Category Archives: Solid Gold Box


win’-di-go n. a spirit believed by the Algonquians, Cree, and Ojibwas to take possession of vulnerable people, causing them to engage in cannibalism and other forms of antisocial behavior.

I’ve always had a soft spot for westerns, and during the late 1980s I went through a phase of writing western stories—primarily for the magazines of the now-defunct Western Publications in Stillwater, Oklahoma. While researching a major series for True West called “Grandmother’s Land: Sitting Bull in Canada,” I stumbled into this, ah, tasty little story somewhere in the Mounted Police reports.

When the story ran in the quarterly Old West, I accompanied it with an image from the collection of the Glenbow Museum. It showed Swift Runner with a scowling Mountie in pillbox hat. I’ve always found this photo of Swift Runner unsettling.

Approaching it in the nature of protagonist Alan Grant in The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey—disregarding the massive shackles, and the knowledge of his horrific crime, and assuming innocence—I think I might have drawn an alarming conclusion. He had a pleasant face, making me think that he was someone who loved to laugh. I would likely have passed a pleasant moment chatting, had I run into him on the street.


First published in OLD WEST, Summer 1990

During the winter, a Windigo ate Swift Runner’s family. Swift Runner was a Cree hunter and trapper from the country north of Fort Edmonton. He was a big man, over six feet tall, and well liked. He was mild and trustworthy, a considerate husband, and very fond of his children (a little too fond of his children, as events proved). All of these traits endeared him to his people and to the traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But this was not enough to allay suspicion when he returned from his winter camp in the spring of 1879 without his wife and family. When he could not give a satisfactory account of their whereabouts, his in-laws became worried. They decided to tell the North West Mounted Police, who had then been in the West for just five years.

Inspector Sévère Gagnon was given the task of investigating Swift Runner’s behavior. He and a small party of policemen accordingly trekked out to the trapper’s camp.

Swift Runner obligingly showed the Mounted Policemen a small grave near his camp. He explained that one of his boys had died and was buried there. Gagnon and his detachment opened the grave and found the bones undisturbed.

That, however, did not explain the human bones scattered around the encampment. Gagnon produced a skull, which Swift Runner willingly told him was that of his wife. Without much prodding, Swift Runner revealed what had happened to the rest of his family.

At first, Swift Runner became haunted by dreams. A Windigo spirit called on him to consume the people around him. The spirit crept through his mind, gradually taking control. Finally he was Windigo, and Swift Runner no longer. Then the Windigo killed and ate Swift Runner’s wife.

This accomplished, the Windigo forced one of Swift Runner’s boys to kill and butcher his younger brother. While enjoying this grisly repast, the spirit hung Swift Runner’s infant by the neck from a lodge pole and tugged at the baby’s dangling feet. It was later shown that he had also done away with Swift Runner’s brother—and his mother-in-law, though he acknowledged that she had been “a bit tough.”

The revolted Mounted Police party hauled Swift Runner and the mutilated evidence back to Fort Saskatchewan. The trial began on August 8, 1879. The judge and jury did not view the Windigo idea in the same light as the Cree. They saw Swift Runner as a murderer, and the trapper made no attempt to hide his guilt. Stipendiary Magistrate Richardson quickly sentenced him to be hanged.

The sentence presented a problem: the police had never before conducted an execution. Although the Hudson’s Bay Company had once hanged an employee for murder, this was, for all intents and purposes, the first formal execution in western Canada. Staff Sergeant Fred Bagley, a force bugler, was put in charge of the arrangements.

A gallows was erected within the fort enclosure at Fort Saskatchewan, and an old army pensioner named Rogers was made hangman. On the appointed morning, a bitterly cold December 20, Swift Runner was led to the scaffold.

Standing over the trap, the unrepentant cannibal was given the opportunity to address the large crowd that had gathered. He openly acknowledged his guilt, and thanked his jailers for their kindness—then berated his guard for making him wait in the cold!

Nevertheless, the Mounted Police must have accomplished their first execution well enough. A more experienced spectator, a California “forty-niner” named Jim Reade, commented, “That’s the purtiest hangin’ I ever seen, and it’s the twenty-ninth!”

