, and he welcomes this as a change from the relentless throbbing in his leg. From the corner, the steady drips from the leak in the roof echo as they hit the biscuit tin set beneath. As the tin fills, the tone changes, and so provides a musical accompaniment to pain, isolation, and the scratch of the pencil.

One, two, three, four, counts Gus, pausing. He writes:

I, Augustus Sanders, being of sound mind, do hereby leave all of my worldly effects to my partner Jean-Pierre Desjardins of Bear Creek, British Columbia in the year of Our Lord 1904

He’s unsure if this is how these things should be written, but it sounds right. He goes on, tapping the pencil on the table top as he thinks of the things he must list. Tap, tap goes the pencil. Drip, drip comes the sound from the corner.

Trapline, upper Bear Creek to Arrow Landing

Four trapline cabins

Traps, snares, tools

My cabin at the base of Bear Creek by Syringa Cove

Two good horses boarding with Frieda and George Hartmann

No, he thinks, Frieda can have the horses…


Gus met Frenchie Desjardins at the Columbia Kootenay mine at Rossland. The Frenchman was loud, with great, sweeping gestures and big hands, black eyes glinting under thick brows, big voice, always singing on the job, even if nobody could understand what the hell he was singing about. And smart, Frenchie could smell a good deal just as he could sense a good man in a quiet demeanor, and Gus had such a demeanor. You could see it in the way quiet young Gus handled a workhorse, held a shovel, laced up a boot. After a while, there was no Gus without Frenchie, no Frenchie without Gus, like two sides to a penny.

Gus, oldest of a ragtag clan of grimy Sanders children, was out the door with a backwards wave of his cap by the age of 14. From the Portland docks he made his way to the British Columbia goldfields, his hardworking, quiet, likeable nature earning him friendly help and the occasional tip. In the Fraser the gold rush was booming, but he felt run over by the push and shove of it all; by 1893 he had moved inland, where there was word of good jobs to be had at Rossland.

On the day shift he shovelled muck and thought of nothing. At night, he dreamed of the tip that would lead him to the motherlode, when he dreamed at all. He would close his eyes against the constant shift and noise of the bunkhouse, sinking into a bed still warm from the last miner to lie there, gone on the next shift but leaving behind a pong of sweat and old farts. Took his boots off every other day to keep the rot out, slept with one hand over the bunk when he did, knuckles resting gently on the laces. Too tired to feel the bites from mattress vermin, he stayed comatose until the next shift clumped up the stairs and booted him down to breakfast.

He has a picture of them, taken outside the boarding house, spring of 1898. Gus is middle row, fourth from the left. His head is cocked, sandy hair emerging from a peaked cap. He eyes the camera thoughtfully, while beside him Frenchie, thumbs in suspenders, fixes the lens in a black-eyed stare, mouth rising slightly at the corners

Frenchie told Gus about a trapline a buddy worked up the lake above Bear Creek. His buddy had returned to Quebec, and now nobody was working it. To Gus, who knew nothing about trapping, it sounded better than shovelling sludge.

It was almost a year after they first met when they caught a tug heading north up the Lower Arrow Lake. They sat and smoked with the driver, watching the shoreline pass, hearing tales of progress. The CPR was running big freight boats, sternwheelers that would move lumber, people, pianos, anything at all, the driver said. Farms north at Whatshan were already turning out strawberries, barging them down the lake. Seems like every week there’s some new settlement, he told them: wharfs being built, buildings going up, and it wasn’t just the mining towns like Sandon, Retallack and Trail; farming, orcharding, and logging fed the boom. The driver swept his arm northward. The century is turning, he told them. There are great things happening.

Gus closed his eyes, imagined a lakeshore dotted with houses, two-storey homes with front porches and swings on them; a dog barking with a laughing child wrapped around its furry neck like a scarf. For a kid from dockside Portland, it was a pretty thought.

Moving northward up the long, narrow lake, they rounded a bend flanked by soft mountains. An Indian canoe slipped down the shoreline on the west side. “Lakes,” said the driver, and Gus thought he was talking about the water, but he was talking about the Indian. Ahead was a soft green, treed lowland rising to a sunny plateau. A creek meandered down, running sluggish in the August heat, probably a gusher in the spring. “Bear Creek,” said the driver as they pulled in by a gravel beach, the tug’s shallow keel scraping gently. A deadhead served as anchor to a line of raw logs lashed together with mining cable. As the two men precariously made their way to dry ground, Gus noticed a curl of smoke rising from behind a stand of poplar. Frenchie grinned. “Dinner,” he said, rounding out the word with a broad accent and a triumphant wave smokeward.

Standing there before an open fire in her long skirts, hair up in a bun, Frieda  stared as the two travellers emerged from the trees. The smell of woodsmoke and venison wafted from a pot on the fire. Gus looked at the woman at the fire, her hands on her hips, waiting. Involuntarily Gus glanced up the hillside but there was no house, no porch, no dog, no child. There was a large canvas tent, from which a man emerged.

Frieda’s mouth opened to speak, but instead it was her husband who spoke at that moment, the effect almost comical, like a ventriloquist’s trick. It took Gus a moment to catch up and pay attention to the neat man with the German accent. He spoke, more to the older man than the younger, and Gus found his attention shifting back to Frieda’s mouth. It was full and shaped as if carved from wood, with a warm, burnished grain. A corner twitched in amusement.

Raising his eyes to hers, he was met with a startling blue, and then she closed them briefly, a light extinguished. When she opened them, she was looking at her husband. “George Hartmann,” he said. “My wife, Frieda.”

George Hartmann’s handshake was firm, a man in charge, a master of the household. Frieda’s handshake said more. It said: I have great hopes for this place, this life. Welcome, it said.

Back to book>>