Flash Back Fridays


Education has always been very important to me and it seems that you never stop learning. My educational background includes having obtained a B.Sc. in Chemistry from Michigan Technological University, followed by work on a M.Sc. in Chemistry at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Alaska.

This kindled my love of the Arctic and polar climates.  After moving to BC I completed the Simon Fraser University PDP teacher education program in 1973, and taught Secondary School in Prince Rupert, BC. That’s when I first heard of the Apprenticeship in Wilderness Leadership at Strathcona. Determined to be a scientist, I worked as a Chemist doing geochemistry assay and heavy metal analysis. I obtained a chemist position for Arctic Laboratories in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. The north was fascinating; I wanted to get out in the field to collect the samples I was analyzing. Alas, I wasn’t allowed on any expeditions into the field, where polar bear monitors with guns watched as the samples were collected, because I didn’t have enough Outdoor Skills. My then boyfriend, Nils Vikander, the Cross Country Ski Coach for the NWT, suggested that we go to Strathcona Park Lodge Outdoor Education Centre to attend the Apprenticeship in Wilderness Leadership program to get the outdoor skills, which included

Karen (centre), with Patty Van Humbeck and her friend Diane Sanderson in the bog

Karen (centre), with Patty Van Humbeck and her friend Diane Sanderson in the bog

Survival Skills, that would enable me to work in the field. He had the summer off and wished to expand his outdoor set of skills and we could do it together. Perfect, the outdoors and science were coming together.

Who could have predicted that I would get hernias while doing cliff rescues as part of the rock-climbing course. Rappelling down the rock face, while stabilizing the stretcher that held the heaviest Apprentice, apparently was too strenuous for me and resulted in a femoral and an inguinal hernia. The bulge and pain were severe enough to put me in the hospital with an emergency operation. Evidently this was a sign that I was ‘too weak’ and at the end of the summer Nils went on without me. I wasn’t able to complete the Apprenticeship program, but Jim and Myrna generously offered that I could complete it the next year if I wanted to.

 Rappelling down a rock face with a stretcher— a perilous proposition

Rappelling down a rock face with a stretcher— a perilous proposition

That fall I had learned and recuperated enough to participate in the practicum portion, working with experienced leaders with the school groups. The experiential education had a profound affect on the students and I felt that it was extremely valuable for a student’s development and self-confidence. This was made even more evident when I went to substitute teach in Lytton, B.C., for three months. I returned to Strathcona in the spring to work with the school programs and during the summer I participated in the Apprenticeship trips that I had been unable to complete the summer before, including, Mountaineering and Kayaking. Under Myrna and Jim’s tutelage I learned book keeping and how to manage the office..

Always wanting to learn more, during the next two winters I obtained a diploma in Wildland Recreation from Selkirk College in Castlegar, B.C. I was inspired to attend by Strathcona leaders Lea Bennett and Paul Jorgensen, who also chose to study Wild- land Recreation. The Selkirk College Instructor, Dennis Holden, had visited Strathcona several times.. Finally, in March of 1986, Jim and Myrna asked me to be the Program Director.

Jim and Myrna wanted a proposal written for government funding, specifically a plan to put unemployed people to work. The plan would benefit Strathcona and keep it functioning in the toughest time, winter.. The plan included upgrading many of the cabins from rustic staff accommodations to tourist facilities that could be rented out during the summers. Toby Hay and Percy Dewar helped me pre- pare the estimates and calculations for the repairs and the building of the ‘Barn’. The project was to teach old-fashioned timber building skills where the beams were joined by notching and pegs were used instead of nails. Percy was an expert at the old style building and timber construction. Shake splitting was on the agenda to be taught, as well as small boat operation and handling. The large logs were to be made into beams and lumber by being milled on site using a ‘Mighty Mite’ Sawmill. After the proposal was submitted I overheard Myrna say something to the effect that she hoped we wouldn’t get it, but it would be just our luck to have it succeed. The proposal was accepted and the ‘Barn’ was built. David Boulding was the project manager. That was a very busy win- ter indeed. The installation of the large glass windows was completed minutes before the first event, Elizabeth and Toby’s wedding.

