By Kathryn Cholette
I grew up in Burnaby, B.C. which was a wonderful place for a child. I remember picnicking for my 3rd birthday in 1951 in our back yard with a few little neighbourhood friends and, looking back I realize how “being outside” with kids (mostly with the freedom of having no adults around) in our neighbourhood’s yards, fields and woods was a major theme of my early years. Nature was the center of my family holidays away from Burnaby as well. We camped with family, neighbours and friends alongside isolated lakes throughout southern BC. We visited my dad’s family on their family farms in Saskatchewan nearly every summer and a few frigid winters too. We holidayed yearly by the ocean while visiting my Mom’s family on the southern end of Vancouver Island.
Early on, I loved being alone in nature. I remember being on my own in the empty lot beside our house. I was laying on the ground, the grass towered over me; I was also crawling into in a smallish partly covered sandbox-like container in which Dad had mixed the cement needed to build our house. It wasn’t big but I had no trouble getting in. A tiny tot unaccompanied in an empty lot enjoying the world seems unbelievable today – what about cars, what about strangers or wandering off? I clearly remember that our street, near the bottom of Capital Hill, consisted of two dirt tracks running through the grass. Cars were rare and slow. Strangers were not feared, and I knew I had to stay close by. Anyway, I had no need for wider adventurers.
We children were so lucky to have the freedom to spend so much time in the natural world which surrounded our neighbourhood. We had three forests, one right behind our house, one behind a house down the street, and one two blocks away. These woods were places to explore and places to build our homes away from home; we made tree houses, forts and little gardens. In the large neighbourhood yards there were also apple and cherry trees which we climbed for the fruit and for fun. Down the block was Mrs. Kerchuk’s berry farm. We kids picked many boxes of strawberries and raspberries; sometimes for our families, and sometimes for Mrs. Kerchuk, but always some for ourselves. It was a good way for us to learn about gardening, to earn pocket money, to learn to be helpful, and to access and develop a taste for very fresh food
In the empty lot beside our house we played kick the can, tag, baseball and whatever we might think up. We carved out initials on the one tree in the lot. There was a swing in our neighbour’s yard to play on, and one elderly man had a fancy swing seat that sat 4 at once. That swing was great fun and was in a lovely area surrounded by trees and flowers.
On our street dogs and cats roomed freely too and many of us prized our interspecies adventurers. But these experiences went beyond dogs and cats. My friends next door had rabbits; we had chickens, which I loved. I still get a wonderful feeling seeing a chicken coop and contented chickens who were allowed to roam freely. And then there was Christie the pony, the race horses, and the cow. One friend was given a Shetland pony named Christie, a pony cart and harness for his 6th birthday. We loved petting Christie and her tiny foals when they arrived, and we got to ride about in the pony cart. That family also had race horses in the field behind their house. In another field there was a dairy cow.
I was also lucky to live in Burnaby back then as I was able to have a horse when I was 12 because it was affordable. There were empty pastures all over our area that you could rent for almost nothing. And having a horse was feasible because there were forest paths and creek ravine trails to ride along throughout North Burnaby. Now my group of friends expanded to include those who had horses boarded in the numerous fields in the area. We had such good times together! I remember once playing hide and seek on horseback. I backed my horse into a huge huckleberry bush and sat there hiding on my horse while eating Huckleberries.
Horseback riding expanded my world. Often with friends, but also alone, I wandered around on the trails which covered Burnaby Mountain. For a while on weekends, when construction was not taking place, we rode on the freeway as it was being built through Burnaby. Then we had miles of sand road to gallop along. Now after years of driving on the Number 1 highway by Burnaby Lake, I still often remember that stretch of sand and the other woodland trails that existed in the area back then. Ravine trails also bring back good feelings from the past for me.
On numerous summer weekends we camped with family and friends but rarely in camping grounds. We simply set up by a lake and camped all by ourselves – a small group of tents surrounded by quiet and beauty. Even when I was 8 or 9, I would often get up before the others and walk by myself along the roads which circled the lakes. I remember the beauty of the lakeside pine tree; I miss the calls of the loons; and I miss those pancakes and freshly caught trout breakfasts cooked over the fire.
