Rethinking the Beaver on the Radio

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, writing and talking about beavers over the past ten years – ever since I started researching Once They Were Hats. And I’ve been gratified to see so much interest in this species that is so vital to our well-being. As I often say, “Beavers are trending.” But not everyone is happy about the beaver’s rebound. Sharing territory with such a gifted and persistent ecosystem engineer challenges our desire to be in control of landscapes and waterways, and we often forget that things looked very different back when North America had a full complement of beavers. With all this in mind, I decided to do some more writing about beavers, but this time for the ear. To my delight, one of my favourite CBC radio programs, Ideas, embraced my idea.

My radio documentary, Rethinking the Beaver, debuts on November 28, 2018. Tune into CBC Radio One at 9:00 p.m. local time (9:30 p.m. in Newfoundland) to listen to the broadcast. You can also listen online or download the podcast.

Capturing the sounds of a thriving beaver pond in the Alberta foothills. (Photo credit: Pierre Bolduc).



Four centuries of fur-trade trapping nearly wiped beavers off the North American map. Now they’re back, big time, and we’re discovering that sharing the landscape with such tenacious ecosystem engineers isn’t always easy. We’re also learning that there are compelling reasons to try to coexist with this iconic species. Contributor Frances Backhouse explores how two control freaks — humans and beavers — can get along.


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.”

Read the full article or listen to the audio version >>

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

The writer at work (© Frances Backhouse).

Words on Ice reading – March 16, 2018

Words on Ice is the kick-off event for The Malahat Review‘s annual Words Thaw literary festival. I’m delighted to be one of the eight writers who will be reading from their work at this event on Friday, March 16.

Since 2013, The Malahat Review has invited dozens of poets, novelists, short fiction writers, and journalists to mark the coming of spring with a symposium celebrating Canadian literature. Held each year at the University of Victoria, the event brings together writers, students, editors, publishers, and others with an interest in creative writing for a weekend of readings, panel discussions, workshops, and socializing. It’s always stimulating and inspiring.

Words on Ice will be held in Room 105 in the University of Victoria’s Harry Hickman Building. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students) at the door, and they include a complimentary copy of the Malahat‘s Autumn 2017 issue.

What do beavers and ghosts have in common?

They’re both on the program for an upcoming Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival event: Friday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m. at the Shoal Centre, 10030 Resthaven Drive, Sidney, B.C.

Join me and Ian Gibbs for an evening of readings from our most recent books. Ian’s is Victoria’s Most Haunted: Ghost Stories from BC’s Historic Capital City. He says he has always been fascinated by storytelling, ghosts and hauntings, and has even found himself assisting friends with their ghost problems. He lives in Victoria, billed as one of the most haunted places in Canada, where he acts as a guide for the popular Ghostly Walks walking tours.

I, too, live in Victoria. I’ve never encountered any ghosts here, but I have seen beavers in the vicinity and I’ll be reading from Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver.

Tickets are $10 (including refreshments) at Tanner’s Books and online. All proceeds from ticket sales will go to support the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival. More info here.

Women of the Klondike headed for the big screen

Award-winning writer-director Kate Melville has big plans for Women of the Klondike. At the recent TIFF film festival in Toronto, she announced that her production company, Snitch Pictures, has optioned my book, in association with Hawkeye Pictures. I’m excited about Kate’s goal of adapting it into what she describes as a “feminist western.”

In a press release put out by Snitch Pictures, Kate says: “Women of the Klondike is bursting with characters so vividly drawn, I was up all night reading it like a novel. Many different women lived in Dawson: Salvation Army missionaries, vaudeville performers, cooks, laundresses, women who panned for gold themselves, Tagish and Tlingit locals, society wives and nuns. Reading about these bold, adventurous characters, I wondered what their version of ‘frontier justice’ might look like. I’ve always loved Westerns, and these forgotten women from Gold Rush history deserve a movie of their own.” I couldn’t agree more!

Writer-director Kate Melville (photo courtesy of Snitch Pictures).

Snitch Pictures is known for Kate Melville’s directorial debut feature Picture Day, which premiered at TIFF in 2012, and won the Borsos Prize for Best Feature at Whistler and a 2013 ACTRA award for Maslany. Hawkeye Pictures is a Toronto-based production company working with some of Canada’s most exciting talents. Its latest feature, Mary Goes Round premiered at TIFF17. Bell Media’s Harold Greenberg Fund is supporting the project through the Script Development Program.

Contributor spotlight in the Bellingham Review

My essay “Homing” was selected to be part of the special “Place & Space in Canada” section in Issue 74 (Spring 2017) of the Bellingham Review. In this Contributor Spotlight Q&A, I talk about, among other things, my writing process and the idea of a Canadian aesthetic to writing about place and space.

The Bellingham Review is a literary journal produced by Western Washington University’s MFA program. Victoria-based writer Christin Geall collaborated with Editor-in-Chief, Susanne Paola Antonetta, to curate the “Place & Space in Canada” special international section in Issue 74.

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.”

Read the full article >>

Ideacity here I come – June 16, 2017

Now in its eighteenth year, Toronto’s annual ideacity conference has earned a reputation for being Canada’s “Premier meeting of the minds.” I’m honoured to be among the presenters who will be appearing at the three-day event this year. My talk on “The Mighty Beaver” is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Friday, June 16, leading off the second session of the day. You can view the full schedule and buy tickets here. Use code “BEAVER” to get 10% off your ticket.

Moses Znaimer’s vision for his conference is to offer a program that “deliberately knocks down professional or academic categories and boundaries, and brings everyone together for a single transformative experience.” The location for all of the talks is the Royal Conservatory of Music’s gorgeous Koerner Hall, a 1,135-seat performance space designed in the tradition of the classic “shoebox” venues of Europe. What a thrill it will be to share my passion for beavers in that spectacular venue.

Back to the Beaver State – May 6 & 7, 2017

I have two Once They Were Hats events coming up in Oregon, which proudly calls itself the Beaver State. Both events are free.

The fabulous travelling Beaver Tales Art Exhibit moves to Seaside on May 6, where it will run until May 31. From 1:00 to 3:00 pm on Saturday, May 6, join me for a reading and book signing at Seaside’s Beach Books (616 Broadway St.).

Then, on Sunday, May 7, I’ll be at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, giving a beaver talk from 1:00 to 2:00 pm. For the zoo event, enter at the Zoo Education Center doors (no admission fee), downhill from the parking lot.