In search of English Creek

A sign for Dupuyer Creek in Dupuyer, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

A sign for Dupuyer Creek in Dupuyer, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Ivan Doig’s second novel English Creek introduces one of Doig’s best-known literary creations, the McCaskill family. Its main character, Jick McCaskill, is a 14-year-old boy negotiating small-town life in Depression-era Montana, and English Creek is his coming of age story. Jick and the McCaskill’s are loosely based on Doig’s memories of his own family and the people he knew while growing up along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front.

As much as the book is a work of fiction, the places and people in it ring true. English Creek itself winds through fictional composites of the small towns where Doig lived much of his life through high school. “Some of the geography is actual,” writes Doig in the book’s Acknowledgements. “I’m afraid, though, that anyone who attempts to sort the real from the imagined in this book is in for confusion.”

In a way, that has been my job this summer—sorting the real from the imagined in some of Doig’s work. I have been visiting several of the places that Doig wrote about, and trying to capture a feel for them. In the case of the eponymous English Creek, Doig would not necessarily say that it was a real place on the map, but if it were (he has implied), the nearest thing to it would be Dupuyer Creek. That creek runs right through the town of Dupuyer, where I visited earlier this month.

Bear spray is recommended for those traveling along the rocky Mountain front. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Bear spray is recommended for those hiking along the Rocky Mountain Front. Photo by Jeff Rice.

One thing about this creek, however, is very different from the one described in the novel, and from the place experienced by Doig as well. Over the past 20 or so years, some new residents have arrived. Grizzly bears have been expanding their range and now regularly show up in and around the town and other areas along the mountains and prairies. I was told by local residents that the bears like to follow the creek bottoms and will often nap in the heavy brush by the water during hot afternoons. I was advised to keep an eye out and carry bear spray, even when recording the creek in the center of town.

Take a listen to Dupuyer Creek (AKA English Creek) in the recording below. But don’t get too comfortable.

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