The Cougar Lady Chronicles, chapter 13: The hippies

The life and times of Nancy Crowther, Cougar Queen of Okeover Inlet

Previous chapter [“The wolf,” November 22]: After moving back to her wilderness homestead to care for her aging mother, Cougar Nancy continued to have plenty of adventures in the rainforest, including a harrowing encounter with a large wolf that had an appetite for Nancy’s dogs. At the end of the 1960s, her mother had passed away, leaving Cougar Nancy Crowther alone in the log cabin at the end of the road.

For all of the challenges Cougar Nancy faced over the years from cougars, bears and wolves, nothing had prepared her for what would rattle and skid down her muddy dirt road in waves: the hippies.

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The Vietnam War raged on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, and, as had happened with World War II, the impact of Vietnam could be felt all the way to the woods and saltwater inlets of Okeover Arm and Desolation Sound. Seeking escape, scores of draft dodgers, conscientious objectors, deserters, freedom-seekers, back-to-the-landers and hippies flooded the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In chugging Volkswagen vans, they often drove as far as they could, all the way to the end of the road and beyond. Communes were sprouting up in Desolation Sound and in the alder forests around Lund, the terminus of Pacific Coast Highway 101.

Cougar Nancy and her family had worked long and hard for years to build and make Crowther Road official, but now it felt like all of her family’s blood, sweat and toil was coming back to bite them. By building the road, the Crowthers had inadvertently provided a path that led the hippies right to Cougar Nancy’s front door. Very much to Nancy’s consternation, her beaches were the closest launching point to those hippie communes and nude potlucks of Desolation Sound.

Cougar Nancy didn’t know what to make of the hairy human invasion, which was the first significant wave of newcomers since the pioneer age. Now officially an “old-timer,” Cougar Nancy had very little tolerance for the hippie influx, but unlike the real wild animals, she couldn’t shoot these unwanted pests. It didn’t help that, in 1973, a huge area of Desolation Sound was declared a marine park, with plenty of camping sites and very little authority.

Nancy Crowther complained to her neighbours that she couldn’t tell the “lads from the ladies.” The regular arrival of ill-prepared hippies coming and going from her beaches also triggered Cougar Nancy’s rapidly growing paranoia of the outside world. In the early 1970s, Nancy Crowther told the following to a reporter from the Powell River News:

“The stealing by two-legged animals is far worse than the stealing by those on four legs. Someone stole more than half my supply of honey recently. It’s endless what they take: my grain, my hay, my groceries, clams and oysters from the beach. I’ve moved all my grain inside the cabin so people can’t steal it. It’s civilization coming.”

There are conflicting reports as to whether the shaggy newcomers were in fact stealing from Cougar Nancy, or was she becoming delusional?

Here are two people who can shed light on this:

Terry Plain was a West Coast drifter, and for a time in the 1970s, he lived in a shack on Nancy’s homestead, rent-free, in exchange for working on Cougar Nancy’s huge oyster lease. He’ll never forget his first meeting with Nancy when he heard the local legend was looking for a farmhand.

All was quiet when he approached Nancy’s old log cabin for the first time. As soon as he reached the gate, the dogs started up, and a very stern Nancy Crowther appeared with a rifle. According to Terry, by that period, one of Cougar Nancy’s dogs included a ferocious Doberman pinscher named Blue. Nancy told Terry to beat it.

Terry kept coming back, and after about a month of persistence, Nancy finally hired him. Over the course of the next year, Terry worked the oyster lease and lived side by side with Nancy, but according to Terry he never saw evidence of theft, although Cougar Nancy would complain about it often.

According to Terry, Cougar Nancy was so paranoid of stealing that she now almost never left her property. She also had a growing aversion to any kind of electricity, and often complained of “them.”

The hippies? Terry wasn’t sure. One day, after Terry had been away on vacation, Nancy suddenly fired him, feeling the need to, in her words, “clear the decks.”

It turns out that Cougar Nancy wasn’t completely paranoid. Vince Kanigan spent a few years of his youth in the late 1970s working with Tla’amin Nation clam diggers. As they charged out into the inlet on their skiff, Vince always wondered why the diggers would power past what looked like the perfect beach for digging, unaware it was Crowther’s private lease.

Eventually, Vince and his friend hit that beach on their own. After filling three large sacks with what they figured was over $300 worth of clams, Vince and his friend heard the dogs and then saw Crowther charging forward in her checkered mackinaw jacket and gun in hand.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “And what are you doing here?”

Both boys knew who she was and trembled at getting caught red-handed. She explained in no uncertain terms they were on her land, her beach, and the only digging that would be done on that beach would be by her. The boys apologized profusely, and offered to put the clams back, but in the end, Nancy told the boys they could keep the clams as long as they promised to never return. Vince Kanigan kept the promise.

It was in the mid-1970s, when my own family first showed up on Nancy Crowther’s property, doing what all those hippies were doing: looking for the closest place to Desolation Sound to launch our row boat. And as you may have read in chapters one and two of this story, at first, we received much the same treatment as Vince and Terry, but once she figured out we weren’t one of “them,” we became friends with Nancy over the years. It was said that you knew you were on Cougar Nancy Crowther’s good side when she offered you her trademark “cheerio,” as both a friendly hello and goodbye.

Sadly, Cougar Nancy Crowther’s fear of “them” began to completely overwhelm her. Eventually, it drove her right out of her little log cabin. You’ll read that in the next chapter of the Cougar Lady Chronicles.

Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author and a CBC personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home. Portions of the Cougar Lady Chronicles originally appeared in Lawrence ’s book Adventures in Solitude and on CBC Radio. Anyone with stories or photos they would like to share of Nancy Crowther are welcome to email grantlawrence12@gmail.com.

 
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