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Desert to coast -- a painting journey down British Columbia's
Thompson and Fraser Rivers.

Michael Kluckner

The large images below date from two journeys in 2007 & 2008, trips I made on visits back to Canada to set these rivers in my mind and sketchbook after moving to Australia.
The thumbnails are from Vanishing British Columbia -- they link to the broader "roadside memory" text and historical images of that project.
There is an extended text at the more links below
The sketchbook is 10 x 11 inches, Arches cold-pressed 140#, so the double-page watercolours are about 9 x 22 inches

Ironically, it was moving to Australia that focused my desire to complete a set of images and write some impressions of the splendid Thompson and Fraser river canyons of British Columbia... more 

The Thompson River valley was once a place of small orchards and fruit stands....

Travelling through, as most people do: Hilltop Gardens, the last of the fruit stands, as it was about 1999, across the Thompson River from the Toketic bench not far north of Spences Bridge...

Tourists brake where cherries are displayed
Beneath a summer sun that bakes
The roadworn moms in bucket seats.
Don't drink so fast they say--
Chilled cider cramps the throat.
A fly in arabesques repeats
Dark loops above sweet peaches.
Just four hours to coastal beaches
An island and a boat
And a bistro with white wine.
Eighteen-wheeler howls by, retread flapping.
Leashed small dogs on roadside gravel crapping.
One more DVD to watch ...
The river flickers by.

The river runs west from Kamloops Lake, then swings more or less south at Ashcroft. First (that is, farthest upstream) there is Walhachin, on the south side of the Thompson midway between the lake and Ashcroft, a beautiful valley once platted with young orchards but destroyed by storms and the losses of a distant war. The shattered dreams of a century ago....

July '07: South of Aschcroft, the east-side road -- that is, the one to Logan Lake -- climbs steeply above a wide valley so arid that no trees grew but for one Ponderosa pine on a bend in the river. It had succumbed probably to pine beetles, its needles still in the "red stage" -- the first year of death.

Sage grey stage
Where shadowed evening sunlight plays.
Sandals scratched by sagebrush,
Blue jeans torn by thorns.
Only goats could safely graze,
Their mouths so tough their stomachs armoured too.
Or cattle in the tender moistened spring?
Ochre azur mix for chaparral,
Skidding drybrush on the paper field.
Paint it fast, for shadows swing
Across the wind-blown forms,
And in a sweep of cobalt frame
The dying pine tree's transient flame.
Orange will be grey next summer,
One more colour gone.

At this point the Trans Canada Highway is on the west bank of the river, following the path of the 1860s Cariboo Road, crossing the valley beyond the first set of hills that was once the Cornwalls' Ashcroft ranch on its way west from Cache Creek, where the Bonaparte River creates an opening northward to the goldfields.

A rough dirt road branches off the Logan Lake Road and follows the east side of the river all the way to Spences Bridge -- I've tried it from both ends but have never had the vehicle to make it the whole way.

The old map below, from 1914, shows the Cariboo Road on the left as a reddish-brown line crossing relatively open country until it is forced to hug the river edge near Spatsum.

Barn near Basque, horizontal logs on the bottom notched at the corners, framed hayloft.

In the vicinity of Spences Bridge there are, or were, homesteads of the most typical BC character -- a few old places well-built, some shacks and many single-wides. Some of them are First Nations properties, and the two churches visible from the highway, both Anglican, both modest and a century old, are on Indian reserves. Only a few places have irrigation and still grow fruit. There are lush crops of alfalfa and hay, winter fodder for cattle and sheep foraging in the high pastures way above the river, on the river flats near Basque. But further south there is an air of abandonment, at least the abandonment of enterprise, and of people making only the most transient, temporary marks on the landscape. To an outsider on the Trans Canada highway these seem to be subsistence lives lived in profound isolation. Abandonment, poverty and indifference.

We who are the blood that
Flows in highway one's wide vein
From Van to Kamloops, Med'cine Hat
Note the lonesome trailers, rusted cars
Above the turquoise river's gravel bars.
Where have the owners gone?
Into what other lonely empty space?
Their absence does explain
The shrivelled lilacs left behind.
Nothing beside remains,
No planted tree to mark their place.

