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Raven: The House That Joe Built

Pulling up deep roots and leaving a house of dreams.

It was 1986. A year of superb vintage—an Inukshuk in my palace of memory. In the days when we all wore big shoulder pads and sported Lady Di wings, 1986 was a year that really had legs, both for me personally and for Canada, too.

Over the Christmas break, I’d joined my family on Vancouver Island in the log house they were building. I had become obsessed with all things Japan, from art and culture to sushi and language, and decided I had to live there. I was four months into a gruelling Japanese language post-grad university program in Edmonton (where tires do freeze), but this was now the second-coldest winter in living memory (aren’t they all?) and my cup of stoic determination was just about at the dregs.

I suppose it was the balmy coastal air that finally tipped my resolve, and I almost melted when my mum, in her wisdom, said, “If it’s so unbearable, then you should let it go. After all, life is short. Why torture yourself?”

When I was 10, we had camped from Windsor, Ontario, across Western Canada to Vancouver Island. I remember posing in front of the Thunderbird totem at the Malahat summit with my little brother; the pole’s still there, though the snapshot only lives in my memory now. But that was when we fell in love with the coast and decided this was where we were meant to live. And here it was, 15 years later. My parents had bought a stunning 10-acre parcel of forest in the Cowichan Valley, and I was finally pulling up the rear. I decided to pack up my dictionaries and calligraphy brushes and get on with the next stage of my move to Japan. Vancouver! City of Dreams! Japantown! Sushi!

It was January 1986. That meant everything Expo. I had high hopes that my CV, multiple languages and theatre background would land me something better than the $3.65-per-hour wage that average jobs were paying. And before you could say “Expo Ernie,” I joined the planning team of performer services, the Expo ’86 department responsible for meeting, greeting, feeding, housing, orienting and sending home all the thousands of performers who would pass through Vancouver that summer—all completed with one computer in the entire office (half a floor of the Plaza of Nations).

While my pioneering parents were busy in the woods peeling, scribing and laying log rounds, I was living a fantasy in the city: little things like watching Prince Charles and Lady Diana backstage just before they went on to open the Expo (she actually skipped across the room and gave him a hug—I saw it with my own eyes); a YVR pickup of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (with 500 matching red suitcases); organizing the entire cast, orchestra, choir and crew of the La Scala opera house (possibly half the population of Milan) at the airport at 3 a.m. (and probably in the rain), likely single-handedly and most definitely in Italian (not one of my languages), to disperse them to their digs. Can you see una bella diva tantrum at the University of British Columbia residences when she realized this was where she was to be housed? Mamma mia… oh, it was all too much fun to be legal!

Round and round we went that summer, pioneers and pageantry. In July, the stunning brigantine Spirit of Chemainus made a commemorative voyage to Expo across the Salish Sea, by coincidence on my dad’s 49th birthday. Of course, the “passage” was his gift from us that year. Mum spent half the journey in the galley making a birthday cake for him at the cook’s insistence, and how exciting it was to meet them at the dock in False Creek, at the heart of the Expo site. What a birthday!

“The House That Joe Built,” as one Japanese magazine called it, was gradually completed. The international go-to guru of log was Allan Mackie, and my parents had camped out while taking his “couple’s course” in Prince George the summer before they started the project. Turns out that Dad, a professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, was a mean hand with a chainsaw. Mum, a professional potter, was very handy with a scriber, so they made a super team. My brother was assistant No. 1, and even I managed to peel a few logs on my rare weekend off from the glitterati and grind of Expo.

 

Between building spurts during sabbaticals and holidays, Dad was commuting to teach in Calgary, and Mum was churning out dinnerware sets to supply 15 galleries. The house actually became more of a log complex, built in stages: first, the two-storey coach house, with Mum’s pottery studio, garage and apartment upstairs, which they lived in while building the Big House; then, a separate open kiln building (now a forest hot tub spa), log outbuildings for tools and wood to fire six wood stoves; and finally the gatehouse, a quirky thing over the driveway that Dad deliberately built to be “too low for a moving van but high enough for a hearse.” One way or another, the main buildings came in at around 5,000 square feet. Never call this a log cabin.

Thirty-one years have passed since that magical summer of ’86, and the house, Raven, has been the most idyllic, archetypical Canadian home one could imagine. How did they do it? People from all over the world have come to visit, especially from Japan, where I did indeed settle for close to a decade. They always ask, “How did you go from being a professor to being a log builder?” And my dad always answers, “Whoever said you can’t be both?”

 

Much has changed over the years, but the view from the living room window has only improved. The Major Maple now sports a log tree house, too high off the ground for me to go up, but adored by my daughter and her cousins. Our neighbours hauled a ton of peat away to create a small lake just below, the birthplace of dragonflies and a kazillion frogs that sing in the spring and dance through the summers. And the Grand Ol’ Doug has developed a majesty worthy of his name. (“And the Grand Ol’ Doug has developed a majesty worthy of his name. But a fir by any name would smell as sweet.”) The sunset ridge of the Kinsol Valley is still pristine, and the Kinsol Trestle a few kilometres through the woods is now restored and admired by all who cast eyes on it.

 

So life goes, from one Inukshuk to another. This summer saw Dad’s 80th birthday and the decision, reluctantly, to “think about” selling Raven. They’ve started the process of deep cleaning that can only foretell a serious transition. We managed to persuade him to finally have the gatehouse knocked down (which greatly improves the view), so although there may still be resistance, there are no more physical barriers to a moving truck. Finding a smaller house, closer to town and actually on the communications grid seems a more sensible way to live at this stage in their lives. I asked Dad recently about his feelings about leaving their dream home and his greatest life accomplishment behind. For once, the professor/log builder answered with only one word: “Mixed.”

Understandably, it’s not just leaving a structure or a piece of land (albeit one for which you’ve paid in sweat and blood). It’s leaving behind those seven little graves of beloved family pets; it’s the kitchen corbel wall that has been marked for 30 years with the inch-by-inch growth of your grandchildren; it’s pulling oneself away from the intricate and tightly woven fabric of a small community of neighbour friends who have helped each other survive the wilderness for decades. These are the deep roots around which the feelings are so terribly mixed.