At Strathcona I had many opportunities, including co-coordinating hundreds of school programs, developing Elderhostel programs for seniors 55 years and older, obtaining Government funding for the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training (COLT) program that Jim envisioned, planning and writing the brochures for Wilderness Youth Leadership Development (WYLD) and summer adventures, attending Rendezvous Canada to promote tourism, baking more than thirty apple pies for special guests, driving the bus with attached boat trailer over logging roads to the West Coast to pick up a group of kayakers at a moments notice, inviting a Belly Dancer (met at a Greek restaurant in Victoria with Jim and Myrna) to Folk Weekend, taking students and visitors on bog walks to share all the natural history I had learned, and greeting visitors from all over the world at the front desk.

Karen Schwalm

Karen Schwalm

The experiences and learning from Strathcona have enabled me to work aboard the MV Northern Ranger as a Hospitality Steward traveling from St. John’s, Newfoundland, through the Panama Canal, to Ushuaia, Argentina. From there I completed seven trips to/from Antarctica to explore a variety of penguin colonies, visit research stations and present programs during the expeditions. With the ship, I also traveled throughout the Falkland Islands and explored the Galapagos Islands. In 1994 I assisted Myrna in representing tourism on the Commission on Resources and the Environment (CORE) table for the development of the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan. While participating I met my husband, Glenn Robertson, who became the MLA for the North Island (1996-2001) and served as the Minister of Energy and Mines. Combining indoor and outdoor work, the outdoor and other skills that I learned at Strathcona have continued to serve me well as I work as a Scientific Technical Officer for the Ministry of Forests. My spare time is used to explore the outdoors and ocean environment aboard our 43-foot Hans Christian ketch.

To say that Jim Boulding was big and bold is an understatement. He had enormous strength and power, no, that’s not enough. He was tough and packed a humongous impact. Still not quite enough—indescribable, no, you had to be there to experience it.

Upon meeting the man you might be put off by the gruff nature, rugged appearance and intense focus, or maybe mysteriously attracted because he was unique and had an air of confidence that unconsciously you wanted to learn. You might think he was like a bull in a china shop. He could be loud and obnoxious if you wanted to see him that way, or, you could enter Jim’s world of challenge and intense rural and nature reality.

He could take you to the edge and knock any stubborn stupor you were in out of existence. His teaching style was intense and in your face. When sitting in a canoe or kayak in moving water, your stupor vanished as you were forced to focus intently in the moment on your surroundings. One false move or inattentive moment and ‘flip’, you were cold, wet, gasping for air and focused on survival. It didn’t take long to enter Jim’s teaching world. He had vast amounts to teach in such a short time.

I wonder how many have been influenced by the big man with the slouching hat, big boots and wool clothes? The man who always carried a knife, matches and pitch sticks in his pocket and who smoked a pipe while paddling a canoe with a tempest of wind and waves swirling around him? He seemed bigger than life itself; but, in fact, he made life big – important in ways that touch to the heart of a soul. In my estimation, there was and continues to be something beyond what is comprehensible in concrete ways that exists about what Jim Boulding found and passed on to others.

Life, Jim’s way, gripped me two days after arriving at Strathcona Park Lodge in the form of an Orientation trip on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Jim was in his element. Here were 14 inexperienced, eager novices to take to the edge and back. Jim lived on the edge, it seems, in many ways. We certainly saw the edge of the rawness of nature in the wild Pacific Ocean waves we encountered with him.

Accompanied by Pauline Landsdale, the green thumbed gardener at the Lodge and kayak instructor, Jim led us aboard the Uchuck, a converted mine sweeper that takes freight and passengers from Gold River through Muchalat Inlet to logging camps and towns, such as Tahsis, Kyuquot and Zeballos, and the First Nation territory at Friendly Cove. We loaded what seemed like tons of gear into the depths of the ship, including: canoes, kayaks, paddles, a Zodiac with motor, food for 16 people for fivedays and everything for overnighting in the wilderness. Travelling aboard the Uchuck was the fast way to get to Moucha Bay, the logging camp from where we would start paddling. We gained our first experience canoeing and kayaking to Friendly Cove on Nootka Island, the site of a First Nations village, Yuquot, and the Nootka Light- house.

The Barn—construction nearly complete

The Barn—construction nearly complete

Ed was from New York City and used to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, although you wouldn’t know it from the way he dressed in a big plaid lumberjack- looking shirt and trousers. He taught us how to really sing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ with a classy baritone voice, when rain soaked us to the bone.

