The Cougar Lady of Okeover Inlet | Desolation Sound History



The Cougar Lady - History of Penrose Bay, Okeover Inlet

(Home of Powell River Sea Kayak Ltd. and launchsite for Desolation

Powell River Sea Kayak's site on Okeover Inlet was once home to the pioneering Crowther family. The Crowthers forged a road along Okeover Inlet in 1927 and built their log cabin home on Penrose Bay. Nancy Crowther, the daughter, was raised in this rugged environment. As her parents aged and eventually passed on, Nancy took over the property and forged out a fascinating and colourful pioneering lifestyle. This self-sustaining existence included raising goats and chickens. It was this livestock that attracted the many predators: wolves, bears and especially cougars! The cougars posed the greatest threat. An adult cougar could wreak havoc: killing many or all of the livestock in a matter of a few days. For this reason, Nancy learned to shoot a gun at an early age. Over the years, Nancy had to kill many cougars - before they killed her livestock. Eventually, friends of Nancy began calling her "The Cougar Queen of Okeover Inlet." By the time Nancy died in 1989, she was locally famous, known as The Cougar Lady. The Cougar Lady was said to have killed 22 cougars in her time.

The following is a series of interviews with Nancy Crowther. These interviews were later published in a local Powell River Heritage book: Boats, Bucksaws and Blisters: Pioneer tales of the Powell River area by G.W. Thompson. 1990.

The following story of Nancy Crowther first appeared in the Victoria Times of December 7, 1964:

For Nancy Crowther, "the Cougar Queen of Okeover Arm," her rifle is just another household appliance. "Living in the bush like I do, a gun is an much a part of my household tools as a vacuum cleaner is in the city."

Nancy is a quiet, 41-year old matronly woman. A divorcee, she has reverted to her maiden name. She disapproves of the "Cougar Queen" title bestowed upon her by friends. "Every woman living in the bush alone needs to protect herself, but it's not for self-protection that we shoot these animals; it's to protect our livestock."

...Her home is a log cabin set in a clearing on a bay. In the front yard roam her goats and chickens, and two terrier dogs. Across the bay [1964] is an oyster processing plant, where she works during the winter. Her only companion is her aged mother.

"I shot my first cougar when I was thirteen," she says. "I had to. My father, who was going blind, was coming back from the store in Lund. I met him and we walked down the trail together. We came across a fresh cougar kill, and my father told me we must shoot the animal [the cougar] or it would get to our goats."

She waited by the cougar's victim for two hours. When the big cat came back to feed, she shot it with a .22 calibre rifle. "It was a lucky shot. You can shoot a .22 at close range into a cougar's head and the slug won't even penetrate the skull." She doesn't shoot for the skull anymore.

"About the only place to shoot a cougar for a sure kill is right in the centre of the neck. It snaps the spine and kills instantly."

Since that first kill with a .22 Nancy has added eleven notches to her gun and replaced the small-bore fire arm with a 303-calibre carbine. "The bigger gun gives me more confidence in the bush."

Nancy's father died a few years ago and she was left alone with her mother. "Not only did we have our regular household chores, but we had to keep a sharp eye on the livestock. The area teams with predatory animals. A neighbor, Axel Hanson, lost 30 goats to cougars in one night."

The Cougar Queen has made a study of big cats. "Every 28 days a cougar will retrace a pattern," she says.

From a story by Nicole Strickland in The Powell River News:

...she [Nancy Crowther] wears a lumberman's jacket to ward of the cold in her unheated kitchen, and with the seven little dogs she owns crowding around her, her story begins to unfold.

"I know I have too many dogs, but if I don't the cougars will maul them or the bears will kill them. I have enough dogs to tree any bear that comes around; they're part airedale, part fox-terrier...

"We built the road to this cabin, my parents and I. We split our own logs to build the house from standing dead snags; so there was no drying out or shrinking after the house was built. I have 135 acres here. My parents paid $10 for the land back in 1927.

"There were 57 children in the inlet when we first came here; now there are two.

"...I preserve my own fruit from my orchard, butcher my own chickens, make my own cheese from goats' milk...I raise my own bees, and of course there are clams and oysters on the beach...

"I have to shoot the bears and cougars, otherwise the cougars get so tame they come right up to the house. Last year one came within ten feet of the house and stole three geese."

"But the stealing", says Miss Crowther, "by two-legged animals is far worse than the stealing by those four legs...It's only been for the past six years -- it's civilization coming...someone stole more than half my supply of honey recently. It's endless what they take -- my grain, my hay, my groceries...I've moved all my grain inside the house so people can't steal it."

Murray Kennedy taped an interview with Nancy Crowther on April 1, 1987. The following paragraphs are from that interview.

