Deep in the Woods
An Old Story From the Middle of Nowhere
Photo by Lois Carbone Barber
Tim Barber—the photographer, curator, proprietor of tinyvices.com, and former Vice photo editor—recently brought us this treasure trove of photos that his mother and father, along with their fellow hippies, took during their halcyon days of gettin’ back to the land in the 1970s. First we said, “Wow, your folks weren’t fucking around!” Then we said, “Wow, these pictures are beautiful! What the hell are we doing living in this urban death trap when we could be out there in the crisp, cool snow with the goats and the eagles?” Then Tim went us one further and handed over a piece of a memoir that his father, Robin, has been working on about those long-gone days. And so here it is: a glimpse of country life courtesy of a really cool dad.
We moved Sunday to Monday, because Sunday turned out to be the day for uninvited visitors. When we tried to keep Sunday as a day of rest, for quiet pastimes such as reading, writing letters, exploring, or the complex routines of bathing, we found ourselves constantly interrupted by “Halloo!”s of greeting from the trail. They would drive down from the logging camp in yellow company pickup trucks and walk the two miles through the woods. There was just one trail, no way to get lost, nowhere else for them to end up—just the trapper’s cabin that we were bringing back to life in a clearing at the end of the trail.
This was 1971, the wilderness of British Columbia, way up near Alaska in a big empty valley, and apparently our little commune was one of the more interesting things going on. The loggers often made a family outing of it, glad for a reason to get out of the claustrophobic camp—a place with military rows of house trailers and prefab bunkhouses, work sheds, crowds of big yellow machines, and tanks of fuel on steel stands. They came with frank curiosity—expecting to see the hippies on their commune—but also with a measure of sincere neighborliness, ready to accept us as regular people, wanting to admire our homesteading effort and to offer advice. Sometimes they brought gifts of food or tools, once a portable two-way radio—for fire safety, we were told, as we politely declined. The walk was long, rough, and steep, and they would arrive carrying exhausted children, famished and complaining. We felt obliged to brew tea and bring out food for each contingent. Our food was scrutinized but always thoroughly polished off. And when the last party headed down the trail, we wanted our Sunday all over again.
So we moved our Sabbath to Monday. The loggers were busy crashing around in the bush with their yellow machines and diesel fumes. Sunday became a regular workday for us, and Sunday visitors had the choice of watching us work or pitching in and helping us: sawing wood, carrying, hammering, digging. This turned out to be a very good idea, but that is another story. My story today concerns our Monday bathing ritual.
Getting clean was one of the hardest things when we first arrived on the Tseax River. We had no running water, no electricity, no bathtub, and the nearest town with all of that was 60 miles away. We were out on the hillside all the day long, through April and into May, in snow, then mud, wreathed in the smoke of brushfires, doing heavy stoop work. Our bodies were grimy, aromatic with smoke, work sweat, and sometimes the fear sweat of closeness and arguments, staking out territory. Rain was frequent; we were seldom completely dry. As the season warmed up, mosquitoes, blackflies, and no-see-ums swarmed, and we slathered ourselves with a homemade insect repellant made from olive oil, citronella, pine tar, and eucalyptus.
Photos by (clockwise from top left): Robin Barber; Lois Carbone Barber; Robin Barber; Charles Sprague
The air around us was pretty thick. But in the twilight, after supper, we strolled up to an overlook, where we could watch the light fade behind mile-high mountains. Vast stretches of pure air swept far across the valley, to a line of clouds hovering above the distant Nass River. The only sounds were wind, water, and birdcalls. No lights were visible other than the evening star. If the calendar rolled back 200 years, the only change would have been the occasional logging slash that clawed up shaggy mountainsides. The place was so clean that our all-natural sweat seemed to fit right in.
All we had for heat was a sheet-metal prospector’s stove, small and light enough to carry on a backpack. Preparing to wash began with stoking the stove until the thin steel glowed, warped, and popped. While the stove got up steam we carried water from our creek in two white plastic pickle pails scrounged from the logging-camp kitchen. The water from the creek—which we named Beaver Creek because there were seven sets of beaver dams upstream—was murky, pondish, with an amber tint like weak tea and a slightly soapy feel. We heated the water in a salvaged wash boiler, an oval tub, black enamel with blue specks, with rusty dents ringed by fine radial cracks. When Charles first found it there was a leak. But he fixed that neatly by threading a little bolt through the hole with washers on each side. We poured frothy water into the wash boiler and packed the firebox with precious firewood. Then we waited. After a very long time we had a few gallons of hot water, and each of us in turn danced in front of the stove, dipping a washcloth in a basin to rinse our itchy white hides, using every ounce of our share of that water, our front sides steaming while our backsides froze.
