A tale of two-fisted cowboys, wild cayuses, little dogies and flat beer
A tale of two-fisted cowboys, wild cayuses, little dogies and flat beer
My friend Tom Howe and I left Vancouver for Anahim Lake in the Chilcotin in early June, driving his father’s nearly-new, three-quarter ton, pickup truck. Tom is a writer and photographer who worked on a Chilcotin ranch two years ago. He was returning there, as I was, to write about the annual three-day rodeo.
The 400 miles or so to Williams Lake is good highway despite the loops and twists of Hell’s Gate and the Fraser Canyon. Some 200 miles from Vancouver the monster snowcapped mountains become mere giants, almost barren of trees, and brown from lack of rain in the near-desert BC interior. After Cache Creek comes Cariboo country, with cattle ranges reaching all the way north to Prince George. We stop for gas at 100 Mile House; I once wrote a poem about this town which certainly nobody in the community has heard of.
We reach Williams Lake on the evening of the first day. Next morning we buy some beer, and then we drive west into the Chilcotin. The first 30 miles are paved as a come-on for tourists; the remainder, a mythical distance to Anahim, varies according to whom you ask for directions. (Reminds me of the Khyber Pass or maybe just a place where road builders moved all rocks into the middle of the road.) Tom drives around 30 mph, then down to 20; even 10 sofnetimes.
“Migawd, Tom, if it’s really 200 miles we won’t get there till snow falls at this rate.”
“You w an t a drive?”
“Tom, you know you wouldn’t trust me to drive your
So we have a beer,
but it’s getting a little flat now because the beer bubbles were burst by bumps in the road. “Hold
on,” Tom says, and hits the truck up to 50. All I can
feel at that speed is soothing rhythm, like some six-foot gal was giving my
spine a hard rub-down in a Yonge Street massage joint. Since crossing the Fraser for the umpteenth and last time, we have entered an empire — cattle country — remote from even the remote Cariboo. No towns, only clusters of six or a dozen houses; the clusters have names but they all look alike. High mountains are returning, shawled with snow; the Coast Range. Blue lakes spring up with every curve in the road; occasional cowboys clop around in the increasing grassland areas. I want to open the window and yell “Hi podner,” but refrain because of the dust. Fifty miles ahead is Anahim Lake (named for a Chilcotin Indian chief). A hundred miles farther or through a pass in the Coast Range is the Pacific Ocean, and the town of Bella Coola, and the rock where the explorer Mackenzie scribbled: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land . . .”
The beer is flat by Anahim — definitely and conclusively. But we can’t waste it, being unsure of where to get a further supply. I check into Anahim’s one motel, and Tom takes his tent and camping equipment to the rodeo grounds and sets up shop. Then both of us go our separate, exploring ways.
Anahim is a village of fewer than 200 people. The stampede grounds and jackpine jungle around it are thronged with jalopies, trucks, campers, pick-
Al Purdy is a poet and free-lance writer, and a frequent contributor to Maclean’s.
There are sometimes knifings and robberies. Fights are commonplace. At the Williams Lake stampede five people died
ups and trailers. White tents glimmer in green clearings, campfires crackle at night. More than 1,000 people are encamped. The entire Chilcotin Indian tribe has arrived for its annual birthday party of booze and laughter. Carrier Indians, called “Sticks” derisively by the warlike Chilcotins, are also in attendance. Everyone is being primed or already primed with scotch, vodka, gin, rum, wine and beer, and/or the local variety of poison called “Itcha Mountain Fog” (said to have occasioned more fatalities than the last Indian war). Carl, the grocer at nearby Nimpo Lake, has 300 cases of beer.
The rodeo at Anahim is more than a game. It’s a honing of necessary, but everyday skills; the players are reenacting the daily events of their lives. Calf and steer-roping and bronc-busting are basic cowboy activities of the big Chilcotin and Cariboo ranches. But beyond that, it's an occasion where old friends (who may not have seen each other for months) gather to gossip, drink and discuss the business of living. And for three days in early June nearly everyone gets gloriously drunk in one big whoop-up, a concentrated and deliberate undoing of sobriety.
Sometimes, the Mountie corporal in charge of order tells me, there are knifings and robberies; fights are commonplace. “At the Williams Lake Stampede five people died this year.” But, he hastens to add, “Three of the deaths were from natural causes.”
The stampede ground roughly resembles a football field; it’s a kind of oblong arena floored with floury grey dust, 150 yards long but not quite that wide, fenced with lodgepole pine. Spectators — tourists, Indians and local people — perch atop the fence or peer through
railings. Mounties prowl the perimeter, deterrents, hopefully, to any trouble.
