2 July 2012 Echo Bay, Gilford Island, BC
We were eager to meet Billy Proctor, a lifelong resident of Echo Bay, now in his 70s. Billy had worked as a fisherman, a hand logger, a beachcomber, a salvager, and an activist; he was now also an author, a curator and a bookshop owner. We had read about Echo Bay, Billy and his life in the book he had co-authored with Alexandra Morton, Heart of the Raincoast: A Life Story. There, perhaps for the first time, with Billy as our experienced observer and guide, we began to understand how forests and fish were related, how poor logging practices destroy salmon habitat, and why watershed management and conservation matter. The salmon need the forests that line and shade the rivers in which they spawn, but the forests also need the salmon, which feed bears and eagles and people and wolves and many other creatures, and then, as decaying corpses and waste matter, fertilize those forests full of enormous trees. No forests, no salmon; and no salmon, no more gigantic trees.
We first saw Billy Proctor’s place from the water as we approached the dock at Alexandra Morton’s place, now the Salmon Coast Field Station. There was his boat, the Ocean Dawn, tied to his dock, and on the steep rise of land behind it, a boathouse and several other buildings: his house, his museum, some outbuildings, a store, and houses belonging to family members and friends.
We’d started out on our muddy drizzling walk with M.J. from the Salmon Coast Field Station in order to get to Billy’s place–the stop at the school had been a bonus, a diversion–if such an abandoned space can be called a diversion. The distance from Alexandra’s to Billy’s was less than two minutes by rowboat, but more than an hour–perhaps two–by foot, and in the end, considerably wetter for us.
Our first stop on Billy’s terrain was his boat house, a huge hangar of a building he had designed and engaged the entire community to raise. The cedar that had been used to construct the place was perfumed and fresh in the damp air. Inside were junks of old rope, old boats, collections of tools. The marine railway leading up to the building was idle. Beside the building were huge split logs of red cedar; some had been turned into firewood, but Billy was splitting choice pieces by hand into shingles.
We met Billy at his museum. Many boaters stop here every year to see a history of West Coast material culture gathered and preserved by Billy. He had discovered most of the items in his museum along the shores and beaches of the Broughton Archipelago, or acquired them during the course of making his living as a self-sufficient fisherman, hunter and logger. There were arrowheads, bottles, pieces of maritime bronze, trading beads from the times of Cook and Vancouver, and fishing and logging gear from a span of decades; all were ranged in Billy’s museum.
Beside the museum is a small logger’s cabin constructed by Billy from a single tree, a five-foot diameter cedar log he had salvaged. The process of hewing the wood and shingles with hand tools and building the cabin over the course of a couple of weeks had been recorded by a sound anthropologist interested in preserving the sounds of disappearing cultures. Door, studs, planks, shingles, a bunk, a chair and a table had all been fashioned by hand from the log, into a model of what hand-loggers once might have confectioned for themselves as they began to log a promising tract of land. Inside, the paraphernalia of a logger’s trade: thick-soled caulk boots, a rifle, saws, a shovel, snowshoes, an oil lamp…
We reflected, as we explored Billy’s museum and grounds, that we have Billy Proctors on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia as well. Our fisherman friend, Ramey Monroe, was a highliner fisherman and carpenter; he could build a boat from a set of numbers and turn a shape around in his head to fashion anything you might need. They are a dying breed these jacks of all trades who survived the premature deaths of their fathers and the challenges of building a life in remote rural communities. There are none who follow them who know what they know.
Heart of the Raincoast recounts what is basically a conversion story. As the book tells it, after spending many years working hard, making what he could by exploiting sea and land, Billy sat down one day on the stump of a big tree he had felled and thought about the state of the world. The fish stocks were dwindling; all of the shore leases were being granted to large lumber companies rather than individuals, and fish farms were taking over many bays in the Broughton. Something had to change, or his lifelong home wouldn’t be a fit place to live. So Billy Proctor joined forces with Alexandra Morton and became an activist. Just as our very own friend, Bill Williams, on the Eastern Shore does, Billy drew on his love and knowledge of the fauna and flora of his coastal waters to try to persuade the politicians and bureaucrats to see the catastrophic consequences of their support for unabated resource exploitation.
Billy told us that after the fish farms had established themselves in nearby bays, huge quantities of trash began piling up all around–literally tons of it. Used to hauling huge logs of grand tonnage, Billy gathered up the flotsam and jetsam from the fish farms and called on the fish farming companies and the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to clean up their mess. He used his vast local knowledge and years spent keeping careful logs tracking the patterns of salmon spawning and migration to help demonstrate that both open pen salmon farms and the erosion of stream beds caused by clear cutting were destroying the wild salmon runs. He wrote to politicians. He demonstrated and protested and finally managed to preserve the Ahta Valley watershed from clearcutting; it is now the southern-most uncut watershed on the west coast. But still the salmon runs are declining. As Alexandra Morton writes in Heart of the Raincaost, “I am witness to an extinction.” Sometimes the best you can do is tell that story, so that it, at least, is not entirely forgotten.
We had come to share our experiences of the open pen salmon farms in Nova Scotia with Billy, to compare notes and seek advice. He was devastated to hear that an NDP (New Democratic Party) government was foisting this scourge on us, since he had hoped that the typically more left-leaning NDP in BC would finally deliver him and his neighbours from the Norwegian salmon feedlots in the Broughton. Politics, we all agreed was a rogues’ business, depressing, a sadly necessary evil. You have to keep a constant eye on politicians it seems, lean on them, or they’ll be up to no good no matter what their stripe.
It was a cold and rainy day, so Billy invited us into his home for a cup of tea and biscuits. The house was warm and lovely: a fire crackled in the stove and we warmed our hands and dried our socks as we continued to talk about how things are made or how to fix the world–the two key topics of the day. Like everything else in his place, Billy had built his house from materials close to hand, and deployed each to its best effect–strong knees for the ceiling beams, flat shiny polished yew for the counters, hand-hewn round logs for the banister, a stone floor. The place was like a library or museum of different woods: red and yellow cedar, yew, spruce, the whole powered by a generator and a vast battery bank, for everyone who lives at Echo Bay lives off-grid, on their own resources.
Billy’s wife and mother are now deceased so he lives alone. But he likes to give young women a chance to earn a living from the land. When Alex Morton found herself a destitute widow with a child, he took her on as crew on his fishing vessel. Now he works with Scott, a former Salmon Field Station manager, to salvage the logs that will help her pay for the purchase and renovation a house in Echo Bay. They beach-combed together all winter and were speculating about exactly when the salmon would start running that summer.
We parted reluctantly, leaving Billy a copy of our book, Casting a Legend, about the Lunenburg Foundry, as a thank you and a sharing of history and artifacts from one coast to another. There are so many things we have in common.
Once Billy got started writing with Alexandra, he never stopped. In fact, he loved books so much that he opened a bookstore on his homestead to sell books about coastal BC. Neither our Ramey nor our Bill have done that. Yet.
We bought a copy of Billy’s guidebook to the Broughton Archipelago, Full Moon, Flood Tide: Bill Proctor’s Raincoast, to accompany us on the next leg of our trip.