Whidbey Island, Washington State

Deon Matzen

© Copyright 2022 by Deon Matzen

Photo by Barnabas Davoti courtesy of Pexels.
Photo by Barnabas Davoti courtesy of Pexels.

August in Northern British Columbia

It was the summer of 1959. I had just left junior high and was preparing to start high school in the tenth grade. I was fourteen years old. We didn’t have a high school in the town near which I lived, so we were bused to a town about fifteen miles away. More than half the students hadn’t been in school with me before. That made this whole new scene a little scary, and a big adventure.

Starting high school was not the big excitement that summer. The big excitement was that before my entrance to an unfamiliar high school, my family and a friend’s family were taking a cruise ship to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. There would be seven of us all together; the friend’s having a son two years younger than I and two years older than my sister. From Prince Rupert we would trek to a cabin on Lakelse, near Terrace, BC, driving a rather beat station wagon left on the dock for us.

I was big on camping, sleeping out, wondering the woods, fishing, and waterskiing. This was a big deal. The cabin was at the end of the road in, what was then, a very remote area. There would be few neighbors and they were a ways away. The closest neighbors were bears, which we were told, were plentiful.

Since it was August, the weather bode well. This area is influenced by maritime weather; it could be that we would have cool, wet weather. We were hoping for something warmer, but we would take what we could get. After all, I grew up in maritime weather in Western Washington. Take a raincoat, take a swimsuit!

Arrangements had been made to travel on the Prince Line out of Vancouver, BC, up the Inside Passage to our destination of Prince Rupert, the northern most seaport in BC. I don’t remember how we arrived in Vancouver, but I do remember the boat sitting at the dock. It wasn’t overly large, nor was it a modern carnival boat, no parties, no gambling, not even shuffleboard or a sauna. It held forty-three passengers and a great deal of freight.

This was not the ship on which we had been scheduled to travel. That ship sank the week before and we were supposed to be on it, but for some reason we had had to postpone our trip a week. Lucky for us. No one onboard drowned, but still it would have been a very cold and terrible experience.

Accommodations on board were meager by today’s standards, bathroom down the hall, no showers, no tv, not even running water in the room which was small and had two sets of bunk beds. I remember it was kind of dark as well. We didn’t have a porthole and just one light bulb in the ceiling. All our luggage was piled on the floor while we slept and on the top bunk during the day.

There was, however, a very nice salon with a large library with reading materials and games for all ages. We were served four very sumptuous meals a day. Why four? I have no idea, but they were luxurious and lived up to cruise cuisine standards. The ship had a deck that went the whole way around so we could go for walks and view the passing scenery.

The passing scene was exciting. The Inside Passage is very narrow with Vancouver Island on the west and the mainland with numerous deep bays, on the east. Vancouver Island provided two hundred and eighty-three miles of protection for the Pacific storms. The shoreline was close by most of the trip. In 1959, there were still native people’s villages right on the water. Forests of totem poles, some leaning precariously, were easily seen from the deck. The longhouses were beautiful, though most of that has disappeared in modern times to be replaced by resorts and seashore homes. The forests were thick and there were very few folks living along the shoreline, some of whom lived in houses floating in the water. Eagles, bears, and moose were easily seen and abundant.

This ship was primarily a cargo ship servicing communities that were isolated from the world except by sea. At that time, places like Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Ocean Falls and numerous others, received deliveries from several Prince Line ships that plied the Inside Passage. We could look into the hold and watch such things as propane tanks, pallets of eggs, machinery parts, and all the needs of daily life, offload at each port, including passengers disembarking, using the Prince Line as their transportation in and out a service that had not been available until 1955. Prior to that you needed your own boat or to hitch a ride with a friends’s fishing boat.

We met a woman and her daughter on the ship who were from Denmark and had moved to Ocean Falls a few years before. They had friends from Denmark that were living there and lonely and wanting others to move there so they would have other Danish speaking neighbors in this small community. The Ocean Falls residents extolled the community and the location and convinced their friends to move. What they didn’t tell them was Ocean Falls receives two hundred inches of rain a year, is seldom warm and is built on a very steep hillside. Rain runs down the streets like a river. Walking is the primary mode of transportation. The town’s primary business was a pulp mill. Now their population is listed as forty, but back then it was a thriving community with most employed by the mill. To this day there is no road to the town.

