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Stories by Marianne Van Osch

 

A Tall Tale of a Lone Butte and a Painted Chasm

One fine morning near the end of May, back in 1913, Ed Higgins made his way along the old surveyors’ trail that wandered through the Cariboo. This section of the trail meandered from the Bridge Lake country around verdant sloughs and sparkling lakes, across meadows and on into the vast Chilcotin Country to the west.

Now Ed Higgins was a rather unusual traveler. He preferred to walk the land, rather than ride a horse.

“Horses are for working, not riding,” he’d say. “A man can’t get the feel of a place with one of ‘em stomping and snorting. All he can hear and smell is horse!”

Ed had stepped off a stagecoach at 70 Mile House a month earlier, with just a packsack and a determination to find a corner of the Cariboo where he could build a homestead for himself, his wife Irene, and the children, who were waiting in Oregon to join him in a new life in the wilderness.

Ed had been staying with the Hollands, friends from Oregon who were homesteading at Roe Lake. Bill Holland had a worn map, drawn up in a 1900 survey of the Bridge Lake area. There were only a few isolated homesteads on the map.

“Well,” Bill said, “you know Ed, you just have to look until you find a likely spot. Pace out and stake a quarter section near as you can. Then go to Clinton and file a claim. It’ll cost you two dollars.”

Since then Ed had walked many miles, searching for a homestead site that spoke to his heart with its beauty and to his imagination with its possibilities.

Now on this May morning, Ed was making his way west from Roe Lake. He listened as he walked to a scattering of spring birdsongs, some of which were familiar, others were new to him.

A sudden frantic rustling of dry leaves close to the path froze his steps. A cougar! But no. It was just a swamp robin, digging for insects under a tangled windfall. That’s what the Hollands had called the beautiful bird with the yellow chest and a black vee clear as anything on it.

Ed walked around the end of the windfall and stopped short. Ahead of him was something so unexpected, so out of place in the middle of the trail.

“What the heck is that?” The words flew out of his usually quiet-in–the-woods-mouth. To his immense surprise a low voice with a thick, Scottish burr answered, from behind the huge rock that stood in his path.

“Well Sonny, that there’s just one of the boulders me n’ Charlie had to move outta our way back in the 90’s.”

A small, white-bearded, leprechaun-like figure stepped out from behind the rock and motioned for Ed to follow him.

Now the chance of a good story and the acquaintance of an interesting old timer were always a magnet for Ed. He figured the only way to learn how to survive and to live in the wilderness was to listen to the stories of folks who had already done so. So he followed the strange fellow as he shuffled to a pair of stumps near a smoldering campfire nearby.

“Here’s how it happened Sonny, if ye can sit a spell while I fix some tea.” He threw some tea leaves into a dented, soot-blackened pot of water hanging over the fire, settled on a stump and leaned forward.

“Now me n’ Charlie, back home in Edinburgh, that’s Scotland you know, the dear old homeland, well we heard about this gold along the creeks in Canada, right there for the taking, in a place called British Columbia. So we thought we’d just get some for ourselves. “But by the time we got across this endless country, all mixed-up with mountains and fields and such, after sufferin’ on freezin’ trains, wagons, boats not fit to float and then wearing out our poor boots on this so-called Gold Rush Trail, by the time we got here, where you see that monstrous rock loomin’ up, me n’ Charlie were just about flat broke.

“Well that day it was getting into the gloamin’ and we was tired.”

Charlie said, “Jock, you get some firewood together and get some tea boilin’ and I’ll unhitch these horses. Guess we’ll have to hobble ‘em near that clump of grass, keep ‘em close by.”

“Well, I reached into the pocket of me old mackinaw, it was getting a mite shabby and ripped-like, and when I pulled out the matches, be darned if me last nickel didn’t fall out of that pocket and slip down into a crack in the ground, just like a light-hatin’ spider when the sun hits it!

“I got on me knees faster than a sinner with something to confess and started digging. I’d dig a bit of rock and dirt and then I’d sift it through me fingers. But there was no nickel. I yelled to Charlie to come and help.”

