2017-01-04 16:10:16
52 Places to Go: My Canada

Canada, our No. 1 pick for this year’s 52 Places to Go list, spans millions of square miles. It also contains multitudes, not just of people and locations, but of memories. We asked five Canadian authors to reflect on places that have lodged in their psyches.

My mother always kept a bright yellow hard hat in her car, an unexpected accessory for a petite Hong Kong immigrant in her mid-50s. She was the senior purchaser for a British Columbia forestry company that, in lean years, laid off everyone in her department except her. (More’s the pity; she dreamed of early retirement.) In the meantime, she shuttled between the province’s pulp and paper mills, doing the job of six people, negotiating contracts for hotels, log loaders, harvesters and more.

One year, when I was 25, I finally said yes to her persistent invitations to tag along. She wanted me to meet the men and women who earned their living in the mill towns, and who called her by her English name, Matilda. We set out in her car, exploring the 285-mile-length of Vancouver Island, heading for the northern tip, Port Hardy.

This would turn out to be the last trip we took together. I remember the wet October chill; eagles descending over corridors of evergreens; a seemingly endless highway. At twilight, the world took on the shifting depths of an Emily Carr painting. I had to put up with my mother’s terrible driving, and her devotion to Celine Dion. She had to put up with my moods.

I was going through a breakup and had decided that, in order to strengthen my moral fiber, I should camp, alone, for three days in the woods. I instructed my mother to drop me off at my campsite, work for a few days in Port Hardy, and then pick me up again.

Port Hardy is a microcosm of Canada: a resource-dependent town with a complex human and environmental history. The archaeological site of the island’s oldest known human habitation (circa 5850 B.C.), the area is the place of origin for the Kwakiutl peoples. The land of the Kwakiutl, whose name translates to “smoke of the world,” was taken into ownership — both private and national — by gunpoint, dishonored treaties and restrictive and discriminatory laws.

The scramble for artifacts and the theft of Kwakiutl art — work that was celebrated by Claude Lévi-Strauss as among the most sophisticated in the world — has meant that much of the community’s historical work is housed in museums elsewhere. After 1849, the Kwakiutl population was decimated, but it survives. In 2013, British Columbia was found to have once again breached the Kwakiutl’s 1851 Treaty rights.

This is not a history I learned in school.

Alone in the woods, I pitched my tent. The dark fell suddenly. I made it five hours before calling my mom, telling her I was afraid, and asking her to come get me. That night, we shared a bed in a small lodging provided by her company. I smelled of the fire I had briefly managed to start. It felt good to lie beside my mother in a place that was complex and old.

A little over a year later, my mother died suddenly in a town where she was working, much like this one, on a November night when her heart gave out. It was her co-workers, two kind forestry men who, worried about my mother, entered her hotel room in the morning, to find her gone. So peaceful, they told us, as if she were only sleeping.

Fourteen years later, I understand better how the smoke of the world is never still. Many of the mills my mother visited have closed, jobs have been lost, and, as of a decade ago, a staggering 75 percent of Vancouver Island’s productive old-growth forest has been logged. It is a place that will tell us much about the balance between jobs and environmental stewardship, about our respect for First Nations treaty rights and our obligations to the land. This is the Canada still to come.

Madeleine Thien is the author of “Do Not Say We Have Nothing.”

Grindstone Island is a 12-acre dot of green leaves and Victorian gingerbread structures in the middle of Big Rideau Lake, halfway between Kingston and Ottawa. Clear-cut in the 19th century to make way for its eponymous grindstone quarry, the island later became the summer home of Charles Kingsmill, the first admiral of the Royal Canadian Navy, and served as a genteel hub for Ottawa society life.

Kingsmill’s daughter, Diana, who had a lifelong association with pacifist Quakers, took over Grindstone and turned it into a nonviolent resistance education center, staging legendary role-playing games that recreated the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment as a way to train the “prisoners” to fight oppression with noncooperation — a practice that ended after a disastrous fake “invasion” by a local biker gang retained for the purpose.

I came to Grindstone as a young teenager in the mid-1980s, attending the annual summer camps run by the nonprofit cooperative the Quakers put together to manage the island. The camps’ explicit mission was to train a new generation of activists, another step on the ladder that they had climbed, through trade unionism, farmers’ unions, suffragism and feminism, to antiwar activism. Grindstone was full of kids like me: red-diaper babies who attended alternative public schools in Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa, who could rhyme the classic protest chant “one-two-three-four” with the facility of lifelong practice.