Madoka was from Japan and didn’t speak a word of English. I’m not sure what she understood when we were almost swamped by waves, but she was brave and we had to learn to communicate by showing and doing rather than yelling “paddle hard” or “STOP”. What English as a second language course she was to get; and we learned to sing a Japanese children’s song about bananas that I still remember parts of to this day. “Ba-na-na-ga ich bone, alli mush ta”, is my phonetics for this ditty.

She wasn’t the only one translating, because Heri was from Germany. Having slept in a dry desert once upon a time, he was to learn, as we all were, a lot about sleeping in a rainforest. Wet down sleeping bags offer little insulation or warmth when used on an absorbent bed of moist moss.

Pat, although of Japanese nationality, was from Berkeley, California, so English was not a problem for her. Fit from the city and not outdoor skilled, she exemplified some of the emotional turmoil that ran through us all. She was compassionate toward others.

Dorothy was quiet, the contemplative type, possibly wandering the globe trying to make sense of it all.

Bright and bubbly beyond your imagination, Darcy was a physical education instructor. She already knew something about kayaking, so she was one of the chosen few to paddle in a big white whale of a river kayak. It was not at all sleek and fast as compared to today’s modern ocean going versions of kayaks, nor as manoeuvrable as today’s low profile river kayaks.

Andrea, also in a kayak, probably knew the most about the ocean, having sailed before. Her red hair and no-nonsense demeanour meant business. The sailing experience came in handy when we rafted canoes and kayaks together and tried to hoist a big blue tarp lashed to paddles as a sail.

Bob was a physicist who must have been trying to do experiments on running. He was fit and trim.. Close alongside in terms of speed would be Nils, the Cross Country ski coach, of pure body efficiency. He was the last to be rescued from the pounding surf smashing on the rocky headlands of Maquinna Point. Thank goodness he also excelled in swimming.

After all boats swamped Jim Boulding made it to shore and had hoisted a river rescue rope with a throw bag at the end of it into the pounding sea. The waves crashed and swirled people around like jellyfish. Last in the water, Nils disappeared beneath the waves, but as they receded, miraculously, he was still hanging on to the rope for dear life as Jim hauled him to safety.

Chris was Mr. Muscle 1981. As a body builder, he was big and strong. A Fraser Valley pipe fitter by trade, his fit body would serve him well in learning the new skills we embarked upon. He was paddling from Friendly Cove with Mathew, deemed Mr. Pastel 1981 because of his extensive collection of faintly coloured pink, green and blue shirts. The canoe they were paddling in chose to turn back when the waves got big, a wise choice for a lonely canoe in big ocean swells.

Dan paddled in the canoe with Nils and I as we headed from Friendly Cove, Nootka Island, south toward Burdwood, a little bay on the south side of the entrance to Nootka Sound. Dan was quiet and steady. Later he would lull us to sleep with melodious harmonica tunes at night. Our canoe probably had the most canoeing experience. We continued on to Burdwood, alone, after we couldn’t keep track of Chris and Mathew’s canoe in the ‘big’ waves. The other boats were towed with the zodiac to Esca- lante beach, a very remote stretch of exquisite sand exposed to the open Pacific Ocean waves.

Managing the Zodiak was Rob, who already owned wool pants. This is what Jim wore and he influenced each of us to buy a pair soon after our inaugural trip. Rob obviously had some outdoor skills already. I think he was attracted to the Lodge for the outdoors ‘women’ he would meet. Anyway, a lot were attracted to his handsome boyish looks.

Loading the Zodiak

Loading the Zodiak

During the crossing from Friendly Cove, before our canoe landed in the surf at Burdwood, Jim found us, paddling for all we were worth, as he scouted Nootka Sound in the Zodiak, after he had ensured that the other boats that were being towed reached Escalante safely. We were surviving in the wicked swells so he rushed off to locate Mathew and Chris, whom we worried for their lives. Jim found them safely on Friendly Cove shore and transported them by zodiac to Escalante. This was one of Jim’s favourite remote, wild, long sand beaches, not unlike the famed ‘Long Beach’ of Pacific Rim National Park. Nestled on the forests edge, beach logs had been set up to frame a tarp camp that would protect visitors from the elements. The shelter was a God send for weary, wet paddlers. This group of Apprentice’s and many others would return to the beautiful, lonely beach often, but under very different circumstances and conditions.

