Just a week ago, a slushcoat of snow covered the rocky hills. The next day, as I drove along the Naramata Road, my neighbour Gary waved me over. He opened his hand slowly to show me a bouquet of sagebrush buttercups, waxed petals like curls of butter.
“Picked ‘em this morning. ”
Is this just your average March? The back and forth of snow and sun? Does the wind always snort up Okanagan Lake just after you bring the deck chairs back to the porch? Spring everywhere signals rebirth, hope, respite from the cold.
Spring here usually means pruning, and cherries, and spring run-off, the return of migratory birds like Sandhill Cranes, skies blue, the sooner-or-later reappearance of rattlers, and bear tracks in the road. But what makes the South Okanagan transition to Spring unique?
Spring in Naramata is especially sweet because of its short duration and its contrast to the dry terrain. Spring brings vivid colour -- pink, yellow and green – soon overcome by the heat of rock-oven summers. The display of wild blooms in the grey-brown dun of sagebrush landscape is a reminder of the natural diversity in this sparse landscape.
At the end of February, Chute Creek is still rimed with frost. The cleft of Creek upstream from my place slices deeply into the earth, back away from the sun and into the cold, an ice age resisting the onslaught of spring.
A week later, March rototills the soil from frost. It riffs the branches of antelopebrush with a furry hue just bright enough to call green. Buttercups sweeten south-facing slopes. The carrot-tops of lomatium, spring gold, unwind a lacy filagree between sage and rabbitbrush. And this is just the beginning!
At 6:45, in the gloom of a gray Okanagan morning, the whiteness takes a moment to register. Snow! Dripping over the rocks, down the cliffs, over sagebrush buttercups just in bloom. A soft sleet drizzles down, insubstantial really, but enough to cover the ground. A blanket of white billows down the hill.
Why didn’t I move the car? Last night, the Penticton weather predicted snow flurries and light rain. I should have driven the car down the hill last night. And I’m due in Penticton at 10:00. Maybe I should wait until tomorrow.
Get a grip! People all over the province drive roads like this every day!
After three days of Olympic fever, I retreat to the Okanagan Valley, where I have a summer place. It’s north of Naramata, up a steep, cliffhanger road. After you park the car, you hike up a series of switchbacks, disappear through a cleft in the rock, and emerge at the cabin. Okanagan Lake sweeps to your feet, the pines whisper, and the waterfall trickles through winter icicles. Solace from the city.
I have two weeks’ break from my class at UBC. Two weeks of Vancouver bursting at the seams with tourists and athletes and hoopla. And two weeks of thrilling television coverage, in which my husband Jay will be totally absorbed. Once an athlete, always an athlete. If you played pick-up-sticks on the varsity team, you will always remember each move, like a war veteran conjures up buddies and battles. Jay used to ski Nordic-combined in university. Every Olympic games, he still skis Nordic-combined in his mind.
I love skiing, but I want to do it myself, not competitively, or through some 18-year old guy from Norway. I want to drift through snow and spruce and sky and conifer smell. I want out.
Truth is, the rest of this province got a raw deal with the Olympics. Sure, I buy my requisite red mittens at the Penticton Zellers, but the action is somewhere else! It’s not just the cost of running the show. It’s the focus on the Coast Mountains, on that tiny bit of geography. The rest of the province, this glorious topography of mountains with snow and ice – a perfect Olympics site –is forgotten, obscured by the focus on the Vancouver, Canada Olympics. What happened to the rest of British Columbia? The heartland?
The screen door slams as I head out down the path, into the fog that covers the Lake, the Olympics far from my mind. How much snow is on the road? The path downhill is slippery and I use my equipment to keep from skidding. I’m wearing a pair of old hiking boots, with a worn tread, and my backpack. In my right hand, I’m holding an old ski pole (minus the basket) and a broom. In my left, the red pail.
I dance around the switchback corners, picking up speed, secure on the dry needles that sprawl in shadow of the pines. Several deer have already prepared the course this morning, their hoofs punching into the soil, roughing it up.
I get to the car and try not to look at my watch. I go down to check the course, but soon lose my footing, and slip along, arms flailing, as if I’m skating downhill. At the first sharp turn I put down the bucket, pick up the broom and begin to sweep. This must be the prep for the Curling event. The snow is slushy, hard to move. Then I pick up the bucket and swing it, like a priest his chalice, until a light scatter of ashes and bark festoons the tracks.
I puff back uphill, pail and broom in hand, and sweep the snow off the car windows. With bucket and broom stowed in the passenger seat, I turn on the engine, let it heat up a bit, and then tentatively, move the gearshift down to First. The car slowly motors along the roadway, towards the start.
CTV announcer Jo Combo, shouts: It’s the start of the Olympic Combo, with only one team competing on this course. Go B.C.! Our first and only contestant straps on the seatbelt. Was that the starting gun? Or a cry of panic!
I’m trying to stay slow, keep calm. The upper hill is slushy, and the car follows the fall line down the road very slowly. I stop every few feet, to break the momentum. The snow tires make the wheels puffy, indefinite, so you can’t tell exactly where you are. Then, where it steepens, I let her go. We barrel down the Luge course, with just enough traction from pebbles and the strewn mulch to get us around the curve and downhill to the second big curve.
