A Journey to Paradise

by Jim Park

Part 1.  The Road to Sky Blue Water

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a neighbour knows the way to paradise – and is willing to take you there. Our family never had a car; we relied on friends and relatives to take us on vacation. Way back in April of 1960, a good friend and neighbour, Cliff, was talking with Dad about their favourite topic, fishing, and Cliff offered to drive us to a place where the water was clear and cold and the rainbow trout were plentiful and large.

A few weeks later, at the start of a cool, clear spring weekend, we were in a 1958 Oldsmobile heading east on the freeway towards the rising sun. Low mist blanketed the fields while the earthy perfume of cattle wafted in and out of the open windows. Rugged snow-capped mountains loomed in front of us, their flanks covered in cedar, hemlock and fir. I was six and my sister Valerie was four and we were both incredibly excited to be leaving the city of Vancouver for parts unknown. After breakfasting in Hope, we turned north, following the Fraser Canyon Highway as it steadily rose higher and higher towards the Interior Plateau. Trains frequently accompanied us for kilometres before their rails fell away to follow some other twisted route below us; we would wave and honk our horn at passengers and they would smile and wave back. Occasionally, the engineer would blow the whistle for us, and when he did, we jumped and yelled until Mom or Dad would turn around and tell us to be quiet.

The road had a narrow lane in each direction, with one gravel shoulder bordering a steep drop hundreds of feet straight down to the muddy Fraser River, as it snaked its way through the canyon floor; the other shoulder abutted vertical cliff walls that rose sharply above us, with great rocky outcroppings that protruded over the road, and made us cover our heads with our hands as we passed beneath them. Periodically, we swerved around large boulders and piles of gravel that had fallen onto the road recently from these crumbling walls of stone. We crossed bridges with decks of iron and planks of wood that could be heard bouncing as the car passed over them. We hurtled through black tunnels that had been blasted out of the stone and emerged into bright sunshine, our eyes hurting from the brilliance.

By the time we reached Lytton, it was early afternoon and we were entering the Cariboo. The west coast deciduous trees and lush green plant life had been replaced by ponderosa pines and sagebrush. Irrigated farmland stood out like bright green patches on a giant brownish-gray quilt. The air was dry and hot, the land arid and bleak. This was cowboy country, the land of Bonanza, Rawhide and Gunsmoke. My sister and I kept looking around expecting to see the slow progress of a wagon train as it headed west. We were full of wonder and anticipation as we gazed around at this new land, so different than that we left behind.

At Cache Creek, the highway split in two, one branch heading due east towards Kamloops and the other continuing its journey north to Prince George and beyond. We stopped for lunch at Big Bob’s Burgers and were soon covered in grease, mustard and ketchup. It was heaven! We were told that there was a large barren hill in the middle of Cache Creek that was completely covered in rattlesnakes sunning themselves on hot summer afternoons. Unfortunately, it was still spring and there were no self-respecting rattlesnakes to be found.

Within the hour we were back on the highway hurtling north. After about seven miles, however, Cliff turned west onto a hidden gravel road, and we left most of civilization behind us. The road wound slowly upwards through mighty pillars of white stone that stretched high into the deep blue sky, and when we looked through the rear window, great plumes of yellow dust billowed out behind us, completely obscuring the road for as far as we could see. This rough gravel road would one day become Highway 99, connecting Cache Creek with Lillooet, and then down through Whistler to Vancouver.

Our attention was suddenly diverted back to the front as Cliff slammed on the brakes, and we skidded to a stop. Within moments we were surrounded by about twenty head of cattle, slowly meandering down the road towards us, little puffballs of dust thrown up by their hoofs, chewing their cuds.  The herd was totally oblivious to the car and its occupants. Behind them came a First Nations boy about fourteen, riding bareback on a painted pony as he guided his charges along the road to some unseen pasture farther along. He smiled and waved at us as he passed and we waved back, awed by the trust and responsibility given to one so young. Time seems to pass more slowly here; it must have been at least fifteen minutes before the cattle and their young master had passed us and we were able to continue on our journey. Climbing ever higher, we soon left behind the sagebrush and heat; patches of tall green grass and gnarled pine trees protected long abandoned trappers’ cabins, slowly falling apart over time and returning to the earth.

