Saturday, July 18, 2009

Elton Alexander Anderson, 1907-1975

Elton Anderson was the grandson of Alexander Caulfield Anderson and, more than any other family member, resembled his grandfather. Like A.C., Elton was an explorer, a naturalist, and a historian -- and had he lived long enough, he would have written his grandfather's story.

Elton was born in Saanich on August 10, 1907, the second child and the first boy of Arthur Beattie Anderson, youngest son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Elton's mother, Emily May (Emmy), was the daughter of Reverend Granville Christmas of Duncan, and grand-daughter of Reverend Henry George Tierney Elton, youngest son of Rev. Sir Abraham Elton, 5th Baronet, Clevedon Court, Somerset.

Elton's father, Arthur, had spent his youth logging and mining in the Kootenays, and was 41 years old by the time he returned to the coast to marry Emmy in 1905. Presumably Arthur logged in Saanich during the early years of his marriage, but about 1918 he saw an opportunity for raising sheep on Valdez Island and bought 54 acres of land there. The two boys -- Elton was in Grade 6 or 7 and Harry in Grade 5 -- were pulled out of school to be their father's logging crew on Valdez.

Logging was hard work and the boys had no heavy equipment to help them. Because of the high amount of pitch in the local trees which made a cross-cut saw hard to handle, they had to cut the tree high up, and Arthur made a springboard from old lumber he found on the beach. Their inventive father also made a little cart on which to put the logs to roll them down the steep slope to the water; he made brakes for the cart out of pieces of old cross-cut saws and wire, and to prevent the cart-wheels from jumping the track in its rush down the bank, he cut grooves in the tires. The two teenage boys handled the big job of falling the wind-hardened trees and booming them up in the bay on the fringe of Porlier Pass, which was a tidal nightmare.

When the boys did not make enough money logging, they rowed across Porlier Pass to the Japanese fishery on Galiano Island, where the herring-fishermen threw the boys the useless dogfish they had caught. Dogfish oil was worth forty cents a gallon in the local sawmills, but it took a lot of livers to make a gallon, Harry said, and it was a wet, cold, and smelly job. The dogfish carcases they sold at Nanimo for fertilizer, but of course to make the sale they had to row the carcases all the way to Nanaimo. One day they earned $2.00, and that was a red-letter-day for the boys.

When the logging and farming failed to support the family and the taxman took the property, Arthur abandoned Valdez and returned to Duncan. Elton and Harry logged in the Duncan and Cowichan area for almost eighteen years, and any money the boys earned was supposed to go to support the family, especially as Arthur was now too sick to work. Elton was the responsible older boy who handed all his money to his mother, but the rebellious Harry refused to give up everything and enjoyed a little time in the local beer parlour.

When World War II came, Elton tried to sign up with the Air Force, but the recruiter told him he needed to prove he had a high-school education. Elton had attended school in Saanich; he wrote to the principal of the Saanich school and explained his predicament to him. The principal, who had not known Elton, based his response on the intelligence of the letter. He told the recruiting officers that the school records had been destroyed by fire, but that he remembered Elton, and that Elton had graduated with honors from his school.

Elton was more than 30 years old when he joined the Air Force. He was sent to train on Cocos Island, an Indian Ocean island that belonged to Australia. Elton was called Andy Anderson by his all-Canadian crew members, who also called him 'Pop' because he was so much older than them. They flew an American bomber called a Liberator, and Elton trained as a waist-gunner. But when his training was finished, Elton was seconded by the RAF and spent most of the war flying over Burma as a tail-gunner in an all-British crew -- probably flying in a Lancaster. Tail-gunners were a very important part of the crew; they are the men who shoot down the enemy planes attempting to sneak up from the rear of the bomber where no other crew-member had a good view. Air Force veterans tell me that tail-gunners have a very good chance of not surviving their flights -- a 50% chance of not returning on every flight.

On his return to Canada, Elton told his sister, Peggy, a few war stories. On one occasion one of the men in the barracks fell ill, but the Royal Air Force had no patience for wimps and marched him until he died. It disgusted Elton that the Force had not taken the time to discover whether the man was actually sick or not. He also told Peggy of another occasion over the Indian Ocean, when one of the planes in their convoy was shelled. The plane went down, but the members of the crew had ditched and were alive in the water. Their plane was low on fuel and could not pick them up, but when they refueled and returned they couldn't find the men. That failure haunted Elton, and he would never talk to us about his war-time experiences.

By the time Elton had returned from the war, Peggy and her husband had bought a farm on Cortes Island, in the Discovery Islands east of Campbell River. Elton joined them to set up a small logging operation on the land they owned. The owner hadn't sold the logging rights, and when Elton cruised the timber on the property, he paid the old owners what he thought the timber was worth. When he later discovered that there was much more timber on the property than he had first thought, he wrote a cheque to the old owners and sent it off to them.

For the first few years, Elton and my father, who worked for him, logged with draft-horses. Within a few years new logging equipment began to appear on the market, and Elton bought a Caterpillar D9. This caterpillar enjoyed many adventures on the island and built some of the roads that connected the Cortes Island communities.

