Reading Capi Blanchet

A flotilla of coastal cruising books! I just read The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet, and immediately following in its wake, I read the biography Following the Curve of Time: The Legendary M. Wylie Blanchet by Cathy Converse. Despite living on an island, I really don’t have any experience with boating, yet I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the marine adventures of Muriel Wylie “Capi” Blanchet that took place during the many summers she cruised the B.C. coast with her children in the 1920s and ’30s.

Blanchet

After her husband’s sudden and unexpected death, Blanchet loaded her five children into the family’s 25-foot boat, Caprice, and for year after year they spent from early June to late September adventuring in the coastal waters of British Columbia. The living and storage space aboard the Caprice was very small and was strictly organized out of necessity. I can’t imagine telling my own brood that they could only have one change of clothes, a set of pajamas, and a bathing suit for an entire summer! The book Blanchet wrote about the family’s years of summer cruising, The Curve of Time, has “become one of the classics in British Columbia literature.”1

At times pensive, while at other times quite humorous, I enjoyed Blanchet’s writing style. Her love and concern for her children comes through clearly in her prose. As a parent myself, my eyes raced across the page as Capi frantically returned from her foray into the forest to where her children played alone on the beach:

“‘Coming – coming!’ I shouted. What was I going to rescue them from? I didn’t know, but how desperately urgent it was! I finally scrambled through to the beach – blood streaming down my legs, face scratched, hands torn – blood everywhere. Five wondering faces looked at me in horror. The two youngest burst into tears at the sight of this remnant of what had once been their Mummy. ‘Are you all right?’ I gasped – with a sudden seething mixture of anger and relief at finding them alive and unhurt.”2

What parent hasn’t had a sudden flash of intuition that something was wrong with the children, followed by an urgent panic to check that everything is alright!?

Reading Converse’s biography about Blanchet gave me meaningful context and answered a lot of my questions. At no point in Blanchet’s book is the reader told what had happened to Capi’s husband, only that he had recently died before Capi and the children started taking their summer journeys. After finding out in Converse’s biography that Geoffrey Blanchet disappeared while out alone on the Caprice, I was even more amazed at Capi’s courage and strength.

For a woman to face grief head on like that, on the very boat that her husband disappeared from, really drove home for me what a strong person Capi was. I have to say, if I was in the same position, I find it very unlikely I would embrace boating as a pastime when my spouse had died doing that same activity. And I certainly wouldn’t find myself living on the same boat that he had disappeared from. But as Capi wrote, “Destiny rarely follows the pattern we would choose for it and the legacy of death often shapes our lives in ways we could not imagine.”3

Converse’s biography also outlines Blanchet’s life before her Caprice days. Growing up on the St. Lawrence River and summering in Cacouna, Quebec, she developed a love of water from an early age: “It was in Cacouna that Capi explored and honed her skills as an observer of the natural world, and this would set the tone and direction of her life in British Columbia.”4

Reading The Curve of Time in 2019, I was uncomfortable with the Blanchet family’s intrusions into several First Nations villages on the B.C. coast. The Blanchets not only wandered into abandoned villages, handled, photographed, and even removed some artifacts that they found there, but Capi also ignored locks and warning signs.

Converse explains to readers that during the time period of both when the Blanchets were adventuring and when the book was originally published in 1961, attitudes and practices were different than today: “There are now legal protections against the removal of indigenous property, but in Capi’s time no such regulations existed and cultural sensitivities were discounted.”5

While Converse’s reminder does help to situate the Blanchets’ actions in a time period when settler behaviours and attitudes served to damage traditional First Nations cultures of the B.C. coast, the sections about the Blanchets’ explorations of First Nations villages still sat uneasily with me long after I put The Curve of Time down.

