Connecting grief and growth with waters born in the Rockies
When I was little girl, no more than 9 years old, I made history in my town by catching what locals commonly refer to as the “whopper of the season.” I remember the event in the same hazy way that most heroes recall their feats of greatness.
Bits and pieces float into my memory like fallen leaves resting on shallow puddles after a storm. I remember seeing the expanse of blue before me as I walked down to the fishing dock for the first time.
I remember the clash of green, and the general wash of smoky yellow that fell over the scene, like a heated blanket, warming the water and all of those drawn to it. I can hear the crunch of pebbles under my feet and the gentle thud of boats bumping into the rubber tires padding the sun-washed docks they were tied to. I can hear the hum of trucks backing trailers into the water and the swish and swooning sounds of waves stretching and retreating over the banks of the waterfront.
Mostly, though, I remember the hardened feel of a calloused hand holding mine. The tickle of knuckle hair and chipped fingernails, a hand that felt safe, despite the unfamiliar sensation of holding a hand so much heavier than mine.
“Marley, I am going to teach you to fish today,” said a husky voice above me.
I snapped my head up. Sunlight blurred my vision, I squinted to better see the face hidden in the shadows of the shape rising over me. I couldn’t make out the features and for a moment, I was uncertain.
My sight adjusted and the clear blue eyes of my father looked down into my face. Clear blue, not ocean blue, not sea blue. Those waters are too muddied with the responsibility that comes with being so big.
No; my dad’s eyes were blue like summer rain on a hot Saskatchewan day.
Blue, like water droplets reflecting the summer sky as they shoot from the garden hose and splash over the laughter of children playing in the backyard.
Blue, like lake water seen through the eyes of a small girl for the first time.
I spent many days like this at the lake where I grew up. I’ve heard people describe my home province of Saskatchewan in different ways. They often speak of the endless fields of patchwork crops that sprawl across the prairie.
People are drawn to the remote and sometimes lonely images of aged wood barns and farmhouses that dot the dusty gravel roads and pay homage to an older, simpler time in our rural history. Of course, many people remark on the beautiful, and somewhat otherworldly, sunsets that earned Saskatchewan’s popular descriptor, “the land of living skies.”
All of these are true and honest depictions of landscape in Saskatchewan, but what still holds some mystery to visitors and residents alike, are the great many bodies of water that span across the province.
Saskatchewan is drenched in lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers. Much of the water that ends up in Saskatchewan originates from precipitation that falls and drains from the Eastern Slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.
In fact, roughly 88 per cent of the water that ends up in the North Saskatchewan River flows from the headwaters, streams, and creeks in the lands of our neighbours to the West — but I didn’t know about all that when I was 9.
Catching the “whopper” is one of my fondest memories of being outside with my dad; and while catching the actual fish was joyous, being out on the water was scary.
My imagination turned the gentle lake waters into a frothing, unforgiving sea. I was Captain of the Argo, sailing to Kolchis. I was Nemo, Ahab, Red Beard; but terrified at the thought of what awaited me in Davy Jones’ Locker. Pirates of the Caribbean was big at the time.
The lake became an ocean to me, and our boat seemed too small to hold us.
My dad was a big man in my child’s eyes. Somewhat like a pirate himself, my dad was barrel-chested with broad shoulders and thick arms.
He was heavy-set, with a wide body, and expansive, meaty legs. His thick black hair covered his head, face, chest, and arms. His beard would have put most of the dwarves in Middle-Earth to shame. I sat, clutching the sides of the boat, worried I would plunge head-first into the water.
“Don’t be afraid,” he called out, “It’s just water. Did you know most of our bodies are made of water?” he asked, smiling as he handed me a fishing rod.
Our bodies are made of water, I liked that.
Next came the horrific experience of baiting the line. Give me the foes of other greats, let me slay the Neiman Lion, throw a pebble at Goliath, hold a mirror to Medusa, but never ask me to hook a worm onto a fishing line.
Spurred by the bellowing laugh of my dad, I left my squeamishness behind and threw out my line. Now, I cannot tell you if it was minutes or hours, but the next thing that I remember was my dad’s great hands clasped around mine.
His voice encouraging, “Reel it in! Pull! You can do it!”
Using every ounce of strength, with no small degree of aid from my bear-like ally in battle, I drew a monster of a fish into the boat.
My rise to stardom was rapid! Next, I remember boats pulling up alongside ours. Grinning faces, whoops and hollers, voices calling out, “What a catch!” and, “Wow, it’s bigger than she is!”
These lake mariners applauded us and clapped my dad on the back. Old seadogs recalled their own great feats out on distant waters. Would-be ichthyologists remarked on the size, color, weight, and shine of my catch. Nearby, someone drew a fiddle from underneath a pile of nets and up sprung a salty swabbie of a shanty song.
