The first time I heard about Cougar Annie I was sitting in a West Coast beer parlor on a windswept, rainy winter evening in 1976 with a group of fishermen friends. I was newly married, and then proud owner of over 7 acres in Port Albion, a small settlement across the bay from the Ucluelet . My property had once been an old homestead and I was determined to revive it. I had dug up a huge vegetable garden, and kept over a hundred chickens. I was doing daily battle after my hours as a fish plant worker trying to knock back 7 metre long Himalayan blackberry vines from the trees, and tackling salmon berry roots the size of a football while my fisherman husband was away making a living. The machete and the mattock were my only tools, partly because I was frightened to death of power tools, but also partly because in the hand clearing of my land I had discovered a latent physical power in myself that I had never known was there. My dream was to start a mail order nursery to ship plants out of the then sleepy settlement, as I realized that the population of the West Coast was far too small at that time to support a full time greenhouse or retail plant business.
“You remind me of Cougar Annie” my friend said to me. My friend was a fisherman who frequented the Hesquiat , Boat Basin area, and was the first to tell me the tale of this tough, wily woman who had settled there in the early part of the last century. Ada Annie Rae Arthur had settled in Boat Basin in 1915 with her husband Willie. She supported herself with a variety of enterprises throughout her 58 years there. She ran a store, a post office, and a trapline, raised chickens, sold eggs, sold furs, and raised rabbits, mink, and guinea pigs, but Annie's main interest was in her garden. She cleared land and dug drainage ditches. She built her garden, planted, propagated, divided and built up a mail order business for perennials, and for dahlia tubers. She sold plants through ads in the Western Producer Newspaper, and ran one of the first mail order nursery's on Vancouver Island. She hunted and shot cougars to collect the bounty that was offered at that time, as well as protect her livestock, and her garden. According to the book "Cougar Annie's Garden" by Margaret Horsefield, Annie "killed 62 cougars" during her time at Boat Basin Farm. One does not need to wonder any furthur where she got her name. Boats quite often set their anchors in Hesquiat Harbour in the lea of Matlahaw and Estevan Point to escape a howling northwesterly wind, and the fishermen I knew had often taken the time to row ashore and walk up to the settlement at Boat Basin to buy supplies, or to post letters. Many of them got to know Annie. I later became a fisherperson myself, and spent some hours on the beach by Anton's spit, looking for glass balls during a storm. The first one that I found was in a roller shape, much more rare then the round kind. I remember begging the skipper to go in further to Boat Basin, but we never made it. Since that day at the bar, I had always wanted to meet Cougar Annie. It haunted me that her dream to build a successful mail order nursery was so much like mine, and that she saw the same gardening potential in the mild, rainy winters, and foggy summers of the wild west coast.
Fast forward to October, 2006. . I am speeding away from Tofino on a water taxi with a group of Biologists, Aquaculturalists, Geologists, Chemists, and Educators who are traveling to Boat Basin to investigate the potential of field school opportunities at the newly established Field School founded at Boat Basin by Peter Backlund. It is located on the same property where Ada Annie Rae-Arthur lived out her life while persuing the lifestyle that I had given up on. I can’t believe that it has been 30 years since I first heard about her garden, and that time had flown by so quickly. The idea of finally seeing the garden is giving me shivers. I did not sleep well the night before, wired with anticipation. I have been a Horticultural Technician now for 20 years. I was supposed to only be away from Port Albion for two years to get some formal training in Horticulture. Years turned into more years, two great kids, and a great job. I may have given up my dream as a homesteader and mail order nursery owner for the time being, but I was finally on my way to see Cougar Annie’s garden.
Although Ada Annie Rae-Arthur had passed away over 10 years before, I had read and heard of the determination of Peter Backlund, who had bought and was working to restore the property, and I had an intimate understanding of the growing climate of the West Coast of Vancouver Island. I knew that Annie’s garden, once the broom, salal, blackberry and salmon berry had been removed, would respond in glorious gratitiude. I myself had rescued an abandoned hillside of daffodils on my property from a grove of salmon berries and had seen how well the bright yellow flowers had responded to the increase of precious sunlight and air. The daffodils must have been planted many years previous to my owning the property as they had literally taken over the hillside, even under the cover of dense bush. On the same hillside I had uncovered whole plum trees that I did not even know were there under the brambles when I started, but later that very season those gnarled old plums provided me with an abundance of sweet fruit. I knew the regenerative properties of the temperate climate. I knew how west coast bush had a tendency to grow back viforously into any vacant space provided it. I had witnessed west coast summer fogs and mists, and knew how well they nourished plants. I knew that the predominately acid soil, a function of the abundant rainfall that showers Vancouver Island’s outermost coast, was ideal for Rhododendrons, azaleas, and heathers, plants which I had heard were planted in abundance in Annie’s Garden. I also knew about the siren-like song that can possess a person who lives in that type of wilderness, and the types of spirits that can command someone to unearth a pioneer garden. I fully understood the power of Peter’s obsession.
