The gully off Gryfalcon Avenue. (Photo Gerry Leibel)

Kitimat’s gullies – a world below the surface

By Walter Thorne

Kitimat in those first three decades of the 50s, 60s and 70s was such a special place for adults.

However, to the youth it was just their home – they didn’t know or care how new and special it was – they were just little kids.

They didn’t realize the nature of their uniquely planned community which featured three principal neighbourhoods connected by generous greenbelts with walkway connections which provided over- and underpass crossings of some roads.

Almost everything about it was planned. Clarence Stein’s garden city model went all out and would garner attention worldwide.

In the plan, the playgrounds were lavish and included summertime wading pools. Parents were content in knowing that their neighbourhoods and their kids were so well provided for.

Kitimat kids – by the 70s there were seven schools full of them – liked their community. There was lots to do in their world even in the days before the internet and video games.

They learned to like and know their outdoor environment and parents expected their kids to go outside and play.

According to some who share their reminiscences on Facebook, it wasn’t, however, the planned neighbourhood facilities that really appealed to the youth of those days but instead the out of sight out of mind gully locations.

Those gullies became quite an underground attraction luring the youth of our northern town into the woods. Parents often cautioned their kids not to go down to the gullies but it was hopeless; those gullies just drew them in.

Kitimat had several connected gully areas. The most prominent of the in-town gullies were the ones in upper Sumgass Creek which ran from behind Cormorant School and the Shell gas station over to Dunn Street.

The gullies were never a significant feature in Stein’s plans and were mostly ignored. Some of the gullies were filled when the bulldozers were levelling neighbourhood sites.

Stein did provide connecting pathways through these gully areas but he never envisioned the extent to which the gullies would be used.

The connecting pathway through the gully behind old Cormorant Elementary has always been special but Stein’s other connecting gully pathway between Dunn Street and Lahakas near the Shell station was never realized. However there was still a gully network of trails and even some municipal culverts and infrastructure.

The gullies weren’t only in the Sumgass drainage. Gullies adjacent to Hirsch Creek behind the Mount Elizabeth High School track were also quite alluring.

Dirk Mendel can recall teenagers trekking down with skates to the ponds beside the creek when fall freeze-ups provided the opportunity.

Kitimat gullies in those days were also good for picking blueberries.

Parents would often consent to gully adventures when prospective bowls of blueberries or huckleberries were involved – inevitably it meant purple stains all over the face and sometimes clothes.

The gullies provided many forts – and, no, they weren’t all constructed and used by only boys. Torsten Kafanke tells us that his older sister Maja had built at least one which Torsten and his friend Andy Palaniak later inherited.

Craig MacKay recalls the girls near Hawk Street were every bit as tough as the boys. Lucy MacRae confirms that in her long summer days that started at 8 a.m. and ended at 10 at night – the gullies were where the action was.

Her mom had a special whistle she used when getting her kids up from the gully.

Torsten says that prior to the startup of Eurocan he and many friends from Nechako, especially the Heron Street area, would go cruising for building materials.

They used their bikes to travel through the nearly completed Whitesail neighbourhood scavenging bits and pieces of lumber from contractor scrap heaps they came across. They would then haul them sometimes as far as South Hirsch up Forest Avenue.

The creativity of those youngsters was amazing. Some of the structures were sizable and many were elevated with ladders for access. They sometimes even had canvas and tarpaulin roofs.

There were a lot of dangers in the gullies but they were kids so they weren’t worried. Bears were frequently seen and on occasion, the bruins were shooed away.

Torsten can recall himself with a group of friends throwing stones towards the bears seen lower down the slopes.

There were also the culverts and even a wooden sluiceway. Water was always so attractive and youthful engineers were forever trying to redirect the watercourses.

One buried culvert by the Lutheran Church emerged downslope near the Heron Street wading pool. Near where it emerged was a bank of dense marine clay and beside that was the pipe entrance and, yes, it was possible to enter.

In fact it was reported that several youngsters were able to tunnel right through the piping way up to where it originated. Needless to say, the parents had no idea.

Periodic summer grass fires were also a common feature of those days of yore. It always seemed to involve a delinquent arsonist but other youths often had the fires stamped out well before Chief Dawson’s little Jenny Jeep arrived with blaring siren. The authorities never seemed to realize that the arsonist used delayed candles for igniting the grass.

Long before paintball games were commonplace, Nechako’s gully gang had designed a similar activity involving the blue clay.

Some youth did try moulding them into conventional bowls with limited success but what was much more fun were the war games where your arsenal consisted of hundreds of little wet clay balls propelled by whip-like flexible willow cuttings. Apparently they could be flicked with considerable power and accuracy.

They were a big hit around Heron Street and often older siblings instructed the younger ones on just how to do it.

Kitimat has always been special and its planned facilities are no doubt beyond ordinary. But it was what wasn’t planned which captured Kitimat youth some 40 years ago.

It was our other playground, our gully network which made Kitimat just a great place to grow up as a kid.

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