Tag Archives: Northern Alberta

Book Buying Season

With Christmas nearing, Shirlee Smith Matheson and I decided to introduce some of our books in the next few blogs. Both of us have written and published regional history, but rather than summarize content, we will share highlights during the writing of those books. We’ll treat one book each per week with the exception of December 5 when poet Bob Stallworthy is my guest blogger.

Our books are available through trade publishers and bookstores. However, the easiest way to purchase them is directly from us by email or through our websites: www.wordandhistory or www.ssmatheson.ca

 Sharing the Good Timesby Faye Reineberg Holt (Detselig, 2000).

For this book, I focused on the positive experiences and memories of prairie women. I had read countless books on their hardships, and I knew those hardships were real. But, I believed that most women also had found many things that were rewarding and joyful in their lives. So, I wrote about such women and included photos reflecting those experiences.

Tall and dignified-looking, Eunice (Dunny) Robertson Hanna had been a teaching colleague, and I clearly remember interviewing her. At her Calgary home, we studied old photographs and talked about her 1942 enlistment in the army and her military service. Becoming a training officer for the Canadian Women’s Army Corp (CWAC), she served at Vermilion, Alberta. As we talked, she laughed as she recalled amusements enjoyed by herself and other women during their off-duty hours. Then, she became teary, remembering friends who had died during the war.  I was fortunate to have worked with Dunny, to have attended ballets and luncheons with her for years, and to have included her and other fine women in the book. Women’s stories are filled with hardships, but, women have also enjoyed good times. So I hope you will discover those stories in my book or the books of others.

Young Blood of the Peace by Shirlee Smith Matheson (Detselig, 1991)

While living inHudson’sHope,BC, and being known as “a writer” I often received local requests to write everything from birthday poems to personal résumés. It still came as a surprise, however, to receive a call from a Catholic Sister of St. Joseph, Sister Gemma, who frankly informed me that a group of people had been discussing the career of Father Jungbluth (locally known as Father Youngblood), the Oblate priest who served four local churches in Moberly Lake (First Nations), Kelly Lake (Metis), Chetwynd (a mixed congregation) and Hudson’s Hope (mostly white).  “He has lived an interesting life,” announced Sister Gemma, “and we have decided that you should write a book about him.”   

“But . .. ” I stammered, “I don’t even know him!”

“So meet him!” was the instant response.

“But . . . he’s a Catholic priest – and I’m not Catholic.”

“We know that,” she said patiently, as if speaking to a child. And then she added a statement that changed my life.  “But you’re a writer – and writers can write about anyone!”

And so that evening I went for a walk in the snowstorm– similar to the snowy walk taken by Pierre Trudeau while he made his big decision on whether to take on the challenge of becoming Canada’s Prime Minister — and decided to take on the challenge of writing about a man I had never met, who embraced a faith, and lived a lifestyle, quite different from mine, to see what might happen. 

I met him, and went on to travel with him one day a week for three years to get his story, and those of the First Nations people who comprised his parishioners.  The result is Youngblood of the Peace, a book now in its second edition. And further, I went on to write a stage play based on the book, which was produced at the Fringe Festival inEdmonton. 

Father Jungbluth and I remained close friends until his passing. And that’s the story of my – and Pierre’s – big challenge, successfully met.

Rendezvous on the Peace, Part III

Again, with the last section of “Rendezvous,” notice Shirlee’s fine use of imagery to create pictures in our minds. Also, Shirlee’s photo—one taken while boating on the Peace River near Hudson’s Hope— offers another glimpse of the river’s beauty. With the water framed by rock and trees, we are drawn into the photo to some distant point on the river, in much the same way Shirlee’s words allow us to see the river as we follow her journey.

Peace River near Hudson's Hope Photo by Shirlee Smith Matheson

Rendezvous on the Peace, Part III

by Shirlee Smith Matheson

It is midnight now, and I am quite weary.  I think back to an earlier time when people enjoyed – and in some cases endured – the bliss of this solitude.  I have read of their efforts to brighten their homesteads with banks of flowers – delphiniums, bluebells, bachelor buttons, forget-me-nots, goldenrod and fireweed – that paraded their colours and scents to such a small audience.  I see Lucille Adems peering from behind the French doors of her wilderness cabin to watch the moose and caribou browse in the willows – or in her carefully tended garden.  I hear the cabin-bound trappers and prospectors wonder aloud if the outside world has quit its mad pace so they might venture back to rejoin society.

Perhaps I did fall asleep because we are now at Finlay Forks.  It is half-past twelve midnight.  I grab my bag and follow Ken off the boat onto a dock and along a narrow gangplank, barely visible in the dark and bouncing with each step.  The black waters of the Williston Lake reservoir slap against the boards, leap up the soft sandbank, chase me to the safety of shore.  Not a light turns on to greet us, for the generator has been turned off for the night. We walk silently, single file, over a boardwalk fronting the cabins. Ken opens the door to one, drops my bags and lights a candle for me. Good night.

