Tag Archives: 1953

SS Catala: Ch 2 (Memoir)

Summary:  In 1953, when I was five and my brother was three, my father proposed that our family move from Vancouver to a remote logging camp on Vancouver Island where he and my mother had been offered teaching positions. This admittedly out-of-order chapter marks the start of our 3-day journey there.

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My brother and I quivered with excitement on the morning we left Vancouver. We had never sailed on a ship of any kind, and now here we were, standing at the foot of the gangplank in Canada’s largest port, ready to board the steamship SS Catala.

“Do we really get to sleep overnight on this boat?” I asked, looking up at my folks.

“We really do,” laughed my mother. “We’ll have our own private cabin. The ship doesn’t arrive at Englewood until noon tomorrow!”

This was a thrill beyond words for two small children who had never before travelled out of the city, let alone slept on a real ship. We could hardly contain ourselves.

The Catala looked huge from where we stood. It was a steel, twin-propeller passenger freighter with 20 cabin berths and a cargo capacity of three hundred tons. Called the SS Catala, it formed part of the Union Steamship Line, a cargo and passenger line which serviced remote communities along the northern BC coast.

“See how the bottom is painted red and the upper part is black?” said Dad. “All the Union Steamships are painted the same way. They were all built in Scotland and brought over here in 1925. That’s more than 25 years ago, kids!”

We clambered aboard. Soon our heads were full of wooden decks and chunky, white portholes. After standing at the rail for some time and watching huge crates being loaded by crane into the hold of the ship, we climbed to the upper deck.

Everything was new to us. We discovered a covered deck halfway down the ship with shuffleboard pitch painted onto its wooden planking. We found discarded chairs, stacked in a corner and covered by heavy tarpaulins. We craned our necks at the huge, black-and-red funnels towering above the steep, “crew only” staircase. We peered excitedly at the lifeboats and ran our hands along thick ropes and polished, wooden railings.

An hour after we’d boarded her, the steamer pulled out of Vancouver harbour and headed west into Burrard Inlet, past the docks of the North Shore, where loose piles of bright yellow sulphur towered skyward like inverted traffic cones. The morning sky was cloudy, with the kind of misty overhang unique to the west coast. There was a chill in the air that made our noses run and defied any sweater or coat, but we were used to this and didn’t give it much thought. We hugged close the notion of sleeping overnight on this great monster, and this was enough to keep us warm. Having toured the ship, we kids were as ready as the other passengers to watch the Catala negotiate the narrow passage under the Lions Gate Bridge, a suspension bridge similar in appearance to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, only much shorter.

As we approached the bridge, everyone clambered onto the upper decks. We had travelled across the bridge many times in the family Ford, but to see it from below was a rare treat and not one to be missed. In our collective minds, there was always the danger that the ship wouldn’t clear the bridge.

“What if those tall chimneys scrape the bridge and come off?” I asked, meaning the tall, red-and-black smokestacks. “What if we tip over?”

Dad laughed. “Lots of room!” he said. “It just looks narrow from here. Not to worry.”

I wasn’t convinced, still believing the funnels might scrape along the bottom surface of the span and scuttle the ship. Pleasantly horrified, I held my breath as the distance between the Catala and that great ribbon of concrete narrowed. Would we make it? To my untutored mind, it was a case of irresistible force meeting immovable object.

People got out their Kodak box cameras. Suddenly, the huge cables of the suspension bridge drooped and swooped above us like streamers at a birthday party, forcing heads back to watch the unfolding drama. At the very moment of potential contact, there was a tense silence on the decks. Then we were under with buckets of room to spare! It seemed incredible to us that such a large ship could pass through such a narrow space, but of course, ships even larger than the Catala sail under that bridge today. It was a fine lesson on the tricky optics of perspective.

I felt immense relief. Reassuring, too, was that immediately after the bridge, the channel widened out. We passed the endless beach of Spanish Banks on our port side and the Point Atkinson lighthouse on our starboard side. Calm returned to the passengers as we watched the pale, yellow lighthouse blinking in the distance.

“Wanna hear a good lighthouse story?” said an older man standing near the rail on our side. He wore a slicker and a canvass rain hat. “This here ship had quite an adventure fifteen years ago, up near Prince Rupert.”

“Tell us!” we cried.

“Well, farther north, the ship sailed past Egg Island, in Queen Charlotte Strait. Noticing that the lighthouse was strangely dark, the Captain tied a rope around his waist and swam to the Island.”

“He swam?” our eyes were agog.

“That’s what they say. Anyway, he found the lighthouse’s usual keepers missing and the remnants of their last meal on the table. After resurrecting the light, he came across two overturned fishing boats and suspected that the lighthouse keepers had been drowned. They were never heard from again.”

“My goodness,” said my father. “Is that a true story?”

“Yep,” said the stranger. “I should know because I was that captain!”

He sauntered off, smiling at our gaping mouths. It was difficult to believe that anyone would jump into these cold northern waters voluntarily. My mother was skeptical.

“I think he just made that story up,” she whispered.

Soon, however, we caught sight of the Point Atkinson lighthouse on the starboard side.We watched its light wink on and off, then we swivelled around to watch the headland of Point Grey pass by on the opposite side, where the university sat atop some sizable cliffs. On the beaches below, one or two crumbling gun emplacements and submarine watchtowers still sat, remnants of home defense efforts during WW II.

We had truly left Vancouver and soon floated in the vastness of the Georgia Strait, with low, brontosaurian humps of land visible in the distance on either side. The chill wind continued to cut through our clothing, so we decided to head inside to our cabin.

