Books

Postcards from the edges

A gallery of mavericks who get their hands dirty for a living

Brian Bergman January 17 2000
Books

Postcards from the edges

A gallery of mavericks who get their hands dirty for a living

Brian Bergman January 17 2000

Postcards from the edges

Books

A gallery of mavericks who get their hands dirty for a living

Working the Land

By David Cruise and Alison Griffiths

Penguin, 350pages, $35

While the majority of Canadians live in bustling cities not far from the American border, there is, for many, a nagging suspicion that the heart of the country beats elsewhere. In their latest book, prolific authors (and longtime married couple) David Cruise and Alison Griffiths stoke that suspicion with a series of vignettes about people who make a living on Canada's edges, whether as trappers in the Yukon, diamond sleuths in the Northwest Territories or potato farmers on Prince Edward Island. What connects these disparate individuals is the sense of freedom they enjoy. Linch Curry, a 72-year-old Yukoner who has been trapping since she was six years old, puts it succinctly: “Hate cooking. Hate housework. I d rather spend days in the bush than thinking about washing a dish.”

The authors help to shed light on such exploits as the diamond rush that began on the barrens of the Northwest Territories in the early 1990s. At its height, more than 150 mining companies staked out a staggering 60 million acres. The culmination of all this activity was the opening, in October, 1998, of the Ekati mine, which has turned Canada into the fourth-largest diamond producer in the world (a second diamond mine is set to open in the region in 2003).

Cruise and Griffiths track down hired guns like Nick Pokhilenko, 51, a Siberian native who is described as “one of the two or three best diamond finders in the world.” The ebullient Pokhilenko, who has prospected in the area along with his geologist wife, Lucy, since 1994, has an uncanny ability to spot and extract potential diamond samples—using, among other things, a battered wooden pan to sift for diamonds much as gold panners did a century ago. “Careful, that’s a Stradivarius,” Pokhilenko cautions as he hands the pan over for Cruise’s inspection. In his off-hours, Pokhilenko can be found

hunting caribou on the tundra or catching fish to roast over an open fire.

The authors also introduce us to Rajinder Singh Lally, whom they dub “the Berry King” of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Lally, who emigrated from India to Canada as a young man in 1972, is one of several Sikh farmers who have bought up large tracts of land in the valley. Lally’s berry-packing plant employs up to 50 people—most of them fellow Sikhs—and is the secondbusiest in the province. Over six feet tall and with brooding eyes, Lally is an object of both envy and scorn among his neighbours, some of whom rail against the “feudal kingdom” they say he has created on the backs of hardworking, low-paid employees. Lally, the father of two teenage sons, counters that he gives hard-pressed families a chance to earn a living together. He also says he finds spiritual fulfillment in a job that preoccupies him seven days a week. “You don’t have to do certain things to feel God,” he explains. “It’s in the nature, in the land. You feel it everywhere.”

One of the book’s most humorous sections finds Cruise gamely following Poncho Rudniski, 42, of Dawson, Yukon, on an all-day snowmobile tour of his 135-km long trapping loop. “Let’s boogie,” says an excitable Rudniski as he leads Cruise from trap to trap—only to find that many of them have been tripped by wily wolverines which have snatched away bait meant to lure martens. After darkness descends, Cruise’s snowmobile runs out of gas. Rudniski, who has driven blithely ahead, does not realize at first that Cruise is stranded. It takes two hours on this -20C night before the benumbed scribe is finally retrieved.

Along the way, readers are treated to lessons in planting potatoes, setting traps—even a discourse on the history of the cranberry. But the conversational tone of the prose sometimes borders on the trite. During such lapses a diamond hunter climbs into a Twin Otter aircraft “before you could say Elizabeth Taylor” and a bright morning sky is described as “dressed up like a girl aiming to get lucky and leaving nothing to chance.” Fortunately, the cast of characters assembled by Cruise and Griffiths more than compensates for the occasional clunker. As these postcards from the edges attest, Canada’s hinterlands— and its people—remain as compelling as ever.

Brian Bergman