There was a lot of talk about a sauna or a sweat lodge, one attraction being the chance to get thoroughly warm. But other more basic needs always came first: the rotted roof, a new floor in the kitchen, the constant search for firewood, making trails, clearing and digging the garden site, putting in potatoes, squash, peas, and beans.
Then Little Joe Jackson gave us a bathtub. Because everyone in the valley knew we needed the thing so badly, we could imagine the hilarity when his gift was proposed at Peter Hughan’s house. Peter was Little Joe’s stepfather, the benefactor who—for $1 an acre—leased us the land, our mentor, the oldest settler of the tiny settler community that was outside the logging camp and outside the Indian reserve. Because we were not loggers and not Indians, and we were accepted by Peter Hughan, we were considered provisional settlers. So one day, down visiting at Pete’s, at breakfast Little Joe announced, “Gathered up some useful stuff for you. Need space in the shed. Hope you’ll take it all away.”
He swung open his shed door and chickens came flapping out of the dark. In the bed of an old pickup truck he had stacked up stuff that he pointed out piece by piece: a pressure canner that needed a seal, a broad ax, a logger’s peavey pole for turning logs, an empty 50-gallon drum—the good heavy kind—and on top, a small galvanized sheet-metal bathtub upside down, looking like a trough for watering livestock. The truck and its contents were frosted with chicken droppings, the cab a site for nests. “This truck runs,” he assured us, “but I haven’t used it in years; take the truck too. I need the space in the shed.” He wouldn’t listen to offers of money. “You’re helping out the old guy.”
It was May 10, the day that “the old guy,” Peter Hughan, always set out his hardiest seedlings and early potatoes. We worked all day with Peter, trying to learn what we could, preparing for a novice effort at our own garden. His farm was the best land in the valley, broad fields of rich soil, with a cluster of weathered log buildings, cedar-shake roofs, and a wide view of the mountains to the west.
At dusk Peter took us out by his noisy, crystal-clear creek where he had a tidy washhouse built on pilings to protect it from floods. He showed us his method of heating water. He had opened the side of an oil drum like a book, folding back a leaf on either side. The open drum rested on its side over a rough stove of cinder blocks. Water was supplied by gravity through a two-inch black plastic pipe that hung on a rope from the washhouse porch. The water flowed all the time, spilling back into the stream. To fill the drum Peter simply swung the pipe slightly on its rope so that the strong, steady arc of clear water splashed into the drum, filling it in a few moments. With a brisk fire underneath, the water temperature climbed quickly from glacial to a rolling boil.
Inside the washhouse was an incongruous pink bathtub with frosted glass doors. We carried pails full of water in from the boiling drum and sloshed them into the tub, mixing hot and cold until it was just right. Beside the tub was a gasoline-powered Maytag wringer washer, and while we soaked in plentiful hot water, our stiff, filthy clothing chugged and slurped toward cleanliness. Next to the washer was a sheet-metal airtight stove, like a giant tomato can, pumping out heat. We toweled off in a steamy furnace atmosphere. When we pulled the plug, our bathwater drained right back onto the black shale stream bank under the house. Later, at dinner, in the lamplight around Hughan’s table, shining clean, in borrowed clothes, we kept nodding off to sleep.
Photos by Robin Barber
Back on our hillside over the next few days, we used Little Joe’s bathtub and 50-gallon drum to set up our own open-air bath down by Beaver Creek. Charles and I carried the drum up the trail on a pole like a prize trophy bagged on a hunt, then spent the afternoon with a two-pound jack sledge and a cold chisel, our ears stuffed with cotton, cutting open the drum then bending the leaves back. The result was rough and misshapen compared with Peter’s, with wicked sharp points of steel bristling along the cut edges. We imagined people slicing themselves while trying to bathe and so realized we had to spend another hour in the damp, chilly twilight pounding the points down flat. Lois came down to watch, holding her hands over her ears. I could see her lips moving so I stopped pounding for a moment to hear:
“Pound! Pound! Pound! Pound!” she was yelling. “Pound! Pound! Pound! Pound!” So as we finished up, all I could hear with each hammer blow was that word, “Pound!”
