Homestead Hunting in British Columbia

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The endless homestead hunting journey ended on the property of a French Canadian man who owned land near a lake in British Columbia.

This whole last year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has helped us find an organic existence and it’s now time for me to sit down and relate our homestead hunting story.

When Marcia and I headed north from Los Angeles in the summer of ’70, we had two sleeping bags, a very heavy backpack, about $700 in traveler’s checks and a lot of hope. One week later, after hitching all the way, we were in Nova Scotia.

Frankly, at that time, Marcia and I were not very together about what we wanted or how to get it. Though we had no knowledge of farming whatsoever, our idea was to hunt deep in the wilds of Canada for “The Promised Land”. The results were that we ended up, a short time later, back on the West Coast—Vancouver, British Columbia—broke, but still determined to get out on the land somehow.

So we crossed back over the “border”—a magical-psychological thing—and settled in Portland, Oregon. There, we both found jobs working in the same restaurant: Marcia as a waitress and I as a dishwasher. By May, 1971, we had saved $1,500.

Enter friend Bear, who had come into some cash and with whom I had lived communally in the past. We three pooled our money and know-how and once again set out in early July, a year after our first attempt, to make the coast-to-coast-to-coast journey.

Seventy tired days and 17,000 miles later we were once again in beautiful British Columbia after looking at a lot of land—and even more back roads—across Canada.

We had learned that Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have inexpensive acreage, friendly folks … and temperatures of -20° to -30° Fahrenheit in the winter!

If we’d been able to take that weather we’d probably have stayed in eastern Canada, because the land certainly was cheap there. We met one family who had canoed into the interior of southern Nova Scotia and found a farm of 70 acres with a barn, tillable soil and a seven-room house — all for $5,000! And in St. John, New Brunswick, we ran into a mechanic who had just sold 100 acres to his brother for $500 (he’d have sold to anyone for $1,000).

Our next real contact with land prices was outside Cold Lake, Alberta near the Saskatchewan border. There, a gas station owner and his wife told us about a friend who had one section (one square mile or 640 acres) for sale at $9, 000. This particular part of the province is not really plains, being tree and lake-covered but, once again, the only catch was winters of a mere 70° F below zero!

We moved on to Edmonton, Alberta, where we went directly to the lands office and got maps, pamphlets and a lot of friendly, sincere help from the good fellows manning the desk . . . but once again to no avail. By the time we reached British Columbia it was September 1st and all three of us were weary and crestfallen.

Then we happened to run across a copy of the B.C. Access Catalogue which contained an article by an ex-New Mexico real estate agent. The man, Oscar Greene, lives up in B. C.’s Powell River (a mere 100 miles and two ferryboat rides from Vancouver). But, since homesteading in British Columbia was discontinued last year and real estate agents are now the best bet for land in that province, we went to see Mr. Greene.

Greene told us that most of the land was taken and that local prices were $1,000 per acre and up, but he did turn us on to two pieces of forested acreage at somewhat more reasonable figures. One was 13 1/2 acres right on the main highway for $7,000 and the other was 60 acres for $18,000.

Both deals required cash and, though the prices were good, we didn’t have enough for either one and our friends back in the good ole U.S.A. were not willing to invest in such an unsure venture. So we made it over to the Municipal Park of Powell River, talking all the way there about going to Olympia National Park to live for the winter in our tipi or maybe even striking out for Australia!

That night, Bear happened to mention to the park’s caretaker that we were interested in land. Old Dave was eager to help. “Land? Why I know a feller who has 25 acres for sale out in the bush, near a lake. I think it has a stream and a river flowing through it. Think he wants $10,000.” Holy Mother! We rushed out there the next day.

And we found it! The cabin was nine miles over a rutted forest road from the nearest neighbor and nestled in a two or three-acre clearing by a river. It was surrounded by many miles of fir, hemlock, spruce and cedar fores ts and was perfect.

Unfortunately, the owner was home so we returned to Vancouver and—two weeks later—ferried up for another try. This time our luck was better.

We first met Ed, a gruff but lovable French Canadian, on the road. He was filling ruts with branches and sand and muttering about the local lumber company’s destruction of his road with its large “cats.” (We found out later that lumber companies—the true power structure in B.C.—lease land, clear roads, and then let the forest grow for 20 to 30 years; it’s sort of their own personal “tree farm”.)

While Ed finished his road work, we went on to look at the boundaries of the property.

“$20,000, half cash now,” Ed said when he joined us. “Heck, there’s $15,000 in trees alone so I’m only selling it for $5,000, actually.”