He hollered as he came on the run. “Ye durn fool! We gotta git that nickel!” He grabbed a pick axe and started hacking at the ground, throwing rocks left and right. Dirt was flying every which way. He was as mad as any Scotsman who has lost a nickel.

“We worked for days, me’n Charlie. We dug with shovels and picks and our bare hands. Them rocks got bigger and bigger. The dirt was spread out for acres around.

“Then one day we pried and lifted and hauled out the biggest, strangest rock. It looked just like a giant top hat. And that’s that one you can see now for miles around.”

“That’s it!” Charlie hollered. “I’m finished here! We sat down, drank some of our last tea and thought as hard as we could.”

Suddenly Charlie jumped up.

“That crack! It must go somewhere, not just straight down. That durn nickel must’ve followed that crack somewhere.”

“Sounded good to me. We sat down again and looked at our map.”

“Hey,” Charlie said thoughtfully, pointing his finger at a spot on the map. “I bet that nickel followed that crack down into some underground water and it came out just about here, on this creek that goes from the high land down into that Clinton valley.”

“You know Charlie,” I said. “I think you’re right.”

“So we got our horses and our picks and shovels and headed toward that spot on the map.

“Well, we dug and dug and dug. And as we dug, we went through streaks of beautiful colours just like a cake made up special with layers of fruit and such.”

“Ain’t this somethin”? Charlie smiled.

“Well it was so purty we didn’t even notice that we had dug our way right off that plateau until one of the horses slid backwards and would’ve been a goner if Charlie hadn’t grabbed the rope tied to his bridle.”

"Well by then we knew there was no nickel to be found. So we gave up and me n’ Charlie worked for a spell on a ranch down near Clinton. When we got a grubstake together we headed north again.

“This time we rode all the way to Barkerville on a stage that bounced over rocks, trying to break our bones, but after all the work we did looking for that nickel, it was a fine rest for both of us.

“In the end we did go prospectin’, just pannin’ on our claim. Did a little sluicin’. Didn’t think much about things. But then, one day, Charlie found the colour.”

“Hey Jock!” he yelled to me. “Git down here. There’s nuggets biggern’ turkey eggs, right here where I moved that boulder!’

“Sure enough! We had ourselves our own Bonanza. And now we travel around wherever we want. We made the folks back home rich and proud. Charlie married a high class gal from Winnipeg. I’m still batchin’ and hopin’.

“So I came back here for a look. Stayin’ at the Lone Butte Hotel for a few days, good eats and a good bed. You’ll see it up ahead past the rock. By the way, that’s what they call this whole place now, Lone Butte, because of that big rock we heaved outta the ground.

“And another thing, on the way here I saw this sign pointing to that trench me n’ Charlie dug down there to the edge of that plateau near Clinton. The sign said, ‘Painted Chasm’! Can ye beat that!”

The old fellow dumped the last of the tea on the ground, groaned a bit as he stood up, plunked a weather-beaten hat on his head, leaned down toward Ed Higgins and spoke quietly to the young man who had been listening, captivated by his fantastic story.

“Well anyway Sonny, as me old mother used to say, ‘A good tale never tires in the telling’.” ~ A Tall Tale of a Lone Butte and a Painted Chasm by Marianne Van Osch

 

Climbing Mount Begbie

One summer a few years ago we realized that we would not have time for our usual week-long holiday with the grandchildren. So I decided that I would take them on several mini-adventures. Each adventure would be a surprise and a new experience for them.

We attended an evening of music at Parkside Art Gallery featuring a spectacular African drummer. We went to the latest Harry Potter movie. We went to the 108 Ranch where horses were waiting to take them on a trail ride. This tied in with a new interest in old western movies.

Then, as a grand finale, they discovered we were going to climb Mount Begbie, south of 100 Mile House, to the lookout at the top where we could see the whole Cariboo on a clear day, according to the information board in the parking lot. A sign at the trailhead stated that the trail to the summit was rough. Well, that was fine. We were used to traipsing over roots and rocks.

We set out, up a short hill and across a lovely little meadow of low, soft grass. Tall trees created shadows along one side of the meadow. We admired tiny mauve asters with their bright golden centers. A short distance ahead, the trail narrowed abruptly, and we turned to the left.

