Memorial for Cynthia Wilson

Good evening. Thank you for the opportunity to give a presentation at this memorial. As a teacher and a writer I talk about the development of a writer's voice. Tonight we get to hear a collective voice of northern BC writing developed and expressed through Cynthia Wilson and Caitlin Press.

The book that I wrote is titled Surveying Northern British Columbia, and as stated by previous readers my book probably would not have been published if it were not for Caitlin Press. Surveying Northern British Columbia describes one part of the career of a famous BC surveyor, Frank Swannell, focusing on the years from 1908 to 1914 when he surveyed in the northern part of the province. The book includes about 150 photographs from the more than 1000 pictures that Swannell took during those years. The text draws largely from Swannell's diaries along with material gathered during the research. The main reason that I wanted to write the book is to make people aware of the significance of Swannell's photographs for BC history, and that was what drew Cynthia to the book. She told me that she had been married to a surveyor and had an opportunity to go out on some of his work.

I had originally thought of the book as a photobiography, but since it covered only a portion of Swannell's career Cynthia used the term photojournal which I liked. The style of the book with its 11 x 11 sheets, French flaps, thick paper, and the inclusion of so many photographs is done by only a few publishers of books on BC history. It is a credit to Cynthia that Caitlin Press produced the book using this format. Cynthia articulated the two major themes of the book: the significance of Swannell's photographs, and the celebration of his life as a pioneer surveyor, and this provided the framework for the book. On the inside front flap of the book Cynthia wrote: Frank Swannell was an amazing man. He surveyed much of northern British Columbia in the early part of the 20th century. As well as keeping a journal of what he saw and what his survey crews did, he kept a remarkable photographic record of his seven trips through the North. This book includes both well-known photographs and others previously unpublished. As the 100th year of the Corporation of Land Surveyors of British Columbia approaches, Surveying Northern British Columbia is finally being produced and acknowledges the contributions of a man, a surveyor, a photographer, and a journalist.

In writing the book I appreciated that Cynthia gave me freedom to develop my writer's voice, and she made very few editorial changes to the structure of the book. She did assist me in making the introduction more exciting and appealing to the reader.

This photojournal celebrates the life of Frank Swannell, a pioneer surveyor, and covers the years from 1908 to 1914, seven seasons that Swannell surveyed in northern BC, making the first surveys of a large portion of the region. Leaving Victoria in the spring, Swannell and his survey crew would spend at least six months in the field. For most of the time they lived in tents, away from the comforts of civilization. They worked six days a week, and ten to twelve hours each day. Mosquitoes and black flies made summers uncomfortable. Spring often meant cool and rainy days, while in the late fall the men contended with cold weather and snow. In the remote areas of northern BC there were rivers to cross and mountains to climb, and Swannell did not know what conditions he would enounter. The men had to adapt to the situations they faced, and be determined to overcome any difficulties that they confronted. Yet by all accounts from people who knew him, it was a life that Swannell loved…

This photojournal recognizes the significance of the pictures that Swannell took during these years for the history of British Columbia. This was a time of great chance in the northern half of the province, and with his observant photographic eye he recorded the life and times of the region. Swannell's surveys took him to distant locations where he saw First Nations people who still followed their seasonal self-sustaining way of life. He witnessed the decline of the Hudson's Bay Company's influence in the region. Swannell traveled the Yukon Telegraph Trail and many of the other famous trails in the region. He saw the end of the stagecoach era, viewed the heyday of the sternwheelers on the Fraser and Skeena waterways, and observed the coming of automobiles and the Grand Trunk Railroad. Swannell met many of the early settlers, traveled rivers that have now been altered by hydroelectric dams, and surveyed valleys that even today remain remote…

Swannell lived a life of rugged romantic adventure, but the surveys that he made were part of the changes that were irrevocably altering the life of the region. The field journals that Swannell kept, which are housed in the British Columbia Archives, and the photographs that he took show us what it was like to be a surveyor almost one hundred years ago and provide a window into British Columbia's history. This book is a celebration of Swannell's life and recognition of the importance of his photographs to the history of this province.

As I wrote the book Cynthia and I often talked about the photographs and the stories they told. She told me about her vision of being a publisher of books on northern BC history that would help people realize the importance of the history of this part of the province.

In 1911 Swannell traveled to Bear Lake northwest of Takla Lake to survey a reserve for the First Nations people. I believe that the following selections illustrate the significance of Swannell's journals and photographs. "Four days of hard poling up the Driftwood River brought the surveyors to Cache des Bonjours, where they left the river to portage to Bear Lake. A.C. Murray, the Factor at Fort St. James, had told Swannell "that the men from Fort St. James bringing up supplies for Fort Connolly met the engages of the latter post here and that there was much interchange of greetings here: hence 'bonjours'. For the men at isolated Fort Connolly the meeting at Cache des Bonjours, which occurred only once or twice a year, was their only contact with the outside. Swannell and his crew reached the Native settlement at Bear Lake on August 13. He noted "some 6 or 8 cabins at the site of the old post, of which all trace has vanished." His journal entry recorded that "Father Coccola O.M.I. is here and a large gathering of Sikannis, including Chief Charlie Hunter from Fort Grahame."…In his August 13th journal entry Swannell also wrote: MacAllan & I hold consultation with the chiefs. 'First tam Government she come Bear Lake.' Traded 3 plugs tobacco and 2 lbs. sugar for beaded mitts. Had a trading agreement with Bear Lake William. Whenever he brought a salmon we chalked a stroke on the cook fly - After five we gave him provisions. During a full gathering of the Sikannis one of the chiefs produced a fair-haired little girl and solemnly compared her with Pete MacDonald, also light-haired. Pete had a good alibi having never been within 200 miles of the Sikanni country."

