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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Bowen Island Saga

It was around 1977 or 1978. I was a single guy and sometimes hung out in a discotheque called Annabelle’s in the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver. “Love to love ya baby.”  Indirectly, being in this nightspot was how I would eventually discover Bowen Island. One night, while scoping out the room, I got into a conversation with another skirt chaser standing next to me at the bar who was recently divorced and looking for whatever it was that I was looking for. I ended up hanging out with this guy for a year or two and our adventures included skiing up at Whistler, going down to Seattle with my Hungarian girlfriend, and leaning against bars in a number of Vancouver nightclubs. 

You might say that this guy was rich. He had gone to St. George’s private school and his parents lived in Shaughnessy, one of Vancouver’s more prestigious neighbourhoods. His family was what some call “old money”. Their house had an attic in the attic. An older model Mercury Cougar sat in the driveway. 
One weekend I was invited over to my friend’s parent’s get-away place on Paysley Island. Paysley Island is a small island located behind Bowen Island not far from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver where there is a major ferry terminal. I sat up in the top deck with my friend’s dad as he steered his yacht passed the waterfront houses on Bowen Island never having a remote thought about one day actually living there.
The get-away spot turned out to be a waterfront house that was designed by my friend’s brother in-law. There was also a guest house next to it. I can’t recall if there was a dock but I do remember that there was a tree with a rope attached to it so brave souls could swing out for a dip in the frigid ocean waters. I wasn’t one of them. 

I was a bit out of my element you might say. The island was owned by a consortium of wealthy people including at least one judge. There were no cars or roads but I think there was a communal Jeep should something heavy needed to be moved. In the middle of the island was a tennis court with a wooden planked surface. The oddest story I heard that weekend was about a German or Austrian guy who had a title like “count” and who was known to get his kicks by throwing sticks of dynamite off a cliff out onto the ocean. 
The next island north of Bowen Island is Gambier Island. There were rumours that there were a few pot plantations there. One weekend my friend and I decided to go salmon fishing off of Gambier in a smaller boat his family owned.  It was the middle of the afternoon and nothing much was happening as far as the fish biting. All of a sudden the calm waters around us began to roll and it took us a moment or two to figure out what was happening. We were right next to a pod of killer whales that were making their way through Howe Sound. It scared the bejesus out of me for a moment or so. 
For some reason my friend had kind of been on the outs with his dad. Perhaps because of his rather short lived marriage. Whatever it was, it was patched up and he rejoined the family business and he was sent off to the Edmonton branch to learn the ropes. We lost touch with one another. 
Skip ahead to 1981. I was living in North Vancouver. Things were going well and I was making lots of money working as a sales rep for a company called Benndorf-Verster in Vancouver. My soon to be wife and I were going to get married in August in a small town in Saskatchewan where she was from called Gull Lake. It turned out to be the same weekend that Chuck and Di got married. 
Real estate prices were going through the roof at the time in the Vancouver area and we started to look around for a house. One weekend, I got it in my mind that it might be an idea to check out Bowen Island. We caught the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Snug Cove on Bowen Island. We had no idea about where we were going and hadn’t contacted a realtor.
We spent most of that day just driving around. There were more than a few dirt roads. Late that afternoon we stopped at a waterfront property that had a for sale sign on it. We could see the house owner down the driveway and he waved at us. “How much are you asking?” I yelled down to him and he yelled back “$289,000.00”. “Too much for us” I replied. He came up the driveway and suggested that we take a look anyway. Why not we thought? 
The house was like a giant A Frame with a massive fireplace with a large picture of an eagle on it and had large picture windows. He was rightfully proud of the fact that he had built the house himself. As I recall it, we were standing in the kitchen area when he mentioned that his wife was away on a flight. My soon to be wife said to the home owner “Your wife wouldn’t be……..?” It turned out that they knew each other and had flown together as stewardesses for Wardair. 
We headed back to Vancouver and didn’t give our day trip to Bowen Island much more thought. About 3 weeks later we got a call from a realtor on Bowen Island, I think his name was Bill Riddell . He said he had been talking to the large A-frame house guy and understood that we might be looking for a house. As luck would have it, a house right next door to the A-frame guy had just come onto the market and would we like to see it?  
We snuck away from work the next day. We worked for the same company. We met the realtor and he drove us out to see the house and property. The area is called Queen Charlotte Heights. I fell in love with the place in the driveway. Before even going into the house I told the realtor that we would buy it. My girlfriend was almost as enthusiastic.
The house was a Panabode (planed flat cedar logs) and was waterfront although the house was perched about 100 feet above the ocean. It was only about 1000 square feet. It had two bedrooms, one of which had sliding glass doors that led to an L shaped deck. The kitchen/dining area/living room was open plan. The heating was electric and there was a Franklin wood burning stove in the living room area. There were windows everywhere that had amazing views. The bathroom sink and tub were dark blue. 