Suddenly, there was nothing beside my right foot but a sheer drop a hundred feet or more, straight down. I stood, frozen to the spot.

And then, in a dreadful moment of I-never-should-have, I looked up.

Far off in the distance, directly ahead, was the Marble Mountain Range, dark blue against the sky. Off to the right layers of hills in shades of blue rolled to the horizon like a Japanese painting.

It was at that moment, with the clarity of a sledgehammer to the head, that everything crashed. I am terrified of heights. Not afraid of, terrified. Heart-thumping, almost blacking-out terrified.

I scrambled ahead to a clump of boulders where I sat, head down, unable to look in any direction.

“I have to stay here a while,” I said, slowly, word by word, so as not to frighten my companions, who were by then looking nonchalantly around at the scenery, not the least bit concerned about how oddly I was acting.

They looked into the distance a moment and then up the hill. A rock-strewn, switchbacked path led up and away to where the summit must be.

“Well, can we go?” they asked.

I handed my camera to Mike. “Here. Take some pictures of the tower. It must be just up there a bit.”

Off they went. I clung to those rocks high on that hill like a lonely goatherd.

Then, horror washed over me! Why had I let them go! What had I done! I told them to go, go up into terrible dangers! They were probably tearing around, racing along cliffs. They’d fall to their certain deaths! Cougars would surely be waiting up there!

They were gone too long! I called, I cried!

No answer. Absolute quiet. In desperation, I crawled up to the next turn. And that was it. I froze against the trail clutching onto some rocks by my face.

Dear God! If those kids come back, if You get me out of this, I’ll go to church, I’ll pray every day! I’ll send money to orphans!

And then, there they came, tripping lightly down the trail. They had climbed up into the tower and taken lots of pictures. Oh it was great!

They were not at all puzzled by the sight of their grandmother, kneeling face down on the trail, eyes tightly shut, bare knees studded with stones, dirty streaks all over her face. They were used to her ways.

“This is what we’re going to do,” I croaked as calmly as I could. “I’m going to back down this hill and you’re going to help me.”

They moved past me and waited.

“Renée, you tell me where I am on the trail. Mike, make sure all of us stay away from the edge.”

Okay they said, sure.

It was a slow, torturous descent.

“Move a little to left, stop, move to the right,” she’d say, patiently.

“You’re about two meters from the turn,” he said.

At some point Mike decided to record the proceedings: several clear shots of a big black butt, crab walking by then, inch by inch down the hill with a glorious blue sky in the background. That should preserve the moment forever.

I was still dragging myself along when Renée said, with a tiny touch of sarcasm, “I think you can probably stand up now.”

I stood up. We were far back from that terrible turn in the trail, back among the delightful little asters.

Coated with a thick layer of dust and grime, hands pockmarked with gravel, I followed them, as wobbly as a sailor leaving a bar. At the bottom of that trail, off to the right, a road dappled with sun and shade turns away invitingly into the woods. I heard later on that it’s a lovely walk up to the summit on that road. Why there’s even a picnic table up there! ~ Climbing Mount Begbie by Marianne Van Osch

 

On Saving a Tree

This morning the hill at the top of the road, up by the old pioneer cemetery, seemed to loom over the rest of the road below. A steep knoll half way up the hill blocked any view of the white pickets of the cemetery gates, where the road ends. Tall evergreens with skirtloads of snow edged the road in a sparkling wall in the bright sun.

The climb to the top of the hill is a hard one, best done in stages. But once at the top, there is an immediate reward for having made the trek, a gorgeous view of the Canim Lake mountains in the distance. Then comes the ultimate reward, stamping back down the hill with a smug feeling of having gotten enough exercise for the day.

Today the sky was Cariboo blue with a frosty haze here and there. Deer tracks and little black dog tracks burst into small circles in the snow on the road. Ah, it was good to be out and about.

At the top of the knoll the road smoothes out into a gentle upward grade until it reaches the cemetery gates. Here a thin fir bent over the road, its small tip touching the dog tracks as if the tree was sniffing where the dog had been. The tree’s slender spine was bow-shaped under a load of heavy snow. I explained to the fir what I might be able to do to ease its painful situation.

