Saturday, April 27, 2024

The Boat That Wouldn't Float, and How It Finally Did

My chapter about the Honeymoon Cottage mentions a boat named the Hera that sat at the bottom of Nelson's Bay, the one that Don and Patty Cameron fully restored. I had a conversation with Patty the other day while we looked at a series of photos depicting the transformation of the Hera into the NE Dunkin. Here is her story—with the photos—of a little boat that starts at the bottom of the ocean and ends up in Japan.

The Hera is on the left above, moored at Nelson's dock. The top photo was taken about 1977, Brian Burkholder of the Kolberg tells me. The Hera previously belonged to Paul Tennant of Bamfield in the late 60's, early 70's. It is unclear how it came into Nelson's possession. If you look closely at the bottom photo, near the stern of the boat is a post with what looks like a propeller attached. Someone once told me that Nelson had set up a windmill to operate a pump that was supposed to take the water out of the bilge. Ingenious, but at some point the pump proved to be insufficient, and the Hera sank to the bottom.

"When we came on the scene," Patty explained, "I remember that Don and Nelson tied a couple of logs on each side of the sunken boat. Every time the tide came in, they pulled the boat a little closer to the shore. And when the tide went out, they tightened the lines. They kept pulling the boat in until they were able to bail it out." Here the Hera rests on the beach in front of Nelson's house. You can see the windmill more clearly, with the large fin to keep it pointed into the wind. But the top of the cabin has been removed. "It may have been so damaged or rotten, and Don was going to rebuild that anyway."

Don patched the leaks below the waterline wherever he could, then re-floated the Hera and moored it to the dock. Most of the water that sank the boat was in the form of rain, so Don and Nelson securely covered the Hera with plastic. "Don just kept checking it and watching that the boat wouldn't sink again before we had the chance to tow it away."

Patty continued, "We towed the Hera with our troller, the Lucky Friday, to Tofino. We called up Gibson's Contracting, and they said they could move the boat with their crane. But there was no guarantee that the hull would remain whole. They asked if we had any concerns about the possibility of it getting crushed. And we said, No, go ahead, whatever happens, happens. We just needed them to take it out. Everything went fine. It’s quite steep getting up from the 4th Street dock, but they drove it all the way up and then over to the Whale Museum."

"The old whale museum was a maritime museum at the time. Huey Clark's brother Art was the Wharf Manager. He was looking after that building, and he told us that he could rent it to us for $100 a month. And we said, Oh yeah, that would be great. And then we could rebuild the boat there. Back then, you didn't need permits or anything. You just did what you needed to do.  We moved ourselves from our troller to the museum, and they set up the Hera in the yard. Don braced it up and built a shed over top. It took about five years to rebuild that boat because Don had to work in between. He did shake block-cutting and different jobs."

"Don built a steam box right away," Patty told me. "We had lots of wood that we towed up from Copper Island. We had gone salvaging with the troller whenever we saw a good log that we could use to rebuild the boat. And we had the Alaska sawmill at Nelson's and we cut big slabs by hand. But then there were other logs that we towed behind us to get milled up in Tofino so we could use them for the rebuild. We didn't really have to buy much of anything. These yellow cedar ribs—I helped Don with those. He cut all those ribs and then put them in the steam box for a certain time. I'd be inside the hull and he'd be on the outside and hand me the soft rib right out of the steam box. They were pretty hot. Then I would clamp it in place and he would pound the nails in. Don ended up widening the boat where the hold was going to be before he put those stringers across. He wanted to be able to hold a lot of fish. The boat ended up holding 10,000 pounds of ice and fish. At the same time, we started having kids, the first, the second. And by the time we launched the boat, I was expecting the third one. Don cut the leftover decking into blocks for our kids' toybox, and now our grandkids play with the same old growth fir blocks that we salvaged for the rebuild. So I tell them the story, and the memories live on…”

