Living along the railway tracks a mile away from somewhere-not-very-much is not quite roughing it, but not quite civilization either. Similarly situated along a road rather than a railway is alike but not alike.
On a road, you have your own ride out or someone may be able to stop by to offer you one. But trains stand a greater social distant apart. You can wave at them as they go by (as children inevitably do) and they’ll wave back. But they won’t stop and ask you for water or directions. And there are no rides available unless you crosstie walk a mile to Haysport, and that only works with certain trains at certain times and you have to signal properly. The road crews on speeders pass by a little closer to ground level, but they are always about a special business and won’t stop unless, presumably, that business is near you—which it never seemed to be.
The road bed of the railway—the carved cuts through rock, the gravel levees dividing wetland (sometimes tidal wetland) from stream flow and mudbank, following the edge of the mainland along the Skeena estuary, disappearing miles over there round the point to the Skeena Slough—was civilization.
The cross-treed telephone poles—with their arrays of wires and glass insulators, stringing beside the railway, sometimes leaping up to the top of the cut, sometimes wading through grassy wetlands and ponds—were civilization.
The oily crossties a step apart for 10 year olds, a step, a step and a half, for adults, and the rails and the rail spikes and the rail-tie junctions, the occasional oil boxes that you walked around—were civilization.
But civilization had to be weighed against mountains lining up against the river on either side, the river two miles wide, the river mouth opening up four or five miles towards De Horsey and Kennedy Islands, cedar and pine forests, berry bushes, blue jays, chickadees, crows, hawks, gulls, eagles, rain, mist, mountain shadows, ferns, moss, bush, creeks, mud, sand bars, sea grass, sea weed, mosquitos, no-see-ums and occasional bear and deer. These mostly outweighed civilization.
I suppose it was a convenient sort of wilderness we lived in. Our little squatter’s shack was cozy, lying back in our bunks with coal oil lamps lighting the room and wood crackling in the oil-can stove. Before the money came for the fish we caught, we could fry up a sockeye in the frying pan with a bit of lard and flour, serve it with rice and wash it down with tea, and that was always a good supper.
I don’t remember how many days a week the river was open for fishing back in those days. It was fewer days a week than it was closed anyway, which gave everyone time to chop wood or go browsing for salmon berries along the tracks or diving a little deeper for blueberries or huckleberries or sometimes walk into Haysport and pick up a can of black cherry soda (the slogan “It hasta be Shasta” and the picture of a snow-topped mountain on every can) and maybe take home a chocolate bar too (not too sweet.)
But when the river was opened, the boats came to the river in anticipation. Coming in and anchoring all up and down and far across. And when night fell it looked like the forest had come to Macbeth, except in reverse; a city had come to the Skeena. The river shone like a nighttime metropolis with hundreds of lit up boats, and you could hear the thrum and hum of the boat’s engines and the occasional squawk of CB radios talking back and forth. Our wilderness was suddenly not nearly so remote.
Then, when the hour came when the fishing began, the thrum of the fleet rose to a roar as all the boats at once began to set their nets. In anticipation, my father and Squires rowed the skiff out to their fishing spots in the Boneyard, and when the time came, they let out their cork line and lead line behind them, a storm lamp firmly fastened to a wooden float at the end of the net to show where it was, and an anchor trailing off from that to keep the net solidly in place amidst those snags. The snags which were so picturesque in the sun during the low tide, were deadly inconvenient to gillnets while fishing was on.
The fisheries officers in their swift grey government boats would have howled at those anchors, whether necessary in that fishing spot or not, but no fisheries boat had a shallow enough draft to navigate the Boneyard waters. A small fleet of small crafts akin to the one rowed by my father and Squires—although with outboard motors—came along down from Haysport to fish the same shallows, and they universally anchored their nets amidst those snags as well. And even with anchors, the nets occasionally got tangled in the Boneyards treacherous ‘bones’ and the fishermen showed off their vocabularies as they wrestled and ripped their nets loose again.
When the fishing was open during the week, my father and Squires worked the net day and night, resting only between tides. It was then at night, when I was on shore alone occasionally, but when somewhat ironically all the Skeena was alit and busy with boats, that I was most likely to feel the solitude of where we lived. Standing on the stone shelf in front of the shack door, or walking with a storm lamp along the railbed, looking out over the lights on the river, could feel a little spooky sometimes.
But that was the worst that it got. When it was over, when my father and Squires returned tired at the end of opening and flopped on their bunks to sleep, then the boats in the river began to depart as well, humming off towards the river mouth. In the morning the river would be empty again. No fishing boats. No engines. And you could hear the cry of the gulls half a mile away across the mudflats and sandbars.
The floating city had come and then left again.