We signed the papers a few days later and got our mortgage from the North Shore Credit Union. The lawyer who acted on behalf of the credit union turned out to be a guy who had grown up across the street from me in Montreal. Small world. We rented a truck and moved in in around May of 1981.
A little background on Bowen Island. At one time, back in the 1920s into the 1950s, the island was a day trip destination for Vancouverites who wanted to get out of town. Union Steamship provided the transportation. At or near the marina in Snug Cove there was a salt water pool and a large dance pavilion. There was also a good sized hotel and a number of cottages that were owned by the steamship company that they rented out in the summer months. On the other side of the island is a place called Tunstall Bay where they used to manufacture dynamite. Today it is a bedroom community complete with street lights. 

Union Steamships building
Living on an island is an alternative lifestyle and it took some adjusting for us. The ferry between Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver and Snug Cove was by far the biggest issue. We had three cars including a company car my girlfriend drove in the city. She also had a mustard coloured Mustang II that we thought would be good to drive around the island with. This never worked out and it sat idle for well over a year. We gave up quickly on trying to find a public spot to ditch our car for the night at Horseshoe Bay and drove my car on to the ferry regardless of the cost. Plus we never knew if the Mustang would start or not. 
Getting on and off an island always required getting in line early with a car so you were sure you would get where you were going. It also meant a lot of time waiting around. There were a few Friday nights where we couldn’t get on the ferry because of the number of weekenders and tourists and had to ask friends in Vancouver to put us up. The other option was to take the water taxi that was appropriately named the Bowen Arrow. We tried that once or twice but it still meant that we were pedestrians on the other side. There were far too many logistics. 

Bowen Island ferry entering Snug Cove
Horseshoe Bay was a bit of a tourist trap. We quickly grew tired of eating our dinner while waiting for the ferry at a restaurant called Trolls. The owner of this restaurant later won the lottery not once but twice. Someone once told me that he also bought James Clavell’s house in West Vancouver where supposedly the book Shogun was written. 
Troll's Restaurant, Horseshoe Bay
Neither my girlfriend nor I had ever owned a house before. I found myself making frequent trips to the local hardware store. We were in need of all kind of tools including an axe, a saw, spades, and some mouse traps. The little critters had found their way into our house. I wasn’t very good at baiting the traps I guess because shortly after setting one of them I found a mouse dragging the trap around on his back. I ended up tossing the little guy off the deck as far away as I could and was amazed how quickly an eagle swooped down upon it. 