Just to show you the work involved in deciphering some of Nelson's letters... This one was found at the bottom of a cookie tin that had taken a swim when Pat Rafuse's car went off the road and into the river. If you can make it out, the letter mentions a Boy's Club that Don and Patty began. Patty told me how it started: "When Don was working on the boat, these young boys used to walk by. They were in elementary school and they always wanted something to do, but their parents were out working or something. They saw Don working on the boat and were curious about it. They'd always ask him if they could help. So Don said, Well, how about if we start a boys club for every Friday night? And they were so excited about it. They did all kinds of fun boy stuff. And we took them to Copper Island to meet Nelson, and they enjoyed discovering the island and going on the trails and Pebble Beach. The moms were thrilled about it and gave us meals to take along. And sometimes the boys would stay overnight at our place. 

"The club really meant something to those boys. About 10 years ago, we bumped into one of the fellows, and he had never forgotten the boys club. One of the other guys kept in touch with us all the time, and he grew up and had his own family, but he always wanted to keep in touch because it really meant a lot to him. And you don't realize how much something like that means to somebody's life. You're just living your own life, but you're including them in it, in the fun things. The boys were pretty wild, but we had great times with them. And it was all because of the rebuild of the Nelson E Duncan."

Here is the rebuilt boat nearing completion. "Don took the tarp down and was ready to get it moved. He did so much of the work by hand. He didn't even have a power tool until he started building the cabin. I was the one who saved up some family allowance, and I remember finding a Makita drill for $35 at the Tofino Co-op. And I saved hard for that $35. I went and got it for him because I thought, he needs to have some power tools. He was doing it all by hand, like drilling down into the keel—at one point, the drill bit wasn't long enough, so he got someone to weld an extension to it. Don learned a lot from Nelson about hand tools and how to keep things straight, like when you're drilling. Nelson had hand tools for everything. I know that Don knew some things on his own, but he was really intrigued by how Nelson did things. Don loved what was done by hand, so the boat was largely handcrafted."

"Then the day came that we were going to launch the boat. That was in May 1986, and Don started fishing in July. I was expecting Caleb, but in the photos, I was hanging on to Amy's hand, who was almost three. David was with Don, and the family dog is there too."

The trip from the whale museum on Third Street to the Fourth Street dock was not far, but steep at the end. A number of people came to watch. Patty recognizes Bernd Schmeuker, a fisherman who fished with them, and Bob Winters—Bob and Edna are well-known in Tofino, a logging family. "They were curious about watching it go down into the water. And it was a windy day." At first, the boat floated like a cork. "It was really corky, like, moving around quite a bit. It had to soak in the water for a while before it settled down. And the wind was really taking it. I'm not really sure who's in the Zodiac. The boat was pulled to the dock and then tied up. They had to put different weights in the right spots to balance it out."

The first year, Don fished with his brother Garth. Don found that the poles were pretty long, and he ended up shortening them.

Don took the boat to Copper Island to show Nelson the finished product, which he named the Nelson E Dunkin. The next time he painted the boat, Don shortened the name to the NE Dunkin. Patty told me, "The boat was operating really well. Don got it really fine-tuned, and Nelson was pretty proud of it. It looked so different from the boat that once sat at the bottom of his bay."

The Cameron family aboard. Patty said it was a tight fit with four kids. "You don't think that you're on something that small because you get used to your area. And all the other boats around you are the same. And you realize when you get off the boat how small it is, tied up at the dock. But we spent a whole season fishing like that together and were off the West Coast of the Island for a bit. One season, we also fished off the Queen Charlottes. Don and I slept on the floor in the very centre of the cabin on a foamy that we had stuffed in the bow, and we'd lay it down there. It was only two feet wide. We had two kids in each bunk down below. Sometimes at night, the youngest one—you can just see his head poking out of the doorway there—he would climb up and squeeze in between us on our two feet of floor. So I'd have to take him back in the night down into the bow because it was a little too squishy and we had to fish all day. We put up with a lot, but it was just life. And we did it every day."