Nowadays we view as psychosis what the Cree thought to be the work of a Windigo spirit. At one time, in the belt of parkland that borders the northern plains, it was far from being a rare phenomenon. Usually the symptoms were the same as those displayed by Swift Runner. And in one way or another, most of the afflicted Windigos met similar, violent deaths.

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Charlie’s Tugboat Tales

Charlie's Tugboat Tales(Hollinger, 1997)

Charlie’s Tugboat Tales is long out of print. The late Captain Charlie Currie was a waterfront icon of the Northwest Coast.

Captain Currie and his wife, “Tugboat Winnie,” ran the 44-foot wooden tug C.R.C., built to Captain Currie’s design at the Prince Rupert Drydock in 1929. They helped people. They helped boats in trouble, hauled supplies into isolated communities when other boats couldn’t get in, and carried barge-loads of school kids on beach picnics.

I am as proud of Tugboat Tales as I am of any other story I’ve ever told. I still sometimes see a battered copy aboard the working boats of the northern fleet, and there is no higher praise than that.

I visited Captain Currie in his museum-like home, recorded his stories, and then gradually built up what I considered to be the definitive version of each tale. They were then blended together to be as much like his voice as possible. Then Charlie read it, and made any changes he wished. The stories ran as a newspaper column, and they were collected as a book in 1997.

For several years after Captain Currie’s death we carried on his weekly chowder gatherings at Sabre Marine, and recovered and restored the C.R.C. Much of what I know about the northern waterfront was learned over chowder and fresh buns around the table in the floating office of Sabre Marine.

Here is my favourite Tugboat Tale. Or rather, it is the one which most frequently finds its way back into my thoughts. It was during the Second World War, when Prince Rupert played a vital role in defending the Canadian coast.  Canadian and US troops filled the town, artillery forts guarded the harbour, and North America’s only armoured train ran on the coastal stretch of the railway. The Fisheries patrol vessel CGS Howay was stationed here; and, as Captain Currie described, the Cougar was a private yacht that had been requisitioned for coastal defence.

I can’t escape the image of this poor woman alone as the camp froze to the mud, flooded with incoming tide, and then jarred loose, over and over again for eleven weeks. And it says much about Captain Currie’s nature that he felt so terrible about the two little dogs.

Eleven weeks alone with the ice

It must have been ’42. That was a cold winter. There was a fellow named Arman Auriol logging up at Khutzeymateen Inlet. He’d left his wife in there and gone to town to get more supplies for the winter after we’d towed the camp down there and tied it up. He was going back, but it was froze in so he couldn’t get back to her.

See, there’s the narrows at Khutzeymateen, and a lot of fresh water comes out of there. It hadn’t frozen there for years, but that’s the year it froze.

There was a big slide on the opposite side. Auriol climbed up there quite often in the daytime to see if he could see smoke, but he could never see smoke. He figured she was dead. She figured he got drowned.

There were quite a few boats come along and try to break in. One boat did a lot of damage. She was crazy to try. She was empty, running around following the herring fleet, and the gumwood was above the waterline so that she was cutting the planks.

McAfee at Georgetown financed Auriol, and he wondered why he hadn’t heard from him for awhile. In March he said, “Would you take a run up?” So I run up from Georgetown.

Well, he was there with his boat all right, but he couldn’t get in there. He had no gumwood on his boat at all.

So he came with me and we broke the ice for a couple of days there. There must have been a quarter-mile of it when we started. Then it got so thick, toward the shore, with wet snow frozen too, that I was afraid we were cutting the hull.

So we had to quit. I told Auriol I’d go to town and get a steel boat and come back.

The Navy didn’t think much of the idea. I thought I could get the Howay, but they wouldn’t let me have her. She was only running on one engine because they had the shaft out. All I could get was a yacht some movie actor had down south, the Cougar, I think. A great big clumsy thing, though she had lots of power; she had two 375 Wintons in her. She was anchored in Metlakatla Pass quite a bit; during the war the Navy used to have boats at the first buoy you turn at, at the village there, and each boat coming in had to stop and report. I think the reason they used her there was she wasn’t no good for anything else.