My walking stick has a small crook at the top. This fit neatly under the tree’s delicate tip. A soft shake, a shower of snow into the hood of my coat, which I had forgotten to put up, and the tree began to straighten it’s back, as stiffly and slowly as an old man rising from a too-low chair. More shaking, more plops on my head, no problem, no hair shape to worry about, and the tree stretched its back a little further, inch by inch, until it was about a meter above my head.

Then I thought, well. If I throw my walking stick at the branches that were out of reach and still piled with snow, I’d be able to dislodge the clumps further up and speed up this process. Away went the stick. It flicked off a small clump of snow and continued to soar on high into the snowbank. It sank out of sight. It was supposed to have hit the tree and dropped back down.

I thought, well this will be easy. I’ll kneel on the side of the snowbank which was about four feet high and looked to be firmly-sculpted, with a lovely smooth crest at the top. From there, I’ll simply lean over as far as possible and reach into the snow, into that indentation where the stick had disappeared.

I knelt down on the side of the snowbank, my knees plummeted into soft, mushy snow and I shot head first into the bank as if someone had planted a good one on my rear portion.

The snowbank collapsed around me. And there was the stick, straight ahead, just out of reach. All I had to do was crawl in a bit further. Getting out would be a cinch. I’d probably left a pretty good trail behind me. So I’d back straight out.

I grabbed the stick and thought, I’ll use it to push myself up. I put a bit of weight on it, it snapped and I shot forward deeper into the bank. I wiped some snow off my face, struggled to my knees, put myself in reverse and backed up as gracefully as an amphibious troop carrier out onto the road, dragging the broken stick with me. The tree bent over me with a concerned look.

I just couldn’t leave without one last attempt to relieve some of the tree’s burden a bit more. If only I could knock off even one more clump of snow.

I wound up and fired the broken stick at the overhanging branches. Like a boomerang it fired itself right back at me and rapped me smartly on the top of the head. I turned my back on that ungrateful tree and headed down the hill, snow-covered, battered and wet.

Halfway down the knoll, I met the grader plowing its way up the hill. I turned to watch.

Sure enough, with the gentlest of nudges from the grader, all of the remaining snow slid off the fir’s back and the tree straightened up like a ballet dancer rising gracefully from a deep pliè. It trembled daintily and nodded softly in gratitude toward the kind grader operator. ~ On Saving a Tree by Marianne Van Osch

 

One Day in 1862 on the Cariboo Wagon Road

Darkness was closing in when Ben saw a tiny speck of light ahead. A cold rain had been pelting him and the horse since the morning, when they left Ashcroft to head north on the Cariboo Wagon Road.

Ben’s father had sent him down to Ashcroft on the BX stagecoach to pick up supplies and a new horse to bring back to his livery stable at 47 Mile, or Clinton, as it had recently been named, in honour of some military hero.

Well, after all, his father had said, Ben was fourteen and the new sign over the livery said, “J. Fuller and Son” and it was time Ben had some responsibilities.

Thunder rumbled behind the hills and lightning lit up the main roadhouse at Hat Creek Ranch as Ben and the horse rode into the enormous log barn. An old wrangler roused himself from a cot set up in the barn’s tack room. He helped Ben settle in the horse, and then shared a pot of stew and sludge-thick coffee with the boy. Rain pounded on the shakes on the roof of the barn as Ben fell asleep on his blanket in the loft.

As dawn spread a thin pink line on the horizon, Ben led the horse out of the barn into a splendid morning, fresh and cool and filled with the songs of birds in the cottonwoods and bushes that lined the road. He could hear the bright “kit, kit, kitterdot” of a tiny kingbird close by.

The horse stepped through a few deep puddles but most of the road was drying quickly, as things do after a rain in the Cariboo. Its hooves clicked on small loose stones.

The road followed the base of low hills that sharpened into bluffs stained a bright orange-red, where prospectors had washed away the topsoil in their search for gold.

After a short ride along the valley floor, the road climbed up a steep grade by a fast-moving creek that veered away to the right. Ben remembered that this odd, treacherous stretch of road was known as Maiden Creek Hill.

