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Summers on Savary


12 min read

Jun 10



by Robert E. Burns

Editor's note: "see 3036 Malaspina Promenade in House Histories"

About a hundred miles north of Vancouver lies a magical island — Savary. If you can find it on your map, you will see that its long axis lies roughly in an east-west direction, in contrast to other islands to its south in the Strait of Georgia. Strangely there are a number of islands north of Savary which also lie in the east-west axis — no one has come up with an explanation of this phenomenon.

This little island is about four miles in length and no more than half a mile wide at any one place. It was named, I believe, by Captain George Vancouver after one of his officers.

In the early 1920s when I was a kid, we lived in Vancouver, then a brawling port of some 150 to 200 thousand souls. Its economy depended, to a large degree, upon coastal logging and fishing and on mining, the latter largely done inland. The Oriental trade had just got into full swing and a little rum-running into the confines of our amiable neighbour to the south helped the economy along.

Loggers and fishermen who came to Vancouver on business and pleasure (I was too young to know much about the latter) had but one mode of transportation to rely upon — the Union Steamship Line. It provided a major portion of the ships fulfilling the needs of the coastal community.

The venerable collection of small steamers (a goodly percentage of which were acquired second-hand) ran between Vancouver and the small seasonal and permanent communities as well as the logging camps and fishing ports of the coast. Their master-seamen could pull into any sort of jetty in any kind of weather at any time of the day or night to deliver or pick up freight and passengers. In the summer months vacationers added to their problems and their revenues.

These coastal seamen were the ones who developed the technique of assessing their distance from shore or object of much size by sounding the ship's whistle and measuring the time it took for the echo to return to them. The method, though simple and basic, led to the development of radar.

Each summer, for over ten years, Mother and her three children would take off for Savary as soon as school closed. We would be there until Labour Day — about two months in all. Dad would come up for a weekend every few weeks if business permitted. Sometimes he would stay for a week and very rarely, two, a treat for us all. Grandpa, who lived with us in Vancouver, was there for most of the summer — and he had every right to be — for he had made the cottage a gift to Mother.

As I remember, the Union boat would leave Vancouver at about 6 p.m. and I, being the youngest, would be bedded down soon after it passed out of the harbour. This procedure took the combined efforts of Mother and my older sister and brother. We would arrive at Savary, finally, after touching a number of ports-of-call, around two or three a.m. Aroused, I was pushed, pulled or carried ashore along with our luggage. We then made our way in the dark to the cottage, with the help of Mr. Keefer, the major-domo of Savary's only store. Our cottage was about half a mile from the wharf, and, since there were no cars on Savary, wheelbarrows and carts were used.

Of course, as I grew older, I was given more privileges and was allowed to carry some bags.

The major portion of our luggage — a trunk and some boxes — were consigned to the freight shed and left on the wharf until later in the day. Finally, with the aid of a flashlight, we were able to detect the sign “Thalasse", which Grandpa assured us meant “The Sea" in Greek that only he knew. We had arrived at last.

Hastily fed something, I was bundled off to bed and told to sleep again. The excitement mitigated against such an idea, but eventually I would succumb.

So much had happened in such a short time — school out, no more lessons, the boat ride, Savary. How could I sleep? But I did.

To all but me morning came late. I would invariably be awake long before the rest and become a nuisance to everyone. The only one safe was Grandpa who had a room in the attic well away from the noise — his foresight likely emanated from his years of experience as a teacher of the young.

But I was enchanted with the idea that here was Savary, clean white sand, water, fun and food. Food — that was the most important thing right then.

But even before food, I realized that I must attend to my duties —The Pump. It stood there in all its green glory, unattended, on the back porch, a household god. At once I seized its long black iron handle and, with its attendant shrieks and groans, managed to awaken all but Grandpa.

Soon my older brother would appear, muttering to himself and cursing me quietly enough so that only we could know he knew such words. I would be rudely shoved aside while he found a can of rainwater and primed The Pump correctly. Summer had officially begun when The  Pump produced a steady stream of clear, sweet water. Happy, I raced off to the beach but only to be recalled in short order to “eat a proper breakfast.”

Meanwhile Mother, with my sister's help, had been bringing the Kitchen Stove back to life. It had weathered the winter without damage — to the family's delight and amazement. Obviously someone had cared for it, since it was clean and shiny and there was dry firewood beside it. It didn't take much deduction to realize Dad must have arranged for this nicety.

The "First Morning” breakfast was always a wonderful sort of a meal — we were allowed to eat whatever we wanted to. Table manners were suspended to the delight of all — even Mother enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.

