Spilsbury's Coast: Pioneer Years in the Wet West


Spilsbury's coast is that part of the Inside Passage between the Fraser River and the top end of Vancouver Island. Spilsbury is Jim Spilsbury, pioneer, painter, aviator, inventor, and matchless raconteur, who grew up in a tent on Savary Island. SPILSBURY'S COAST is 80 years' worth of memories from a shrewd, funny, outrageous "coast rat", a runaway hardcover bestseller.
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Spilsbury's coast is that part of the Inside Passage between the Fraser River and the top end of Vancouver Island. Spilsbury is Jim Spilsbury, pioneer, painter, aviator, inventor, and matchless raconteur, who grew up in a tent on Savary Island. SPILSBURY'S COAST is 80 years' worth of memories from a shrewd, funny, outrageous "coast rat", a runaway hardcover bestseller.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781550170467
  • Publisher: Harbour Publishing Company, Limited
  • Publication date: 1/1/1991
  • Series: Spilsbury Saga Series
  • Edition description: 2nd ed.
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 196
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard White was born in 1945 in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He was raised in a series of camps and settlements on the BC coast and never got over it. He is still to be found stuck barnacle-like to the shore at Pender Harbour, BC. He started Raincoast Chronicles and Harbour Publishing in the early 1970s and his own books include A Hard Man to Beat (bio), The Men There Were Then (poems), Spilsbury's Coast (bio), The Accidental Airline (bio), Patrick and the Backhoe (childrens'), Writing in the Rain (anthology) and The Sunshine Coast (travel). He was awarded the Canadian Historical Association's Career Award for Regional History in 1989. In 2000, he completed a ten-year project, The Encyclopedia of British Columbia. He has been awarded the Order of BC, the Canadian Historical Association's Career Award for Regional History, the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, the Jim Douglas Publisher of the Year Award and a Honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree from the University of Victoria. In 2007, White was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He has twice been runner-up in the Whisky Slough Putty Man Triathlon.

Jim Spilsbury was born in Findern, Derbyshire but came to the BC coast in his infancy and remained there all his life. He began manufacturing small radios in the 1920s and in 1941 founded Spilsbury and Hepburn Ltd, later Spilsbury and Tindall Ltd., one of Canada's best known radio-telephone manufacturers. In 1943, Spilsbury founded Queen Charlotte Airlines which merged with Pacific Western Airlines in 1955. He also authored several books including Spilsbury's Album, and The Accidental Airline.

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Read an Excerpt

PEOPLE ON SAVARY GOT BY, as the saying goes, by taking in each others' washing. Apart from building and repairing the summer cabins there was well-digging, working on the road and cutting wood at $3.50 a rick split and piled -we'd buck it on the beach with a hand saw and wheel it to the customer. There weren't many ways of bringing in the groceries. This resulted in the people of the island developing a special relationship with the area's wild game.

The various methods employed to procure game and their relative success rate became matters of great personal pride -either proud of the way they went about it, or too proud to admit to the practice followed. Take pit-lamping, for instance. This was a surefire method of getting deer by shining a light in their eyes at night. It was illegal for the good reason that it was difficult to tell whether the eyes reflecting in your light were attached to a deer or your neighbour's cow, or perhaps to your neighbour himself. But it was very effective and some, like old Louis Anderson, wouldn't waste their time doing it any other way. Besides, Louis was an old-time prospector and legitimately owned a miner's lamp, the kind that used acetylene and water and was normally worn on a man's hat. This was ideal for pitlamping since it left both hands free to operate the rifle.

People devoted to this sport scoff at the suggestion they could ever mistake the way a deer's eyes shine in the dark from, say, the way a cow's shine, but I'm not too sure. One day Bill Ashworth and I nailed a couple of beer-bottle caps about four inches apart to a stump, at the top of the logging road, which was a favourite deer hunting spot. Next day there were bullet holes all around them. I never did understand why any hunter would empty an entire magazine and not get wise to the trick. Of course no one ever owned up to it, so it remains a mystery to this day. Since pit-lamping was (and is) so decidedly illegal, great secrecy was always observed. Those who did it never talked about it. Those who didn't expressed their disapproval vociferously. My mother was one of these. On the other hand, when someone offered her a haunch of venison she never enquired as to the time of day it was shot.