From early days Elton was a selective logger, protecting special places from damage and respecting the forest. He refused to log a beautiful strip of woods we called Mossy Swamp, and it was not until he sold his business that this magical place was logged. On Elton's tree farm one could hardly tell that active logging was going on. The roads were muddy and slick, perhaps, but it was not until you got to the booming ground that you understood that logs were being removed from the forest around the farm.

My mother remembered Elton coming home from a hard day of work, gently holding a wild flower in his hand. Before he had even changed out of his clothes, he would sit down and look through his plant books until he could identify the flower. Elton never knew the name of domestic flowers and called them all "galacticas," but he quickly learned the names of all the wildflowers that grew on Cortes Island.

Elton spent his off-island days attending the Truck Loggers' Convention, and the Vancouver Natural History camps. He took us on many camping trips around British Columbia, and I later came to understand that we were exploring his grandfather's trails around the fur-traders' New Caledonia. In one camping trip, Elton took us to Bella Coola, near which his grandfather had been posted in 1833. We ate lunch in a restaurant, and though we were the only people in the place, the proprietor came over to tell Elton that we were sitting in the 'Indian' side of the bar. Elton was the grandson of a Scottish fur-trader and his Metis wife and knew he carried Indian blood; he shrugged off the proprietor's warning and didn't move.

Our cousin, Doug, remembers Elton as a rough man who gruffly warned him to not find his way to the logging site because of the danger of falling trees. Doug, being a rebellious child, found this warning a challenge and turned up at the logging site only a few hours later. When Elton spotted him hiding amongst the trees, he took his nephew up on the Caterpillar and carried him around with him all day. Doug was not a child used to kindness, and remembers it to this day.

My mother and father sold the farm and left Cortes Island in 1963. Elton retired soon after and sold his company. He then began travelling extensively around the province, always carrying with him a copy of Lyon's "Trees, Shrubs and Flowers of British Columbia," and Peterson's "Field Guide to Western Birds." Elton owned a camper which he drove everywhere, and called it his 'tin tent.' His journals detail his passion to get off the main roads, and on one occasion he laughed when the road he took circled a mountain and brought him back to where he had begun. His letters were written on paper left over from the VNHS newsletters, and every inch of the page was jammed with typewritten words. Every letter had a carbon copy which he sent to someone else, and Elton expected his letters to be read and then returned to him on his next visit -- they contained much information that had not made it into his journals.

I was delighted to find in one of his 1972 letters that he had visited Harley Hatfield (Coquihalla brigade trail explorer and writer) in the Okanagan. A few days later, Elton was exploring the backroads immediately north of Kamloops Lake -- Criss Creek, Red Lake, Carabine Creek and Copper Creek -- where he had been told the brigade trail between Kamloops and Fort Alexandria ran. He was right; that is where the brigade trail did run, but Elton could not locate any of the locals who could show him exactly where it was.

In the 1970's, Elton became involved with the British Columbia Nature Council, a small group that included some eight natural history societies. Elton fought to have the trees removed behind the Mica Dam prior to flooding; he worked for the removal of no-deposit/no-return bottles (you take your bottles back to the grocery and liquor stores because of him); and he led the fight that saved the Skagit Valley from flooding (Elton Lake in the Skagit Valley was named for him). Elton advised the then British Columbia Nature Council that, to be an effective force within the province, they had to work towards uniting all the natural history clubs in all parts of the province. Moreover, Elton said, they needed to have a newsletter that would connect them. Elton took on the job of uniting the various natural history clubs under the umbrella of the Federation of B.C. Naturalists, and it was said that wherever Elton travelled in the province, a new natural history club sprang up. Soon the Federation of B.C. Naturalists had 33 member clubs, and its growth was almost entirely due to Elton's work, particularly his writing of the Federation's newsletter.

In 1974 Elton won the Ted Barsby Trophy as B.C. Conservationist of the Year. By that time he was already sick with the disease that killed him. He and his brother, Harry, and sister, Peggy, visited (anonymous place), where he discovered a clump of extremely rare Phantom Lilies. To protect the location of this rare flower he kept the hiding place secret, and allowed his sister-in-law (Harry's wife) to take credit for finding the flower. A day or two later he fell ill and went to hospital. He died on July 9, 1975.

The Federation of B.C. Naturalists created the Elton Anderson Award and, every year, gives it to a prominent conservationist. It's a beautiful trophy, a carving of a wolverine -- but no one now knows who Elton Anderson was. As the Federation is now putting together its own history for publication, my sister and I have been asked to write Elton's story for the book. It's been an emotional journey, because we miss him all over again, especially as we also recently lost our mother, his sister. We took a trip through the interior and saw for the first time the damage that the pine beetle has done, and wondered, what would Elton have done? Would he have jumped on the issue and fought for action as soon as the province lost control of the pine beetle? Could he have addressed the problem in its early stages and prevented what is happening now? We don't know, but we know he would have tried.

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