Fraser River and Grindstone Creek

Our childhood home in Vancouver BC was on the north flank of Point Grey, a morainal bluff that overlooked the North Arm of the Fraser river. From my bedroom window I could see the river, Sea Island with its dairy farms (now mostly occupied by Vancouver International Airport) and beyond, the Salish Sea and the mountains of Vancouver Island. Upstream to the east was the workaday industrial area of Marpole dominated by the Euburne sawmills; west, a large boatyard and beyond that the Gulf of Georgia, now known as the Salish Sea. Along the banks of the North Arm were moored booms of logs on their way upstream to the sawmill and huge barges heaped high with sawdust waiting to be towed downstream to the river mouth and across the Salish Sea to the pulp and paper mills on Vancouver Island. The air smelled of tree resin. As a boy, I enjoyed hanging out on the river bank, often hopping from log to log on the moored booms, even though that dangerous activity was forbidden by my parents.

In the 90’s I began to write short prose pieces, recollections of my life from childhood on with the vague idea of combining them at some future time into an extended work. Fraser River (1950) was the first one.

The original version of this story had an ending in which I compared my dreams in 1950 with the realities of 42 years later. Instead of recapitulating what you know already about the decline of fishing and lumbering in British Columbia, I have extended the autobiographical reach of the story to include my career choice and something of my working years.

Logs bound upstream, sawdust bound downstream, and one of the many tugs busy on the river circa 1990. Note the unsorted quality of the logs indicative of a decline in quality of available timber.

Fraser River 1950 and Grindstone Creek 1980

A cool April wind blows out of the Gulf of Georgia and into the Fraser River.  The tide is ebbing, current flows against wind and the North Arm is filled with the whitecaps my mother calls “sea-horses”.  The big Douglas Fir at the front of the house sighs in the wind.  The lawn is littered with its dark-green twigs snatched in the night when the wind broke out of the west as the rain ended.  A tug is butting up the river to Marpole with a big tow of logs.  It hoots for the swing bridge at Euburne where in the lulls between gusts of wind we can hear the big saws at work on logs rafted in from the coastal forests.  When the wind drops the sea-smell of the Gulf and the river tide flats will be replaced by the pitchy aroma of fresh-sawn fir or cedar and the acrid smoke from the mill trash burner.  Today is good for drying laundry because the cinders that can pepper white sheets are being blown upriver to New Westminster.  Yellow trucks rattle down Marine Drive with loads of sawn slabwood and mill-waste to be consumed in the stoves and furnaces of the East End.  You can pick up chunks of wood that have jounced off the tops of the trucks every few feet along the road.  When the trucks pass there is a sweet smell of wood mixed with exhaust.  I would like to drive a yellow truck like that with the muscular dual rear wheels and the big exposed differential cases.

Tonight, my Aunt Ethel has promised that we will go down to the river.  I like these expeditions with Aunt Ethel because she lets me do forbidden things.  Such as running on the log booms that lie along the shore waiting for the saws at Euburne Mills.  An exciting but hazardous game, especially when the tide is ebbing, because if you fall then between two logs you can be dragged under the boom by the cold, grey water to be fished out hours later with a police pike-pole.  My parents repeat variants of such stories, how, for example, my great grandmother’s gardener, a powerful swimmer, was caught by the ebb tide current and emerged exhausted from the river miles downstream.  I feel exhilarated but safe on the logs.  They are big and steady, utterly indifferent to the skipping of a small boy.  And the rough and coruscated bark seems more sure than asphalt against my thick-soled runners.  Tonight it is not the prospect of skipping out to mid-channel on the backs of logs that has me excited but eulachon fishing at high tide. Eulachons arrive in the river each spring to spawn.  They are small fish, like smelts.  They are also called candlefish because when dried, they can be burned like a torch or a candle, they are so rich in oil.  I would like to try this but the fish I set aside smell very bad and become fuzzy before they get dry.  Eulachon grease is a staple of the First Nations’ diet along the rivers where they spawn.  Aunt Ethel and I will take a bucket down to the river and patrol the sandy shore.  Some people use dip nets and catch eulachons faster but we like to pounce and clutch at the little dark humps in the silty water as they wiggle into shore.  With twenty-five silver fish in a bucket I’ll feel a fisherman’s pride.

