Kayaking, canoeing, hiking: just another day on the island of Vancouver, where we recently spent several days. We spent most of that time on the wild Pacific edges, or, as some call it, the Graveyard of the Pacific, where rogue waves and sudden storms have smashed ships and killed many in the process. Our experience, was far less dramatic, thankfully, though we did spend a few terrifying moments moving over open water in our little kayak, fighting the current that wanted to pull us out to sea. Awed by the raw beauty of the place, I began to plan future visits even before we left. I wanted to “crack the code” on hiking there, because our tour books offered little information.
When I travel, I love to find good stories about a place, information that gives more flavor than facts, that tells me of its heart and soul. As I dug around, I found pay dirt with my discovery of two powerful women: Cougar Annie and Emily Carr. Well known and revered in western Canada, they were completely unfamiliar to me. So, while I have come late to their party, I am no less passionate about them than the Canadians who keep their memories alive.
Cougar Annie made her living selling the bulbs and seeds from a wild, chaotic garden that she grew. She ran a few other side businesses as well, survived four husbands, and raised eleven children. She gained her colorful monicker after shooting a number of cougars that threatened her livestock, also earning bounties on several of her kills. I should mention as an aside that one of her husbands died by shooting himself in the leg while cleaning his gun–obviously Cougar Annie demonstrated a bit more skill! She lived to age 97, ultimately spending 65 years on her beloved island. Her garden continues to this day, now maintained by environmental and First Nations organizations who limit visitors to protect it.
Emily Carr grew up in Victoria, the daughter of British parents. She demonstrated artistic skill at an early age, which her parents encouraged. Later, she visited several native tribes, sketching the people and totem poles, in part, to preserve them, as she saw native ways waning and wanted to capture them for all time. At the time, female artists were rare, and Carr endured criticism for her “strange,” expressionistic work. She lived a lonely life, even giving up art for several years to run a boarding house. Locals saw her as strange, and success arrived late in her life. In the midst of this new-found fame, she had a heart attack and was forced by doctors to stop painting. Fortunately for us, she turned to writing as a creative outlet, publishing several books in her 70s, and more posthumously. From her we hear stories of the natives she lived with, of life in Victoria as it transitioned to a modern city, and more.
Both of these women lived at a time when women weren’t supposed to be strong, powerful, or independent–and yet, I had never heard of them before now. Yes, as a writer I have read the classics from female authors, such as Jane Austin, Louisa May Alcott, and the Bronte sisters–all of whom led lives with the same independent spirit of Cougar Annie and Emily Carr. Still, sometimes I feel that we know too little of women such as these. I’m sure there were many more, anonymous women whose strength led families, who worked hard, and who created. Having just printed Patchwork and Ornament by my late mother-in-law, Jenny Feldman, I can attest that many have created art and writings that the world will never see.
For me, finally coming into my own at midlife, these women shine a light on my path, inviting me to join them in strength, power, and the joy of creativity. Writing can be a lonely and discouraging avocation, and meeting Cougar Annie and Emily Carr, I feel less alone. I remember that my job is to create with passion and joy, regardless of the outcome. They nudge me to let myself express a more outrageous side–to let those waves crash to the shore without fear, to allow the storms to well up and, at times, overcome, and to keep paddling my inner kayak toward the islands, not allowing the sea to sweep me away, but still letting it bounce me around a bit.