"THAT'S my life down there," says Alex Swanson, at home on 16th Street, looking out over Ambleside in West Vancouver.
Alex's home when he was born in 1927 was to the east, near the statue of Granny Mathias on Ambleside Beach, then known as East Beach. The Swansons lived at number 47 and Alex's pals, Geoffrey, Victor and Allan Cue, lived at 39.
Their backyard was the slough at Ambleside, now the wildfowl lagoon. In winter, it was the community skating rink, complete with rubber ice, as it was called, that floated with the tides.
Winter storms cast waves that flooded the gravel road behind the cottages. Bill Stratton, delivering bread from his bakery on Marine Drive would pull on his hip waders and push the logs off the road.
The cottages were expropriated by the municipality in 1935 and torched in 1936 as part of Vancouver's Jubilee celebrations. The Swansons moved to 224 14th St. then to 2061 Argyle Ave.
Street addresses were immaterial. The boys' true home extended from the Capilano River to Bowen Island, along the beaches and on the water, and on Hollyburn Mountain in the winter. They roamed their territory on foot, on skis and bikes, and by boat, virtually unsupervised.
Alex was about nine when he dove into the crab pond at the mouth of the Capilano River. It was July 24, 1938 and the Canadian Pacific Railway's Pier D was on fire. There was so much smoke in the air from the blaze that it made the pool look deeper than it was, Alex recalls. His mother dressed the gash on top of his head and off went Alex on his next adventure.
For Alex and his friends, a lifetime of "messing about in boats" started early. They built rafts from driftwood and floated on logs that washed up on the beach. Alex and younger brother Dave converted a rowboat to a sailboat, then moved up to a Snipe, which he called the Navvy Jack. He fixed up a Great Lakes Scow that sat on the dock at John Lawson Park all through the Second World War and christened it Gone With the Wind.
Alex's boats live on in photographs, part of a collection of thousands. One picture shows Alex on his sailboard with the cottages that lined Dundarave beach as a backdrop. In another photograph, Alex and Dave are in their woolen bathing suits, knit by their mother, one bearing the initial A, the other a D. In one more, the brothers are squaring off, fists up, one boxing glove between the two of them. Here's Alex on his tricycle, won by his Uncle Ab at the exhibition. Here are the brothers again, in short pants and thick hand-knit knee socks, with Punch and Judy, the family dogs.
After the years when Alex was in the West Vancouver Boys Band under conductor Arthur Delamont, and the years when he led his own band, he went into the insurance business, married and raised a family. Their cabin, the Dog House, on Hollyburn Mountain, is still in the family, the years of skiing and hiking also documented in photographs.
In the background of Alex's pictures is West Vancouver as it was - houses and gardens, stores and farms and orchards, their owners at work and at leisure.
Alex's impressive array of documents and memorabilia are just as telling: the newspaper account of that fire on Pier D, which cost the CPR $750,000; the Vancouver directory listing of those cottages on East Beach; a plan of Ambleside, hand drawn and lettered, listing each property and the businesses that operated on them.
Alex's collection records a community in a time and place that is close to vanishing, yet still within living memory. Such collections are housed in homes all over West Vancouver and the people who created them are still with us, though not for much longer. The importance of preserving the stories and memories of the men and women who endured the Depression, served in the Second World War and who created the community of West Vancouver cannot be overemphasized.
Thanks to Alex Swanson and the people who built the unique corner of the world known as West Vancouver and preserved its memory for future generations.
Laura Anderson works with and for seniors on the North Shore. Contact her at 778-279-2275 or email her at email@example.com.