Being a literary pilgrim is peculiar. Whether it’s Dublin on Bloomsday, blue plaques across London, the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver, or the house like a white die cast on an Ionian shore, we literary folks don’t often think of our research travels as pilgrimages. Yet, in the important respects they really are. And I’ve had my fair share.
The latest has been a surprise. I’m wrapping up a critical edition of the collected works of Edward Taylor Fletcher, a nineteenth century Canadian poet, translator, travel writer, and linguist par excellence. He worked in some 14 languages, and his late long poems blur the landscapes of Europe and Egypt into the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island here in Western Canada. The cast of spirits come as much from the Kalevala or Völuspá as the Mahabharata, which keeps the annotations lively. I made a pilgrimage many years ago to speak about his work for a conference in Kamloops, but I took the long road on the #99 with its single lane bridges to have a better feel for his writing about the landscape. But it was more – he is also a distant ancestor, and his commonplace books were part of my teenage readings before they found a safe haven for the long term in the McPherson Library’s Special Collections in Victoria, BC.
But on my working summer “vacation,” I retraced the steps of his son. Sidney Ashe Fletcher did not have his father’s gifts for poetry and languages, although he did leave an archival trace in a 100 page memoir about his life in New Westminster and Victoria. It’s now in the New Westminster archives. He’s also the voice that opens my edition of his father’s work with a brief biography. His less literary travels took him from a spot a few minutes from my home today up the Fraser River and eventually to Stave Lake.
It would have been quite an experience 130 years ago. Four days by canoe from Sapperton with the help of the flood tide, up the Pitt River, onto the Alouette River, and out to the lake itself – then overland to look down on Stave Lake from just north of where Florence Lake sits between them. He would have looked up to Mount Robie Reid. It’s still no easy trip today.
The Pitt River, the Lillooet River, the Stave and Harrison Rivers, and the lakes from which they came, although well known to the timber cruiser and trapper, had not yet been explored by the great majority of the young men of the City. I spoke with Dick McBride about this and we arranged to make a trip up the Lillooet River to the Lake. With us came Dick’s brother-in-law, Allison, a fine looking powerful young fellow, full of enthusiasm and energy. We got a dug-out canoe in fairly good condition and left from Sapperton late one evening with the flood tide. In four days we reached the Lake, moving along slowly against the swift cold water, lifting and pulling the canoe over logs and rocks, unloading and portaging past some places where the water fell abruptly among rocky ledges. On each side of the stream the timber grew tall large and straight in a wonderful dense compact growth. Reaching the Lake, we camped on the east side just above the outlet. A high sharp peak stood boldly out on the west side, towering over everything in sight. The timber grew all around the Lake, in the lower places and high up the slopes of the mountains.
The mud flats on Stave Lake are now reputed to be a home of lawlessness and excess, so far down at the end of the Forest Service Road that even the RCMP fear to tread where this fool rushed. It wasn’t actually so bad as all that… Really, it was better. Idyllic. I didn’t see a soul, though the fading spirits of the trees drowned by the hydro project that damned and raised the level of the lake were haunting across the distance. These would quite possibly be the trees Sidney saw.
The water was clear and still here. We could see trees and logs of all kinds that had drifted here, and lodging, had in course of time become waterlogged, and got below the surface. There was an extraordinary collection of these sunken trees piled criss-cross apparently from the bottom of the channel. Passing through, we found ourselves in another Lake. We skirted around close in to its south shore. The mountain here was quite low with very little timber on it. We got ashore and easily went up to the top. Here we found to our surprise that we could see the Stave Lake extending below us, and north and south for many miles.
Where we stood on the mud flats and today’s teenagers go for spirits-fuelled adventures (very different angels and fools), he had passed to the North. Rocky Point, beyond the end of the rough road, is the moment of opening to the larger arm of Stave Lake that he’d looked down on after climbing up from Alouette Lake. It was Lillooet Lake then, feeding the Lillooet River – protean names for the protean water, or as his father described the Fraser River (as the Nile) in 1892:
The old Nestorius, worn with many woes,
Cast out, an exile, from the haunts of men,
To all a stranger and an alien,
And seeking only silence and repose,
Passed to the sands of Egypt.
Day by day,
Wrapped in the splendor of the sunlit air,
Which vestured, there, a world so strange and fair,
He watched the mighty river glide away,
For ever passing, and for ever there.
With my young sons with me, I also realized this must have been in some ways like Sidney’s own travels in the wild with his poet-surveyor father, who took him in 1870 to Lac Matapédia just south of the Saint Lawrence River, East from where it opens to become the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. His illustrious father came from England and traveled across Canada from Labrador to Vancouver Island. Sidney traveled from Lac Matapédia to Alouette Lake. My sons may have far to travel too.
And like Lac Kénogami in Quebec, about which Fletcher wrote another long poem, this land has a very long history, the weight of which my sons are beginning to recognize. Stave Lake has revealed artifacts from the Clovis culture in excavations made possible by erosion from the hydro project that dammed the lake, a 1912 dam that reveals a 13,000 year history damned by settlers, my family among them.
I realize this isn’t the experience my colleagues have when they visit Tintern Abbey, Monk’s House, see the blue plaque on Red House, or even the Shrine of Saint Arsenius. I might be the only reader to retread some of these steps deliberately with the text in hand (admittedly on my iPhone…). But I’m almost happier for that.