Dancing with the Dogs

Canine Freestylers set to show off their moves at first-ever Island event, October 19.

Masters’ war years, spent working as a secretary for the Air Force in London, are etched in her memory.

“Never a day goes by that I don’t think about it. London was bombed regularly. All hell would break loose in the sky; there were planes, search lights, cannons, explosions… I remember thinking, if they’re not careful they’ll kill someone, and then realizing, oh yes, that’s what they’re trying to do!”

When she returned from the war in 1945, she was happy to be home—happy to be anywhere, alive, she says. Her war experience has stayed with her, not just as an intense dislike of fireworks, but mainly as an ongoing reminder to live each day fully.

“Many’s the time I’d be listening to those bombs, and thinking, if I get out of here alive, I’m gonna give it all I’ve got. Life is a one-way trip and I’m not going to goof it away,” she says.

Masters’ war memories have been a potent ingredient in one of her most beloved activities— naming lakes and mountains in Strathcona Provincial Park. “I’ve named over 50 features on the Island, at least 10 for the war dead,” she explains. “Imagine how meaningful it can be for the relatives, and they can take their kids in there so they realize that everything we have didn’t come easy.”

The naming of things is part of Masters’ life-long relationship with Vancouver Island. She fell in love with the mountains on a family camping trip to Forbidden Plateau when she was 13. Soon after, she got involved with the Comox District Mountaineering Club where she has been active for decades. When she wasn’t out on blockades saving the lakes, forests and mountains of her beloved bioregion, she’d often be out exploring them—hiking, skiing, canoeing, snowshoeing, trail-building, and guiding others into the backwoods.

A lake in Strathcona Park—“more a puddle,” she says, self-deprecatingly—is named Ruth Masters Lake in her honor.

Her love of nature may have blossomed in the mountains, but its roots are deeply planted in the property on Powerhouse Road. “It all comes from being here,” she says, banging her cane on the ground.

The property has been in the family since 1920, when Masters’ father, a WWI veteran, received 20 acres of “stumps and rocks” as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme for returning soldiers. His goal was to turn it into a family homestead and working farm.

“My father dug out 85 huge first-growth stumps by hand, blasting, burning, tunnelling,” says Masters. The family had a few cows and a flock of chickens, but the soil wasn’t able to support a full-scale farm.

“We were poor—I like to say we were churchmouse poor. In fact, the mice in the church were a lot better off than the ones in our house.

“But you know there’s a benefit to being poor. You learn to make and do and fix. I remember cutting up an old bicycle tire to make new heels for my shoes. We had to walk to school and back each day,” she says.

Life may have been a struggle, but there was still time to connect with nature. Masters remembers her father sitting outside late at night in the middle of winter, after a hard day’s labor, with a telescope and a star map, spotting the constellations. He had an extensive knowledge of natural history and always had the patience to explain the natural world to his children.

Masters’ playground was the property, and the Puntledge River next door. She can’t really remember a time she did not love her home.

On the sunny September day I visit her, Masters is happy to share some of the property’s history as we walk through the forest.

“Over there was the barn,” she says, pointing to an opening covered in ferns and small trees. “And that was where the cows grazed,” she waves her arm in another direction. It looks nothing like a pasture; the forest is well on its way to growing back.

Masters’ goal has been to return the whole property to a natural state. She’s left the gardens and orchards to grow over, removed all traces of the buildings, and over the years has planted hundreds of trees and ferns, all rescued from areas being developed.

“See, there along the roadside, those are yellow cedars that came from when they were developing Mount Washington,” she says.

“And in there,” she gestures into a thicket of young trees and looks at me sideways “there was a house of ill repute. When I was a girl we called it the hoor house. Back then that bit belonged to the neighbors, but later we did some boundary alterations.”

And on she goes. With her words, what I see around me takes on new meaning. Where the trail borders the ridgetop of the precipitous slope down to the river, she shows me the marks left by the logging that took place 90 year ago. “See these dips in the ground, every 15 feet or so. That’s where they’d drag the logs and then send them over the edge down to the river.”

She shows me a special tree, a massive old fir, and insists I stand right next to its deeply-ridged, gnarled trunk, so I can look up at its crown and see the way its branches spread out like spokes on a wheel, way, way up where the sunlight is.

She stops to share her favorite view with me, the river curving away to the horizon below, the forest wrapped around us, the sky opening big above.

“And this is where the trilliums grow in the spring. You must come and see them! There are so many of them, and so big!”