Mom and Dad had saved a little bit of money, and we earned our living digging clams. We couldn't afford shoes; so we wrapped cloth around our feet. We could use it to walk on barnacles. We used a spade; we didn't know about rakes.

Mother used to pack supplies in from Powell River when Dad was working. She might have 20 pounds of rolled oats plus cans of milk plus other stuff -- all the way from Powell River.

We took the B.C. Elementary [correspondence] course. We went to the school that the Chambers' went to for two weeks in September, until the inspector, Mr. Daniels, came. They had to have an enrollment of ten and an attendance of eight to keep the school open, and they had eight or nine children. We went down there and did our correspondence, which was rather nice, because we had those teachers giving us...By the time we finished going just for two weeks we were run-down and had colds. It was much too far, too wet and too cold to go every day. Mother would let me go down on the beach to do my lessons, which I didn't always get done that way; and I could watch the ants and the crows and the things that were going on, and they were far more important to me than the lessons at that time.

All the oldtime people made their clothing. They made their dresses and curtains out of flour sacks.

[In the depression]...we had a terrible time. There were three children up here who were taken to the hospital starving. It just so happened that a goat freshened that morning, and that extra milk put me back on my feet. Nobody go much work. We were mighty glad when a logging camp moved into the area, because they would buy bread and eggs. The tourist was a goldmine...

I was working in the mill, capping and sheet-laying [1940s]. I worked for three years and three months in the mill. Then I was off two weeks, and a friend came and told me I had a job in the store; so I worked there until 1959. I lived in Powell River, but bicycled home on the weekends. At first, I walked home; it took six hours each way. Then, when I got a bicycle, it took three hours. I worked in the mill during the war, until the boys came home -- and out I went.

Mrs. Salo had cattle and calves up at Theodora, at the head, and the cougars came in and ate the calves. She'd lost six calves. And I once shot a cougar who had got a goat, and the dogs treed it. I thought it must be full of milk -- must be nursing -- but when I got it down, it had a layer of 4--6" of fat hanging down, from eating those six calves. When it was up the tree, it was busy eating something black, either a pup or somebody's cat. It was just sitting there calmly, with all my dogs underneath it, and me underneath it, and kept right on munching.

...His [Rev. Greene's] arrival was a big thing of the community. He came right into our house with his gas-lantern, and he had a portable organ...He would play the organ and boom away with his voice. And with his gas-lantern, he really made quite and impression on us kids...He would come around at Christmas time to the school. One time he was late, because he hot kelp in the propeller, and this was when there was a foot of snow on the ground and it was really jolly cold. He had to strip down to his underwear and dive down and take the kelp off his propeller. He turned up in his Santa Claus suit, and of course the school was really warm. I bet he was very glad to get into it.

Rev. Greene always sent a card to everyone. He told us about all the members of the family helping with the Christmas mail. One member wrote the note, one pout it in the envelope, one sealed the envelope, and another put the stamp on. this was in the thirties. I remember he came to the Anglican Church in Powell River one time..I figured, when I went there, that he wouldn't possibly remember me, but he did. So he must have a very good memory.

When I first came here, my mother told me never to sit with my back to the woods, and if I heard a noise, to come right back in. And Mother told me to watch the cat, and if the cat was growling to the woods, to come back quickly.

What goes on here is really something: I nearly lost my life to a bear and nearly lost my nephew to a cougar. What happened with my young nephew was: we were clearing where this road is here, and had a pile of brush about fifteen feet. I went to the barn, which is down by the beach, and was milking when Billy came rushing and said, "Auntie Nancy, I heard a big crash!"

I got the dogs and went out. The cougar had got on top of all that stuff [brush pile] and on all the bark that was on this side -- to get closer to Billy he was only fifteen feet away. A great big slab of bark had fallen off and alerted Billy -- probably upset the cougar too. Anyway, I got the cougar.

One evening...I went up into this knoll on the other side. I'd had company, and I just wanted to get away and have some peace and quiet from having extras, and Billy talking. I heard this big crack, and I knew by the sound of the crack that it couldn't be a coon. It couldn't be anything very small; it had to be something very big. My hair -- and this is the only time in my life that this happened -- literally felt like it was standing on end...I hovered around, and I could hear this big thing coming down. I came across a small fir that had fallen onto the road. I broke a piece off and whistled it into the air. I came down the road here, instead of coming down the north shore and giving it a second chance to cut me off, taking a chance on falling and having come upon me fallen -- didn't fall.

The next morning, the goats were all resting outside in the sun. Dickie came running up and said, "The goats are feeling so good, they're all running."

