Born in England on August 5, 1947 and raised in the north of England, Christine Helena Czajkowski (pronounced Tchaikovsky, like the composer) has lived and worked in Uganda, New Zealand, the South Pacific and South America, spending twelve years backpacking around the world before coming to Canada in 1979 as a cow milker. Three years later she headed into the mountains of the Central Coast Range to build a cabin on private property surrounded by the Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Access was by foot and canoe and often required an overnight camp. While there she began writing for the public by sending letters to Peter Gzowski's Morningside program on CBC Radio. These letters became the basis for her book, Cabin at Singing River. After four years she moved to a much higher location, on the dry side of the Central Coast Range, where she has built three more cabins, two by herself.

Czajkowski's wilderness and cabin-building experiences have been documented in a series of books that include Diary of a Wilderness Dweller, Nuk Tessli: Life of a Wilderness Dweller and Snowshoes and Spotted Dick: Letters from a Wilderness Dweller. In the latter she describes building her fourth cabin in the wilderness with hand tools, two chainsaws, an Alaskan Mill and some helpful friends. One of her helpers was Nick Berwain, a quiet, literary young German who was eager to gain some log-building experience. Berwain corresponds with Czajkowski after his return home. In letters to Berwain, Czajkowski details how she breaks trails by snowshoe with her two pack dogs, encounters grizzly bears, builds a custom stone oven and learns how to use it to bake bread -- and to make spotted dick, a traditional English steamed pudding. Food and building supplies were flown in and Czajkowski must hike more than 30 kilometres to the nearest road to lead guiding trips and to attend craft fairs and book promotions to supplement her income.

Czajkowski has described her wilderness adventures at Lonesome Lake in Tweedsmuir Park, east of Bella Coola, 480 kilometres north of Vancouver, an area first made famous by Ralph Edwards [see entry] whose conservation work with trumpeter swans was the subject for several books. Written from the point of view of Lonesome, the first dog to accompany her into the wilderness, Chris Czajkowsi's Lonesome: Memoirs of a Wilderness Dog is an attempt to observe the world through her long-suffering canine companion who she named after Lonesome Lake. "I got my human when she was already fully grown, which was a relief," Lonesome narrates, with occasional cynicism and disdain. "I'm not a dog to seek adventure and would have been far happier in an orderly, suburban garden with kids to play with and nice, safe walks in the park," she muses. Mostly humourous, Wilderness Dog ends on a touching note as Lonesome, too old to withstand the rigours of her spartan life with her human Chris, is billoted with a kind friend at Schoolhouse Creek who must ultimately take the infirm animal into the bushes, carrying with him his rifle... The wry memoir entirely from a dog's point of view spent several weeks atop the BC Bestseller List. "The snow plastered itself over my face," Lonesome recalls, woefully, "until only my eyes were uncovered. The more I tried to rub my face clean, the more the snow stuck to it. My human seemed to find this hilarious. She would obscure the front of her head with a device called a camera and transfix me with its great black piercing eye. There would be a click, and her face would appear again, grinning unsympathetically."

An accomplished botanist, watercolour artist and photographer, Czajkowski operates the Nuk Tessli Alpine Experience, a small, ecotourism, wilderness adventure business that she manages via her website and her Nimpo Lake mailing address. The only access to her home is by float plane or by foot. She lives about a day-and-a-half's walk (at human speed) from the nearest road, or four days' walk depending on the weather, at an altitude of 5,000 feet, about 40 miles away from her first cabin that was destroyed by fire in July of 2004 during the Lonesome Lake Fire. She subsequently recalled that fire, from the moment lightning struck until she was ordered to evacuate, in a collection of stories about her dogs and nature, Wildfire in the Wilderness (Harbour 2006). Her follow-up, A Mountain Year: Nature Diary of a Wilderness Dweller, is her diary of 2005 supplemented by her own paintings and sketches, concentrating on Central B.C. wildlife.

Czajkowski's A Wilderness Dweller's Cookbook is not just a collection of recipes; it is an account of how a wilderness dweller'-in a non-growing climate 20 km from a road, 60 km from a store and 250 km from a town large enough to have a supermarket'-feeds herself and the clients of her wilderness adventure business.

Captured by Fire: Surviving British Columbia’s New Wildfire Reality
by Chris Czajkowski and Fred Reid (Harbour $24.95)

Review by Sage Birtchwater [BCBW 2019]

Environment and Climate Change Canada scientists did a study on the influence of human-induced climate change on B.C.’s 2017 wildfire season. Published in Earth’s Future (2019), they found the area burned was seven to eleven times larger than would have been expected without human influences on the climate. Most experts predict fires will be bigger, hotter and more dangerous in B.C., Alberta, Australia and California.