Midafternoon, with its lengthening shadows, found us approaching Marble Canyon Provincial Park, halfway between Cache Creek and Lillooet. To our right, the land rose sharply as it formed a vertical canyon wall of limestone, with arteries of rust-red iron interwoven among the massive rocks. As we crested the final hill and looked around us, we were struck by a large face-shaped stone formation, gazing outwards from the southeast entrance to the canyon. It sits atop the left wall of the canyon and is called “The Sentinel”. Long ago, when a First Nations village occupied this area, a scout first saw an armed party of settlers and local militia riding towards the village and warned his people, allowing the vulnerable, mostly women and children, to escape and hide until the danger had passed. It isn’t said whether there was violence or not, but the scout’s warning was felt to be of such significance that he was turned to stone to guard the canyon entrance forevermore, a mighty honour for a warrior and tribal member. At the other end of the lake is another significant chimney of rock called “The Coyote’s Penis”. Although both have spiritual significance to the local First Nations people, I never did hear the story about that monument; I guess I must have been too young at the time!

No sooner had Cliff told us the story of “The Sentinel”, than our eyes were drawn down to the foot of the canyon wall, where bright butterflies of afternoon sunshine flitted across the turquoise waters of Pavilion Lake, our destination. The road followed the shoreline of the lake, as it grew ever longer and wider. After about a quarter mile, a pot-holed gravel road split sharply to the left, heading back the way we’d come, as it descended to lake level and a flat, fairly large expanse of land that bordered the lake. We had arrived at Sky Blue Water Resort.

We drove carefully down the road, bouncing up and down in our seats as the wheels dropped into deep ruts and then back up again, and stopped in front of a big old house that sat uphill to our left and looked out over the resort and lake beyond. It reminded me of a wilderness inn that travellers on horseback or in buggies would spend the night at before moving on the next morning. Cliff and Dad got out of the car, climbed the hill, up the many steps to a large covered front porch, and through an aged screen door into the house. As the dust settled back on the road behind us, Mom, Val and I sat quietly in our seats for a few moments as we looked around us, and then opened the car doors and got out to stretch our legs. All along the lake shore were small rustic cottages, each with a picnic table and fire pit strategically located in front. Small copses of alders separated the cottages and gave a modicum of privacy. The backs of the cottages fronted the lake and many cottages had rickety wooden piers protruding a short ways into the lake. Beside us, a large path led down to the lake shore and onto the main dock, fringed with a dozen wooden row boats bobbing gently in the late afternoon breeze.

The shrill laughter of small children echoed around the camp, while a few older folks strolled along the road in front of us. It wasn’t long before Cliff and Dad returned with the owner of the resort, Les, a tall well-built man in his forties, wearing jeans held up by suspenders, and a broad smile on his deeply weathered face. After introductions, we were told that we could have cabin one, located back near the entrance to the resort. We slowly guided the car down the hill toward the dock before we found a grassy side road on our right just wide enough for the big car to squeeze through. In moments we had reached cabin one and excitedly scrambled out of the car to explore our new home for the next week.

Part 2.  A Cabin on the Lake

Although most of the cabins had been built in the early 1940’s, one or two were the original trapper’s cabins that had been on the site when it was purchased; local history buffs stated that they were built in the late 1800’s and fixed up more recently to accommodate vacationers. There were thirteen cabins in all, spread along the lakeshore; cabin one was an original, but we never learned the name of the trapper who had lived there all those many years ago. Above the screen door, nailed to the wall, was the tarnished metal cabin number. It watched over an old-fashioned screen door, the type we’ve all seen in a hundred westerns and a fixture on every farmhouse. I pulled it open, delighted when it creaked like it was supposed to, and waited while Dad unlocked the front door using an old skeleton key. The interior was a blend of old and new wood panels, with hand-built cupboards overlooking a cast iron wood stove to the left of the doorway, and rows of storage shelves against the wall on the right. A wooden utilitarian table with a sturdy chair at each end sat against the wall on the far side of the room opposite us, located under a small four-paned window that looked out over the lake. Sitting on the table was a large kerosene lamp, its tall glass chimney held firmly in place by four metal clips.