Upon landing in the surf at Burdwood I stepped out of the canoe only to fall flat on my face and get intimately acquainted with salt water and sand. After paddling under the influence of seasickness for what seemed hours, I was shivering uncontrollably and definitely slurring my speech. I was going nowhere; my legs would not cooperate and propel me beyond the beach. Nils and Dan headed through the impenetrable salal along one of the rugged, little known, coastal trails Jim had told us about, to get help from those at Escalante. Before hypothermia set in I knew I had to light a fire and get warm, so I gathered wood and assembled it in a heap. When Ed and Bob arrived I had stopped shivering and was laughing and daydreaming as I squatted and stared at the wood at my feet, but couldn’t coordinate my hands enough to light a match. The others quickly got me protected from the rain, wrapped me in a sleeping bag, and kept me talking so I wouldn’t go to sleep, which I so much wanted to. A thermos of warm tea later, sitting beside a flaming fire brought me from the edge of my hypothermic stupor. When my coordination improved we loaded up the gear and followed the narrow trail to Escalante. Someone fetched the canoe later on and brought it around to Escalante.

Jim had us up at 3:00 a.m. the next morning to eat porridge and tea that was boiled in Billy Tins over the open fire. Porridge never tasted so good. Jim had heard on his hand held marine VHF radio that a big southeaster weather front was coming in and he wanted to get us back to Friendly Cove before it hit. The seas were calmest at dawn.

When I refused to get into the boat, Jim just picked me up by the tops of my shoulders, set me in the boat and yelled ‘paddle hard’ and a few expletives @#%#! There would be no staying on the beach; I did what I was told. This was to be one hell of a day.

We paddled for all we were worth. When the seas and wind began to rise, this time we stuck together. Jim wouldn’t let us drift apart this time, no way. The five canoes were all lashed gunwale to gunwale, held by the ropes that secured the tarp for the sail. The tarp had also sheltered us from the rain for the night. We were learning that every- thing essential to carry has a multitude of uses, only limited by our imaginations.

The kayaks tucked into the V’s between the square stern ends of the canoes, their paddles were braced across the canoe gunwales while the paddlers hung on for all they were worth. Jim, now JB to us, smoked his pipe as he sat straight upright at the stern of the middle canoe and manoeuvred the ‘raft’ of canoes and kayaks by using his large bladed paddle as a rudder. We had wondered why his paddle was so large, twice the size of ours, and now we knew. He directed the canoeists how to lash their paddles together and attach the big blue tarp to make a sail. He wasn’t going to let anyone get away this time and we were going to make good time sailing, paddling and being towed. The Zodiac was attached to the bows of the outside canoes by their painters as a tow- rope and helped to pull the ‘raft’ ofboats up over the building swells as the wind velocity increased and pushed against us out to sea toward Japan. We were heading the wrong way!

The wind picked up and it was soon evident that it was not safe for the Zodiac to be inching up to the top of a swell with the drag of the raft preventing it from moving quickly to withstand the buffet of wind. The Zodiac could be caught by the wind at the top of a swell on the flat bottom of the boat and was in danger of being flipped over. Plus, it was in danger of being overtaken by the weighted ‘raft’ plunging down the 20 foot wave slide as it was nose diving into the oncoming wave. The clincher was when Mathew’s seat nearly popped out of the canoe with the sudden force of a Zodiac tug. Madoka, Pat and I then weighted the front of the Zodiac as Rob sped for the lighthouse of Friendly Cove for help.

The people in the abandoned ‘raft’ paddled for all they were worth, as Ed sang ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’, a mocking gesture to the tossing sea reality. At one point a large fishing boat crossed the path of the little ‘raft’ and Jim shot flares across its bow, but these were unseen by the passing boat. When the seiner reached the safety of Friendly Cove the Captain was shocked that anyone would be out upon the ocean in canoes and kayaks as it was too rough and dangerous for his boat and he sought shelter. It was also too rough and unsafe to go back out. The Light House keeper attempted to take out his rescue boat when the Zodiac group requested help, but he was unable to make headway or assist. It was not safe for any boat to be out on the exposed ocean in such conditions.

So, the little ‘raft’ paddled on and drifted northward with the wind, currents and tide. Nootka Island provided some shelter from the southeaster and the group made their way toward Maquinna Point, a rocky promontory, where Jim hoped to make land.

