Books: A British Columbia writer’s memoir brings a frontier coastal camp to life

Not just postcard vistas, Kathryn Willcock’s stories of muddy camps, houseboats, human skulls and even gangsters give “Swinging Sixties” new meaning.

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Up The Coast: One family’s wildlife in the forests of British Columbia

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Catherine Willcock | New West Press (Edmonton, 2022)

$24.95 | 220pp

For Kathryn Willcock, the coast of British Columbia – a “ragged edge (that) runs along one side of the map as if it had been ripped from the spine of an atlas” – is awe-inspiring, a source of “serious beauty “.

Although his delightful memoir, Up The Coast, pauses for picture-postcard vistas, Willcock primarily recounts the summer seasons of five decades ago, when his family resided in a remote logging camp near the “sucking cold marrow” from Orford Bay.

The immediate view, the West Vancouver resident recalled, was “carpeted in mudflat, stinky and littered with debris.” She fondly remembers her “pure magic”, however, and throughout the book’s 10 chapters, her wonder – at mouse infestations, baked starfish, broken water pipes or grizzly bears. visiting – turns out to be contagious.

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A gifted storyteller – warm, funny, generous – Willcock brings to life the muddy camp (pop. 10 people) of Bute Inlet where her father lived for nine months of the year.

Up The Coast opened in 1960, when the author was eight years old. She remembers flying over logging camps making do with “meager income, government checks and canned food”.

From there, Willcock returned to North Bay, Ontario, in 1935. His father – “small and nimble, unafraid of heights and with a healthy fear of unemployment” – was 14 and heading west alone to find work. work. John Brandon Willcock’s own father’s depression-fueled money-making schemes (Christmas tree sales, taxidermy and in-house laundry service) had failed, so this teenager eager for journalism and letter writing set out to traveled from short-term jobs to residential hotels in Vancouver’s Downside Eastside, where he was “slowly going bankrupt”.

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Willcock recounts how his father “narrowly escaped death of stupidity” after his arrest for being “drunk and over-exuberant” and his relentless struggles to keep himself financially afloat.

The Willcock parents, John Brandon and Joan (née O’Connell), met at a ball in late 1945. The author’s story evokes a treasured family memory: “’How would you like to dance?’ he croaked, and she glanced at the terrified sailor standing in front of her and said, “That would be nice,” and it was. They married a year later and moved to the coast.

For young Kathryn, life around the hardscrabble camp run by Willcock & Wankel Logging Ltd. was a mine of adventures. Although deprivation and even misery are never far away, Willcock revels in his tales.

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There are sassy portrayals of colorful characters – clueless American tourists, drunken camp cooks and relatives, in particular, “family members who lie, cheat, stab you in the back”. In fact, there’s no shortage of stuff to savor, from the Willcocks’ unique home (which ebbed and flowed with the tides, but cost $30) and a disaster-prone camp kitchen to Dotty, her aunt (who called Orford ” the asshole of the world” and was later involved in a pregnancy dependent on a mink rib stuffed in a pillowcase). Dotty then taught young Kathryn how to apply eyeliner with a marker, “in case you’re out all night and have to go straight to work from the bar.”

In the background, Willcock recounts her parents’ hopes for a better life and setbacks, such as a legal dispute that left the family with $3.56 in the bank. “Hope can do that,” Willcock notes, “turn off track completely.”

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Child writer Kathryn Willcock holding a human skull in the wilderness of coastal British Columbia
Child writer Kathryn Willcock holding a human skull in the wilderness of coastal British Columbia Photo courtesy of Kathryn Willcock

Yet Orford Bay offered the Willcock children a respite from mid-century convention: instead of etiquette lessons and guide badges, supposed to help the girls rise above their working-class status , this “separate life” on the coast showed them the possibilities outside the narrow mores of Vancouver. (Not to mention the experience with a historical curiosity: ironing clothes with the Coleman Instant-Lite Model 4A – which ran on gasoline!)

For readers, the reminiscences are both inviting and intriguing, whether it’s remembering girls chasing each other with dead salmon, watching killer whales, gazing at a human skull, or lazing around at the Orford Bay Beach (whose beach barely deserved the name).

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Up The Coast ends around 1968, with a run-in with a mobster in Vancouver and Willcock Sr.’s decision to sell the business. Charming and funny from start to finish, the memoir will encourage any reader to wonder what the 1970s would be like in Kathryn Willcock’s clever tale.

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Colin L. Johnson