Blanchet explains the family’s rationale: “We had made up our minds to spend part of the summer among the old villages with the big community houses, and try to recapture something of a Past [sic] that will soon be gone forever.”6 The thing is, at least some of the villages the Blanchets visited likely weren’t ‘old’ in the sense that they were abandoned. And the inhabitants’ lives weren’t something of the past. The people who lived in some of the villages likely just happened to be away at the time of the Blanchets’ uninvited and most likely unwelcome visit.

In her exploration of colonial women’s travel writing regarding contact with Indigenous peoples, author Dr. Nancy Pagh explains how Blanchet has employed a myth common to literature of the time period: “When Blanchet constructs Native people as the embodiment of ‘the Past’ [sic], she refuses to allow that these very real people are her contemporaries, alive and working in the summer fishery while she is fantasizing about them from their winter villages.”7

Capi trespassed and took things that weren’t hers, and in her book, she doesn’t seem to show any regret or remorse in doing so, even though The Curve of Time was written many years after her summer cruises. She even goes so far as to recount how in one empty First Nations village, the Blanchet family, “played with their old boxes-for-the-dead, trying to see if we could fit in.”8 Knowing that The Curve of Time still serves as a key text for those cruising the B.C. coast, I hope that anyone reading the book today isn’t encouraged to act in a similar manner in the event of finding an Indigenous artifact during their own adventures.

As her children grew, some of them no longer joined Capi for the family summer holiday, and the early 1940s and World War II brought the last cruise aboard the Caprice. In the biography, Converse outlines the remainder of Capi’s life on Curtesis Point on the Saanich Peninsula, and briefly summarizes the later lives of the five Blanchet children.

Overall, I found it meaningful and interesting to read the books together as a pair. Once I knew more of Capi Blanchet’s story than she revealed in her own writing, I was quite intrigued by this enigmatic woman from Vancouver Island, and I was curious to read more about her. As well as being mentioned in Pagh’s book, At Home Afloat: Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest, Capi Blanchet is profiled in Eve Lazarus’ book, Sensational Victoria: Bright Lights, Red Lights, Murders, Ghosts & Gardens, as one of five legendary women of Victoria. Author and historian Rosemary Neering, whose many books have focused on western Canada, includes a section about Blanchet in her book, Wild West Women: Travellers, Adventurers and Rebels. And in The Strangers Next Door, Edith Iglauer, a leading chronicler of Canadian life and culture, devotes a chapter to Blanchet, which originally appeared in Raincoast Chronicles, the well-loved journal of the Canadian west coast.

Converse adeptly covers much of this same material in the biography, but it was still interesting to read other authors’ takes on Capi. Lazarus includes a quote from Blanchet’s daughter-in-law that reminds us that The Curve of Time is after all an “account” of the Blanchets’ cruises, one that “is neither a story nor a log”9: “When I read The Curve of Time when it was first published, my governing thought was this was not the woman that I knew, because Capi comes across much more tender and sensitive in that book than she appeared to me.”10

How much did Capi Blanchet blur the lines between fact and fiction in The Curve of Time? Converse reveals that the Blanchet children were not necessarily in agreement about the accuracy of Capi’s writing: “When Elizabeth, who became an accomplished writer in her own right, first read her mother’s book, she remarked, ‘A lot of what is in that book is bunk. I ought to know, I was there.’ Some of the others chose not to read it or did not comment on it.”11

So much of Capi Blanchet’s life remains a mystery, including what her real motivation was for packing her children aboard the Caprice for those long summer cruises. Did she just need the money she received from renting out the Blanchets’ Little House over the summer? Was it the pull of adventure? An act of defiance and confidence building when her family expected her to go back east after her husband’s sudden death? Or was it just that she loved being out on the water, cruising and exploring, and she wanted to share a pastime that she enjoyed with her children? We’ll never really know, but I definitely enjoyed reading about Capi Blanchet, a remarkable west coast woman.