April has rolled over into September.  School starts again tomorrow.  Our family and Aunt Nora’s family have gathered for dinner at our grandparents.  They live nearby in a big house with a sweeping view of the Fraser’s North Arm.  At dinner, my grandfather, Uncle Hugh and my father have been talking about business, first telephone business, because that is what my Dad and my grandfather do, and then lumber and fishing business because this is British Columbia in 1950 and it is all around us.  I like it when my grandfather talks about big logging trucks that carry tanks of water just to keep their brakes cool on the mountain roads or when Uncle Hugh gets going on dredges and draglines. When they talk about money it is not so interesting but already I understand that if you want to have lots of it you have to cut down trees and saw them up, catch and can fish, or yell orders to men driving bulldozers.  If you were not in too big a hurry, you could sit at a desk like my Dad and tell people where to put telephones and telephone poles, but I like fish best. 

After dinner, my sister and I and two cousins play on the swing on the high bank above the river flood plain.  It is warm, the sun is low and golden, the breeze has fallen.  Every few minutes we hear a put-put-put sound of an Easthope motor as a gill-netter heads downstream for a night’s fishing in the Gulf.  The salmon are converging on the estuary as they begin their spawning run upstream and the fishermen, one man to a boat for the most part, will lay out their gill nets and drift all night.  At the far end of the net there is a little float with a flag and a hurricane lantern and there is a masthead light on each boat.  When the fishing is good there will be many boats out on the Gulf, a little city of lights.  Tugs and freighters sometimes churn hooting through the fleet and the fishermen scramble to get their boats and gear out of the way.  A gill netter can be yanked backwards and founder if the net gets caught by a big tug or a freighter.  My Dad and I sometimes walk along the wharves near Marpole and look at the fishboats.  Some of them don’t look very safe. If the wheelhouse door of a scruffy one is open you see an engine rusty and greasy in different places, wires and pipes held in place with bent nails, dirty sleeping bags jumbled on a rough bunk, and the glint of water in the bilges.  But I like the idea of catching salmon in my own boat, much as I am attracted to the notion of driving a yellow slabwood truck.  My father’s laconic un-hunh’s in response to such statements indicate that I should think again.  I am catching on.  The kids I meet from Marpole have Dads, uncles or brothers that make “big money” on gillnetters or extra shifts on the trucks but it’s money that comes and goes like the river freshets while my dad wets his line in the sluggish stream of a salaried job and compound interest.  All the same, tonight at the end of summer, constricted by my Sunday clothes and the thought of a  winter of school, I gaze through the amusement park telescope my grandfather has placed on the bank near the swings, tracking a late fishboat that cuts a downstream V in the reflected sunset, watching the fisherman leaning on the wheelhouse, steering from the outside position, and dreaming of nosing out into the Gulf myself to meet the fat and silver salmon.

My first salmon – September, 1948

I did not become an independent commercial fisherman; I took some of my father’s advice and studied engineering at the University of British Columbia. In my undergraduate years I spent several summers as an intern of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada in Nanaimo where I helped out on offshore cruises intended to map the deep ocean structures in their own right and to relate this information to the ocean years of Pacific Salmon. I loved the mix of sea-going and science. When I revealed this enthusiasm to one of my father’s business associates he snorted, “My God, boy! You might as well become a minister!”

With no pre-planned career path, I seized opportunities as they presented themselves. Thus I acquired a Masters degree from McGill University’s Ice Research Group and spent the next 4 years as a NATO research associate attached to the Laboratoire Nationale D’Hydraulique in Paris, France . In December 1967, married and with a child on the way, we returned to Canada where I had accepted a position the newly established Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, Ontario. For the next 30 years I would be a Great Lakes freshwater oceanographer.

My association with Pacific salmon continued in Ontario. Thanks to the extirpation of landlocked Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario due to overfishing, streambank clearing, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the presence of the Welland Canal, small, herring-like ocean fishes called alewives made their way into the Great Lakes and prospered to excess. There were no predators to match the scale of the invasion. The “cure” was to introduce hatchery-raised Pacific Salmon to crop the alewives. The salmon grew large and fat and created a large sport fishing industry. Because they were large and fat and at the top of the aquatic food chain they had accumulated significant burdens of toxic organic substances washed into the lakes via rivers or rain from the surrounding industry. People were advised to limit or even avoid meals of lake-caught salmon. This warning applied particularly to pregnant women.

