Heart of the Valley

By Carol Ponchet, September 29, 2012

Good evening! It is my distinct pleasure to be here with you tonight. I would first like to acknowledge the Gitxsan, and more specifically the house of Ma’os on whose traditional territory we are gathered. Respected Elders, guests and friends, I was very surprised and honoured when Shannon and Noreen asked me to speak to you this evening. In particular, they were interested in what a relative newcomer to the Kispiox Valley would have to say about ‘community’ and what it means to me. My mind went in all directions at once but quickly focussed in to this amazing place, the community of people here and this stunning hall that is the heart of this valley.

I’d like to begin by giving you a little background about myself so that you may have a better idea of where I am coming from, both literally and as a person. I was born of French immigrant parents and grew up on the Saanich Peninsula just outside of Victoria. My family had a fruit and berry farm that expanded to include a large greenhouse business selling first tomatoes and then moving fully into the floriculture and nursery business. Despite the fact that I lived in a rural area where red-tailed hawks and eagles reeled high in the sky, my imagination always entertained fantasies of the Great North! As a young adult, I still pined for this experience. Imagine my delight when decades later after meeting Frank, he brought me to this very special place. One of my dreams had finally come true! The north was everything I ever hoped for. I can’t seem to get enough of the mountains and the rivers, the serenity and the wilderness. I guess I’m one of those types of people who need lots of room to just be.

Community. It is a word with broad implications and meaning. By definition it means people living in a specific locality; a body of people having a religion, profession or culture in common; a fellowship of similar interests and a group of people practising common ownership. I believe that all of these definitions apply to our valley community.

Who lives here? Where do we all come from, what do we bring with us and how does it impact our identity as a group of people? Some of us were born here and know only the life of this remote and abundant valley. A savvy and resourceful bunch of people, they grew up with the solidarity of a small community needing one another to get by, helping and supporting the whole. Some of us came from other regions and countries to settle here. We are a real mixed bag of folks comprised of draft dodgers and non-conformists from the US, southern BC and other provinces as well as Europe seeking a friendlier and freer home. Dreamers like myself lured by the siren call of the north country

The Kispiox Valley has a magical feel. I am reminded of the concept of ‘Thin Places’ that Lynn Newberry told me about. The concept of ‘Thin Place’ is a form of Celtic spirituality that first gained recognition on the Isle of Iona in Scotland. A Thin Place is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It is a place where we can sense the divine more readily. I think that our valley is a Thin Place and I often feel a strong spiritual connection with the divine here. I also believe that geography is a factor in the very special feel of this valley. I think that because the Kispiox Valley has a narrow, hidden entrance, not too many people come here. Unless you knew this valley was here, you’d never think to look for it. It is secluded and removed from the busyness of the highway and urban centres.

I have lived in many different places, from Victoria to Thunder Bay, from St. Catharines to Kamloops but there is no place like this Kispiox Valley and there is no community that can hold a candle to the community here in this valley. I have often asked myself what it is about this valley and the community that lives here, what is it that makes it so special? I say special because I see community spirit in its truest form. People are ready to help at the drop of a hat. People check in on one another, bring food, help fix and build things like this amazing hall.

The people of this valley live here intentionally. This is not a decision that is taken lightly, nor are there many people who choose this lifestyle, but those who do are a special, unique and very strong-willed people. We live here for a reason. We seek out the quiet roomy places, the drama of the landscape and those “Wow!” moments. We are so lucky to live in such a pristine place that we identify with …… that resonates with us, and as a community, we feel compelled to exercise good stewardship of it. The force of nature that exists here is reflected in our characters. I see the resilience in people’s spirits. There is much hardship and we all have had our share of tragedy, but I have never felt alone here. Solitary at times yes, but never alone. It is impossible to feel alone here.