Each cabin contained the kitchen and dining room in the middle, which you entered when you walked through the front door. An ice box with a large block of lake ice in it sat against the wall between rooms; this is where your milk, eggs, and other perishables were kept. Frozen food was taken up to the lodge, your name written on each package, and stored in an electric freezer until needed.

Beyond the icebox was a bedroom with a single bed, night table and lamp; a larger bedroom with a double bed and a somewhat battered chest of drawers was located on the right side of the kitchen area, on the other side of the wall with the shelves. However, the room I was drawn to, and which I insisted on staying in whenever I was at the lake, led off the larger bedroom and through a door to the back of the cabin. It opened into another smaller bedroom with nothing but a sturdy single bed against the inside wall and nearby, a bedside table with a little kerosene lamp on it. It was what it didn’t have that made it special for me; one and a half walls were missing! Instead, the empty space was given shape by large, framed wire screens. I sat on the bed and gazed across the room, through the mesh windows to the lake beyond. I could hear small waves gently kissing the rocky shore; I could feel the air, warm and chill together, as it lazily explored the room before moving on; I could smell the sharp tang of dry grass blended with the subtle aromas of myriad wildflowers, freshened by the nearby lake water. What would it be like to lie here, alone in the night? What denizens of the wilderness would visit me?

Pavilion Lake stretches almost six kilometres in a southeast to northwest direction and is almost one kilometre wide at its broadest point. It is 820 metres above sea level and is fed by a number of cold springs that keep it perpetually cold and clear. BC Parks used to bring in tanker trucks full of rainbow trout fry and shoot them far out into the lake through a powerful hose. Whenever a truck would arrive, all the kids in camp would run over to watch this amazing spectacle and try to see the individual fish as they were catapulted out of the hose, through the air in a long arc, and then hit the water in the midst of a frothy maelstrom. It made me wonder how any of them could survive that chaotic arrival at their new home, but survive they did. In those days, it was not uncommon to catch a rainbow trout weighing up to eight kilograms. The water itself is a beautiful shade of turquoise blue and is so clear that you can clearly see the bottom of the lake eighteen metres down. One of my favourite pastimes was to row the boat away from shore, and when enough momentum had been gained, to let it drift while I hung over the bow of the boat and stared down through the water to the lake bottom. It was an ever-changing alien landscape of plants and rocks; once in a while, I would be thrilled when the dark shadow of a large trout would pass by and disappear under the boat. As I drifted farther out, the lake bottom would slowly become fainter until it disappeared altogether, and I would be staring into a nebulous blue-green abyss, scintillating with long spears of sunlight that pierced the depths. I was filled with a sense of vastness, of great depths and unknown worlds; I felt connected.

This unusual lake also has colonies of stromatolites. According to Wikipedia, stromatolites are “layered accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains by… microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria. Stromatolites provide the most ancient records of life on earth by fossil remains which date from more than 3.5 billion years ago.” NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and research institutions from around the world participate in The Pavilion Lake Research Project, designed to study not only life in the past but possible life on other planets.