The ship stopped in numerous ports and if there were a couple of hours offloading time, we could go ashore and see the towns. We hiked up the hillside in Ocean Falls to our new Danish friends’ home. The view was spectacular, but the hike would have been strenuous with a suitcase or a sack of groceries.

Bella Bella and Bella Coolie were primarily native peoples’ villages. We stayed up very late to see them even though it was fairly dark. The ship offloaded there at night.

The second afternoon on the trip of the Inside Passage, we saw antennae sticking up out of the water. We all rushed to that side of the ship to see below the surface, the ship that went down. It was sitting on the bottom and only the antennae were above the water. It was very close to the Vancouver Island side of the passage. We never learned what happened, but the rumor was that they had not waited long enough for the high tide to travel through a narrow, shallow passage. We made sure we waited long enough to cross the narrows safely.

I have friends that have sailed the inside passage. I can’t image how they could navigate in a sailboat. Tacking would be about impossible in many areas, but maybe they power through those places. It is now a very popular trip for private boats as there are many interesting things to see and you are always in site of shore and in protected waters, Vancouver Island acting as a windbreak.

Part of the journey is open seas just before you reach Prince Rupert, our destination. I was a little worried that I would be seasick as the captain was expecting swells but not storms. The boat did rock and roll, but it was just for part of a day, nothing too bad.

When we arrived in Prince Rupert, we had a station wagon available for our use. My father’s company owned the cabin and another employee had driven up, stayed with his family in the cabin, and taken the ship back. They left the car for us to use to drive home on the Alcan Highway, as well as transportation while we were staying at Lakelse.

The whole trip by boat was a new experience for me and one that was very memorable. I would like to replicate it someday (bucket list) and I have looked into various travel methods available to the public. I am not interested in carnival-type cruises. I would like to find a freighter that delivered to these areas and just enjoy the ride, though now much of the Passage is lined with homes and second homes now.

So seven of us piled into the green station wagon and headed inland to Lakelse near Terrace, BC. It was a tight squeeze with our luggage, some of which we piled on the top rack, but the vehicle had three bench seats, the rear-most facing backwards. It wasn’t a new car and it had seen better days, the reason which will become evident on the trip home.

Lakelse. What a wonderful place for a person like me who enjoyed the wilderness and being away, liked fishing, swimming, and especially cooking. The cooking there was a rare experience.

It seemed that the cabin came with a care taker, Wei Chow. Wei Chow was a Chinese man who, as he put it, “was seeded in Hong Kong, born in Vancouver” where he lived in Vancouver’s Chinatown. He was a boilermaker by trade and the boilermakers were on strike. He had taken this position as caretaker in this remote area to supplement his income. He made repairs, kept the forest at bay, chopped firewood, collected the mail for those two or three houses on the lake. The cabin was the end of the road. The mail was collected in Terrace. When Wei Chow got home with it, he would crank a very large, very old fire siren which reverberated off the mountains surrounding the lake. It was deafening. This way his “neighbors” knew they could collect their mail and “have conversation” with Mr. Chow, as he would say. He was a happy, easy-going fellow and very inventive, often repairing things or making things with few materials.

Wei Chow was to be our cook as well. My family always loved Chinese food so my father asked Mr. Chow if he could fix us a dinner of Chinese food. It was delicious and inventive. Better than what we ate at our local Chinese Restaurant at home.

The next day my father asked if Mr. Chow would teach his oldest daughter, me, to cook Chinese. I cooked Chinese dinners almost every night we were there. I assisted in the kitchen, chopping and stir frying, presenting the dishes in the appropriate manner. It was great fun. Mr. Chow purchased what he could to create the meals in Terrace, the nearest town. I remember using sweet pickle juice for sweet and sour sauce. It worked very well.