Convincing Mother – Ch. 1

“I’m sorry. I just don’t like the sound of it!”

My mother at breakfast in 1953, in the kitchen of our one-bedroom home in Vancouver. We lived a few blocks east of Little Italy, a quaint area in the city. We kids loved to walk the 2nd Avenue hill and trudge up the other side to Copp’s Shoes, which offered the most wonderful toffee suckers wrapped in wax paper if you bought any small thing – even a pair of shoelaces. What a thrill to open the wrapper and taste that creamy caramel toffee inside!

At the moment, however, toffee suckers were off the table, as it were, since my father had just proposed that we pick up and move from Vancouver, lock, stock and barrel, to a remote logging camp on Vancouver Island. Hence, my mother’s reaction.

At the time, our tiny, stucco house felt cramped and old. Cold, too, as I recall, since it rained steadily in Vancouver and my parents had to economize on heat. However, Granny Davis, who lived in our basement suite, owned a pot-bellied stove. Her place always exuded a cozy warmth. Orange poppies bordered the cement stairs down to her door, and I remember smelling their pungent odour when we visited her for tea and cookies on occasion.

My folks were young then, children of the Great Depression, struggling to raise two kids and earn enough money to keep a roof over our heads. Times had to be tough for my mother to even consider such a drastic step as my father was proposing. The Post-War boom hadn’t yet reached full momentum, so many families still struggled as we did. Luckily, Mom had attended university on scholarships and now had a full-time teaching job in an elementary school.

Looking back at their discussion, I picture my father reaching for the sugar and stirring two lumps into his coffee, then sucking on a third in the Scandinavian way. He likely wore his Yellow Cab hat, one that he no doubt hoped to “deep six” for a teacher’s garb if he could convince my mother that this move was a good thing.

“It’s a principalship in the Nimpkish Valley!” he exclaimed. “And it’s a two-room school, so you and I would be the only teachers. We’d have free reign!”

He made it sound promising, even exciting.

“Why would you be the principal when it’s your first appointment?” objected my mother. “I’m the one with the teaching experience! You’ve only just earned your diploma.”

“I agree it’s not fair, but you know how the world works, sweetie,” replied Dad. “They always offer the men the best jobs. At least the money will be all in the family. And it’s an adventure! Think of it that way. Remember, Huey Grayson will be there.”

“Your forestry friend?”

“That’s the one. He’s stationed at Woss Camp, where we’d be living. So we’ll know someone going in.”

“Yes, I remember him. He has the thickest British accent I’ve ever heard,” said Mom.

“Well, knowledge of the Queen’s English is no barrier to a love of virgin forest. He knows they could log that area for decades and hardly make a dent.”

I can certainly understand my mother’s reluctance to move. There she sat, staring at one dependent child across the kitchen table, while offering strips of toast to a smaller child on the floor beside her. It was difficult enough to be a working mother in the city. What would it be like juggling work and family in a remote logging camp?

“Who’ll look after the kids during the day?”

“We’ll find somebody. We’ll hire a nanny before we go.”

That sounded reasonable, but I’m sure that even my father, who had grown up in mining camps as a child, didn’t fully grasp how rustic those Island logging camps really were.

“There aren’t any roads!” bemoaned Mother. “How will we get in and out?”

“We’ll go by steamship from Vancouver,” said my father. “Then they have company rail cars from Englewood to the logging camps. They call them speeders.”

speeder 121 at Woss Camp
Speeder 121 at Woss Camp (courtesy of the Museum at Campbell River, BC)

“Speeders!? Good grief. I’ve seen pictures of those things,” said Mom. “They look like big tin lozenges on rail wheels. Are they safe?”

“They’re safe,” said Dad. “Not exactly luxury travel, but they have bench seating around the walls and sliding doors to get in and out. Like self-propelled boxcars, really. And it’s only a two-hour ride!”

It was true. You could only get halfway to the logging camps by steamship or by sea plane. Then you took a long railway ride in those metal contraptions, not well-equipped for passengers. And CANFOR, Canadian Forest Products, owned it all. Or leased it, which amounted to the same thing. They owned the camps, the houses in the camps, the rail line, the speeders. And for a song, they held long leases on the forests, courtesy of the BC government.

“It’s a booming frontier!” said Dad. “They’re making nothing but money logging those mountains, so everyone who works for them does pretty well.”

Then he quickly changed the subject.

“Would you like to go on a big ship, kids?” he said, glossing over the rail car part. Naturally, our young eyes lit up. Then he sweetened the deal. “And sleep in a stateroom for a whole night?”

We were sold. Or at least, I was. My mother still frowned. She did not like that our ship would dock at a remote log dump, and that when we arrived there, we’d still be in transit. She knew that Englewood existed only to receive logs from down-Island, logs which were then dumped into Queen Charlotte Strait, tied into log booms, and towed to sawmills and pulp mills in Vancouver, Prince Rupert or Victoria. Our steamship port wasn’t much more than a huge pier, cut out of the wilderness. There was no guest house.

My mother had one final protest.

“What if one of us gets sick?”

“No problem! There’s a camp medic, and they can always fly us out to Alert Bay if they have to. It’s only a twenty-minute flight by emergency float plane.”

“Twenty minutes! We could bleed to death in that time!”

As it turned out, some bleeding did take place during our stay there, and one of us did fly out on that emergency float plane.

I’ll tell you more about that when we get there.