"We let the boys, David, Caleb and Ryan, drift out to fish and explore in their little skiff as we were tacking back and forth. Don is in the stern of the boat. We're just letting them loose, and they always had fun. We weren't moving very fast and the kids loved exploring and we would pick them up on the way back. Give them a bit of adventure. Kind of a big playground for them. We did that quite often, and when they got old enough, they had their own little zodiac."

"We sold the boat to Mark Shaw of Ucluelet. And we bought another boat and renamed it the Prairie Rose III. We were travelling up to the Charlottes, and Mark had asked Don's brother Garth to skipper the NE Dunkin. It was running behind us as we were approaching Rose Spit. I noticed the NE Dunkin come out of the water and then plunge down. We weren't doing that because our new boat wasn't a double ender and it was a bit longer, so we were riding a little bit differently. I got a picture of it as high up as it would come, and then I snapped another one of it plunging down. Like you do for hours, you know, up and down for hours."

Mark eventually sold the NE Dunkin to a fellow who was looking for a boat to display at Universal Studios in Japan. Patty said, "I remember watching the boat leave. We were returning to Ucluelet one time, and we saw a boat mover with the NE Dunkin on the back and it was just leaving. They were going to put it on a freighter. It's interesting if it was one of the Japanese boats and it ended up back in Japan." When Patty first saw this photo, she wasn't sure if it was the right boat, as there had been a number of changes. But its location and the many details that are identical make it pretty certain that this is the NE Dunkin, repainted and renamed the Farallon out of Pacifica, California.

"It is an amazing story, when you think of it," Patty concluded.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

New Old Photos

After I published Nelson's biography, The Island and i, people continued to send me photos and other memorabilia that I would likely have included in the book. Here are a few of the more interesting photos I received (click to enlarge):

Many visitors took photos of Nelson's iconic first house on Copper Island. This is how a photo-of-a-photo was sent to me. The perspective is easily corrected, but I found it intriguing.

Two more shots of the original house. Notice that in this photo, the uprights that form the breakwater extend below the walkway (partially constructed by me at the age of 19).

A new old photo of "Ye Hermitage," the tiny cabin—once a floating outhouse—where Nelson would escape if his visitors were too much for him. Equipped with a narrow bed and a coffee tin stove, Nelson's Hermitage was all he needed in a pinch.

Nelson's main activity in Ye Hermitage was writing letters. Here is an envelope that was apparently carried by the Greek god Hermes—or some friend of Nelson's whose beautiful feet brought good news.

Two newly acquired photos of Nelson, one on a pre-haircut day, and the other with Snuggles as a puppy. I realized as I was researching Nelson's story that when I first met him, he was only four years older than I am now. But he always seemed quite old in appearance to me, while being young and energetic by nature.

Finally, appropriate to this Easter season, a candlestick that Nelson carved in the form of a celtic cross. The cross has the words, "Jesus—Saviour—King—Lord" and the base reads, "God so loved the world." As Nelson might say on Easter Sunday morning, "He is risen indeed!"

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Corrections and Tiny Metal Art

People have very kindly told me how much they have enjoyed The Island and i. There have been repeated phrases like, "I couldn't put it down" and "I learned so much about Nelson." One person said, "You have written it so well; it's like a movie to me!"

But you have also been quick to point out errors. Thankfully, these have not been typos and grammar, but much more interesting: that is, points of Nelson's story that I simply got wrong. I have updated the book files, so any new copies will have these corrections. For those of you who are stuck with the original, here are the corrections in all their glory:

1. I love the photo on the back cover, taken by Heather Arnott. Any visitor remembers Nelson greeting them on his tiny float—often accompanied by huge Nook or wee Snuggles—and catching the line thrown to him, making it fast. The photo reappears at the end of Chapter 13. But the caption there says that he is receiving the line from the Lady Rose, while Brian Burkholder assures me that it is the line from his fishboat, the Kolberg.

