Desolation Sound, no longer desolate, is always a spectacular destination, with its many channels, inlets and bays carved between high, snow-covered peaks, warm swimming, abundant islands, countless anchorages—especially in late spring or early fall, avoiding the summer crowds.
Legends abound of independent early settlers who peopled the forested shores of the area, grubbing out a living in the tranquil beauty. One of the most intriguing was Nancy Crowther, also known as “Cougar Nancy.”
Nancy was four-years old when she arrived in Powell River from Hertfordshire in 1927, with her parents and brother Dick. The family blazed a trail across Malaspina Peninsula, hiking to the 135 acres they had bought for ten dollars at the head of Penrose Bay in Okeover Arm. Nancy was 14 years old when she killed her first cougar as it started to attack her. The name stayed with her the rest of her life.
I met Nancy 61 years later in the summer of 1988 when Nancy lived alone near the old family log cabin. I was researching the area for the forthcoming book, Gunkholing in Desolation Sound.
While in Okeover Inlet, a local woman suggested that I should meet “Cougar Nancy,” a local legend. She told me about her, how she was a sure shot when it came to wildcats and other predatory animals, and that she would have fascinating stories to tell me.
There was no way to contact Nancy before I went to find her. I was told to walk the narrow, seldom used dirt road toward Penrose Bay, a couple of miles away. When I got near enough to see the house I was to start calling her, saying I was a friend.
“If you don’t holler at her first, she just might shoot at you,” the woman said. An idea I disliked.
I set off at mid-morning on a warm, windless day, walking the quiet, lonely road between tall evergreens, wondering what I was getting into. As I came round a bend at the top of a small rise, I saw a cabin at the end of the road, a fair distance ahead. That must be Nancy’s place.
“Hello, Nancy, I’m a friend here to visit you!” I called out. There was no response. I kept walking, slowly, calling occasionally, watching all around for some sign of Nancy.
Suddenly, just beside and below the road, a snowy white head of hair popped up, topping a sturdy, chunky body. Sure enough, it was Nancy, with a tanned, weathered face, only a few years older than I was.
She was grim and unfriendly and wanted to know what I was doing on her property, what I wanted and that I’d better leave. I didn’t see a gun.
I explained I was a friend, meant no harm and simply wanted to talk with her about her life and her home for an article I was writing.
She looked me up and down and after a few minutes I guess she decided I might be telling the truth. She scrambled up to the road, and began talking slowly, with an English accent, and started to tell me about her childhood at Okeover Inlet.
“When my family first got here (1927) we ate only clams, like most of the original settlers. We raised goats, they were our meat and milk. We also raised chickens, apples, pears, plums, grapes, rhubarb, strawberries and other produce.
“I shot my first cougar at 14 because it attacked me and killed one of our goats.” It wasn’t that hard, kill or be killed.
We both sat down at the side of the road while she continued her story.
“Mother insisted we acquire phonetics and my brother and I took correspondence courses until they needed us in the school to bring the enrollment up to ten so they could keep the school open. My parents took a course in ‘How to survive in the country’ because they knew the ‘hungry 30s’ were coming,” she said.
Nancy’s attitude slowly warmed and she seemed to almost enjoy having an audience.
A child of the Depression, she said that when the family first arrived and couldn’t afford shoes, the children’s feet were sometimes wrapped in cloth; flour sacks were the fabric of her dresses; there were times when there was little food at first, except what they grew.
In July 1933, Francis and Amy Barrow visited the Crowther family in their 26 foot boat, Toketie. The Barrow’s visit is detailed in a quotation from the book Upcoast Summers by Beth Hill.
“We landed at Trevenon Bay and found a garden …we walked along a trail and came to buildings where we met a family named Crowther. We bought some eggs and they showed us the garden by the house …they seemed pleased to see us. They have a nice log house, half built,” (Francis Barrow)
Nancy’s father was already losing his eyesight during the time the Barrows visited and later Nancy had to take over many of the family’s tasks, including keeping them safe from marauding cougars. She became a deadly shot to protect the family, goats, dogs and poultry.
“I first shot cougars with a .22,” she said. She killed cougars, bears and wolves, but only if they killed livestock. “While cougars are bad and bears are worse, wolves are the most aggressive,” she said.
“The only place to shoot a cougar for a sure kill is right in the center of the neck. It snaps the spine and kills instantly,” she explained to an interviewer in 1964. By then she was a quiet, serious, 41-year old who had divorced her husband, retaken her maiden name, and returned to live in the log cabin with her aging widowed mother. She had seven dogs, although she knew that was too many.
