The Thompson is so splendid you feel happy for it

HUGH MacLENNAN September 1 1974


The Thompson is so splendid you feel happy for it

HUGH MacLENNAN September 1 1974


The Thompson is so splendid you feel happy for it


The road that leads up the Thompson River, from its confluence with the Fraser at Lytton, is an overture to one of the most complex river systems in the western hemisphere, a system shared by Canada and the United States, the Columbia being the master stream. Anyone who tries to follow the tributaries of the Columbia, to say nothing of the Columbia itself, will soon understand why David Thompson, greatest of all North American geographers, took four years to unravel

the system and more than two to discover which stream was the actual master. Before his explorations began in this region. all that was known of the Columbia was that a great river discharged into the Pacific below Puget Sound.

The Thompson is a two-forked river and its north branch comes out of glaciers in the Columbia Mountain System not far west of the Yellowhead Pass. The south branch has its source in Shuswap Lake. The branches unite at the head of

Kamloops Lake, flow through it. and issue in a common channel for their final run down to the Fraser.

The Thompson River leads you into the heart of southern British Columbia, a region as varied as it is stupendous, so wonderful, so beautiful, that no writer could possibly do it justice. He can only share his experience with his readers as best he can.

On all the other occasions 1 traveled up the Fraser Canyon the season was spring and the Fraser, boiling with power as it carried off the melted mountain snows, could be seen swallowing the Thompson in a single shark-like gulp. When we went there in mid-September, after an exceptionally dry summer. the Fraser was in such low water it almost seemed tame. The shores of a river such as this are almost as informative as a ship’s Plimsoll line, and after studying the water marks 1 estimated that the Fraser was anywhere from 15 to 18 feet lower than during a normal June. At any rate, it gave the Thompson a chance for once. While a setting sun cast a corona of violet light over the western mountains, we watched the Thompson come flooding in under that old-fashioned iron bridge at Lytton. The Thompson was in equally low water but it seemed to have much more force, relative to the Fraser, than it has in the spring, and because it is a splendid

river I felt happy for it. It flowed with a silky power into the master, a swirl on its surface, not so green as it is in the spring but gleaming nevertheless, brownish-yellow 1 thought, yet full of light, absorbing and reflecting the sky so that the whole effect of it was like shot silk. The Thompson’s flow within the Fraser was perfectly distinct for more than a quarter of a mile before it finally melded. It was very moving and beautiful.

The sunset faded and we saw fog coming up the valley and mounting to the heights as swiftly as ever I saw fog pour into Halifax harbor from the Atlantic. We could feel it in our throats and the air struck cold, so we went to a restaurant and ordered steaks to fortify us after a very long day. When the plates arrived they were completely hidden by enormous servings of meat. Eating in Greece had accustomed me to the bone structure of domestic goats but from the size of these steaks it was clear that the animals from which they had come had been one of their wild ancestors — in other words, wild mountain goats. The meat was tough, gamy, and excellent and we could feel the nourishment in it getting to work in us.

Four men in the red shirts of hunters were at the next table and I asked the nearest of them if the hunting season had begun. With his mouth full of meat which he himself had shot, he jerked his fork in an easterly direction and said.

“Yeah, over there, but not yet on this side of the river.”

It had been a weird day. We had left Montreal on a DC-8 at ten-thirty Eastern Daylight Time. Cloudy weather over the Shield, clearing over Superior, and after Thunder Bay glorious as we flew over the line of the voyageurs: Rainy River distinct in every bend, the turbulent, dangerous, but indispensable Winnipeg River incredibly small when seen from 36,000 feet, a twisting thread through the bush. The delta of the Red River was so blurred that I thought its appearance was caused by the jet stream until I realized that the noon daylight was so crystalline that I was looking down at the part of the delta which is actually submerged in Lake Winnipeg. Cloud cover over the Rockies; a quick glimpse of the Columbia going north; soon afterward another glimpse of the Columbia going south; Salmon Arm; then clouds over everything. ourselves in them, finally feeling the plane descending, the lights coming on up front telling us to fasten seat belts and extinguish cigarettes; then out into brilliant sunshine and a cloudless sky. and close to starboard the Fraser coming into its delta looking calm, liberated, and mighty. At the airport we rented a car and by three o’clock Pacific time we were on our way to the familiar but ever strange highway leading up the canyon past Hope. I remember seeing a cable car crossing

the river at Hell’s Gate; it wasn’t there the last time I had passed. A sense of incredulity came over me as I realized that, barely 12 hours after breakfasting on an egg and bacon in Montreal, we were eating wild goat at the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser. 182 miles from Vancouver.

