Into the Past: a Trip to Penny

Last Sunday, we drove out to Penny: Betty Kovacic, her friend Bob, who used to live out that way, and me.For those of you who don’t know how exciting our journey was: Penny is one of a string of towns that popped up along the Grand Trunk Railroad when it reached Prince George from the east in 1914.  The railroad follows the Fraser River and the area was a rich source of timber; that trio—wood, water, rail—in an era when building materials were needed to build the province made mill towns inevitable.

Sinclair Mills Phone Booth

In its heyday, Penny was a busy town of six hundred. Now, I believe, seven people live there. A dirt road leads there now, but until several decades ago, the river and the railway were the only ways in. Once the highway went in on the south side of the river in the late ‘60s, residents would take a boat across the river and then drive into Prince George from there. In the winter, they built an ice bridge, which involved, as far as I understand it, building up logs and ice to create a solid structure to drive across. Sounds scary to me!

Betty Kovacic lived there for five years in the late seventies. Toward the end of one winter, she and her boyfriend returned from a trip, arriving on the south side of the river by car. They had radioed ahead to say they were coming, and people were waiting for them on the Penny side of the river. Packs on backs, bags in hand, they started across the frozen surface. Penny is situated on a bend in the river and the water runs faster on the Penny side. As they approached the shore, Betty saw that holes were opening up in the ice.

“Throw your pack!” someone shouted.

Betty did.

“Now jump!”

What choice did she have? Betty did.

Our drive out there was beautiful. A late September summer day, a gift, the air still, the water smooth. We stopped at Eagle Lake, a serene spot, and wandered, wondering at the brilliant green algae that lines the lake’s edge. We passed through Upper Fraser, where the old mill buildings still stand, abandoned, along with a string of houses, still occupied. Soon after that, we reached the river itself and drove over a solid cement bridge, brand new. Looking downstream, we could see the old bridge, a railway bridge that cars shared with trains. For years a man worked there, directing drivers when it was safe to cross. Eventually he was replaced with lights.

Bob told Betty and me that he once came along to the bridge in winter to find a woman, frantic, her car stuck in the tracks, no other human for miles. He managed to pull her car free, but if he had not come along…

On our sunny, late-summer journey, we came to Sinclair Mills, a series of old houses, a pig in a pen near the road, snorting snores, waving big pink ears, and an almost overgrown phone booth, by a telephone pole. We tried the phone and it worked!

The Old Penny Beehive Burner
Taken from South of the Fraser

Eventually we came to a fork in the dirt road. Above the fork, a hand-painted sign: Penny no through road. Indeed, the road does end at Penny. We began to see spectacular bare, red-topped mountains off to our left.

“Red Mountain!” Betty shouted. “I’ve been up there.”

A hiking trail runs out of Penny still today to a small cabin on the mountain. What a journey that must be! For ours, we stayed at river level.

Betty recognized all the old houses we passed, and pointed up the hill to where her house used to be.  At the bottom of the hill, stood a beautiful old house, rich reddish-brown shakes, in the middle of a grassy field surrounded by beds of strawberries. Grandma Bessie’s house, Betty told us. That’s Bessie Boudreau, Clarence and Jack Boudreau’s mother.

“She used to serve us Peek Freans, chocolates and tea,” Betty remembered fondly.

She peered in the window and shouted with delight. The kitchen was exactly as she remembered it, oilcloth on the table, old stove, dishes. The house is not lived in. We could only guess that it’s open for visitors in the summer. So inviting!

We wandered through the big grass field, now mostly filled with trees, looking for a tiny overgrown cemetery that Betty stumbled more than thirty years ago. It must be even more overgrown now, because we did not find it. We drove down to the river, and looked at the pilings that used to form the Penny end of the ice bridge.

Then we began the two-hour drive home.



You Say Tomato, I say Greenwich!

It’s September.

Farmers’ Market Tomatoes

Every Saturday morning, I head off to the Prince George Farmer’s Market. On Saturday, the sun was shining, but I had to bundle up because this is no Vancouver fall… The last three nights have ended in frost! It turns out that the coat I vaguely intended to be my winter coat up here, is my September coat. I guess that means I have no winter coat, a situation that will have to be rectified.

Anyway, it may have been cold, but as I say, the sun was shining and the market was teaming with people shopping, people in small groups chatting, people drinking coffee and eating bannock. (Having given up caffeine and wheat, I could only look on.) Local poet and good friend Jackie Baldwin accompanied me, dried tomatoes in hand, a gift for Iris, the woman who sold her the fresh tomatoes from which the dried ones were made. I had a short list including cabbage, carrots and chard, which I was to buy from Phil’s stall.

And tomatoes.