Now, I knew nothing of this way back in 1960. No scientists with their underwater submersibles had been roaming the lake when I was there; there were just a few locals, those of us who were vacationers, one or two hopeful fishermen, and the odd car pulling an Airstream trailer passing by on the highway. By and large it was a quiet and relaxing place. The small boats had no motors, just oars; there were no refrigerators as we have come to know them, just large blocks of ice, cut from the frozen lake in winter and stored in a small outbuilding full of sawdust. When someone caught a fish, it would be stored under the sawdust amidst the ice until the visitor was going home, when it would be dug out of the sawdust, and returned to the owner. Some folks would have fifty fish after a week or so, and it was always a challenge to try and figure out how to get them all the way home before they started rotting and stinking up the car. This was especially true in the summer, with temperatures over 38 degrees Celsius for hours, while you wove your way back through the Fraser Canyon with a trunk full of fish. It truly was a race against time!

A new routine was born early the next morning: up at dawn, walk to the shore and splash cold water on your face, eat a hot breakfast, gather all your fishing gear together (including the all-important can of earthworms), load everything into the boat, and shove off from the shore. This basic schedule would be followed for the next thirty years. With long slow strokes, Dad would guide us to a promising area where he’d stop and bait up. As soon as he threw his line overboard, he’s quicken his pace of rowing until sufficient line had been let out; he’d place his rod securely in a makeshift rod holder, pour himself a cup of hot coffee from a thermos, and then start rowing again, at a slow rhythmic pace. My job was to net the fish when it was brought alongside the boat. I learned some new and colourful swear words from Dad when I accidently knocked a fish off the hook with the net instead of scooping it up! Before long, I was baiting my own hook, trolling the right length of line, netting my own fish, and rowing the boat all over the lake. Mom made sure I also learned how to clean my fish and freeze it properly upon my triumphant return to shore before I was allowed to do anything else!

The passing seasons turned into years and fellow vacationers became good friends. The adults got together, had a few drinks, and did what adults do while the kids played together and explored the lands around the resort. We were always getting scolded for climbing the cliffs behind the camp because there was a danger that we could start a rock slide and destroy the camp; some years before, kids did just that and a boulder the size of a house just missed cabin one as it rolled down the hillside, across the highway, and plunged into the lake.

During the hot summer months, those of us who were in our teens would lie out on the main dock listening to my portable AM/FM radio, and learning how to flirt with each other. It was a bittersweet time for me; I was shy and awkward around girls, yet my hormones were starting to make themselves known! Eventually, I became bolder and more self-assured, though I still had my heart broken more than once from a summertime romance.

One year, Cliff simply became too old and frail to drive all the way up to the lake anymore, so when Mom and Dad had rented a cabin at Pavilion Lake for a week or two, a younger friend would drive the family to North Vancouver where we caught BC Rail up past Whistler and Pemberton towards Lillooet. Before we got to Lillooet however, the train would stop at a rustic building seemingly in the middle of nowhere; it had a small station the size of an outhouse that sat beside the tracks, and we would get off with our luggage and boxes of food. We’d wave at the engineer and conductor as the train picked up speed and chuffed away from us, before turning around and slowly making our way to the door of the building, arms full of stuff. This was the Pavilion Lake General Store, and I swear it had been built during the Barkerville gold rush days of the 1860’s. Each of us sipped on a cold drink and chatted with the store owner while we waited for Les to arrive in his pick-up truck and drive us back to the lake, where we were dropped off at our cabin.

When I turned sixteen I got my driver’s license, bought a souped-up 1962 Pontiac Laurentian, and drove the family to the lake whenever we could arrange it. Although they didn’t say anything, I think my parents secretly enjoyed the thrill of zooming along the highway in a hot car! I bought a compact 12-foot fibreglass boat with a removable canvas top and a 9.9 HP outboard motor and docked it at the small pier just outside the cabin. I loved that boat, and became quite proficient at maintaining the little motor that could be quite finicky at times. Over many years, I learned where the best spots were to catch fish and seldom came back to the cabin empty-handed.