I’m slow now coming into the turn in the Downhill event. The back tires spin out so I work the brakes under the pine trees, where there’s not much snow, over boulders and across the drains and then all of a sudden, we’re at curve number Two!
Jo Combo, former competitor in the Olympic Combo event: She slides sideways, but the Luge curve is banked and she’s suddenly back in the Slalom event. From here, the course takes a series of short, slippery curves. The driver needs to keep her senses and not to panic, to keep up the pressure coming into the turns so that she has enough traction to complete them. The road is fine without moisture, but today is anybody’s guess.
The old blue Subaru comes out of the First Gate, slides up and out of the ruts. The mud pulls her sideways, but now she’s on the bunchgrass at the side of the road, holding her own.
Announcer Number Two: Did you see that, Joe? The way she handled that mud?
Joe Combo: Yes, you can tell when you see a driver display this much skill, that she’s been training for a very long time. All those carpools and basketball games with kids twenty-five years ago are finally paying off. And trips to work in rush hour traffic, and she’s a Road Star to boot!
Announcer Number Two: Watch this, Joe. She’s coming into the double gates that mark the most dangerous part of the course. And this course, I might add, is one of the most difficult we’ve seen. People in the Interior drive places like this all the time! I hear that they’ve made this one slippery intentionally, with imported sludge from Iona Island, the sewage facility in Vancouver. She’s driving just off the road now, through the grass, dodging the rocks at the side. And what’s this? Is this still the Curling stage of the Olympic Combo event?
But the broom doesn’t work. I’ve dropped enough altitude that there is just a coat of mush, added grease on the road. The drop off on this curve is abrupt, and there’s no protection. I can’t walk down the road without slipping, let alone drive. Every time I get out of the car, I slip and skate downwards. I look at the tires: they’re coated with a slush coat of mud, so thick that I can’t even see the tread of the snow tires.
I take the bucket with me and swing it back and forth, along where the wheel ruts should be, and a little off to the side. A thin coat of light gray ash coats the mud, but I don’t think this is enough to work. I trudge back uphill, past the car and off the side of the road and break off wands of dead antelope brush. I traipse back to the road, where I scatter them on the slippery tracks. My gloves are filthy and soaking wet.
That’s it. The muddy mire crackles with stalks of antelope brush. Maybe its nubbly branches will provide enough traction to get me down. I nudge the car down, inches at a time. We’re halfway through the curve when the back end of the car slips downhill, catching up with the front end, so I’m almost facing uphill. Now I’m halfway down the mountain side, the car straddling the road.
Well, folks, your announcers have never seen anything like this. She’s halfway into the curve, but the car is turned around sideways, facing across the road. She’s trying something amazing, pulling off, further into the side of the hill, and YES! Team B.C. has found some footing off track in the sagebrush. She’s managed to turn the car back downhill, right at the edge of the road. If she slips, she’ll roll right off the track and downhill.
I’m trying to hug the inside of the hill, but it’s too slippery, and the car slides down to the edge of the road. There’s only one big curve left, but that one hangs above the Creek, so if I slide, I’m cooked. But the soil on this one isn’t clay, like the upper hill, so there’s more traction.
Folks, she’s made it around the curve and is on her way down to the highway. This eventis like a Moto-Cross event in the Olympics. The Combo event features luge, downhill, curling, slalom and very-short-track mud skating. This requires versatility on the part of competitors. It looks as if our racer will win her competition. Not the best time we’ve had on this course, but then again, the conditions here have been extreme.
Past that last curve, I’m on the final run. It’s slippery, but well banked. Even though I’m floundering on muddy snow tires, the car is rolling down the road. And I’m down! Finished!! I hit the pavement at the bottom of the hill, put the car in ‘Drive’, and take off, spattering chunks of mud and clay soil for the first half a kilometre.
My time: 13: 52. As a matter of fact, I do own the podium.
When Melody Hessing, the author of Up Chute Creek: An Okanagan Idyll, moved to Naramata B.C. in the early 1970's, stucco motels, benchland orchards and fun-in-the-sun tourism were the main ingredients of the South Okanagan lifestyle. Today 'wine country' includes estate wineries, golf courses, casinos, cycling trails, and triathlons, attracting residents and tourists alike to a diversity of upscale venues and activities. Yet there are few published accounts of the ways in which rapid growth, diminished biodiversity, and social change have shaped the contemporary South Okanagan. This story provides a glimpse of the Okanagan region in transition, celebrating its unique character and contributing to its cultural heritage.
This story is about landscapes - the way we change the land, and the ways that the land changes us. The author moved to the Okanagan Valley with her husband in 1974. Late-comers to the back-to-the-land movement, they built an unobtrusive house by hand on a rocky cliff near Naramata. Young and naïve, they ignored the inevitable (dis)connects between romantic ideals and rural pragmatism, topography and age.