When he had been on his way south to Ashcroft yesterday morning, when the BX coach had reached the hill, everyone had to get out and walk ahead of the coach as it crawled up the steep, almost-vertical grade. Men had scrambled to put rocks behind the coach wheels as it was pulled foot by foot up the switchbacks by the struggling horses.

This time it was just Ben and the horse and they were coming down that steep grade. Ben let the horse pick a slow, side to side path. A small cloud of dust and skittering stones followed the horse’s feet.

At the bottom of the hill willows and poplars spread a green roof. How cool and peaceful it felt. Ben tied the horse beside the creek below the road, where there was a patch of grass. He sat with his back against a tree in the warm sun.

“It’s really nice here,” Ben thought. Birds flitted above his head. He recognized the song of a yellow warbler, a merry “see, see, see”. Another warbler joined in.

Suddenly Ben realized that he was hearing another sound, a strange sort of thudding. Scrape. Thud. He recognized the creak of heavy packs. The thudding and scraping grew louder. Men shouted. Ben jumped to his feet.

An amazing sight appeared at the top of the hill above him. A man was holding a rope tied to a long snout turned upwards at the front of a huge, furry head. The mass of fur ran right down the animal’s chest. As it moved slowly forward Ben could see that it had short strong forelegs ending in wide, splayed-out feet. Two thick bumps rose from its back and its rear end was as narrow as a horse’s.

The man led the animal slowly down the hill. Two more of the strange creatures came over the crest of the hill.

Camels! These were camels! Ben had heard about them but this was the first time he had seen them.

Men at the livery stable had talked about how this teamster named Frank Laumeister had bought twenty-three of the two-humped camels to carry freight on the Cariboo Wagon Road. The Victoria paper told how the camels, called Bactrian camels, came from Arizona to Victoria and then rode on a paddlewheel steamboat up the Fraser River.

Word was that it was a foolish idea and would never work. His dad said the camels were ships of the desert, for heaven’s sakes! They were soft-footed and used to a warm climate. Besides, if they met horses on the road the horses went berserk at the unfamiliar smell and shape of the camels.

Suddenly Ben’s horse caught the camels’ scent. He reared up, wild-eyed, slashing his hooves in panic. Ben could do nothing but stare, open-mouthed as the odd procession passed by on the road above them. The men leading the camels never looked their way. Later, he saw where they had turned off to the left on a side trail.

In the last part of the evening, when nothing is left of sunlight but a few bright trees high on the mountain sides, Ben and the horse came down the hill into Clinton. Lamps burned in parlors here and there, The sound of the metal triangle by the roadhouse door being rung by the cook announced that dinner was being served. Ben heard the soft notes of a piano being played somewhere nearby.

His father was leading a team of freight horses into the livery. Other teams waited, shuffling tired feet in the dust of the street.

Ben and the horse turned into the stable, under the sign that said he was now a partner in an important business. Yep, he was a man now and had a story to tell, just like the other fellows. ~ One Day in 1862 on the Cariboo Wagon Road by Marianne Van Osch

 

A Cabin Boy and a Big Ditch

Along the northern shore of Lake Erie there once was a world as intriguing to the children who lived there, as full of adventure as any Middle Earth kingdom.

Within a narrow strip of land along the lake lie several different types of terrain. On the north edge of the strip, small fields of old farmland and woodlots that are remnants of Carolinian forests slope toward a low, wet area that ends in sand dunes. The dunes form a barrier between the wetlands and the lake.

Point Abino Road passes through the mix of fields, bush and marsh. South of Michener Road, beginning at the Page homestead, the road slants down into the wetlands. That gentle descent is barely discernible, but to us, it was The Hill. And from there on it was our territory, a swampy stretch of the great unknown. Tall trees spread leafy crowns over water that covered their roots for much of the year.

In the spring the swamp was an incredible sight. Marsh marigolds covered the water. They were so brilliant, so gold that they actually shone in the sunlight that sifted through the branches above.

