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Introduction by Pat Wastell Norris

The brochure contained several beautiful photos of the BC coast and a description of the charter trips that were offered. One of them was a sail up the coast to the Indian village of Mamalilaculla. This village, it stated accurately, had been deserted for many years but it had now been reclaimed by descendants of its original inhabitants and was prepared to welcome visitors. The trip offered, the brochure went on, "an incomparable opportunity to interface with the Indians."

"Oh my god," I thought, "what would father have made of this!"

My father interfaced with the Indians every day of his life and with a lot of other coastal inhabitants too, and you can bet that his experiences were very different from the sanitized version of real life being offered to these earnest Tilley-hatted tourists. There was the time, for example, that he made every effort to interface with at least one Indian at Kingcome and all that turned up was a couple of starving dogs - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

It was my grandfather who named it Telegraph Cove. When he arrived in Alert Bay in 1909, Vancouver Island's north coast lay silent and virtually empty - its scattering of inhabitants were Indian tribes in their villages and a handful of white people. In 1912 the staccato click of a telegraph key and the faint crackle of a bad telephone line penetrated that silence to some slight degree when the federal government completed a telephone-telegraph line from Campbell River to northern Vancouver Island. When J.T. Phalen, the Superintendent of Telegraphs, was looking for a suitable location for a lineman's station close to Alert Bay, my grandfather suggested a little cove where the lineman's boat could be safely moored. Since it now needed to be properly identified, my grandfather promptly added place-naming to his services and called it Telegraph Cove.

And so, in 1912, telegraph lineman Bobby Cullerne became the Cove's first inhabitant. He lived in a oneroom shed-roofed structure that, in a different guise, is still there. He not only lived alone, he worked alone; the telegraph line was simply strung from tree to tree along the shoreline and he patrolled the shore in his boat. His job required some rudimentary domestic skills, some familiarity with the internal combustion engine, a certain degree of seamanship and the ability to climb trees rather than telephone poles.

Apart from his government salary, Bobby's circumstances were no different from anyone else's in the vicinity. His life, like theirs, demanded strength of character, capability, versatility - and a sense of humour. The coast was not for the frivolous or the irresponsible. Lost in its immensity, unable to communicate with their fellows, cut off from the conveniences of the city, its people were do-it-yourselfers to a man/woman/child. They had common sense which served them better than intellectual brilliance - and they worked nonstop. In one sense, they lived a life of privilege, for they had the luxury of a pristine environment. Unfortunately it was a luxury they failed to recognize, for aesthetic appreciation pre-supposes leisure - and leisure was in short supply. Despite their best efforts, a lot of them died because their occupations were dangerous and nature, itself, is merciless.

A frontier offers opportunity to the entrepreneur and independence to the self-sufficient. And so it was possible for my father, dispossessed by the Great Depression, to start a business and, of necessity, a community at Telegraph Cove. He brought his bride there and that's where my sister and I, their two daughters, grew up. As a result we had an unconventional - and vastly entertaining - upbringing.

Not in his wildest dreams, however, could my father have envisioned what was to come. When my grandparents' picnics at deserted Indian villages were rained out, my grandmother and her friends played bridge on a wooden box in one of the longhouses. My father wouldn't have believed that, just a few decades later, boatloads of people would devote considerable time and money to glimpse a reconstructed Indian culture. And for my father, a boat was a means of earning a livelihood. He had the best one he could afford and kept it well maintained - for one day our lives might depend on it. Kayakers, paddling around in their cockleshells with no purpose other than the enjoyment of nature, he considered damn fools. As for whale-watchers, when Bill Mackay proposed a business based on this activity, my father felt compelled to disabuse him of his naivete "Bill," he said, "nobody's going to come up here to look at Blackfish."

He was wrong, but understandably so, for the early days were different - very different - from those that followed.

