Continued from Legends of Myself 55
56. Port Essington, 1958-59: Smoke Signals and Putt-Putts
Putt-Putt. In 1958-59, my Uncle Gus’ fishing boat was powered by a 10 Easthope engine. It was archaic technology even for 1958, and I believe he had traded up to a different boat with a more modern engine by the following season. Most Aboriginal people got their boats assigned to them by their canneries in those days, an echo from earlier times when they had no choice. This continued to the twilight of the regional cannery system, before it all got centralized at the end of the 1960s, when most of the cannery fleets were decommissioned. Aboriginal fishers were disproportionately affected by that decommissioning, and some were pushed out of fishing altogether, but Gus wasn’t one of those.
I can say little of his fishing career beyond occasional glimpses, except that he was a canny fisherman, if results are an indication.
But in 1958, his fishboat was still was powered by a putt-putt. Easthopes were called putt-putts because of the sound they made, of course, a relentless putt-putt, putt-putt, flywheel turning, uniform for the genre. 10 Easthope meant a ten horsepower engine, also meaning that Gus’ boat didn’t travel very fast.
Riding in Gus’ boat, on the water and on the go, I didn’t care a huckleberry whether it was slow or not. As we passed through the Skeena Slough on one such ride, it must have been in the late afternoon, I remember Artie pointing out, “There’s Sunnyside.” It being on the mainland and thus eastward side of the Slough, the sun was indeed shining on it.
Sunnyside Cannery, accounting it from the direction of Port Essington, was the second of the canneries nestled on that side, opposite DeHorsey and Smith Islands. The first was Cassiar, the third North Pacific, the fourth my birthplace, Inverness, defunct as a cannery since the year of my birth but persisting as a community, and as a place to tie up boats. My memory, unfortunately, provides me no glimpses of that part of that long ago journey.
The Stove at Haysport Station. I don’t remember that we always journeyed by boat. The train was important too, just across the Skeena from Port Essington. The passenger train from Prince Rupert must have departed there in the late afternoon. I imagine in some extremity of Port Essington, you could see the train emerge from the Skeena Slough (having already passed back of and through the canneries mentioned above) and then snake right, along the far edge of the Skeena Estuary. A few minutes after emerging from the Slough, the train could have been seen almost everywhere in Essington, riding in sight for a while before slipping behind a final headland prior to emerging directly across the way at Haysport. Somewhere before emerging into view just outside of Haysport, the train would blow its horn in warning, a mournful diesel honking which everybody in Spaksuut never failed to hear either, even with two miles of river in between. Everybody on both sides of the river (if they didn’t know already) were alerted that it was train time.
Sometimes the train would stop at Haysport and sometimes it didn’t. If it just passed by, well, that was uneventful.
Haysport was a flag stop. Even it stopped it might be merely people getting on to go up to Terrace or Hazelton and so on. Yet it could be that people got off. You could see the train stopping at Haysport over in Essington, and it was a matter of community interest across the river what that stopping meant.
I remember watching the event from Trudy’s room, which was high enough and rightly oriented to get a good view even from the back corner of Essington, where we were. However it was impossible to see much detail at that distance, especially if it was already getting dusky or dark when the train came, something that could happen relatively early in that cloudy, rainy, mountain-shadowed country.
There were no telephones in either Haysport or in Port Essington, nor even so much as CB radios, soon to be a ubiquitous aspect of the fishing industry. Yet anybody getting off a train at Haysport might also intend to continue on to Essington. How were they to arrange that without either a telephone or sea taxi? There was no ferry from Haysport. So a communication system was devised. Ancient, with a modern twist, you might say.
If you wanted to cross to Essington after the train had left, signaling was easy. You simply went into the little station waiting room and lit a fire in the stove. I remember waiting in that same waiting room one time with my two cousins (I guess, the rest of the family too) the three of us examining with interest the little mica windows on the door of the stove, excited at confirming a lesson on minerals that we had heard at school. Mica was fire resistant but transparent, used in stoves before the development of heat-resistant glass.
But that stove was not only good for warmth and for adding substance to geology and mineral lessons, but for sending smoke up the chimney.
Over in Essington, if, after the train had come and gone, smoke started emerging from the waiting room chimney, everybody knew that somebody was waiting there to cross the river. Various parties in Essington would converge down at the float. I was not really part of the arranging of things, even when I was part of the Essington rather than the Haysport side of events, but I imagine there was a little conferring among people who had boats and the willingness to act as ferryfolk.
Who was expected. Who was best ready to leave.
While we waited, while someone waited in the Haysport waiting room, cozying around the little stove, the Spaksuut people’s ferry was sending over a fishboat to bring us, or them, home. The smoke signals had been sent. Soon somebody would be tying up on the Haysport float.
Continued @ Legends of Myself 57