(this body)

i had seen glimpses of her
growing up
held her in my hands, even
for just a moment
of wonder
that stuck,
despite the slippery nature
of her scales.

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i had heard her voice
once or twice,
but didn’t speak her language;
the way
her intangible tongue
made sounds so –
diverse.
i could whistle;
but not like her –
not like
the wind through cedar boughs
in the dead of night.

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fleeting glimpses of her
lost
between walls and
bright lights
drowned
among a sea of faces
priorities tangled and
forgotten.

but now,
now
i am knowing her
the way she welcomes me,
with darkness interrupted
by only her starlight
igniting a perspective
long lost
in the blinding glow of cityscapes.

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now,
i am knowing her touch
filling my lungs
with flavour;
tastes like
everything
that ever existed
salty –
as significant
as the time i take
to contemplate
this breath.

i know her
as shelter –
as trees reconfigured into a roof,
into warmth,
her decades of growth
thaw me; embrace
this body,
so death must wait
another winter.

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i grow;
and i know her
as my bones –
as the oxygen in my lungs,
blood –
and well,
all of this body
i call my own –
is her.

and i learn;
from the sound of her
meeting the shore
with a thunder
that warns me the winds
are dancing out there,
and well –
all of this knowledge
i call my own –
is her.

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and as i come to know
myself –
as her,
i wonder why
wilderness
was ever a stranger to begin with?

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(this body)

poem & photos by april bencze
winter 2016

Tales from the River

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TALES FROM THE RIVER
BACKYARD ADVENTURES POST III

i. 

Getting There

You close your eyes, and you find yourself suspended in cool water, mask on, eye to eye with a fish. This is the sweet spot in a river snorkelling adventure. But how do you get there? All you need is appropiate thermal protection for the water temperature, a mask, a pair of fins, a river, and a sense of adventure. It helps to know when to go, and to learn about the fish who live in that river system. Then you dive in. I set aside a few weeks each year to return to my home river when the salmon do. In autumn, I spend my days between the banks of the Campbell River, the artery my home town is build around. Over the years I began to bring a camera, which has grown in size, and this past autumn I returned with the aim to share the salmon’s journey through photographs. The ultimate purpose of the images is to inspire action for us all to care for our home waters. In my experience, nothing inspires caring about rivers, lakes, estuaries, and oceans like seeing eye to eye with the creatures who call these places home.

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ii. 

The Finned Migration

The fish pass by overhead like birds blacking out the sky; a great migration of the finned. But whether feathers or scales flying overhead, the abundance of life driven by such purpose is a truly moving sight. After completing the great migration from ocean to home river, female pink salmon lay eggs in a nest dug in the gravel of the riverbed. She will guard her nest of eggs until she dies. Once the eggs hatch, the next generation of salmon swim to the ocean where they grow up in the saltwater. The fish live out their lives for about 18 months before beginning the journey back to their home river to spawn and die. Pink salmon have an average life cycle of 2 years. After death, the salmon’s decomposing bodies continue to give life to the river, surrounding forest, bears, birds, wolves, other wildlife, and us humans too. It’s all connected.

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iii. 

The Underwater World

Morning rays and keen eyes reach into the deep pools where the wild salmon gather and hold. A single breath accompanies you to explore the river, and your limits. Wilderness continues, and blossoms, below the surface. It always feels like a magic little discovery shared between those who have broken the barrier; there aren’t really words to sum up the depths but when you finally resurface, you both know you’ve just seen something special.

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iv. 

The In-Between

I remember the moment it occurred to me, a few years back, when I first started visiting the fish. I closely resemble a seal when I don my black wetsuit and slip below the surface. Funny, I felt like a fish when I would propel myself underwater with my faux fins and breath held. I wondered how to convey the message to the salmon who scattered at the sight of me. Fish are friends, not food! But I catch fish to eat, so maybe I am more seal than scales. Or perhaps I should simply resign myself to being a human who teeters on the edge of both land and sea, not quite fitting fully into either element. But right then I was only interested in taking their photo, not their flesh.