She points out the spot where a hiker fell over the edge, landing way below with a broken pelvis. “Luckily for him there was a fisherman right at the bend there who came to his aid. It was a classic rescue job; they had to bring him up on ropes.”

She’s reading me the history, human and natural, of this piece of earth, this land that holds her past; land whose future she has so dramatically and decisively shaped.

She pauses to catch her breath, one hand on her cane and the other on a tree trunk, and looks straight at me. There’s an earnestness in the set of her eyes that suggests that, this time, she isn’t about to make a joke:

“This here—this land, preserving it—this is truly the height of my career. It’s the only important thing I’ve ever done.”
Oh, skincare
you’re interviewing Ruth Masters? I’ll bet that will be lots of fun. Just don’t expect it to go the way you’ve planned.

“It’s not just that she’s old—80-something—so she might ramble. The main thing is, click
she’s a helluva strong personality. She doesn’t just live on Powerhouse Road, that’s what she is—a powerhouse,” warned a friend of mine cheerfully when I told her what I was working on.

Yeah, yeah, I thought dismissively. My plan seemed failsafe. Masters is an environmentalist, so she’s bound to be a speechifier, I thought. With a few well-placed questions, she’ll launch into a vivid stream of environmental rhetoric. There’ll be the dire warnings, the damning statistics about climate change, habitat loss, pollution, etc., etc., and then, once we are suitably distraught, the call to action, the heartfelt plea to unite to save Mother Earth.

This is going to be so inspiring, I think, as I pull into up to Masters’ modest cottage. With the material she gives me, I’ll have readers dabbing their eyes with unbleached organic cotton handkerchiefs as they pledge to dedicate their lives to the environment.

Soon after, sitting with Masters at her weathered but sturdy picnic table, I realize my friend was right.

Masters is not going to make an inspiring speech, no matter how much I nudge her in that direction. Regardless of how many times (and it’s a lot) she’s been described as a “legend,” an “icon” or a “major figure” of the BC environmental movement; regardless of the fact that she’s twice been named Comox Valley Citizen of the Year, she determinedly avoids the metaphorical soapbox I keep nudging in her direction with my journalist’s questions.

In fact, she’d rather crack jokes.

“If the whole thing sinks or blows, at least I’ll know I’ve tried,” she quips, with a laugh, pithily summing up both the motivations and rewards of her extraordinary career of protesting, blockading, letter-writing, and well-intentioned mischief-making, all in defense of the earth.

And that career is far from over. The powerhouse on Powerhouse Road is still protesting, still making the news, and still a vigorous walker, now with the help of her trusty cane.

“A few months ago I was standing out on the Dyke Road [beside the Comox Estuary], where they want to put a Gas ‘N Go service station, with a sign saying ‘No Gas Here—Go!” she says. “With the knowledge gained in the last 30 years about the care of estuaries, this should be prohibited.” The issue of the Gas ‘N Go is unresolved, and Masters will keep going back until it is.

“I’m a tough old hen of 88, and I’m running for 100,” she says merrily—and convincingly.

An avid hiker her whole life, Masters last “clawed her way” up the Comox Glacier in 1991, when she was 71. Although she cheerfully admits to being too old to make the climb again (it was her sixth ascent), she has no trouble at all escorting me on a 20-minute walk through the forest next door to her house, talking all the while—no rhetoric, but instead facts and anecdotes about the land we are on, land she clearly loves.

This is one of the reasons I’m interviewing her—because of this 18-acre property, now called the Masters Greenway and Wildlife Corridor.

Masters grew up on this property and spent her adult life tending it. In 2005, she gave it to the Comox Valley Regional District to be maintained as public conservation land in perpetuity (she kept two acres for her own home). On September 12 of this year, the Regional District honored Masters’ generosity with the unveiling of a plaque thanking her, and a big interpretive sign with text and photos commemorating her work as an environmentalist and naturalist, at the entrance to the property.

The Greenway adjoins the City of Courtenay Greenway, creating a valuable natural corridor for wildlife. As well, it connects up with a trail that continues on along the river all the way to Puntledge Park.

The property was assessed at around $2 million, says Masters. If she’d subdivided it she could have no doubt made much more. But for Masters, the knowledge that the forest would be left to grow, the animals and plants would be ensured a habitat, and the neighborhood wouldn’t be entirely chopped up and filled with cookie-cutter homes was worth a lot more than a couple of million dollars.