Within a mile of the Fraser canyon, the Thompson takes you into a country as different from what you have left as Nevada is different from the rich mountain forests of northern California. The hills here are bare of almost everything, except sagebrush, and most of them are as tawny as lions. Yet once upon a time all this land must have been fertile, for it contains rich grass-growing minerals. We had been up here a few years before, guests of Walter Koerner at a ranch near Ashcroft, and had seen for the first time a kind of farming I have never seen anywhere else in south-central BC.

There are magnificent natural terraces along the banks of the lower Thompson and most of them have been planted for winter and summer fodder. This is great cattle country and real cowboys ride its ranges. In a land that otherwise would be desert, water has been piped down from lakes as high as 2.000 feet in the mountains to feed a network of pipes laid out along the terraces below. From some of them protrude the nozzles of sprayers, just like those you see on city lawns ex-

cept for this: with that tremendous head of water, the pressure is so great that water jets are hurled as far as 100 yards and this is a wonderful sight when the sun shines through them. When that happens, the air over the terraces of the Thompson is filled with rainbows.

“Oh yes.” said the tall rancher, “there are rattlesnakes here. Plenty of them right over there in the alfalfa. But they’re like any other wild animal. They get out of your way when they hear you coming.”

At Ashcroft the Thompson bends toward the southwest and its valley becomes wide and spacious. It cuts a deep trench along the side of the lion-colored foothills which mount slowly up to the high range to the west. Not far from Ashcroft you come upon a tragic reminder of the 1914-1918 War commemorated by a roadside plaque set up by the British Columbia Department of Recreation and Conservation. The land roundabout is almost pure desert and the inscription on the plaque is as poignant as any war memorial in a French village with its terrible, incredibly long, list of the names of the needlessly dead:


Here bloomed a Garden of Eden. The sagebrush desert

changed to orchards through the imagination and in-

dustry of English settlers during 1907-1914. Then the men left to fight — and die — for king and country. A storm ripped out the irrigation flume. Now only ghosts of flume, trees, and homes remain to mock this once thriving settlement.

When it leaves the western end of Kamloops Lake, the Thompson is deep, strong, and about 150 feet wide. I even took its temperature and found it an invigorating 60 degrees on this fine mid-September day. The lake bends off southeasterly toward a narrows — haze shot through with sun — and the city of Kamloops is at the far end. It was founded in 1812 as a fur-trading post and its name is a corruption of the Indian word cumcloups, which means “meeting of the waters.” Kamloops citizens breathe air well tinctured with the profitable perfume that accompanies the manufacture of paper. with wonderful country all about them and a tremendous prospect where the two arms of the Thompson do not so much enter the lake as melt into it. again a silky tranquillity reflecting the high clouds of noon and catching in its mirror the outline of a mountain.

The Thompson is an overture to more than a most complex system of rivers; at Kamloops it brings you to the gates of not just one country but of /continued on page 40

THE THOMPSON from page 27

many, and the magnitude, the beauty, the wildness here awe the soul; awe it almost as much as your presentiment of what modem man may do to it fills you with fear.

If you follow the course of the North Thompson, you can travel for 210 miles north through mountain country which man has scarcely even scratched, all the way to its source just west of Mount Robson and the Great Divide. If you follow the south branch, the road will take you past its source in Shuswap Lake, and then along the Eagle River, through Craigellachie where Lord Strathcona drove in the last spike of the CPR. You can see what a role the Thompson has played in the settlement

of British Columbia, for the lines of Canada’s principal railway systems follow both its branches and continue along its united course into the Fraser Valley.

It was so difficult, it was so terribly difficult, to build a community, much less a nation, in Canada’s harsh terrain. What wonder when the railroads were built, when the buffalo herds vanished and the Indians were retired to reservations, that a people rapidly becoming middle class should no longer wish to think much about the truth of the early days. Step by step in the 19th century, leap by leap in the 20th. Canadian society has fled from its past.

But the rivers are as w'orth knowing

as they ever were, for a great river, after all, is more than a personality in its own right. It is a vital link with a people’s past, and also it is a mystery.

The eternal river is always a new river yet forever the same; just as men are new in each generation but forever the same, and always must relearn what the others learned before them. As I did myself, at least up to a point, when I found out that a personal discovery of the rivers of Canada was also a discovery of the country which had given me a home, Cp

This article is an excerpt from Rivers Of Canada, to he published this month by Macmillan Company of Canada.