The man at the Navy office says, “You know, she’s not much good. Her sides are like a hungry horse.” You could see all the ribs in her.

Well, they only nosed into the ice a little bit and the engineer come up and says, “We can’t do this, it’s heating up the engine.”

That was all baloney. He just wanted to get back to town.

But anyway, it was lucky I took a flat-bottomed skiff along aboard the boat. We put it in, and me and Auriol went ashore.

Well, his wife was there. She’d spent eleven weeks alone in the shack there. She had a bad time of it, too, making do with what she had. The camp was dry at low tide, sitting on the mud. It froze there, and then the tide would come in. The tide just kept getting closer and closer. Finally she piled all her food that she had left on the table, and when the float let go it shook everything loose on the floor and everything. She had a hell of a time. Worst of all she had two little dogs with her that would get outside, and the wolves were right there trying to get them.

Anyway, we were crazy taking that skiff in. We should have took another guy. See, because I couldn’t get the skiff back to the boat without another guy with me to drag it on the ice. So we had to take him back again. It was quite awhile after that before the ice let go and come out.

She had a hell of a time. Imagine, that woman alone there for eleven weeks.

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Requiem for the passing of a Queen

First published in THE NORTHERN VIEW, March 25, 2009

Every time I glance up from my desk I see the Queen of Prince Rupert. In this instance she is a detailed model presented to the City by BC Ferries in 1988 and now in the collection of the Museum of Northern BC. In profile her sweeping bow evocatively recalls the Otto Thoresen Vikings that were so influential in the 1960s. The QPR, as she is affectionately known, will be officially decommissioned in a few weeks.

Awhile back, during a review of old travel stories about Prince Rupert, I photocopied the front cover of the Spring 1966 issue of Beautiful British Columbia magazine and pinned it up on a cork board in the office. It shows the Queen of Prince Rupert on the launching ways in her original blue-and-white. She was “a new Queen in the royal household of the British Columbia Ferry Authority’s fleet,” set to “begin her reign” opening a new run from Kelsey Bay to Prince Rupert. “Enthusiastic British Columbians” spoke both “literally and figuratively” of the route “as a new north-south highway for the province.”

And here, in the May 27, 1966 issue of Time magazine, it is noted that there were already 17,000 passenger reservations for the first season of operation and Alaskan Visitor Bureaus were on 24-hour duty to accommodate the expected surge of tourists. She has been a keystone of our tourism industry ever since.

Except for a brief stint as the Victoria Princess in the summer of 1980, the QPR has sailed these waters since she was launched. She was involved in notable mishaps that are still recalled on the Prince Rupert waterfront. In 1967 she was aground on Haddington Reef near Alert Bay. In August 1982 she grounded in Gunboat Passage, and in a memorable incident in July 1970 she was able to come astern of the Taku to remove vehicles and passengers after the Alaska ferry went aground at West Kinahan. I vividly recall sitting with towboater Charlie Currie, studying his photographs of these incidents and learning his perspectives on what had happened.

In 1996 I ran a Hallowe’en newspaper feature that playfully suggested that the rumours of her being haunted just may be true, and I was swamped by a flood of protest from offended locals. It was a risk I knowingly took. Hallowe’en fun or not, I had taken the name of the Queen in vain.

The Queen of Prince Rupert has a special place in our hearts. She is part of our lives, a character in our memories. Virtually every person who has lived in Prince Rupert over the past four decades knows her and has a personal story to tell about her. For myself, I most strongly recall how I thought of her as almost a living thing, when we all depended on her so much after the loss of the Queen of the North.

Yet there’s no describing how we truly feel for her. It’s that wild January ride to the Charlottes, or that placid, summer run to the Charlottes spent half-dozing in the sunshine on the aft deck. It’s the kids racing around, playing pinball and raiding the snack machines, on that memorable trip south. The QPR is in the special memories of four decades of visitors to our coast. She was home to more than one generation of Prince Rupert seamen.

When the beloved Chilcotin sailed south for the last time in 1958, crowds spontaneously lined the docks and the bluff above the Government Wharf. These are bittersweet moments in the life of a coastal town. We’re excited to see and touch the Northern Expedition, ready to feel for her as we did for her honoured predecessors, but we do so with a respectful nod to the past.