 

Part 3.  Life on the Lake

Although we rented a cabin for the first few years, cabin eight became vacant and we entered into a 99-year lease with Les. Other people who regularly spent time at the lake also leased cabins, so that eventually all the cabins became leased and the short-term rentals disappeared. This was a wonderful development because we had our own cabin and could go the lake whenever we wanted to. Dad and I always counted the days until the May long weekend, which was the first trip of the year to Pavilion Lake. Usually just Dad and I went up because the weather was often stormy and cold, and if you weren’t out in the middle of the lake getting frozen from spending long hours fishing, you were stuck in the cabin trying to keep warm. We loved the wilderness and the solitude that could be found at that time of the year. We read our books, cleaned our tackle, talked quietly about philosophical subjects, or simply said nothing and listened to the symphony of natural sounds around us. Birds would sometimes call to each other, the waves would lap gently (or not so gently!) against the rocky shore, and the wind would rustle the leaves of the alders which protected the cabin. If we were lucky, the lonely cry of a loon would echo over the lake, bouncing off the canyon walls until swallowed up by the silence.

The lake was home to both osprey and bald eagle, one pair of each; unfortunately, they didn’t get along too well so each species built its nest at the opposite end of the lake from the other. They seemed to take turns soaring high over the water searching for trout, and swooping down in a flash to ascend once more with a struggling silver fish in their talons. Metallic blue kingfishers darted back and forth between their lakeside tree branches and the shallow water, spearing young trout fry as they sheltered near the shore. There were cormorants, grebes and loons preying on the trout. Occasionally a bear, cougar, or lone wolf would pass through the canyon unseen, leaving only their paw prints in patches of soft mud along the lakeshore. Snakes up to a metre long occupied crevices in the rocks that formed much of the shoreline, and swimmers were often startled to find one sinuously swimming beside them far out from shore. Chipmunks scampered here and there, and we would squeal with delight when one would take a peanut from our fingers and then sit up on its haunches watching us, as it stuffed a peanut or two into its cheeks, before running away. The rich diversity of plant and animal life created an intricate web of interdependence that was humbling and awe-inspiring.

Our next trip was in the summer and Mom always came with Dad and me; sometimes, a friend or relative came with us to share our vacation. My sister couldn’t get up to the lake very often as she got older, but she loved it when she could. For a week or two, each of us could forget about the problems and trials of daily life in the city and simply be in the moment. It was a magical place where our spirits were replenished by our natural surroundings. We shared much happiness and received fulfillment there. It allowed me to share many precious hours with Dad, whether out on the lake fishing or just sitting together on the lakeshore musing about life. Mom could relax and not worry about things; she was happy and content, especially when she was with her friends from the other cabins. Summer was a social time, with much visiting and many laughs. The lake was dotted with various boats and fishermen (and a few fisherwomen!) of all ages trying to catch “the Big One”. There were even water skiers being pulled back and forth from one end of the lake to the other by powerful speed boats. The fishermen cursed them for scaring the fish away while at the same time hanging on for dear life to the sides of their boats as large waves from the passing speed boats threatened to capsize them. As evening approached and the boats returned to their docks, fires were lit, drinks were poured, and stories were told of the day’s adventures as well as those from the past. There was much camaraderie and sharing, and everyone went home later on with new and warm memories.

If we could manage it, we’d return to the lake at the start of the Labour Day weekend in September because that was when the annual fishing derby was held. There was always a friendly competition between the tenants of Sky Blue Water Resort at the southeast end of the lake and the landowners at the northwest end of the lake. The official “weigh-in station” where derby participants took their fish for weighing alternated back and forth between the two camps from one year to the next. Local merchants donated prizes, and the winner also received about $100 from entry fees. I won the derby twice for catching the largest trout, and received a nice trophy and some cash. On the other hand, I also received the “Small Fry” award twice for catching the smallest legally-sized trout during the derby! When the derby closed on Sunday afternoon, the partying started. It was a celebration of fellowship and nature; as the drinks added up, the stories became more outrageous. It was all in good fun and everyone always had a good time. By Monday afternoon, almost everyone had gone home, and the lake became quiet once more.