After Frank tragically passed away in 2007, I moved up here permanently in June of 2008. One day in the fall of that year I was heading home from visiting Leon and Gerry. I was coming up Combs Road when I saw Royce Pritchard running after some horses. I asked if I could help and he said with a broad smile that he was “OK, thanks!”. I headed down Swan Rd. and turned onto the valley road. Just before the Clay’s driveway, I saw a young woman standing on the road beside her car with a bundle in her arms. I pulled over to see if she needed any help. It turned out to be our very own superstar, Shannon McPhail. The bundle stirred and I realized it was a newborn, Shannon’s little girl, Sarah. I asked if she needed help, and she said she was waiting for Royce to come down the road herding the Clay’s horses! Babe in arms, Shannon was going to help divert the horses down the driveway. It turned out that Royce was looking after things for Bob and Kathy for a while, and I guess the horses got out. I decided to help and parked my car on the diagonal across the road. Within minutes first came the horses, then Royce at a full gallop! What a guy! Ah of the energy of youth, eh? We successfully guided the horses down the driveway with Royce in hot pursuit. I had some time afterwards and chatted with Shannon for a bit. She knew some of my story and was very sweet with me. Before we parted she said “This is a healing place”. I’ve never forgotten it. You were so right Shannon! This is a healing place. It has certainly been so for me.

I have been embraced and blessed by the generosity of my community. A story comes to mind that occurred during the first week of January my first winter here. There was lots of snow on the roof and then we had a warm spell! Oh my God! Ice jams and leaks galore! I had water running inside the house. I called Wilfred Lee in a panic. It was around 5pm. He told me to call his son Tom and John Wookey. Within half an hour they had both arrived with shovels and tarps, a big flood light and broad smiles. As I continued to mop up inside the house they got up onto the roof, scraped off all the snow and ice and tarped it. I was speechless! My home was drying out, no more water rushing down the walls and windows. Those two men spent hours of grueling hard work for someone they barely knew! Suffice to say I was eternally grateful and helped stock up John and Tom’s liquor cabinets as well as buy them some new replacement tarps.

As someone who lived mostly in southern urban centres, I was a true ‘tenderfoot’. Many people helped me learn the ropes about living here successfully and I’d like mention a few of them. Dan Lewis showed me how to use a splitting maul. Mavis Lewis, Carol Larson and Barb Henderson taught me much about the finer points of horse-back riding. Rusty Stephens taught me how to pile fire-wood so that the pile doesn’t fall down. Don Messier helped me come to grips with the whole concept of long days and short seasons and late spring frosts. Paul and Carole Huel shared tons of their knowledge about gardening in the north. Leon and Gerry Combs taught me how to can fish. Kathy Clay taught me how to ‘eddy out’ on the river. Wilfred Lee taught me about the land, the weather and what to expect. He also taught me about spin-casting my line at the 10 o’clock position on the river and letting it drift to 2 o’clock before reeling it in. “Sure fire way to catch fish” he said. Also, my sweet man Milan taught me how to light a fire under any conditions and increased my understanding of the basics of the internal combustion engine!

My friends have also helped me grow as a person. Sandy Harestad taught me how to be a better listener. Eve Hope inspired me with her profound capacity for compassion. Jeff and Jill Holland helped me feel grounded by their steadiness and easy laughter. Alf and Ruth Brady warmed my heart with their generosity of spirit. Gretel Miles taught me that in truth there is beauty and in beauty there is truth! Sue Cournoyer has helped me to appreciate the finer aspects of simple living, my dear friend Leslie Barnwell has shown me how to be strong and sensitive and last but not least my beautiful step-daughter Megan gave me hope for the future. I know that if anyone needs my help, all they have to do is ask, and that if I need help, all I have to do is ask. Knowing this creates a very profound sense of belonging. I have never felt this way in any other place I have lived. We are all so fortunate to be here, together.

This hall, this Kispiox Valley Community Hall in which we are gathered tonight is indeed the Heart of the Valley. It may not be at the geographical centre of the valley, but it is at the centre of our community. The artistic, rustic and sturdy style of the hall truly reflects the spirit of the people who built it. We gather here for many and diverse events. Some are sad, as when we say good bye to a loved one, but many are joyful. We celebrate special birthdays, weddings, festivals, fund raisers and holiday events. We entertain ourselves with potlucks or superlative catering and movies and dances. And it is us, as a community in the truest sense of the word that makes all of this happen. I look around this room and I know that most of you have had a hand in either building or repairing this hall, in decorating and cleaning up this hall and in looking after the day to day management and organization of events for this hall, our community hall.

In conclusion, when I think of community and belonging, I am reminded of the very touching farewell speech that Melanie Sondergaard made last year before she left for the big city lights of Vancouver. She spoke of a conversation she had with her father before she left to move up here many years ago. She told us that he said: ”First find your place, then the rest will follow”.  I have found my place and the rest is following. Thank you!