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I prepared myself for work as if I was going into battle. Hardhat, steel toed boots, coveralls, rain gear, an extra thermos of super strong coffee, a couple of spare pairs of socks, extra work gloves, a stack of sandwiches, matches, a pocket book, I was prepared for everything I could think of. I walked up to the patrol shack, and unlocked my speeder. I switched the radio on, got Channel 2, and clicked in the tower. The dispatcher was talking to a section gang down south about culverts, ties, and front end loaders. The war was being fought. I was going to open a new front.
“Dispatcher, Shalalth” I called when the channel was idle. The Dispatcher replied “Go ahead, Shalalth.” “Patrol for Number One here, how are we doing?”. “Number One’s a little late, Mons at 10:45”. That was only 45 minutes late, better than I'd expected. He gave me a local train lineup, and I put the speeder on the track. I rummaged through the collection of tools in the shack, and loaded up with shovels, lining bar, track jack, chainsaw, flares, spare gas. I had to deadhead down to Darcy to pick up the train, patrol it to Lillooet, patrol the southbound passenger train back to Darcy, and then return home to Shalalth.
Ignition on, spark back, gas on, prime carb, crank in, hard spin, and the 2-cycle popped into life in a cloud of blue smoke. Spark forward, throttle back, it settled into a loud idle. “Dispatcher Shalalth”. “Shalalth”. “Patrol for Number One southbound”. “Okay, thanks”. I revved up the engine, pushed the belt lever forward while playing with the throttle, and the speeder squealed into motion. The wipers were just keeping up with the rain, the thick clouds above turned the day into a twilight that the speeder headlights could barely penetrate. I puttered through South Shalalth, and into the tunnel. There should have been a red and white checkered flag flying at the other end of it, “You are standing into danger”. I putted out of the south end of the tunnel, and I saw some small rocks on the track ahead. A couple more whizzed down as I watched, and bounced off the track into the lake. I looked at the thin yellow fiberglass roof above me, and put my hard hat on.
Past that section of glistening black cliff, through Seton, over the bridge, past the last houses, and down along Anderson Lake. Approaching mile 137 the track didn’t look quite right, I slowed down and stopped at a rock slide across the track. A waterfall of muddy water and rocks was pouring off the cliff, this was beyond shoveling. “Dispatcher, Mile 137”. “Mile 137”. “Patrol for Number One, there’s a rock slide here, we’ll need a cat or a loader”. “Okay, stand by”. I backed up to the closest safe place to wait, and poured a coffee.
Half an hour later, the Rock Gang bulldozer operator Heinz called me on Channel One from Seton. I told him where I was, and he started south. Through the soggy air I could hear the clanking of the D5 long before he came into sight driving the Cat along the rails. His thirty years of experience made the slippery steel on greased steel tight-rope act seem easy, even on the banked corners where he had to dog-track to keep the cat on the rails. He spun off the track, walked the cat around my speeder, and ploughed into the slide. A day’s worth of shoveling turned into one pass with the blade down. He hopped out, quickly flanged the rails with a track shovel, and waved me on. I putted by, and he went back to work clearing out the ditch.
Five minutes later. “Dispatcher, mile 136.5”. Another slide. This was going to be a hell of a day. I backed up, Heinz walked the cat down to me, and attacked this slide. Off again. “Dispatcher, Mile 134.7”. “Dispatcher”. “Patrol for Number One, there’s a large rock on the track, but no damage other than a couple of broken ties. I’m going to back up to the magazine at 135 mile and get some powder to blow it.” “Keep me posted”.
I backed up a half mile to the explosives magazine, and signed out a 50 pound case of 75% Special Gelatin in 1” x 8” sticks, which I carried down to the speeder. I went back up to the cap magazine for blasting caps on fuses and pull-wire igniters, and took them back to the speeder. With so many tools and supplies in the speeder, the safest place I could think of to put the fuses with their attached blasting caps was as a necklace around my neck.
I headed south down the track to the rock. With no time for niceties, I piled 8 or 10 pounds of dynamite on the rock, attached a two minute fuse, covered the pile of explosives with mud, got the speeder ready to back up, pulled the igniter on the fuse, made sure it was burning, and backed into the clear as quickly as I could. The sound of the explosion was much louder than usual, the low heavy clouds bouncing the sound back down along the lake, where it rumbled and echoed in the valley. I drove down to the shattered pile of cracked rock, shoveled the debris out of the way, checked for track damage, and headed south again.
The Budd car called in northbound at Pemberton. Creekside. Birken. Darcy. I had to stop at Mile 133. Mile 131. Ponderosa. Mile 127. Mile 126.5. The rain and the rocks opposed us with a soggy ferocity. Heinz and I fought back with high velocity explosives and 10 tons of greasy wet steel bulldozer. The Budd car and I slowly moved towards each other, a long distance dance in two parts. Finally, I reached Mile 125 and had a clear run the last 2 miles into Darcy. Two in the afternoon, three and a half hours to go 20 miles. The Budd car by this time had been waiting there for over two hours for me to arrive. I pulled up to the patrol shack and jumped out. I tried to pick up the back of the speeder to turn it around, but it was too heavy with the tools and dynamite. I dumped it all out on the ground (carefully with the explosives), turned the speeder, loaded up again, quickly re-fueled, and headed north again.