My mother was well known for her success in the field. She regularly shot her limit every year, but she had her own methods. She hated rifles of any kind-even my little single-shot .22 caliber Winchester. According to her, all high-power sporting rifles should be banned from the earth. She used. a double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun for everything: #7 chilled shot for duck, #6 for geese, and SSG for deer. SSG is larger than buckshot; the pellets are about a quarter-inch in diameter as I recall. They sure make a mess of an animal at close range, and she only worked at close range. Her method was to walk over the ground carefully, identify the trails, and then post herself quietly behind a tree and wait patiently until the right deer came along, and when he did, believe me he was dead.

My first and only experience of shooting a deer was a messy business, and I was left with no desire to repeat it, but first I should go back to the circumstances that led up to it.

On a very stormy winter afternoon in 1922, my dad and I came in from working in the driving rain, and were preparing our supper in our old tent/cabin at the foot of Blair Road. Mother was away and there were very few people on Savary at the time. There was a knock on the door and in stumbled an elderly man, very wet and very cold and in the last stages of exhaustion. He could barely speak. He had been shipwrecked the day before on the south side of the island up near the Indian Point end. No one lived at Indian Point, and of course there was no road then. It had taken him over 24 hours to reach our place.

Dad wrapped him in dry blankets and fed him some hot Oxo, and he slept through till morning. After breakfast we put some lunch together, launched our old twelve-foot rowboat, and headed out around Indian Point to the scene of the wreck. At low tide we could trace the whole chain of events, from the big sharp rock at low water level where the bottom was ripped out, leaving a string of nuts and bolts and tools and nails to high tide level, where the only thing left was a small section of the bottom with the engine timbers wedged between two beach logs. The shaft was broken and gone but the little engine seemed to be all there. I was all for attempting to salvage it, but the old man practically flew into a rage and said, "No, no, she nearly kill me! Leave her lay where Jesus flang her!" He meant it.

We did manage to gather up a few of his personal belongings including his gun, which we found buried in the gravel -and what a gun! When I stood it up it was as high as I was. It was a standard issue Swiss Army Rifle. It took a .55-caliber, rim-fire copper cartridge charged with black powder. This was new to me, as the guns I used all took modern cordite-filled cartridges. It had three firing pins and a bolt-action repeater taking ten extra cartridges in the tubular magazine under the barrel. I recognized it because Harry Keefer had one like it which he used occasionally for shooting the bark off dead snags for firewood. The ammunition was cheap. You could buy a box of twenty for fifty cents. The old man asked us to look after it for him till he could come back and get it. I had hopes that he never would, but in fact about a year later Reverend Alan Greene stopped in to pick it up and take it back to the old man on his stump ranch. But in the mean time I had my fun with it.

I made one or two trips back to the wreck site, carefully raked the gravel between the boulders all the way down the beach, and recovered about fifty cartridges, most of which still worked. I oiled and greased the old gun and then tried it out. "Boom!" Perfection! It didn't have too much recoil. The gun was heavy and the black powder cartridges seemed. to have greater elasticity than the cordite style. It was like firing an enormous slingshot, except for the incredible cloud of blue smoke. On a still day it required about five minutes for the smoke to clear. You had to walk off to one side to see the target. And range! The rear sight was graduated up to a thousand yards.

There was one other peculiarity. The rusty old barrel had no rifling left in the bore, so the bullet. keyholed - it went out end over end and made a big slot in the target instead of a round hole. On a bright day, if you aimed it up in the sky against a white cloud background you could actually see the bullet tumbling on its way, but only when there was a good crosswind to blow the smoke away quickly. Some people wanted to talk me into sawing a couple of feet off the end of the barrel and reshaping the stock to convert it into a sports rifle, but of course I couldn't do this as it still rightly belonged to the old man.