For those, I went straight to Marlinspike Gardens, which I understand is just a few minutes outside town. This was my third visit to their stand. I bought a whole bag of tomatoes of assorted shapes,  sizes, and colours, all with that “real tomato” look to them, all the signs of having grown outside, in soil, in a garden. My favourite are the Greenwich. They are yellow on the outside with streaks of green, and inside they are delicate green throughout. The taste is light and fresh, almost perfumed. I can’t describe it to my satisfaction, or to yours; if a taste were given to me blindfolded, I don’t think I’d not know it was a tomato.

Betty Kovacic, who has welcomed me into her home for this four-month stint in Prince George, grows her own tomatoes. We have been waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for them to ripen. Last week, I came into the kitchen where she stood with a funny smile on her face. She pointed at a pair of green tomatoes on the counter. “I just touched them,” she said, “and they came off in my hand.”

I looked more closely. They weren’t green exactly. More yellowish green. I looked up, incredulous. “They’re Greenwich!” I said.

We had those miraculous tomatoes growing in our own garden all along!

I still went back to Marlinspike Gardens on Saturday, though, and I still included two Greenwich tomatoes in my selection. All too soon, the tomato season will be over, and I will have to wait until next year for more.

Next year, I’ll be scouring the Trout Lake Market in Vancouver for Greenwich tomatoes.

I wonder if I will find them.

Maggie de Vries in front of Betty Kovacic's house in Prince George

Me at home in Prince George

I am a writer for children, teens and sometimes adults, a creative writing instructor, and, right now, writer in residence at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). Until mid-December, when I head back to Vancouver, I will post regularly about my travels and my experiences in this part of my province.

To find out more about my books and about me, visit my website.

I hope to hear from you!

Maggie de Vries

Northern Exploration: Part I

Years ago, a teacher by the name of Jeanne McLeod was teaching in a one-room school in Penny. At that time, in order for a school to remain open, a minimum number of students had to be registered. One day, when an inspector came to the school, he found the enrollment below the minimum by one student.

Would the school have to close?

The inspector asked the class who had a dog. A number of hands went up. The inspector chose one pupil.

‘What’s your dog’s name?’ he asked.

 The dog became the missing student and thus the school stayed open.

An anecdote from Penny for your thoughts: A history of Penny, British Columbia. Compiled by the Penny Reunion Committee, 1995.
Now inhabited by only seven people, through much of the twentieth century Penny was a booming mill town, accessible only by train or by the Fraser River.

If ever there was a good time to start a blog, even for a blog-fearing person like myself, it’s now, as I begin a new phase in my life!

Until December 15, I am going to be writer-in-residence at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George. Instead of living with my husband Roland and our two cats, I am living with artist Betty Kovacic and her three dogs. Everywhere I look, whether from my home office at Betty’s or from my UNBC office, up on the hill, instead of city, I see forest. I see rolling hills. The changing light on those hills holds me transfixed day after day. Last night, on one side of the house, an enormous, perfect rainbow; on the other, a yellow sky. (There is a city out there too, of course, a city I am enjoying enormously, but that will be a subject for other posts.)

In four weeks, I think I’ve watched three hours of television … As September gets underway, I am dipping into my fall wardrobe, yet, despite a thunderstorm or two, I haven’t needed my umbrella once.

Though Prince George and Vancouver are eight hundred kilometres apart, the two cities share a river. Water passing through Prince George today will eventually flow beneath the two quays that punctuate my Vancouver walks. Not only does water connect me to my home, so does ever-changing technology: Skype, texting, Facebook, email, and the good old-fashioned telephone and even older-fashioned Canada Post. Had I flown here instead of driving, I might not realize how far from home I actually am. And even driving shrinks distances. What would have been a journey of weeks in centuries past now takes less than ten hours.  (That’s as long as the Port Mann Bridge, the Fraser canyon, and the highway construction crews cooperate.)

Here, in case you are curious, is a short description of how I am spending my residency:

  • Meeting with writers, both students and members of the larger community, to discuss their work.
  • Visiting classes in several departments to talk about the writing/publishing process and about issues related to violence against women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. (My sister is one of Vancouver’s missing women.)
  •  Participating in the Allies and Activists event at the Weaving Words conference on September 26, and in other events in Prince George in the coming months.
  • Travelling to four of UNBC’s campuses—Terrace, the Nass Valley, Fort St. John and Quesnel—to do similar things, such as Career Leap in Quesnel on November 15.

Those are the main components of one part of the residency. The other part, which Canada Council directs should take up sixty percent of my time, involves my own work. I am starting off by researching several ideas for stories that I would like to set in this area. One involves Penny, the town referred to in the quotation that opens this post. I will be spending some time in the UNBC library and archives, and some time on the road, exploring. I am also toying with a story featuring a boy and crows, and those bright, maligned birds seem to be as common here as they are in Vancouver.

Thank you to Canada Council for the Arts and the UNBC Office of Research for funding this position!