"The Blow Hole, a passage between the northwestern extremity of East Cracroft Island and Minstrel Island, leads into Clio Channel. The passage is narrow and shallow, and in it, near its southwestern end, is a rock which dries 17 feet. Kelp grows right across the passage. This passage may be used only by small craft with local knowledge."
-British Columbia Pilot

That perfunctory question, "And how was your day?" took on a richer meaning at Telegraph Cove. How were our days? They were, in a word, eventful. We were fifty men, women and children cut off from the rest of humanity by forest and ocean. That, in itself, made our days demanding and unconventional. Add the perils of the sea and a whole array of balky machinery, and the opportunities for humour and drama were boundless.

At twelve, I wrote in my childhood diary, "Left at 12:30 p.m. for Bryant's camp. Enroute rescued Mackay's A-frame. Quite exciting and funny."

So there it was. Life was always either exciting or funny; often it was both.

On one date in my diary, there's the straightforward statement, "Morris Goodrow drowned at Bones Bay today." Morris Goodrow's brother Ed owned a pile-driver. Like his brother, Morris was wiry and dark. Their coveralls and mechanics' caps stiff with grease, their faces streaked with soot and grease and creosote, they seemed even swarthier than they were. Periodically, when our dock needed repairs, my father towed Goodrow and his towering machine into our harbour. There, against the dock, he and his crew heaved creosote pilings into place with a steam donkey, and then pounded them relentlessly into the sea bottom. It was heavy, dangerous work and, when they were working on the cannery dock at Bones Bay, it killed Morris.

We veered from tragedy to domestic misadventure. On the 22nd of one month I noted, "The Alaska Prince was in loading all morning. Mary fell off her back porch but mother says she didn't break anything. Fortunately it was high tide. [Mary's porch rested on pilings over the water]. Our cat had kittens."

Just two days later, the entry is: "Pouring rain. Just finished dinner when Englewood called. Rush trip to the hospital with a man who blew himself up."

Small wonder that, as children, we had difficulty relating to our contemporaries in the city, for whom a strawberry soda appeared to be the highlight of the day.

For all of us then, adults and children alike, each new day presented fresh new challenges. Take, for example, one of my grandfather's contributions to the good of the cause. Being a yacht, and a wooden one at that, the Klinekwa was a highmaintenance proposition. Gone were the days when someone was hired to scrape her hull and apply red lead, or to paint and varnish her superstructure. So when my grandfather announced at lunch one day that he intended to spend the afternoon varnishing the interior of the Klinekwa's cabin, his help was welcomed with enthusiasm.

With money in such short supply, a job like this never involved the purchase of a new can of varnish, as long as there were left-over dribs and drabs around. In fact, my grandmother's thrift was perhaps most noticeably manifest when it came to interior decoration. Embarking on a painting project, Marne didn't buy paint, but instead mixed together all the odds and ends that could be found. As a consequence, her bookcases were a dismal mauve-grey; and her wallpapering projects tested my father's paperhanging skills to the limit. If a room's dimensions required six double rolls, he was never permitted that extravagance, but was supplied with five. He solved this problem with his usual ingenuity. Behind every door in every room the wallpaper was of another pattern. As long a the doors remained open, it was an effective solution.

So, after lunch, my grandfather, mindful of these economic constraints, dutifully searched the boat's lockers for leftover varnish. He unearthed a collection of containers, old pickle jars and jam tins, containing a variety of paint products. Finally, he found a tin with perhaps enough varnish in it to do his job. Lighting his pipe, he set to work. All afternoon he puffed and varnished, while the sawmill hummed companionably in the background.

When my grandmother had had her nap and her usual orange, she went down to the boat to inspect the project. The first thing she noticed was an inordinate number of flies stuck to the surface of the walls. Wet varnish is notorious for collecting dust and debris on its surface, but in this instance the problem seemed excessive. She went over to inspect my grandfather's operation more closely.

"Duke," she said in a fury, "you're a jackass."

My grandfather, ever one to humour the more volatile temperament of the ladies, stopped in mi-brushstroke and looked puzzled but benign.

