Month: October 2015

The Gold Trail

Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush. From the Canadian National Archives.

We are so used to fast, scheduled, reliable means of transport that it is easy to forget that only a generation or so has passed since travellers relied on horses and boats, were subject to the vagaries of weather, rough trails — or no trails at all — and a guide.  We look at the maps of the gold rush towns and forget that those towns didn’t exist when hopeful prospectors left home and comfort to brave the unknown in the hope of a lucky strike.

In my research into the various gold rushes in Canada, I came across this list of helpful hints for the trail.

  1. Don’t waste a single ounce of anything, even if you don’t like it.  Put it away and it will come in handy when you do like it.
  2. Don’t eat ice or snow.  Go thirsty until you can melt it.
  3. No man can continuously drag more than his own weight.  Remember that this is a fact.
  4. Keep your sleeping bag clean.  If it becomes inhabited, freeze the inhabitants out.
  5. A little dry grass or hay in the inside of your mitts, next to your hands, will promote great heat.
  6. When your nose is bitterly cold, stuff both nostrils with fur, cotton, or wool.
  7. Don’t catch hold of your gun barrel when 30 F. degrees below zero is registered.  Watch out or getting snow in the barrel.  If you do, don’t shoot it out.

Some of these hints are obvious.  Touch metal at minus 30 F degrees and it will freeze your skin to the metal.

Freezing the lice or fleas or bed bugs that might have taken up residence in your sleeping bag makes sense.  It also indicates that fleas and lice and bed bugs were to be expected in trail conditions.  Yuck!

The prohibition against drinking snow is because the extreme cold would lower body temperature and could lead to hypothermia.

I wouldn’t want to try to drag more than my own weight for one hour, let alone 12 hours on a rough trail but gold seekers were often mad with gold fever and needed reminding of common sense rules.  As to the weight of the packs, prospectors were required to carry one ton of goods before they could pass the NWMP post that marked the entrance into Canada.  The requirement was put in place to protect the miners who would have faced starvation in the harsh winter months if they were inadequately supplied.  The Chilkoot Pass, one of the most popular trails into the Klondike was too steep for pack animals, so the men had to carry their supplies themselves, necessitating several trips up the 1500 steps carved into the ice of the pass.

Considering the hardship prospectors faced in their quest for gold, the “trail hints” seem far too gentle.

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Monday was election day in Canada and I happily took myself off to the polling station and exercised my right to vote for my member of parliament.  As I did so, I remembered my grandmother, one of the first generation of Canadian women to win the vote.  Imagine, she’d taught school, personally known Sir John A. MacDonald,, helped her husband pioneer on a farm in Northern Ontario, born ten children, sent a son to fight in Flanders Fields and she was deemed unfit to chose her government.  In our modern age such a situation seems incredible.  Roughly 30% of eligible voters didn’t bother to mark a ballot this time around.  My grandmother would shake her finger at them and say, “shame on you.”

My grandmother got the right to vote partially through the efforts of the Famous Five, a group of five women who took their demand to be considered “persons” under the law all the way to the Privy Council in Britain.  They had been denied by the Supreme Court of Canada, but the Privy Council agreed that women were in fact, persons, and as such must be treated equally with men under the law.

Apart from the right to vote, and the right to run for parliament,  this change in the understanding of the BNA Act had far reaching effects on women’s rights of ownership, finances, family, children, divorce and education.  The famous five didn’t end their activism with suffrage.  After they were declared “persons” they worked on many causes including mother’s allowances,  better education for their children,  free medical and dental care for school children, and equal pay for equal work.

One of the Famous Five was Nellie Mooney McLung.  My grandmother claimed kinship with Nellie because of the shared Mooney name.  I have a cousin who has done extensive work on our family tree and even she has been unable to unearth a connection between our family and Nellie’s but Grandmother claimed there was a spiritual connection even if she couldn’t find one by blood.

So, as I cast my vote I say thanks to Nellie and her compatriots who campaigned so tirelessly for the rights of women and I say thanks to my grandmother who instilled in all her many descendants the privileges and duties of citizenship.  This one’s for you, Gramma.

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Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday.  The preparation time is short — a week at the outside — there is no demand to decorate the entire house, and there are no gifts to buy or costumes to make.   For me Thanksgiving is what a holy-day should be, a time to remember our Maker with gratitude, and a time to draw close to those we love.

This year was my turn to prepare the feast, turkey dinner.  The man of the house doesn’t believe it’s a proper holiday without turkey.  Lamb, ham, prime rib — none of these have the cachet of turkey when it comes to celebration.  So, I got up early on Sunday morning, stuffed the turkey and put it in the oven before heading off to church.  The day before I’d dug potatoes from the garden, baked an apple pie, and made my special cranberry/mandarin jellied salad, another offering that only appears on holidays.  My preparations were simple since my guests had all offered to bring a dish.  Usually, I turn down those offers, but this year I said yes.  Dinner for eight was a breeze.

However, there was one thing missing from the table — children.  When I began married life, our friends were like us, couples.  I could make elaborate table settings, balance acorns on oak leaves and serve adventurous dishes without worrying someone would knock it over or make a face and say “What’s that?”  Then children appeared.  The table had to stretch to twelve or fourteen or even eighteen.  Different tastes had to be accommodated.  The noise level went up.  I created a toy box, just for visiting children.  I needed bigger pots and a bigger turkey.  Festive occasions were loud and energetic and exhausting.

But this year, none of the next generation was present.  Dinner was so easy I feared I’d left something out.   Conversation focused on watching sports instead of playing them.  Retirement plans took the place of getting that first job.  Everyone went home at a reasonable time.

I still love Thanksgiving.  I revel in the bounty of harvest.  I bring out the best china and the silver tea set.  I dress my front door in fall colours.  But I miss the kids.  To my litany of thanks, I now add the privilege of knowing so many young people, (I’ve conducted a junior choir for years).  I’m grateful to all of them for enriching my life, for sharing their activities, their energy, their interests and their growing years with me.  A gift beyond price.

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It is harvest time where I live.  Although I’m not on a farm I have a garden and small orchard, so I am reaping the rewards of my summer’s labour.   Our storage bins are full,  I’ve given away boxes of apples, and still the trees are loaded with fruit.  My shelves of preserves look like sunshine in a jar.  On a cold, wet, dark night in January, we’ll eat strawberry jam and it will taste like summer.  An apple pie at Christmas time will come straight from our own trees.  Truly, we live in a bountiful land.

In my book, The Man for Her, I talk about that feeling of harvest and plenty, and the satisfaction of laying in stores against a season of want.  Lottie Graham lives more than a century before me, her harvest is essential to life, whereas mine is a hobby, but the sense of well-being, the urgency to pick and preserve, the permission to rest when it is all done — those things are common to my life and to the life of my character.

As I enjoy this beautiful Indian Summer in British Columbia, I think often of Lottie and her Pine Creek Farm.  I imagine her safe and warm with children at her knee and Sean, in from the fields,  washing up for dinner.  I do love a happy ending.

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