Flash Back Fridays

Going to the coast with Jim By Michael Robinson

Reva Robinson(left)with fellow adventurers roaring down Muchalat Inlet in a Zodiak

Reva Robinson(left)with fellow adventurers roaring down Muchalat Inlet in a Zodiak

As the remaining crews begin turning over their motors and winding in their lines a cedar plank launch with rakish white lines rounds Anderson Point. Behind it surfs a large zodiac rubber boat loaded down with nine people, all dressed in bright wet weather gear and strapped into vest-type life jackets. The cedar clinker built and the zodiac are riding up and over the approaching swells with graceful ease. The big boat is churning through the sea and leaving a flat bubbly wake for the zodiac to fly along.

In the cabin of the lead boat a big man is smoking his corncob pipe and squinting through his aviator glasses. A tall grey Texas Stetson rides on top of his head. He has one hand on the wheel and one on the throttle in preparation for the big swells up ahead. As the bow of his boat climbs each wave he throttles up to momentarily sink the stern a little deeper. The boat is performing like an extension of its operator.

His radio is tuned to the lighthouse frequency and yet the nonsense chatter of the Saturday fishermen is jamming out the station. “I just wish those plastic arseholes would go home and leave us the coast!” he says to no one in particular. The young man beside him grins and continues unrolling the nautical charts from the water-proof tube. Behind them on the open rear deck six more rain-suited people are clustered around an enormous pile of gear. Back packs, duffle bags, tool boxes, fishing rods, tarps, axes, shovels, rope coils, plastic pails, a barbecue grill and a kayak are tightly fastened down under an orange rain sheet. There is a definite air of organization here. You’d think this crew had been out to the west coast many times before from their smiles and knowing manner. And yet, with the exception of the two men the cabin and the crouching motor operator in the zodiac, everyone is here for the first time.

“I think we should speak to the Department of Highways about this road,” big Jim chuckles as he throttles down the revs to coast down the slope of the wave. “Let’s give Nootka light another call and see if we can raise them. Nootka light, Nootka light – this is Fair Isle calling, can you give us a weather report?”

‘‘Fair Isle – hi Jim – this is Pat and the weather is swinging around to the southeast with more of the same expected, winds occasionally gusting 60. Time to head for cover, Jim – why don’t you come on into the cove?”

boat ride_1
“O.K. Pat – we’re about twenty minutes out. How about some coffee and wha1e steaks!” By now the Saturday crowd are well astern of the Fair Isle and the zodiac that seems to hover in her white wake. A few of the fishermen know who the big guy is in the lead boat. The rest were seeing him for the first time. They looked at the disappearing Fair Isle in a special way; it was as if they had just seen a pod of killer whales go by. They had seen Jim Boulding going out to the coast one more time. They got their monies worth, and so did I. I was sitting next to Jim. They had just seen Boulding go by with a couple of boatloads of people for his annual West Coast Survival Adventure course.

The Strathcona Park Lodge staff used to call it the West Coast Surf and Sauna Club. For nearly a decade the course had been offered along with numerous others by the Strathcona Park Lodge Outdoor Education Centre. The Lodge on Upper Campbell Lake was Jim’s livelihood, but the real adventure took place out on the coast. As thousands of people discovered in the 1970s and early 1980s, Jim could make seven days out on the west coast beaches seem like the fourth voyage of Captain Cook.

Although Jim died in 1986, there is a local rumour circulating that he really never left the coast. While you can’t find him at Baja Reef or Hot Springs Cove any more, he’s just tucked away in the lee of some island, safely anchored in a sheltered bay and taking a snooze in the old Fair Isle. The same people who are responsible for that rumour also say that it’s Jim’s bellow you hear when the fog comes in and wraps up the Sound, not the Nootka light fog horn. Like all good rumours these ones are based on a good measure of truth. Jim did spend a great deal of time on the coast around Nootka Sound and he did have a very loud voice. However, it would be closer to the mark to say simply that Jim was a west coast institution. He represented in the historic present the kind of men who made the industrial historic past on the coast. The main difference being that these early West Coasters were hand loggers and boom boat captains – not outdoor education teachers. But they share in common a respectful love of the southeast wind and the pull of a Coho on a hand line.

But today the pull of muscle on an axe handle has been replaced by the short tug on a starter cord. And so in most ways Jim Boulding is a west coast anachronism. He didn’t dress like the Gold River Chamber of Commerce. He didn’t work for a multinational corporation. He never owned a pocket calculator. People looked at him when he walked by on the wharf – whatever wharf he tied up at. From the heated cabins of their fibreglass and plywood cabin cruisers they wondered why he wore those wool pants, that wool shirt, that huge Cowichan sweater, the beat up canvas hunter’s vest, and the remarkable big hat. Didn’t the man own proper blue jeans or a nylon golf shirt? Where was his Arnold Palmer windbreaker? Why gum boots instead of running shoes? Well – there are some pretty good reasons. The first man to wear blue jeans on the coast learned something when it started to rain. His pants turned into celery sticks and sucked water up to his crotch. When they got wet they lost their powers of insulation and when the wind began to blow his legs felt like clam siphons at high tide.

In Jim’s words, “I don’t want to look like a stick of celery – I’d rather be dry like a hot potato.” So he wears wool pants. Many an old west coaster lived to fish again after he was swept overboard in his wool pants and shirt. They retain their warmth even when soaking, and even awash in the salt chuck they provide a measure of heat to the wearer. As the man said, “Hell, that plastic crap doesn’t even insulate when it’s dry.”

boat ride_2
On top of his wool shirt Jim wore perhaps the largest Cowichan sweater ever to be made in Duncan. It was a masterpiece of the area and remained a permanent part of his wardrobe because was made of hand carded, hand spun and hand knitted wool. That wool was never bleached to remove the natural lanolin – the gift of the ten or so sheep who gave their wool for the sweater. The lanolin forms a natural oil shield on the wool fibres that sluices the rain off like split cedar shakes.

