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Peaceful valley, turbulent past

People of the Peace

Caroline Beam and her husband are determined to do what generations of her family before her tried, sometimes unsuccessfully: stop a BC Hydro dam.

The Beams live with their three children in a bend on the Peace River, close to Hudson’s Hope, surrounded by sharply edged land that slopes down into the water.

Their house sits nearly at the bottom of these steps, literally a stone’s throw from the river. Driving down Highway 29, it looks vulnerable sitting there.

That’s kind of the point.

This current version of the Beam family just built that riverside house a few years ago, but Caroline’s family has been fighting the crown corporation since before she was born. As an example of how deep her roots are in the region, her great aunt was the first Caucasian baby born in Hudson’s Hope, she said. Her great grandparents, Jim and Elizabeth Beattie, settled further upriver at a place called Goldbar.

They set up a small empire there, provisioning trappers, ranchers, surveyors and hunters who made their living in and around the Peace River and its tributaries.

It was a nearly entirely self-sustaining operation of ranching and agriculture, and when World War II hit, they produced rations for both military and civilian workers, and gained a reputation for keeping their prices fair through tough times.

The Beattie’s eight children all worked on the farm, including Caroline’s grandmother.

Then the W.A.C. Bennett Dam came in and they were pushed out, their empire was flooded under Lake Williston.

“[My grandmother] didn’t feel that it was properly taken care of,” said Caroline. “She felt that they were just pushed out and given a handout.”

That’s a legacy and a fight that she and her family take seriously, and her house is a testament to that. The flood reserve for the dam would cover the structure by several feet.

They built the house there, right on the river, for two reasons. The first is that it’s a beautiful place to live. She and her children, Xavier, Lucas, and Tristan, who range in age from 10 to 4, wrote out a list of all of the benefits to living riverside, and she said it reads like a travel brochure. “We can swim, we can fish, we do biology explorations,” she said. “These kids know more about geese and ducks and the general ecology than most of my Grade 12 biology students do. It’s fantastic, we love it.”

But the really important reason? Caroline said this house is the biggest protest she can make against Site C.

“People are afraid to invest because they don’t want it taken away. Well, I’m not.”

She recalled Leo Rutledge, a homesteader who had large tracts of land just around the bend from them who had a big voice in opposition to Site C.

“I remember being a child and watching him speak and just shutting down these corporate executives, it was fantastic,” she said. He died in 2005, and his wife Ethel a few years later. Caroline said the land was sold to Hydro a few months ago.

The Peace Valley is full of people whose families have been fighting BC Hydro for years, even before the idea of Site C came to be so familiar in the region, and more recently the province.

The Beam’s neighbors, Ross and Deborah Peck, live just a little further up Highway 29, on a bluff overlooking the river. They’re a soft-spoken middle-aged couple who discuss the topic in a very matter-of-fact way, less combative than Caroline, and it comes out like a story they’ve memorized.

They’ve semi-retired into a large wooden house that used to be their getaway spot. They raise horses there, and asparagus grows down by the river.

They said that the sluff line will come directly between the house and a smaller cabin that they have sitting on the edge of the embankment some 100 feet above the river.

“That prompted us to ask how accurate their lines were,” said Debora. “We could be diving off the deck.”

Ross and his two siblings own other tracts of land along the valley. Like the Beatties, Ross’s family was also evacuated to make way for the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. They had a recreational place made up of 160 acres just up from the Beattie’s where they would go to fish, play cards, and relax. Ross spoke calculatedly about his family bargaining with BC Hydro. They were originally offered $10,000 for the land, but his grandfather figured that the trees alone were worth a hefty amount.

“He ended up in the mediation/arbitration process for a couple of years and fought it, and was eventually awarded $20,000, but the fight kind of beat him. He lost his dream,” he said.

Instead of spending a lot of time pushing back against the new threat, the Pecks enjoy the natural wonder of their big backyard.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do for the last two years is just get out once a week on the river and fish,” said Ross. “I could be going to a ‘Stop Site C’ meeting, or writing letters to BC Hydro, or whatever, but having that day has made me appreciate more and more that I live in such a unique place.”

