A Toketic Road adventure

A road meant for contemplation, not for four-wheeled vehicles.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

If you have ever glanced across the Thompson River as you are driving north of Spences Bridge, you will see what looks like a narrow road running along the benches, and through the canyons. Not a road for contemplation, to be sure. The eyes through that circuitous passage above the Thompson River must fasten on the highway.

The Toketic Road across the Thompson is on Indian land. The land of the Nlaka’pamux people of the Thompson River corridor. Years ago, it serviced the native people living on the benches, high above the river. Most, if not all, the original homes of the families are gone. But I can recall a time when some of them stood in pristine isolation against the backdrop of a mountain, apparently nameless. A mountain as ageless as time itself, its surface sheered off during the Ice Age. Left to the evolution of nature.

Anyone who has ever traversed the Toketic Road will vouch for its perilous descent and ascent along those alluvial fans sparsely covered with juniper and pine eroded by the weather. In the book, Early Indian Village Churches, by John Veillette and Gary White, published by the University of British Columbia in 1977, they describe the Toketic Road, thus: “Only the poor, narrow, winding road from Spences Bridge and the equally poor and longer road from Ashcroft, make Pokhaist accessible by automobile.”

The object of the authors was to photograph and study a tiny wooden church at the base of a monumental rock slide. The Anglican church of St. Aiden lies at the bottom of the slide in what the authors describe as “splendid isolation”. Truer words were never spoken. But for the few who have done so, if permission was granted, the adventure of travelling the Toketic Road is one that will never be forgotten.

St. Aiden’s has become a landmark for travellers on the highway across the Thompson River. The church sits intact, just high enough above the river to make it safe from the periodic flooding that occurs. But the wonder of it being there at all, with the massive slide of rock and gavel immediately behind it, seems a kind of miracle. The wooden structure seems as frail as any wind blown, weathered relic from another age. Yet it still stands, and the basic structure must have been soundly built in the 1880’s by the devout residents of those lonely benches.

I’ve been told that farm wagons pulled by horses, travelled the Toketic to attend St. Aidens church whenever an Anglican priest visited. The area is broad, and the churches that sprinkle the river corridors of the Thompson and Nicola Rivers are few and far between. Then, and as now, the churches all along the Canyon are visited by a priest or vicar.

The book describes St. Aiden’s church, thusly: “Everything about the church is plain, except for the hint of the Gothic style of the windows,” and the “shallow pointed arch above the four paneled door.” The authors were allowed to enter the church, but the description is all too brief.  The walls are”sheathed in unstained tongue and groove cedar.”

From across the Thompson River, I painted plein air, St. Aiden’s in its “splendid isolation”. The painting was exhibited in Merritt and purchased by a resident there. I have since seen photographs and perhaps a painting of this landmark done by others, attracted not only by the tiny church against the mountain, but the scope and strength of the total setting.

In Spences Bridge itself, the church of St. Michaels and All Angels sits on bench of the Thompson River. Unlike St Aiden’s, this church is accessible by highway and road. But the survival of St. Michael’s and All Angels is another miracle, when, in 1905, every house in the native village was destroyed by a monumental landslide. The log houses were simply swept away into a corner against the embankment.

An account of the slide reads: “So complete was the destruction that not two boards, nor two logs held together with the one exception of the roof of the church, which carried far from its original site, surmounted the debris and wreckage” (Inland Sentinel, 15 August, 1905).

A new village and a new church began almost immediately after the landslide. The exterior of St. Michaels and All Angels has shakes covering the original cove siding. The church tower roof is octagonal, which is somewhat unique, and is mounted on a square tower in what the authors describe as “an extremely original manner”. There are two windows on each side of the building. The completion of the church’s erection took place in 1906.

The Toketic Road was, for many years, the only means of transport for those living on benches above the Thompson between Ashcroft and Spences Bridge. We could, therefore, call it a historic road. Trips into Spences Bridge to shop at the general store were made by horse and wagon. It must have been a grand sight to see such wagons filled with family members on those occasions, as well as those when worship, funeral and other services were held at St. Aidens.

It might be difficult to imagine those times before motor vehicles traversed our highways, and even our by-ways, like the Toketic Road. Despite what seems a perilous journey, people made the journey weekly or monthly, the horses stolidly plowing up and descending into the canyons, slowly, with horse bells perhaps, ringing as they went.

But history is full of anomalies, and, recalling the words of Father Tierney, an Anglican priest of another St. Micheals and All Angels, in Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge district, “The strength of man is not known.”

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