2. Joan's affectionate description of Mina in Chapter 23 unintentionally caused a bit of a stir in her home island, the Isle of Lewis off the northwest coast of Scotland. Margaret, who lives there, tells me that "fishmonger woman" is not a friendly term in Mina's homeland. "Ouch, that is certainly not a suitable description of Mina and is, in Scotland at least, a derogatory term and one of the worse insults which can be hurled at a woman. Fishwife: a coarse-mannered woman who is prone to shouting or screeching, in an unpleasant way. I am putting it down to cultural differences, but thought I should let you know." The reference is removed.

3. Margaret also let me know that the newly-reunited Nelson and Mina did not stay with an "Aunt Isabella" in Vancouver after the war, but with Aunt Marion and Uncle Calum McIver, whose daughter was named Isabelle. This cousin of Mina's was the one with whom Margaret went to visit Nelson and Mina on Copper Island in the summer of 1975.

4. In Chapter 46, there is a grainy photo of Nelson in the hospital holding an unidentified baby. Pat Rafuse tells me that this is her daughter, Anna.

5. As noted in a previous post, the glass trading beads I found on Pebble Beach were cobalt blue, not "blue-green" as described in Chapter 8. All the beads that I found were that colour, which was highly valued in First Nations culture.

6. At the end of Chapter 29 is a picture of a plaque carved by Nelson with a quote from Micah 6:8 – "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God." Brian Burkholder brought this carving to his interview. Because he showed me another carving that he received from Heather Arnott, I assumed that this one was from her as well. However, contrary to the footnote to this picture, Heather never owned this carving.

After the book was published, I rediscovered the remnants of a candlestick that Nelson had hanging about and passed on to me. It had been made from odd metal scraps and green and white marbles, and I have to admit that I never liked it much—except for the tiny metal bits that hung in a circle from the top of the candlestick. In one of our moves, I decided to part with the thing. But I first removed the small metal carvings and put them away in a box. Here they are (click to expand):

The middle piece reads: Ps. IIXX:XXVIII [Psalm 18:28] - “For thou wilt light my candle: the LORD my God will enlighten my darkness.” Note Nelson's creative way of etching the Roman numeral 18—he made it IIXX rather than the usual XVIII.

Anchor: A Christian symbol of hope: "We have this hope [in Christ] as an anchor, firm and secure."

Cross: On which Jesus died, and which his followers are called to take up as they follow him.

Dove: A symbol of the Holy Spirit, a gift given to those who believe in Jesus.

Fish: This has inscribed on it the Greek word ΙΧΘΥΣ (meaning “fish”). Early Christians under persecution used this symbol as a secret password to identify themselves as followers of Jesus. The word is an acronym for the following words that start with each letter:

  • Ιησους = Jesus 
  • Χριστóς = Christ
  • Θεοῦ = God’s
  • Υἱός = Son
  • Σωτήρ = Savior
Ship: This boat appears to be one of the Pilgrim ships, such as the Mayflower. In early Christian symbols, a ship represents the church.

Crown: In light of the other symbols, this one represents reward, not royalty. "Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him" (James 1:12).

These symbols, lovingly crafted, meant a great deal to Nelson Dunkin.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Nelson and the Newspapers

"Sometimes I read parts of letters or articles to Snuggles."

As much as Nelson lived alone for many years, he was still very interested in the happenings of the world abroad. Visitors would bring him newspapers, which were not only of interest to him but were handy as a table covering or to start his wood stove. Here, from his letters, are a few things that intrigued, distressed and impressed our friend Nelson:

What distressed Nelson in the news:


i read in the newspapers, and the world turns more disgusting to me day by day. Now they are harping on the harlots; laws and more laws; but not a word that there is any sin in what they are doing. Now the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that stores stay open on Sundays. That is in the interest of Religious Freedom—after all, some Satan-worshipper may want to buy a pack of fags [i.e., cigarettes] on Sunday.