Perhaps this is why Masters has no need to make inspiring speeches—her actions are more inspiring than words could ever be.

And her actions on behalf of nature and all its inhabitants have been many. She’s been at the forefront of nearly every successful environmental action in BC in the last 20 years.

Her first involvement was back in the 1950s. “I was on the fringe when Roderick Haig-Brown saved Buttle Lake from being decimated,” she says.

Masters really got going as an activist when she was 68 years old. “It was in 1988 and there was a six-week blockade to protect Cream Lake in Strathcona Park. It’s the jewel of the park, and apparently it has a very nice seam underneath. A couple of mining companies were ready to destroy it. Well, we got rid of those companies,” she says.

“I made a lot of friends and learned a few strategies that turned out to be useful,” she adds. As usual, she just managed to avoid being arrested, although she had no qualms about getting right out onto the front lines.

“Each time they made a grab to get me I hopped over the fence. When they were shovelling the poor wretches in the paddy wagon, I pulled out my harmonica and starting playing Oh Canada, Glorious and Free. I managed to make quite a sound on my thready little harmonica. But we should have had a trumpet. That would be my advice to the younger generation doing these things—you need a trumpet!”

Since 1988, Masters has been at blockades at Clayoquot Sound, the Tsitika Valley, the Carmanah Valley and the Walbran. But she doesn’t always have to be right in the thick of it. A couple of years ago, when tree sitters were protesting construction of a parking lot at Cathedral Grove, she’d drive down regularly with dinner, which would be pulled up into the treetops by ropes.

Masters has her fingers in more pies than most of us could keep track of—although she seems to keep on top of it all.

“I belong to 23 animal rights organizations, 28 environmental organizations, and 30 to 40 peace, women’s rights, third-world misery and medical organizations,” she says matter-of-factly.

But for Masters, there’s nothing quite so immediately effective as the placement of her diminutive body in between a tree and a chainsaw.

“I remember the fight to save MacDonald Wood in Comox; it was 10 years ago September 1. We came within a hair of losing it. I got a call from Fran Johnson who was organizing things. She said the chainsaws are going in there—get going! Well, that was the second-fastest trip I’ve ever made to Comox—rivalling the time I almost became a midwife!

“I rushed in to stop the chainsaws. I was standing right by this big old fir, and this one logger, he said, ‘Get out of the way lady, it’s coming down.’ Well, I know enough about logging to know that tree wasn’t going to fall on me, so I stood my ground and answered right back, ‘Drop it on me if you dare!’

“The police ushered us out eventually, but the chainsaws stopped,” says Masters. Today MacDonald Wood is a 9-acre park.

Masters can be equally ferocious defending animals.

“Back when they had that insane show in the Driftwood Mall a few years ago—kids could get their picture taken with a tiger in an enclosure there—I went in to stop that,” Masters reminisces. “A big guard grabbed me. As he spun me round I popped him in the gut with my elbow.

“Well, they threw me in the police car and left me there for quite a while.”

While she waited, Masters made good use of her time. “There was a plastic barrier between the back seat and the front, and it was covered with graffiti from the criminals who’d sat back there. So to pass the time I engraved ‘Ruthie was here’ and the date.”

“They let me go later,” she adds. “I’ve never been arrested, you know. I couldn’t —I had to go to work.”

It’s the third time she’s mentioned that. I can’t read her tone of voice—is there pride, or regret? I ask her; she pretends not to hear me, in the way of older people who figure they’ve earned the right not to answer all the pesky questions put their way. I repeat the question and she just laughs and looks away.

Masters displays impressive skill at deflecting questions, offering up instead her irreverent, self-deprecating humour, generally with an underlay of down-to-earth wisdom.

Where do you get your courage? I ask her.

“Oh, I’m not being heroic. I’m just standing up to some of the bullshit out there. When people who are in charge of managing things mess up, we have a duty to rush in and save what we can. I’m just doing my duty.”

Of all the campaigns you’ve been part of, everything you’ve done, what do you think is most important? I ask.

“Let’s see… no, I couldn’t single anything out. It’s all just been a procession of trying to head off disasters of one kind or another,” she says, chuckling.

A question about whether things are getting worse or better leads to a string of gleefully-told jokes. “On the one hand, it seems that the message about global warming is sinking in. But the most powerful man on earth is an idiot… do you know who I’m referring to?” she asks.

I nod.

