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Wild Pick, chapter seven: The purchase

The life and adventures of Linda Syms, oyster farmer of Desolation Sound
BIRTHDAY BOY: Grant Lawrence’s father Garth, who sold Linda Syms her property in Desolation Sound in 1977, recently celebrated his 82nd birthday with lunch at Nancy’s Bakery in Lund and a visit with owner Nancy Bouchard.

Chapter six recap: After a month at sea in a dilapidated sailboat, Linda Syms, Wayne Lewis and crew were rescued by the Tanu, a fisheries patrol ship. The desperate crew were towed into Tofino. Soon Linda and Wayne pined for a piece of land of their very own. Finally they spotted an enticing ad in the Vancouver Sun.

“A Spectacular Offer! Waterfront for only $35,000! The chance of a lifetime! Purchase a one-to-five acre parcel of waterfront in Desolation Sound. Unbelievable! The setting is as perfect as possible, with the warmest water north of the Gulf of Mexico, hot dry summers and the feeling of wonderfully being away from it all. Lot adjacent to the 15,000 acre Desolation Sound Marine Park and only five kilometres from Lund.”

That’s the ad my father, Garth Lawrence, wrote and placed in the paper in 1977, shortly after procuring 135 acres of coastal wilderness which he subdivided into 38 lots. He was 37 years old then, 13 years younger than I am now. This May, my dad turned 82. He celebrated with lunch at Nancy’s Bakery.

Back in 1977, Linda and Wayne weren’t into the capitalist concept of land development, but they were willing to make the compromise, because they thought the description held promise, and it was the first price that was remotely in their range. It was also a water-access-only property bordering the newly formed Desolation Sound Marine Park, the largest marine park on the west coast of Canada; no roads in or out.

Soon, Wayne was squeezed in, side by side with Dad, sputtering over a remote and unforgiving landscape in a small bucket of bolts seaplane. That plane would rattle and vibrate so much that you could actually see the screws in the sheet metal, inside the tiny cockpit, unscrewing all by themselves.

But Dad only crashed his plane twice and he was able to walk away both times. That day, in the spring of 1977, the pontoons came down softly and safely in the sheltered waters of Malaspina Inlet.

Linda and Wayne wanted to make sure the lot they chose had a source of fresh water, but the only lot with a creek had already sold, right next door to our cabin. Linda and Wayne ended up choosing a spot in another cove, a lot that was exposed to winter’s southeasterly gales, but proved to be fertile both below and above the tide line.

It was a five-minute boat ride away from our cabin in the next bay, and the natural separation suited both my dad and Linda and Wayne.

When Wayne showed up at the seaplane dock that day, Dad immediately didn’t like the look of him, with his wild, curly black hair, moustache and tattoos. Wayne wasn’t too into the vibe of my conservative father, but Dad wanted to make a sale, and Linda and Wayne loved the property.

Linda remembers that they were able to agree on the raw, five-acre lot for just $22,500, but even that price was a bit steep for them, so they brought in another hippie couple they knew from Deep Cove to go in on the lot 50/50. Sold!

The plan was to build a communal cabin, with two bedrooms on either side and a main shared living room. It was a decision they would soon regret.

Homesteading adventure

By 1977, Wayne and Linda’s boat du jour was a 30-foot fishing vessel. They stuffed it with everything they owned in Vancouver and pointed the boat north to Desolation Sound, ecstatic for their back-to-the-land raw homesteading adventure. They would build their own home and raise and grow their own food with what they found on the property.

Linda and Wayne’s excitement started to peter out just past Lund, when their old fishing boat’s engine began to falter. They limped around Sarah Point and into Malaspina Inlet on one cylinder.

They managed to reach their little bay and drop anchor. The engine let out a last gasp and never ran again. They were home!

Their new paradise was carpeted in a thick west coast rainforest, fronted by a shallow bay and a long sloping beach that was buffered on either side by rocky cliffs. The land had a fairly sharp incline, but the soil was good and Linda found a swampy area at the top of the hill where they could dig a well.

The beach in front of the property was chock-a-block with clams, mussels and oysters, and the sea swarmed with ling cod, snapper and rockfish. Their new oceanfront home seemed so abundant with food and the climate so pleasant, they named it Salubrious Bay. Linda eventually submitted that title to BC’s Lands and Mapping Department and Salubrious Bay soon began appearing on charts.

Linda’s only way to get back to civilization was by canoe, which was an hour’s paddle in good weather to the Okeover government wharf, a little shorter if she landed in Penrose Bay, the home of Nancy Crowther, the legendary Cougar Queen of Okeover Inlet.

By 1977, the Cougar Queen was in her 60s and had become reluctantly resigned to being the closest landing and launching point for Desolation Sound for many of the hippies and back-to-the-landers who had discovered the area. Linda managed to make friends with Nancy, who traded her chickens and other supplies in exchange for Wayne doing work around Nancy’s homestead.

Linda and Wayne slowly collected the needed supplies to begin building the cabin of their dreams. In late September of 1977, Linda received her first visitor to Salubrious Bay: it was her older sister Audrey, who brought with her a tall, gangly hippie named Russell Letawsky, the future Hermit of Desolation Sound.

Together, Russell and Audrey had barely survived a crossing on foot of the Coast Mountain range. You’ll read more about that fateful meeting between Linda and Russell in the next chapter of Wild Pick: the life and adventures of Linda Syms, oyster farmer of Desolation Sound.

Grant Lawrence is the author of the new book Return to Solitude, and a radio personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home. He will be sharing his experiences at his live “Stories and Songs” event at the Patricia Theatre on Wednesday, May 25. Tickets are available at the Peak office.