Rivers and rising rivers have been a part of my psyche all my life. I’ve pretty much always lived on a river. First, as a child, on the Nashwaak River in New Brunswick, then on the Saint John River after we moved to the farm, and now for years, on the Rideau River in Ontario.
So rivers, and rising rivers, and flood stories are part of my narrative, shall we say. Every spring, as we watch the river rising, we ask, “Remember the year school was cancelled for days because the water was over the road and the buses couldn’t get through?” Or “Remember the year when the water and ice took the bridge out?”
|Road closures during spring flooding in April 2014|
When I attended my junior high reunion a couple of years ago we talked of the year, when we were kids, that the bridge over the Nashwaak River went in the spring flood. We all remembered the excitement. How an ice jam had let go up-river, and the water rose faster than anyone had expected. How school was cancelled partway through the day for those of us who lived on the other side of the river, so we could get home before they closed the roads. Buses driving empty over the imperiled bridge, with water lapping close to the pavement. And us kids following, ushered quickly over the bridge on foot, coats flapping, lunch boxes and book bags banging against our legs, to board the buses on the other side. I remember laughing with my friends about that, about the image in my mind of a girl named Debby riding on the back of her brother’s bike, as the rest of us ran, thrilled at the drama. We laughed harder when one friend said he remembered the sight of the kids who didn’t live on the other side of the river hanging out the windows of the school, longingly watching us having all the fun.
|Water covers the flats, and will soon be over the road here, as it is most every year.|
I hadn’t been back home in the spring for years and years until 2014, when I was at my Mum’s for two weeks in April. The day after I arrived, I waded snow up to my thighs to walk up the brook behind the barn. Then we had two days of rain and all of a sudden spring arrived. And the water everywhere was rising. The normally trickling brook gushed. I slept every night with my windows open wide falling asleep to the sound of the brook. Just like when I was a kid.
There’s something bitter sweet about being on the farm, in the spring. Especially now that the cattle and most of the barns are gone. No stamping of hooves or clanking of stanchos as the cows wait impatiently to be let out into the barnyard, no new calves milling around on the barn floor and butting into my stepfather as he tries to fork hay down from the hay loft, no pungent smell of melting manure pile. No sap buckets attached to the maple trees that line the hill above the brook. No more smells and sounds of a working farm. Pity.
|The old barrels which capture the water from a spring and where the cattle used to drink. April 2014.|
But not everything has changed, the new grass still pushes up through the melting snow in the pasture on the hillside. The brook still gurgles white with froth over the rocks and down the hill to the river. And the river….the huge lumbering Saint John River still does what it does every spring. Rises and rises and moves with a swiftness that happens only this time of year. And of course it becomes the main item of conversation on everyone’s lips for a few weeks.
This year, my sister Connie is home with Mum for a visit. The road across the flats is closed, as it often is. The islands in the middle of the Saint John where farmers grow corn and potatoes and hay are inundated, as they are every spring. But this year, for the first time in a while, the streets of downtown Fredericton are flooded. News photos focus on empty parking lots with just the tops of the parking meters showing, water lapping at the doors of the Beaverbrook Hotel, and the library downtown. Many riverside homes and businesses are not faring well. And it’s all much more serious than normal.
Of course it’s always serious for anyone affected by floods. Farmers whose livelihood is endangered. Small businesses which can’t really afford to stay closed for even a few days. People who have to evacuate their homes and then face a heartbreaking return. And let’s not even get into the devastation of floods in other parts of the world, where lives and whole communities are lost. But for us, as kids growing up, the rising river simply meant the possibility of drama, and maybe a few days off school.
One spring a few years ago, I realized, as I watched from my sun room window the rising water in the Rideau, that all the women in my family lived on a river. One sister lived on the Upper Saint John River a few hours from Fredericton, the other on the St. Lawrence River, and my mum was on the farm on the banks of the lower Saint John. We were all at different places in our lives, all facing different challenges, and I imagined that we all stood at our windows in that moment and watched the ice break up and the water begin to flow freely. And that the rivers we watched somehow connected us.
And I thought… wow….what a cool idea for the “great Canadian novel.” Because the change of seasons, the slow ebb of winter and the coming of spring, is such a part of our psyche in Canada. And rivers are such a great metaphor for the passage of time, for growing up, or growing old.
It’s been years since I thought of that, even though I’ve written about that idea before on the blog. My sisters have moved since then, ironically both remain connected to rivers. One still lives within spitting distance of the Saint Lawrence, although in a different town, and the other can now see the Credit River from her balcony, instead of the Upper Saint John. And Mum has moved just across the driveway from the old farmhouse into her new little home, her view of the Saint John River unchanged. We all face different challenges now, but I like to think that we’re all still connected by our rivers.
I never did do anything about writing that novel. Although every spring when I look at the ice moving out I think about it. A flood story for the new millennium?
Well… maybe next spring.
How about you my friends? Any flood stories in your “narrative”?