MEMORY LANE: Local Voices series looks to local waters for stories

Ahoy, matey!

Stories from three seafarers are on the horizon with On the Water, the next presentation in the Local Voices series at West Vancouver Memorial Library, scheduled for June 5.

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Writer and singer Pauline Le Bel voyages around her home, Bowen Island, and up into Howe Sound, writing songs and telling stories to advocate for the protection of these waters which she loves and is working to restore.

The other two voyages come earlier in West Vancouver’s timeline, one setting sail from Ambleside Beach in 1993 and the other from Fisherman’s Cove in 1978. 

“Four of us built sabots that year,” recalls Norah Corbet. “We started in the basement at Hollyburn Sailing Club. I ended up varnishing mine in my son’s vacated bedroom, surrounded by his Metallica posters.”

It was daunting at the outset, Norah admits: “until I figured out that building a boat was like making a cake, or a dress. You begin with a recipe or a pattern, in this case a jig, and off you go.” 

Fifteen years earlier, out west at Fisherman’s Cove, Geordie Tocher launched the dugout canoe he built, bound for Hawaii.  His daughter, Cathy Tocher, and her cousin, Bob Aylesworth, will be telling the story of Geordie’s epic voyage.

Geordie was 20 years old in 1947 when Thor Heyerdahl sailed the raft Kon-Tiki across the Pacific to Polynesia. The story of the expedition stayed with him and over the years, he applied Heyerdahl’s theories to the culture and travels of Indigenous people of the northern Pacific coast and of Hawaii.

Geordie grew up in West Vancouver and raised his family here. He is remembered as a woodsman and logger, as a family man and a good friend. Mostly, his friends and family remember him as a storyteller and an adventurer with a presence so charismatic, “you wanted to go along with him,” says his daughter, Cathy.

“You had to know Geordie. He was one of a kind,” says his friend Barry Rhodes. “When he set his mind to something, he did it. Like building the Orenda twice.”

When Geordie found a massive red cedar in the forest behind the Squamish Chief, his dream began to take shape, in the form of a dugout canoe he would name Orenda, an Iroquois word meaning “at harmony with the world around you.”

Two years later, in 1971, after removing “everything that didn’t look like a canoe,” Tocher and crewman David Moon, retired Royal Navy officer and owner of The Bookstall in Ambleside, set a course for Hawaii.

Wind and waves wrecked the Orenda on the coast of California, dashing Geordie’s hopes but not destroying them.  

Orenda II was carved from a Douglas fir that had fallen a decade earlier. For another two years, at the Panorama Studios lot on Cypress Mountain, Geordie carved the canoe. She weighed three tons and measured 40 feet long with a six foot beam, wider than the original canoe and almost twice as heavy.

In 1978, Orenda II was trucked down to Fisherman’s Cove where she was lashed together with another dugout canoe, as a secondary hull. One more time, Geordie set sail for Hawaii.

With him on the voyage were Richard Tomkies, who helmed the vessel at night, and Gerhard Kiessel, the navigator who plotted a practically perfect course to Hawaii.

The Orenda II rests on the Sunshine Coast today, on her slow journey of return to Mother Earth.

A plaque at Dundarave Pier commemorates her voyage. Norah Corbet’s sabot reposes in her tool shed. Pauline Le Bel’s passion for Howe Sound is expressed through the ephemera of song and in the pages of her book, A Whale in the Door. 

Their stories are the heartbeat of Local Voices, our community’s conversation series.

“We borrowed the concept from our colleagues at Maple Ridge, and adapted it for West Vancouver,” says the library’s community experience co-ordinator, Lynn Brockington, about this partnership with West Vancouver Historical Society.

“On the Water is the third in the series. Going by the response to the previous events, Creating a Garden and Wild West Van, Local Voices is a great way to showcase the multitude of interests and experiences West Vancouver offers, and explore how peoples’ passions connect them to their community.”

Local Voices: On the Water it taking place Wednesday, June 5 at 7 p.m. at West Vancouver Memorial Library. Call 604-925-7403 for information.

Laura Anderson works with and for seniors on the North Shore. Contact her by phone at 778-279-2275 or email her at lander1@shaw.ca.

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