The Teit property, aka Hillside Gardens, the last of the fruit stands, mentioned above

St. Michael and All Angels church at Spences Bridge. The other nearby church is St. Aidan's at Pokhaist.

An orchard and homestead south of Spences Bridge that was burned out in 2007.

July '07: Dots of human activity... temporary marks on the landscape...

Above: Homestead #1, Inkikuh Creek in the gully on the left.

Below grey dotted hills
A single-wide on dried-out bench above
The white clay banks that slope above
The CPR line just above
July turquoise river.

Right: a 1994 watercolour of "Homestead #2" from Vanishing BC, from the days of the red house.

Below: Homestead #2, the bench above the Thompson River at Toketic, Pimainus Creek in the gully on the left. 

A hundred in the shade.
Once sheep cropped the ochre tabletop
Then lushly irrigated.
"May the folds be full of sheep
And the valleys also stand so thick
With corn that they may laugh and sing."
Only gusty wind sings now
And shadows stand in sagebrush folds.
A single-wide remains and holds
The memory of sun and snow
Each melody the seasons played.

I slouch beneath a wide-brimmed hat,
Sunburning, quickly find some hue
To capture air so flayed so clear.
A gully full of dull green trees
And yet not far away,
Pines like scattered pepper grains --
The colours shift to blue.
Viridian mixed with manganese
The river in July.

May '08: Homestead #3, on the south bank of the Thompson River a few kilometres downstream from Spences Bridge.

Viewing someone's heaven from a raft--
A homestead on the riverbank
A biffy and a plywood shed
A generator, propane tank
An airtight in the trailer.
Mess and rusty metal spread
Who cares? he might have said,
You only see it if you wish.
K-car in the chaparral
Nearest store is Lytton
Nothing left in Spences Bridge
No one tells you how to live
Next cheque he'll get a dish.

Colours somehow rich but pale
Dullness, distance
Bright yet soft
À point mais flou
Shadows almost black
What is that subtle hue?

May '08: three watercolours within a couple of kilometres....

Close to Lytton the Thompson River enters a dramatic granite canyon at Skihist. Along the highway, a small provincial park on a bench high above the river offers a respite for road-worn motorists. There's a cafe or two still at Lytton, but the first roadhouse stop to the east is a dark log pub at Spences Bridge, then nothing till Cache Creek or Ashcroft. In the summer, a handful of tourists exercise dogs and picnic at the few benches set up on the well-maintained, lush lawn beneath the Ponderosa pines. There's a metre or so of flat ground outside the chain-link fence that protects visitors from the cliff, a perfect place to sit and look down almost vertically onto the river and the CN line on the other side -- the CP line is straight below.

Water milky silt-brown
Springtime May month melt
High sierra ultramar
How far away is far?
Roaring diesels pull and push
Container-transport trade
China Sea-Link
Wal-Mart Can Tire
Struggle on the uphill grade.
Across the river downhill coal cars
Westbound glide to port
Shrieking bearings, grinding wheels
The canyon walls retort....
And so on.

This view continues in the watercolour below....

During the 2008 painting trip to the Thompson, I went on one of the Kumsheen Resort's river-raft trips ... more

Above: From the bank below the edge of the highway, sitting on broken rock and sagebrush thorns. The things we do for art.... Just past the granite canyon the Thompson River runs between two benches probably 100 yards high; the one on the right is untouched because CP was able to locate its line on the bench, while the CN's line had to be put just above the river level due to the sheer canyon  upstream. The cut ended up eroding the entire hillside into a fanned-out delta of blue-grey sand and gravel exposing a set of hoodoos.

The dramatic triangular peak visible in both watercolours is separated from the adjoining mountain by the sharply carved canyon of Botanie Creek. I sat in the scrub on the edge of the parking lot of the highway diner just above Lytton to paint the watercolour on the right.