Today it sounds hopelessly idealistic. But in the ’80s, Grindstone was a perfect incubator for young activists. With its quiet paths, crisp lake swimming and isolated spots with names like Moonwatcher’s Point, the Grindstone experience was one part lazing around and chatting, one part intense, practical instruction. The Victorian cottages we slept in had once housed the political elites of Ottawa society and their celebrity friends. Now they were ours.

I’ve always been an early riser, and it was on Grindstone that I became addicted to sunrises, swimming around the island to catch them on the still lake amid the loon calls, then rushing in a shiver back to my cabin to change for breakfast and morning meeting on the broad, shaded porch of the main lodge. As I graduated out of the summer camps, I became active in the maintenance and management of the island, volunteering in the kitchens and serving on the co-op’s board.

When the co-op’s finances crashed with the late-1980s recession, we sold the island to a dentist from Kingston who planned to commute by small pontoon plane. I was devastated.

Today, Grindstone is the private home of David Bearman and Jennifer Trant — museum technology pioneers who fell in love with the island the first time they saw it, immediately dissolved their successful consultancy and took up residence there, running small conferences for people interested in museums and the web. Five years ago my family and I were their guests. The island felt haunted by the ghosts of the friends I’d made there and the dreams we’d shared.

It has been 25 years since I left Grindstone on its final weekend as a social justice education center, and not a week goes by without my yearning for it with a kind of joy and sorrow that is sunk very deep in my heart. I visit it in my dreams, and in the photo feeds from its current owners; when I see them at museum conferences, I demand to know all the minutiae of the island’s upkeep, which trees survived the winter storms and what color they’re painting the porch this year.

I live in Burbank, Calif., now, and I take my 8-year-old daughter on hikes in the nearby mountains. Sometimes, when we sit on a trailside boulder and listen to the winds soughing in the trees, I can almost pretend that I’ve brought her back to Grindstone, the place I had always assumed I would raise my own family.

Cory Doctorow is the author of the forthcoming novel “Walkaway” and a special adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Hawker Siddeley HS 748 is a delightful, two-engine turboprop relic of an airplane, with metal everywhere you expect plastic, made to land on gravel or ice. Nestled in a Hawker, I flew north from Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital city, past 300 miles of moonscape — gray craters scarred by the white lines of mining roads that seemed to loop and go nowhere — before Dawson City appeared through a hole in the cloud cover. The subarctic town, nicknamed “Paris of the North” during the late 19th-century Gold Rush, looked like a strange, solitary incursion on the land.

I was there to spend three months living in the childhood home of the Canadian writer Pierre Berton, who had donated the house for this purpose. A volunteer picked me up at the one-room airport. On the drive through town, we passed a truck with an animal carcass in the bed, antlers poking out past a tarp. Fat-breasted black birds pecked at the exposed edges. “If you leave your moose out, the ravens will get at it,” the volunteer said.

The Yukon River divided the town into Dawson proper and West Dawson, a scattered community of off-grid cabins whose inhabitants hauled their own wood, water and propane. I walked down to the river almost every day. It was October, and the black, bottomless water flowed fast toward Alaska.

Over the next few weeks, the river changed. First the water took on the faint sheen of an oil slick. Then slivers of ice began to race along the current, catching the light like the heads and bellies of surfacing seals. Then bigger, snow-covered chunks of ice formed, audibly colliding and jostling for space until they clustered and stopped-up at a bottleneck bend. Finally, one morning in November, I woke to an eerie, noticeable silence.

I went down to the river’s beach; sheets of ice overlapped where they’d heaved onto the shore, their exposed cross-sections resembling massive blocks of turquoise glass. A government employee had drilled into the ice and laid out orange flags indicating where the ice was thick enough to walk safely.

I watched a dogsled cross. Because of the snow cover, it wasn’t immediately clear where the ground ended and the river began. As I stepped out, I could hear ice continuing to crack, the sound of trickling water running in open rivulets. Under my feet, I’d been told, ran water deep enough to swallow a truck.

This would be a stupid way to die, I thought.

Halfway across, I stopped and looked south, toward where the Yukon River met the Klondike River. At this time of year, the sun rose so late and set so early that it circled the horizon in a continuous blaze of orange.

Part of the Canadian identity is that we’re a hardy people, thriving in the inhospitable north. It’s one of those myths so ingrained and pervasive that you believe it even if, like me — like most — you have lived your whole life in cities less than 60 miles north of the American border.

For just a moment, my breath clouding around me, icicles forming on my chin, I stood in that mythical Canada.