Jim wearing his infamous hat

Jim wearing his infamous hat

On top of all these wool layers Jim always wore his canvas hunter’s vest, a traditional product of the Jones’ Tent and Awning Company, outfitters to outdoorsmen since the 1890s. Although I observed Jim loading this vest dozens of times, I still can’t remember the complete inventory on paper. It’s far simpler to say that Jim could survive for six months on Nootka Island in a howling southeaster as long as he had his vest. The basic survival tools were always tucked away in the canvas maze of pockets, flaps and loops: compass, flares, flare gun, pipe, tobacco, buzz-bomb lures, pocket knife, whet-stone and whistle was de rigueur. It’s the little surprises that always amazed me: the spare cotter pins that appeared when the propeller was about to fall off the pipe cleaners that unplugged the engine’s water intake pipe when kelp leaves got sucked in and the motor mysteriously overheated; the red handled pliers that materialized to splice the steering gear when snapped at twenty knots in a following sea; and on several famous occasions the rich chocolate Nanaimo bars, fresh from the Uchuck III’s kitchen that came out of a pocket at coffee time. While you never quite knew the total contents of the vest, was remarkable that Jim always appeared a little top heavy at the start of a coastal trip.

The grey Texas Stetson always caused quite a stir at the wharf. Big hats are no longer in vogue on the coast. In fact most west coasters don’t own real hats anymore. Instead they wear little toques or maybe a baseball cap with CAT or COOP on the peak. For Jim the big hat was a necessity. It kept the hot August sun off his balding head and more or less achieved the same result with all the rain any month could offer. But Jim’s hat had many more functions. No mere emblem of fashion it was a tool. I’ve seen him haul drinking water with it, collect oysters in it, fan away mosquitoes with it, use it to blow embers into flames and, worst of all, seen him hide his over-proof rum under it. How western society functioned without big hats was a mystery to Jim.

Jim gave fair value to all those who went along with him to the coast. For instance: the Saturday morning fishermen can still get from the Gold River wharf to the open coast in one hour given flat water and rough speed. For them the trip down Muchalat Inlet is a spray drenched bore. Jim made the same trip in two hours, and more important he made it what he termed “a quality experience.” Before getting underway everyone pitched in at the dockside. Everyone was made to feel a part of the expedition. No one was merely along for the ride. Once underway some were designated as dead-head spotters and map readers. All of the pretty ladies got a turn at the wheel under Jim’s watchful eye. Passing eagles were identified and jumping herring were pointed out. If salmon were seen rolling and finning at the surface, the flotilla stopped to break out the fishing gear.

Before the crew even arrived at the wharf, they were already extensively briefed on what to expect from the weather. No one went out to the coast without gum boots, four pairs of wool socks and proper rain gear. Helly Hansens are what Jim preferred and they were declared an absolute necessity on every trip, even if it was 85 degrees and mid August. While I’ve seen Jim turn many a rain soaked beach into a steam bath before the sun came out to warm the customers, even his positive psychology waned on the third day of a downpour. However, most of us second fiddles, porters, lackies and apprentices who worked with Jim preferred to go out to the coast in the rain, the swell and the fog. “It’s too much like Hawaii when the sun comes out.” This is a direct Boulding quote, one which he liked to discourage because it’s true and he didn’t enjoy crowds and hotel developments. Anyone can enjoy themselves on a hot beach, but it demands special talents to keep twenty people warm and happy when the southeast wind starts to blow, and the big rain drops start to fall.

Those special talents were at the heart of Jim’s philosophy. Basic to it all is what he called “generosity of spirit.” This involved sharing with others the joy he took from his environment. Implicit in this joy was an awareness of the fragile strength of the west coast. Fragile because highly mechanized loggers and open pit miners are getting so close to the beaches that you can now hear their machinery. Jim’s last year of life was the first time that you could see the high altitude logging operations above Escalante Beach from the reserve at Friendly Cove. When the logging roads get close enough, the wilderness spirit goes forever.

Jim didn’t fight the loggers. He recognized their right to earn a living from the bush, but he also saw early another way to make a living on the coast. On one rare occasion I heard Jim put his vision into words: This is to me the most beautiful country in the world, and no matter what anyone else may think, I’m trying to keep some of it that way. I am one of the biggest supporters that the tourist industry has in this province. What most of you guys don’t realize is that the tourist industry is the only one that benefits from leaving all this natural beauty the way it is. Tourism doesn’t rip the hill- sides apart or cut all the trees down. Just by taking all these people out here we’re exposing them to something they’ll learn to love! Hopefully they’ll go home and do something about preserving it. I think that’ the only way, short of turning the whole coast into a park, that we’re going to keep some of it for the generations. And as long as there are paying customers, I’ll be picking them up at the wharf with the old Fair Isle.

And so Jim continued his coastal shuttle service for urban people who wanted to experience what the land was like before the cities began. As each year went by he passed on his philosophy to another wave of converts. Armed with their soggy wool socks, their new Cowichan sweaters and their hundreds of slides they filtered back into their job realities with a slightly altered view. When we meet again by chance on ferries or in museums or downtown Vancouver, we still share a few infectious moments. Like passing joggers or backpackers in the alpine we immediately know something of the other’s values. Something we have learned to respect.

We wore wool and went out to the coast with Jim.
boat ride_4