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I sold a piece of land the other day. Debt has gone and I am free. But it has left a space in my being. That lush and gentle acreage has underlain and defined my 40 years in British Columbia.
From Vancouver, drive a day east to Castlegar. Turn south down the Columbia Valley’s west bank, now recovering its green hillsides since the smelter at Trail reduced its pollution. Turn off at Fairview and drive as far as you can go up the old logging road. Park, then hike two miles up through the scrubby alder and pine that still struggles for a foothold in the eroded rock and glacial till.
The land will suddenly level off. Cross a seasonal creek, and you’re in a swampy saddle between two hills, like an Appalachian “holler.” Suddenly you’re walking in knee-high grass and looking up at birch, lodgepole pine, cedar, yew, cottonwood, white pine a metre wide, and Douglas fir too big for hydro poles. Look right, through the jack pines, and you’ll see a log cabin.
In the heady back-to-the-land days of 1973, my new wife and I quit our career-path jobs in London, Ont., packed an old Bell Telephone van with our possessions and drove out to B.C. to rendezvous at the piece of land with two other like-minded couples.
We scampered around like joyful bears, marvelling at the trees, cheering when we found standing water unexpected in late July. We climbed the hill to the pink granite outcrop (“the Tit”), and looked down the Columbia River to Trail. We discovered a 60-foot waterfall nearby and showered under it. In this wilderness, I grasped the palpable truth of the idea that humans are part of nature, a revelation reinforced later by an awestruck visitor who kept repeating, “This is not Southern Ontario.”
We put our cash together and bought the 133 acres of District Lot 8625 from Old Jesse down in Fairview for $100 an acre. Our first real estate.
But what did we know about forestry, or gardening, or building? We were soft-handed city folks. Well, we just got on with it.
My wife and I picked a flat outcrop for our cabin. We rented a small house in town, traded the Bell van for a Blazer 4x4, bought a chainsaw and a few other tools, and cleared the road.
My wife found a teaching job in Nelson, and I read books about log-cabin building. I cut down some eight-inch jack pines and limbed them, peeled them and dragged them to the site. I gathered rocks for the foundation and laid out four logs in a 20-foot square.
Old Jesse scraped and banged his clapped-out Chevy up the hill for a visit. “You guys,” he said, “should make a dude ranch up here.” Prophetic words, it turns out.
Then the snow started flying, so we cut more logs to peel in the spring, and I got a job in the sawmill.
“Used to be a schoolteacher?” said my mates in the mill. Why the hell would a guy quit a cushy job like that to go pulling boards on the green chain?
I hung in for a couple of months just to show I could cut the mustard. At first I couldn’t, but I gained the foreman’s respect by showing up for every shift. Then I was hired at the Doukhobor Village site, where I learned about history and tutored myself in Russian.
“John,” the boss would say, “write a lyetter for me. Use your own words.” I’d write the letter. “Oh, that’s good! At your trade you are pyerrfect.”
Surprise! I drifted inexorably to the high school and substituted, and got my B.C. teaching certificate. That was the writing on the wall.
But the cabin got built! I taught myself scribing and saddle notching, and over the summer one log went on top of another.
I single-handedly manoeuvred a 25-foot roof beam into place, cut four-inch larch for the rafters, bought cedar boards for the ceiling, cut down a huge dead cedar and split shakes for the roof, and nailed down two-by-sixes for the floor.
The cabin’s still standing today, the roof still keeping the rain out. I dug a well, too, and cribbed it with cedar.
But still, I was most in my element as a schoolteacher, and my wife needed to go to law school. Eventually we moved to Vancouver, and I got work in “my trade.”
After that we visited the cabin a few times in the summers, with our kids a couple of times. But it’s a long way, and here we have Kitsilano, the ocean and the islands.
I did a bit of selective logging, keeping the dream alive. Seeking solitude on New Year’s Eve, 1999, I snowshoed up and spent two nights alone in the cabin. Remember Y2K? I was both relieved and disappointed when I came down and found business as usual.
There were a couple of divorces, mine included, and a death, and in the end I owned two-thirds of the land. It was worth a few dollars now, and my energy had shifted to Hornby Island. Time to sell dear old 8625.
The guy who bought it likes the cabin; wants to build a “wellness centre.” Isn’t that something like a dude ranch?
I’m as old as Jesse was when he gave that advice. I might hike up and see how the wellness centre is coming. As the Cooper Brothers sing, “The dream never dies ( just the dreamer).”
John Gellard lives in Vancouver.