One cold, clear winter night, out at the end of the road I grew up on, surrounded by pine and spruce reaching high into the dim blue-black horizons of space, we stood. Surrounded by banks of crystalline snow sparkling so much like diamonds in a Maharaja’s chambers, one felt rich in spirit and we looked up to millions of stars blazing into the darkness.
Standing there, the only reminder of human life in the wilderness the occasional light of a house twinkling in the distance, the milky way welcoming me home as I raised my arms to the sky in reverence. All the constellations I spent endless nights finding, watching, remembering as a child stood out bright and clear: Ursa Major and Minor, Orion found again by his belt, Cassiopeia the giant W hanging low as if ready to be snatched by an eager child for his pocket. This was my sky,my stars, and suddenly I was 9 again, eagerly pointing out a satellite making its way through the milky mass, Venus pulsating bright, a warm and comforting beacon as only those who’ve spent time in the north at night could understand how that feels.
I was home,home, how lucky I was to again be experiencing the misty river in the sky as only the northern people do, my stars at home consisting of Venus and a handful of muted twinkles forever dulled by the pollution and constant light of technology. And it is an experience to stand under this sky, not merely a visual feast for eyes and camera, I swear you can feel the cosmic force here, taste the universe on the tip of your tongue if you stick it out.
I mused, if faced such beauty night after night, every night of your life, do you even see what I see anymore? Does it ever become so commonplace that you don’t notice how this sky is immense and amazing that words fail me even now to describe it completely? That if we were all going to die tomorrow this is one thing that would have to be on your bucket list? Does the sheer volume of stars not overwhelm you and make you feel small, and yet connected in the same way I do going back home? It filled me up, soothed my soul, revived my weary spirit…I didn’t know how lost I was until I came home.
Growing up,my brother and I would often go outside at night to find a snow bank just at the right angle to lay down on to watch the northern lights dance in the sky – the legend as told by a neighbour was if you whistled, they would come down to you and whisk you away…We would, and they always did seem to come down low, moving in a colourful ribbonlike,magical swirl and I, at least, would run squealing thinking they would get me and take me to where ever northern lights went…makes me smile thinking of it now, that childish combination of fear and excitement.
I think, for me,Prince George is most beautiful in winter.
The snow hides a multitude of sins and is forgiving to even the stark dead beetle kill areas, rounding out barren twigs with mounds of lush white. However, at my dad’s house up on the Hart where a higher elevation leads to often three times the snowfall downtown residents would get, or even those on the south side of town, the snow allows winter play to start on his doorstep. My children were absolutely flabbergasted to see the amount of snow along the roads, in the banks created by the plow and in grampa’s yard. Eyes became saucers in a moment and I smiled to see the minds quickly working to what they could do first.
As all things begin at home, so does this story and this is my road to home, my childhood home, my father’s house. We biked up and down in summer, go-carted, snowmobiled and skied in winter and it’s still so quiet you notice when a car goes by. Being more isolated by site, I spent summers playing alone or with my brother, picking agates out of the gravel, always looking for that perfect one. I never needed other children for company, I was happy doing my own thing, weaving vines into crowns under the canopy of the spruce that served as my castle, poking sap bubbles on the bark of the trees in spring to make gum after dropping it into the snow. Tasted like crap, but we did it anyways because we could…We used to go outside and play in the morning, wandering all over in the forested areas and hanging out at ponds and creeks, ever mindful of bears mostly, rarely was a cougar or wolf a threat then.
Ah, good memories, but I digress. There is time for more summer stories later.
How lucky it is – when we on the coast have to drive for miles to find a hill to slide down, and perhaps even pay to do so – and at home in P.G. the plow creates two personal mountains on either side of each driveway! My littlest one spent hours on this one, never tiring of the climb up to get the fast slide down,learning to keep his feet up for a faster ride, all the while I showed my older son how to dig a snow fort out of the backside of the hill, complete with built-in snow couch and snowball armoury.
They marveled at the ever-changing properties of snow, and I marveled at showing them how to toss a crispy handful of early morning crystalline snow into the air to watch it turn into floating diamonds in the sun…
…or how the snow on the path through grandpa’s forest behind the house sounds like styrofoam when you walk on it at just the right time of the day. They quickly learned that warm sun makes perfect snowball snow, except if you pack it too hard because then that hurts, and my wee three-year old learned the hard way that snow isn’t always soft either, after stepping off a three and a half-foot snow bank into the driveway and landing on his face, bloodying his nose in the process.
My father had already packed a path through the forest on his property with snow-shoes and we showed the children the multitude of tracks in the snow as we wound our way through the expanse of trees, told them what you could tell about those tracks and the animal that made them. What direction it went, how fast, whether or not another animal was in pursuit, how old the tracks might be… even I was astounded one morning to find on fresh rabbit track with a singular leap of no less than 12 feet through an open spot…and canine tracks all around. Poor thing, he earned his bunny stripes with that move!
There is always something to do when you live in a place like this, and I wanted my children to have the full meal deal I had growing up, so the age-old Canadian tradition of ice-fishing was next.
