My Fort St. John Adventure
Fort St. John May 29
We arrive around 9 pm. It’s light.
Awake 5 ish perhaps 4:30.
It’s light out.
Basically I did not see the city after dark. We are far enough north for this.
I am here along with my trusty assistant (husband Richard) to mount an exhibition of solar prints at the museum about my uncle Dr. Kearney. He was a beloved doc, the second one in the area and famous for his many acts of generosity plus performing an operation remotely by radio (the man survived) and modifying his Model T into the town’s first ambulance.
He delivered me, along with most of those born between 1935 and 1960.
So while the trip is an art/heritage project it’s also a chance for me to revisit this place. My parents returned to Ontario while I was still a baby and I visited here once when I was 18, getting to know my uncle a little. In those days it was CNR to Edmonton, Northern Alberta Railway to Dawson Creek and a bus to FSJ. Nowadays there’s a bustling airport with regular flights to Calgary and Vancouver.
I was hoping to run across a few people with memories/relatives/connections that I could chronicle but I am probably a decade or so too late.
The exhibit takes several days to install in this museum setting, surrounded by artifacts that chronicle North Peace history. My work tells about my uncle through my art practice, making solar prints of early family photos on family linens. My first view of the museum confirms to me that this is the ideal setting for this body of work.
The main museum building contains a series of set pieces that reproduce aspects of fsj history from teepee, through trappers cabin, doctor’s office, hospital room, school, post office, even a section that demonstrates the great WW2 Alaska Highway project. I am scratching the surface here. There’s also a reconstructed version of Ma Murray’s Alaska Highway News, miraculously still in print with excellent coverage of my installation I must say. In digression, my sister says that it was Ma Murray who stopped and told her of my birth.
The museum has several buildings outside of the main one that have been moved on site. They include, among others, early police barracks, a homesteaders' house, a fur trading cabin. As I walk out after a day’s work I am struck by the first one because I have a photograph of it in my trove of family pictures with a woman posed in front of it. She is Monica Storrs, an Anglican missionary who was a family friend. She apparently built her “abbey” herself, and often housed youngsters so that they could attend school.
While in my mind I am revisiting an earlier Fort St John, the modern one is a busy world where truck and workboots replace Miss Storrs' horse. The suite hotel we are staying in is mostly populated with workers who leave in the early morning after a more generous breakfast offering than hotels usually provide, and return tired and dusty at the end of the day. On the weekend there are women and children visiting Dad or picking him up. It's very quiet although there is a guy above us that wrestles with his pitbull when he gets home from work. The first time we heard it we thought that there was a brawl or at least serious renovations but it turned out to be doggy joy, only lasting for about 15 minutes before they tumble down the back stairs and out for a run.
We are told that there is a park at Taylor Flats, a few miles south of FSJ, so we take a little trip down the Alaska Highway. We chat with an elderly woman at the tourist centre who tells us that Doc was her family doctor, delivering most of the family children, with one even given the middle name Kearney. "We were all so poor, and he would take anything in payment" vegetables, the proverbial chicken etc. He charged $2 a visit throughout his career but treated people whether they paid or not.
to be continued ..
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