Old Lives

In the Chilcotin Backcountry

By John Schreiber

Categories: BC History
Imprint: Caitlin Press
Paperback : 9781894759557, March 2011


Set in the wild country north of Lillooet and west of the great Fraser River, Old Lives: In the Chilcotin Backcountry paints the rugged landscape and equally rugged lives of the Chilcotin’s enigmatic old-timers: aboriginal and settler, male and female, deceased and alive. It takes vigilance, persistence, courage and humour to live where survival requires a deep knowledge and trust of the land, where prosperity is synonymous with self-sufficiency and where thriving is dependent upon a community of neighbours and friends who can be counted on in the direst of times.

In his second collection of Chilcotin stories, John Schreiber unveils an urban life that continues to encroach upon the BC Interior, and as it does, the old ways disappear; traditional knowledge and skills are forgotten, and the legends fade into myth. Old Lives is a book that acknowledges and honours the region’s backcountry elders, their way of life and the wild liveliness of the great Chilcotin land where they have existed for centuries.


  • Short-listed, Victoria Book Award 2011


John Schreiber is a natural poet of the landscape west of the Rockies. Like his counterpart Gary Snyder in California’s Sierra Nevada, he explores the country, on foot or in the Pathfinder, taking the nearly-forgotten roads and trails. Not much misses his eye and ear — tracks of grizzlies, remote graveyards, an unexpected gathering of kikuli pits, pygmy owls and coyotes in the darkness, even a hermit thrush singing near a campsite.


Read this book for its fine prose, its celebration of what’s been lost or might still exist on remote ranches in the Chilcotin country where a pot of coffee goes around and someone begins to tell a story of the old days. Individually these pieces recount trips to Tatla Lake or the Potato Mountains; collectively the result is a vast but specific cartography, a mythography that we are richer for encountering.


— Theresa Kishkan

"You meet an array of historic figures in the ten essays that make up Old Lives, including the infamous Theodor “BS” Valleau, Eagle Lake Henry, Trapper Annie Nicholson, Bern Mullins, Donald Ekks, Emily Lulua, Pete McCormick, and the notorious Donald McLean among others. Perhaps my favourite chapter is Larry Emile’s Drum, where you get a strong sense of how John moves through the countryside and sees the world. His close-up encounters with the people he bumps into peel back the layers of the superficial.


Schreiber describes the Chilcotin through mythological eyes. He says the old stories have an element of “myth time” that make them profound. His walks and experiences touch on that too. Sadly, he says, western society has turned the word “myth” into meaning a lie. “There is power in myth. It’s more than just telling a story.” He quotes Joseph Campbell: “Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of mystery that underlies all forms.”

Schreiber concludes that mystery, like mythology, can only ever be wild."

Prince George Free Press