Charles had been scrounging, collecting interesting castoffs that the rest of us tended to mock. He had a pair of drill rods, eight-foot-long hexagonal steel bars with holes down the center, like giant antique gun barrels, used to drill for blasting on the logging roads. We slipped the drill rods under the flaps of our drum, like a steel sedan chair. This we hung with wire from the shaggy trunks of two cedars. The lower limbs of these trees swept down close to the ground, forming a bathing bower on two sides of the drum.
“Let’s call it Beaver Baths.”
“Let’s just call it the Bathroom.”
Using sections of two-inch pipe, also found by Charles, we fashioned our own version of Peter’s gravity water supply. We cut a hole in the bottom of a pickle bucket, fastening the end of our pipe in the hole by wrapping it with rags and a hose clamp, then tied the bucket under a small fall upstream. In a moment, a gratifying jet of beavery water came arcing out of the pipe, a small flash flood under the cedars, a portable tributary. We could lift the end of the pipe, dewy and heavy, trembling a little with the force of the flow, and quickly fill the drum. With it full, the drill rods sagged. We calculated the weight: “A pint’s a pound the world around, two pints to the quart, eight pints to the gallon, so let’s say we have 45 gallons... That’s about 360 pounds of hot water...”
Firewood represented too much hard work, so we scrabbled together a sprawling, smoky fire of brush from our clearing, throwing on damp, mossy deadwood, getting it all going with some difficulty. But once ablaze under the blackened drum, it created an intense radiance that warmed and dried a comfortable circle between the trees. Even the misty rain seemed to dry up before it reached the ground.
With hand-split cedar shakes we made a boardwalk between the drum and the bathtub. The tub we enshrined in a tent of mosquito netting, draped over a pole. Trying to dip boiling water out of the drum in the fierce heat from the brushfire was hazardous, but Lois realized that the tub could be filled with a siphon, which we improvised with pipe and a giant brass faucet, made for diesel fuel, from Little Joe’s truck. Finally we could fill the tub in minutes. We brought down our long photographic thermometer, to take the temperature of the water in the drum. But the mercury went off the top of the scale at 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Well, it’s nearly boiling, so that’s 212 degrees, right?”
“Yeah, 100 degrees Celsius, up here in Canada.”
Then we stuck the thermometer in the cold jet from the pipe. The mercury plunged.
“Jesus. 38 degrees.”
“What’s that in Celsius?”
“I don’t know. Freezing is zero, right? So it would be just a degree or two above zero...”
“I don’t know.”
“The Beaver water is very, very cold. The hot water is very, very hot.”
Photos by (clockwise from top left): Robin Barber; Robin Barber; Lois Carbone Barber; Robin Barber
Our first bath day was a chilly, misty Monday. We bathed oldest first, by Julia’s decree. She went first and I went last. The rules were you had to refill the heater and stoke the fire before you got into the tub. Then, when you got out, you lifted the mosquito net and simply dumped the tub over on its side, the rush of water carrying more needles and cones down into the stream, leaving scrubbed forest floor with a dense network of ruby-red cedar roots exposed. The tub had to be left clean, rinsed with the splashing cold water.
After Julia went down the path, we went about our business around the cabin, catching glimpses through a mist of new leaves of her distant nude figure dancing with the hoses and the faucet in the spring rain, swatting mosquitoes, cursing, then ducking under the netting and into the tub with shrieks of joy. One by one we gave it a try. You could lie in the steaming tub looking up into the towering cedars and hemlocks, while the cold rain touched your face and knees and each muscle in your body was individually dissolved and remade. Cold water splashed from the pipe, the creek purred and rustled, the fire snapped and settled, and rain hissed down. A deep lassitude and well-being began in the bath—you came out new, amazed to find yourself where you were. With clean clothes and lunch, well-being grew into a broad tolerance, kindness, love enough to last for nearly a week.