The train shuffles along shore-borne tracks. Swans float alongside on the calm surface of the Nechako River meandering through north central British Columbia.
When the winter chill cuts sharp and cruel through the air, the local farmers huddle inside by woodstoves, their hay bales bundled and neatly tarped out in the barns. They may not see the great white swans leaving, winter's white blanket folding them into myth.
Near Vanderhoof, a brown smudge glances off the sapphire blue sky, telling us we are momentarily entering the world of humans with beehive burners to operate, wood pellets to press and great piles of wood slash on the edge of cut forests to burn.
As the train approaches, I see my parents standing by the Subway restaurant, my mother pale and thin, my father taller and stronger. When they get on, we sit together in the observation dome car, and I get my mother a tea in a paper cup. She tells me how cold she is, with a chill that wraps itself around her bones. She is withering away and has been for the last couple of years.
Shortly after Vanderhoof, we pass between the sawmill and my parents' riverfront home. Moose, beaver, wolf, coyote, salmon, eagles, osprey, geese and swans all make their homes here. An eagle's nest perches high in a tree on the bank across from the living room window.
The train moves through forests of stick shrubs made barren by autumn winds. Beaver ponds lie scattered like forgotten mud puddles. A coyote searches for something in the centre of a yellow field, her thin body shadowed in the glow of fading daylight.
Swans migrate slowly, travelling only short distances before pausing to spend lengthy amounts of time at the stops along the way. All along the Nechako and into Fraser Lake they stop to rest twice a year, spring and fall. They are on their annual migratory journey from the north to warmer climates further south where they may find open passages of water.
My mother used to talk about the aluminum company, how they were intent on destroying the Nechako River when they dammed it at its headwaters for their smelter. After it was done, she noticed the decline in local wildlife, how sometimes the water was so low no fish swam. The Nechako sturgeon no longer reproduce. My mother saw these things, cared about the river and watched it through her binoculars. I want to talk to her now about big companies' plans to construct crude oil pipelines across the Nechako's tributaries, how the threats have not gone away.
Mom, what will happen to the swans if there is an oil spill into the river from a pipeline, I want to ask her.
Will you get me another cup of tea, she asks. This time I get a cup for myself too. The steam rises from it creating a flame of fog on the windowpane, creating the illusion of mist over landscape.
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