It is saddening to see how, in these latter days, the devil is working every foul scheme to break up marriages and homes.


There is for sure that falling away we are warned of but why dwell on the subject? It is all about us in the news and even in the air. Yet whilst on the subject have you noticed the toys in the catalogues? Outright demonic. So if a young child is brought up on such things what must we expect them to be when grown? 


How people are driven crazy by Satan over money, so it is a cause of higher, higher and higher. 


i was sickened yesterday to read that they are killing babies in Port Alberni. i had just assumed the Port Alberni was free from that curse but “no,” Satan gets around.


That roof falling in [re: news of a new grocery store roof collapsing]—i should think that would be a slowdown to opening a new business, even in Vancouver; really, that was a bit too blatant an opening gimmick.


i have been seeing and reading too much how Satan uses people, innocently or otherwise (Judas for example) to try to wreck God’s plans. So it behooves us to try to keep in step with Jesus. 


What blessed Nelson in the news:


National Geographic, November 1978. Beside the River Shannon in a little earth-floored cottage lived (or might still be living, God knows) Jerry Martin, a fiddle maker, making at age 81 his last of 75 fiddles. On the wall hangs a notice: 

No Cursing

No Filthy Talk

No Waste of God’s Name

Allowed Here

This is so very good that the Land Lady wishes for one, so i am doing what i can to bring one forth.

i have a wonderful story to tell you about a wonderful little girl which i have fallen in love with. In the month of April, the newspaper up in Port Alberni puts on a writing contest in all the schools from Grade 1 through Grade 12. Well, it so happened that Mary brought a paper, the very paper with the 1988 writing contest section in it. i thought, so what, no interest here! and then i again thought, “i shall just force myself through this stuff to see if i can savvy what kind of trash is on the minds of the upcoming generation.” And so glad i did: there was but one of interest to me but that one is a treasure to me and here she is:

Now isn’t that sweet? i am so impressed with her that i am sending her an 1893 Life of Christ which i think is well written and will be a keepsake for her.

UP NEXT: Corrections and clarifications sent in by readers of The Island and i. Plus, some tiny metal artwork pieces you have likely never seen before.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

The Cobalt-Blue Glass Beads of Copper Island

"I have often sat at Pebble Beach or Prayer Cove on Copper Island, running my hands through the clean, fine gravel in the hope of finding glass beads. They are usually blue; I don’t know if it is because all the trading beads were of that colour or if the blue beads were the only ones to survive. They are a connection to 150 years past, a history that is both intriguing and sad. I treasure the few beads I have found, and I imagine the Huu-ay-aht did as well. But those cheap beads also funded the lavish, work-free lifestyle described in stories like Pride and Prejudice. My glass beads were among the many little reasons that those British gentlemen and ladies had nothing to do but marry off their daughters to other rich men." - Jim Badke, The Island and i

In the mid-1800s, Vancouver Island was a British colony leased to the Hudson’s Bay Company. At that point, Victoria was the primary population centre on the coast, and what would become the city of Vancouver consisted only of a few settlers at Gastown. The Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company was James Douglas, who soon also became governor of the new colony. So he reigned supreme and ran the colony like a business. Practically every European citizen was an employee of the HBC.

At that time, trading posts sprang up along the entire coastline of the Island. Sea otters had been nearly eradicated by the first explorers of the West Coast in the 1700s, but fur seals were still abundant and in demand. The primary trade item, however, was the oil of the spiny dogfish, a small shark that moves in schools of hundreds or thousands, feeding on small fish, crabs and octapus. Their fine oil was used in lamps but was especially sought after as one of the best natural oils for machinery, such as the sawmills that were being built along the coast.

The trading post at Clifton Point on Copper Island was managed by Arthur Lang during the winter months. He managed another store in the summer at Dodger’s Cove. In exchange for fur seal hides and dogfish oil, Arthur probably stocked the usual trade items: axes, chisels, awls, rings, looking-glasses, fishing hooks, files, combs, tobacco—and beads.

