My big sister’s husband Gordy was born 90 years ago on a Saskatchewan farm.
When I told him about the ingenuity of a rancher in the Cariboo, he had a tale his dad told him.
“This guy come in delivering something in a big truck, but he’s got a flat tire and no jack, so he can’t get his tire off to fix it. What am I gonna do?” he says.
“Farmers didn’t have jacks big enough for some of their equipment,” said Gordy,
But, they knew what to do about flat tires.
“Dad hands the guy some blocks of wood and a shovel.
“‘What am I supposed do with this?’” he asks.
“‘Put the blocks under the axle, then dig a hole under the tire,’” dad says. “‘Get it off after that. Then, throw it in my car and take it to town.’”
Gord’s tale reminded me of Russell Kast, a Cariboo rancher.
‘Big Buddy’ hooked us up during his holidays in 2014. He’d thrown his sleeping bag in the car and driven north to escape city life. At Ashcroft, Big Buddy spotted Russ, a cowboy in a straw hat, in a hay field standing beside a beat-up pick-up with a bullet hole in the side panel.
“‘How ya doin’?” booms Big Buddy.
The conversation went this way.
“‘Got a couple weeks holiday,’” says Big Buddy. “‘Just looking for something different to do for awhile. Don’t wanna be paid. Need something fixed; welded? Never drove a bailer, but I learn quick.’”
Kast pulled a cigarette from a pack and leisurely lit up.
“‘That’s my workshop over there,’” he says. “‘Show up at 7 tomorra; we’ll find something for ya to do.’”
A few days later, Big Buddy suggested I bring my tent trailer up and stay a bit.
“‘Russ is a horse gentler – tames ’em without breaking ’em. You can write about it.’”
Today, Kast runs Black Creek Ranch, a black angus cattle operation. It’s along the original Gold Rush Trail near Horsefly. After we camp, Big Buddy and I help him put up fence. Driving five-inch spikes in the hot sun is hard, sweaty work, but thoughts of the city disappear.
Next day, to get pictures of some new pasture, we take ATVs into rugged high country. The vehicles roll over obstacles with ease, and even wade rocky stream beds. But, unexpectedly, the right wheel of mine jerks 90 degrees from the steering assembly. Something’s broken. We’re stranded.
In Maple Ridge, I’d be reaching for my BCAA card. Not now. Something – instinct maybe – says find a way to fix it. It’s a call Kast knows well. He positioned a block of wood under the front of the quad. I found a six-foot length of aspen – a fulcrum to hoist the ATV up so he and Big Buddy could assess the damage.
“The nut that kept the rocker arm in place was sheered off,” Russ said.
When we couldn’t find it, he removed a lug nut from a wheel. It was the right size, but not the same thread. Still, it held.
After that, Russ and Big Buddy brought up the lower control arm and slid it into the ball joint housing again (it had popped out).
Finally, Russ wrapped a tie-down strap around everything and cinched it up to keep the steering mechanism in place. We were on our way.
“I guess ranchers have to do this sort of thing a lot,” I said.
“Yep,” said Russ, as he lit a cigarette.
“Things break. You have to know how to fix them.”
Just before Likely there’s a wide, well-manicured dirt road to the Polly Lake Copper Mine. It leads to the quarry, a giant, noisy hole where a mountain used to be.
A woman in Horsefly told me generations of her family made a living as outfitters near here, once.
Ditch Road – often too narrow for two cars to pass – leads to Hazeltine Creek, the little stream that washed out in August 2014, when the mine’s tailings pond ruptured, sending 4.5 cubic meters of toxic slurry into the lake and down the creek channel.
The discharge tore out the creek and uprooted trees on both banks.
Mines minister Bill Bennett said he never believed the breech possible.
Two years later, I’m standing on the ‘temporary’ bridge over what used to be a meandering, pristine stream, but is now a narrow chute that runs a straight line to Quesnel Lake, one of the purest sources of fresh water in the world.
The banks of Hazeltine Creek, layers of cadmium, mercury, and phosphorus are the riparian zone now. Nobody knows how long they’ll remain toxic.
There’s no signs of normal life.
In 2014, then ARMS president Geoff Clayton told me tailings ponds should never be built above a watershed, but this one had the blessing of the mines ministry.
“I sometimes wonder,” said American poet Diane Ackerman, “if we’ll survive our own ingenuity.”
– Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.
• Part 1.