Then, off to explore. What old pals had arrived before us? Was the beach still intact or had pebbles from Green's Point further invaded the sandy area? How was the water? Who cared? The most wonderful thing on the First Day was to run through the clean white sand to the completely transparent ripples that broke on the shore. We almost feared that we would cut our feet if we stepped into the clear glassy water.

Within a week most of the kids we knew had assembled. Each year we would briefly mourn the absence of one or two, whose families (strangely, we thought) had elected to take their holidays elsewhere. Replacements, like Army recruits, soon filled the gap and, indoctrinated into the mystic cabals of "Cut the Pie", "Peggie", "Pig In The Middle", “Andy, Andy, Eye Over", "I Spy” and so forth — became one of us.  All these games ended in a mass riot of screaming children hurling themselves at one another in no order and under no rules.

After this workout we would generally progress to swimming. Few of us had been swimming since the previous summer, for in those days, swimming pools were few and far between. No one we knew had one and few clubs or schools did either. Our talents, therefore, were few, and our fun consisted largely of mayhem in the shore water similar to what we enjoyed on the beach. If we ventured into deeper water we would be apprehensive of the seaweed and the likely presence of sea monsters lurking in its shadows. Particularly Spider Crabs.

And the sun — it was bright — the air so clear and clean. I doubt if any of us put it into words, but we all felt the difference from the city, nonetheless. The sun's reflection on the water and the heat on our shoulders was enticing, and soon we'd be lying in the sand luxuriating (as much as a kid in his right mind will stay still for anything). No one, then, knew or even seemed concerned about the effects of too much sun. I rather imagine a number of us paid richly for our ignorance. No one seemed concerned about over-exposure to sun then. A “good sunburn" was painful and perhaps might lay a person up for a few days, but the possible consequences were not appreciated. I was jealous of my best friend Pete because he burned so well, and try as I might I never succeeded in even approaching his achievement.

Kids had to make their own amusements, by and large, at Savary. There were no organized sports except a field day each August. There was a tennis court but that was for older people except at a few rare times. No baseball diamond, no basketball, no equipment of any kind except the raft. In a sense I think this was the best way to go.

There were, however, water, sand, woodland trails, rowboats, fishing, and above all no fixed rules or schedules. No fond parents standing at the sidelines pushing the kid to excel. Each child was his or her own person.

If a kid got bored with games and wanted to spend a little time doing other things — there was always fishing. This was generally done off the end of the wharf — and one could be certain that within a space of an hour, if one kid went fishing, half a dozen others would show up to do the same thing.

Bur first you had to locate your old fishing line (that may take time but a new one cost fifteen cents and that was a week's allowance). The old line could be cleaned and the hook scraped off — but time was cheap.

You had to dig up some worms — not difficult but time-consuming. Then you would find a part of the wharf with a little shade and you fished through one of the cracks on the deck. If you were lucky you'd get several perch and then you might want to jerk for cod.

To do so meant you had another line with a larger hook. You would impale your live perch on this hook and, with the line suitably weighted, lower it off the end of the wharf (cod are too big to be brought up through a crack) and wait the rest of the afternoon. Cod were few, and to catch one was a triumph. These were rock cod and, we were told, they were smarter than most fish.

It was said that if you were really interested in catching cod the place to go was off the rocks at Green's Point. I was never that enamoured of cod. In fact I don’t remember anyone eating a rock cod. I think they were generally fed to the dogs — or buried.

Usually, in the afternoon we would go swimming off “The Raft". In this case Mother would frustrate me by her insistence that I rest for an hour after lunch. She insisted that I might get cramps and drown if my meal were not digested. It was an argument I never won. I had to obey orders and listen to the shouts and happy screams coming up from my confreres on the beach and the raft.

There on the raft was the centre of life for our afternoons. It was anchored off shore far enough to be in deep water and near enough for most kids to swim to it. It had a large and small springboard, a tower for high dive and a chute for fun.  Unobtrusive adult supervision kept us from any hijinks.

The first Saturday in August was Sports Day. It was the half-way point of our Heavenly Existence. All manner of races on land and water were the order of the day. Great enthusiasm was generated — each kid outdoing him (or her) self. That evening at The Pavilion at Keefer's store, amidst Chinese lanterns and salal decorations, the older kids and the younger adults danced to a gramophone while the younger sprouts got in the way, racing about and consuming whatever they could get their hands on. But a "good time was had by all."

