The summer of 1960, my father and I returned to the Skeena estuary, but it was to the opposite side of where I had stood before. I was already familiar with Haysport. It was the CNR flagstop that served Port Essington, and when I had last stayed in Port Essington I had used it that way, as a place for passing through to another place. But my days of to-ing and fro-ing to Essington were already permanently behind me, and, beginning in 1960, Haysport became my viewpoint and Port Essington become the distant line of white against the far shore, two miles away and lost across the river.
Haysport was then still a place in itself, even if only an echo of Port Essington. It had a boardwalk parallel to the rail bed which bent ninety degrees at its south end, reached over the railroad bed and out over the tidal flats to where the swiftwater began. There it dipped down to a float. Upstream from the float, protecting it from times of winter ice, were pilings driven into the riverbed and rigged to serve as an ice shield. Boats tied up at the float coming over from Port Essington, but also to visit the store when the river was open during fishing season.
The store was at the other end of the boardwalk, and the boardwalk was the route you took if coming from the float with any kind of burden requiring a trolley. Otherwise you could elect the railway tracks and cut across to the store at a little bridge near the railway station waiting room.
The store was owned by Ed Bolton, as I recall, and his store was the active centre of that compact community. One time Haysport had been bigger, and not only because Port Essington had once been bigger. The derelict machinery which stood permanently out in the mud beyond the railroad tracks testified to a time when the village had its own cannery and accompanying population. Slowly rotting boardwalks, two of them taking parallel paths back into the trees and muskeg behind the railway tracks, led past swampgrass and skunk cabbages to semi-derelict, slowly rotting houses, only one or two of which still saw human occupation. I don’t really know how many people lived there at the time, because, even though Haysport was the nearest inhabited place, it wasn’t really my neighbourhood. Where my father had taken me to live that summer was slightly more remote than that.
If you go three miles upstream from Haysport along the railway tracks, you find Tyee. That’s where the rail route joins the highway, and where you could catch a bus into town in the morning. A sign nailed onto one of the transmission poles paralleling the railroad reads 68 at Tyee. Another similar sign at Haysport reads 71, meaning that it is three miles further from Terrace than Tyee. Where my father and I were to stay that summer was near the sign that read 72, a mile from Haysport in the other direction from Tyee, towards the river mouth, a place called the Boneyard.
Now the Boneyard is a strange name for a place, but it was in fact logically given, and its naming is peripherally connected to one of my earliest memories, the time in 1954 when I went with my grandmother down to the float at Spaksuut and saw the snag scow Essington. That was the snag scow which I thought could fly. The Essington, of course, had those great arms sticking out from its prow, the sight of which—off-stage from memory—may have prompted my naïve speculation about flying scows. I was to unconsciously walk past the same ship decades later when it had been renamed and turned into a floating seafood restaurant in Vancouver. I was equally unconscious during my stays in the Boneyard of the connection between the Essington and the Boneyard’s iconic ‘bones’.
What a snag scow does, of course, is gather snags—roots and pieces of trees knocked loose by the logging industry and floating in the river—and then haul them over to a place where they won’t get in the way of shipping or fishing. In the case of the Essington, the place where it chose to dump the snags were the shallow mudflats near the ocean end of the Skeena estuary, where the wide stream makes one more muddy turn before merging with the green waters of the Inside Passage. The Essington had dumped the snags in the mud in that place for decades, and decades of low tides and weather had bleached the slowly dissolving snags so that they erupted from the mud like the bones of half-buried dinosaurs. Or was it dragons? It was a sight which presented every day at low tide.
Where my father and I stayed that summer was an old dynamite shack right next to the tracks, a relic of the railroad’s construction back in 1914. I suppose they had no further use for it, because the railroad had no apparent problem with letting us squat there. The shack was perhaps eight feet by ten with a tilted roof and tarpaper, which was, I suspect, freshly tacked on by my father or his partner. They did a good job. I don’t recall that in its summerlong encounter with raincoast weather the roof ever leaked. We cooked mostly with a Coleman stove and heated the room and sometimes a slow kettle with a forty gallon gas drum which had been turned over on its side and converted into a stove. The side of the drum on top was hammered flat. One end had a door for adding firewood and also an opening for a flue. It was fitted on the other end with a blue-black tin chimney which exited through the roof. The drum stove cooked very inefficiently but warmed the room well enough.
My father’s partner was a man named Squires whom he had known for some time but who was new to me that season. Their enterprise that summer, which I was along to witness, was fishing using a gillnet, oars and a fourteen foot skiff, a low-tech, low-finance, low-impact brand of commercial fishing which was found in random corners all up and down the coast in those days but which is no longer possible for licensing reasons. Their fishing ground was the Boneyard which was too shallow for conventional boats even at the highest of high tides, but was accessible just fine using a skiff and oars.
Why were we there? Because my father was a romantic, I think, and because Squires was less than practical. My summers in the Boneyard (there were to be more than one) were my father’s most successful forays into life lived as an adventure.
I have consequently returned there when I’ve been able, and brought my daughter as well. When I went back in the 80s and 90s to visit and camp and recount, it was still a place capable of affecting me and reaching into places deeper than nostalgia. But the snags had already rotted when I returned and the bones from the Boneyard were gone.
The Boneyard was not just a place but a time, you see, not just a childhood but a particular page in a particular history. We can’t get there from here.
Romanticism in a father is sometimes a difficult gift. It is not always a comfortable fit for childhood. But in the Boneyard, for a few seasons, it was my perfect gift.