Valley Powerhouse

Longtime environmental activist Ruth Masters has dedicated her life to preserving nature.

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.”