Cougar Annie’s Garden

Cougar Annie’s Garden


In 1915, at age 26, Ada Annie Rae-Arthur settled with her first husband at the head of Hesquiat Harbour, near Estevan Point north of Tofino. Cougars prowled nearby and she shot dozens of them. She became known along the coast as ‘Cougar Annie’. She bore eight children at her Boat Basin retreat, plus three others. She outlived four husbands, one of whom she is rumoured to have murdered. She eked out a living on five acres by trapping, running a post office and store, operating a mail order plant and bulb business and by keeping a remarkable garden. “She was a wily, feisty, tiny pioneer,” says Margaret Horsfield, author of 280-page Cougar Annie’s Garden. “She was a conniving, charming, brave and impossible woman. A real wheeler-dealer. Her extraodinary garden was the love of her life for more than 60 years.”

Cougar Annie stayed in her remote garden until her mid-90s and died in 1985. Her overgrown garden was resurrected as an unofficial 117-acre heritage site. The owner of Cougar Annie’s wilderness, Peter Buckland, transferred the property to a non-profit society, the Boat Basin Foundation, for a research facility. Horsfield’s coffee table book and biography called Cougar Annie’s Garden, won the Roderick Haig-Brown Prize in 2000.

According to Horsfield, Rae-Arthur would never have moved to her remote homestead in 1915 if her ne’er-do-well first husband Willie hadn’t first become addicted to opium. Cougar Annie blamed their Chinese servants for introducing him to Vancouver’s opium dens. To continue receiving Willie’s remittances from Scotland, Annie removed Willie from the fleshpots of the city to the edge of the western world—and she refused to leave. The garden became her passion and cougars approached at their peril. Cougar Annie’s five-acre bush garden became the real-life counterpart to Northrop Frye’s famous theorizing about the nature of Canadian society—-an unending struggle to create civilization from wilderness.

“She was an extraordinary person,” said Horsfield. “Very powerful, very small, very wily. She cleared her land at Hesquiat Harbour more or less singlehandedly, despite four husbands who were not as good at working as she was.” Cougar Annie finally died in 1985 at age 97. Two years later Peter Buckland took up permanent residence at her Boat Basin property. “I said it was hopeless,” Horsfield recalled, “The garden was overgrown and Cougar Annie’s story was going to die. And I was wrong. Peter laboured for nearly 12 years, day in and day out, developing the art of what he calls chainsaw gardening.” Gradually Buckland pushed back the rainforest. He didn’t plant anything new; Cougar Annie’s garden slowly resurrected itself, given light and air. Two kilometres of interconnected trails now meander hypnotically around the garden. The trails are soft underfoot, carpeted with lush moss, and not at all as Cougar Annie would have made them. It’s the only pioneer homestead that has endured in the region.

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