Something about salmon are so captivating to me, and I wonder if it has to do with the way they helped build my body as I grew up, or how they continue to warm my belly and sustain me through the long west coast winters. The relationship between predator and prey seems a complex and intimate dance. I find myself needing to be a predator of salmon, but simultaneously wanting to be a part of their incredible world for a moment or two.

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v.

The Lost Sockeye

You never know what lessons the river will teach you. Photographing a strong run of pink salmon, I wasn’t expecting to look over my shoulder and find myself face-to-face with a brilliant red sockeye salmon. But there he was, a lone red amongst thousands of pink. He weaved aimlessly through the bustling school, standing out quite remarkably. Soon after, I watched him grow weak and drift like a fallen leaf to the river bottom. The algae-coated rocks became his final resting place as his body slowly began to lose its brilliant red, his emerald head faded to grey, and his golden eyes lost their life. Crayfish crawled from the dark spaces between the rocks to tug on his lifeless fins. I learned quickly that his body would not be wasted. Each day I came back and watched his remains slowly become a part of multiple other creatures. It was incredible seeing the sockeye decompose over many weeks. This was a season of learning about life and death at the salmon river.

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vi.

Connecting the Seasons

Autumn rains greet and join the river as we slip into damp wetsuits and join the salmon below. It’s tough to untangle these colours, the underwater blues and topside golds, from the fall season. Freshly rusted leaves tumble from trees above; sinking into the periphery as we watch the fish stream by. It’s like the seasons are listening to the fish; waiting for a cue to shift. As if in celebration of this momentous return of life, the trees turn gold to pay their respects to the spawn. The salmon make their way up river for the first and final time, passing beneath over-hanging branches stretched out like arms cheering them on. Soon these very salmon below will feed these very trees above. When the seasons eventually shift to spring, the bodies of these fish will help replace these fallen leaves.

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vii. 

In Six Inches of Water 

There’s a little creek nearby. It bears a few chum salmon in the fall, but it’s the heart of winter now. The salmon are out at sea, growing. They say ‘where there is water, there is life.’ So we head out in search of life at the creek, drysuits donned and underwater cameras in hand. We trekked upstream and found a pool just deep enough to submerge our faces in. We quickly spotted juvenile cutthroat trout. Though well camouflaged, these young fish were brilliantly coloured. With eyes like gems, they gathered below tiny waterfalls. We watched and photographed the tiny trout with fascination. I still marvel at the adventure that can be had in six inches of water.

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viii. 

Layers of Life

These two juvenile cutthroat trout live in a small creek nestled within a large temperate rainforest. A forest where moss blankets everything; even cushions the feet of wolves and bears. These young trout in the creek in the forest are contained on an island within an archipelago of rainforest islands off the coast of British Columbia. There are layers upon layers of life unfolding in places within places. Opening our eyes to that life, and the connection between it all, reignites a dying sense of wonder.

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For more images from the river, you can visit my Finned Migration gallery.

All images and words copyright April Bencze • Winter 2016/2017

Winter Fish

WINTER FISH


BACKYARD ADVENTURES POST II
03•01•2017
view original piece on the Sitka blog

You blink. The days of beating the heat with a splash into your local lake are gone again. Seasons pass. Now skin is sheltered from the elements, and new forms of adventure take shape.   

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The crisp leaves of fall are now blanketed with snow that crunches beneath your boots. Frozen dew drops replace the plump berries of summer. The lake you knew months ago is barely recognizable as you walk onto its frozen surface. Layers of wool keep you warm while layers of ice keep you from that refreshing plunge of days past. The only things you are stripping off now are your gumboots; replacing them with ice-skates.

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Fishing is an all-seasons adventure that looks different each time you drop your line. But the trout taste just as good, if not better, when caught by frozen fingers. Fresh food in the winter is a hot commodity.

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Whether it’s a whopping spring salmon you can barely extend your arms far enough apart to illustrate, or a decent-sized little cutthroat trout to warm your belly in the winter, it doesn’t much matter. Catching a fish never fails to ignite a round of legendary smiles. 

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An axe might not seem like a necessary tool for fishing, but these days it sees more ice than firewood. 