In due course I got the urge to take it out and use it on real game. Dad felt he should come with me just this first time, and it's just as well he did.

There was about six inches of snow on the ground, which made it easy to follow the deer tracks. We went up the back trails and under heavy timber on the south side. It wasn't very long before we jumped a deer, and he ran across our path about fifty yards away. Because of the long barrel and the weight I found it necessary to kneel down and rest my left elbow on my knee and at the same time to pivot to the right to allow for the deer's direction of travel. Dad said I better shoot ahead of the animal by a few feet. It was not easy because the deer was only visible intermittently as he ran behind trees, but I finally coordinated all this and squeezed the trigger. The resulting noise and smoke was impressive, but so was the devastation that greeted /us when the fog cleared.

The story was all there on the surface of the nice white snow. It appeared that I had been pretty well on target as far as the deer was concerned, but at the moment of firing, a rotten stump had intervened in the line of fire. From the muzzle of the gun there was a dirty black track of burned powder for about twenty feet to a small hole in the stump on my side. On the far side the keyholing bullet had ripped out about a cubic foot of rotten wood which was scattered over the ground in a fifty-foot arc, on the outer perimeter of which lay the crumpled form of the wretched deer. The bullet had entered his right haunch, proceeded diagonally through the body and out the left shoulder decimating everything in its path and leaving a generous spattering of blood, deer hair, and bone chips for the next thirty feet or so.

One shot, and the place looked like a battlefield! When Dad got through dressing it out we were left with only one haunch and one shoulder to take home and, to make matters worse, it was the toughest venison anybody had ever tried to eat. We ended up putting it through the mincing machine and canning it for dog food. As for the bullet, we never did find out how much further it went, but whatever else it did, it did crossways, that I'm sure of.

Hunting on Savary was not confined to deer. During the winter we had all kinds of wild duck. Mallard, teal, and canvasback were the desirable ones. The others were considered fish-ducks, and shot only by those lacking in taste - saw-bills, butter-balls, blue-bills, and the common scoter or black duck, not to mention the "kiss-me-asses" and various members of the diver and grebe family.

But then there were the geese, two varieties - the Canada goose and the brant. We still have the Canada goose, especially in Stanley Park and the inner harbour of Vancouver, where they are becoming a real pest, and also at the head of every inlet and river mouth up the coast. They are certainly far from extinction.

But I would like to know what became of the brant. When I was young on Savary, brant outnumbered everything else by a wide margin. While we would often see Canada geese in flocks of twenty' or so, brant were out there by the thousands and millions. In the winter they would come in the evening and gather by the tens of thousands out on the reef between First and Second Points, covering an area of several acres - just dense black geese quietly chortling to one another. At low tide, which is always at night during the winter, they would be way out on the beach, in the seaweed and boulders. When anything disturbed them they would take flight en masse, with a noise like thunder, and would go cackling away into the distance and eventually come to rest on the reefs off the south side of Hernando or right over to the big reefs off Sutil Point and Marina Island. They would not return to Savary that night. This meant that any hopeful goose hunter had one chance and one' chance only on any given night. Many times I have seen the entire flock rise as one bird and literally darken the whole western sky. On any quiet night you could poke your head outdoors and hear the busy chattering of thousands and thousands of brant out on the reefs.

What ever happened to them? During the last fifty years that I have travelled up and down this coast I have never seen a single brant..

Anyway, going back 65 years, the brant was the most sought after and the most discussed bird on the hunter's list, based mainly on their apparently limitless numbers and the extreme difficulty in ever approaching one close enough for a shot. They were far and away the most wary of all game birds on the coast. Whatever fate befell them, I am sure it was not as a result of over-hunting on the coast of BC.