In a high tower above the cattle chutes, Slim Recknock, six feet and 200 pounds of 30-year-old cowboy, is the PA announcer. He sounds like a caller at a barn dance. When a calf is reluctant to leave the chute, Slim bellows: “Crank his tail a little.”
A brown calf bursts from Chute No. 2, maybe 300 pounds of veal on the hoof. George Palmatier bursts after him. Grey dust explodes in a moving cloud. The big calf is ahead of him. The cowboy disappears entirely, then reemerges, his rope snaking out to snag the twisting terrified head. Rapidly securing one end of the rope to the saddle, he dismounts and follows the rope hand-over-hand to the brown calf.
Then it’s a swift wrestling match. The idea is to get that calf down quickly, one arm around his neck, the other encircling his front leg. But the calf is reluctant. “That there’s a strong calf,” Slim says dryly. But George manages. Front and hind legs are roped together and Palmatier stands like an actor, arms thrown wide to take a bow from the first-day audience. The drama consumes only 18 seconds.
A fine grey dust begins to settle over everything. And everybody: Indians, whites, tourists, Mounties. The hot Chilcotin sun urges sweat under armpits and over foreheads, and the sweat streaks patterns in the dust. After a while you can taste dust.
Bareback riding looks most dangerous to me. Broncs are chosen on the basis of being the most cantankerous of the most cantankerous. The convulsing animal is supposed to be ridden for eight seconds. William Billy Boy doesn’t last that long; he flies upward and
downward at such speed that when he lands, the dust bomb obscures him for a period longer than the ride itself. 1 think: no wonder these broncs are slightly irritable, the way they’re mounted in the chutes; they stand in this passageway narrow enough to keep them from turning to kick, or sink those strong yellow teeth into a rider. I did see one try to turn around in that passageway. He got stuck.
Dave Lewis comes from the launching pad of Chute No. 3 on a horse called Drifter, who doesn’t drift much. He keeps trying to kick the sun with both hind legs; almost manages too. In a space of eight seconds Drifter scrapes his rider against the fence, rocks forward and backward, damn near stands on his head, bucks, fishtails, and does some upside-down spins for good measure. (I'm not sure what fishtailing means, but the horse knew.)
Lewis gets taken off by another mounted cowboy in full flight. He’s done his eight long seconds. Drifter remains in orbit until he gets chased into the corral, where he stands trembling, and blessedly alone.
Cow milking is next: now there’s something ridiculous about grown men trying to make a range cow stand still long enough to squeeze a few flying drops of milk into a beer bottle.
Calf-roping again: Wes Jasper misses lassoing the flying critter with his first cast, but produces a reserve rope and scores a ringer. His time is lousy, but there’s some satisfaction in not failing completely, especially with your girl watching.
Chilcotins and whites, and maybe a few of the Sticks, drink beer in the Stockmen’s Hall. The Indians tend to be in little groups off by themselves, but not entirely so. Some mix with the ranchers and cowboys: old friendships exclude racial prejudice. I drink beer with Tom Howe, some Kamloops tourists, a rancher and his wife, and an Indian named Marvin Paul. Marvin is an artist; he’s just spent three w'eeks carving a small totem pole, for which he accepted four dollars. He is slightly drunk, and he shows me a pencil sketch of himself and I give him five bucks for it. I feel virtuous.
Returning from the privy. I notice an old Indian sleeping beside the steps. His face is carved black walnut and he might have posed for some of Paul Kane’s 19th-century paintings. There’s a western bluebird nesting in the roofs overhang, unbothered by all the noise, doing routine bluebird things. Inside the hall I
Slim was choking on something so Ben saved his life by whomping him on the back. Slim got mad and wanted to fight
say FfrvYgain to Marvin Paul (who is pretty far gone by now), chat with the riding’s Social Credit MLA, and buy beer for Ben Belanger, one of the rodeo judges.
Only cowboys, sailors and a few others have a ready-made mythology with which to identify. They love the movies of John Wayne and Gary Cooper; they listen to country and western music, practically standing to attention when Wilf Carter sings Oh, That Strawberry Roan. But they are real-life cowboys and real-life cowboys work hard and long.
And the Indian cowboys have the additional picturesquity of being Indians. With a name like William Billy Boy or Sundayman Lashaway, you have a right. If it weren’t for the take-homepay, I’d much rather be Sundayman Lashaway than AÍ Purdy.