Since it was August, the huckleberries were ripe in abundance. We gathered up tin cans to use as berry buckets and were about to head out to pick. Mr. Chow cautioned us to beware of Mr. Bear as he likes huckleberries too. We three kids headed out to the huckleberries banging on our tin pails to scare away the competition. Never saw a bear, but I made a great huckleberry crumble that we had for dessert. I know it isn’t Chinese. I did learn to make almond cookie.

One day when the fire siren was cranked by me, the neighbor across the lake, whose house we could see, came to get his mail. I believe he had been a professor in his former life. We were all introduced and he invited us to his house for dinner. His house was only approachable by boat from our end of the road. Well, his house was an amazing, beautiful log structure. Bear rugs on the floor, moose heads on the walls, a full size stuffed grizzly, it was lighted with gas lamps, it was like a pioneers house, but elegant, not missing any amenities. Obviously, richly adorned, it was evident that his former life was very successful. He lived there full time and walked across the frozen lake to get his mail in the winter. I don’t remember the meal he prepared for all of us, which is a shame. This was the kind of life I wanted “when I grew up!”

One day we took a road trip to Kitimat. This was an abandoned ghost town at the time. Originally it was built to construct a massive hydroelectric facility to support the aluminum smelting industry. When we went there, there were large apartment houses which were empty and abandoned. There were several caretakers who watched over the facility to ward off vandalism and squatters, otherwise it was an eerie place with all these modern buildings sitting empty and weeds growing up through the pavement in the streets and sidewalks.

Kitimat was originally a native peoples’ village, but in 1950 the BC government decide to put in the huge hydroelectric facility. By 1959 it had been abandoned. Now it is the largest urban district in Northwest BC with a deepwater port and a flat fertile landscape. When we visited it was the worst mosquito ridden place I had ever been. We didn’t have repellent back then so we were bitten terribly. So much for the planned outdoor picnic in Kitimat.

I like to fish and we had a dock in front of the cabin. Lakelse had a phenomenon that I have not seen elsewhere. The beach was a salmon colored, coarse grit with millions of little, brown frogs about the size of my thumbnail. It was impossible to walk the beach without stepping on them. I was fascinated by them. I had never seen a frog so small. They were rough, more like a toad, and brown with a little reddish underside.

We did see a beaver on the opposite shore of the lake one day. Wei Chow mentioned that he had seen an animal but he did not know its English name. That made me wonder how he had lived here all his life and could only describe it as “slap, slap tail on water.” Maybe that is a transliteration from Chinese. Anyway he was talking about the beaver he frequently saw in the stream behind the cabin. I never saw one, but the trees showed evidence of their activities. Loons were common and heard by their woeful sound echoing from the mountains.

Well, fishing was on my agenda and Wei Chow provided me with a pole. Bait? Why not try a frog? I should have known better. With all those frogs, the northern pike were not at all interested in my bait. I did later catch one that we fixed—Chinese style—for dinner.

The water was so clear in the lake that you could see the bottom from the end of the dock where the water was about ten feet deep. I could see the pike cruising past my bait and line, not paying a bit of attention to it. I don’t know what I finally used, but somehow squished bread comes to mind. I decided my time was better spent picking huckleberries.

I am not sure how it happened, but one day five of us were left behind when my dad and the dad of the other family went off to go salmon fishing. They were gone all day and we busied ourselves around the cabin, berry picking and fishing and swimming and wondering the bear paths through the woods.

When they returned, my dad had caught a salmon, a very large salmon—64 pounds!! Wow, was Mr. Chow elated. He rigged up a fire ring on the beach and prepared a large fire. When the coals were ready he managed to contrive a grill from an abandoned bedsprings found in the woods, to roast salmon steaks for us all. The majority of the salmon was taken to the cannery and we ate canned salmon at home for a long time. (Just another couple of cartons that had to fit in the station wagon for the trip home, what to jettison?) I have never seen anyone catch one that size since.

We had a “speedboat” provided at the cabin. We could travel up and down the lake and go to other sandy beaches to have picnics—provided by Wei Chow. I don’t remember trying to fish from the boat, only from the dock. I also remember that the water was very cold so swimming only happened occasionally.

