The west coast of Vancouver Island is a wild and rugged place. Tree and rock descend into stretches of craggy shoreline. A great sweeping sky meets the sea at the horizon. It is a stunningly beautiful and relentless part of the province and on the land of the Hesquiaht First Nations people on Clayoquot Sound, lies the remote Boat Basin.
Today, the area is largely considered to be unforgiving wilderness. For reference, BC Parks advises that only experienced travellers visit the nearby undeveloped Hesquiat Provincial Park, naming tsunamis and wildlife as very real hazards. But in 1915, a twenty-seven-year-old woman would arrive with her husband and three children and for the better part of the next seven decades, she would live on and tame the land.
Born Ada Annie Jordan in 1888, she would go by different husbands’ surnames over the years, but the title Cougar Annie would be the one that stuck. Named as such for her expert marksmanship, the story of how a California-born, Vancouver transplant would become a garden-growing, gun-toting- bounty-hunting postmistress sounds a lot like legend, but it is, indeed, all fact.
Cougar Annie would wed a number of times, but aside from a few details, her marriages are the least interesting thing about her. Her first husband’s opium addiction brought them to Boat Basin. For them to continue receiving monthly cheques from his Glasgow family, Willie Rae-Arthur needed to stay out of the city and avoid further embarrassment. He minded the children and did housework, while Annie set to preparing the land for their homestead.
Willie would drown in 1936, but instead of returning to the mainland, Annie stayed. She would go on to advertise for a husband in newspapers and farming magazines, finding a few further spouses and companions. Her second husband (the first following Willie) would perish in 1944 as a result of an accidental gunshot wound to the leg. The third husband passed away in ’55 of pneumonia. Next, a companion and his young children would live a few months at Boat Basin before leaving for parts less desolate. Her final union with a violent drinker would result in Annie kicking him out after he attempted to run her off a cliff. Additionally, she would give birth to five more children at her homestead.
Few photos seem to exist of Cougar Annie, but one, taken by a fledgling reporter in the early 1960s, serves as a marvellous portrait of not only her likeness, but her distinct spirit. It provides the viewer a real sense of its subject as only truly great photographs can.
The journalist responsible for the image, John Manning, was kind enough to share a few words with The Sunday Historian. A retelling of his time in Boat Basin and his meeting with the remarkable woman living at the remote reaches of the province is as follows…
Cougar Annie and the Cub Reporter
By John Manning
The woman known far and wide as Cougar Annie had just brought the kettle on her wood stove to a boil when she heard a knock at her cabin door. This was a surprise. She was not expecting a visitor. Not in the wilderness where she lived. Not on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in 1962, not in Boat Basin, miles from civilization.
I stood outside her chicken wire screen door. My boots, after I had waded ashore, were full of water. “The Victoria Times newspaper sent me up here to write a story about you,” I announced.
What I didn’t tell her was that Stuart Keates, publisher of the Times, told me that my job as a cub reporter depended on me coming back with a feature about this thrice widowed woman living alone on the Island’s West Coast. “Go there. Find her. Write a story,” he said, puffing a blue ring of cigar smoke at me. I was 23 years old and had recently returned to Victoria from hitch hiking around the world.
“And how do I get to where this woman lives?”
“That’s up to you. Remember: No story no job.”
Annie Rae-Arthur seemed undaunted by having a stranger suddenly appearing at her door. Her eyes sparkled with warmth and friendliness. At first it was hard to get a word in edgewise.
“By the way,” she suddenly asked, “How did you get here?”
“Hitched a ride from Victoria on the government lighthouse tender.” I replied. “They dropped me off on your beach in their longboat. Back in a couple of hours.” It was the first time I had ever used press credentials to gain access to a story. I felt like a professional journalist.
“Well, isn’t that special. All this way to see me,” exclaimed Annie, a broad smile illuminating her weathered face.
“So, Annie, may I interview you? Take your picture?”
“Not before we have a cup of tea,” she replied, that kindly light still in her eyes. “You take a perch and we’ll talk.”
We sat outside her doorway. Black ants marched in ragged formation across the cabin threshold. Annie, who had been born in Sacramento, California was wearing a dark patterned dress that reached her ankles. Her hands reflected hard work: the nails cracked, worn down to the nub.
“I shot a cougar a few days back,” Annie continued. “He’d come here to make off with my chickens, but I put a stop to that not far from my garden. There were feathers everywhere.”
Annie was eager to talk. It was 1962 and she, heading into her final chapter of life, was living alone. She told me she had come to Boat Basin with her first husband and three children in 1915 and then proceeded to have five more children and three more husbands. “The children all worked hard. I’ll show you our garden. Unique on this coast. But I live alone now. I shoot bears and big cats. Ten-dollar bounty on the cougars.”
“How many cougars?” I asked.
Although born in Victoria I had never seen a cougar, save for a stuffed one in the British Columbia Museum. Patches of fur had fallen off it. They had a rattlesnake there too. But it was alive and lived in a glass cage. I had seen it when they took us from school, on the streetcar and we had walked from there to the museum.
Annie suddenly stood up, brushing breadcrumbs from her skirt; for she had brought out homemade bread and black berry jam, along with the tea; then she went into the darkness of the cabin and came out with a 30-30 Winchester carbine.
“I shot my first buck with one of those.” I said, pointing at the rifle.
“I’m a crack shot,” she said, ignoring my comment. “Better than any man I’ve ever met.”
She looked me straight in the eye.
For a moment, I thought she was going to challenge me to a shooting contest. But instead she ejected three of four cartridges, emptying the gun: flicking the well-oiled lever with practiced ease. She stooped to pick up the bullets. The stock of her rifle was scarred and scraped, bush worn dents and marks everywhere.
“Ever heard of a Rat fish?” she asked me.
No. I had not.
“You catch them on a set line. You boil them up over an open fire. Down at the beach. Cause they stink when you cook them. You get perfect gun oil. Clear as a bell. That’s why this rifle looks so good.”
“Of course not,” she sighed.
“Were you here during the War when the Japanese submarine fired at the Estevan Point light house?” I asked.
“I was. That Jap sub just sat out there bold as brass and opened up. Missed the lighthouse. They were lousy shots.”
Before I knew it our conversation was at an end. The government tender had returned. I waded back out to the boat, while Annie, still holding the Winchester, watched from the beach. I left, reluctantly, with a multitude of unasked questions.
Some days later I arrived back in Victoria and handed my story in to the City Desk Editor, Lloyd Baker. The day after the story and photo ran, I found a note on my desk from Publisher Keates. He had written two words: “Not bad.”
Cougar Annie had cinched my job.
Over two decades after Manning’s journey to interview and photograph her, an ailing 95-year-old Annie would be forced to leave Boat Basin for Port Alberni. She would pass away at the age of 97.
In the 68 years she spent in the wilds of the Island’s west coast, she would not only hunt bears and cougars for bounty and the safety of her chickens and goats, but hand-clear acres of bush for farming. She would grow a garden with over 100 varieties of flora. Today, the garden—regarded as one of the province’s oldest rural gardens—is maintained by a non-profit organization founded by an ex-stockbroker friend of Annie’s. She would establish the Boat Basin post office, serve as postmistress and even run her own mail-order nursery business.
The life of Cougar Annie was undoubtedly one of hardship, one of tests of character and nerve, but it also seemed to be one of adventure, of freedom and individualism. Living on the edge of the earth, carving out an existence among the rock, wood and water, she created a life for herself unlike any other.