A man with a chainsaw climbs through the branches and razes a giant cedar tree in 12-foot sections so your husband can make split rails to match the old fence. The thump from the too-large log ripples through your house in Ryder Lake, a hamlet of forest and cows in a hanging valley a few kilometres above the Bible Belt city of Chilliwack. After he’s done, piles of debris lay in the lower part of the yard. The neighbour’s dog crawls into the hollow of the stump and sniffs around. An artist friend drops by and dreams of slicing the rounds. She wants to make tables, resin the tops, sell them on Kijiji.
With the tree down, the sun crackles through the large windows on the east face of your 1970s-built cabin home. You gaze through a gap still cradled by conifers, birches and big leaf maple, toward the mountains: Elk, Thornton and Cheam. You get the binoculars and look for hikers along the ridges. You might get there too, but not until after you’ve cleaned up the yard.
Stick after stick goes into the flames. You remember the first time you drove around Ryder Lake, before the real estate agent was even involved, and discovered the lake was just a slough on somebody’s farm. You learned that the Women’s Institute, which has been around for 80 years, manages the community hall. Although you moved from an island in northern BC that only got cell coverage five years ago, you discovered that service is even worse here.
You call your house mid-century modern and think of Frank Lloyd Wright. It has a low-sloping roof with beams that run across the uninsulated ceiling to the outside. In the winter it gets cold, in the summer cooking hot. The outside is painted conifer green and knotty red cedar covers the interior walls. Painted bricks line the back of the platform for the old wood stove. You had to pull the dead weight of it out the side sliding door when you first arrived, because the insurance company said so. You haven’t replaced it, even though the furnace is 40 years old and rumbles like an earthquake when it comes on.
A thick column of smoke rises from the burn pile and you worry about carbon, but the sapling-thin logger tells you he’d release more greenhouse gases with his truck if he’d had to drag his chipper up the hill. “Besides,” he adds, “it’s your God-given right to burn.”
Getting to know the neighbours
In the mornings, a jazz band of birds call through the fog. You turn right out the driveway and jog down Briteside to Sherlaw.
You can’t see the monster at the first corner, but he runs, growling and crashing through brush along the fence line. You say “Hi Buddy, good dog” and hope there’s no break in the chainlink. You wave at the pussy willows above the deep water ditches. You nod at the red and black cows farther up the road. Just past them, the goats bounce in their pen. You saw that one baby went missing on the community Facebook page. No one mentioned finding her. The border collies used to run out of the gate and snap, but you’ve learned to yell back and the dogs slink away. Still, they bit somebody’s housesitter. Now when you pass, you hear muffled yapping as if they’ve been locked into a shelter underground. You keep running to Extrom and then up Forester where fresh eggs for $4 are left in a cooler at the end of a driveway along with a can for the coins. The yellow school bus goes by.
You come through the short trail that links back to Briteside and peer at the big snag in the ravine at the top of the street. You had wondered about the grey in the hollow: it looked like an old sweatshirt. With binoculars, you see that an owl is spread sideways on her nest, like a chicken. Who cooks for you, she calls. Later you see her fuzzy chicks.
Gunshots sound from miles away — way down the forest service road that runs along the flank of the mountains. The track eventually leads down the south side of the slopes to the hurtling white water of the Chilliwack River. You drive past the clear cuts left after dozens of years of logging shows and find men wearing neon shorts and camouflage shirts. They are stocked with coolers of beer and boxes of bulk ammunition in the old landings and gravel pits. They set up targets and leave their colourful spent shells two inches deep on the ground.
Back channels into town
Within eight minutes of winding down steep road on the north side of the hills, you reach the green back-lit Save-On Foods sign. The split-tail of the mermaid at Starbucks. The Shoppers Drug Mart that stays open until midnight.
Down on these flats, towards the wide, mud-coloured Fraser River, modern houses have sprung up on what was once farmland. Long before the dykes and the corn maze, forests and lakes sustained 10,000 years of Sto:lo lives. Now, strata-run gated communities with roofs that all peaked the same way multiply. Quickly built condos pop up like peony stalks on old hop-growing ground. Shopping malls and chain restaurants choke out the hay fields. There are 46 churches and 83,000 people. It’s lovely and sunny down there, but it is prone to floods.
Historic downtown Chilliwack is 15 minutes farther along another meandering road. You prefer these back channels. The ones that bypass the bustle of condos and cul-de-sacs. You learn that the winding road, where the black cherry trees snapped in the last winter’s big wind storm, was named after a section of the Chilliwack River that no longer flows. You find a website lauding the pioneers who first came to this valley. Some farmers got sick of the spring melt that flooded their fields and one felled several large trees to block the riverbed. Later others got together and drained an entire lake.
This winding road passes through two Stó:lō villages. One is called Tzeachten, which means fish weir in Halq’eméylem, but with no river, the weirs are no longer there either. Next is Skowkale, which means “going around a turn.” You went to an event in their log cabin hall to celebrate a recording of ancient Sto:lo songs. You learn that Billy Sepass, a chief in the 1920s, thought it would be hard to pass on these epic stories since disease, residential schools and the assault on his language had come. He wanted them all written down but the recording, transcription, translation and printing of the book took more than 40 years. With this new CD you realize it took another 40 for it all to become oral again. You meet members of the Sepass family and eat the smoked salmon, bannock and other food they prepared. As you drive away the clouds darken over the broad valley and you listen to the songs of Xa:ls, the creator, who made Earth grow out of the mists.