One night when we three kids had tootled off to bed, the house shook and the large wagon wheel chandelier over the dining room swayed as the parents were playing canasta, a favorite evening pastime of the adults. They decided that we should go to Terrace for breakfast in the morning and see what that was about. It seemed that there had been a major earthquake—in Yellowstone Park! We were 1083 miles from the epicenter! And the place shook and the lights swayed and in Terrace everyone talked about it. August 17 11:37 pm (MST).

Terrace was the nearest village with a grocery, gas station and a few other necessary businesses, a small place. We went to the local café and had breakfast and listened to the locals expound on the shaker that happened the night before.

Today the population is about 12,000 today but in the 1950’s it was just over three hundred. Queen Elizabeth visited this town in 1959, the same summer we were there.

The aboriginal population today is about 23% of the population. Its primary employment source is related to forest industries, pulpwood, power pole manufacture and a large cellulose plant which probably is used for paper as well.

There was a thermal pool nearby and my sister, our friend’s son and I went swimming there. It was some kind of a recreational center. The pool was hot, steaming, outdoors. It was a cool day and it was pretty cold getting out of the pool. My sister and I thought it very funny that all the men were wearing bathing caps. They all spoke French and had big dark, black beards. It seemed so strange and I don’t remember any women in the pool.

After getting cooked in the thermal pool we went around to another area and watched curling on ice. What a strange sport. Husky, grown Frenchmen with fierce black beards, sweeping a stone around on the ice with a broom. To each his own. I can’t say it was a very interesting game.

We ate lots of Chinese food, salmon, one pike, we picked berries, went to town, lived through a devastating (in Yellowstone) earthquake and then it was time to go home. High school is waiting.

We packed the car. There were seven of us and all our gear. I mean we really packed the car! There was space between the second and backward third seat. As much luggage as possible was packed into that space. There was a roof rack, but not much room for our luggage there as there were four spare tires on the roof! That was a good thing because we used them all to get home.

The Alcan Highway, 1959. I don’t think I would call it a highway yet. Firstly, we needed to drive to reach Prince George where we would officially be on the Alcan. Highway? No. Dirt track? Yes. Dirt the whole way would probably been good, but much of the new roadbed was crushed rock—crushed rock the size of large teacups. Boy, did it do a job on tires and the car. This was the reason that the car was less than new. The trip up the other family had made up to Lakelse had aged it beyond its years.

Traveling south, the road was a hive of activity for the contractors building it. It certainly didn’t provide a smooth and constant flow of traffic. One needed to be advised if traffic was going north or south on a certain day. One way traffic was the norm for many stretches of the highway. If you hit on the wrong day, going the wrong direction, you might as well find a motel room. These were few and far between.

A good deal of the highway was still dirt and it provided a constant, steady stream of road dust. The rear window of the station wagon wouldn’t close the whole way leaving an inch opening across the back of the car. Dust sheeted in on the backward facing seat, so much so that we kids were choking back there. Finally, all seven of us sat in the two forward seats and we stuffed clothing in the slot of the window that wouldn’t close. The car looked as though we had been on safari it was so covered in dust. If it hadn’t been so recent a model, we could have been mistake for dust bowl migrants.

Many sections of the road had a layer of substrate that later would be covered with finer rocks and then asphalt. We had to drive on these large crushed rocks. As a result we used all four of the spare tires by the time we reached the paving just north of Vancouver. No wonder the car was the worse for wear when we picked it up in Prince Rupert.

It was quite an adventure and one I really enjoyed. To this day, I still make Chinese dishes that Wei Chow taught me. I have added to my repertoire. I even went to China to teach and eat real Chinese food. I still like camping but seldom fish, although I am thinking of taking it up again. I live in a cabin in the woods which seems to suit my pioneer dreams though I have all the amenities, electricity, running water, flush toilet, and such. I do heat my home with wood that comes from trees the blow down on the property. I may not be pioneering, but it is a good second. By the way, it was a good five years before they paved the road to my house!

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