Articles & Essays

Grizzly Bears Wins JLG Gold Standard Selection Award

Every year, the Junior Library Guild editorial team reads thousands of children’s books before they are published to recommend the best choices to school librarians. Grizzly Bears: Guardians of the Wilderness was one of the lucky winners of the Gold Standard Selection award and the back cover of the book sports this handsome golden badge.

The JLG also recently sent me this certificate and a lapel pin. I do indeed feel honored.

The Last Cannery Standing

The British Columbia coastline once pulsed with action around salmon canneries. Today, guided by Indigenous leadership, only one cannery processing wild salmon remains. Hakai Magazine, August 14, 2018.

“The stench of fish offal and the screams of gulls: a century ago, the presence of a cannery on the British Columbia coast was unmistakable, even with your eyes closed. Open them and you saw gulls and eagles circling and diving to pluck discarded fish heads and entrails from the ocean around the wooden buildings perched on pilings. A steady parade of fishing boats navigated the bloodied water to pull alongside the cannery and offload their catches. Inside, an ankle-deep layer of slippery salmon awaiting butcher knives covered the gut shed’s plank floor, and the production line operated at a dizzying pace as ranks of workers scaled, washed, and chopped up the salmon, before sealing it in tin cans.

“British Columbia’s salmon runs seemed infinite in those days, and businessmen determined to profit from this bounty by turning it into a commodity that could be shipped worldwide staked out their ground along the coast. In 1918, shortly before the industry began to consolidate, the number of canneries peaked at 80. Now, 100 years later, only a single commercial cannery dedicated to processing wild British Columbia fish remains on Canada’s west coast. Far from being an archaic relic, St. Jean’s Cannery and Smokehouse is at the forefront of a new era in the province’s fishing industry—an era in which First Nations communities are regaining control of the marine resources that have sustained them for tens of thousands of years.”

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“The Last Cannery Standing” was also featured on the Great Canadian Longform website.

The writer at work (© Frances Backhouse).

Throwing Dead Fish for Fun and Ecological Profit

Chucking chum and coho carcasses into a salmon-spawning stream supports more than just an ecosystem. Hakai Magazine, June 1, 2017.

“On a chilly January morning, four-year-old Eli Burger stands on the bank of Douglas Creek, on the outskirts of Victoria, British Columbia, hugging a dead salmon half as long as him against his red parka. He looks up at his father, Andrew Burger, who nods encouragingly. “Go ahead,” he says, “chuck it in.” Eli shuffles forward until his blue rubber boots touch the edge of the creek and heaves the fish as far as he can into the shallow water. It lands with a splash and drifts for a moment before settling against a boulder. “It’s floating!” Eli exclaims, his delight in the salmon’s buoyancy eliciting smiles from several nearby adults. For a moment, it’s almost as if the handsome coho could wriggle back to life.

Eli’s salmon is just one of 100 or so chum and coho carcasses that will land in Douglas Creek in a half-hour frenzy of activity this morning—lobbed, pitched, flung, plunked, or otherwise deposited by dozens of volunteers of all ages under the watchful eye of Darrell Wick, the man who has convened this gathering. None of the salmon will miraculously rise from the dead, but Wick is in the resurrection business.”

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Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska

A hike on the Daemonelix Trail in Agate Fossil Beds National Monument leads to the Lakota’s Ca’pa el ti, strange spiral burrows of a long-extinct beaver. The New Territory, Issue 03.

“It’s only the middle of June and already it’s hot as hell out here in the far northwestern corner of Nebraska, where the Niobrara River cuts through the prairie’s tough hide like an old, half-healed knife wound. A wiry pelt of vegetation swaths the undulating slopes, but in the steepest places, the crumbling, pale gray flesh of the earth shows through. The afternoon sun bounces off the bare bluffs, throwing heat and light back at me as I scan their flanks, and sweat trickles down my spine. Perfect weather for checking out what the homesteaders who settled these parts in the 1800s called the Devil’s Corkscrews.”

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Salish Stories

Exploring British Columbia’s southern Gulf Islands and learning about Hul’qumi’num life: a six-day sailing tour on a classic schooner. Canadian Geographic Travel, Spring 2015.

“It’s late afternoon when we drop anchor in Bedwell Harbour, but the mid-April sun still rides high above the horizon, illuminating the long, west-facing shore. A small crescent beach, tucked at the base of a forested slope, gleams as white and enticing as an unopened letter. In the three hours since the Maple Leaf left Sidney, we’ve cruised past several of the many islands and islets that make up the terrestrial portion of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. I’m eager for a closer look.”

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The Maple Leaf in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

The Maple Leaf at anchor (© Frances Backhouse).

Rethinking the Beaver

Has there ever been a more misunderstood national symbol? Has there ever been a more important time for the beaver to flourish? Canadian Geographic, Dec. 2012.


(© Frances Backhouse)


“At the turn of the 19th century, many people thought Canada’s national animal was a goner — a doomed species that had passed the point of no return. One notable pessimist was Horace T. Martin, a Canadian Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and author of Castorologia or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver. ‘As to the ultimate destruction of the beaver, no possible question can exist,’ declared Martin in 1892, noting that ‘the evidences of approaching extermination can be seen only too plainly in the miles of territory exhibiting the decayed stump, the broken dam and deserted lodge.’ One hundred and twenty years later, on a warm June evening, I sit on the shore of a massive beaver pond in Algonquin Provincial Park, watching water bugs etch ephemeral lines on the glassy surface.”

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Italy in the Fiery Footsteps of a Medieval Countess

A walk through history on the Sentiero Matilde. Georgia Straight, Nov. 1, 2007.

“The gossip about Matilde beats anything I’ve ever seen on the cover of a celebrity magazine. They say this red-haired countess was the Pope’s lover, and a warrior who led her own army into battle; that she had her first husband murdered by an assassin who thrust a sword up the poor fellow’s backside as he squatted to relieve himself; and that when she remarried at 43 for political reasons, she refused to sleep with her 16-year-old husband, a timid youth known as ‘the penguin’. Never mind that she’s been dead for nearly 900 years. If you want to explore the Apennines  in northern Italy’s province of Reggio Emilia, you won’t find a more intriguing guide than Matilde of Canossa (1046 to 1115).”

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Ponte della Maddelena, thought to have been commissioned by Countess Matilde di Canossa.

The Ponte della Maddelena, thought to have been commissioned by Matilde of Canossa (© Frances Backhouse).