“I’ve got a whole book of jokes about him. Actually, they’re things he’s really said that are so stupid they’re funny. For instance, ‘The problem is not pollution. The problem is particles in the air and water.’” She laughs and goes to on share a few more favorites from her book.

One question, however, she answers with utter seriousness, even passion—what motivates her to do all this activism?

“I was in the war, you know. I saw 15 to 16 months of steady bombing in London. When I was headed oversees—it was the end of ’43 and we were sailing out of Halifax on the Mauritania; they told us there were 6500 to 8000 of us on board—you’d think they could have counted us a bit more precisely.

“I remember standing up on the top deck and looking out as Canada got smaller and smaller, and thinking to myself, ‘No one tells me not to look after Canada!’ Well, that’s how I’ve felt all these years.”

Masters’ war years, spent working as a secretary for the Air Force in London, are etched in her memory.

“Never a day goes by that I don’t think about it. London was bombed regularly. All hell would break loose in the sky; there were planes, search lights, cannons, explosions… I remember thinking, if they’re not careful they’ll kill someone, and then realizing, oh yes, that’s what they’re trying to do!”

When she returned from the war in 1945, she was happy to be home—happy to be anywhere, alive, she says. Her war experience has stayed with her, not just as an intense dislike of fireworks, but mainly as an ongoing reminder to live each day fully.

“Many’s the time I’d be listening to those bombs, and thinking, if I get out of here alive, I’m gonna give it all I’ve got. Life is a one-way trip and I’m not going to goof it away,” she says.

Masters’ war memories have been a potent ingredient in one of her most beloved activities— naming lakes and mountains in Strathcona Provincial Park. “I’ve named over 50 features on the Island, at least 10 for the war dead,” she explains. “Imagine how meaningful it can be for the relatives, and they can take their kids in there so they realize that everything we have didn’t come easy.”

The naming of things is part of Masters’ life-long relationship with Vancouver Island. She fell in love with the mountains on a family camping trip to Forbidden Plateau when she was 13. Soon after, she got involved with the Comox District Mountaineering Club where she has been active for decades. When she wasn’t out on blockades saving the lakes, forests and mountains of her beloved bioregion, she’d often be out exploring them—hiking, skiing, canoeing, snowshoeing, trail-building, and guiding others into the backwoods.

A lake in Strathcona Park—“more a puddle,” she says, self-deprecatingly—is named Ruth Masters Lake in her honor.

Her love of nature may have blossomed in the mountains, but its roots are deeply planted in the property on Powerhouse Road. “It all comes from being here,” she says, banging her cane on the ground.

The property has been in the family since 1920, when Masters’ father, a WWI veteran, received 20 acres of “stumps and rocks” as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme for returning soldiers. His goal was to turn it into a family homestead and working farm.

“My father dug out 85 huge first-growth stumps by hand, blasting, burning, tunnelling,” says Masters. The family had a few cows and a flock of chickens, but the soil wasn’t able to support a full-scale farm.

“We were poor—I like to say we were churchmouse poor. In fact, the mice in the church were a lot better off than the ones in our house.

“But you know there’s a benefit to being poor. You learn to make and do and fix. I remember cutting up an old bicycle tire to make new heels for my shoes. We had to walk to school and back each day,” she says.

Life may have been a struggle, but there was still time to connect with nature. Masters remembers her father sitting outside late at night in the middle of winter, after a hard day’s labor, with a telescope and a star map, spotting the constellations. He had an extensive knowledge of natural history and always had the patience to explain the natural world to his children.

Masters’ playground was the property, and the Puntledge River next door. She can’t really remember a time she did not love her home.

On the sunny September day I visit her, Masters is happy to share some of the property’s history as we walk through the forest.

“Over there was the barn,” she says, pointing to an opening covered in ferns and small trees. “And that was where the cows grazed,” she waves her arm in another direction. It looks nothing like a pasture; the forest is well on its way to growing back.

Masters’ goal has been to return the whole property to a natural state. She’s left the gardens and orchards to grow over, removed all traces of the buildings, and over the years has planted hundreds of trees and ferns, all rescued from areas being developed.

“See, there along the roadside, those are yellow cedars that came from when they were developing Mount Washington,” she says.

“And in there,” she gestures into a thicket of young trees and looks at me sideways “there was a house of ill repute. When I was a girl we called it the hoor house. Back then that bit belonged to the neighbors, but later we did some boundary alterations.”

