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Wild Pick, chapter one: The Potluck

The life and adventures of Linda Syms, oyster farmer of Desolation Sound
Linda Syms and her longtime life partner Wayne Lewis in Desolation Sound in the early 1980s, shortly after purchasing land on the Gifford Peninsula.

What you are about to read is true, as far as anyone can remember it. This is the story of a woman who, at a very young age, made the life-changing decision to leave a city and all of her family and friends, to be with the man she loved in the wilderness. So began a wild, modern day homesteading adventure, a death-defying oyster farming business, and a true love story that would last for more than 40 years.

In the mid-1970s, my father purchased a patch of rugged, empty coastline in Desolation Sound, about an hour north of Powell River. Dad’s dream was to turn those rocky shores, which stretched along picturesque bays, coves and lagoons, into a 38-lot development. The plan was to build recreational ocean-access-only summer cabins.

Back then, Dad wasn’t really sure what kind of folks that pocket of coastal wilderness attracted, but he would quickly find out. We were a conservative, middle-class family from West Vancouver. Dad considered hippies dirty and lazy, so much so that as kids, my sister and I weren’t even allowed to listen to The Beatles.

The irony that our father had purchased an area on the Gifford Peninsula that had a strong appeal to the very type of people he wanted to avoid is something he was never able to fully come to terms with.

One physical attribute that kept Dad somewhat at ease was that our newly constructed cabin sat in one bay and the hippie-occupied cabins sat in another, separated by a long finger of land and a high rocky bluff covered in trees. Dad couldn’t see them, he couldn’t hear them, and that’s just the way he wanted it.

Then, on a gorgeous summer day in the early 1980s, we were invited to a potluck in that neighbouring bay. The way my dad tells the story, “pot” would in fact be the keyword to that infamous Desolation Sound potluck invitation.

To their further consternation, my parents were quickly figuring out that beyond apples and oysters, there were a few other crops that could be successfully harvested in Desolation Sound.

The potluck was a five-minute boat ride away from our cabin, in the next bay. As our cranky motorboat rounded the rocky point that separated our bays, we heard the potluck before we saw it. The combined caterwaul of a late afternoon party in full swing danced across the placid ocean water.

As we drew closer, my innocent, 11-year-old eyes widened upon a scene of total summer hedonism. Intertwined brown bodies lay outstretched all over the sundrenched shoreline: smoking, drinking, laughing, singing, making out and… making love?

Seemingly wild, longhaired children ran among the cavorting adults, some of them swinging out over the water on a zunga, local terminology for a rope swing. The kids would fearlessly drop into the warm, crystal clear and green ocean water, the same water my eight-year-old sister and I were too nervous to dip a toe into.

Smoke on the water

The aesthetic that united the potluck was very revealing: many of the attendees were totally and utterly nude. Just add a cranked up Deep Purple cassette and matching purple bong smoke that hung low across the bay: “Smoke on the Water,” just like the stereo blasted.

This outrageous scene was more than enough for Dad to start vigorously turning our boat around, but Mom grabbed his arm and wouldn’t let him, reasoning that: she was bringing banana bread; we were going to have to meet the rest of our Desolation Sound neighbours eventually; and how would it look if the big bad developer man and his family from the city suddenly swung their boat around in full view of the entire potluck without even saying hello?

We tied our skiff to a makeshift barge of boats, a pell-mell parking lot of rafts, canoes, kayaks, sailboats, herring skiffs and rowboats. We had to gingerly climb through several of them before we could make our way up to shore.

Many of the beautiful, longhaired, sun-kissed, naked people at the party warmly welcomed us with extremely uncomfortable hugs, introducing us all around. Pungent pot clouds filled the air like a skunky London fog. Mom later said that she had never maintained such steadfast eye contact in her life, and took extra caution when reaching out to shake hands with the tall guys.

We spent about 90 minutes at the nude potluck. And since the only pot my parents ever touched sat on the stove simmering Kraft dinner, they weren’t really blending in any better than my sister and me. But the food was delicious, especially the deep-fried oysters.

Our boat ride home was mostly silent. I found myself looking back at the potluck, still in full swing, with longing fascination. Who were those people? What was their story? It would take me a long time to find out.

We stayed in our bay for the rest of the summer. My parents stayed in our bay for the next 40 years. What I would learn many decades later was that the infamous potluck was co-hosted by two couples who were one of the first groups to purchase a lot from my dad, back in the late 1970s.

One of those people was a tall and slender woman with long brown hair named Linda Syms, she of the delicious deep fried oysters. Along with her husband, a rugged jack-of-all-trades named Wayne Lewis, they had the ambitious goal to homestead their off-grid property and live there year-round, which was contrary to my dad’s vision of a summer paradise.

Seeing that plan through would last for more than four exciting decades. But who was Linda Syms? Where did she come from? How did she find this place? You’ll find out those answers and much more in the upcoming chapters of Wild Pick.

Grant Lawrence is the award-winning author of Adventures in Solitude, and a radio personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home.

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