Notes

  1. Iglauer, Edith. “‘Capi’ Blanchet.” In The Strangers Next Door (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1991), 222.
  2. Blanchet, M. Wylie. The Curve of Time (Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 1996), 3.
  3. Blanchet, 161.
  4. Converse, Cathy. Following the Curve of Time: The Legendary M. Wylie Blanchet (Victoria, BC: TouchWood Editions, 2008), 29.
  5. Converse, 143.
  6. Blanchet, 45.
  7. Pagh, Nancy. At Home Afloat: Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2001), 114.
  8. Blanchet, 52.
  9. Blanchet, xv.
  10. Lazarus, Eve. Sensational Victoria: Bright Lights, Red Lights, Murders, Ghosts & Gardens (Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2012), 35.
  11. Converse, 67.

Destination Cortez Island

Cameron, June. Destination Cortez Island: A sailor’s life along the BC coast. Surrey: Heritage House, 1999. ISBN: 1895811686

DestinationCortez

A memoir by June Cameron about her family’s experience on Cortez Island, plus anecdotes about other early pioneers from the area. Cameron’s maternal grandparents, Alfred and Florence Hayes, arrived on Cortez in 1917, with the plan to establish an orchard and nursery to support their family of nine children. Despite Alf’s horticultural training, this proved to be an insufficient means to make a living, and had to be supplemented in a variety of ways. The Hayes family were not alone in their struggles. Other pioneers had also settled in the area with farming ambitions, and the lack of a reliable means of transporting perishables up and down the coast proved to be an insurmountable challenge for some.

Despite the difficulty of eking out an existence, Cameron’s grandparents remained on Cortez.  Beginning in the 1930s, Cameron spent every summer of her childhood there, the early ones living on her parents’ 36-foot wooden boat moored nearby. Her parents eventually pre-empted their own piece of land on the island, and the family built a one room house on the property. They continued to summer on Cortez, away from their school year home in Vancouver.

June Cameron was not only a competitive sailor, but also a prolific nautical writer and artist. She had many articles published in the magazines Pacific Yachting and Western Mariner, and specialized in boat portraits and coastal landscape painting. Her love and knowledge of boating and the coast in general are obvious in her writing, but as a landlubber, I found the jargon and technical details about boats, engines, and fishing somewhat daunting.

I did however appreciate a very early explanation of the Cortez versus Cortes spelling. It was something I had been wondering about prior to even starting the book. There are thousands of islands on the B.C. coast, I wasn’t entirely sure if Cortez and Cortes were the same island or not. I was glad to have my question answered right out of the gate. As Cameron explains in the introduction: the island was originally named by the Spanish explorers Galiano and Valdes in honour of Hernando Cortes, conqueror of Mexico. “While that spelling [Cortes] has survived on most Canadian Hydrographic Service Charts, many of the pioneers anglicized the name and referred to the tranquil island west of Desolation Sound as Cortez.” True to her pioneer roots, Cameron never strays from the ‘ez’ spelling. Apparently, the pioneers even had their own way of saying their island’s name, pronouncing it “Cor-teez”, a speech pattern that Cameron also adopted.1

June Cameron passed away in July 2016, her last words: “I’m almost ready to go back to Cortez.”2 Before she went on that final journey, she left behind an enjoyable read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the island her family loved, or about the lifestyle of those who settled the B.C. coast.

Cameron compares her book to a stew, made up from sources both old and new, with bits and pieces contributed from her own experiences, and those of her friends, family, and neighbours. I felt this was an apt description. Cameron wrote the book in tribute to the pioneers of the area, mixing their stories with hers to produce a book that is not only her own memoir and the story of her family’s experience on Cortez, but also the story of the larger coastal community.


Notes

1. Jordan, L. (2016, November 22). June Cameron. Cortes Island Museum and Archives [blog]. Retrieved from https://cortesmuseum.com/june-cameron-by-lynne-jordan/

2. (2016, July 24). June Cameron. Campbell River Mirror [obituary]. Retrieved from https://www.campbellrivermirror.com/obituaries/june-cameron/