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The kids don’t have a sense of it yet. Not consciously at least. The salmon are caught down the channel and the trout are jigged from the lake they are learning to both swim in and skate on. These fish are building their bones; they are becoming a part of them. 

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Providing supper and a connection to the land is something lakes, rivers, and oceans do best; frozen or otherwise. These adventures are nurturing worldviews that expand exponentially with each day spent outdoors.

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One evergreen truth that remains year round: any excuse to get a crackling fire going in the evening is a good one. A fresh catch just might be the best excuse to gather dry wood and good friends. 

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The thing about getting out in your backyard here on the coast is that it’s got everything you need to survive, and then some. Three of the most delicious cutthroat trout warmed several bellies around the fire that evening. Four-legged companions are always hungry for adventures that include fire-crisped fish skins. 

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It is one thing to be aware of the luck we share by knowing this wilderness as our backyard. But it is another to become compelled to ensure the good fortune of a wild backyard is kept safe. Not simply for the sake of future adventures. Kept safe for the survival of our furred, finned, feathered, and human neighbours alike. The ones who know an irreplaceable relationship with the land, yourself included. 

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The more seasons you get to know in the wild places you go, the more rooted you become in the landscape. Getting to know these mountains, lakes, rivers, and oceans in your backyard is what gives you the sense of belonging to the land. 

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Belonging to the land, and not the other way around, is that thing – that thing that you’re looking for but can’t quite find in the supermarket or on sidewalks. It is that primary relationship with the places that give you air, water, and life. It is a relationship largely lost within the bounds of an insatiable culture of excess. It is a relationship that needs rebuilding. 

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So you rebuild. Cupping a freshly roasted cutthroat trout in your palms, you peel hot meat from her bones and savour the taste. As you pass the fish around the fire to share, you find it is hard not to connect to this place that holds you. You find you belong to the lake, and to the fish, for the night. 

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One by one, backyard adventures turn into a lifetime of vivid memories in places tangibly rooted in your bones. Something special happens when you belong to the land. The fresh air, water, wildlife, and moments absorbed inextricably link you to these places. Your relationship with the land grows whether your adventure lasts for an afternoon, a night or two in a tent, or the rest of your life.

And the beautiful thing about relationships is that they go both ways. Those places you belong to, you will want to protect. So as surely as the seasons shape your adventures, let them too spark action for the places you go. 

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A short video from last year skating on the lake with friends and dogs:

Warm Hearts and Frozen Lakes from April Bencze on Vimeo.

The Apple Blossom Grouse

THE APPLE BLOSSOM GROUSE


BACKYARD ADVENTURE POST I
26•06•16

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This past fall I began crossing paths with a doe-eyed grouse who I quickly realized I was sharing the ‘neighbourhood’ with. The predatory instincts in me knew her curiosity would be the death of her sooner rather than later. I would nearly stumble on her while walking down the trail in the morning, and with an arrogance that is profoundly human I would roll my eyes and tell her she was lucky I wasn’t hungry. A fondness began to grow as she proved me wrong week after week – still alive, still curious. 

In the winter I would hear her thrumming nearby. She would seek shelter from the rain on the branch of the cedar tree just outside the window. Raindrops on the roof, a crackling wood stove, and a gentle cooing became the soundtrack to my quiet days in the cabin.

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In the spring I began to look forward to a morning routine of sipping coffee perched in the window sill, where I would watch the grouse delicately plucking buds from the apple tree. She was methodical and focused as she wobbled on the weaker limbs of the tree, pushing her luck to reach the plump apple buds.

It’s midsummer now, and yesterday morning right after rising, I stumbled onto the porch to walk half-awake down the trail to the outhouse. My heart leapt into my throat as a thunderous flapping of wings greeted me on the other side of the door. The apple blossom grouse had been resting on the porch. I apologized for startling her as I laughed at my own thumping heart.

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I was happy to discover the apple-blossom grouse was not only still alive and well, but had become a momma bird to three peeping chicks. As her young explored the world with a familiar curiosity, momma-grouse flapped noisily up to her perch on the cedar branch outside my window. She stayed there for hours, gently thrumming as I sipped coffee and put pen to paper.

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