When they travel, they look for other places to make their home should the dam become a reality. So far, they haven’t found that place.

Not all of the valley’s inhabitants have been pushed out before. Renee Ardill is living on the same land she grew up on, raising livestock the same way her parents and grandparents did before her.

Before Highway 29 or the dams upstream were built, her grandfather was given a parcel of land as part of his soldier’s grant for his part in fighting for Britain in the First World War. He met his wife in Holland, and settled in a spot where his family is still flourishing.

When she described her childhood, it sounded a lot like the life the Beams were trying to give their children. They had free range of the outdoors, an idyllic setting to spur their sense of adventure and imagination. “We’d spend hours riding around and prowling about and exploring,” she said. “Going wherever we wanted to and doing pretty much whatever we wanted to, as long as you didn’t wreck anything or get into anybody’s stuff.”

The Ardill Ranch has a single employee, Michelle Van Stam. A friend of the family, she was a schoolteacher until 10 years ago she decided to try her hand at ranching. She’s been there ever since, and is a fierce defender of her adopted lifestyle. She’s seen the fight to keep Site C away firsthand.

“One of the things that Renee told me early on, as kind of as a joke, but it’s totally true – ‘you can have a ranch or you can have money, you can’t have both,’” she said. “It’s not a fight over dollars, though that’s what Hydro and other resource companies want to talk about. They just want to talk money.”

Although Renee doesn’t have any children of her own, her nephew works in Fort St. John and recently moved back onto the ranch with his family. He’s raising children of his own there, the fifth generation of Ardills who have called that corner of the Peace River Valley their home.

To Renee, it’s the principle. They could ranch somewhere else, but they shouldn’t have to.

The people who live in that corridor have a mixture of disappointment and relief that the valley hasn’t been developed; disappointment because of the potential that it holds, relief that it isn’t crowded with development. To that end, many of them are concerned not only with keeping Site C off of the river, but they want to ensure that there’s a plan for the place if – or, to them, when – Site C is axed completely.

It isn’t a specific plan they have in mind, they’d just like to see a long-term plan made like one that was made in the nineties, with input from all the stakeholders, to make sure that whatever does end up happening is well thought out, and the landscape they love isn’t ruined by some other unknown threat.

“You don’t seen any casinos or golf courses in here, and I hope we can keep them at bay,” said Ken Boon. Ken and his wife Arlene live near Bear Flats, and are some of the most outspoken opponents of the dam. They’ve been featured in countless news stories, and they are a big part of anti-Site C events like Paddle for the Peace. They live in the house Arlene’s great grandfather built, and lease the fertile land at the riverbank to a farmer who grows corn, cantaloupe, watermelon and other produce that would be nearly impossible to grow anywhere else in the Peace.

 Like the others, a BC Hydro payout doesn’t interest the Boons.

“People say, ‘Well, you’ll get a million dollars,’” said Arlene. “I don’t want to be a millionaire, I want to be a landowner on my grandpa’s land, and live here forever. That’s what’s priceless to me is being here, not having lots of money in my pocket and wandering around somewhere aimlessly looking for a place. This is home, and it can’t get any better than that.”

Caroline Beam said her biggest hope that the project can be halted is the voice of First Nations, a voice that wasn’t as powerful when her ancestors opposed the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.

“I’m getting more optimistic. I have a lot of faith in First Nations. Roland Wilson is a powerful force, and every time I listen to him I believe him more, that he’s very serious about it,” she said.

Caroline Beam ended the conversation by recalling a scene she witnessed from her grandmother’s porch in which a moose gave birth in the river. Nearby coyotes saw an easy target of tender meat, and approached the mother and baby. The moose, otherwise vulnerable, was able to deliver her baby in the river itself, out of reach of the hungry predators.

Now the Beams hope that their presence will help preserve that river from a threat of its own.

peacereporter@ahnfsj.ca