Parallel to all these experiences, from the time I was tiny, I had other wonderful experiences in nature. My dad’s family lived in the rolling prairie of central Saskatchewan – an incredibly beautiful part of the world – on 5 family-owned mixed farms, three next to one another and two close by. I have so many cherished memories: my cousins and I riding the calves around their farm; we rode the huge work horses; once I went by horse drawn hay wagon through the snow to spend the day with my cousins in their one room school house; and one Christmas my uncles cleared the snow off their pond and that night they lighted a teepee-like bonfire beside the ice and we had a wiener roast and played hockey.
Also, for years and years as soon as I arrived, I made a pilgrimage to sit on a straw stack on the small hill north of the farm yard. Up on the stack I would look out over the prairie and just feast on the beauty of the area. I would often wonder what it was like for my grandparents as pioneers to live out on those empty plains that were so different from the towns in Germany and England where they grew up. And I wondered about the First Nations peoples who had lived there.
I also took countless walks by myself through the countryside or down the dirt or gravel roads. I remember the curious cattle running up to the fences to stare at me. I always stayed near a fence if there were cattle about, I was not afraid of them but they are huge beasts and less human-oriented than horses. I recollect being out with my uncles in sheepskin-lined leather clothing and a balaclava to feed and water the cattle when it was 35 below. I enjoyed the adventure.
I remember sitting on the lawn of the farm house watching fierce thunder and lightning storms all around me. They were very loud and dangerous if they came close –and very thrilling. I also remember sitting on a knoll watching the combines with their huge lights circling the fields well after dark; my uncles were working to get the crops in before the weather turned.
I can still picture one of my uncles, in the sheepskin lined leather clothing, snowplowing the roads. They had open tractors in those days and I can still see him driving standing to see the road in the wildly blowing snow. For me, a kid from the city, it was exciting, but for my uncle I am sure it was anything but.
I also recall the wildlife back in those days; the coyote who looked into the house window, all the prairie chickens on the fences as we travelled along the roads, the owls who seemed to looked right through you. And I remember the absolute quiet when there are so few cars that you could often walk for 30 minutes before a car passed –with the drivers always waving. I being a more urban person felt embarrassed to wave back and embarrassed not to wave. Finally in my teens I pushed myself to start waving back. Over the years I grew to know so many of the neighbours despite being there only a few weeks a year. We got to know each other doing things like going tobogganing or swimming with kids from other farms.
I loved nearly every aspect of my times on that farm and l am so thankful for so many wonderful times.
Visiting my Mom’s parents and my aunts and uncles gave me a different experience of nature – the ocean. My grandparents lived on the southern end of Vancouver Island in Jordan River. My cherished memory from there was the sound of the waves crashing, especially when I lay in bed in their tiny house which was just a narrow road away from the beach. My brother and I explored that beach alone when we were very young, balancing on the logs, jumping from one log to another. My grandfather worked at the small BC Hydro plant in the village. It was thrilling to go with him along the high walkways beside the huge flues above the village which brought the water down the hill to run the very noisy generators.
My love for the ocean, especially the more remote ocean with crashing waves, stems from those days.
I have all these wonderful memories and they are important both because they fill me with appreciation and because I can no longer visit most the places of my past. They have all changed. All the houses except one in our Burnaby neighbourhood have been torn down and replaced by huge houses which take up most of their yards. Gone are all the backyard orchards, swings, and chicken and rabbit coops. The empty lot is no more. The huge huckleberry bush is no more. Mrs. Kerchuk’s berry farm, two of the forests, all the pastures where ponies, race horses, our riding horses, and the cow lived are suburbs now. The third forest is a golf course.
Camping usually happens in camp grounds now. The homestead farmhouse is abandoned. Nearly all the cousins have moved away. Most of the older generation has passed away and are so missed. The three side-by-side family farms are now farmed by one cousin. The cattle are gone and with them the straw stack. The enlarged farm is a high tech grain operation. When visiting I never see any prairie chickens or owls.
Sadly, the vibrant village of Jordan River and its power plant are gone. We can’t be certain where our grandparents house was, the area is covered in black berries etcetera. Without my family and the village there, I am not pulled back to the area!
It was very special to grow up with so much beauty – I developed an appreciation of the natural world and learned how nature can sooth and fulfill. I continue to love the ocean, rolling farm lands, creeks, ravines and forest. Nature gives so much joy! I do not think that houses are more important that natural areas and I think much of it could have been saved if it had been valued.