hidden homestead

🕔Sep 07, 2005

The Skeena Line train is stopped at the base of glacier-covered Mt. Knauss, and both are gleaming silver. My man James climbs aboard, and I wave goodbye as the train whistles twice—mournfully, it seems—and moves slowly away, following the flood plain where the Skeena River cleaves the Nass Range in northern British Columbia.

Cameras flash from the first-class car, and as I turn away, I’m struck anew by the scene that seems to endlessly inspire the tourists from California and Germany. An open field spreads outward from the tracks, and where it meets the pine forest is a line of ramshackle cabins and a shuttered general store. A mannequin waves from the second-storey window. There are no power or telephone lines, and no road to the outside world.

This is Dorreen, the perfect ghost town. And now I am alone with the ghosts.

It is a 15-minute walk to the dilapidated riverfront farmhouse where James and I now spend our summers, a place that feels past the edge of the known world.

Certainly, before I came last year, I didn’t know what to expect. If I had any neighbours at all, I figured they would be archetypal northern men: trappers and lumberjacks.

Instead, I found a history of solitary women and widows who think nothing of wielding an axe until, well, they keel over and die. That, in fact, is exactly the story of Della, who passed away a year before I came. I visit her cabin from time to time—tiny, hand-hewn, and dark as a Hobbit hutch. Her flower garden still blooms, and the woodpile’s still tall.

I met Bev on my first day, when she showed me the town well and the brown cedar-shingled house by the tracks where she lived for eight years with her schoolteacher husband. A widow now, she still comes out from Prince Rupert, her sons or granddaughters in tow.

It was Bev who told me what to do in an emergency. “You stand on the tracks and wave both arms overhead at the first train that comes,” she said. “Then you get out of the way, because that train won’t stop, but the next one will.” It could be 12 hours or more.

The message is: don’t have an emergency.

And then there is Dulsa. Born in Dorreen at the end of its mining-town heyday, she’s now the only permanent resident. With her long grey-and-black curls streaming over a plaid mac jacket, a canteen slung over her shoulder, she’s like a patron saint of this lost place.

She’s rolling through “town” on her ATV. “Seen any black bears?” she asks. No, I say, and it’s strange, because we have an orchard full of ripe cherries. “Must be a grizzly has moved into the area. They scare all the black bears away.” With a sense of foreboding, I tell her that I’m on my own for a week. Dulsa doesn’t say a word.

The road to the farmhouse passes through a cottonwood grove, from which the wind is forever coaxing strange sounds—the grumblings of old men, a cello being tuned. The silence between them is nerve-wracking. At the edge of the orchard I call out, “Hello bear.” All I see, though, are a toad and a hare, grist for some parable or other.

It’s cold, and I bring in wood for a fire, feeding the woodstove from afternoon through evening.

The pioneer life is a busy one, I think, as I cook a humble borscht, haul water from the river, and do the dishes in an old enamel sink with a bucket underneath. Night comes sooner than I hope, and then it’s time to light a Coleman lantern, read a book, and guard against primal fears. When I turn out the light, I know the darkness will be total.

The time comes: my first night alone in the ghost town. For a long time I lie awake, alert for any sound. The scratching is bats in the walls. The rustling is only the wind picking up in the clearing. And then a queer, gleeful moan seems to circle the roof. I squeeze my eyes shut. An eagle. It must be an eagle. I think of Della, Bev, and Dulsa, how they manage to be alone all the time, and soon my mind becomes calm.

When I wake up, the room is light. I start a fire, and bake myself a cake in honour of survival.

A few days later I walk back into town to draw water from the well. Dulsa appears; it’s raining lightly and she wears an oilskin hat. “I was worried about you,” she says. “Being on your own.”

I can’t find a way to tell her that I didn’t feel like I was.

Dorreen is situated 50 kilometres northeast of Terrace on the Skeena Line; it is accessible by train only.