Our house, like the others in the assortment of buildings that were once a summer colony, was perched on truckloads of sand that had been leveled off. It had been a two-room cabin used as a change house for swimming parties from Buffalo. It grew and improved slowly with the years, through Insul-Brick on the outside to shingle siding. The interior walls were Tentest (we called it), a soft wallboard that resembled pressed sawdust.

My earliest memory is of someone handing me to my brother Larry in a rowboat. We had to leave the house during a flood. After that more sand was brought in and a better foundation built. I remember Larry and I raking the sand clear of twigs and other debris when we were expecting company. An early version of lawn care.

The yards around the eight or so homes and the cottages of a handful of summer people were generally just a bit larger than the structures themselves. Their lawns were always soggy so grass grew soft and thick. A deep ditch ran along the road in front of our house and provided endless entertainment. There were plenty of kids to fall in the ditch and to work on rafts that wouldn’t float. We skated on the ditch and among the trees across the road.

In the spring, our attention centred on the fringes of the swamp, tadpoles, frogs and such. In the summer, when it dried up enough let us in for a short distance, Tarzan and trails took over. All of this happened despite the abundance of snakes of many kinds, a story in themselves.

Along the northern edge of the swamp a large drainage ditch had been dug, long before our time. The ditch was ten to fifteen feet wide and at least four feet deep in the early spring, after the winter runoff in our heavy snowfall part of Ontario. The current was strong at that time. The bottom was a thick, rubber boot-grabbing slick of black mud. Whatever the reason for its existence, it was simply The Big Ditch to all of us kids, as important and as wild as any river we had ever heard of. Everyone had crazy adventures there, especially the boys. They thought they were invincible so some of their stories could have had disastrous endings. There must have been a ditch god watching over their daredevil antics.

Deep in the trees and impenetrable swamp behind our little settlement, the ditch turned in a right angle away from the fields and headed on through the swamp to its outflow on Lake Erie where the Abino Hills Road begins.

As well as draining farmland, another reason the ditch may have been dug was in an attempt to drain water from the land in back of the summer homes along Point Abino Road. Many of them were large estates. One had a full-sized racetrack down below the main buildings. It was a true wetland area. My Aunt Florence Foreman used to tell of gathering cranberries in a bog back there, scooping them up in a wicker tray.

To get to the Big Ditch, we followed a gravel road next to our house, Wildwood Road, for a short distance. The road became two ruts, overgrown with tall weeds, edged by tangled bushes and unpredictable hummocks. It ended at the ditch.

Now when we reached the ditch the tall grass was flattened along the bank. This spot had kids written all over it. To the left a well-used path hung on the edge of the bank, several feet above the water. The Big Boys had machetes, well, they had long knives that they called machetes. They hacked and splintered away at spindly growth along the path.

We liked to run at top speed along the bank. At one point, there was no path. A narrow side stream had eaten away the bank. Well, that was exciting. You had to hang onto anything you could grab and swing over this chasm of two or three feet.

Further along the path opened into a small clearing, with a bench overlooking the water. Once in a long while there would be a most interesting-looking person sitting there on his perch on a fallen tree. He was very thin, with neatly trimmed white hair and a full moustache. He always wore long underwear, year round, and suspenders to hold up his pants. A pipe with a curve was close at hand. His eyes smiled and we felt comfortable. We knew he was glad to see us.

This was Jack St. Clair and he was as fascinating as an old man could be. Sometimes he would tell us how he had run away from home at the age of ten to work as a cabin boy on a sailing ship. Rounding the Horn and storms that blew them into faraway seas. Shipwrecks and islands and bales of tea in far eastern ports. His stories may have been short and rather offhand but we had read The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island. It was all real to us.

Jack used a stick for balance when he walked. I remember following him along a shaggy path that led from the Big Ditch to his house. And once when we walked by his weed-covered garden patch, he showed us something still growing there. At one time the garden must have flourished, nourished by the richness of the soil.

The house was four doors from us along Point Abino Road. It was set well back from the road by a long driveway raised above low, wet land. The house was gable-roofed. The shingled walls shone a warm dark brown in the sun that always seems to shine in childhood memories.

It was dark inside and cluttered. A bed was built into one wall. Now the great thing about this bed was that it was carved with figures and ships and palm trees and words that you could barely make out in the shadows.

