July 28, 2014 - 7:04 AM
I parked on a cul-de-sac, and had a look around. Sirens in the background, dark plumes of smoke overhead, the smell of fire in my nose.
I figured I was past the police barrier, now on First Nations land, and was uncertain about my possibilities. I waved at someone not far away and soon I was greeted by a curious young girl. I couldn’t guess her age.
“Hi,” I said. “You live around here?”
She appeared to be working in her yard before I arrived. She nodded and pointed to a house.
“Quite a fire over there,” I said, pointing to the smoke some way in the distance. “Have you seen it? Is it far?”
“On the mountain,” she said. “Over there. Not that far.”
“I’m a news photographer and I’m trying to get a little better look. Do you think anyone would mind if I parked here and hiked through there to see better?”
There was a path between two houses that looked promising. She cocked her head slightly, considering, a look I’d see many times before the end of the day. She glanced back toward home, then around us before committing.
“Yes. You can park there. No one will mind,” she said. She was deliberate and certain, then started climbing the five-foot fence. “I will show you.”
She jumped down and started running—sprinting—down a corridor between houses.
“Hang on,” I said, unsure if she could hear me. “I have gear.”
I laced up hiking boots, grabbed my camera bag, all my computer cables, phones and water. It was north of 35 degrees. When I was ready, she was back again, leaning against the fence. I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or amused, but she had that curious look again. She had only her T-shirt, shorts and sneakers.
My face spoke to her as well.
“Just jump over, it’s OK,” she assured me and took off sprinting again. I followed her into a clearing, the smoke still far in the distance. She tracked up a hill leading to a fence around someone’s house.
“Maybe I should go back around behind the fence, see if I can see from there,” I said. “What do you think?”
Again the look.
“You could try that,” she said. “But I’m going over this fence. You can go this way, too.”
When I got there, she was already over the fence and talking to a man sitting on a chair in his yard, watching the fire. He turned to me with a big smile on his face and beckoned me through.
“Come on, come on,” he said, waving. I stepped over the barbed-wire fence onto this ranch with horses and chickens. I exchanged a few words with the man and thanked him but the fire beckoned. And my guide was already across the yard. She waited for me in an open area.
“If someone sees me, I will probably get kicked out,” I said. “You won’t, but I will.”
She led me to a perfect vantage point behind an old camper. We had plenty of distance to danger. I thanked her and shook her hand. She told me her name, I told her mine. Then I got to work. She stayed and seemed to watch me more than the fire.
“Not the best day to wear black,” she said. She stood in the shade of the old camper and we did our best to chat, neither of us sure where to start.
Some trees about half way up the mountain were candling, but where it mattered—the spread toward houses—it was a low-lying fire burning small brush, moving slowly. It could burn up and around the mountain given enough time, but it was still relatively small, had little fuel and they were hitting it hard. A road was a natural guard before it could reach the nearest homes in a mobile home park.
“This won’t be that bad,” I said. “I don’t think it will reach any houses or structures.”
She didn’t respond immediately, if at all.
“This is the rez,” she said a short time later. “It might look to you like nobody lives out here but they do.”
Now I gave her a look. Did I offend her somehow? I wondered. I looked at her again for a moment. She had a quiet, easy strength and confidence and showed no pretension.
“And,” she said. “There’s lots of homes there. Marmot and deer and birds, even a cougar comes through there.”
“Of course,” I stammered, unsure.
“You know this is all private land,” she said. "I can kick you off any time.”
“Yes, I know you can. If you ask me, I will leave and thank you very much, again, for all your help.”
We watched each other for a moment and she seemed satisfied I understood my place. I think she was testing me and I was fine with that. A fire truck rolled up on the property and I crouched down, out of their sight. She went around the side to them. I thought she was going to tell on me. Instead, she ran interference, protecting me. I was grateful I passed her test and smiled when I realized what she did.
I went back to work and she returned a couple of times to check on me. Otherwise she visited with others watching the fire.
Then she was gone. But the interaction stuck with me. Hers was a perspective completely inaccessible and invisible to me before these impossible circumstances and I consider myself richer for the occasion. I got the sense by her curiosity, this was a rare occurrence for her as well.
Seems ridiculous that we should have such a clash of culture, like I was visiting from halfway around the world. I live five minutes from here.
When it was time for me to leave, jumping fences without my guide seemed wrong so I walked the road out.
I was met by a First Nations bylaw officer who came up from behind in his white SUV and promised to report me to the RCMP.
“You are not supposed to be past the roadblock,” he shouted from his vehicle.
“I’m leaving,” I said.
“And you are on private property,” he said. “You can’t be here without permission anyway.”
“I know,” I said. “I had permission. And now I’m leaving.”
And as I passed the bylaw officer and police on my way out, I couldn’t help but think how easily these barriers were bridged a couple hours ago just by asking a question and finding a good host to encourage me to hop the fence and see for myself.
— Marshall Jones is the editor of Info News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-718-2724.
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2014