(These selections come from pp. 72 to 74 in the book. The relevant photographs are found on pp. 74 to 78.)

When we heard about Cynthia's death, one of my wife's comments was that Cynthia's dog, Maggie, would be devastated by this loss. These selections about the daily life of surveying are dedicated both to Cynthia and Maggie.

During his 1913 and 1914 exploratory surveys of the Omineca Mountains and Finlay River Swannell took a black and white dog named Dick. Dick was in several of Swannell's photographs and shared in the adventures of the surveying crew. This winter I visited the 94 year-old daughter of George Copley, Swannell's surveying assistant. She said that her father liked having the dog sleep near him in the fall to keep him warm. In 1913 Swannell visited the Big Kettle fumarole near the Omineca River and provided a description in his government report. In his report Swannell noted: "Shortly after our arrival the fumarole emitted strong puffs of sulphurous gas, which however lay heaviest in the bottom of the vent. It quickly stupefied our dog and compelled us to clamber hastily out of the fumarole to avoid suffocation." A few weeks later Swannell's survey crew reached the Mesilinka River. "They decided to make a raft and run the Mesilinka to save time. On September 12 Swannell wrote: "Copley, Alexander & I run 17 miles down river. Very swift & bad drift-piles. Run into one and under a sweeper and 'sappoose' (sheer) 3 times. When swept under sweeper we jump over as it passes but dog Dick is swept overboard - makes for shore and will have no more rafting, thereby showing sound common sense." In 1914 Dick had a misadventure with their tent. "Patterson described this incident. "To guard the outfit they left dog Dick tied there through the whole of one long day. Loneliness beset the hound, the sun was hot, the steamy heat after the rains brought out an amazing crop of young and vicious mosquitoes - and, in his struggles to get loose, Dick upset his supply of water." Swannell recorded this misadventure in his journal. "Our big dog Dick, left tied up went crazy with the heat & flies and tore our mosquito tents up - hence a bad night for us." Copley added his recollection of this event. "Dog Dick not only tore up our tents, but also dug a hole and almost buried them up. When we came home and let him loose he left camp and went to the west side of the lake and stayed there all night. Several days later I found an old fly in an abandoned prospector's cache & made myself a lean-to which I used for the balance of the season."

(These selections came from pp. 118, 120, and 141-2. The relevant photographs are on pp. 113, 115, 116, and 127.)

When I finished the main body of the book I was unsure how to conclude it. After 1914 Swannell went to World War I and did not resume surveying in BC until 1920. Last July BC Rail (just before they were taken over by CN) provided me with an opportunity to travel on their work car that went from Takla Lake up the Driftwood River, past Bear Lake and on down the Sustut River. The trip from Vancouver to Takla Lake and the week spent in the Driftwood River and Bear Lake area became the basis for the concluding section of the book titled - 90 Years Later. Being able to find some of the exact spots where Swannell took his photographs and to see the ways in which northern BC had changed or was similar to Swannell's time gave me a very strong sense of the history of the area. It also gave me a connection to the vision of BC history that Cynthia and I talked about several times. I spent one day at the now deserted First Nations village at Bear Lake. Looking over the lake I could see how much the glaciers had receded during the past 90 years. Walking through the village I was able to find the locations where Swannell took his photographs of the First Nations people, places that were now empty except for the presence of spirits.

Cynthia was pleased both with the way the book turned out and that it had good sales. I began research on a second book covering Swannell's career in the 1920s in central British Columbia. I was surprised and disappointed when Cynthia decided that she did not want to do another book on Swannell's career for I thought that it would be a continuation of her vision for publishing material about the history of the area. However, this was at the time that she was moving from Prince George. She was also talking about downsizing her publishing business.

On the first weekend in May our family had a weekend vacation on the Sunshine Coast. My wife and I spent about 2 ½ hours on Saturday morning having a wonderful visit with Cynthia. She talked about her new life on the Sunshine Coast. She mentioned that she had an author's bedroom set up like she had in Prince George and told me that I was welcome to use it. I'm sorry that I was not able to take Cynthia up on her offer, either in Prince George or Halfmoon Bay. We talked about publishing and writing. Cynthia commented that she was probably going to wind down Caitlin Press, although she wasn't sure what was going to come next. She gave me a copy of the book by Vivien Lougheed that she had just published.

I showed Cynthia some of Swannell's photographs in the 1920s. As we looked at the pictures and talked about them Cynthia started getting the enthusiasm that she had for the first book and she mentioned that maybe she would publish the second book. Cynthia reminded me to convey my enthusiasm for the material into the writing of the second book, and to make sure that my writer's voice came through strongly. We agreed to stay in touch during the summer while I continued my research and meet again in the early fall. Cynthia told me that at the very least she wanted to remain editorially involved in the writing of the second book. Now, when I write this book I will try to hear Cynthia's editorial voice.

I hope that tonight's memorial does not mark the end of Cynthia's vision for publishing material on northern BC and that the collective voice heard here is not silenced. I sincerely hope that someone will continue producing books on northern BC either through Caitlin Press or another publisher. I am certainly willing to do whatever I can to help ensure that this occurs. Thank you, Cynthia, for the opportunity to get to know and work with you, and for publishing Surveying Northern British Columbia.