Number One called the Dispatcher, “We’re leaving Darcy”. I called the Dispatcher. “Mile 126.5. There’s a slide down, we need to get Heinz again.” The afternoon became a grey blur of falling and fallen rocks, wet steel, rain, the reek of diesel, tetra-nitrates and burning fuses, the crackle of calls on the radio, the clank of shovels and bulldozer tracks on the rails. The cliffs seemed to have come alive. Every rock face was streaming with dirty water, the clouds were so low that stones seemed to be flying out of them like overgrown hail with an attitude. Every stream was overflowing and growling with a load of moving rocks. It wouldn't be long until culverts would start plugging up. By the time I went by our explosives magazine northbound I was feeling like I'd need more dynamite, so I signed out another 50 pound case and some more blasting caps and igniters.
Elsewhere, the war continued throughout Southern B.C. Around dinner time the last highway to the coast was sliced through by a washout. The highways crews had lost their battle for the moment. Ours continued, as Heinz and I slowly blasted, shoveled, and bulldozed our way towards Lillooet, with the passenger train coming along behind us, slower than a person could walk. Almost the shortest day of the year, the gloom had slowly thickened into blackness around three or four p.m. We could no longer see the rocks falling from the cliffs reaching hundreds of feet above us, we could only hear them zinging by in the dark, hitting the track or the lake, and pray that they would miss us.
The CBC radio announced to the interior of B.C. that the only remaining method of travel to the Coast was the B.C. Rail passenger train leaving Lillooet. A flood of a different kind started. People who had been trying to get home to the coast after Christmas, and bottled up by one highway closure after another, started pouring towards Lillooet from towns all over the Interior, hoping to get on the passenger train.
I finally reached the south switch at Lillooet around eight p.m. The operator called me, and warned me to look out for passengers near the track at the station. I putted up the main line, but I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing - there was a large dark shifting mass surrounding the station and spilling across the tracks of the yard. As I got closer, I realized it was a huge crowd. I slowed down, and almost a thousand people pressing close to the track parted to let me through, giving me a standing ovation as I drove by. “The train is here! We’re going to make it!”. Their excitement was incredible. I was too cold, tired, wet and filthy to do anything more than gawk at them with amazement.
I drove up to the patrol shack, and turned my speeder to face south - towards home, Darcy, the Coast, and the next stage of the campaign. I refueled the speeder, and rolled down line 2, past the crowd at the station. They cheered me even more, seeing a railway vehicle heading south. The Budd car was being serviced, re-fueled, and extra cars added to the train for the trip south. It was like an evacuation scene from a Fellini war movie filmed the night after Christmas. Hundreds of people were cramming onto the train, desperately trying to go south, rain falling, lights flashing, yelling and chaos, and the incongruous glitter of hundreds of colourful Christmas presents and new toys. I reached the south switch of Lillooet yard, and hopped my speeder across the switch points onto the main line. Finally the train was ready to leave. I called the dispatcher, "Patrol for Number 2 southbound", and headed into the night.
It was almost inevitable, of course. The dispatcher called. The logged-out Lillooet River watershed was unable contain the endless downpour, and a huge washout had occurred near Pemberton, hundreds of feet of track gone. The Coast was cut off. The enemy had won the war. There was almost a riot on the train when they announced the cancellation. I sagged with exhaustion and relief. I wouldn’t have to go all the way back to Darcy. The roadmaster called me on Channel One, and said they’d put me up in the train crew’s dormitory. Like a fool, I said that I wanted to get home while the track was still open, and they let me go. I headed south to fight my final battle of the day, alone in the dark.
Mile 153. A mud slide had filled the ditch, and was slowly pouring up and over the track. The inside rail was already under a foot of mud, and it was filling in between the rails. I grabbed my shovel and starting digging wildly. I cleared a rut along the rail, and tried to get the speeder through it. The mud poured into my rut and stalled me. I desperately dug some more, and got through half pushing and half driving.
I cleared rocks at Mile 151 and 149. At Mile 147 a huge rock had smashed into the side of the track, pushing it a couple of feet sideways. There was no clearance, the rock hung over the inside rail. I had used up all 50 pounds of explosives on the trip north, and had burned the cardboard case for warmth. I dropped my speeder off the rails, and pushed it as far over as I could. The left wheels at the very ends of the ties, the black lake 50 feet below, the closest part of the fallen rock shaved a little sliver of paint off the speeder, but then I was past it. I tried to pick the speeder up and put it on the rails again, but I didn’t have the strength. I sobbed with exhaustion, rested a bit, and tried again. Yes! Southward again. The culvert at Mile 143.5 had just plugged, and a swollen brown stream was about to start pouring over the track, but I’d made it home. “Dispatcher, Shalalth”. He answered “Shalalth”, sounding as exhausted as I was. I gave him an update on track conditions from Lillooet, and signed off. It had been fourteen hours since starting work. Seventy miles of patrol.
When I woke up the next day, the rain had stopped. Members of the Rock Gang who were home went to work helping the section gangs repair the track. It took three days before we dug, blasted, and repaired our way back to where I’d battled the mud slide. The rut I’d dug was still there, almost exactly like it had been when I pushed my way through. It was as if I’d been a deranged modern day King Canute with a white plastic hard hat crown, ordering the thick brown tide to stop, only this time the tide had listened.
Editor's note: Actually, the "tide" hadn't stopped. The mud that I dug my rut through was simply a small offshoot of a huge slide that was, as I shoveled, working its way through the trees south of me, shortly afterwards burying the track in a slide over 20 feet deep and hundreds of feet wide.