The Big Winter

Mary Bryant’s First Year on Quadra Island, BC

Jack Bryant selected a homestead on Quadra Island with a marsh, which he drained to convert to pasture for his homestead. Seen here in 2013, it has reverted to marsh.

Jack Bryant selected marshland on Quadra Island, to drain for pasture. Seen here in 2013, it has reverted to marsh.

Loneliness plagued most of the bachelors who settled on the Discovery Islands in the 1890s, when the Euro-Canadian gender balance was about ten men to one woman. It wasn’t so bad in spring and summer, when men worked in logging camps to earn a grubstake. It was the short days of winter, working alone to clear their land, that wore them down. “Snowed a bit in night,” a settler wrote in his diary of December 1890. “Got out a few [fence] rails, drizzling rain in afternoon. Feeling very lonely, tired of reading.”

Jack Bryant of Quadra Island solved this problem by going home to England, after a twenty year absence. While there he married his cousin Mary Shepperd, who he’d last seen when he attended her christening just before he emigrated to America twenty-seven years before.

The newlyweds arrived on Quadra Island in July 1889. Mary was greeted like a queen at a logging camp in Quathiaski Cove, as the island’s first English-speaking woman. From there, the loggers hauled her crates and trunks up the long forest trail to Jack’s homestead.

Mary Bryant outside her cabin c. 1935. Photo courtesy Museum at Campbell River, photo #6825.

Mary Bryant outside her cabin c. 1935. Photo courtesy Museum at Campbell River, photo #6825.

Mary was newly pregnant that summer, canning berries, fish and venison on the cabin’s cast iron stove in readiness for winter. And those glittering jars of food were a blessing because the snow began to fall on Christmas day  and continued for weeks. By mid-January, just weeks before Mary’s due date, their house was buried in soft snow.

Roofs had to be shovelled daily, forming crenellated parapets around settlers’ cabins and outbuildings. “The entire district was blocked with snow up to eight feet deep, with no possibility of getting in supplies for two months,” wrote a settler living to the south in the Comox Valley. Most people ran out of firewood and had to dig tunnels to get at their fence posts to keep their fires burning. “At last, after New Years,” wrote this man, “the wind went north, the sky cleared, and the heavy, damp snow froze to a depth of six inches.”

Bryant's trail, winter 2013.

Bryant’s trail, winter 2013.

This frozen crust allowed Jack and Mary to get down the forest trail to Quathiaski Cove, where Jack dug his canoe out from its shelter. It took them the better part of that day to reach Comox, where they caught a southbound steamship to Nanaimo–just in time for the birth of their first child on January 26, 1890.

The maple tree, near where the Bryant's cabin once stood.

A maple tree, near where the Bryant’s cabin once stood.

Five weeks later, in the blast of a southeast storm of driving snow, the couple returned home with their newborn–because Jack had livestock to tend and roofs to clear. The captain agreed to let them off at the We-Wai-Kai people’s village, where he blew the ship’s whistle offshore and some men met them in a canoe. That night the Bryants stayed in a deserted trader’s cabin on the beach and the next morning Mary followed behind Jack up the steep hill to the nearest homestead, where they stayed for two weeks, waiting for the weather to break.

It was many weeks yet before the snow finally cleared from the ground in April 1890, in what old-timers remembered as The Big Snow.