Some mature salmon ready to spawn found their way from the big lake into rivers and creeks. A few streams proved capable of supporting small runs of spawning salmon. However the sport-fishing industry ultimately relied on annual releases of hatchery fry. Grindstone Creek drained wetlands and farms north of Burlington, Ontario and flowed south over the Niagara Escarpment into Hamilton Harbour close to where we lived. It is a beautiful little creek snuggled into its narrow valley but very polluted. It was with mixed feelings that I encountered large spawning coho salmon in the creek on autumn afternoons. My work and the salmon’s lives were both bound up in the industrial matrix of Southern Ontario.

My son and I went fishing once in Lake Ontario in early spring when fish tended to congregate between the warm onshore water and the cold open lake. We caught a large lake trout, a fish at the top of the lake’s food chain, like the salmon. The public advisory said we could safely eat a few servings of lake trout per month as long as we were not pregnant. We never fished in Lake Ontario again although we did enjoy fishing in Georgian Bay and on canoe trips.

From time to time I went fly fishing with my father in British Columbia. He taught both me and my son the rudiments of the sport. On the evening of a splendid day’s fishing on Pennask Lake, in the highlands between Penticton and Merrit BC, my father got up from the dinner table, walked a few steps and died. He was a just and caring man of his time and I like to think that the Creator knew it.

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Cohoes in Grindstone Creek

Strange we should meet here,
you and I, Pacific creatures.
warmed by a late sun.
You rest against the rocks and clay,
down among the willows
where golden leaves
glide smolt-like through the pools
to the brooding lake.

I watch your struggle,
wish it were the consummation of a cycle;
then I could rejoice at this meeting.
But this is no ice-fed stream,
purling over clean boulders to a salty gulf;
it yields instead the foamy juice of a worn land.
And the next rain,
sluicing off the parking lots,
engineered past bungalows in concrete ducts
will undo your labours,
capriciously misplaced,
erase your silver memories.

(October 1982)

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Tyee

I see my father in the bow
of the wooden boat
I owned before I left this Coast.

Cowichan sweater, ragged cuffs,
his fishing hat is stained with use,
the stink of herring on his fingers.

Other boats lie all around,
calls and conversation,
this brave September morning.

We’re all dreaming of Tyee,
a silver fish that circles deep,
fat but fiercely greedy still.

Eager, and greedy too,
we were among the last
to entertain a faith in plenty.

(March 2019)

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5 thoughts on “Fraser River and Grindstone Creek

  1. Farrell, Thanks for these pieces, introducing me to an unknown world although my great-grandfather and his two sons were all fishers and made a good living that way. Fish was plentiful in my growing up days by the seaside and I remember collecting sprats from the edge of the sea in buckets in summertime, and fishermen sold herrings fresh from buckets in their season though our town, dirt cheap too! On our arrival in Canada by boat we were invited to a family celebration of Canadians we had come to know during the voyage and who lived in Langley and we were introduced to oolichans! Everyone seemed to love them and we were a bit taken aback by the incredible oiliness! I’m talking more than fifty years ago now! Missing Penny and yourself from Zoom choir practices altho I did not participate in any of the recordings, that technology is way beyond my capabilities but I enjoyed being with everyone. Have a good summer if very different from anything we’ve ever known, cheers, Pauline

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Pauline. I enjoyed your fish stories. I hope the oolichans (eulachons) still run in the Fraser. There were similar fish in Lake Ontario called smelts that spawned on sandy beaches in the spring and were netted at night using lights as lures. Farrell

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this and seeing the photo of you as a kid with the salmon. And the photo and sketches

    Have heard various parts of these stories from you, some parts in more depth before. Remember that time we walked on the trails on Newcastle Island near Nanimo a few summers ago and I asked you to tell me more about the work you did as a summer student based in Nanimo? I loved hearing the details.
    Since I have moved to Halifax I have gotten used to the lakes and rivers in this area being safe to swim in. I never take it for granted as I remember so clearly that Grindstone creek and Hamilton Harbour / Burlington Bay were not safe to swim in and how it felt to know how polluted the area was and really wished it was possible to go swimming. I used to imagine what the area was like before humans had such negative impacts on it.

    I loved that Grindstone creek and valley so much. Thomas and I got to know it really well in our explorations as kids and teenagers – mostly the area from Hidden Valley to where the creek enters the harbour. It is so good that the RBG acquired the areas of land they manage. I hope they continue to protect it from urban sprawl.

    I remember going with you to see the salmon spawning in Grindstone creek. Thinking of a poem you wrote about portaging the canoe down Northshore and Danforth to get to paddle on the water – enjoying that but at the same time you were missing the Pacific Ocean

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