Peter welcomed us at the dock and we packed our gear off the boat, and unto the crummy that he had waiting for us. A crummy (for those west coast newbies) is a kind of hybrid truck/bus commonly used to transport to transport loggers and treeplanters in the bush. The two geologists sat up front with Peter who had been a prospector in the Boat Basin area. The three were later dubbed Peter and the Rockettes because of the numerous stops the crummy made to look at rock formations, and rocks became the main topic of the late night discussion in the great hall. Bumping over the gravel logging road, we traveled over bridges and up steep hills and began to notice an unusual amount of ecosystem diversity, in both geology, botany and marine science. There was seashore and lake, cedar forest, spruce forest, fir and alder. There were streams and marshes, and lots of different kinds of rocks. It seemed that many different ecosystems converged here, nutured by the temperate climate and abundant rainfall.
We finally arrived at the communal kitchen, eating and meeting area called "The Great Hall". Newly built to help house events at the Field School the hall includes a communal kitchen, complete with stove and fridge, cooking, eating, and drinking utensils. Numerous comfortable seating areas had been built in along the windowed wall for eating and discussion. The main feature of the hall is a stunning yellow cedar table that seats 30. Cut from a single slab of wood that had been left by loggers of years gone by as waste, this table is a focal point of the hall. The windows of the hall overlook a wooded ledge, and further in the distance fabulous deserted ocean beaches and the Pacific Ocean itself. A woodstove warms the hall, and a generator provides power for lights. We spent some time admiring the veiw and our comfortable suroundings, then were each assigned a cabin, and split up to pack our gear to our weekend home. Right now there are 6 cabins avaialble for sleeping quarters, eventually there will be enough cabin space to sleep thirty people, the same number that can comfortabley sit around the massive table in the great hall.
My cabin overlooked the ocean as well. There were two bunks, a wood stove, a table and a deck. I chose the bunk that had a window in front of it which overlooked the view which was framed in this instance by a twisted old spruce tree. The built in furniture and the cabins were all cleverly crafted out of native woods, with an abundanc eof cedar and yellow cedar. Each cabin has it's own outhouse, and mine had an open air view, again of the ocean and surrounding beaches. A window could slide to cover the opening in foul weather, and the outhouse was extremely clean and fresh. Cedar wood was the prevailing smell. It was a delight! Peter told us later that all the wood had been gathered from the property, much of it left as waste by loggers of days gone by when trees were fallen, then evaluated for quality of lumber. the standards were much different then. We threw our gear in the cabin, eager to explore, and met our fellow adventurers for a grand tour of the gardens.
We traveled over 100's of metres of boardwalk built to allow easier accsess through the thick west coast bush. On the way to the garden we saw large old cedars and amazing nurse logs with mature trees growing from fallen giants. Entering the garden was like stepping back in time. I could feel the ghosts of Annie and her family, could feel the pathos of their struggle with the west coast bush to provide a living for themselves. A broken mattock still lay near one of the gardens, one that obviously had seen much use. The brilliant red leaves of deciduous azaleas blazed out from behind the broken down cabin that once was Annie's home. A massive Nootka rose proudly flashed its' bright red hips at me from behind an old trellis, tangled with some other old roses that I struggled to identify. The hydrangea was still blooming. Scarlet crocosmia blooms contrasted with chartreuse moss. Heather was blooming everywhere, and even mowed in places like lawn. Bright green Hostas peeked out of the bushes. Purple asters, wild and cultivated hybrids, shimmered in the sun. Old gnarled fruit trees showed scars of bear vandalism. There were rhododendrons everywhere, some much taller then me, that must look glorious in the spring time. The garden was amazing in that it survived the onslaught of native bush that invaded during Annie's final years there. She did not leave the garden until 1983, at the age of 95. The garden is a tribute to her years of hard labor, as well as a tribute to Peter Bucklands work to uncover it, but I began to feel that the real story here was much bigger then Annie and her family, and even her garden. I realized this particular area was home to a giant array of native plants. I have been a horticulturalist for many years and have explored much of Vancouver Island. I have lived on both coasts, and explored much more of the island, the mainland and the Queen Charlotte Islands by boat. I began to realize that I was seeing plants that I normally identified with the west coast of the island as well as plants that I normally see on the east coast of the island, all together here in this place. I heard the biologists discussing the different marine ecosystems. The rockettes were excitedly compiling piles of rock samples to take home. I began to understand the importance of the area was much bigger then the garden itself. There was history, natural history, geology, biology, botany, etnobotany, and all the underlying secrets of chemistry, organic chemistry and physics to explore here in this very special place.
Talking to Peter, it was obvious that he had long ago come to the same conclusion. building the cabins and the great hall were efforts to provide a place where natural science research and study could be carried out in this very special eco system. The possibilities seemed endless. There were many stories here besides Annie's. There was much to study and to observe. An ethnobotannist would be fascinated with the "Walk of the Ancients", and area where the cedar treess told the story of the first nations people's use of the forest. A botanist could study the native plants and the interaction of native and non native species. A soil scientist had soils ranging from clay to sandy loam, and more. Marine biologists had a couple of different types of beaches to study, as well as lake and stream ecosystems. The geologists had rocks, and the very story of the formation of this part of the earth. The formation of the earth, it's carpet of plants, it's life giving water in many different forms, all in an area that only briefly ( as far as the history of that earth is concerned) interacted with humans. It was the perfect place for a field school. where reserachers, scientists, educators and students could come together to look, to listen and to learn, while the ghost of Cougar Annie now smiles from her garden somewhere beyond.