Panhandle Phillips, a local old-timer with bowed legs and beak nose, is something more than a colorful hometown boy. He figures prominently in all of Rich Hobson’s three books, but mainly in Grass Beyond The Mountains. He’s 67, came here from the U.S. with Hobson in the mid-Thirties. The two men went out with packhorses in search of grasslands. Sixty miles north of Anahim, peering through binoculars at a small opening in the Algak Mountains, they saw the beginnings of grazing country that funneled out into an eventual ranch of four million acres. Those high grasslands belonged to the crown, and were then available at a dollar or so an acre. Four million dollars. But you didn’t need to lay all that cash on the barrelhead. Anyway, the two men discovered the grass beyond the mountains, in high alpine country unknown to white men, surrounded by a dull-green jackpine world stretching more than 1,000 miles from
the 52nd parallel to the Arctic tundra.
Talking with Panhandle Phillips is experiencing an echo from the Hobson book. I mention there are only three graves in the Anahim cemetery. Panhandle says: “People don’t die up here very often.” Then he looks at me out of his eye’s corner to see how I’m reacting.
We have some trouble in finding the 10-foot-by-eight-foot cabin Panhandle and his partner built in the Thirties, then abandoned quickly when the stove smoke nearly asphyxiated them. It sits roofless and rotting in the altered landscape, and must have given him an odd feeling, this being the first time he’s returned to the site. He says: “You don’t get lost in this country, you just get kinda confused for two weeks.” 1 am a bit wary at this point, anticipating another picturesque remark. He knows I'm waiting. He keeps me waiting.
On Saturday night Slim Recknock, the rodeo announcer, got something stuck in his throat while eating supper. His good friend, Ben Belanger, found him choking for his life near their camp. Ben whomped his friend on the back so hard Slim got mad and wanted to fight. But instead he went to the hospital, fuming a little but unable to express proper indignation. Ben took over the rodeo announcingjob Sunday: the day 10-, 12and 14-year-old cowboys replaced the adults. There was this little black dog that kept yapping after the arena livestock. After enduring the dog a few minutes. Ben announced coldly: “That dog ain’t helping the cowboys at all. If he doesn’t leave, I’m gonna cut his tail off — right behind the ears!”
Ben came to the Chilcotin from Barrie, Ontario, when he was 18, and worked as cowboy and lumberjack; he’s a strapping, slim-hipped, wide-shoul-
dered man. Several years ago Ben decided he wanted to be a writer, taught himself to string words together, then wrote for the Kamloops Daily Sentinel.
But writing’s only one of his ambitions: the other is to find a green spread of high grasslands, the same way Panhandle Phillips and Rich Hobson did 40 years ago. But there isn’t much good ranch country left now, what with the influx of people from outside. Ben has often taken a packtrain into the mountains over the past 12 years; he’s lived on fish and bannock for up to three years. He wants to own a ranch: “You know, start small with a milk cow so she can look after her calves, and gradually build up a beef herd.”
Despite Ben Belanger’s capabilities, it seems doubtful he’ll ever attain ownership of his dream ranch. In Victoria, the government has frozen sales of all crown land, reasoning that only 5% of BC’s total area is arable land. It wants to take a good look even at cattle raising land, before it’s sold cheaply. Several years ago on one of his packtrain expeditions Ben located 1,280 acres of promising land, and stayed two summers to investigate water and grass potential. When he applied to Victoria for the right to purchase, he was turned down. And this was long before the land freeze. Every time he has applied during the past 12 years, exactly the same thing has happened: not always a flat no. but no, nonetheless.
“I’m not the only one,” he says grimly. “A friend of mine, Ken Karrens, leased 320 acres of crown land some time back. The government told him to go ahead with improvements, so he drained some meadows, built a cabin, bought a Cat, spent quite a chunk of money. Then they raised his lease fee 800%, and finally took the land away from him altogether. Ken went to Victoria raging mad, and got thrown out of the Parliament Buildings.”
Ben is defiant about the whole situation. He is now squatting on some land near Redstone and doesn’t care who knows it.
Last day of the rodeo was Sunday, with Ben Belanger announcing. Jack Palmatier won the $300 saddle as best allround cowboy; the most prestigious award. On Monday morning the stampede grounds were deserted, dust finally at rest once more. Panhandle Phillips, Lester Dorsey and William Billy Boy have gone back to upland meadows to cut their hay. It’s an almost empty world; bright sun shining, the Itchas and Algaks implacable and distant, v3
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