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  • Writer's pictureJill Macdonald

A Place to Begin

Updated: Jun 25

A subtle depression in the land. Is it something?

South of Revelstoke, the geography of the Columbia River Valley changes subtly, from steep, forested mountains to gentler forested mountains. The mixture of tree species shifts into larch, fir and spruce, with fewer cedar and hemlocks, creating a feeling of space and expanse. The climate is drier, generally hotter and more volatile. Frequent thunderstorms boom over the lake, erupting in dark, violent crescendos. It’s impressive.


A ferry connects the highway south across Arrow Lake. Once a principal trade and travel route for the Sinixt people, much of that history was obscured when the river was dammed to control flooding on the American side of the border. The landscape changed from a deep, benched channel to a broad changeling, at times full and brimming from edge to edge; at other times, an apocalyptic scene littered with sand bars, stumps with exposed, tangled roots and steep, unstable banks. Ancient sites were buried, people were displaced, and communities folded.


Sixty years ago, the Columbia River Treaty was signed. At that time, the provincial and international political context was different. The BC government failed to recognize First Nations groups as stakeholders and Canada lacked leadership in negotiations with the powerful US economy. We signed away our autonomy. We neglected to consider the less visible presences and absences that inhabit the land. But they are there.


At the narrows of Arrow Lake, south of Nakusp, BC, the body of water becomes a swift channel, wider than its historical dimensions, but easily traversed. Here the Columbia River resembles a river rather than a lake. In the past, this place provided vast numbers of salmon for the Indigenous people. Little evidence of their presence remains. Most of it is buried beneath water and accumulated sand, but there is something, undeniably. The land feels occupied. It has a voice.

A footpath along the brim of a land formation


Awareness comes in stages. Sometimes it is abrupt, other times it is subtle. A simple walk along the bank can lead to discovery. Perhaps not immediately but at some moment, the story rises to take its place.


A gentle depression in the forested bench, circular, seems unusual but not startling. Young trees grow in the bottom. What appears to be a game trail follows the edge of the bank. Well-spaced, grand old trees dot the surrounding area where the forest floor is mainly covered in low-growing plants and grasses. All in all, nothing obvious - and yet. Something registers and whatever it is feels important.


Closer observation reveals a lack of randomness in the shape of the depression. Neither unevenly weathered nor irregularly overgrown, it is all too tidy. Two rectangular mounds traverse the middle, similar in length and width. An entry opens toward the river, with views to the south. The site has a good vantage point, except for being on the verge of collapsing down the eroded bank. A few metres away is another, smaller depression with similar features.


Pit houses were a form of shelter used by First Nations groups. They could be temporary or occupied for months at a time. Dug into the earth and then covered with wood or other material, a central fire provided heat and a place to cook. This depression in the ground could be a remnant.

View of the narrows in a river and sand beaches


Chances are slim that this place is of cultural significance. Most sites are known and recorded. Nevertheless, for some reason, the land formation brings history to the foreground, it invites a mindful re-evaluation and that alone, holds value.  


Land acknowledgements are a place to begin. Acknowledgment expands our experience of place. We tune into details that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Without them, the opportunity to learn, appreciate and understand the present is also lost.



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