At Lytton the Thompson River ends, mixing its blueness with the brown muddiness of BC's biggest river. From the edge of town you can see the blue plume spreading into the Fraser River like a puff of cigarette smoke in a half-lit room. And you can see the change... more 

July '07: early evening views from Jackass Summit looking downstream (left) and upstream (above), the blue gloom of evening's shadows cloaking the western slopes. All but the steepest banks are clothed in forest, still mainly pines but beginning to be mixed with the fir of the coastal forest zones, so different from the dotted Ponderosa pines and sagebrush slopes of the Thompson.

I'd stopped at the viewpoint and was daubing away when a new Jetta with Nova Scotia plates pulled up. Young couple with two boys from Halifax: they'd been to Vancouver, bought the car and were heading home. No they had never seen a landscape as vertical, as precipitous, as this...

North Bend, the CPR divisional point, used to be the most interesting village in the Fraser Canyon but there isn't much left of its historic underpinnings anymore. Most of the population have migrated across the river to the CN and highway side at Boston Bar.

There were motels and small resorts throughout this upper part of the Fraser Canyon, nearly all of them now closed, demolished or abandoned into ruins along the roadsides. I made reference above to planted trees not surviving in the harsh arid climate of the Thompson Valley; in the wetter Fraser Canyon the trees not only survive but thrive, especially the weeping willows and acacias. With their yellower colours they stand out from the native forest, declaiming "people once lived here" to the passersby on the Trans Canada Highway. It's reasonable to predict that in a generation the buildings will have gone and the planted trees will be the only evidence of lives once lived, the chatter and laughter of vacationers.

Left: July '07, looking downstream to Chapman's Bar and the crossings of the two Alexandra Bridges. In the distance, the river narrows and increases its intensity at Spuzzum--the best spot to throw a bridge across the river to carry, initially, the Cariboo Road of 1862.

The 3 places in this vicinity from Vanishing British Columbia are the Alexandra Lodge (top), the old Alexandra Bridge (middle) and the hamlet of Spuzzum (bottom).

May '08: Lady Franklin's Rock navigates the Fraser River's rapids just upstream from Yale.  It was the real barrier to steamboats heading upstream, although the sternwheeler SS Skuzzy did get hauled through the Spuzzum Narrows, then Hell's Gate,  in 1883, and plied the upper river for some years. "It was named in 1861 to mark the visit of Lady Jane Franklin, widow of the British naval explorer Sir John Franklin, who had disappeared in the Arctic 16 years earlier." --Encyclopedia of BC.

The streaked landslides on the slopes of the mountains towering above the river make a surreal pattern on the backgrounds of the watercolours. Somehow dark-green fir cling to the steep slopes; below, the lighter yellow-green is deciduous alder. The river in spring flood is an awesome, powerful thing, flowing relentlessly, pulsing like a brown sheet flapping in a stiff wind.

Dark green fir cling
Eagle circling....

Yale, crouching in the green shadows of the narrow canyon, is the historic village at the lower end of the Fraser Canyon; unlike the upstream communities of Boston Bar and North Bend, it dates from the fur trade era. Ten years after its founding, in 1858, it became the end of navigation and staging area for miners wishing to ascend the Fraser River to the gold-laden sandbars. A handful of historic buildings are left now, including the Johnny Ward house.

Above: a watercolour from about 2004. The pastoral Fraser Valley: the dairying north side of the river seen from a spot partway up Chilliwack Mountain. The excitement's over...

Left: the industrial Fraser River as it nears the coast. This is a 2006 watercolour I did for Vancouver Remembered. I stood on the Knight Street Bridge connecting Vancouver with Richmond and looked down onto one of the last of the old cedar sawmills on Mitchell Island.

Below: along the Fraser River's north arm, almost within sight of the river's mouth. The old Celtic shipyard buildings, seen from Deering Island, look across to the distant bank of Sea Island -- the location of Vancouver International Airport. From this angle, the view can hardly have changed in a century. This is another
watercolour from Vancouver Remembered.

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Artwork & text © Michael Kluckner, 1994-2008