There were several methods employed in hunting any of these birds, depending, I suppose, to some extent on your upbringing. My parents, for instance, would shoot a duck only on the wing. They would never, but never, shoot one on the water or on land. If necessary they would have someone "shoo" the thing up first and then bang away and miss it, or drop it out on the water where they couldn't recover it.

My mother and dad would usually walk away out to the reef off First Point and crouch behind a boulder in the chill rain of a winter's evening, waiting for the evening flight. This is when some ducks were supposed to fly over the sandbar to get to the other side, and if they were within range my parents would blaze away at them. The success rate was minimal.

I guess I came more under the influence of the colonial style. My method was usually to spot a few birds feeding along the shoreline and sneak up on them when they had their heads under water, then freeze and try to look like a boulder when they raised their heads to look around. I would try to get them grouped so that one shot from a 12-gauge would plaster a bunch of them. At best this would work only once on any day because after the first shot all ducks within hearing range would take off for Hernando for the night. The Anderson boys used this method and I learned from them. Their dad was very strict. He would dole out just so many cartridges and they were expected to come back with at least one bird per cartridge. In order to provide for the occasional miss they would always try for two or three per shot when the grouping was good.

The most determined attempt on the brant was made by an individual we knew as Uncle Norman. I think his full name was Norman Thompson. He was related in some way to the Burnets. Ken Burnet, an old-time BC land surveyor, built one of the first cottages down near the Maces, and I believe it is still used by the family. Anyway, Agnes and Lillian Burnet attended school at Savary the first year it ran, and they called him "Uncle Norman." Uncle Norman was something different. He kept very much to himself, spoke very little, and generally minded his own business. He came up to live in Burnet's cottage and look after it one winter when the family was in town. He was a bit old fashioned, we thought. He made most of the clothes he wore out of buckskin which he tanned himself. Buckskin jacket with tassels on the sleeves, buckskin pants and moccasins, and some sort of a leather cap with fur on the outside. He spent most of his time doing this. I can remember he would soak deer skins in some solution until they went partly rotten and then he would spread them over a sort of sawhorse arrangement and scrape the hair off. After this he smoked them and tanned them with hemlock bark. The smell varied from stage to stage and continued right on as he wore them. It was particularly noticeable when it rained.

Uncle Norman tried all the usual approaches and did no better than anyone else. But Uncle Norman did a lot of thinking about it. He didn't say much but he thought a lot, and finally he hit upon a solution. He lost no time putting the plan into action. He discussed it with no one, but the amount of work required to put the project in motion could not be concealed from prying eyes and everyone talked ,about it - some were for, most were against. Discussion increased as the work progressed.

In essence, here was the plan. He would build a raft of small cedar logs about four feet wide and six feet long. On this he would erect a domeshaped hut of bent cedar boughs about four feet high. This structure would be thatched with seaweed and sprinkled generously with an assortment of starfish and barnacles until it resembled a large beach boulder at low tide. He had a flap door like an igloo and numerous peepholes around the sides, just large enough to get a gun barrel through. Between the two centre logs he provided a slot about six inches wide through which he could manipulate a paddle while seated on a small bench. The plan of operation became quite apparent. He would quietly paddle into the middle of the flock and then open up on them from the gun ports before the bewildered geese realized what was happening. He was so confident that he never even took the thing out for a test drive, and there were obviously many glitches that might show up, even from the navigational point of view, let alone the sea- and battle-worthiness of the device. He launched it down the beach on rollers and anchored it off at high tide ready for the countdown. All he needed was the right weather and a reliable goose forecast and he would be away.

It was during this pre-takeoff period that public discussion and conjecture reached its highest pitch. Many and varied were the reactions. My mother of course condemned it out of hand because it involved "pot-shooting" while the birds were still in the water. She wished him no luck. My dad worried more about the seaworthiness of the craft in rough water, and how Uncle Norman could find his way back in fog without a compass when he was already restricted to peephole visibility. Old Louis Anderson, who probably had more practical experience with wild geese than anyone, said unequivocally that the scheme would never work. He said that these geese had "very strong noses" and could detect the smell of a human many miles away. He pointed out that this feeble craft could only be paddled downwind, so it would carry the scent ahead of it and warn the geese. Uncle Norman's buckskin clothes would be anything but a help in this regard. No, unless he could paddle the thing up into thewind, the scheme would never work.