Labour Day was also the unofficial closing of the summer vacation season. Cabins were battened down for the coming months of bitter cold, thick ice and deep snow. Boats were carefully manoeuvred onto semi-submerged trailers attached to a wide variety of vehicles, hauled up onto land and sheltered under trees, if possible. Motors were removed and stored while the boats themselves were cleaned and securely wrapped up in tarps, with tires blocked. It felt bittersweet; there were always emotional good-byes to friends, and the ritual of Dad locking the front door of the cabin for the last time this year. I took nostalgic pride in slowly closing the screen door afterwards, doing my best to make it creak for as long as possible, and then fastening the hook over the latch, as if in slow motion. It drove Mom crazy!

For our family and others, Pavilion Lake was a spiritual oasis. Our hearts were joyous and our souls were healed as we allowed ourselves to be enveloped by Nature’s beauty, strength, and diversity. The beauty and abundance that the lake provided brought laughter, friendship, relaxation, and companionship to the many people over the years who were drawn to this magical place. Those who are attuned to the rhythms of nature understand and accept that change is also part of the natural pattern of life. In 2002, the beloved owners of Sky Blue Water Resort, Les and Ann, eventually got too old to manage it and sold it to the local First Nation in the town of Pavilion, a few kilometres down the road towards Lillooet. The leases of the cabin tenants were cancelled and the camp turned into a short-term rental vacation spot once more. I sold my boat and pier to residents at the other end of the lake, rented a truck, and brought our belongings home to Vancouver. For a few years afterwards, we were able to rent a mobile home and boat from one of these lakeside residents and I learned the prime fishing spots in a part of the lake that I had previously rarely visited. Within five years, this opportunity also came to a close.

Here too, the families that we knew (and competed against during the annual fishing derby) were also aging, and the lake no longer held an allure for their grown children. Properties were put up for sale and aging parents moved to larger communities where medical and senior support services were more readily available. Years later, many of those “For Sale” signs remain. As for Sky Blue Water Resort, it closed a year later and has remained empty ever since. The lodge and cabins have become homes for squirrels and mice, and grass grows ever taller between the tire tracks of the roadways that linked the cabins together. It is not entirely empty as the scientists continue to return to the lake every couple of years to perform more experiments on the stromatolites that reside at the lake bottom. Travellers passing by on the highway marvel at its beauty but don’t stop; there are no campsites or boat ramps that make the lake accessible, so they continue on to another destination.

For generations, families spent their summer holidays at Pavilion Lake. The excited high-pitched voices of children and the recurrent laughter of adults reverberated off the canyon walls for decades. Triumphant fishermen proudly showed off their bounty and the delicious aroma of rainbow trout being grilled on barbeques wafted through the camp from spring to fall. Relationships full of promise were born here and others came to an end here. Young children who played here in the 1960’s grew up, married, and brought their own children to enjoy the natural gifts that the lake provided. Some of the happiest and most precious memories of family togetherness had their beginnings at Pavilion Lake. Although those days are long gone, and we miss our annual fishing trips, each of us is grateful to have shared in the beauty and quiet grandeur of this place.

The people have left, yet nature remains. Feeding trout still leap out of the water chasing flies and then crash back into the clear water with loud splashes; kingfishers still dart after small fish fry; the eagles and osprey still scream their challenges by day and great-horned owls still send their haunting cries echoing through the starlit nights. As dusk approaches, the lonely haunting cry of the loon still echoes across the darkening lake. Pavilion Lake brought people and nature together for over sixty years, and we are forever changed by this communion. The lake rests now, returning year by year to its previous natural state, until a time comes when families once again fill the air with laughter and screams of delight. In this twenty-first century of increased population, improved roads and hectic lives, it is comforting to know that just a few hundred kilometres from Vancouver is a pristine wilderness lake that is devoid of people and a haven for all the diverse forms of life that enhance its beauty and call it home. To have known it for so long in all its moods and to be part of its life rhythm as the seasons pass has been one of the greatest gifts that Mother Nature could have given me, and I will relive the rainbow of memories that were created there for the rest of my days.

 

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