What you are about to read is the life story of a Powell River legend. This life occurred over the course of most of the 20th century in the coastal rainforest, north of Powell River, along the shores of Penrose Bay.
I’ll never forget the first time I met the Cougar Lady face to face in the mid-1970s.
Our car rattled and bounced down a muddy ditch of a road through the dense forest. The rowboat and the ropes my father used to tie it down to the roof of our car groaned with every turn, ascent and plunge, as did I.
My dad was at the wheel, my mom in the passenger seat. I was curled up in the fetal position in the backseat. I was six years old and wrapped in a vomit-encrusted summer jacket, having thrown up on myself several times.
Such was the result of the Sunshine Coast Highway. We had left the highway by this point, and were about 20 minutes down the bumpy Crowther Road that ran high above the western shore of Okeover Inlet.
Finally, we crested a hill and saw our destination: an opening in the forest wall allowed us to look down upon an ocean wilderness supreme, perfectly still and silent in the falling rain. Dense cedar rose sharply from the rocky shoreline. A wispy white mist clung to the treetops like cotton on a Christmas tree. Not a living thing could be seen or heard. We had found our launching point for Desolation Sound.
Sputtering and skidding down the hill on what felt like our car’s last gasp, we pulled alongside a wooden fence overtaken by moss and blackberry bushes, its pickets rotten and overlapping like English teeth. The sagging gate was adorned with a weathered sign:
Warning. Private property. No trespassing. This means you. Beware of dogs.
Beyond the sign was a yard, a garden, an orchard and a little log cabin. Beyond that was a pebble beach covered in driftwood and oyster shells.
That beach was the closest possible launching point to the land my dad had recently purchased around the corner in Malaspina Inlet. He wasn’t about to be turned back now, but the only way to get to the beach was through the yard.
“That’s ridiculous,” Dad reasoned. “This person can’t legally block us from the beach. Let’s just unpack here, scoot across the yard and put the boat in.”
But not knowing who lived there, or how serious the warnings were, we found ourselves tiptoeing across the yard to the beach, making trip after trip as quickly and as quietly as we could. When it was time to move the heavy wooden rowboat, dad hoisted it from the car roof and onto his shoulders. The sheer weight of it caused him to teeter from side to side, front to back. He reminded me of one of those tipsy waltzing toadstools from Fantasia.
Maneuvering through the gate, he whacked the rowboat against a wet fence post. That’s when we heard the dogs. My dad’s tipsy rowboat waltz turned into a desperate dash.
A pack of dogs burst out of the orchard at full speed and volume, saliva dripping off gleaming teeth, shoulder muscles rippling with every thrust of their front legs.
Dad flipped the rowboat off his shoulders and slammed the hull into the water.
“Load it up, let’s go, let’s go!”
We threw our stuff into the already leaking rowboat as the dogs hurtled the edge of the yard and hit the pebble beach behind us with a crash.
Dad threw me into the boat, grabbed an oar and spun to meet the pack. The dogs formed a semicircle around us, heads down, snarling, snapping, barking and closing in.
The dogs’ cacophony instantly dropped to a whimper. As they turned their heads subserviently in the direction of their master’s voice, we did too, and in turn, we went from bush dog standoff to staring down the barrel of a rifle.
We didn’t know it yet, but we were face to gun barrel with a local legend named Nancy Crowther, alternately known as Cougar Nancy, the Cougar Lady, or the rather regal Cougar Queen of Okeover Inlet. She didn’t like any of the nicknames.
But for you to fully understand who Nancy was, how she got to that lonely wet place at the end of the road, and how she earned those nicknames, you’ll have to go back to the beginning of her story. That’s 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Lawrence will host the wake for the Hermit Russell Letawsky (the subject of his last series in the Peak) at 2 pm Saturday, September 7, at the Lund Pub. All are welcome.