>> MICHELLE COLE
Nestled between jagged mountain ranges in the heart of the Sinixt territory, lies a crescent-shaped body of water.
THE DEEP LAKE
The local myth is that Slocan Lake is bottomless. A mirror of uncertainty. A window to an unknown energy below. Along its outer curve runs a clinging stretch of highway that groans with trucks gearing down night and day. Hamlets are strung along the eastern shore like a necklace of freshwater pearls. To the west, the lake is a preserved wilderness accessible only by watercraft.
Beneath the sounds of highway traffic and waterfowl is a more subtle undertone: water, itself. On a sunny day, it hums. On a windy day, it howls a cataclysmic symphony. For me, this canoe trip was a an interlude in the orchestra of my life journey.
I felt a sense of connection beyond me. Now this was survival!
Last fall, my younger sister Jackie and I decided to push our luck and paddle the length of Slocan Lake.
We are descendents from a long line of explorers, slaves, immigrants and the Indigenous women who welcomed these settlers. Grandfathers and grandmothers, Bahmahmaadjimiwin, Jean Nicolet de Belleborne, Caeser Paul and Edith Johnson, among many other. Each a contributor to our DNA. Each a story unto him or herself.
When we moved to the Slocan Valley as kids, there was no representation of First People. We were told “Slocan” was taboo and Indigenous people did not live there. This felt foreign as we had always lived in other towns in British Columbia with large native communities.
We matured and became educated. We started families and the story changed. We learned the Sinixt were declared extinct by the federal government—and, yet, still existed. The Sinixt people returned to rebury their ancestor years later. It was with them in our hearts we decided to journey by canoe.
Paddling a canoe is a complex endeavor. While the lake’s surface appeared serene, currents below churned. The wind seemed to hit our canoe with deceiving breezes, improbably from all directions.
We are two middle-age women. Even though my sister lives with a debilitating illness, she was still better at steering a canoe. She understood the intricacies of the water and the wind. I could steer a canoe in calmer weather, but I needed her to survive—to see us through. I have a new appreciation for how hard she worked on this journey to keep us on the right course.
One day, we hiked to Nemo Creek Falls. The falls are across Slocan Lake from Silverton. In reality, they are in another world. The rocks were crafted by millenia of never-ending water. The creek, an incision through the skin of moss and trees, laid bare the earth’s anatomy.
There on the path, a glint of silver caught my eye. It was a pewter earring in the shape of a goose mid-flight. In animal totem books, geese are often harbingers of travel to mystical places. (Also, interestingly for me, the totem of writers.) I pocketed it, as I was both travelling and journaling.
Occasionally, Jackie and I held our paddles. We were awed, sensing the sacredness as we floated. We strained to listen to ancestral voices in the rock, watching closely for the lake’s famous pictographs.
One was the size of a building mural lining the water’s edge. It whispered to us. The images in time-painted ochre told us how people lived on the lake long ago. It spoke to vision quests. Rites of passage. We sat and imagined how it came to be; its meaning maybe only ever be known in dreams.
On the second-last night, we set out to Indian Point, a campsite in Valhalla Provincial Park, with our voyageur-like urgency to make camp before dark. Our arms ached. Our legs cramped. I pictured our ancestors paddling. I needed their intrinsic stamina, their genetic muscle memory. And so, I put my paddle in the water over and over again, as Jackie and I gave all within earshot a full concert, complete with, naturally, the Canoe Song:
“…. Our paddles are keen and bright,
Flashing like silver!
Swift as the wild goose flight,
Dip, dip, and swing! …”
I felt a sense of connection beyond me. Now this was survival! Middle-aged women survival—our dignity at stake. A powerful instinct to persevere makes me who I am. It turns my thoughts more vivid. It gives me flashes of inspiration. It may have also have been a little delirium from paddling …
On the last night, a flock of Canada geese flew up the river valley from the
south where Jackie and I grew up. Our journey felt like reliving a part of our youth and the waterfowl were our welcoming committee. In Indigenous spirituality, the medicine of Goose—a “creature teacher”—demonstrates cooperation. Geese take turns being the leader. We acknowledge that we all have gifts. Jackie and I found one of ours in a canoe. We reacquainted with each other and explored family heritage. We listened to the echoes of rocks and the wisdom of the water, and felt the pull of the river’s currents, forming and drawing us into the outflow of Slocan Lake.
Michelle Cole is a Revelstoke-based travel writer whose first love is water and second is walking. Trained as an elementary social studies school teacher, she seeks to connect with the spirit of the places she explores. Help her along her journey by visiting her Patreon page.