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Review

And the River Still Sings: A Wilderness Dweller’s Journey

By Chris Czajkowski

Women of Brave Mettle: More Stories from the Cariboo Chilcotin

By Diana French, Foreword by Sage Birchwate

Drugstore Cowgirl: Adventures in the Cariboo-Chilcotin

By Patricia Joy MacKay

March 24, 2015

Review By Connie Brim

Readers familiar with self-proclaimed wilderness dweller Chris Czajkowski’s many books on living in the West Chilcotin region of British Columbia will welcome And The River Still Sings, a memoir that introduces us to her as a child, raised in Lincolnshire, England, who preferred walking along nature trails to attending school. Focused on moments that elucidate her love of solitude and nature, her attraction to regions little travelled, and her gift for self-sufficiency, Czajkowski’s narrative moves us quickly from her Fens-based childhood to her post-secondary education in agriculture at Reynard Ing and Studley College (both located in Yorkshire, England) and to her sojourns in Uganda, Nepal, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and South America. Not all that long after arriving in British Columbia in 1979, she found Salmon Arm in the Shuswap too noisy but Lonesome Lake — population three — just right. As Czajkowski settles into the West Chilcotin, we witness her resourcefulness in learning how to make whatever she needs, be it a cabin for shelter, a stone oven in which to bake bread, or a wilderness-guide business at Nuk Tessli, the resort she established in 1988 at a nameless lake and operated for almost twenty years.

Chapters devoted to Czajkowski’s departure from this high-altitude resort frame the otherwise chronologically structured And The River Still Sings, and it is this poignant departure that provokes this reminiscence. With black-and-white photographs, an occasional map, and many sketches, the memoir offers us some insight into a woman who has lived alone and “off the grid” for decades. Czajkowski provides a loose timeline for her unanticipated but rewarding career as published writer and informs us of the sources of inspiration for her books including her personal favourite, A Mountain Year (2008). She also shares her expertise on alpine plants, her explorations of little hiked areas, and the impetus behind several changes in living places. Even wilderness dwellers, we learn, need retreats from their wilderness cabins. Such acknowledgements of the psychological challenges of dwelling alone in the wilderness are restrained in And The River Still Sings, but the absence of lengthy passages of self-revelatory commentary is not a shortcoming. During her twenties in New South Wales, Australia, Czajkowski learned that being alone in nature placed her in a euphoric state, and, during the subsequent decades, she has remained true to this epiphany. Unsurprisingly, then, what receives attention in the memoir are windstorms, wildlife, birdcalls, alpine plants, land formations, flooding, friends, and wwoofers who have helped her maintain her chosen way of life — whoever and whatever are present in the many places she explores in the Chilcotin. Her focus is refreshingly outward and outdoors.

Like Czajkowski’s And The River Still Sings, Patricia MacKay’s Drugstore Cowgirl: Adventures in the Cariboo-Chilcotin is a memoir. In a one-page introduction, she informs us of a life-changing vow, made at age 10 after she saw her first western, to discover whether or not cowboys, and the ranges on which they rode, still existed. Leaving London, England, in 1964, the 26-year-old fulfilled this vow by accepting seasonal work at a guest ranch in the South Cariboo. Except for an 18-month stint in London, a few months spent in Vancouver and Port Alberni, and another short visit to London, MacKay remained in British Columbia’s Central Interior until 1974. Containing a smattering of black-and-white snapshots and recipes, the memoir focuses on the eight years she spent in this region.

Prefacing the memoir is a cowgirl poem composed by MacKay. Jocular in tone, it establishes the persona the author adopts while sharing both work and social experiences in Parts One and Two of the tri-part memoir — experiences that range from learning to ride and how to milk cows in the South Cariboo to running a kitchen at the remote TH Ranch in the Chilcotin. Positioning herself as the naive outsider, MacKay regales us with anecdotes about attending rodeos, dancing while wearing spurs, and driving a tractor during haying season. The pacing of materials in these two parts is lively; passages of reconstructed dialogue ensure that the narrative unfolds briskly.

A tonal shift is apparent in Part Three, the section devoted to MacKay’s life, at Lee’s Corner and then at Alexis Creek, during the early 1970s, after work disappeared at the TH Ranch. Tension exists between her respect for what she calls the “Chilcotin way” and her always troubled relationship with Jimmie MacKay, a cowboy turned road-grader first introduced in Part Two. Part Three focuses on the five years during which they are married, and only in this final part does the author — the drugstore cowgirl of the memoir’s title — acknowledge that limited employment opportunities, alcoholism, and formidable weather may burden the lives of some who dwell in the Chilcotin.

In 2009 Caitlin Press published volume one of its Extraordinary Women series dedicated to sharing stories of BC women. Called Gumption & Grit: Women of the Cariboo Chilcotin, this volume offered thirty-eight stories related by twenty-three writers and edited by Sage Birchwater. Volume two, Women of Brave Mettle: More Stories from the Cariboo Chilcotin, similarly shares stories of women from this vast region. Divided into six sections that cover the period from the early twentieth century to the present, the collection provides brief, biographical entries on fifty women. Its final section focuses on several women who work at the almost exclusively women-staffed Williams Lake Tribune, and Part 4 features profiles of mothers and their daughters such as pharmacists Adaline and Cathie Hamm. The other four sections introduce individuals loosely grouped together by era, accomplishments, professional roles, and community service. Diana French, one of the women introduced in volume one of Caitlin’s Extraordinary Women’s series, wrote the majority of the entries in volume two.

Despite most essays rarely running longer than four pages, it is surprising how much we learn about both the individuals portrayed and the history of the Cariboo Chilcotin. The achievements of some women such as nurse Jane Bryant Lehman, community activists Phyllis and Ivy Chelsea, and artists Vivien Cowan and Sonia Cornwall have been acknowledged in previous studies such as Julie Fowler’s The Grande Dames of the Cariboo. Other entries in Women of Brave Mettle introduce women less well-known, especially to those unfamiliar with the Cariboo Chilcotin. Accompanied by black-and-white photographs, this volume thus provides a useful introduction to a diversity of talented women that includes film-makers, writers, politicians, politicians’ wives, immigrants, educators, nurses, naturalists, activists, and historians.

In her memoir as she ponders — and rejects — the label of eccentricity, Czajkowski asserts, “I am simply not city” (203). These words are applicable to the women introduced in Women of Brave Mettle who inhabit the rural areas, wilderness, and small communities throughout the Cariboo Chilcotin. Collectively, Women of Brave Mettle, Drugstore Cowgirl, and And the River Still Sings remind us that a remarkably storied past — and present — pervades BC’s sparsely populated Central Interior.

And the River Still Sings: A Wilderness Dweller’s Journey.
Chris Czajkowski
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2014.  251 pp. $21.95. paper

Women of Brave Mettle: More Stories from the Cariboo Chilcotin. Foreword by Sage Birchwater. Extraordinary Women Vol. 2.
Diana French
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2012. 223 pp. $26.95. paper

Drugstore Cowgirl: Adventures in the Cariboo-Chilcotin.
Patricia Joy MacKay
Victoria: Heritage House, 2013. 240 pp. $19.95. paper