Reflecting on it now, I am pretty sure some of that didn’t happen. We did, however, get our photo taken and pinned up on the community board and my fish was recorded as the catch to beat. It was a great day.
Years later, now 25 years old, I am again perched in another small rowboat on lake, this time far away from where I caught that fish.
As a second-year master’s student, I am researching the effects of resource extraction on the environment in northern Alberta. Now that I’m older, I know that summers spent at the lake, family events in the outdoors, and those special memories fishing with my dad all influenced the type of research I’m doing today.
The site is five hours north of Edmonton, two hours shy of both the Peace River and Athabasca River basins.
I sit at the rowboat’s helm, scribbling in a notebook balancing on my knee. This boat’s captain is a local man from the community I am studying in. He navigates the vessel through the lake waters, describing to me the effects of oil polluted water run-off in this area. He explains that the fish here are no good; that their eyes are split, their mouths filled with sores, and their stomachs full of worms. I shudder. Sea monsters.
Returning to my fieldwork site after a long day on the water, my phone reconnects to Wi-Fi. I see I’ve missed several calls from my older brother. I frown. I haven’t spoken to him a while. A long while.
In the voicemail he left, he says our dad is sick. Worse than sick, he is in a coma, and it does not look good. My brother urges me to get home to Regina if I want to say goodbye and he tells me to hurry.
I remember standing still for several minutes, my hand still holding the phone to my ear. Come home to say goodbye.
I reel and sit down on the bed in my room. My dad. My dad? In a coma?
Images of a booming, jolly, laughing man swam into my head. A bright sunny day, green hills and blue waters, a shining whopper of a fish. A heavy hand on mine. Tears stung the corner of my eyes. I hadn’t seen or spoken to my dad in a long time. Negligence, ego, and awkward circumstances kept us at bay. He for his absence in my life, mine as punishment for that absence.
I vaguely remember throwing some clothes in a bag and locking up the field site house. Instead of driving the 20 hours or more back, I decide to head to Edmonton and fly the rest of the way. I drove as fast as my tiny car could on the gravel road that led out of the site.
My eyes scanned the tree line, vast forest surrounded me, hills rose over the skyline, blocking the sun and casting shadow over the road. It was already late in the day. I caught a glimpse of clear blue in my rear-view mirror.
I blink, but it’s the just lake I spent the afternoon on, peeking through the dark green trees, growing smaller as I made my way to the highway. As I drive, family in Edmonton work to find a flight for me.
Tree after tree rushed past me, a blur, lakes on either side whirling into a pool of green and blue. I realize that I’m crying. It’s early evening and I pull over the car. I happen to be on a bridge, a place between here and there. Beneath me, the Athabasca River roars, unabated. confidently. The rush of water pounds in my ears.
As I step out of the car, I try to catch my breath. My body hurts. I check my phone, 6:15 p.m. There’s no way. There is no way I will make it to Regina in time, I know it. He is gone.
I can’t explain it, but a feeling of extreme sadness and guilt overcame me. Also, a feeling of resolution; I just knew he died, right in that moment.
A cry catches in my throat and I swivel around, my feet unsteady underneath me. The ground seems to rise and fall, and I don’t have my sea-legs. I realize that I have grabbed hold of a railing, it’s heavy. Looking down, the massive river swells before me. I smell the wetness and feel the humidity on my skin. Tears are on my face.
“Our bodies are made of water,” I remember.
I stood on that bridge for a little while and then I drove to Edmonton. It was several hours before I reached the city, but by that time I had already spoken to my older brother on the phone. My dad had died earlier in the evening; right around 6:30.
Now, I wouldn’t describe my dad and I as being particularly close. He was in and out of my childhood, and perhaps even less reliable as I grew into adulthood.
He lived his own life and one that I only experienced peripherally, but there were special days. Long summer drives, country music, ice cream and my feet on the dashboard. He was a generous and funny man.
I will remember his laugh and his big hands. I will remember that he smelled of smoke and Selsun Blue shampoo. I will remember that he wore the same black shirt every day and that he kept his books using a four-function calculator with a paper receipt charge. I will remember that my first and best memories of my dad are of being outside, in the woods and on the water.
My dad, the bear, the pirate, with clear blue eyes, like the water splashed onto the face of a 9-year-old who just caught the whopper of the season.
This article was written by Marley Duckett, one of Y2Y’s 2022 story gatherers. These four unique people are sharing personal stories, memories and places related to the special landscapes of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, often perspectives that are underrepresented in mainstream media. Read other stories in this series.
Header photo: Anastasia Taioglou/Unsplash