"How could you paint this whole cabin with Roger's Golden Syrup?" said my grandmother, almost in tears. "If you didn't smoke that filthy pipe all the time, you would have realized this didn't smell like varnish."

It took a great deal of scrubbing to get it off and my sister and I refused to be conned into helping, even with the bribe of unlimited Orange Crush. As my sister said, "I'm not going to; I just hate all those bugs."

My grandfather was more successful in another of the roles thrust upon him by our isolated existence. He "did" kittens. This was necessary because my grandmother was a one-woman SPCA. She was continually rescuing starved, abused, or abandoned animals and then my grandfather was required to "put down" the unfortunates that were beyond redemption - and to do it in the most humane manner possible. This was easier than it sounds for, at that time, chloroform could be purchased over the counter. My grandfather must have been a bulk purchaser, since he spent a good part of his retirement years chloroforming cats, and became something of an authority on anaesthesia.

Of course, painting and doing kittens were Alfred Marmaduke Wastell's unofficial duties. Officially, he was a Stipendary Magistrate. When he was appointed to this position some government agency sent him a whole set of law books beautifully bound in tan leather. He kept them in a glass-fronted bookcase in the front hall, where they looked very impressive. I don't think he ever opened any of them, though. The crime in our area was pretty straightforward and he found that common sense and that ingrained sense of authority - or is it superiority - that came with being English was all he really needed.

My father's days were more varied, for he had many duties. He towed logs and delivered lumber, caught rats, cut our hair, supervised the bookkeeping, wallpapered our house and his parents', serviced the tug's big engine and provided impromptu ambulance and marine rescue services - all the while charming the endless procession of friends, acquaintances and strangers who appeared from nowhere and flooded through our house as inexorably as the tide. His only concession to his former profession was his firm commitment to a business shirt and tie, which he always wore, no matter how manual the labour. Even on the night the trim-saw building burned down, he was only prevented from completing his usual toilette by my mother who shouted, "For heaven's sake, Fred, forget your tie! The mill's on fire!"

There was an immediacy about our way of life - a very clear relationship between cause and effect - so that, when we were awakened at 2:00 a.m. by shouts and the crackling of fire, it was obvious to all that if the mill burned there would be no jobs in the days that followed. And jobs, in the 1930s, were highly valued. All and sundry, therefore, bent to the task of saving the mill. It was not easy. Our fire-fighting equipment consisted of a pump mounted on a large wheelbarrow-like contrivance and some lengths of half rotten, second-hand canvas hose.

The first snag occurred when someone raced the pump from the dock at one side of the harbour to the mill at the other, only to find that the storage battery that powered it had been used for other purposes and was missing.

Someone else found a charged battery on the boat, hefted it up the ladder to the dock, and ran with it half a mile to the pump-not an inconsiderable feat when you reflect on the weight of a storage battery. The hose was lowered into the sea and the pump started. A more powerful pump would have burst the hose to shreds but, with the serendipity that ruled my father's affairs, the pump was just powerful enough to deliver water to the fire but not powerful enough to burst the hose.

Three things saved the sawmill: a) the tide was high so the hose, which was short as well as rotten, could reach the water supply; b) every inch of the surrounding area was in its customary state-sodden with rainwater (when it rains virtually 360 days a year, even a sawmill's combustibility is minimized); and, C) the building that housed the trim saw was some little distance from the main mill buildings.

This bracing interlude over, everyone went home to bed for an hour or two. At ten minutes to eight, the mill whistle blew as usual. The crew assembled, the machinery started to hum and the conveyor belts to clack, then at eight o'clock the starting whistle blew and the saws began to whine.

The millwright turned his attention to repairing what was left of the trim saw.

Not all disasters ended so happily. One dark winter afternoon when my mother had only been part of this new life for a few months, my father phoned her from Alert Bay. He had gone there in the boat earlier in the day and now, in the late afternoon, it was blowing so hard that he thought it better to stay put for the night. When it was too rough for him, it was too rough. His call spared my mother from worrying about his safety, yet it meant a long evening alone with her baby.

