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Shocking eels, Prettyjohn's dowry
and other stories

 by John Farrell

In the meadow there were 30 legs. Some crossed, others scissored, all tired. We were sprawled out near the sunny banks of the Upper Tlell, half way through a hike that led us here, to Prettyjohn's farm.

We were here at the invitation of the Tlell Watershed Society which has been holding family hikes of this nature for the past few years. Most of us had come seeking fresh air and the camaraderie of others who happen to share a passion for walking in the woods.

Now we were trading tales, munching sandwiches and waiting for our resident biologists -- Lynn Lee and Leandre Vigneault -- to take us further downstream to witness a widely-used fish sampling technique known as "electroshocking." Lynn and Leandre were dropped off by helicopter while most of us were at home eating breakfast. They wanted to get a couple of sweeps of the river in before we arrived. Only we were late and they, apparently, had gotten on with the job.

That suited us just fine. Prettyjohn's farm is Eden, a scruffy Eden - Eden long after the apple has been eaten, but before plans of an off-island developer have been realized. Unfortunately, this area is privately owned and slated for logging. So far the developer has been stymied by lack of access to the wood and opposition from the good people of Lawnhill. Still there is s a risk that someday the nearby Sitka spruce that towers above the water's edge and the rest of the "inventory" of alder, hemlock and cedar will be flagged with orange tape. But not today. Today, we loll in the grass. A bit of backwoods Zen.

I wonder if William Prettyjohn felt this peace. Probably not. He would have been far too busy tending his vegetables and fruit on this small river delta to sell in Queen Charlotte and Skidegate. Historian Betty Dalzell characterized him as "one of the first of the Lawn Hill settlers and one of the last to leave."

Our spiritual guide for the day, Bob Crooks, described him as simply a character. "Prettyjohn was probably the only one to leave the islands rich in those days. He came with fifty bucks and left with a thousand." We also learned that this Englishman farmer was none too pretty and didn't have the luck of the Irish when it came to women. But, ever the optimist, he collected flour sacks as some kind of dowry for the day his luck might change.

Two hours earlier we collected at the highway and then drove up Lawn Hill Road until a point where the road ends and a stump farm begins. We hit the muddy trail named appropriately enough "Settlers' Road" for the frontiers people who had arrived from gold-crazed Alaska or off ships from Europe to whip this land into shape. The settlers were promised title to plots of land only after it was "improved," and since this isn't Saskatchewan and because there were no backhoes, that was one hell of a job.

In 1908, trailblazing began with a troop of about a dozen settlers felling trees and leveling weeds for $3.50 a day. An eight-foot drainage ditch, lined with cedar planks, was run alongside. It would take four years, but when finished, the two-headed road joined Miller Creek to Lawn Hill in a semi-circle with enough room to drive a team of oxen or ride a horse.

Now underbrush hides much of the evidence that may remain of the old homesteads with little sign of primate life except for the old stone and wooden fences we passed on the way in. The road is still in fine shape.

Only once in a while do you have to make a slight detour into a lacework of ferns and salal to escape perilous pits of mud. But no need for a compass on this route, the trail is anything but rambling. On the straight stretches you could look back to see stragglers shadowing your footprints a quarter-mile back.

But you can see the falls on the SpruceRoots website," someone offers unconvincingly to a crowd that decided the trek to the falls was preferable to shocking fish. After some discussion a compromise was reached and two groups left the meadow: upstream to the falls, downstream to the fish.

We hiked back up the cliff to the trail which ended about 50 metres later. Beyond here, the route became tougher, more tangled as our way was strewn with blowdown timber. I noticed a few groves of big cedars, two metres in circumference, but most of the trees were of the hemlock-spruce variety all competing for elbow room and sunlight.

Lynn stands in the shallows of a rock-garden stream, a side channel off the main stem of the Tlell where coho hide out during the winter. She's dressed in her electroshocking finest looking more like a Ghostbuster action figure than a professional biologist. In her gloved hand she brandishes a 1,000-volt wand that can just as easily stun a juvenile coho as kill a human.

Lynn passes the electric wand underneath logs and other alluvial debris, stunning small coho, sculpins, Dolly varden, cutthroat and lamprey. Partner Leandre gathers the fish with a net and places them into a plastic container, later measuring and recording sizes. After the sampling is complete the bucket of life will be tilted streamward and all but three of the hundred specimens will swim away. Electroshocking may seem like cruelty masquerading as scientific study but it's a far cry from less humane alternatives. In other parts, the most popular way to count fish is to dump a lethal dose of rotenone, into a tidepool. The tiny fish then float belly-up to the surface for easy calculation.

I hear the other crew had a wonderful, albeit more rigorous, climb to the Tlell falls and back. Now we were nearing the end of the road and our day. We passed the houses of newer settlers on our left and a clearcut on our right. Clearcut? Funny, I barely noticed it on the way in. But after spending seven hours walking through a vast green landscape the sight of a clearcut sure does pack a visual wallop. It makes the day feel all the more precious.

As for Prettyjohn, legend has it that the bachelor joined a dating club and struck the motherlode. He packed his bags and left for England to woo a rich heiress.

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