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The solid gold box

First published in THIS WEEK, September 15, 1996.

At the wisdom-rich age of four years I went to a place where there was magic. My dad had to ask the mechanic to carefully study the big blue Pontiac to be sure that it was up to the challenge. My mom selected bags full of little toys at the five-and-dime. My older brother, my sisters and I each filled small, almost-identical valises with indispensible childhood valuables. Then the six of us and the blue Pontiac went halfway across the North American continent, with cheap plastic toys distributed at intervals timed to soothe my parents’ mental health.

Mountains, to begin with, are magic if you have never seen more than a small hill rise from the earth. The city of Vancouver was necessarily beyond the real world, because the real world consisted of Minnedosa, Manitoba, and very little else. Freighters and totem poles were previously thought to exist only in picture books. A boat so big that the blue car didn’t have to stay behind like a pet dog when we went on the ocean must, naturally, have throbbed with magic.

In Victoria there was family – my mother’s aunts, uncles and cousins. My rather selective interest focused on my great-uncle. Lawrence McInnes was, and is, a fascinating and kind man. He could fly a plane and sail a ship and dive to the bottom of the sea. He had tattoos just like Popeye.

As you remember your childhood voyages, I remember mine: imperfectly, incompletely, and through frustrating mist. In my memory we were suddenly home again, and my brother received a parcel in the mail.

Receiving mail is in itself special. Only a big brother could have the knack of pulling it off. Only a big brother could receive a parcel from Uncle Lawrence with the Popeye tattoos.

When my brother tore away the brown wrapping paper, he found a cardboard box. The box was gold-coloured, and the lid was maroon. Inside were knickknacks of the sea. A worn envelope held a series of oil paintings of sailing ships, the cheap reproductions you once collected from cigar boxes. There was a twist of blue-and-white cord, some magical sailor’s knot. There were postcards from India, and a photo of my uncle wearing his round diving helmet like the one that Tintin wore when he went to find Red Rackham’s treasure.

Of course, this is not what my brother and I saw. This is not what my uncle wrapped up in brown paper and mailed to Manitoba. It was disguised; carefully and magically shielded from people who acted too much like grownups to be trusted with a great treasure.

When I saw what my uncle sent to my brother I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a solid gold box, with a lid covered in shimmering royal purple. Inside were magic pictures that told stories all by themselves. I stared into the cigar box paintings and saw ships that soared like gulls, with sails so full that they thundered in wind and spray, saw sailors with Popeye tattoos swearing beneath the shelter of the fo’c’s’le. Story after story after story flowed like water from the solid gold box. There got to be so many of them that soon I couldn’t even get them out of my head long enough to sleep at night.

As every four-year-old should when stumbling upon such an uncalled-for thing, I went straight to my dad. I tried to tell my dad the stories, but he wouldn’t believe them. He wouldn’t even listen, after awhile. I then decided that I would write them down, so that they could be like the stories that my mom and dad read to me at bedtime.

I couldn’t write, of course; I was only four years old. I sat on the top step of the basement stairs and used the kitchen floor as a drawing table. I took a sheet of loose-leaf begged from my sister and between the lines painstakingly drew loops that looked, I was certain, exactly like handwriting. I carried the finished story to my dad and showed it to him with all of the pride a four-year-old can muster.

My dad could no more read the story than he could see the solid gold box. He even had to ask me what that was, there on the paper. When I told him he laughed, but that was only because he couldn’t yet read the stories. I decided to keep working at it. I would practise and practise until I knew how to tell my dad those stories.

I’m still working at it.

Maybe my brother still has the solid gold box and the cigar box paintings. I have my own, now. Every morning when breakfast is cleared away I take it from its secret hiding place and reverently remove the velvet-covered lid. Then I patiently wait.

I wait and I wait. Then, yes, I see. There she is now. Just on the horizon. Do you see her? Use the glass, there. I know that ship. She flies black colours, and eyes as cold as death watch you from her bows. Damn me, mate, I know that ship.

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