Archive for May, 2008

To all my friends on shore – an in-depth study of Williams Lake

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

I’ve been blogging for decades … on paper. I have a shelf full of journals, files full of letters. So rather than reinventing things to say, I thought I’d dip in and out of these non-electronic records and share some of them with you.

– Alice M.

To all my friends on shore – an in-depth study of Williams Lake

In 1980, I needed to escape a muddled love life in Toronto and landed a reporter’s job on The Williams Lake Tribune. I accepted without knowing where Williams Lake was. Since it was in B.C., I thought, surely it was on a coast …

This was my first Xerox letter to friends.

Williams Lake, B.C. (CP) – To quote Billy Barker, well-known explorer, prospector and bon-vivant, “So this is Williams Lake.”

Billy Barker is not a figment of your correspondent’s facetious imagination. He was the first white man into the Cariboo district, started off a gold rush in eighteen hundred and some-odd, spent a fortune and died stony broke. He did not go down unwept, unhonoured and unsung, however. At this very moment in the town of Quesnel (60 miles away, which is about the same emotional distance out here as the distance between Toronto and Etobicoke), the residents are celebrating Billy Barker Days … a four-day whoop-de-do during which few people find gold, but a lot of them lose their fillings, not to mention their teeth.

Back to Williams Lake, via Highway 97.

There really is a Williams Lake. The town (also known as “the laketown” or “Billy’s Puddle” by those of us in the know) is clustered at the western end of it. 

The countryside is beautiful. We are in a valley about three or four miles wide; then the land climbs steeply up to the level of the surrounding plateau. So almost any direction you look, there are lines of hills that like to drape themselves artistically in purple hazes and morning mists.

The landscape has more of a flair for the aesthetically pleasing than the town itself. It would take a full-scale pea-soup fog to make Billy’s Puddle all that picturesque. Buildings seem to straggle along in a miscellaneous sort of way, especially to someone whose eyes are used to tidy Toronto geometry … Nice, neat, urban-looking buildings are cheek-by-jowl with some of the dippiest-looking specimens of non-architecture I’ve ever seen. When you start appreciating the just proportions and pleasing design of the McDonald’s restaurant, you know you’re suffering from culture shock …

Your correspondent noticed an advertisement for ‘clean, comfortable rooms, weekly or monthly rates” at the Lakeview Hotel. When I innocently asked if it might be a good place for me to stay, three people nearly choked on their soup.

The economy of the laketown is partially based on five sawmills which contribute a lot of employment locally, as well as a lot of fly-ash to the air. People around here are inclined to say, “at least we don’t have a pulp mill.” Everything’s relative, I guess.

The rest of the population is largely employed by the provincial government. This is the administrative centre for the Cariboo region, and it takes more administrating than you might think. … at last count, there were three provincial ministries, something called the Agricultural Land Reserve, twelve commissions and any number of Official Settlement Plans that have to be consulted before you put up an outhouse. Heaven help you if you want to build a two-car garage.

For instance, one sore spot here for the past five years has been an area called Fox Mountain. Williams Lake has been hassling with the Agricultural Land Reserve ad infinitum and ad nauseam about putting in a subdivision there. In the meantime, the Ministry of Forests inadvertently sold a timber lease on the property, which pretty well renders it unfit for anything except picking up sticks.

The truism about small-town people being friendly is, surprisingly enough, perfectly true. They invite total strangers to dinner, fix bicycles and look out for apartments. It doesn’t keep your correspondent from wanting to creep into a corner and suck her thumb at times, but it sure helps.

And it’s great country for rainbows: they grow them big and bright out here.

Urban transportation in Williams Lake is strictly limited to four-wheel-drive and logging trucks. They are considering an urban transport study, but that first bus is a long way down the highway yet. So I have bought a bike.

Unlike my hop-and-go-fetch-it down-east bicycle, this one has five speeds. (You can’t get anywhere in B.C. without low gear, literally and metaphorically speaking.) My bicycle is also fitted with every reflecting device known to modern science. To the unsuspecting car driver who gets me in his headlights at night, I must look like a pedaling U.F.O.

It also has a man’s frame. I couldn’t get anything else. This has not been a problem since the first time I forgot the crossbar was there while dismounting, and came down in an elegant heap in front of four surprised shoppers at Boitanio Shopping Mall…

That was only on day one of the Tour de Guillaume’s Lac. Since then, I have been tootling back and forth to the Tribune in a very competent, two-wheeled way, wearing blue jeans. You’d think I’d never seen a three-piece suit or Bay Street in my life.

I still don’t have a permanent address, but I am temporarily and very comfortably ensconced in a guest cottage behind the publisher’s house. They’ll have a tough time getting rid of me – I have a clear view of the lake, willow trees, birdsong in the morning, and raspberry bushes outside the door. Positively idyllic.

What I have seen to date of apartments in Williams Lake doesn’t quite measure up to those standards. They seem to run to three-storey buildings with 1950s-style balconies that only an exhibitionist or a geranium would want to sit on. Inside, they specialize in combinations like pale pink walls with gold fiberglass drapes.

Still, there’s always paint – I follow in the footsteps of my sister Carol, who claims her ambition is to give the world two coats of paint and a college education.

I still haven’t told you about the town ambulance, which looks like a remodeled Dickie Dee truck … or about being drafted as the official starter/photographer/babysitter for the Lac La Hache sailing regatta … or about my first reporting assignment at the Cariboo Regional District Board meeting … and I’m not going to. (Sighs of relief all round.)

Final comment: re-rooting isn’t all that easy a process. Sometimes I feel like sitting in a corner and wilting. Sometimes I feel my leaves getting pretty brown around the corners. Sometimes I put out a rootlet or two, almost in spite of myself.

But it’s an interesting experience.


July 18, 1980.

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