The wildfires of 2017 are still fresh in the minds of those who experienced them. For the people across the broad landscape that included Ashcroft, Clinton, 100 Mile House, Williams Lake, Riske Creek, Hanceville, Kleena Kleene, Anahim Lake and the Blackwater region, it was a long hot summer many will never forget.

Two West Chilcotin residents who experienced the maelstrom up close and personal, Chris Czajkowski and Fred Reid, have shared their uniquely different but hauntingly similar experiences in Captured by Fire: Surviving British Columbia’s New Wildfire Reality.
Do you run? Or do you stay?

Many people like Chris Czajkowski and Fred Reid (along with his partner Monika and neighbour Caleb) chose to stay and do what they could to protect their homes and properties. Many insist they would have lost everything otherwise.

Chris Czajkowski describes events of July 7 in Williams Lake. From her mechanic’s shop on Mackenzie Avenue she heard thunder and saw three bolts of lightning strike Fox Mountain east of the city. Within minutes she says a black plume of smoke was “roiling to the heavens.”
After seeing the fire explode on Fox Mountain, her first instinct was to run. But she had to wait two more hours for a friend to arrive by bus from Saskatchewan. Lightning had set off fires at 108 Mile Ranch south of Williams Lake causing the bus to be delayed.

As they climbed Sheep Creek Hill heading west toward the blue sky of the Chilcotin, Chris figured they had dodged the bullet. But her relief was short-lived. At Lee’s Hill, 50 km further on, a roadblock prevented any further travel along Highway 20. A fire touched off by the same storm, was burning at the foot of the hill at Hanceville.

From the vantage point of the hill, Chris photographed the plumes of four fires on the horizon. With Chilcotin ingenuity, she evaded the roadblock by taking a back road detour to Alexis Creek. From there she made her way home to Kleena Kleene unimpeded.
Approaching Kleena Kleene she smelled smoke. Her guts took a twist as the night sky revealed two or three wildfires on the ridge above the highway. The road was wet from rain but the country was tinder dry.

Two hours further down highway 20, Fred and Monika also saw a plume of smoke. Monika spotted it first, west of their home in the Precipice Valley. They live 35 km down a bush road southwest of Anahim Lake. Like Chris they are off the grid and stay connected to the outside world through telephone and internet.

That puff of smoke rising out of the Atnarko Valley later became designated as Wildfire VA0778, or the Precipice/Stillwater/Hotnarko Fire. Within days the fires at the Precipice and Kleena Kleene erupted out of control and residents in both localities were given evacuation orders.

Chris and Fred’s accounts of facing the firestorm and dealing with the bureaucracy charged with fire suppression and public safety rings true for many people across the region. Although their two households are 100 km apart, Fred and Chris are neighbours in every sense of the word.

Particularly delightful is the structure of Captured by Fire, juxtaposing chapters written by each author. In an uncanny way it’s like watching two movies on a split-screen television, with plenty of overlap linking the two narratives. The reader can track events happening simultaneously in Precipice Valley and “downtown” Kleena Kleene from the first lightening strikes of July 7 to the mop up stages in late September.

I’m glad it took two years for fred and Chris to publish their account of that hot and horrific summer. I’m not sure I would have been ready to dive into their gut wrenching narrative any sooner. My own trauma was still too fresh.

From the south side of Williams Lake I also witnessed the incendiary lightening strikes that Chris describes at the beginning of their book. From our home we saw the black pyrocumulonimbus cloud rise from Fox Mountain, then crest the hill and move aggressively toward the Secwepemc community of Sugar Cane and 150 Mile House. More stressing was learning that the airport and the Cariboo Fire Centre, the brain centre for fighting wildfires in the region, had been evacuated.

Eight days later the city of Williams Lake was evacuated and we joined the mass migration south to Kamloops. The normal three-hour trip took us ten-and-a-half hours of bumper-to-bumper gridlock, driving through the night.

We were locked out of our community for two weeks until the evacuation order was lifted. We got home to a city in siege. The army manned checkpoints to stymie looting, and we witnessed the sobering spectacle of a city being reconstituted. The complex infrastructure of even a smallish city like Williams Lake had to be regrouped and its services reintegrated.

Several major grocery stores like Wal-Mart and the Superstore remained closed for many days after people returned, to undergo a thorough cleaning and restocking of inventory. The hospital and seniors homes had closed before the evacuation, and patients and residents were sent to facilities in other cities. Sadly some individuals never survived the upheaval.
Chris and Fred’s telling of these events speak for many across the region. We returned home to Williams Lake at the end of July, but for them the worst was still ahead.