Ice-fishing isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain kind of person to sit on your ass for possibly hours with not even a nibble, the icy north wind chapping your cheeks and freezing your eyelashes. Even in Sorels, toes turn to blocks of ice quickly for the inexperienced. But all it takes is one gorgeous silver pink and spotted rainbow trout on the end of your line to turn the story from one of backwoods survival to a stellar expedition and we discovered the trout in Eena lake seemed to love a fluorescent yellow jig and caught three large ones in a short time. A lovely fire and a wiener roast carried the little ones through and of course everyone was thrilled to ride on my dad’s skimmer behind the snowmobile for the ride across the frozen lake. I impressed both children by winding poor mealy worm onto the hook and extricating two of the trout from their hooks. ( how Bear Grylls of mom, my seven year old remarked )
The trout however, were likely not so thrilled at ending up in my frying pan for dinner, dredged in seasoned flour, fried in butter with fresh lemon squeezed on top….but my stomach was in heaven, since nothing could beat the sweet taste of winter caught rainbow trout, firm pink flesh so tender it cooks in minutes and flakes if you look at it too hard…
Life in a northern town gives you ample opportunity to live with wildlife whether you want to or not. Despite seeing thousands of moose track in the bush, and looking every morning for them outside my dads where they have often strolled, we found this sad yearling beside the Hart highway in a residents yard, nibbling willows – one of their favoured winter essentials. Sadly, despite those who decry climate change as a hoax, evidence is everywhere in the north, including this young moose whose hide is showing in many spots as white patches where the hair is gone. Why? He is covered in ticks that suck his blood and aggravate him to the point he rubs himself bare trying to dislodge them and ease his irritation – ticks that used to die off to manageable levels during the cold snaps that used to happen every winter, driving the temperature down to -40 and colder for weeks. Those cold snaps haven’t happened in so long, that is why the pine beetle spread so far, so fast. The winters don’t get cold enough to kill them. It was also an excellent opportunity for the kids to learn from which animal the moosemeat-loaf came from, in person.
One of the early signs of spring in Prince George is the appearance of the mule deer along the highway going down to the John Hart Bridge over the Nechako. Here, the sun hits the bank all day and teases the grass into early growth, attracting the deer who know this is where they can find the first fresh food after many months of winter. This mom was being filmed with her two young ones from last year, by CKPG at the same time I took this photo, ignoring both of us in favour of fresh nibbles.
I re-discovered many other areas of the city that again, are not immediately clear to anyone coming through town without first researching or visiting the Via Rail downtown info centre (which is off the main thoroughfares through town) – a travesty considering the intrinsic heritage and tourism value the venues present.
Cottonwood Island Nature Park is an absolutely breathtaking gem in the city of Prince George, which is why it is incredibly shortsighted for there to be no signs coming into town directing visitors to it. The area has always attracted people to it, long before the city made it a park, since it is where the mighty Nechako meets the Fraser river. First nations inhabited this special area where the great rivers meet for thousands of years before any of us came, I think the feeling of sacred land here is self -evident. The city has built a long series of trails, some paved, some gravel, along the banks of the Nechako, through Cottonwood island where the great stands of 300 year old Black Cottonwoods reside, all the way to South Fort George and historic Fort George Park.
We wandered the trails, walked along the Nechako for a while and searched for the carvings painstakingly carved into the thick bark of some of the cottonwoods…the sprits in the wood seemingly alive and waiting to tell their stories... ah, if trees could talk, what have these seen?
They say everything old is new again and indeed this was the case as I found myself surrounded by many pieces of B.C. Rail history at the Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum, a must see for anyone to really understand how this province was built. And yes, I cried a moment when I saw this one for how could I not think about my dear friend Mary, B.C. Mary to most. She lived in P.G. for a while, we talked about that, an odd common link between us because she got what life is like there. Even now, when I meet someone on the coast from P.G. we nod our heads and smile as one invariably states : “Oh, so you get it.” Gotta live it to understand it.
April is the month they are celebrating 100 years of the forestry service in BC and we had a look at some of the exhibits which are amazing and kept even the little ones enthralled. You can take a ride on a miniature version of the B.C. Rail line- indeed a theme exists here standing testament to what this railway did for this province and how loyal we remain to the name.
We took a drive up to the airport area, and found a short offroad trail up behind a water tower that lead me to the view I sought the most, and one I am most proud of.
This is the view of Prince George’s pulp mills: Northwood, PG Pulp and Intercontinental. Some might think it would be an odd thing to show off, but considering my dad has spent thirty + years of his life working at one, I value greatly what these mills mean to the families they support.
Ask anyone in the forestry industry and they will agree that these jobs can be the most dangerous out there,and my dad has not been spared workplace accidents in his years working, chlorine gas leaks probably being the most scary. The mills use peroxide now to bleach the pulp instead of chlorine, which has improved safety greatly for workers, but the pulp produced in Prince George, and at Northwood, is arguably the best in the world and creates the finest grade paper. Most of my family back home works in forestry, lucky to all still have jobs in this day and age, and although I left for other passions, my roots run deep and my pride is overflowing for each of them and their perhaps unknowing contributions to keeping this province afloat.
This town is steeped in history and was a big part of the backbone of this province that is part of who we all are, not just myself.
But because of my heritage, I take particular pride in the north, in Prince George.I love it because I was born there, raised there, with a particular take on life, a particular love for the nature around us, for what it gives us to sustain ourselves. Indeed – a very different and unique place very separated from those in the lower mainland for many reasons. It’s just different, but the people here pride themselves on those differences, and so should you. I know that no matter where I go, or what I do, I’ll always be a Northern Girl.
“Grew up drivin’ on black ice
Spinnin’ in circles under Northern lights
Laughter steamin’, small town dreamin’
Digging tunnels in the deep snow
Sheltered from the shiver of a ten below
And I’m right at home
I’m a Northern girl, wild and free
I’ve got four strong winds to carry me
I’ve been East to West and all around the world
But I’ll always be a Northern girl
Little cottage on a big lake
Sunshine would be a shame to waste
Warm days won’t last – come and go fast
Bonfire in the moonlight
People I’ve known all of my life
That’s where I belong
I’ve got four strong winds to carry me
I’ve been East to West and all around the world
But I’ll always be a Northern girl “