River Tales – Stories from My Cowichan Years, a new memoir by Liz Maxwell Forbes, available June 2019.
Swept up in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, two couples buy a rural property and set in motion what would be twenty years of adventure and misadventure for Liz Maxwell Forbes. The backdrop for this engaging picture of country living is the Cowichan River, a constant presence and reminder of what is most important in life.
Through everything, there was always someone who said, “You’ve got to write about this.” River Tales is ‘this’, one woman’s personal stories from that special time and place.
This map of Liz Forbes’ river property is a lively visual of the many stories to be found in River Tales. Drawn by her daughter Maureen Hodding who was there.
Excerpts from River Tales
Chapter 1 – Coming to The River
The road seemed to go on forever. We skirted the river, mud and debris from the spring floods evident on one particularly low spot. Soon we came to a sign proclaiming Rancho Del Rio, which we would find out later was a dude ranch. Our realtor counted the driveways from that sign—there were no street numbers posted—and at the third entrance she slowed to a near stop and eased her car onto a rutted track to the left. Red huckleberry bushes and oceanspray brushed the sides of her vehicle as we zigzagged down the narrow drive to a clearing where we slowly came to a stop. I could see the river in the distance.
I walked over to the log cabin, sat on the edge of the low porch, and breathed deeply. Tall grasses and white oxeye daisies swayed in the gentle breeze, and yellow finches flitted among the flowers. Just beyond the houses, the river sparkled in the afternoon sun. Spring along the Cowichan was alive with shades of green, light bouncing off the water and wet stones, the wind rustling the delicate new leaves of the cottonwood trees that grew along the riverbank, creating shadow and light. The air was heavy with incense from the sticky buds of the cottonwood. The only sound was the water as it danced over the rocks on its way to the ocean.
Chapter 3 – Dynamite Man
The day came for the destruction of the last stump, an especially large one a few feet from Dave and Lin’s house. Lin put baby Asha and sheltie Shawn in the car and drove a safe distance away. The crowd that had gathered in anticipation showed no fear. The words of bravado were passed around as fast as the cans of beer.
“Piece of cake,” from one.
“He knows what he’s doing,” from another.
“No problem for Tiny.” Thumbs up all around.
Everyone watched as Tiny, Dave and Ron discussed the situation, studying the stump from all angles. Tiny carefully placed the dynamite, a bigger charge than usual, and more tires than he had used for the other stumps. Ron and Dave were confident; they had done this many times before with their dad down on their farm in Saanich. Besides, Tiny was an expert.
Tiny set the charge, yelled, “Stand back!” and began running.
Chapter 9 – Beads on a String
All winter we had watched fishermen go by in their drift boats, and in the spring we gasped in awe at the intrepid kayakers on the swift running waters, but the river traffic really picked up when the weather grew warm and the river ran slowly; that’s when we saw hordes of people floating down the Cowichan on inner tubes. Groups often ‘rafted up’, tying the tubes together, usually a child tied to a parent, but most of the time it was teenage tubers, beer cans in hand, laughing and goofing around as they drifted on by.
Floating down the river caught on in a big way with our family and friends, and it was party central at our place on the weekends that summer. Ron bought at least a dozen inner tubes from the tire shop in Duncan and pumped them up at home with his compressor. Some of the tires, especially the truck tires, were almost too big to handle on the river. In the beginning I joined the other inner tubing enthusiasts, picking a medium-sized tire for my lazy float down a fairly calm stretch of water. Even our dog went inner tubing. Trapper, who was still a pup, stood on his own inner tube, tethered to Ron’s tube, and loved the ride down the river. Once in a while I went with the group when it drove upriver to Stoltz Pool for the roughly one-hour ride down to our property, even braving the small rapids in front of our house.
Chapter 10 – The Funny Farm
I was in Duncan one morning, picking up a few groceries, when I ran into a neighbour.
“How’s it going?” she asked. We did the usual courtesy chitchat, and then she surprised me by saying, “Do you know what you need at your place? Chickens!”
My Harrowsmith magazines and my books on subsistence farming all talked glowingly about the benefits of keeping hens to eat bugs in the veggie garden, not to mention the joy of collecting fresh eggs for breakfast. I was interested.
“But we don’t have a chicken coop!” I lamented.
“Ah, but you don’t need a chicken coop with bantam hens,” my neighbour said. “Banties look after themselves.”
The bantams arrived. Four scrawny little birds, barely a mouthful each, tumbled from the sack, squawking and clucking as they ruffled themselves into scratching mode. The sun danced off the iridescent tail feathers of the two larger birds, their brilliant plumage identifying them as roosters. We had two roosters and two hens, hardly fair odds.
Chapter 12 – Oh, the Buzzing of the Bees
We got used to the coming and going of hives and bee trucks. Sometimes they came at night, waking us as they rumbled down the drive. Charlie had a sixth sense about when it was time to move the bees to a higher elevation. He had to follow the wave of wildflower bloom, and he needed to move the bees at night when they were in the hives. The first time this happened I woke with alarm, thinking earthquake, then invasion, and opened the door to see a convoy of bee trucks, even one with a crane, coming down the driveway. I watched as they stopped to slide back the gate railings to the fields and then continued, bumping along the dirt ruts to the back pasture, flattening the long grass with their fat tires. They worked quickly, their headlights directed on the hives; they strapped the hives onto the pallets, then used the crane to swing the whole lot onto the back of the largest truck, leaving as quickly as they had come, like thieves in the night.
