Caught by the River

Five Rivers – March

Malcolm Anderson | 6th April 2016

FiveRivers-Alps-1 Words and pictures: Malcolm Anderson

Dreams are strange things.

They can feel so real that even after waking you’re left with those long moments of certainty that what you’ve just dreamt is real, that things, no matter how outlandish, are somehow reality. For years I had a recurring dream that I’d buried someone’s body under the patio behind the house.

Now, before anyone calls the police just hold your horses a second. I’d have to point out that I don’t think I’ve actually ever lived in a house with a body-sized patio, or in fact a patio of any kind. It’s only as that recollection of my patio free life slowly coalesces in my mind that the dream evaporates like fog on a sunny day and the irrational fear of being chased by the police for my body burying activities fades.

Tonight however, and I’m not sure why, I’ve been dreaming of water. I’m floating on my back down the Avon as it chuckles into Salisbury, a bearded Ophelia with less hair and no flouncy frock if you will. Eyes open, soaking in the surroundings as I drift silently south.

The river has a certain look to it at this time of year during the short lull between the close of the coarse fishing season and the start of the trout one. The Avon flows un-fished for these short weeks, not quite the crystal gin of a summer chalkstream, nor yet with the angry torrent of a full winter spate; its deep jade colour, milky with oxygen, cries COLD in capital letters. Its depths are hidden but are mysterious rather than sinister, its shallows obscured and opaque, giving tantalizing glimpses of gravel and the fresh new shoots of weed. Its surface buckles and kicks over sub-surface obstructions causing a shimmering riot of reflections as the current pushes through at pace, heading hurriedly for the sea.


Last season’s willow whips erupting from the gnarled old pollards on the riverbank are the deep red-orange of a setting summer sun. Along the spindly branches, male willow catkins are just bursting from their silvery cocoons, filigree yellow flowers adding some colour to branches in the absence of leaves. Beneath the trees bright yellow daffodil bells mirror the catkin colours as they dance in the breeze as it funnels down the Woodford Valley from Amesbury.

Something interrupts the dreamy journey and slowly consciousness returns. I realise as I wake that I’m not at home; in fact I’m nowhere near my rivers at all.

Looking upwards through still-groggy eyes, a sky the colour of Turkish Delight wrappers glows through the slanting velux window in the roof above me. I lie still a while, getting my bearings and soaking in the view through the un-curtained window which fills the gable end in front of me, framing a brooding mountain silhouetted against a lightening purple sky. I’m staying at 2000m above sea level in the Tarentaise Valley in the department of Savoie, historically part of the old Duchy of Savoy, which was annexed by France in 1860. Unlike somewhere like Chamonix, which sits down low at 1000m above sea level further north from here, the sun rises early and sets late. I’m planning a trip up to the Pointe de la Masse at 2804m, a short hike up and past the weather station and then a descent down, off the back, to the refuge du Lac du Lou but the lightening sky has woken me early so for now I must doze and rest here while the other Chalet residents snore behind pine walls.


Memory keeps me company while I rest and bide my time, remembering years spent running away to the solitude of the mountains and the companionship of the like-minded people they attract.

In 1989, when I had not much but a skateboard and some clothes to my name, no career or ties and much younger bones I left the soft folds of the Dorset landscape having seen a picture of a snowboarder in Thrasher magazine. That image lodged in my 19 year old skateboarder’s brain and burrowed in like a tapeworm. At the time snowboarding just looked so fucking punk rock, so anarchic and free that I had to go. Had to see what this brave new world looked, felt and smelt like, and escape the confines of Thatcher era Britain. So with no visa and a pretty vague plan to stay with relations off I went to Whistler Mountain, British Columbia.

I ended up sharing a house with two second cousins and a bunch of stoner ski bums for the winter on the shores of Alta Lake. I had no job, no visa and got by, as the song goes, with a little help from my friends. I shovelled snow, I made pizzas; I did whatever it took to afford to live in a ski resort.

I couldn’t afford a lift pass so I used to head across to Creekside and hike up to the mid-station and then ride the lifts for free from there on. On the days where I couldn’t afford a pass and couldn’t hike up I would explore the construction sites buried under a thick blanket of snow around Blueberry Hill and ride off the little urban jumps and cliffs like a winter skateboarder.

At the time all of my gear was held together with duct tape and most was old ski gear that was begged, borrowed and stolen from anywhere I could find stuff. My boots were a pair of Sorell work boots with a pair of liners pinched from ski boots shoved inside, and yes, they were held together with more of the grey-silver sticky-backed lifesaver.

At the time, there were probably only a dozen or so snowboarders living in the village so I found myself in the thick of the noise and colour of the very scene I’d set out to find, all Californian skate-punk soundtracked and lurid neon coloured. I found the act of snowboarding itself addictive, an aggressive entertainment which is perfectly tempered by the stunningly beautiful mountains of British Columbia and the peace and tranquility that hits you once you step off the main resorts.


The common thread of every single person living in the village being there because of the ski hill meant that the few snowboarders who actually lived locally got to know each other and I was helped out by many figures who went on to shape the snowboard industry as it exists today. But with no money to really join in the après-ski part of the partying it didn’t quite work. Like living in London and not being able to afford to go out and see bands play, use the tube or go out for a pint.

We made our own entertainment of course and had a bloody good time, but not joining everyone at the bar every day set me apart just that little bit. I was an outsider on the fringes of a scene made up of outsiders.

After a conversation with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police one day at the post office collecting my mail about how long a young English boy with no visa had been staying in the village I tucked tail and ran back to Dorset. But by then the damage had been done, I was deeply in love with mountains, snow and the camaraderie provided by a shared interest and music tastes with a community of generation X’ers.

Back in England life moved on. Casual jobs became a career, girlfriends became a wife and seasons in the snow became too-short weeks away. But, no matter where I lived I was a snowboarder in my heart. I always had that to retreat to.

Once the magic of the early years disappeared and I was stuck married to someone who didn’t love me back, those weeks away became my escape from the constraints of disappointment and expectation. My opportunity to feel like somewhere out there, the real Malcolm still existed. Leaving the mountains at the end of each trip felt like leaving home.

The silky shuffle of slippered feet on tiled floors and the promising click of the kettle bring me back to the present and out of daydreams of the past. Today is the last day of this trip, I’m determined to make the most of the snow conditions off-piste and the clear sky above my head promises a perfect bluebird day.

I get up and head downstairs to the noise and companionship of a chalet full of snowboarders and skiers, to a bustle and routine I know well but reflect as I go that this trip feels different. There’s been a subtle yet seismic shift in the last year. This year, for the first time I can remember, I don’t feel like I’m going to be leaving home when I leave the mountains. I’ve had an amazing trip but this time I actually feel eager to get back. Back to Savages. Back to my home.

Malcolm Anderson on Caught by the River