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Review

At Home in Nature: A Life of Unknown Mountains and Deep Wilderness

By Rob Wood

Grizzlies, Gales and Giant Salmon: Life at a Rivers Inlet Fishing Lodge

By Pat Ardley

September 4, 2019

Review By Andrew Scott

Many people dream of “getting away from it all” (where “it” is usually some version of congested urban life). Few of us realize this dream, of course, and only a handful write about the experience. British Columbia is well represented in this handful. BC authors from M Wylie Blanchet to Roderick Haig-Brown to Gilean Douglas have helped make autobiographical writing set in remote locations a West Coast specialty.

Two recent books show how variable this literary sub-genre can be. Rob Wood’s At Home in Nature follows the author from the Yorkshire moors, where he developed a love of rock climbing, to rugged Maurelle Island north of Campbell River. Here, in 1975, he and a group of friends, inspired by BC’s dramatic coastal beauty, buy a quarter-section of logged-over waterfront and establish a land co-operative.

The book is arranged as a sequence of questions and answers, organized by theme. This format is unwieldy at times, but it allows Wood to focus on topics he considers important. The writing is intelligent and passionate, especially when the author describes guiding climbers in the nearby mountains. The camaraderie of the co-op’s early years receives lyrical treatment, though the narrative bogs down when it ventures into environmental politics and attempts to analyze our social ills.

Of more interest are Wood’s pantheistic spiritual beliefs; much of the text pays homage to his trust in the rejuvenating, transformative powers of nature. Many of the planet’s problems, he feels, are the result of the inadequate harmonization of human consciousness with the energies of the surrounding natural world—a defect he ascribes to “inappropriate cultural conditioning.” [274] Even the author’s aortic rupture and his wife Laurie’s breast cancer were, he suggests, “most likely caused by some uneasiness inherent in our lifestyle. Something in our lives must have been out of balance.” [190] (Both quickly return to idyllic island life after successful treatment in urban hospitals.)

Wood has impressive construction skills and five years’ training as an architect, and it’s fun to watch the family residence evolve from a shack in a field of stumps to a sophisticated dwelling powered by a micro-hydroelectric turbine. As time passes the household becomes more and more self-sufficient; Laurie’s garden, “the heart of the homestead,” [211] expands to include a meadow, orchard, barn, tractor shed, chicken run and workshop. Two healthy, happy children are raised on this island farm.Sadly, perhaps,of the co-op’s ten original families, Rob and Laurie are now the only full-timers.

At the same time the Woods are setting up their co-op, another story of outdoor adventure is unfolding 250 kilometres northwest, on windswept Addenbroke Island, where a young couple, George Ardley and his wife-to-be, Pat, start work as junior lighthouse keepers. Grizzlies, Gales and Giant Salmonis Pat’s intensely readable account of her 40-year career on the BC coast, most of it spent in Rivers Inlet, just south of Addenbroke, where she and George build and operate a celebrated fishing lodge. The book is also a touching love story.

Despite her fears (of the ocean, small boats, darkness, freezing weather—and combinations thereof), Prairie-born Pat turns out to be a surprisingly good fit for wilderness work. She is a creative cook and gardener, smart, brave and hard-working. George, like most long-time Rivers residents, is a problem-solver; he can build anything, fix anything and is a good man in an emergency. All these skills will be tested in the years ahead.

Ardley’s writing style is straightforward and descriptive; she has a fine sense of humour and, while occasionally introspective, is not given to lengthy philosophical digressions. Life in the inlet provides her with a seemingly endless supply of stories. She writes about eccentric wilderness characters and encounters with bears and whales. Boats break down and giant waves threaten; construction deadlines loom and lodge staff misbehave. On the bright side there are great friendships and parties, and exciting expeditions to isolated beaches and islands. Her relationship with George becomes deeper and more complex. They are married by a sea-going minister and raise a family. Their floating fishing lodge, where summer visitors fly in hoping to hook giant chinook salmon, grows in size and stature. Everyone knows the Ardleys.

Then tragedy strikes. In his late 50s George is diagnosed with esophageal cancer and dies suddenly after a short illness. Pat struggles on, with the help of her two children, and runs the lodge for nine more years before selling up in 2012 and moving to West Vancouver. A series of heart-wrenching letters, in which Pat pays tribute to an extraordinary partnership, concludes this remarkable book.

Publication Information

At Home in Nature: A Life of Unknown Mountains and Deep Wilderness. Vancouver: Rocky Mountain Books, 2017. 286 pp. Illus. $22, paperback.

Grizzlies, Gales and Giant Salmon: Life at a Rivers Inlet Fishing Lodge. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2018. 351 pp. Illus. $19.95 paperback.