Through some good fortune, I never managed to harm myself while chopping wood for the stove. With the help of my next door neighbour I finished a few projects. One was a goldfish pond complete with lily pads that became a home for some garter snakes and the other was adding on a laundry room that was never utilized as per its purpose.
We became friends with our next door neighbours in the big A frame. They were in no hurry to sell their house unless they got close to the asking price. Over the next year and a half or so we shared more than a few bottles of wine. The husband in the couple was quite handy and worked in North Vancouver as a glazier. He was also an avid outdoorsman and liked things like off road motor bikes, hunting and fishing. Often he was alone next door while his wife was away on a flight. The couple both liked the island lifestyle and made it very clear that having children wasn’t in their future. 
The path between our houses became well worn. We didn’t have a washer and dryer and they were kind enough to let us use theirs. One day, I noticed that my girlfriend was MIA and I went next door to see what she was up to. It turned out that my neighbour had shot a quail with his bow and arrow and I walked in to find them munching away on the just cooked fowl. I was OK with the bow and arrow stuff until the day he told me about wounding a deer and not being able to find it. 
The neighbour also had a small two seater speedboat. We awkwardly tried fishing from it once or twice. We took the speedboat over to Horseshoe Bay a few times to grab a beer or two at the pub. The trip back to Bowen Island in the dark was a bit hairy as the boat didn’t have any lights and we would have been goners if we had ever hit a deadhead (floating log). 
At the time, there was a small unoccupied restaurant in Snug Cove and for some reason my next door neighbour had the keys to it. He was about to show the restaurant to a local perspective buyer one day and asked me if I would like to come along. I kind of liked the idea of running a restaurant myself. I was a bit surprised by what the possible buyer told me when we were introduced. He said he had seen me about and that I was not a real Bowen Islander because he had never seen me at any meetings. For some reason I didn’t tell him to go and screw himself. 

Snugler Restaurant, Snug Cove, Bowen Island

I was pretty keen about fishing back then and although our property kind of sat up at the top of a very steep cliff, I could carefully manage to get down to the water below and do some cod fishing. Cod are bottom feeders and the lure used to catch them is called a Buzz Bomb. A diamond shaped piece of lead that flutters as it sinks. I lost more than a few of those lures. The trick was to yank right away when the fish hit before they scurried into the rocks. One evening I was down at this spot angling when a large sea otter poked his head out of the water and gave me the once over. 
Summer came along and with the season we had a lot of weekend guests. My impression was that most thought it was a cool place to live but certainly not a lifestyle they would consider for 365 days a year. We were visited twice friends of my girlfriends who owned boats. One of them was a brother of a gal my girlfriend had flown with. His boat was kind of a trawler and he had done some weather ship work for the federal government, The local folks seemed quite impressed when he pulled into Snug Cove. 