Maquinna Point on the West Coast

Maquinna Point on the West Coast

Between the rocks a small line of driftwood and sand was spotted. By now, huge breakers were lashing at the shore and breaking into white foaming giants. The ‘raft’ broke apart and everyone was on their own. The boats were tossed like corks and everyone flipped into the icy cold water. No one made it to shore without capsizing.

This was Jim’s element now. He made it to shore and was determined to get everyone there as well. He heaved the safety line and saved Nils from being pounded by the surf on the rocks. Survival. Jim knew he had the skills and was put to the test. Everyone was safe. The Apprentices had crossed the edge. Around a warm fire in the tempest of a storm after swimming through icy waves, everyone was thankful for being alive. After walking McWombel’s Trail, another rough, little known bush trail, along Nootka Island’s west coast, fording the waist deep lagoon and passing the Grave Yard and church with Spanish stained glass windows in Friendly Cove, the group was re- united. Because he was unable to help rescue the tiny ‘raft’ of canoes and kayaks, the fishing boat Captain was only too willing to provide transport to the Gold River dock for the 16 weary travelers. Everyone fit into the saloon of the boat; it was not a small boat.

Jim never led an Orientation trip to the West Coast again. At the Lodge we all had our chance to speak around the largest tree plank table I’ve ever seen. Everyone expressed his or her concerns. We were all given the opportunity of a refund, but no one left. We all had too much to learn. (It was a VERY humbling experience for Jim.)

Later during the summer I returned to Maquinna Point to retrieve canoes, kayaks and gear. It was eerie to see a runner here, a fishing rod there, a billy tin washed up in a cave and huge holes in the large freighter canoes. Much gear was lost and may still be drifting up on shore or washing out to sea. I really didn’t mind losing my down sleeping bag, because now I knew that the synthetic type I purchased for the rest of my stay was much more effective. But, what a way to learn! Experiential education that was Jim Boulding’s forte. I’m grateful for having had the experience of a life- time and thankful to Jim for all that he taught me as I continued to work and live at Strathcona.

In 1986, Jim was experiencing a different kind of survival. I’ll never forget the day that Jim died. The Lodge died that day to. The greatest Leader was gone. The ‘place’ seemed to know that too. We were anticipating the arrival of Queen Mary Elementary School that day. It was the first week of May. Queen Mary students always came to Strathcona the first week of May. They were one of the first schools to arrive that year. But things at the Lodge weren’t really ready yet and everyone was very busy preparing equipment, rooms and food.

When Jim died the generator shut down and the lights at the Lodge went out. The generator died. It was completely silent and dark in the middle of the building in the middle of the wilderness. Something had definitely happened. I had an odd feeling. This was a test. Try as they may, the maintenance man, Mario Tancon, and Adrian Koeleman, the heavy-duty mechanic who was a fixture at the Lodge for 28 years, could not get the generator to work. It was simply not fixable. I pondered what we were going to do with the students that we were expecting from Vancouver, where they were accustomed to heat and lights and would surely be very uncomfortable in the cold and dark before learning some survival skills to become comfortable with the wilderness they were about to encounter.

The day Jim died the radiophone battery died. There was no regular phone service to the Lodge, there were no cell phones in that day, and the only outside communication link was the radiophone that was hooked up to a battery in the office.

As we brainstormed what to do, a suggestion had been made that maybe we could borrow a generator from the mine, Westmin, about 35 km away at the end of Buttle Lake. Knowing that I was in charge and responsible for everyone, I was willing to try anything. The receptionist, Valerie Trevis, was from Gold River and drove in to work each day. Adrian thought we could use her car battery to get the radiophone operational. It worked and I proceeded to phone the mine to borrow a generator. Now, who in their right mind phones a huge mining company in a remote location to ‘borrow’ a generator, I was thinking. I’m sure they also wondered about the woman phoning them to borrow a generator. After explaining the situation and having Mario give them the mechanical specifications, they said they had one in their inventory that wasn’t being used that might work. They said we could borrow it if we could pick it up. So Mario drove down to the mine and they loaded a generator onto the back of his pick up truck. It bottomed out badly, but he made it back to the Lodge. It was hooked up and we had power that night to light the dining room to feed the students and to provide heat to keep them warm in their accommodations. Jim had taught me to be creative in finding solutions to problems. He taught me how to work together with others and how to survive. We were certainly being put to the test that day. We used that generator for a long time to run the Lodge. I don’t remember ever returning it to the mine.