Jack was a woodcarver. He built models of ships he had sailed on, large models, with the most amazing attention to details. Miniature pulleys, so tiny and yet they worked. Cabins, portholes, hatches, lifeboats. The wood was finished in a varnish that gave each piece a smooth, burnished tone. The ships’ sails were perfect, a well-worn beige and cream colour. We bent over the ships and studied everything as only children can, with imagination and wonder.

A table piled with sketches and books and carving tools, dusty with wood shavings, stood by the door. There were shelves, perhaps a china cabinet. On one shelf were several pieces of the finest, most transparent bone china I’ve ever seen, cups and saucers and plates. I remember an Oriental pattern, orange with gold. Jack let us hold a piece to feel how thin it was. We never heard of a wife or family, except for one time when I overheard a reference to a niece when my mother and father were talking.

Jack’s kitchen was of no interest to us although I do remember him making tea for us once. Sometimes he would have a few candies to share, hard fruit drops that someone had brought him.

Jack had other souvenirs from his travels but they were generally just part of the background to us. However, there was a certain souvenir that Jack seemed to feel was really important. I saw it only once and that was more than enough.

On a dresser in his bedroom was a wooden box.

“Take a look,” he said. “I’ve had that since I was a lad.”

There in the box among a few buttons and coins was a blackened, wrinkled little hand covered with patches of hair.

“Go ahead, pick it up. It’s a monkey’s paw.”

I couldn’t touch it.

My dad, Ed Buck, kept an eye on Old Jack, as he was called. He liked to stop by and check up on him. In 1953 a fire damaged Jack’s home. A neighbour took him in. My dad and other neighbours restored the house, putting on a new roof and chimneys. I remember my dad telling about laying a new floor, a bright linoleum that delighted Jack after he returned home on his ninety-eighth birthday.

A group photo taken in 1953 records the event. The men in the background had worked on the house: John Hutchings, Jay Adams, Alfred (Tuffy) Jackson and on the right, my father Ed Buck. The man in the front on the left is Peter Andrews, a reporter for a Buffalo newspaper. The other people are Americans who had taken an interest in Jack.

Jack St. Clair

Eventually Jack needed help to get by. My mom, Theresa, would send one of us over in the morning with a container of oatmeal, kept warm in a towel. After supper, my dad would take a plate of food to him. I imagine other neighbours did the same.

Mom decided that I should go over and tidy up Jack’s house. Maybe I should do that once in a while on a Saturday morning, she said. I was probably twelve at the time. So I did. There wasn’t much I could do with the clutter of the house. Old Jack wouldn’t have liked me to move things around anyway.

One time my friend Phyllis Cooper came along. I remember wanting to make him a cup of tea and there was none that I could find. Jack was sitting at the table in his longjohns. He spoke a little to us but seemed lost in his thoughts. I gathered up a small pile of laundry and we left him, still at the table.

Within a few years, Jack and my father both passed away. Jack was over a hundred years old. Eventually Tony Misetich bought Jack’s home. He and his wife Millie were gardeners for several summer families. Together they turned the property into a lovely place of neat lawns and gardens.

All that I have left of Jack is two photos and a pair of carved pulleys. The pulleys are about two inches long. They appear to be walnut and are bigger than the ones he carved for his model ships. The pulleys turn on wooden pegs. These may have been made when he was older and was always carving something at his table.

Tackle Block

I did have a beautiful rowboat, about three inches long, that was perfect in every detail. Regrettably, it was probably lost in a move. As for Jack’s splendid sailing ships, they may have been sold or given to people. It would be interesting to find out where they sailed off to.

Jack St. Clair

I took the photos of Jack with my first camera. One shows him sitting on a tree at the Big Ditch. In the other photo, he is standing by a clump of flowers that he admired. I remember their lovely, strong scent.

And those are my memories of a unique old man, his stories of a life full of adventures that spurred our imaginations, a swamp that is now almost gone, and a Big Ditch that may or may not be exactly the way it seemed. ~ A Cabin Boy and a Big Ditch by Marianne Van Osch


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