Snug Cove
I remember the skipper as being kind of muscle bound. He took us out for an afternoon cruise and I brought along my salmon rod. I was having some trouble with my reel being secured to the rod and he got out some twine and fixed it. A year so later we found out that he had died of cancer. We were totally shocked. Every time I used my rod after that I was reminded of him. Unfortunately, a few years later I lost the rod near Passage Island off of West Vancouver when it bounced out of boat I was in. 
One early summer’s night I got a phone call and it was my old rich friend who had gone off to Edmonton. I have no idea how he tracked me down. He told me that he was back in town and asked me if I wanted to meet him at some nightspot. I had to explain that I was no longer a free agent. A number of years later he became president of his company (it was sold around 2010) and was one of my customers. He remarried (in his early 50s I think) and became a parent. 
My girlfriend flew off to Saskatchewan in late July in preparation for our wedding and I drove to the same destination along with my mother an older sister and her daughter who had come out to the west coast from back from back east. I was proud to show them our new home on Bowen Island. 
The wedding was a pretty big deal and it was nice to be introduced to small town Saskatchewan. We honeymooned in the western US and made our way back to island living and the weekday commute. There were a few signs that my idea of heaven didn’t totally coincide with my new wife’s. She was a bit of a social butterfly and all her friends were in Vancouver. Other than our next door neighbours and an architect who lived in the same area we really didn’t know anyone else on the island. 
Perhaps it was a sign of things to come. My wife had spent a lot of her previous years up at Whistler on the weekends in the winter and we decided to join a cabin up there for the coming winter. We only made it up to Whistler twice that year. One weekend we packed up all of our skiing gear only to discover that the dock had been blown away at Snug Cove and that there was no way of getting off of the island. 
We had friends in Richmond who had young kids and found ourselves staying at their place a number of weekends and babysitting. It wasn’t that my wife hated Bowen Island, it was that she was finding it more and more isolated. When the snow came it became a hassle trying to get up the big hill that led to our place. One night a snow plow put a ding in my car. We still didn’t have any plans at the time about moving. 
My wife’s parents owned a condo in Hawaii and that winter we made a few trips over there to ward off the doldrums back home. I was out jogging along the side of a canal one very hot day and when I got back to the condo I felt my body tighten up. I didn’t give it much thought and that night we joined some friends from Vancouver at a Honolulu restaurant. When I threw myself into the backseat of the cab and felt something in my back kind of crack. I had no idea that this would lead to the end of our days on Bowen Island. 
When we got back to Vancouver the condition of my back worsened and eventually it got to a point where I couldn't climb steps. My doctor prescribed lengthy back rest and I could no longer work. I spent week after week in bed with a sleeping bag rolled up under my knees. We only had one TV station and I started to become addicted to soap operas. One night I was watching the late movie and it was about a giant rat. I was astonished when I saw the credits and noticed that the movie had been filmed on Bowen Island. 
Things went from bad to worse. I wasn’t improving at all. My leg muscles were starting to atrophy. We went into Vancouver one day for a doctor’s appointment and I almost got knocked over by a passerby in a restaurant. Finally a decision was made to put me in a hospital and see if something could be done. They started off with a myleogram that gave me a terrible headache. I was also becoming rather light headed from a steady intake of Demerol. 
They were having a hell of a time trying to find the problem in my back. Finally, a decision was made to operate. We signed the wrongful death waver. The basics of the operation was injecting a derivative of papaya juice into the spine. I believe it is called chymopapain. When the operation was completed the pain was excruciating. Luckily, the next morning the pain was gone and I climbed over the rail on my hospital bed and made my way to the smoking room and had a quasi religious experience of thankfulness. And I am an atheist.
Next up was making some decisions back on Bowen Island. The idyllic setting was starting to crumble. My wife had lost almost any zest she once had for the place. It was just too far away for her. On top of that mortgage rates (floating) were skyrocketing, I had eaten through a lot of my savings, and for the time being at least, we only had one income. 
We put the house up for sale. It was now a buyer’s market and there wasn’t an abundance of people looking for a lifestyle dictated by ferry schedules. As the months wore on we kept dropping the price but still no bites. 
One day we got a knock on the door and it was a neighbour from Alberta who was a part time resident of the island. We invited him in and he told us some depressing story about a family member having cancer and then nonchalantly asked us if we were taking our plants with us when we moved. It reminded me of the death scene in Zorba The Greek where people come in and take all of the furniture moments after a woman dies. I wanted to give this guy a good kick in the ass but I didn’t. 
In the end we cut a deal with the bank and gave the house back to them. We packed up our stuff and moved to Shannon Mews on south Granville Street on the old Austin Taylor estate. We never went back to Bowen Island. 
We kept in touch with our old neighbours on Bowen Island for a few years. The husband quit his job, flipped a few houses and went into building new homes in North and West Vancouver. He got a bigger boat and I went fishing with him a few times. They always swore they would never have kids but one came along anyway.  My guess is their son is very good with a bow and arrow.
My wife and I remained married for 14 years and had two kids. About 20 years after the Bowen Island house purchase I went down the same kind of road and purchased a piece of property with a house in the small seaside community of Fanny Bay on Vancouver Island and once again ventured into the alternative lifestyle. And that is another story. 
From time to time I have found myself passing Bowen Island on the ferry to Horseshoe Bay and dig out my binoculars and find the house up on the cliff from many moons ago. It must be worth a fortune today.
Bowen Island eagle