Hill Mace agreed with most of this, but added that if Uncle Norman were successful in paddling against the wind, he would work up such a sweat in that confined hut that you would be able to smell that wet buckskin at least a half mile upwind and that was further than his old gun could shoot.

There were some people who were not prepared to predict one way or the other, but did say that if he was right and it did work as well as he expected, the government should intervene and put a stop to it before all the geese in British Columbia were wiped out.

The day he picked was grey and calm, and the tide would be out to expose the reef by nightfall -the perfect situation. He departed early afternoon for his two-mile voyage. We watched him for several hours. To start with he tended to weave around and actually go in circles, but as he gained experience paddling through the slot, his performance improved. It took him about four hours to reach the outermost shoals where the geese were expected to congregate. This covered an area of about two miles. There were some geese ahead of him but none where he was. Towards dark he got where they were, but they were now where he first was. While we could see him, he was never within half a mile of an actual goose. Then it got dark and we could no longer see the geese or the floating boulder. We heard no shots. All was quiet, and then a gentle southeast breeze started to sigh through the trees and we wondered how he was doing. The wind increased during the night and by morning was blowing half a gale with rain. No sign of the floating boulder or Uncle Norman in any direction. We reasoned that he would probably have made it to Indian Point where he would moor his raft and walk home, but that evening we went down to his cottage to look for him. No Uncle Norman. The wind increased to a gale and there were no boats on Savary in those days that would venture out in that kind of weather. That night, however, during a brief lull in the rain squalls, we saw what appeared to be a flickering fire on the beach on Hernando Island.

The next morning the southeast wind had abated so Bill Mace and Louis Anderson fired up the old four-horsepower Fairbanks two cycle in Louis' old boat the Red Wing and went pop-pop-pop all the way over to Hernando, where they found Uncle Norman, safe and sound but a bit uncomfortable. The floating boulder was away up in the beach logs and Uncle Norman was living inside it. He had been eating clams for the two days and they said the empty shells were piled up nearly as high as the boulder. So far as I know, the subject of the floating boulder was never discussed again.

Obviously the floating boulder was not the reason for the disappearance of the brant geese flocks, so where are they? And where are the kind of people who spent so much of their time and effort chasing them?— Excerpt

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1. Red's Sea Diner
2. The Governor
3. Savary Island
4. Wild Animals and Wilder People
5. Swallow Hard If You Feel Something Hairy
6. Engineer from Fourth Reader
7. Voice from the Sky
8. A Radio Expert is Born
9. Five Hundred a Month
10. I Take to the Water
11. The Radio Boat
12. The Cannon that Flew over Lund
13. A Stormy Honeymoon
14. Living Aboard
15. Spilsbury & Hepburn Ltd.
16. Pearl Harbour Panic
17. War Work
18. Robert B. Gayer
19. I Discover the West Coast
20. We Take to the Air


DURING THE FIFTIES when I was a boy growing up in my dad's logging camp on Nelson Island I used to think nothing we did quite counted. I owned a bit of a reputation around camp for the way I could skip across a slimy boomstick, but when I looked in the grade one reader my correspondence course provided, which I did almost monthly, the boys and girls there walked on sidewalks. All mention of boomsticks was carefully avoided. I could run the camp tender home from Garden Bay when the men got too drunk to do it themselves, but Dick and Jane could run elevators in apartment buildings, something I was sure I could never manage. Their fathers worked in offices, not under broke-down logging trucks.

Nothing was for us. The weather forecasts, on those rare occasions when our radio worked, always talked about "the lower mainland" and "the Kootenay region," never Green's Bay. We had weather in Green's Bay too, and a lot more of it out in Agamemnon Channel sometimes, but the world just sniggered at the thought of it, apparently.

