The song Man of Constant Sorrow, written by legendary folk artist Bob Dylan, hits close to home for Lake Country Mayor James Baker.
In the first verse, Dylan writes ‘I’ll say goodbye to Colorado where I was born and partly raised.’
Substitute the B.C. Fraser Canyon town of Lytton for Colorado and you understand why Baker feels a kinship to the song.
Baker was born 80 years ago in May 1941 in Lytton – which saw 90 percent of the town wiped out by fire on Wednesday, June 30 – 12 days ahead of Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota). And the fire that wiped the majority of his hometown has been weighing heavily on Baker’s mind.
“I’m trying to find out who and what is still there,” said Baker Sunday, July 4. “It’s been quite a shock.”
He left his Lytton homestead in the Botanie Valley as a teen to go explore Toronto and work for the CBC. He returned west to attend Simon Fraser University in Burnaby where he earned degrees in political science, sociology and anthropology, and a master’s degree in archaeology. His interest in anthropology and archaeology, Baker said, stemmed from talking with elders in Lytton growing up, sometimes at the Copper Kettle Café started in the early 20th century by his grandmother on his mother’s side, and later ran by his mother.
“The bands that surround Lytton were eventually created but first, in the pioneer days, everybody did the same things, like farming, and worked together, natives and settlers, until the Indian Act in 1876,” said Baker. ‘Then the natives had to deal strictly with Ottawa.
“Today, Lytton is totally integrated. (Acting Chief) John Haugen of the Lytton First Nation, his mother worked in our restaurant and the Haugen family remains good friends. Ruby Dunstan was the first native to be on the school board. My father was the chiar of the South Cariboo School District and there was a vacancy because a trustee died. Before the next election back then, the chair could appoint somebody and dad appointed Ruby (who went on to become the first female Chief of the Lytton First Nation).”
The family restaurant burned at the hand of an arsonist some time ago. Baker’s homestead area, central to the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, may have been lost in last week’s fire from what he can see on the Internet.
“In 1949, five businesses burned in downtown but the winds weren’t so bad so it didn’t take the whole town out,” said Baker. “The winds now blow strongly because of the confluence of the Fraser and the Thompson. The wind comes up and down both rivers at considerable speed.”
Baker has family still in Lytton. He said Sunday he hasn’t spoken to any of them directly, but has heard through a niece that everyone was safe. People he grew up with, though, he has no idea if they made it out safely.
“There’s a lack of cell service and everyone scattered in every direction (when the fire hit) and haven’t reconnected with people in some cases,” he said. “I don’t really know who is missing, who is dead or who might be somewhere that didn’t have time to take their phone with them.”
If given a chance, Baker said he will certainly take a drive to Lytton to look around at the devastation. And while he’s in a state of sadness, Baker is convinced his hometown will rise from the ashes.
“No doubt whatsoever,” he said when asked if Lytton will rebuild. “They’re a resilient bunch. It will be back in some form.”