The story is a creative non-fiction account of this experience, beginning with a post-evacuation return to the 2003 Okanagan Mountain fire zone. The narrative flashes back to an earlier discovery of this property, encounters with neighbours, and the heroics of a do-it-yourself construction project on a remote house site. Living in a wild place, paid work and a baby force the first evacuation of the Granite Farm, followed by a quarter century of coming and going to a home-away-from-home. The author remains tethered today to the vulnerability and beauty of this arid, rocky landscape.
Up Chute Creek is a story about "landscaping" the South Okanagan, about how you forge relations with a place while it creeps into your bones, infiltrates your psyche, and shifts the geography of your soul. Building a house, the emotional and physical challenges of rural settlement, the contrast between early settlement patterns and those today, comprise the social and ecological curriculum; the learning curve is bumpy and steep, the trajectory up and down.
The narrative is about the continuing 'development' of this province - the spill of people into place, and how the place changes. It explores timely themes relevant not just to the Okanagan, but throughout Canada: gender issues, urban/rural tensions, historical settlement, community cohesion, economic transition, and declines in biodiversity. Its humorous narrative style contributes to a discussion of contemporary landscape that tries to reconcile development with
preservation, past with present, neighbors with friendship, marriage with autonomy, body and soul.
"A wise, funny, heartfelt, smart, poetic memoir of a love affair with a wild, granite farm at the end of the road in Naramata. If you didn't love the Okanagan before you read this book, you will by the time you're done."
- Harold Rhenisch, author of "Out of the Interior" and "The Wolves at Evelyn."
"For 30 years, my family has made a ritual pilgrimage to celebrate food's seasonality by picking cherries in the Okanagan Valley, the Garden "of Eatin" of this book. But in that time, the rural charm of this area has changed beyond recognition from the forces of development and growth. Up Chute Creek zip-lines readers through this region's environmental issues, from population growth and water shortage to a unique, but endangered ecology. No easy solutions, but what a ride!"- David Suzuki, author of "The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature" and host of CBC's "The Nature of Things."
"This is an Okanagan pioneer's tale, but a modern one. Melody Hessing gang-tackles composting toilets, quirky neighbors, woodrats and childrearing with refreshing honesty and wit."
- Don Gayton, author of "Interwoven Wild" and "Landscapes of the Interior."
"Up Chute Creek evokes the times, the people, and above all, the land, that make the Okanagan Valley such a special place."
- Dick Cannings, author of "British Columbia: A Natural History" and "An Enchantment of Birds: Memories from a Birder's Life."
"When Melody Hessing breezed up Chute Creek she brought with her the clean biting insight of an outsider. She staked out her territory as she and her family got to know the neighbours. My father Victor Wilson was at first furious with her, outraged at her language and her direct manner but in time he came to love her. Melody's Naramata neighbours are thrilled that she's chosen to write about our wacky neighbourhood out in the Okanagan hills."
- Sandy Wilson, filmmaker: producer and director of the Canadian classic "My American Cousin."
Her publications include the following:
Canadian Natural Resource and Environmental Policy: Political Economy and Public Policy, First Revised Edition with Michael Howlett and Tracy Summerville. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005.
This Elusive Land: Women and the Canadian Environment, ed. Hessing, Raglon, and Sandilands. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.
“Green Mail: The Social Construction of Environmental Issues through Letters to the Editor”, Canadian Journal of Communications, 2002.
“Economic Globalization and Canadian Environmental Restructuring: The Mill(ennium)-End Sale”, Toxic Criminology: Environment, Law and the State in Canada, Boyd, Chunn and Menzies, 2002.
"New Directions in Environmental Concern". in Environment and Society, T.Fleming, 1997.
"Beyond Iceberg Economics: Feminist and Ecological Approaches to Restructuring" in T. Schrecker, Surviving Globalism: Economic, Social and Environmental Dimensions, New York: Macmillan/St. Martin's Press, 1997.
"The Sociology of Sustainability: Feminist Eco/nomic Approaches to Survival", pp. 231-254 in Ouellet and Mehta, Sociology of Environment. Toronto: Captus Press, 1995.
"Environmental Protection and Pulp Pollution in British Columbia: The Challenge of the Emerald State", The Journal of Human Justice, 5: 1 Autumn, 1993, pp. 29-45.
"Women and Sustainability: Ecofeminist Perspectives", Alternatives, 19: 1 June, 1993, pp. 14-21.
"Talking on the Job", in Women in British Columbia, ed. by G. Creese and N. Strong-Boag, Vancouver: Press Gang, 1992.
"Public Participation in the Okanagan Lakes Milfoil Issue: A Grassroots Struggle", in Community Organizing and the Canadian State, ed. by R. Ng, G. Walker, and J. Muller. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1990.
“Post-Op: A Hipster’s Guide to Surviving Surgery” in Slice Me Some Truth: An Anthology of Canadian Creative Nonfiction, ed. Armstrong and Landale, 2009.
“The Moonsnail”, CBC Literary Awards, Finalist, Creative Non-Fiction Category, 2008
“Elfin Lakes Challenge”, Soundings, Squamish Chief Literary Journal, 2008. Honorable Mention
“Falling from Grace”, in Body Breakdowns, Anvil Press, 2007