And on she goes. With her words, what I see around me takes on new meaning. Where the trail borders the ridgetop of the precipitous slope down to the river, she shows me the marks left by the logging that took place 90 year ago. “See these dips in the ground, every 15 feet or so. That’s where they’d drag the logs and then send them over the edge down to the river.”

She shows me a special tree, a massive old fir, and insists I stand right next to its deeply-ridged, gnarled trunk, so I can look up at its crown and see the way its branches spread out like spokes on a wheel, way, way up where the sunlight is.

She stops to share her favorite view with me, the river curving away to the horizon below, the forest wrapped around us, the sky opening big above.

“And this is where the trilliums grow in the spring. You must come and see them! There are so many of them, and so big!”

She points out the spot where a hiker fell over the edge, landing way below with a broken pelvis. “Luckily for him there was a fisherman right at the bend there who came to his aid. It was a classic rescue job; they had to bring him up on ropes.”

She’s reading me the history, human and natural, of this piece of earth, this land that holds her past; land whose future she has so dramatically and decisively shaped.

She pauses to catch her breath, one hand on her cane and the other on a tree trunk, and looks straight at me. There’s an earnestness in the set of her eyes that suggests that, this time, she isn’t about to make a joke:

“This here—this land, preserving it—this is truly the height of my career. It’s the only important thing I’ve ever done.”
Oh, cheap you’re interviewing Ruth Masters? I’ll bet that will be lots of fun. Just don’t expect it to go the way you’ve planned.

“It’s not just that she’s old—80-something—so she might ramble. The main thing is, she’s a helluva strong personality. She doesn’t just live on Powerhouse Road, that’s what she is—a powerhouse,” warned a friend of mine cheerfully when I told her what I was working on.

“This here—this land, preserving it—this is truly the height of my career,” says Ruth Masters of the 18-acre Masters Greenway and Wildlife Corridor.

“This here—this land, preserving it—this is truly the height of my career,” says Ruth Masters of the 18-acre Masters Greenway and Wildlife Corridor.

Yeah, yeah, I thought dismissively. My plan seemed failsafe. Masters is an environmentalist, so she’s bound to be a speechifier, I thought. With a few well-placed questions, she’ll launch into a vivid stream of environmental rhetoric. There’ll be the dire warnings, the damning statistics about climate change, habitat loss, pollution, etc., etc., and then, once we are suitably distraught, the call to action, the heartfelt plea to unite to save Mother Earth.

This is going to be so inspiring, I think, as I pull into up to Masters’ modest cottage. With the material she gives me, I’ll have readers dabbing their eyes with unbleached organic cotton handkerchiefs as they pledge to dedicate their lives to the environment.

Soon after, sitting with Masters at her weathered but sturdy picnic table, I realize my friend was right.

Masters is not going to make an inspiring speech, no matter how much I nudge her in that direction. Regardless of how many times (and it’s a lot) she’s been described as a “legend,” an “icon” or a “major figure” of the BC environmental movement; regardless of the fact that she’s twice been named Comox Valley Citizen of the Year, she determinedly avoids the metaphorical soapbox I keep nudging in her direction with my journalist’s questions.

In fact, she’d rather crack jokes.

“If the whole thing sinks or blows, at least I’ll know I’ve tried,” she quips, with a laugh, pithily summing up both the motivations and rewards of her extraordinary career of protesting, blockading, letter-writing, and well-intentioned mischief-making, all in defense of the earth.

And that career is far from over. The powerhouse on Powerhouse Road is still protesting, still making the news, and still a vigorous walker, now with the help of her trusty cane.

“A few months ago I was standing out on the Dyke Road [beside the Comox Estuary], where they want to put a Gas ‘N Go service station, with a sign saying ‘No Gas Here—Go!” she says. “With the knowledge gained in the last 30 years about the care of estuaries, this should be prohibited.” The issue of the Gas ‘N Go is unresolved, and Masters will keep going back until it is.

“I’m a tough old hen of 88, and I’m running for 100,” she says merrily—and convincingly.

An avid hiker her whole life, Masters last “clawed her way” up the Comox Glacier in 1991, when she was 71. Although she cheerfully admits to being too old to make the climb again (it was her sixth ascent), she has no trouble at all escorting me on a 20-minute walk through the forest next door to her house, talking all the while—no rhetoric, but instead facts and anecdotes about the land we are on, land she clearly loves.

This is one of the reasons I’m interviewing her—because of this 18-acre property, now called the Masters Greenway and Wildlife Corridor.