Well, I know that if the goats had been passively lying down, they wouldn't suddenly feel so good that they're all running. So I went down, and here's a huge bear, and he had one of my goats and was just whipping her around like she was a piece of paper in the air -- and I hadn't taken my gun. So I had to run back to the house and get my gun. And I was just up to the bear...and before I got there, he'd got one of the dogs. I shot him and then two fellows came over, and I asked them to help me haul this thing up, so I could skin it. And do you know, the two fellows and I pulling on this thing couldn't get his shoulders and head off the ground. It was a huge thing.

There was a nasty incident with a wolf: I had gone up the road one morning with my goats. I just had my two dogs with me, and I heard a terrific rushing sound, and here was this huge dog. I'd never seen a dog so big. It looked like it was black when I first saw it, but it was charcoal-gray with black guard hairs. And it had saliva hanging over a foot long, solid, even with it running, from either corner of it's mouth. It rushed forward, and the goats had sort of circled around. When they saw it, they all ran round the other side of me and tore home. It was past me, because the goats were past me. Then it turned around and crouched about four yards in front of me, and it looked at the dog on one side of me and it looked at the dog on the other side of me. And it just kept doing that until it turned to go. The dog on one side went forward a couple of yards and got in front of me and barked at it. It turned around like greased l lightening and picked it [the dog] up like a suitcase and ran off with it. And the little dog was looking back at me and kieyieing. I couldn't run fast enough to catch up, and I didn't have a gun. So finally I had to give up. It could run faster than I could, even with carrying the dog.

I went back to the house and got the other dogs and the gun. I went back up, and there was blood where I'd last seen it with the dog. The dogs kept after it until we got to another spot where there was much more blood, and they lost complete interest. Anyhow, that thing hung around, and it would roll logs and make a terrific noise. And I had to keep all the dogs confined, tied up in the house. If I let them out, I had to be right with them, just one at a time. I had to go up to the goats. He [the wolf] tried to get them to come out. One time the two dogs got past me and got up the road. I could hear them kieyieing and I knew he got another dog. I ran back into the house to get the gun, and as I did so my little Tippy ran out and went to the rescue of Mac. But anyhow, it got further up the hill, and he released Mac. And I could see this huge thing, but just the top of it's back. He had ripped Tippy open and bolted all her insides down -- there was nothing left -- bowels, the heart, liver, lungs; everything was gone. I shot at him, but I missed him. My gun wasn't shooting straight; there was something the matter with it. And he just took off like a scared rabbit. That was maybe 20 to 30 years ago.

The following is from Adam Vallance, Owner of Powell River Sea Kayak:

In February of 2000, myself and my wife Laurie moved into The Cougar Lady's old cabin at Penrose Bay, Okeover Inlet. In some ways, little has changed since Nancy's era and in other ways the changes have been quite dramatic.

The property still boasts the old Crowther cabin. It's seen a better day, but Laurie and I are visionary's. The history and character of the old place is just too valuable to let go. Besides, we've been living here since February 2000. It's our home! For us, moving into the old Crowther cabin was a dream - a chance to experience, restore and share a fascinating history and beautiful place.

A few outbuildings still remain. It's hard to say what they may have been used for. Our kayak shop down by the beach looks like an old barn. Perhaps it was the old barn in Nancy's story? Despite it's dramatic lean, it does a fine job storing our kayaks.

The old orchard still produces some great fruit. It's quite overgrown now and many of the trees are in serious need of pruning. Over time, we have managed to tame several trees and clear the brush away. Each year, the trees produce a greater bounty and the orchard takes another step forward in reestablishing it's vitality. We especially enjoy sharing this heritage fruit on our late summer and fall tours.

In addition to fruit trees, there are other signs of past sustenance. Ancient grape vines wind there way through the trees and brush. They too still produce. A massive hazelnut tree overshadows a productive walnut tree. Of the animal variety, little picket-type fences run throughout the orchard - once corralling the goats. Exploring further into this jungle, we have also discovered old honey bee boxes - long since vacated. Every spring and fall - since we've been here - the black bears have come to visit. In the spring, we usually have a mom and at least one or two cubs running around. In the fall, ripe plums and apples attract even more bears. I'm sure they are descendants of the bears Nancy used to encounter. Thankfully, we are yet to encounter either cougars or wolves. Who know s though, with such dense bush a cougar could watch us and we wouldn't even know it.

It has been over fifteen years since Nancy Crowther lived here. The southeast wind still whips into the bay - whisking the heat from the old cabin but drying out the old logs before decay sets in. In the summer, Penrose Bay sits sheltered from prevailing northwest winds and the waters warm to a comfortable swimming temperature. The beach at which we launch our kayaks still produces an abundance of clams and oysters. Now, as Laurie, myself and our two kids (Ella and Caleb) walk through the old orchard, we sometimes imagine The Cougar Lady, gathering her fruit for canning, chasing off predators, living the difficult but rewarding life of a pioneer.