Following these annual raids, I would wander out to the pasture at first light to see if the bees were truly gone. Nothing left but bare patches of dried grass, broken bits of pallet and pieces of forgotten metal strapping, and the odd lost bee searching for his hive. The bee season was over for another year, a signal that autumn was near. It was then that I looked forward to my winter visits from Babe and Charlie.
Chapter 16 – The Dying Days of Summer
As soon as the corn was ripe and the cool nights had arrived, it was corn roast time by the river.
On the Friday night of the weekend of our first roast, Ron offered to pick up the corn at Russell Farms market on his way home. He made his usual stop at the pub after work and arrived home late with three full garbage bags of corn. Saturday I went to town and bought butter, wine, extra beer and the makings for hot dogs. While I was away, Ron and the kids and some of the early arrivals gathered firewood, placed boards on logs for benches, and prepared the fire pit. Back from my errands with the needed supplies, I set up stations for boiling the corn and tables to hold the gallon jars of hot water and butter. People began arriving about three o’clock in the afternoon, some of them prepared to stay overnight.
When it was time to start getting ready for the main attraction, the corn roast itself, I organized helpers to shuck the corn. To my surprise, it was pretty puny-looking stuff, nothing like the plump golden ears we usually got at Russell Farms. I threw a few cobs in the boiling water and someone tasted it—it was cow corn. All eyes went to Ron, who looked sheepish, and offered an explanation of sorts. It had been too late to stop at Russell’s after he left the pub the night before, so he drove around until he spotted a field of corn, wriggled through the fence and raided the farmer’s crop.
Chapter 22 – Neighbours of All Sorts
Suzanne was not the only neighbour who made an impression because she was different. The river definitely seemed to attract unconventional or unusual people of many kinds.
A co-worker who was doing his Masters degree in Social Work once asked me if my neighbours exhibited evidence of excessive drinking, depression or any other poor coping behaviours exacerbated by the isolation of my rural neighbourhood.
“No,” I bristled, “of course not!”
He was doing research into “the effects of rural living on mental health,” or some such topic, and I agreed to an interview. He was, after all, a good friend as well as a co-worker.
“What about you?” he asked as we sat over coffee on my front porch. “How do you cope with the stress of managing a group home?” By this time I had moved on from the post office and taken on the challenges of being an administrator responsible for the welfare of people with a variety of needs.
“I’ve recently joined a meditation group,” I answered. “And I have a couple of stiff drinks of scotch when I come home from work.”
“And your neighbour with the hermit tendencies?” He was referring to an old fellow everybody knew about but hardly ever saw, who would do just about anything to avoid talking to people.
“Ah, the poor guy. Personally, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to like spending time by yourself, is it? He just takes it a little far.” This line of conversation made me nervous. Like my reclusive neighbour, sometimes I enjoyed being alone, and I didn’t welcome the idea of being classified as ‘abnormal’ because of it.
“And what about that other neighbour you had the trouble with? The one who refuses to talk to you?”
“Oh, that unpleasantness,” I said, rolling my eyes when I remembered what had happened with my neighbour Kurt. “That was a total misunderstanding.”
Chapter 25 – Best Camping Spot on the River
People loved coming to the river. In fact, some of them loved it so much that they wanted to bring their tents and teepees, even their motor homes or trailers, and stay for a week, or a month, or longer. While most of these people were welcome, their company enjoyed and even treasured, some of them didn’t know when it was time to leave.
One early visitor was a woman I knew only from our corn roasts, who asked if she could camp for a week. I wasn’t sure about it, but that was in the days before I had learned to say no—truth be told, it’s a lesson I never really did learn—so she came, pitched her small tent, and stayed for exactly a week. The following year she called and asked if she could come again, and again I said yes. It was a pattern that went on for many years. She always kept to herself, helped out by weeding my vegetable garden, and would leave a small handmade gift, something she had made during her stay. One year it was a three-dimensional framed picture made of twigs and driftwood glued on a board, which I hung on the porch by the side door. It remained there for years, and looked right at home.
Chapter 26 – That Summer
But even though every summer on the river was wonderful in its own way, 1989 will always stand out as special.
It began with our local LETS group inviting the members of the Victoria group to join us for a July weekend campout and meeting at my property. I knew my aging septic system would never handle such a crowd; I needed another outhouse before hosting the party.
I organized a work party well before the July event. I thought building an outhouse would be an easy project. After all, how hard could it be? All you need is a hole in the ground, some kind of raised seat with a hole in the middle, three walls and a door. Slap a roof on top and there you go. It doesn’t have to be fancy or cute, just functional.
Chapter 29 – More Than One Way to Save a Tree
I was lying on the sofa, almost comatose after suffering a poisonous reaction from eating the wrong mushrooms for dinner, when I got a call from the RCMP. Would I please come to the Lake Cowichan detachment and take away a couple of logging protesters they were holding in custody? The only driving I was considering at that moment was maybe going to the emergency department at the hospital in Duncan, not doing a pickup at Lake Cowichan, but being the local contact for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee meant I was the one responsible for providing transportation for activists who were arrested while protesting logging in the Walbran Valley.