I crossed and hiked triumphantly around West Dawson, which had been inaccessible except by helicopter during the freeze-up. The temperature dropped below minus-30 degrees Celsius. When I returned to the house, hours later, I peeled off my jeans and saw that my thighs, like my cheeks and nose, were a raw, violent red.

Out on the river, I had seen two other people crossing. The first glided past on cross-country skis with a baby strapped to his chest. The second was an acquaintance pulling a sled. “Just picking up my mail!” he called.

Kim Fu is the author of the novel “For Today I Am a Boy” and the poetry collection “How Festive the Ambulance.”

Hans Johann was a capitalist pig farmer, a man who owned the pigs and the farm. His wife was Barbara. They were both German Mennonites. After World War II, both had fled with their families from what was once Prussia to Niagara, which is where, on some acres between the lake and the waterfalls, they stayed and became Mama and Papa, then Oma and Opa.

My mother, Linda, was the fourth of Oma and Opa’s seven children, born and christened at such a rate that the family could not afford middle names. Mama made up for this by calling me “Sarah Nicole,” while my father, one of four from the suburbs, has never said anything but “Sarah.” At home in London, Ontario, I sided with my dad, thinking two names were less smart than one; but when we went to the pig farm, my name was turned by thick German tongues into “ZAH-ra Nie-KOLL.” This older, extrinsic version of me was the one I liked best.

Summers belonged to Niagara. Driving to the farm in a station wagon with no empty seats, we knew we were close when the asphalt turned to dirt and had arrived when the dirt turned to gravel. A long lane, lace-edged in birches, led to an ancient Mercedes or two and a big John Deere tractor, a nameless cat curled under the exhaust pipe. In the kitchen, we ate Oma’s bread with havarti cheese and livid-skinned summer grapes, on which a skim of dust belied a mouth-burst of gold.

What did we need money for? Nothing. Ice cream, maybe, if we wanted it in a cone from Avondale Dairy. Turtles swam with us in the pool, the water cold and unchlorinated under scum, colored the dim vegetative green of fairy tales before they’re Americanized. Oma said her ferns would grow better if we urinated in the soil, and we rolled our eyes but did it, one at a time. I sneaked away to the gully, read my aunt’s ahistorical romance novels. My brother shot a dove with a BB gun. Pigs screamed in the barn.

It seemed in those summers impossible that the sun could either burn me or fail to wake me up, that I could ever be sick for more than three days or have an allergy. I was no more friends with nature than I was friends with my kin, yet it seemed that nature and I felt the same way: indifferent to the rules, remote no matter how we were tamed.

My grandfather is alive, freshly widowed. Though he no longer capitalizes on much or practices animal husbandry, he lives in the bungalow on the farm and makes and sells peach and grape jam. Everyone thinks they know what peach and grape jam taste like, but I maintain that Opa’s jam can make you forget what a fruit is.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the founder of Adult Magazine.

A few years ago, I got to pick a small village to stay in for a while and write poetry. I chose the Missisquoi Valley, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, because I liked what the bay’s First Nations name meant: many aquatic birds. Indeed, I saw birds everywhere: in my dreams, above my head, through the windows. I saw the wind, too, moving across the cornfields.

The region also brought me back to my love of New England. When choosing the town I was to stay in, I’d randomly pointed at a little village called Mystic. It was an enticing name. I’d also found a sister city in the United States with the same name, which had a museum with a room dedicated to Herman Melville.

When I write, I always let myself be led by coincidence. I quickly started inventing connections between Melville and the Québécois Mystic; between me scribbling notes in a rented Cavalier and the trailblazers of real and fictional territory that were the great American writers of the 19th century. I also imagined stories of the devil whirling around in the town’s 12-sided barn, and created my own private numerology.

I would look for covered bridges on the road, round barns built by utopian Quakers and Victorian houses. I thought about loyalists fleeing north after the Revolutionary War, about Irish Catholics fleeing famine, about all the immigrants who left their mark along the path. I knew that by venturing further, to the shores of the great Lake Memphremagog, I would also think about the Vietnam War deserters who’d found refuge there. I thought about the First Nation Abenakis, how they named the lakes and rivers, and about our ignorance.

I began my stay at Pike River, but I understood that this road was one where each stop would lead to another. I walked into the office of tourism in Stanbridge Station, my next stop, and asked a petite historian a thousand questions. She showed me Chemin St.-Armand on the map, which she called the second prettiest road in Quebec. (I never learned where the first was.)