You might wonder why beads would be popular in the First Nations communities of Barkley Sound. Gilbert Sproat wrote in 1868, “They are fond of toys and ornaments for themselves and children, and are seldom seen without rings, anklets, and bracelets of beads or brass. Their blankets are often tastefully ornamented with beads.” The colour blue was especially significant and valued in FIrst Nations culture as it was rarely seen in natural objects.

Glass beads and a ceramic button from Pebble Beach on Copper Island

The cobalt-blue beads that I found on the beaches of Copper Island most likely came from Italy. A long, thin tube was formed by two workers walking quickly away from one another as they pulled on a glass bubble. The tube was then sliced into beads and tumbled into a spherical shape. Though various colours were used, the cobalt blue beads are the most commonly found and seem to have been the most valued.

Interestingly, these beads are still an object of trade. A quick look online for “blue trading beads” brings up dozens of sites offering these beads for sale, both authentic and Authentic! It seems to me that the ones claiming to be authentic are the least likely to be so, which is also true of people. Nelson Dunkin was a genuinely authentic character in my life.

UP NEXT: Weeks-old newspapers were Nelson's eye on the world. What did he find alarming in the news, and what did he see that encouraged him?

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

A Gathering of Family, Friends and Legends

On Saturday, Sarah and I held a book signing for the new biography at SteamPunk Cafe in Port Alberni. As I was setting up, I saw someone having a little difficulty with the door. I opened it to discover none other than 94-year-old Earl Johnson, who had just come down from Campbell River with his wife Betty. More were on their way—Tom and Debbie from Chemainus showed up minutes later, followed by many of the locals who had some kind of connection with Nelson and Mina Dunkin. It soon became a merry and noisy gathering.

Aaron and Julie—along with Anne—from Copper Island Camp were there. I saw them chatting with Madge and her family: Leona and Greg, Matt and Brian. A surprise visitor was Geo, who skippered the MV Lady Rose back when Nelson and Mina lived on Copper Island. Bob and Sue, early caretakers of Copper Island Camp, came from Coombs. Others came by to pick up their copies of the book, and a few bought them out of curiosity about this crowd.

Thank you to the manager and staff of SteamPunk Cafe for enthusiastically hosting this event. Thanks also to the several bookstore owners that we visited that day and that are now carrying the book:

Please spread the word! I have talked with a few people who didn't know Nelson but are reading the book, and they find his story fascinating. You could also write a review on the book's Amazon page, which helps others discover the book. Several hundred dollars have already been raised through book sales that will go to helping kids get to camp this summer!

UP NEXT: In the book, I mentioned finding glass trading beads on the beaches at Copper Island. More details coming soon, right here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Book Launched, Book Signing in February

The Island and i: Nelson Dunkin of Copper Island is now available! I have begun sending out copies to those who contributed to the project—whether directly or through Kickstarter—and the first to receive books have been the furthest away, like Margaret on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland (where Mina was born) and another person in Ontario. But others should begin receiving them soon.

Thank you for your amazing support! You pledged/contributed a total of $3536 of the $1500 goal (or 236%) to pay for the first—and now second—printing of the book. This allowed me to order colour prints of the books for the backers of the fundraiser and to print many more books to be sold publicly, with proceeds going to help kids get to camp this summer.

On this website, I will regularly post any stories, photos, letters and memories that emerge after the book is published or that were not included in the book. If you have memories or memorabilia of Nelson and Mina to share, please contact me. You can also comment on any post by clicking on the word "comments" at the bottom of the post.

Please spread the word about this book! Copies can be purchased by contacting me or online at Amazon.

One last thing: I will be in Port Alberni to do a book signing on Saturday, February 10th from 1-3 PM at SteamPunk Cafe on 3rd Ave. Come and pick up your cop(ies), and stay to chat over a cup of tea! I hope to see many of you there.