Previous chapter [“The friendship,” September 13]: In the mid-1970s, after catching my family trespassing on her property while we tried to launch our rowboat for Desolation Sound, “Cougar” Nancy Crowther explained to us that threats surrounded her on all sides, and not just the cougars, bears and wolves, but something she referred to only as “them.”
Young Nancy Crowther was just nine years old when she first arrived on the shores of Okeover Inlet, north of Powell River. Back in the 1920s, enticed by homesteading land-grant programs and promises of cheap, virgin farmland with rich soil on sprawling acreages – known as “preemptions” - families from all over Europe were invited to make the epic journey to populate Western Canada.
In 1927, the Crowthers (Nancy, nine, her father William, 43, her mother Doris, 40, and her brother Richard, 13) made the long trip from Hertfordshire County, England, to the wild west coast. William worked any job he could get, which was often logging, as the family slowly moved across the west in both the United States and Canada.
The Crowthers tried homesteading in Alberta, but found it far too frigid. As the story goes, Nancy’s father apparently unfolded a map of BC’s west coast. He closed his eyes and put his finger down. His dirty index finger had landed on a place called Okeover Inlet. Thus, the fate and future of his family was sealed.
After securing their new land on the coast, the Crowther family crossed the mountains to Vancouver. From there, they loaded up all of their belongings onto the Chelosin, a steel-hulled, steam-powered passenger-freighter that was part of the
Union Steamship Company of British Columbia. The Chelosin journeyed up the Strait of Georgia, stopping in many little bays and settlements along the way.
Eventually, the steamship made it to Powell River, which in 1927 was the fifth-largest city in BC. Soon after, the Crowthers disembarked in the small Swedish settlement of Lund. The Crowthers were met on the wharf by a Mr. Chambers, who loaded them on to his smaller boat, and from Lund, they navigated further north, around Sarah Point, and into the waters of Desolation Sound, where they cut southeast, entering the protected waters of Malaspina and Okeover Inlets. Following the crude map supplied by the land registration office and Mr. Chambers’ local knowledge, the Crowthers and all their worldly belongings were dropped off at the head of Trevenen Bay.
From the beach, the Crowther family hiked a short trail through the thick salal and salmonberry bushes to find themselves on a remote isthmus of level, low-lying land between two deep and narrow saltwater bays: Trevenen and Penrose. This was the land Nancy’s father William preempted from the Crown: 135 acres for $10.
“It was absolutely ridiculous,”Nancy Crowther told journalist Murray Kennedy in taped interview from 1987, in reference to her parents taking the preemption sight unseen.
“Back in Calgary, the grass is level and the ground is rolling,” she continued. “They thought they could easily get produce out of the preemption. It was only 20 miles to Powell River. Of course, when we got here it was all bush with great big trees felled all over the place. There was no way we could get a horse through these woods, let alone a horse and buggy. Your basic transportation was your legs.”
As rugged as the landscape was, the Crowthers would soon learn to appreciate the bounty below the tideline. The shores on either side of their homestead were reputed to be the richest clam beaches in the entire inlet, and was once a very healthy Tla’amin Nation site. This is still evidenced by enormous clamshell middens exposed in the soil near the shoreline on both sides of the isthmus.
Much of the human population that surrounded the Crowthers upon their arrival in Okeover Inlet in 1927 was a scattering of tough Scandanavian loggers and their families. British folks like the Crowthers were often considered wilderness novices.
Nancy’s family set to work building a home for themselves, but according to Nancy’s written notes from years later, things didn’t work out the way they had planned:
“My parents, greenhorns from the city, came to this isolated preemption with no knowledge of the country and its problems,” she wrote. “They built their first house in the one and only clearing by the shore, not pausing for a moment to wonder why this one bit of land in a territory almost smothered with forest, was beautifully clear of trees. Well, the first heavy wind off the ocean flattened that house to the ground. Fortunately for us, it blew down the day before we were to move into it. Undaunted, my parents went behind a stand of trees, which were to form a windbreak, and they found another clearing. Again, they didn’t pause to wonder why this spot was barren of trees, either. They built our second home, and when the winter rains came, they found out why the clearing was there. A mighty torrent of water from the hills raged under the house below the back door and roared out again from below the front door. We had to put planks out of either door to reach dry land.”
Like many UK immigrants, the Crowther family also tried to recreate their English garden in the middle of the wilderness. They eventually planted vegetables and fruits, an entire orchard, and various nut-bearing trees. Several of the trees they planted in the late 1920s remain on the property to this day, and still produce.
The Crowthers would raise chickens and geese for their eggs and meat, goats for their milk and cheese, and bees for their honey.
Just beyond the edge of their clearing, unseen in the underbrush of the rainforest, roamed large predators that were naturally drawn to easy meals like chicken, geese and goats. But the beasts of the forest weren’t the only threat facing the Crowthers: the Great Depression was about to cast a shadow across Canada that stretched as far as Okeover Inlet. 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.