I didn’t stay in Mystic. As soon as I caught sight of the old cemetery in Hunter Mills, I became fascinated by the border zone between Quebec and the United States. It represented the state I was in myself: a wandering state of mind, looking for ghosts, mine and others’; looking for my words, my promised land, my house built stone by stone throughout my life. And that is how, having been asked to stay in a small village, I found myself gathering the rosary beads of hamlets strung along the border area.

I’m still enamored with the scenery I found there: isolated villages in the shadow of the mountains, whose grandeur lorded over long lakes and rivers; farms and cornfields; a Mercedes up on four blocks amid the junk strewn in front of an abandoned house; old Anglo-Saxon cemeteries that pop up at every turn; leafy trees of maple, walnut, beech, oak, birch; a few wayside crosses; old churches and train stations and checkpoints; and in the morning, at the inn by the river, a little black cat sitting on a tree branch listening to the sound of the falls and the purring coffeepot.

Élise Turcotte, a poet and novelist, is the author of “The Sound of Living Things” and “Guyana.” Translated by Allison M. Charette.

En français:

Il y a quelques années, on m’a demandé de séjourner dans un petit village de mon choix afin d’y écrire des poèmes. J’ai choisi la vallée de la Missisquoi dans les cantons de l’est en Québec, parce que j’aimais la signification du nom des Premières Nations de la baie: beaucoup d’oiseaux aquatiques. Déjà, je voyais des oiseaux partout, dans mes rêves, autour de ma tête, derrière les fenêtres. Je voyais aussi le vent bouger à travers les champs de maïs.

Cette région me ramenait aussi à mon amour de la Nouvelle-Angleterre. Afin de choisir le village de mon séjour, j’avais pointé mon doigt sur un petit village appelé Mystic. Ce nom m’attirait. J’avais aussi découvert une ville homonyme aux États-Unis où il y avait, dans un musée, une salle dédiée à Melville.

Je me laisse toujours guider par les coïncidences pour écrire. J’inventais d’ores et déjà des liens entre Melville et le Mystic québécois; entre moi prenant des notes dans une Cavalier louée, et ces défricheurs de territoires réels et fictifs que sont les grands écrivains américains du 19e siècle. J’imaginais aussi des histoires de diable tournant en rond dans la Grange à douze côtés, et créais une numérologie intime à moi.

Je chercherais les ponts couverts sur la route, les granges rondes construites par des quakers utopiques, les maisons à façade victorienne; je pensais à la fuite des loyalistes vers le nord, aux Irlandais catholiques fuyant la famine, à tous ces immigrants ayant laissé leurs traces sur le chemin. Je savais qu’en m’aventurant plus loin, aux abords du grand lac Memphrémagog, je penserais aussi aux déserteurs de la guerre du Vietnam. Je pensais aux Abénaquis des Premières Nations, qui ont donné les noms aux lacs et aux rivières, à notre ignorance.

À Pike-River, là où mon séjour commençait, j’ai compris cependant que j’étais sur une route où chaque arrêt menait à un autre. Je suis entrée dans le bureau du tourisme, j’ai posé mille questions à une petite historienne de Stanbridge Station. Elle m’a indiqué sur la carte où se trouve Chemin Saint-Armand, la deuxième plus belle route du Québec. (Je n’ai pas jamais appris où se situe la première).

Et je ne suis pas restée à Mystic: dès que j’ai aperçu le vieux cimetière de Hunter Mills, c’est la zone frontalière entre le Québec et les États-Unis qui m’a fascinée. Elle était l’illustration de l’état dans lequel je me trouvais, dans l’esprit de l’errance, à la recherche de fantômes, les miens, ceux des autres; à la recherche de mes mots, ma terre promise, ma maison construite pierre après pierre tout au long de ma vie. Et c’est ainsi qu’appelée à séjourner dans un petit village, je me suis retrouvée à ramasser les grains d’un chapelet de hameaux dispersés sur le chemin de la frontière.

Le décor que j’y ai trouvé m’enchante toujours: villages enclavés dans l’ombre des montagnes, dont le grandeur veillaient sur les lacs longs et les rivières; fermes et champs de maïs; une Mercedes sur quatre blocs à travers le débarras devant une maison à l’abandon; de vieux cimetières anglo-saxons qui surprennent à chaque détour; des arbres feuillus, érables, noyers, êtres, chênes, bouleaux; quelques croix de chemin; d’anciennes gares et églises, de vieux postes de frontière; et le matin, à l’auberge a des chutes, un petit chat noir perché sur une branche d’arbre écoutant le bruit des chutes et de la cafetière qui ronronne.