The Cougar Lady Chronicles, chapter 15: The end

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

Previous chapter [“The yellow truck,” December 6]: In the 1980s, Nancy Crowther’s behavior became increasingly erratic. She told others that her mysterious foes known only as “them” had finally invaded her little log cabin, forcing her to move out. First, she slept in a tent on the hillside of her property, then in her rusty yellow pickup truck. Then everything came to a crashing halt.

“I believe that cancer is the result of wrong living. I don’t mean evil living, I mean not caring for that most wonderful thing: our body. Worry, stress, overwork, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and above all, wrong food. We need to face the fact that the body is the temple of our soul. We only have one body. No magician or doctor can work wonders to completely undo the damage our neglect had caused to our most precious belonging: our body.”

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That’s a journal entry of Cougar Nancy Crowther’s from sometime in the early 1980s, but as too many of us know, too well, you can live a healthy lifestyle and still be struck by the ravages of cancer.

Throughout her life, Cougar Nancy lived a rigorous physical life. She spent most of it outside, in the wilderness, by the ocean. She was constantly moving and had the muscles to prove it.

She grew her own fruits, nuts and vegetables, and canned the surplus for the winter months. She raised her own livestock for eggs, meat, milk and honey. When she killed a predator, she’d skin it, butcher it and can the meat.

She also had a big, bountiful oyster farm. She knew oysters were one of the superfoods of the sea, packed with nutrients and proteins.

If you were ever lucky enough to try Cougar Nancy’s oyster stew, cleaning the bottom of the bowl with a slice of Nancy’s homemade bread, you’d never forget it. So what was wrong with Nancy? Was it indeed social isolation, which is what most of the locals believed?

On a rare trip into Powell River in the late 1980s, Cougar Nancy got into a car crash in her Dodge pickup truck at the busy intersection of Alberni Street and Joyce Avenue. Nancy was seemingly unharmed, as were the occupants in the other car, but the damage to her truck was enough that it couldn’t be driven until fixed.

Nancy’s niece Ivy came to the rescue, picking up her aunt and asking her where she needed to go. “Overwaitea,” Nancy replied, for some needed groceries. Cougar Nancy assured her niece that she could get back to her homestead on her own by taking a taxi.

Ivy has never forgotten saying goodbye to her aunt that day. Nancy got out of the car and walked into the store, without turning around to offer her trademark “cheerio,” which struck Ivy as very uncharacteristic.

Ivy later found out that Nancy had become disoriented in the store and had wandered the streets of Powell River, confused, until someone recognized her and took her to the hospital. From there, Nancy Crowther was flown to Vancouver General Hospital, one of the few flights she ever took in her lifetime. It was there, in the foreign environment of a large hospital in a modern city, Nancy Crowther was informed that she had brain cancer.

Nancy hadn’t gone bush; she had a brain tumour. That explained much of her behaviour, hallucinations and paranoia. The tumour was large and inoperable.

Nancy was moved to an extended care unit in Powell River to live out the last few months of her life. Her extended family would visit, breaking the nurses orders by sneaking Nancy two of her favourites: peanut butter and ice cream.

On June 30, 1990, Nancy Crowther passed away at the age of 71. Had she lived, the Cougar Queen of Okeover Inlet would have turned 100 in July of 2018. The Cougar Queen had a small graveside funeral at Powell River Regional Cemetery in Cranberry, where both of her parents are also buried.

Her tombstone reads: In Loving Memory: Crowther, Ethel A. In brackets it reads “Nancy,” a nickname no one living remembers being bestowed, but clearly it stuck from a young age. Engraved between Cougar Nancy’s birth year of 1918 and her death year of 1990, is her trademark greeting, “cheerio.”

An obituary appeared in the Lund Barnacle that summer, written by Margaret Leitner, who wrote that Nancy will always be remembered as an extraordinary person.

Over her lifetime in the wilderness, Cougar Nancy killed a local record of 23 cougars, one of them infamously with a rock. She had been interviewed by many print and radio media outlets, and has been written about in at least a dozen books. Her legacy is also maintained by the official naming of Crowther Road in Okeover Inlet.

When the Crowthers first arrived at that little isthmus in Okeover Inlet in 1927, they preempted the 135-acre parcel of land from the Crown for $10. In the early 1990s, the Cougar Lady’s extended family sold the acreage for over $1 million.

In the years since, the bulk of the property has been subdivided into a 50-lot development called the Penrose Bay Estates, a mix of full-time and summer residents, including Brian Smith, the guitarist from the rock band Trooper. That seems somewhat fitting, since as you’ve read, Cougar Nancy never hesitated to raise a little hell.

Nancy’s family homestead was kept separate from the development, and their 1949 split log cabin still stands. Unfortunately, the cabin was a target for looters and thieves after Cougar Nancy’s death. You can imagine her niece Ivy’s surprise when she showed up to check on the cabin and heard noises coming from the attic. There were two people up there, rooting through the Crowthers’ possessions of 60-plus years, and they had already removed many of the antique windows. Ivy stopped them in their tracks and kicked them out.

The cabin has been owned and lovingly maintained by the Vallance family since 1999. When they took possession, they discovered endless jars of canned mystery meats and fruits in the attic, which they had to lower down in a bucket.

They also found one large cardboard box, containing many of the journal entries, articles, letters and remembrances included in this series. The property is the home base for Powell River Sea Kayak, the Vallances’ thriving business of 20-plus years, since, as Cougar Nancy learned to her chagrin, Penrose Bay really is the best launching point for Desolation Sound.

Despite Cougar Nancy’s celebrity, infamy and an amazing life filled with far more stories than can be told in these pages, she was for the most part a polite and quiet woman of the west coast wilderness, and a wonderful storyteller. It was an honour to have met her and spent time with her in my youth.

This holiday season, if you find yourself passing by the cemetery in Cranberry, stop in and take a look around for Nancy’s tombstone. There, you can offer a friendly “cheerio” to a Powell River legend.

Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author and CBC personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home. He wishes to thank all those who contributed photos, stories and anecdotes to this series, with special thanks to the Crowther family, the Vallance family and Nikita Johnston at Powell River Historical Museum and Archives. Portions of the Cougar Lady Chronicles originally appeared in Lawrence’s book Adventures in Solitude and on CBC Radio. 

Copyright © Powell River Peak

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