July 10th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 28
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Nez Perce – A Childhood Playground Remembered
Looking Back
John Kinnear Photo
Seven 1.5 meter culverts on 19 ave
Seven new culverts, thirty foot (9 m.) long and five feet (1.5 m.) in diameter, are now sitting stockpiled on 19 avenue in Coleman, waiting to replace the crumbling Nez Perce tunnel that has passed water under that avenue for many decades now. The task looks daunting when viewed from the museum grounds where the tunnel runs under their yard towards 18 avenue.

There is a twenty-foot-high concrete wall it passes under, that elevates 19 avenue above that yard. A supervisor explained to me how it all will go with part of the wall taken out and the part of the museum yard area backfilled to a slope after installation. This is going to be tricky business for sure. They are now in a waiting game for low water sometime after mid-July to begin. They way things are going weather wise Nez Perce may not cooperate on this.

This culvert install is part of the downtown infrastructure project that has snarled up traffic and mail collecting for months now. In the end it looks like we will have a lovely inviting core area that many hope will rejuvenate this nationally named historic site.
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As I stood above the north entrance to this concrete tunnel recently it brought back childhood memories of sixty years ago when this eleven year old was hanging out a lot in the area. Back then I was known as Jackie and his world (circa 1959) was so much simpler. It was a time when the principle playgrounds of a young boy were: the bush, the creeks, homemade ball fields and the back alleys of Coleman. Ah yes, those unlit back alleys. The perfect place for playing kick the can, hide and seek and raidin’ gardens.

I spent a lot of my youth “up the bush”; building cabins, hunting grouse and skinny dipping in both McGillivray and Nez Perce Creeks. The water was always cold as hell but a roaring bonfire afterwards helped to drive away the frog’s legs. This might be a local term but as I recall it refers to the red network of marks that used to appear on the fronts of our legs after an icy dip in the creek or the old West Coleman swimming hole.

Nez Perce Creek was my favourite hangout as a kid and a walk up the Miner’s Path these days brings back a ton of memories. Winter on the Nez Perce, in amongst those giant, ancient Douglas firs, was an amazing time for a bored kid. Freeze thaw cycles would transform the frozen surface of the creek into a beautifully smooth undulating sheet of ice that one could slide down with abandon. It became a magical alternative to the actual Miner’s Path that one could walk up, albeit carefully. Nothing sounds worse or hurts more that conkin’ your noggin’ on ice.
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As we worked our way up the creek, past the now condemned second bridge and the wooden steps that lead up to the old McGillivray mine site, we would eventually come to what we called Rainbow Falls. Winter would transform Nez Perce’s waters, pouring over this conglomeratic sandstone step, into a vertical wall of ice. Crawling behind this wall and watching water trickle through inside the ice column was always a thrill. In summer, behind this waterfall, the water ouzel (dipper bird) used to hide and build its nest.

Above the falls at one time was the old Coleman dam, a control structure, now daylighted, that was designed to supply head pressure and water to the town. It provided 130 pounds at the hydrant, enough to throw an untrained fireman around pretty good during the annual hose laying competition. The dam was a simple log and concrete structure with a small overflow flume and a control gate at its base. That release gate was opened and closed by a big horizontal wheel and gear on the top of the dam that the town prudently kept a lock and chain on. You gotta know that if we could have we would have opened that sucker up. And run like hell.

In winter the dam’s surface would freeze fairly deep and as spring approached the thick ice would break up into large chunks. The game then was to jump to and from these treacherous teetering blocks and also try and steer them with long poles. A tricky playground that would have made our mothers faint dead out but we were quick and sure footed.
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The only incident I can recall up that way was Claire (Fabro) Seamen taking an unexpected trip one summer, off the then slimey flume to the rocks below. Ouch! She got a broken ankle for her troubles and her mother, the one and only Mary Fabro, read the riot act to us about hanging around that dam dam!

In summer there was an annual dam event that we wouldn’t miss for the world. Once a year the flow gate was opened and the dam cleaned out and inspected. My father, who was town foreman at the time, used to joke that they needed to make sure there wasn’t a dead moose at the bottom.

At any rate, being his son I was privy to knowing when the annual release would occur. A few of us bored preteeners used to play a dare devil game with the wall of water, logs and debris that was the leading edge of this release.

We would wait with great anticipation in Flumerfelt Park at the north entrance to the tunnel that passes under the highway until we saw the “wall of death”, as we called it, roar by the camp shelter. Then we would scramble down the tunnel, which had a ninety degree bend at its south exit, and wait around that corner. We could hear the rush of water and the clonking of rocks rolling down the concrete floor of the tunnel as it approached us but couldn’t see it coming. The tunnel amplified those sounds greatly and it was unnerving to hear but not see that mess of branches, rocks and water coming.
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It was a game of nerves to see how long we would wait before we fled out the other end. The trick then was to grab the top of the eight foot culvert at the exit and flip yourself over and up on top of it as the “wall of death” roared past us and on through town. It was an absolute riot. It is funny though how a kid’s imagination can make two feet of rushing water into a killer tsunami!

The south exit was eventually covered over in later years so the creek reappears quite a ways downstream by an old wooden bridge over the back alley which is now blocked by a big boulder for safety reasons. Below the bridge is that second tunnel under 19th Avenue I mentioned, a place so spooky and foreboding that it took several tries before some of us had the nerve to creep through its length. According to that intrepid flume skier Claire:“To walk through that tunnel was a rite of passage, an initiation ritual through giant spiders and dark pools with God knows what in them.” The faint light at the south end exit gives the terrified soul hope that we would make it through.

High above the north entrance to this tunnel a storm drain empties into the creek. And therein lays an even more bizarre story. On a dare, in the summer of ’59, a crazy Italian friend of mine name Renato Bradotti crawled up inside that culvert then proceeded one block east, then one block north and then incredibly under the highway. He finally gave up his spelunking at the storm drain in front of the First and Last Gas Bar, known as the BA (British American) Service Station back then. Then just for laughs he hollered up through the drain at a lady passing by and scared the livin’ daylights out of her. He then retraced this bizarre underground crawl back to the entrance and told me to try it. What me? Really? Ah what the hell. If he can do it.

I had only got about thirty feet or so up that drain when I looked back to see that Renato had stuffed the entrance with branches and dry grass and lit it on fire. I’ll never forget his cackling laugh as I scrambled east to the first wooden slatted storm drain opening where the air was okay and waited for Renato’s fire to go out.

Now that’s good old fashioned kid fun. No high tech gaming. No loud overly dramatic action/murder movie shows. Author Rick Gillis, whose terrific book on growing up in Blairmore (The Boy Who Couldn’t Die - centering in the 1950s and 60s) is a hilarious litany of such adventures. Rick would probably call my stories just typical edgy kids stuff. Dam good think my mother didn’t know what I was up to sometimes.
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July 10th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 28
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