Barbara and Bruce Campbell at their place in the Kispiox Valley circa 1998. (Contributed photo)

Love at 30-below

Barbara Campbell recounts the story of her honeymoon on a trapline

“To everything there is a season” Ecclesiastes 3:1

My season came mid-winter, six months after my fifty-first birthday. As many of my friends prepared to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversaries, I became a bride for the first time. Oh, there had been other opportunities; and I had kissed my share of toads looking for Mr. Right. I don’t know who was more surprised when I broke my news, my parents or my employer. I reminded my mother that she offered me a thousand dollars and a ladder if I would elope thirty years earlier. I had even calculated the interest that initial investment would have amassed over three decades. When I shared the news with my employer, a twelve member licensing board for psychiatric nurses, I spun a little yarn.

“I am leaving the province to join a family business. There are two main benefits to this move. First, I never have to wear panty hose to work again; and secondly, I get to sleep with the company president.”

The women all clapped and cheered; and the men looked confused… they didn’t understand.

Three weeks later, I left the city to become a born-again country girl. With just two little words, “I do,” I made a life commitment to a mountain man. My mother-in-law warned me that her youngest son, Bruce, was a hybrid, part mountain goat, and part grizzly bear, with just a touch of Homo sapiens to make him human. Mother Nature adopted him early in life and he moved through his world with an ease I hadn’t observed in other men. My new husband was at home in the outdoors. When Bruce shared his mountain adventures he used his hands as punctuation marks, his gestures threaded between his words, accented with a woodsy timber in his voice.

I must have been out of my mind to agree to a honeymoon on the trapline. For a month before the wedding I imagined every possible catastrophe that might happen. In my worst nightmare, I could read the newspaper headline clearly, ‘Honeymooners perish in remote cabin.’ The subhead read, ‘Coroner unable to determine cause… hypothermia or starvation.’

We had travelled all day, with nothing to eat since breakfast, seven hours earlier. My stomach rumbled. Thunder that loud should have wakened the dead. My new husband was oblivious to my basic needs, as he struggled to start the wood stove. I stood in the doorway of the cabin, literally frozen in time. My mind flashed back to the ice palace scene from the movie Dr. Zhivago. I was swaddled like a toddler on the first day of winter, heavy parka, fleece lined boots, wool trousers, scarf, fur cap, and double mittens. I waddled across the cabin, a goose left behind on a frozen pond. A master of repartee, I bit my tongue so hard I winced.

“Anything I can do to help?” I asked through clenched teeth.

The next morning I stood in the bedroom doorway observing my husband. In less than a week, a metamorphosis had occurred. Gone was the smooth cheeked, meticulously groomed cowboy I married. In the light of a single flickering candle a mountain man moved about softly and effortlessly. He was wearing a pair of well-worn moccasins. Saggy woollen trousers, felted from frequently washing, rode gently on his slim frame, supported by a pair of wide, snappy, red suspenders. His once flaming hair, its colour burnished by nature and the passing of time, glowed like autumn leaves. Bristly stubble foreshadowed a beard in the making. His half glasses perched on the end of his nose, Bruce was busy scribbling notes in his pocket journal. Then he returned to his breakfast prep on the cutting board. He assiduously chopped onions and potatoes for panfries. A tea towel flung over one shoulder served as hand wiper and pot holder, as he paused, and turned the bacon slowly sizzling on the stove. Looking up, he smiled his crooked grin, “Good morning sleepy head. I tried to move about quietly. It’s six o’clock.” He pressed a steaming mug of coffee into my hands. “I’ve been up for hours.” I kissed him good morning, greeted by a peppermint taste mingled with the aura of his wood smoked shirt and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

Bruce busied himself, pumping, starting and hanging two naphtha lamps from the ceiling. The cabin which had seemed cold and austere the evening before was illuminated like a museum diorama. One back corner had been partitioned to serve as a bedroom; the other back corner housed traps and gear. In the centre of the floor rested the largest wood heater I had ever seen, its chimney reaching twenty feet to the ridge. The front half of the cabin served as kitchen, dining room and lounge. As I gazed around, mentally rearranging my nest, Bruce said, “I know women like to shift furniture. Just leave the stoves and my trapping gear where they are.”

After breakfast, I surveyed the workshop corner more closely. Large sheets of plywood carefully marked with graded sizes for stretching beaver pelts leaned against the back wall. In a barrel were dozens of wedge-shaped stretchers made of soft wood, hand-carved. They were sized to fit from the smallest weasel to the biggest wolf. From a rafter beam, clusters of beaver castor hung like grapes drying in the sun. On a work bench, neatly arrayed like a surgeon’s instruments were knives, fleshing tools, boxes of needles, large headed silver tacks, thread, brushes and tanning solutions. Under the shelf I found crates full of traps, snares and tree boxes. From pegs on the wall hung several Trapper Nelson frames with packs, a variety of jackets, hip waders, a couple of rubber aprons and rain gear. The slightly musky scent assailed my nostrils; and I sensed anticipation for the trapping season to come.

That night the cabin was so warm we removed two of the extra comforters from the bed. I settled quickly, confident that Bruce would bank the heater again before the next morning. Shuffling, scuffling and scurrying sounds were the first hint that wildlife was on the move. The heat must have broken their hibernation; we could have been designated as Disneyland north with Mouseketeers galore. Bruce’s response was one of those ‘Men are from Mars’ cliches, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it in the morning.”

“That’s a new one on me,” I said, staring at Bruce’s homemade mouse catcher. He had taken and empty soda can, a five gallon pail, a coat hanger, and abracadabra.