“But if I don’t have them, the cougars will maul them or the bears will kill them,” she said.
Nancy cared for her parents until they died and then stayed on in the family home. She continued what the family had begun, raising goats, chickens, dogs and cats, cutting and splitting firewood, cultivating vegetable gardens, milking the goats, making cheese, collecting honey from her own bees, preserving the orchard’s fruits, harvesting clams and shooting cougars and bears who threatened her livelihood—a true “wilderness woman.”
According to Nancy, there were 57 children in Okeover Inlet when her family arrived. In an interview with a Province newspaper reporter she said there were only two children left in the inlet by 1973.
I told Nancy that I had seen the pictographs, Indian rock paintings, in Okeover Inlet. They are across from the public wharf on the east shore, on a sheer rock face about eight feet above high tide and also above a little rock ledge. Could she tell me about them?
“Oh, yes,” she said, livening up. “They were painted by the Larson brothers, Frankie and Eddie. Some people named Barrow were up here in their boat and when the boys heard they were hunting for pictographs they went out and painted them.” And for the first time, she chuckled.
(Francis Barrow wrote in his journal, “the picto I had spotted on the cliff face to be a good one.”)
As we talked she looked down at her house, quiet and pleasant in the sleepy afternoon sun. But she didn’t invite me there.
“There are problems. The house is haunted. “I can’t sleep there because of ‘them’,” she said, waving her arm towards her house.
“They go into my house at night and steal flour, baking powder, oatmeal or coffee. They take just a small amount, maybe only a 1/2 cup at a time. But I know they take things because I measure what I have. I know they’re there because I can see their lights move about in the house during the night.”
We sat in an uncomfortable silence after she talked about ‘them.’ She asked if I knew who ‘they’ might be and could I help her find them. I said I wasn’t quite sure what to do, feeling suddenly chilled in the warm afternoon.
After a while, when there wasn’t much left to say, we bid each other good-bye. By then we were friends and she trusted me.
I walked back along the lonely, dusty road, pondering the meeting I’d had with a legend. That unusual afternoon with Nancy at the old family homestead was an amazing experience which, obviously, I will never forget.
I never saw her again.
Later, in reading Beth Hill’s book, Seven-Knot Summers, she wrote of visiting Nancy’s property and talking with the new owner several years after I had been there. She had missed Nancy by a couple of years.
The new owner uncomfortably agreed that, yes, she had also seen inexplicable lights in the old log house at night. The owner also said she hoped to restore the house, and that the peninsula between Trevenon and Penrose bays would make an excellent campsite and launching place for kayaks, canoes or trailered boats. We haven’t heard if this has happened yet.
Next time you cruise to Desolation Sound you might venture into Okeover Inlet. Anchor off the head of Penrose Bay, walk the trail to Nancy’s old home and garden, watch out for cougar, and see if the lights still move about in the old house at night — and perhaps whisper a goodnight to Nancy, who departed this world sometime between the time I met her in 1988 and when Beth Hill visited her homestead in the early 1990s.
You might also check out the pictographs on the east rocky cliffs of the inlet and see if the Larson boys have done any more painting.
Jo Bailey and Carl Nyberg are authors of Gunkholing in South Puget Sound, A Comprehensive Cruising Guide from Kingston/Edmonds South to Olympia and Gunkholing in the San Juan Islands, a Comprehensive Cruising Guide Encompassing Deception Pass to the Canadian Boundary.
Two books by the late B.C. author Beth Hill, Upcoast Summers and Seven-Knot Summers, have added information about Cougar Nancy to this article.
Upcoast Summers, a compilation of some of the journals of Francis Barrow, was first published in 1985. Barrow and his wife Amy made important contributions in discovering and recording Indian art, pictographs (paintings on boulders) and petroglyphs (figures carved into the rocks). They explored inlets, islands and harbors east of Vancouver Island from 1933 to 1941 in their 26 foot boat, Toketie.
The vessel, now rebuilt, repowered and renamed Merlin by renown marine architect William Garden, was built in 1903 or 1904. Bill, a long-time friend of Carl’s, took us for a ride in Merlin when we visited Bill several years ago at his home near Sidney.
Seven-Knot Summers is full of the captivating remembrances of more than 30 years of cruising the B.C. coast by Beth and Ray Hill in their former fishboat, Liza Jane. They followed in the wake of Muriel Wylie Blanchet in Caprice, and her beautiful writing of her family cruises in The Curve of Time, and of the Barrows in Toketie in exploring B.C. waters.