The Skeena is rightly named “the river of mists” as the original Tsimshian form of the name suggests. Mist, cloud, rain with splashes of blue overhead. It was not a place to breed stargazers or astronomers, one would think. But I must have looked up at the Boneyard sky and seen enough stars to wonder, because my interest in astronomy and cosmology dates to my Boneyard summer of 1960.
It was then an interest in the sky. But the skies above cities are not much use to stargazers, so it consequently became an interest in the stars themselves, beginnings, endings, black holes, big bangs and supernovas and all the stuff that came along to fill in our understanding or befuddle us. But it began with a ten-year-old boy standing on the railway tracks looking up at the stars.
Of course, I wanted a guide to that sky overhead and that wasn’t readily available from my book club, so I rounded up my first star charts from the library in Prince Rupert.
Commercial rowboat fishing out in the sticks, out on the edge of everything, is a lifestyle not far from a vacation in itself. I’m sure my father thought so. But part of the joy of such a vacation is how it turns a trip into town into an event. You fish and fish for a week or two, and then the cannery gives you some cash and you go into town to resupply.
Resupply means meals you haven’t eaten in while. New cans of this and that which haven’t been on the menu since last time. New tools to play with when you get back. A meal in a café with apple pie for desert. Fresh clothes. A hot bath. Stores. Conversations on the sidewalk. Even the cars on the street felt like a novelty.
The journey into Prince Rupert always started early in the morning and returned late in the afternoon the next day. No passenger train went in the direction of town early in the morning. For that we had to catch a bus, and to catch a bus we had to walk the four miles along the tracks to Tyee to where Highway 16 went by. It was dim morning when we got up, which permitted us to tromp-tromp the four miles and flag down and catch the early morning bus out of Terrace. After 30 miles or so of twisty, stomach-churning road, it was still morning when we arrived in Prince Rupert. There was time for shopping, checking into a hotel and a trip to the library—a necessary stop for both my father and me. No excursion to the fair ever felt more hopeful or promised sweeter or more exotic delights than a trip into town. And no one ever came home with better prizes after such an excursion.
The train dropped us off at Haysport in the late afternoon the day after we had left from Tyee. The mile from Haysport to the Boneyard felt like treasure hunters returning home laden and successful.
My first star guide was less useful than it could have been, alas. The Boneyard sky, when it shows itself, is crowded and intense, since there is no light pollution anywhere around to thin it out. There are in fact too many stars, which means that a commonsense guide and star map is more than usually necessary to make sense of it, especially for neophyte stargazers like me. The guide I brought home from the library was large on mythological personages, a little shy on practical maps. I’m not sure how anybody thought that milky drawings of Greeks and bears and so on, overlaying the maps of stars, would be even slightly helpful, since the drawings made it more complicated to make out the stars underneath and thus nearly impossible to translate into real constellations in a star-crowded sky.
Orion doesn’t look like a hunter; it looks like a sort-of hourglass. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor don’t look like bears, they look like dippers. The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper and Polaris, the North Star (encompassed by Ursa Major and Minor) were practically the only objects I was able to pick out of the night sky using that guide. However the guide did lead me to one thing important. I read there about the annual Perseid meteor shower which begins each year in mid-July but becomes most intense sometime between August 9th and 14th of each year.
I suppose I had seen the occasion meteor flashing across the sky already. I was determined to see the Perseid shower at its height. (It’s called that simply because it showers out from the constellation of Perseus, by the way.) The Boneyard sky co-operated by clearing out one of those August nights. It wasn’t the best part of the night to look for them, I suppose. That would have been near dawn, when I had already long gone to bed. It was not even necessarily the height of the shower that year, because I’ve read of much more concentrated activity.
But I remember that night clearly. I had climbed up to the roof of our tarpaper shack and was lying there on my back looking up at the sky. Every few minutes, sometimes in clusters, sometimes alone, I saw meteors draw white lines across the sky. One over there. A bright long one over there. I kept count and stayed on the roof for hours, coming down and going to bed finally when there was a lull.
I counted fifty-three.