I roll out my sleeping bag, trying not to think of mice or men, howling mountains or ghosts of the Peace’s past.  Tomorrow I will meet the voyageurs and, for their entertainment, I’ll resurrect, through my stories, the people, places and proud history of this once mighty river called the Peace.

The foamy whitecaps on your breakers leap!

The rolling, boiling eddies lurk below.

How long you’ve been, how long to be, I ask you?

The river answers, “Only God can know.”

Poem by Earl Kitchener Polon, co-author of This Was Our Valley

Note from Shirlee, 2011

Shirlee boating on Peace River Photo by Bill Matheson

This Was Our Valley tells the story of the river and the two hydro-electric dams that were built across its narrows, resulting in the 600-foot deep reservoir today called Williston Lake that flooded 640-square miles of fertile lowlands.  And with a plan to build a third dam called Site C, on the once-mighty Peace River, the cries from the Cave of the Winds are meaningful echoes of a time long past.

To discover more about Shirlee Smith Matheson, check the About Shirlee page or go to www.ssmatheson.ca

Rendezvous, Part II

With “Rendezvous, Part II,” notice how Shirlee Smith Matheson uses dialogue and poetic description to reveal the real people and history of the Peace River area. Her words create moods and emotions. As an audience, we catch glimpses of individuals and families from days gone by. Although we don’t have entire stories, we learn enough to create intrigue, and as audience, we become captivated.


by Shirlee Smith Matheson

 “Want to see something strange?” Captain Ken Kyllo yells over the whine of the engines.  “It’s a place called Hole in the Wall.”  With that, he guides the boat into a slitted opening in the canyon wall and we are suddenly inside a cavern that’s completely hidden from anyone passing on the river, a perfect hideout for a pirate or a poet.

We re-enter the river and sail westward, watching the sun fall onto the snow-capped ridges of the Rockies.  The sun-ball flattens, spreading like the yolk of a giant egg, breaks to a golden glow, and disappears.

Darkness falls swiftly.  There are no lights on the boat.  Ken says he doesn’t need them, but I think of the deadheads and snags that lie in these dark waters and pray silently for safe passage.  The Kyllos have been running river boats on the Peace, Finlay and Parsnip rivers for 40 years.  We’ll be okay . . . and I am here to celebrate.  I sit back on the kapok-covered seats and stare into the blackness.

The hills around us have blended into the darkened sky, the water is deep silver, and shadow blends with structure until I can no longer distinguish snags from waves.  Could those images on the shoreline be two moose?  Perhaps they’re just illusions for they don’t move, or perhaps, thinking we are an illusion, they remain still to stare out at us, for we are the only traffic on this remote section of the river.

The powerful roar of our engine prohibits conversation.  I become weary but am kept awake by Ken’s actions, alternately lighting his Bic lighter to check the gauges, or shutting down the engine when he hears a change in its throb that indicates we’ve struck a deadhead.  Then, the silence booms, the water slaps and hisses, and the boat slowly turns around and around.  Ken restarts the engine and redirects the boat. How can he sense direction in the black night? We continue on, supposedly heading the right way, the only human movement in this vast wilderness.

He points to a large limestone edifice glowing in the dark, high above us. “Cave of the Winds!” Ken hollers into my ear.  The mountain is pierced with a keyhole that curves upward through its structure, causing the winds to shriek so evilly that the native people have declared the mountain to be haunted. 

 I recall old-timers describing the fates that caused places along this waterway to be given such macabre names: Wicked River, Deserters Canyon, The Black Rocks, and the silent and deadly Ne Parlez Pas Rapids that sank many unwary boaters.  Now these areas are tamed and gone, flooded by the massive reservoir backed by the WAC Bennett Dam, in whose bloated waters we now sail.  But these places still exist, way below, and their legends remain intact.

Right now we are sailing over so many lost memorials of human habitation: prospectors, trappers, natives, Klondikers, and homesteaders, who lay buried under 600 feet of water in addition to their six feet of earth.  Buried too are their homes, such as “All’s Well,” the lovely log mansion of prospector Jack Adems and his actress-socialite wife, Lucille.  The home—built by Jack in 1918 and located 40 miles from Hudson’s Hope, the nearest town—boasted imported French doors, a winding staircase, a mammoth stone fireplace and gracious furnishings.  Beyond that homesite, at the Wicked River, is the now-buried wilderness estate of Russian Count Nicholas Ignatieff, who, having escaped the Russian Revolution, came to this isolated and beautiful setting to live out his last days and write his memoirs.

Now these structures and their stories repose beneath us as we roar upriver in the jet boat.  Thankfully, the noise of the engine drowns the cries from the Cave of the Winds.