Chris lives several kilometres down a rough dirt road from Highway 20 on the back side of McClinchy Creek, and from her house she has a spectacular view of the Klinaklini Valley. In the beginning, despite the evacuation order, she was able to leave her property if she traveled west, and return again to water her garden and make her buildings more fire-safe. She was given refuge by friends Dennis Kuch and Katie Hayhurst in Stuix along the Atnarko River at the foot of the Bella Coola Hill, about 120 km away.

The route east was cut off because of the Hanceville and Riske Creek fires, but the road west through Anahim Lake to Bella Coola Valley was unimpeded during the early days of the fire. Then the authorities clamped down. They told her if she left, she wouldn’t be allowed home again. So Chris chose to stay.

She was in a quandary. Staying home put her in harm’s way and also endangered the lives of those who ventured in to check on her and try to convince her to leave.

Fred and Monika saw a positive side of the BC Wildfire Service. Throughout most of the fire they were under a different fire management regime headquartered in the Central Coast. Unlike Chris, they had direct contact with the firefighters who established a staging area at their farm, and were given comprehensive information about the fires right from the start.
Fred tells how the community of Anahim Lake supported the residents of the Precipice Valley by showing up with sprinklers and pumps to fireproof the buildings, and help out in other ways as the fire got ever closer to their property.

Through it all Fred and neighbour Caleb, hayed their two ranches. Not only were the fields ready to harvest, but the dry lanky uncut hay was a potential fire hazard.
Chris, on the other hand, was shrouded in a thick blanket of smoke and mostly dealt with authorities concerned with her safety.

Captured By Fire gives the reader a peek at the inner workings of the wildfire-fighting system. You learn the difference between evacuation alert and evacuation order, and are introduced to the complexity and uncertainty of shift changes of those managing a mega fire. Having a new fire boss brought in to relieve the old one can lead to confusion.

Many people across the region were critical of the government’s handling of the massive wildfire event. They say local knowledge, expertise, manpower and equipment was under-utilized or outright disregarded. Distant fire managers from outside the region were calling the shots and sometimes made decisions that accelerated the fires. It was felt that employing local expertise might have avoided those pitfalls.

The book concludes with a disclaimer, however, encouraging citizens in urban communities to obey evacuation orders when confronted by wildfire. “Although we stayed in the face of the Precipice and Kleena Kleene fires, the tragic loss of life in the 2018 California fires highlights the need to obey early evacuation calls,” state the authors.

Chris and Fred are optimistic that the BC Wildfire Service learned to do things differently after receiving feedback about mistakes made in 2017.

Asked if he would ignore an evacuation order again, Fred says he probably would stay to defend his place. “But Monika might go. I didn’t realize how the experience traumatized her.”
Captured by Fire includes maps and line drawings by Chris and Fred, along with dramatic photos taken by both authors and various helicopter pilots.

As a first-time author, Fred says he learned a lot working with Chris Czajkowski who has eleven other titles to her credit. “She did three edits of my work before we sent it to the publisher, and I think working with me affected her writing, too.”

Czajkowski is no stranger to wildfires. In her 2006 book, Wildfire in the Wilderness (Harbour, 2006), she describes her harrowing experiences when the 2004 Lonesome Lake fire forced her to evacuate from her Nuk Tessli wilderness cabin above Charlotte Lake.
Both authors have been visiting communities throughout British Columbia, giving slideshows to promote their book. 978-1-55017-885-2

Author of nine books, Sage Birchwater of Williams Lake has long served as one of B.C.’s most essential historians and journalists.


Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
And the River Still Sings: A Wilderness Dweller's Journey


Harry: A Wilderness Dog Saga (Harbour 2017) $22.95 978-1-55017-809-8
And the River Still Sings: A Wilderness Dweller's Journey (Caitlin Press 2014) $21.95 978-1-927575-50-5
Ginty's Ghost: A Wilderness Dweller's Dream (Harbour, 2012) $21.95 978-1-55017-575-2
A Wilderness Dweller's Cookbook: The Best Bread in the World and Other Recipes (Harbour, 2010).
A Mountain Year: Nature Diary of a Wilderness Dweller (Harbour 2008).
Wildfire in the Wilderness (Harbour, 2006).
Lonesome: Memoirs of a Wilderness Dog (Touchwood Editions, 2004; 2014).
Snowshoes and Spotted Dick: Letters from a Wilderness Dweller (Harbour Publishing, 2003)
Nuk Tessli: The Life of a Wilderness Dweller (Orca Books, 1998).
Diary of a Wilderness Dweller (Orca Books, 1996; reissued by Harbour Publishing 2005).
Cabin at Singing River (Camden House, 1991; reissued by Raincoast Books, 2001).
To Stalk the Oomingmak: An Artist's Arctic Journal (Aquarelle Publishing, 1990).

[BCBW 2017] "Outdoors" "Women"