Today I stumbled upon a piece I wrote in 2007 about Birk Sproxton, shortly after his passing in March that year, at age 63. It’s about Birk and the Hanson Lake Road in Saskatchewan. I never published it.
As we celebrate new work and writers young and older — that community of like and disparate beings — who are starting or continuing to write, it is important to recall those who have passed on, whose work is/was important to us. So here’s my nod to Birk.
On Birk’s Road
I can’t remember now where I first met Birk. I’d heard of him and his book Headframes through bpNichol in Toronto in the ’80s. I might have heard Birk read around then in Toronto. Or I might have first met him at a writers’ conference in Winnipeg in the early ’90s. After whatever first meeting we had, he kept turning up where I was, or I was nearby and able to turn up where he was — at other conferences, at Sage Hill Writing Experience, at a reading at the University of Regina, and elsewhere. Wherever he was, he was a spark.
He invited me for at least three occasions to read or be a writer-in-residence at Red Deer. He has also invited my wife Jill Robinson to similar posts, as he did recently for the May 2008 residency. She said that “it will seem strange, so strange, that Birk is not there. We will miss him very much.” He had passed on between his invitation to her and the residency dates.
I’ve always enjoyed my time in Birk’s proximity. He had a lively and determined energy and a generous heart. I thought he’d be with us forever. Well, he remains with us now, through his published words, and in the memories of we lucky ones who got to know him.
I’ve driven the Hanson Lake Road in Saskatchewan a number of times — with Jill, our son Emmett and with my Mom, Ruth, as we’ve all travelled to visit our friends — writer Dave Carpenter and his wife, the painter Honor Kever — at their cabin at Little Bear Lake, east of Prince Albert, then a few hours north on the Hanson Lake Road. The road goes north then north-east from Smeaton to the Manitoba border at Flin Flon, and is also known as Highway # 106.
After I’d driven that route a number of times, Birk published Phantom Lake: North of 54. In that book, a story called “Hanson Lake Road Begins in Smeaton” caught my attention. It’s a terrific and vividly funny tale — is it fiction or non-fiction? It tells of a character who sounds like Birk — and a wife named Sally. They have a misadventure that unfolds in Smeaton as the male character is about to set out on the Hanson Lake Road heading for Flin Flon. If you haven’t read it, please do — I’ll tell no more, but leave it to you to discover or reread, and enjoy.
I will be travelling that road at the end of this month, and many more times I hope, to go fishing with Carpenter. I will pass through Smeaton. It’s a tiny place and you can’t miss the Co-op Gas Station or the Hotel that are featured in Birk’s story.
On my trip and every trip thereafter, I’m sure I’ll see Birk, the story’s (quote) “old guy” with the broken leg getting out of the blue car, clutching his crutches and crossing the road to answer a surprising phone call at the Smeaton Hotel.
I’ll stop at the Co-op for a few minutes, then head up the Hanson Lake Road — I’ll consider it ‘Birk’s Road’ — and I’ll travel it thinking of him.