As she sat listening to a wind that was now literally shaking the house, she happened to glance out the window at the blackness that was Johnstone Straitand thought she saw a light. She extinguished the lights in the room, stood by the window and strained to see. Out in the distant darkness there was, indeed, a light that flashed intermittently. She thought it unlikely that a boat would be out there in such a storm, and she was sure there was no beacon or buoy in that general direction. Puzzled, she watched for some time, trying to discern some pattern or direction in the blinking of the light. Finally, it disappeared.

Next day, the mystery was solved. A small open boat was found upturned, a larger boat was discovered aground on one of the Pearse Islands, and then the bodies of a man and woman were recovered. Instead of staying with their larger vessel when its engine failed, they had launched their dinghy and attempted to reach our lights across the Strait. The woman had put on her fur coat and a life-jacket and when her body was found she still clutched the flashlight she had used to blink her desperate SOS.

The night before, our boat had not been in her usual berth at the dock below our house, and it's unlikely that my father could have reached the couple in time had he come from as far as Alert Bay, although he most certainly would have tried. Yet my mother was haunted by that stormy night for a very long time. Years later, something would trigger the memory of it and she would berate herself once again.

"How could I have been so stupid?" she would say miserably. "Those poor people were out there calling for help. I thought of an SOS and I know the signal, but it wasn't an SOS - just a few blinks. I didn't realize that they were dropping down into the trough of those seas and then their light was cut off from my vision, and their message was garbled."

And then there was the night the light engine ran away. That is not to say that the engine actually left home. Rather the pin in the governor broke and the engine, accustomed to running at 350 rpm, began whirling around at three times that speed. The most immediate result was that all our lights flared suddenly from a normal level of illumination to a blinding white glare. Sensing that all was not well in the light plant department, Jimmy (who looked after this engine as well as the engine on the boat), set off at a dead run for the warehouse where the light engine was housed. In the few minutes it took him to get there, the screaming engine, vibrating uncontrollably, had shaken off its extremities. The exhaust pipe had snapped off and the day fuel tank had been ripped from its moorings on the wall and lay on the engine itself, where it was blazing furiously. The huge flywheel, almost a ton of spinning iron, was approaching its maximum potential and was ready for orbit.

"Oh my god," said Jimmy, surveying the scene, "what's going to happen here?"

It was a rhetorical question. He stepped into the maelstrom and pulled the wedges by hand and very gradually - for it had built up tremendous momentum -the flywheel slowed and then stopped.

If the engine had exploded, as it was very close to doing, it would have sent large chunks of iron and large chunks of Jimmy in all directions, and it would certainly have set the warehouse on fire, and possibly the whole town, for our fire-fighting equipment had done nothing but depreciate since the trim-saw burnt down.

However, the engine didn't do any of these things, and this brush with catastrophe didn't alter my father's habit of thrift one bit. The engine, obtained second-hand from the Marshall Wells boat, the Sundown, had been a good engine and he felt that the results of this little mishap - a flattened crankshaft and burnt out bearingscould be rectified. He phoned Tommy Penway, possibly Coal Harbour's best heavy-duty mechanic, and Tommy arrived on the Union boat and spent three days filing the flat spot on the shaft with a hand file and checking it with calipers. Then he replaced the bearings, told my father he had done all he could, and went back to the city. When the engine was started, it ran for only a few hours before burning out the bearings again. Undeterred, my father and Jimmy pulled the piston and forever afterwards this three-cylinder engine ran on two cylinders. The lights were never the same, though.

The passage of time did nothing to alter the drama of our days. In the space of a little over a year, the three Hanuse brothers were drowned off the mouth of the Nimpkish River, the Sticklands' boat exploded and caught fire, Hilly Lansdowne received a medal from the Humane Society for strangling the cougar, and John Nicholson's gillnetter was found drifting near Malcolm Island. John Nicholson was seventy-two. When his boat was found, the light on his net was still burning, as was his mast light. The engine and the stove were shut off. Having left things in good order, John had lain down in his bunk and died.