A river is a living thing. It moves. It shapes our topography. It teems with life.
A river is a metaphor. For constancy. For change. For a life span.
Living on the shore of the Columbia, I often contemplate its endless flow and liken it to the flow of life–that flow within each of us, to some distant sea, with unknown rapids out of sight as a test of our vitality. I think of ghosts which can be conjured up from its jade-green waves. Well known passers-by like Thompson, Simpson, De Smet, Edison, and Kane mingle with ghosts of voyageurs and miners unknown. Two ghosts that hold a particular fascination for me are those of two travellers who – like all of us – journeyed to meet their destiny, passing by my window to a very tragic journey’s end.
David Douglas commenced his botanical explorations in April 1825 at the mouth of the Columbia and spent the next two years exploring its lower watershed. On many of these journeys his only companion was his faithful dog Billy. He learned to endure many privations and to make sacrifices for his extensive collections of flora and fauna. Depriving himself of normal comforts, pushing himself beyond endurance, Douglas almost seemed to be at war with himself.
Or was it that? He was very observant of his surroundings, savouring all that nature threw at him, blending in with his environment. Perhaps what we perceive to be physical deprivations were really accommodations to his surroundings, a mystical union of sorts to that vast flow of living force that populated his universe.
In 1827 he joined the Hudson’s Bay spring Express from Fort Vancouver to Hudson’s Bay. On April 20 the party passed our setting, having camped in the vicinity of the Dumont Subdivision the night before. He complains of ‘being molested out of my life by the men singing their boat-songs’, which interferes with his attempts to learn Chinook. At Boat Encampment he does a reckoning of his wanderings and concludes that in a little over two years he has travelled 7,032 miles, most of it on foot. Another 2,000 still lie ahead. The brigade reaches York Factory on August 28, where Douglas laments the loss of a live eagle he had been carrying on the journey.
He did not deserve his ending. He returned twice to the lower Columbia; on his last trip he planned to walk home via Alaska and Siberia. At Fort St. James he was forced to turn back and in running the Fraser, lost all his collections and nearly drowned. In 1834 he was in Hawaii, when he stumbled into a pit trap that had been prepared to catch wild bulls. There he met his Minotaur, which had fallen in earlier. The beast showed him no mercy and mangled his body beyond recognition.
Our other traveller passed by 66 years later and saw a different valley. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was on a world tour, having embarked at Trieste nine months earlier and worked his way eastward. Heir to the throne of Austria Hungary, he travelled incognito – if that were possible with a retinue of companions and servants and eye-popping trains of baggage. He was used to the best, of course, and found much to criticize. His one attempt to get close to nature was in the pursuit of his hobby, big game hunting, west of Penticton.
On September 18, 1893 the entourage embarked on the SS Columbia at Revelstoke and most likely spent the night aboard at either Robson or Trail Landing. The Archduke describes fairly accurately the nascent town of Nakusp (without naming it), and the CPR railway being built to the silver mines around Sandon. Most of his observations are critical: the cabin partitions exhibit cracks, the passengers are gun-totting ruffians or illiterate farmers, the spittoons are offensive, and the gentlemen cannot find the privacy they desire. The landscape itself is wild and uncultivated and the alpine terrain he visited previously lacks the meadows and wildflower beds of his native Austria.
His life journey ended on June 28, 1914, with an assassin’s bullet, on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The deed set off a war that saw his empire die and a flock of new nations created from it and other colonial leftovers. The fact that some of these new entities were unnatural assemblages of diverse ethnic groups was to be brutally resolved 75 years later, putting the spotlight once again on the city that tolled the bells of history twice in the last century – Sarajevo.