“You thread the wire lengthwise through the can, place it over the top of the pail, bend the ends of the wire to ninety degrees over the lip of the pail, put three inches of water in the bottom and paint several strips of peanut butter along the can,” he explained. “The mouse walks across the wire like a tightrope, climbs on the can to sample the peanut butter, the can twirls and the mouse drops to the water below.”

I nodded, “At least I won’t have to listen to snapping traps all night.”

Over the next few days, we returned to a quieter, gentler time. With none of the modern conveniences, hydro, running water, corner store or street lights, I became a pioneer woman. Cooking on a wood range exacted a toll on my culinary skills, but by the fourth day I produced a respectable loaf of bread. What an accomplishment! An experienced campfire cook, Bruce showed me how to make bannock and bake a cake in the large cast iron Dutch oven. The cabin’s larder was well stocked with staples and with the fresh supplies we had brought. We dined royally. Dressing for dinner was optional, no tuxedos, bow ties, ball gowns, or panty hose. Stanfields met the dress code easily.

The temperature hovered below -30C and neither man nor beast ventured outdoors. I groped in my diufle bag and quickly found my secret weapon, a cribbage board. Spawned into a family of card sharks, the shuffling of a new deck and repetitive slap of the dealer always quickened my competitive spirit. But would Bruce feel the same? The usual fines of a penny a point were suspended because we derived other means of settling our debts. And the game was on!

When we tired of cards, we devised other amusements. Original baby boomers, with rural roots, we shared many common childhood experiences from the post war era. Besides the newspaper, the dry cell radio was often the farmer’s only connection to the outside world. We had included a battery operated tape player in our essentials box because I had a very special treat in store for Bruce. No, not belly dancing music, but Old Time Radio’s Greatest Shows, thirty hours of audio cassettes. Each evening we relived old memories when the family gathered around the radio; we were from an audio age. Throughout the cabin drifted the haunting themes of The Inner Sanctum, Boston Blackie and I Was a Communist for the FBI. For comic relief, Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, and Jack Benny elicited many chuckles and smiles. But Bruce’s favourites were the tales of the old west, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gunsmoke, and Roy Rogers, talk about your larger than life heroes.

Not to be outdone, Bruce had a few wildlife shows planned for me . One night he woke me after midnight, wrapped me in a sleeping bag and led me to the porch. Mother Nature had choreographed a spectacular ballet. The sky was ablaze with dancing rainbows, their reflections captured by the virgin snow, sparkling with a magnificent array of ten carat diamonds. Several evenings a symphony of coyotes and wolves, chanting acappella, made the Von Trapp Family sound like amateurs. When the weather softened, we snowshoed along the Bell 2 River where Bruce instructed and tested my knowledge of animal tracks.

“Most fur bearers are nocturnal or they are very sly,” Bruce explained. “You won’t see them making the tracks.” He bent over, and pointed at two sets of tracks in the fresh snow. “A rabbit and a fox,” he said. “If you examine the tracks carefully you can decide if it was a chase or a stalking of an unsuspecting victim.”

Further down the trail, we found the snow trampled and spotted the blood trail heading into the bush. The fox had won! By the time our trek was over I was able to identify six different tracks. Bruce had also pointed out the differences in pace. “By measuring the distance between steps you can tell if the animal is leaping, running or sauntering along,” he said.

As we headed back to the cabin, Bruce sighted the beaver trail. “Beavers are pigeon toed. Come over and look at this trail.” He pointed at the prints. Sure enough, the toes are pointed inward at least forty-five degrees. You could also see the swishing motion of the broad tail as it made horizontal sweepings across the tracks.

Later that evening, as I watched Bruce sharpen his skinning knives, I thought about my own history with the beaver, Castor Canadensis. Like most Canadian children I was a conditioned beaver worshipper. The beaver is Canada’s national symbol. Its image is etched on the back of our nickel. Thousands of people fondle and caress the beaver daily as they reach for loose change. School children embrace their studies about the life of the beaver and its role in Canadian history. Now, I would become an apprentice trapper, trading my furs with the itinerant fur buyer.

The last morning of the honeymoon we woke to a heavy snowfall warning. In short order, we tidied, packed and closed up the kitchen. Bruce was a happy trapper. He had four beaver pelts on stretchers. They would be worth about two hundred fifty dollars. We had honeymooned on the backs of four nickels! That thought gladdened the hearts of two frugal Scots. I glanced around me wondering if I had made a difference. If someone were to walk through the door what would they see? Oh, I had rearranged the furniture, reorganized the kitchen cupboards and larder. A blanket now covered the opening to the bedroom, one of my jackets hung in the work area, and my boots were by the door. My gaze rested on the table, the cribbage board sported a yellow note in my husband’s scrawl: “Your deal. I won the last game.”

As the plane headed east across the snow peaked mountains, I settled into my seat, and stared at the gold ring on my finger. It was time to think and to plan, something I hadn’t allowed myself to do for the last two weeks. The next three months would pass quickly in a blur of packing and finishing up at work and selling the house. There would be little time to sleep and even less to change my mind. Change had been a constant throughout my like; I usually welcomed it with joy and enthusiasm. Now this change, from single to double harness, would require all of my energy, determination and selflessness. The plane began its descent into the city while the pilot’s voice echoed over the intercom. It was almost as if my new husband was whispering in my ear, “Hang on my love. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

Barbara and Bruce Campbell ran a large game and angling guiding business out of the Kispiox Valley for many years. Barbara now resides in Smithers.

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