Everything came from somewhere else. Even things that were specially ours, like Caterpillar tractors or ball bearings, came from places like Peoria Illinois or Kalamazoo Michigan. Those were the real places. The boys there would no doubt make short work of me. I seemed to be lost in a nonplace inhabited by shadows, and I felt it deep inside.

There were only a couple of things that didn't fit the pattern. One was Easthope motors. They were made by people around the coast. Pete Dubois' uncle was married to one of the Easthope's sisters. But they were still from Vancouver, and Vancouver was the City, closer to Peoria than Pender Harbour.

More amazing was the Spilsbury and Tindall radiophone. We didn't actually have one of these in camp, but all the bigger fishboats did, and all the tugs and government boats. You'd see them in wheelhouses, jutting out from the wall, the sender and receiver separate, like two cases of Pacific milk. They had very fancy meters on them, banks of silver switches and dials, and wrinkle paint like binoculars. They looked as real and big-time as anything from Kalamazoo. Radio-telephones were even more impressive than ball bearings because they were more scientific and amazing. Yet they were made by a guy who lived up by Powell River, on a little island just like ours. He even had a boat, so I was told, and came around to the camps like Pappy's store boat. He'd never come into our camp, but a lot of the men knew him.

This filled me with wonder. If one guy around here could get onto the Kalamazoo level, it was at least possible. We weren't trapped here in limbo, just kind of bogged down, like the D8 the time they tried to drive across the cranberry bog at Goose Lake. Perhaps the reality we lived was not quite so counterfeit as I had come to think, if things like the S & T radiophone could come out of it. Spilsbury and Tindall became a very important symbol in my juvenile cosmos.

If I had known just how much Jim Spilsbury, the man who made those radio-telephones, was "a guy from around here," and how much of the unique edge-of-the-world culture of our coast was woven into his achievement, I would have been even more excited. When I became involved in writing down the story of the coast many years later I began to run across the Spilsbury name in a remarkable variety of contexts. Frank Lee, one of Pender Harbour's more senior pioneers, told me he had been neighbours with Spilsburys in Whonnock, before the Lee family moved to the coast, which seemed like before the dawn of time. The Spilsbury family were considered Whonnock's earliest settlers and have their name on a principal road, but when I began looking in on the history of the Powell River-Savary Island area, I found the name again on an important landmark, the northern tip of Hernando Island. That area claimed them as pioneers too. Lorne Maynard, an old coastal skipper, told me I should see Spilsbury about steam logging because he'd run steam donkeys. Geordie Tocher, who gained a certain amount of grudging respect among the oldtimers by sailing a BC fir log to Hawaii, told me if I wanted to see the most authentic paintings of coastal landscape ever done, I should go see Spilsbury's collection. When I started looking at the story of pioneer flying on the coast, everyone said Spilsbury was the man who had been in the middle of that.

It was to get the flying story that I finally did look Spilsbury up, and the tale he had was such an entertaining one I decided to make a book of it. But once I began probing the man's background I realized his life was far more than flying, and far more than radio. Eighty-two at the time of writing, his life has paralleled the history of the coast through this, its most active century. Because of his energies and his intelligence, he was involved in almost everything that happened. It is hard to name an erstwhile stumprancher or gyppo logger between Cape Caution and Point Atkinson that he doesn't have an anecdote about, usually a good one. It is hard to name an activity from homesteading to steam logging to police work 'to, pleasure boating and mountain climbing that he wasn't personally deeply involved in. And all his memories are clear, backed by a vast collection of photos and journals, and told with all the warmth of a great personality.

Cold type isn't a wholly adequate medium in which to capture such a personality, particularly in the hands of one who never did 'finish his correspondence lessons, but in so far as I succeed, I succeed in showing the coast at its best.

HOWARD WHITE Pender Harbour, 1987

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