Oh darn! We loved the place so much but he wanted twice what we could scrape up.

Earlier, when we had been on the road, we had sort of stumbled upon the home/shop of the Nomadics tipi people and bought one of their tents Now, while looking at Ed’s property, we noticed a thick stand of young cedar trees which were just about the right size for tipi lodge poles. We asked him about cutting 30 poles for our shelter.

“Sure, cut all you need. Thin ’em out. They grow even better.” Further conversation revealed that Ed was about to leave for six months retirement vacation overseas.

Zap! The wheels began to turn and when Ed realized that we needed a place to stay, he invited us to set our tipi up in the hayfield and told us that when he left we could use his cabin. Oh wow! Our wanderings were over!

We set right to work the first week of October, cutting, barking, trimming, and smoothing the huge 30-foot tipi poles. The finished tipi was a beautiful sight!

Then the winter rains began in earnest and Ed asked us to move into the cabin, which we shyly did.

Bear and I began to repair things around the place to sort of pay unsolicited rent, and before long we had put up a chicken coop made of clear plastic, chicken wire, logs, and shakes.

Then we extended the wood shed another 13 feet, cut and chopped three to four cords of wood, moved a small tool shed out from town, and helped Ed remodel the inside of the cabin.

By the time he left the first of November, we were comfortably chopping wood, bucketing water from the river, cooking and heating on an old wood stove, and Marcia was sewing on an elderly treadle sewing machine she had found for only $15.

Bear and I next set out to extend Ed’s 30′ x 30′ garden plot to 125′ x 30′ (over 1/4 acre). We got the fall rye planted before the snows began.

Well, we hadn’t put that chicken coop up just for the exercise — we were getting plenty of that — and, well, you know, what’s a chicken coop without chickens? So we got us six Red/Bantam hens for $1.50 each and two hens and two roosters, all Bantam, for another $1.00 each. The wire, feed, and birds cost a total of $60 or so.

The birds didn’t lay for over three weeks. Then the sun showed up, melted the frost and—lo and behold—must have melted the hens’ hearts too, because from that time on we’ve gotten two or three big brown, orange-yolked fertile eggs every day.

Little kindnesses such as warm water and cooked mash really do make the hens more contented and the eggs come sooner. Every time I compare our henfruit to the watery, thin-shelled, yellow-yolked storeboughts, I vow I’ll never eat one of them sick-looking cartoned things again!

Well, our home-grown eggs worked out so well that we decided to get ourselves a goat or two.

Because there’s a goat disease in the U. S., Canada has enforced a strict quarantine on American goats for the past four years so we began to look over the local Alpines and Saanens. We had a tough time finding any to buy at first because most goats around here are pets, but we finally did find a couple of real goat people.

The first, a farmer and his wife in their 50’s, sold us a nine-month-old Alpine/Saanen doe for $35. (We have since become close friends with the Smiths and get gardening tips from Nellie all the time. The Smiths are also our source of comfrey roots — for planting — and salalberry jam. Comfrey, by the way, is good to feed to both chickens and goats, especially if the latter eats too many buttercups.)

Our other goat source (Dave) is an ex-San Francisco draft objector who arrived here four years ago, read some books, planted a garden, got a goat, and then went into the business of raising chickens and goats to sell.

With goats on the way, the chicken coop was no longer adequate. We really needed a barn. So we sat down and designed a 13′ x 13′ building which would accommodate chickens, goats, a milking area, and hayloft.

The lumber company had left so many poles lying about that we settled on a chinked log barn with clear plastic sheeting stretched inside and out to keep the moss in place where the animals couldn’t eat it.

It took us three or four days to gather the 300 or more logs necessary for the task (we also used some of the poles to corral in about 1/2 acre of pasture). We had hardly gotten the frame up and some of the wall done when — Bang! — December hit and so too, as if by magic, winter. We worked another full week until the falling snow was 2 1/2 feet deep on the ground! It was a good experience, and except for cold hands and feet and 1/2 foot of snow in the loft before the roof was shaked, I really enjoyed it! We’re now well set in for the winter and the total cost of the barn was under $70 for flooring, plastic sheeting, and five-inch spikes.

We make it into town for supplies about once a week and, since there are three natural foods stores nearby, we can get whole grains and bulk oils for cooking. These stores have expressed interest in our organic vegetables, herbs, honey, and goat products next fall, so we have a ready market for our goods. Actually, what we may do is ask them what they need the most and then plant exactly that — using our only tools, a shovel and a hand hoe — in the “commercial” sections of our garden.

Looks like we’re gonna make out alright.