An annual rite among kids of my age was the "Hike Around The Island". How long this had been going on I don’t know, but it was a “must" in our day. We would cross to the south shore at Green's Point and then head west past the great banks, sometimes playing on them for a while. Then along the flat tidal beach where there were many large rocks and pools with varieties of sea life therein. If dogs were with us, as they usually were, they would yelp in frustration at these uncooperative life forms who wouldn't permit themselves to be caught.

Having passed this part of the venture we settled down to hard slogging. The island tapered down both as to width and elevation and after several hours we would finally reach Indian Point where — praise be — we would find ourselves heading back along the north coast. By this time all our food and usually all our fluids had been consumed. In retrospect I have never been able to figure out why, knowing this would happen, we didn't have enough brains to conserve our rations. But we never did.

Even so, we would make side trips up abandoned logging chutes and go on little side expeditions. When we would finally reach home, completely “done in", we swore softly to ourselves that we would never do that trip again. Only our mothers felt any sympathy for us. They gave us sustenance and packed us off to bed.

One year's expedition stands out vividly. As we drew near Indian Point we discovered a dugout canoe, high on the beach. It seemed to us that it had lifted there on a full tide. Yet we didn't note that the contents were stashed away neatly. We were so excited with our find that we launched the canoe and pulled and pushed it all the way home, knee deep in water, too excited at our find to feel fatigue.

Exhausted, we were dismayed at the criticism that greeted us. But we soon got that until several days later a middle-aged Indian reported the theft of his canoe to Mr. Keefer. It took no time to find the culprits and no little diplomacy plus some dollars to assuage his rightful indignation. The affair blew over and we got off with stern lectures by parents and much heckling from our peers and siblings.

The incident had one major benefit — it provided each of us with a better base understanding when the time came for us to deal with the peccadillos of our own young.

Not all our adventures ended so well. One year a boy gave Pete or Drex an old sack he had found, with a paper therein, which, he said, he would like to follow up but he could not, for relatives were coming and he had to meet them. He had picked it up when he was picking blackberries from behind Green's cabin — a derelict cabin which was said to be owned by an early settler of the island who, rumour had it, had been murdered for his money.

The map told of Hidden Treasure.

We swore ourselves to secrecy and the next day, very early, after a ghost-ridden night of sometime sleep, headed off in search of it.

Following an unrewarding search of the ancient cabin itself, we concluded we should carefully check the area where the bottles had been found. As we entered the tangled maze of prickly vines and bushes, we walked squarely into a nest of enraged hornets. Screaming with pain, we tore through the needled bushes down to the nearby beach, setting up enough noise to raise Green's ghost.

There were no heroes that day. Fortunately Pete's older sister happened to be nearby and heard us. She plastered us with cool wet sand — which relieved the pain considerably. Equally fortunate was the fact that none of us was allergic to wasp stings.

Our fine friend who had ‘discovered' the map didn't appear for several days and thus escaped the slow demise we had planned for him. By the time we saw him again we had begun to see a trace of humour in it, and so forgot the whole thing — with some reservations, of course.

By this time it was 1928. Grandfather had died earlier in the year. I felt I had lost my closest friend. Dad's business, it became apparent, had been increasingly under pressure for the past several years and was close to collapse. The Depression, which was yet to come, had already sent out warning signals long before the stock market crash. In the fall of 1928 Dad sold what remnants of the business were left, and along with what he could get for our home had enough — or nearly enough — to set up a new part of the enterprise in the interior of the province. Mother undertook to sell Thalasse at that time. So that fall she and I went up to Savary to close the house.

I had just turned fourteen, and as I look back, a very young fourteen. I tried very hard to be helpful and brave. Mother was distressed beyond words, though she tried very hard to conceal her feelings. We packed the things that had to go, and once we saw them loaded on the ship, we went aboard and walked about the deck. Once the ship was underway, we stood and watched a part of our life pass by. Others had far worse experiences than we, I was to learn later, but at the time I felt isolated — possibly because I had not yet heard of any others having such a situation arise. I knew then that my Savary, that I had grown up with, was to be no more.

As we closed in on Green's Point we stood at the rail. Passing Thalasse was especially traumatic to us both but nothing was said. When we reached Green's Point I found myself wiping a few tears from my eyes — but the more I tried to conceal them, the worse it became. I turned away from Mother, hoping she would not notice, for I was ashamed of my weakness. At my age you aren't supposed to cry. Poor Mother! Struggling to contain her own bruised emotions, she had to contend with mine. She said nothing and continued to look steadfastly at the shore, but she rested her hand softly on my shoulder.

The ship rounded the point and headed south.

The author was a retired dermatologist living in Victoria.

B.C. Historical News - Summer ‘91



12 min read

Jun 10



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