Where I roll up my sleeves and get to work
Atlin, July, 1979. Five hundred dollars. The figure had significance of some sort. Then it hit me. This was the sum my father was carrying when we arrived in Canada – what he had in his pocket as he stood on the corner of Georgia and Granville with two brown suitcases, a wife, three children, and no idea what the future would bring.
I was just south of Atlin, humping down the Warm Bay Road with my backpack and handsaw when I tapped my jean jacket pocket, knowing that this was the exact amount I was carrying – the entire amount in my building fund. Evidently, I had come north to build a cabin with five hundred dollars, a backpack and a handsaw. Either I was a naive fool or… well … I’m not sure there’s an alternative to that assessment.
The idea of staking land and building a cabin in the North turned out to have legs, because shortly after that enchanted first trip to Atlin two years earlier, I was offered the chance to take over my friend Jamie’s five acre stake on Pine Creek. And this was where I was headed.
In my favour was the fact that I knew a little about log construction. My early cabin building experience was still fresh in my mind. Not that it transferred perfectly. The trees on the coast are huge. We notched and fitted the logs in that first attempt at log building in the North Vancouver watershed. These trees were smaller spruce and pine. The process up here was to have two slabs cut off them so they could be stacked and overlapped.
Lucky for me, several years before, Jim and Cathy Marshall had pulled up stakes in the lower forty-eight and settled south of Atlin on the Warm Bay Road, starting up a full bore logging operation and mill. Jim was a stocky, feisty, funny, hard working son of a gun and Cathy was his warm, clever and beautiful counterpart; a good match was my guess. They were the first people I met in this brand new environment but, as I was to discover, they were typical of the pioneering crew I was about to run into in the coming weeks, none of whom were run of the mill. Ouch …
After a beer or two and some calculation, the quantity of logs I needed for the first round of work was sorted out, and we hauled them on Jim’s big flatbed back to my rough and ready location.
But the location turned out to be more rough than ready. Upon review of my building requirements, it turned out that the government wanted a ‘continuous cement footing,’ – something I had not anticipated, and something I was going to need help with.
Fortunately, the word had spread around town that some bozo had shown up to build a place with a handsaw and a less than complete knowledge of cement, prompting Dave Dickinson, John Dickinson, and Fred Morris to show up with the energy, equipment and plans to help with a concrete pour that required four of us. They were the local representatives of Northerners everywhere – people who take a look around, see who might need a hand, then jump in unreservedly to help. This is a good tribe to have around you.
With the pour done, I got to work: peeling, cutting, notching and stacking. As time went by, I found myself getting stronger and more efficient, and I figured that if I kept up the pace, and managed to avoid cutting off a limb with the chain saw, I just might have the place built before the snow flew.
The whole thing could have easily been one lonely endeavour, but as it turned out, that was far from the case. All around me, people were building. And they were from everywhere – Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. There was a renaissance taking place, and I found myself smack dab in the middle of it.
One thing was clear – regardless of origin, each one of these folks had chosen this little town as a destination. Something had drawn them down that 60 mile, dead end dirt road, like moths to a flame, and I just happened to be the latest insect flapping about the lantern.
Something else became clear pretty quickly: None of these characters lived anywhere near the middle of the bell shaped curve, and while they had wildly different backgrounds, those differences were entirely overshadowed by what they had in common: They were hard working, intelligent, educated, clever, adventurous, funny and, most importantly, wildly irreverent, and while I wasn’t exactly sure where I fit in, I knew one thing for certain: I was home.