You continue into the town which incorporated less than 150 years ago — one of the first white settlements in this part of BC. On Wellington, the main street, you can buy used books, new shoes and shrink-wrapped vinyl in the high fidelity record shop. You had no idea that records sell for $40 now. You look at the vintage Kenwoods but do not ask if they have Chilliwack, the 1980s rock band that sang “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone).”
Wellington Street, downtown Chilliwack
You find the town museum housed in the old city hall. The out-of-place Roman column look was conceived by Thomas Hooper in 1912. He also designed the Coqualeezta Indian Residential School, built upon the same land where newcomers plowed up adze blades and carved stone bowls. The best coffee is at Harvest Cafe, and the best doughnuts too. There’s a place to buy crusty Swiss bread and restaurant where you slurp Vietnamese bone broth pho. You hear that the butcher on Yale moved to the suburbs of Sardis, citing a better retail space, but most people think he was tired of the drug addicts at the door. The city is growing, but the homeless population is too.
You had thought of living downtown, but the real estate agent warned of crime. Really you didn’t like the highway noise and the constant stream of trains. You head back towards the suburbs and get stuck behind a tractor going 20 km/hour on Evans Road. You pull off at the roadside stall for local blueberries and then up to a drive-thru for corn. You buy 12 Golden Jubilee, not Peaches and Cream, and get 13 cobs. They hand a paper sack through the window and you hand them your frequent buyer card. After ten dozen, you get another dozen for free.
When it gets really hot, like 30 degrees, you join the hundreds of others at Cultus Lake. They crowd together at sand beaches and grassy picnic grounds but you find a small pebble beach in the shade. You dive into jewel-like blue water. It would be perfect if there weren’t so many water skiiers around. You try to ignore them, but you leave just the same, when the partiers pull up and idle offshore.
Cultus Lake, seen from Ryder Lake
Not far from the lake, you find a spot on the river where the ice water pools in a rock wall tub. It is deep and no one else has discovered it yet. You dog paddle against the current and find that that you are swimming in place. A guy in an inflatable armchair floats by and raises his frosted can to you.
When you get back to Ryder Lake, a giant black truck with oversized tires and a broken muffler roars up the road. You hear a crack and a black blob falls out of the yellow plum tree. The startled mama bear runs across the road, but her three cubs stay and scramble up a nearby fir. The neighbour’s dog barks and the cubs clamber higher. You telephone the neighbours and ask them to put their dog inside so the little ones can get away. Later you try to pick the plums, but most are too high, so your husband gets out the chainsaw and cuts the unreachable part of the tree down. You make pint after pint of ginger and vanilla plum jam.
In fall, the osiers will turn red and the rusty old tin can on the top of the fence post will pop in the low seasonal light. In winter, you take a picture of your reflection in the super-sized glass bulbs hanging in a roadside Christmas tree.
You force your bike up the winding hill from the flatlands, standing up from the seat with each crank. A big white pick-up coming down the road slows. The driver sticks her elbow out the window and tells you to be careful.
You are panting as you pull your shoes out of their clips and try not to topple. “Pardon me?”
“There’s a cougar running around up here,” she says. Her truck chugs fumes into the air. “I’m just saying. You might not want to ride your bike here.”
You say thanks for the warning, but what can you do? You live up here. So you continue on up the hill, past the llamas and the trailer homes right beside the road. Past the churn of a waterfall that makes you wonder where the water comes from. There is no lake in Ryder Lake. You think about the guy down your street who told you that his dog once put a cougar up a tree. Another neighbour said he found a dead deer in the forested part of his 10-acre yard. Its belly had been torn out by a giant cat. You want to see one of these creatures, but hopefully it won’t be while you are slowly churning your bicycle up the road.
Back at home, a boom echoes through your walls and you picture airplanes coming down. You’ve heard people jokingly call the back road Little Beirut. You think of the jail out there by the Chilliwack River. There’s an army artillery training centre too and some kind of drug rehab place. After a deep blast and then a rumble, you check the Facebook page. “What the hell was that?” said a woman you don’t know. Her house might be far across the rolling hills or it might be two doors down. “It shook the magnets off my fridge,” said another. “Bruce dynamiting his stumps again?”
You look out the window and see the stump on the lower part of your property, the one that allowed you the view. The only way for developers to go is up the sides of the mountains. You heard a Sto:lo elder shake his head about that the other day. He pointed towards the hills that you occupy. “If it continues in this way, where will the animals live?” he said.
Heather Ramsay has lived in many places. Born in Edmonton, raised in Calgary. One idyllic year in the south of France, Vancouver at 18 for university. Whitehorse, Australia (on the prowl). But it wasn’t until she moved to Smithers, BC that she really let a location take hold of her. She wrote for the newspaper there and told a lot of stories. Then on to Haida Gwaii (more newspapers, magazines, books) and now Ryder Lake. She is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing at UBC and is attempting to write a novel for her thesis. Her non-fiction has appeared in Maisonneuve, Room, subterrain, Raspberry Magazine, Canadian Geographic, Canada’s History, The Tyee, Northword and more.