(Photos: Anne Mullens)
Sunday morning, July 12, 2009: A tiny boy wearing a diaper and a green pyjama top floats silently down the Peace River in northeastern British Columbia. He is precariously balanced on his overturned toy truck, clutching its thin metal axle between the wheels. The slightest shift in his weight and he will be tossed into the cold waters of the wide, fast-moving river. He is whimpering. A logjam looms ahead.
The boy’s name is Demetrius, but his family calls him Peanut. His birthday party is set for later today. He will be three years old. His mother, father, younger brother, Dante, and grandparents are at a riverside campground about five kilometres away. Only now do they realize Peanut is gone.
Steep banks rise from the river. Dense boreal forest is all around. Bald eagles, mule deer, black bears, foxes, coyotes and moose are the only eyes watching.
The Jones family arrived on Friday at Peace Island Park, in Taylor, B.C., about 50 kilometres north of Dawson Creek. More than 20 friends and family members, including a great-grandmother, had come camping for the weekend, in part to celebrate Peanut’s birthday.
The family lives in nearby Fort St. John, the oil and gas capital of British Columbia. Big trucks are everywhere. Peanut is the kind of go-go child who makes truck-engine noises when he plays. Every steering wheel must be held, every tire poked.
Driving trucks is part of the family business. Peanut’s grandmother Anita Neudorf, 44, owns a delivery company with her husband, Monty, and drives a one-ton “pilot” truck all over northern B.C. Monty, 44, is a foreman for an oil exploration company, and he also drives a one-ton truck. Peanut’s parents, Heather, 22, and Joseph Jones, 25, work for Anita – Joseph’s mother – in the courier arm of the family business.
Peanut’s favourite truck, however, is his electric one, a bright-red miniature pickup his grandmother found at a garage sale. It runs on a battery – it can go for hours on one charge – and has seats big enough for two toddlers to ride. (Still, Peanut’s four-month-old brother, Dante, was too young to ride with him.)
Peace Island Park is on the Taylor Flats, a large plain beside the Peace River. The river flows from the Rockies through Alberta, where it joins the Slave River. The Alaska Highway runs alongside the park, and a highway bridge crosses the river.
The large, 60-site campground where Demetrius and his family were staying is the size of at least five football fields, with willow, aspen and thickets of bush throughout. Black bears are sometimes seen. There is a children’s playground with slides and swings, a playing field and a group picnic area. A gravel road leads past the campsites to the boat launch.
For the weekend, Monty brought his jet-propelled riverboat. The boat draws very little water, enabling it to explore shallow streams, yet is still powerful enough to churn through strong currents. Riverboating on the Peace is popular.
About 200 people were at their campground that weekend, and Peanut’s family knew many of the other campers.