Dancing in Gumboots: Comox Valley stories of cultural shift

Dancing in Gumboots: Comox Valley stories of cultural shift

Anthologist Jane Wilde at the Blue Heron Bookstore in Comox  |  George Le Masurier photo

Dancing in Gumboots: Comox Valley stories of cultural shift


You can see everything I love about the new book Dancing in Gumboots on its cover. Two young women sit on a log at a Crown Zellerbach logging site high above Comox Lake in the 1970s, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer from what we used to call stubbies and sharing a private joke.

We don’t get the exact punch line that brought smiles to Jeanine Maars and Gloria Simpson in that cover photograph by Jane Gilchrist. But the book’s 32 first-person stories of women who moved to the Comox Valley between 1970 and 1979 reveal the underlying reason for their happiness.

These were women feeling free and enjoying their lives in ways that previous generations could not.

Dancing in Gumboots is an anthology by Lou Allison and Jane Wilde. It follows the success of their first book, Gumboot Girls, featuring similar adventurous women who migrated from cities, the United States and Europe to settle on Haida Gwaii or the Prince Rupert area.

“The goal of the books was, first of all, to save our stories,” Wilde told Decafnation. “But they also document a generation that represents a big shift in culture.”

Written in the first-person and without much editing, these stories reflect on how a wave of women who settled in the Comox Valley broke down gender barriers as tree planters and fishers, embraced feminism and built lives based on self-confidence and self-reliance.

Many of the women speak with surprising candor about the most intimate parts of their lives, including divorce and sexual orientation, and the challenges of building their own homes. But there is a vivid sense of joy and fun that runs through each of the stories.

The Comox Valley was a small community back then. People knew almost everyone else. There was only one stoplight at Fifth and Cliffe. In 1971, just 13,000 people lived in Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland.

So when long-haired young women — and men — started arriving to scratch some internal itch to live on an island, work as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat or to merely search for a taste of the pioneering lifestyle, it was noticeable.

And was hard to not notice them.

In their stories, these women speak about the early days of the Arts Alliance and the Renaissance Faire, about illegal midwifery, starting the Women’s Self-Help Network, the Youth Chance Society and the Comox Valley Transition Society. That was wildly progressive stuff for a little community still defined at the time by logging and fishing.

For those of us who arrived at the same time and know these women, reading their mini-memoirs will recall fond memories of our own. It takes us on a trip back through our own journeys.

But for those who have discovered the Comox Valley more recently as the surging knowledge-based urban center it is today, these stories provide not just historical references but a deeper sense of place. Knowing who it was that came before you and how they shaped your town’s culture, helps a person understand their own place in the continuum of community evolution.

Plus, Dancing with Gumboots is just fun to read. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure.


Gumboot anthologist

“These are flash memoirs,” Wilde said. “We told the writers not to agonize over their essays, just keep them fresh.”

Wilde and Allison created the whole book with only few in-person meetings. They sent five questions to potential contributors via email and asked them to respond in 1,000 to 1,500 words and to do it within two months. It was the same formula they used for their North Coast book.

“The first book was done almost as a lark,” Wilde said. “But then we sold 1,000 copies in the first month and our publisher said, hey, you’ve got something here.”

Wilde and Allison are part of the generation of women featured in their books. They both migrated to Haida Gwaii in the early 1970s and both wrote their own stories in Gumboot Girls, which has sold 8,000 copies to date.

Wilde arrive on the North Coast in 1976 and stayed until 1979. They she left for nursing school, but returned to Prince Rupert in 1981 to practice her new profession. For health reasons, she and her long-time partner, Richard, moved to the Comox Valley in 2016. He died in December.

“As I started to meet women in the Comox Valley, my eyes were opened to a completely different, yet similar migration of women from those I had known on the North Coast,” she said.

Wilde says no writers make any money from either of the books. All of the profits from the latest book go to the Comox Valley Transition Society, and to a similar nonprofit in Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii from the first.

Wilde remains noncommittal about producing future anthologies, maybe because she’s accomplished what she set out to do in her first two books.

“It’s kind of the chicken soup of aging baby boomers. It’s stories about our generation,” she said. “They needed to be written down.”









Blue Heron Books
1775 Comox Ave., Comox

Laughing Oyster Books
286 Fifth St., Courtenay

Abraxas Books
1071 Northwest Road
Denman Island




Roberta DeDoming, Patti Willis, Peggy Kabush, Sandy Kennedy, Susan Holvenstot, Gerri Minaker. Sally Gellard ,Cara Tilston Lee Bjarnason, Devaki Johnson, Rosemary Vernon, Jackie Sandiford, Monika Terfloth, Susan Sandland, Sure Wheeler, Anne Davis, Nonie Caflisch, Denise Nadeau, Olive Scott, Phyllis Victory, Linda Rajotte, Brenda Dempsey, Gloria Simpson, Jeanine Maars, Marguerite Masson, Judy Norbury, Linda Safford, Ardith Chambers, Linda Deneer, Josephine Peyton, Gwyn Sproule and Lynda Glover


Both Dancing in Gumboots and Gumboot Girls were published by Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia



Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

Gwyn Sproule is focused on village’s economic diversity

Gwyn Sproule is focused on village’s economic diversity

Over five terms on Cumberland Council, Gwyn Sproule has shifted her agenda from saving trees to growing the village’s commercial base with light, green industries along Bevan Road. And she wants to see the wastewater treatment project to completion


What does an immigrant from England with a degree in Greek and Latin who became a hippie tree planter in British Columbia 42 years ago do for an encore after nearly two decades on the Cumberland Village Council?

For Gwyn Sproule, her agenda for a sixth term on council is quite a bit more pragmatic than it used to be.

“I was all about saving trees in the early days,” she told Decafnation. “My goal now is all about diversifying the village’s tax base, mainly attracting light industry and creating jobs.”

The village budget relies heavily on residential property taxes, so a recent building boom in the Coal Valley Estates subdivision has helped village finances. But Sproule says commercial development is needed for long-term balanced growth.

She hopes to promote light, green industries for some lands along Bevan Road that are already properly zoned. Hancock Timber Resource Group owns the properties.

And Sproule recently learned that funds are available for infrastructure and technology projects from the BC Commission of Innovation. She hopes the village can use those funds to help attract high-tech companies.

“It’s galling to me that young people have to go away to get jobs,” she said. “Vancouver Island is well placed to develop its own economy in green industries. We could create real jobs, with living wages.”

FURTHER READING: For more interviews with candidates, go to our Elections 2018 page

Cumberland also holds the first option on methane gas from the nearby landfill, which Fortis would capture and refine. The village could then use the gas as a power source for some of that light industry, or sell it as fuel for buses and trucks.

The village already has two small industrial areas closer to its downtown and next to residential areas.

One of those, along Royston Road, is home to the Muchalat Group that builds modular homes. They are currently building 30 self-contained housing units and five shelter spaces for the City of Port Alberni at an estimated cost to the province of $7.4 million.

Sproule was the driving force and co-founder of the Cumberland Community Forest Society. She lives along the forest lands and would invite the new forester to tea every time the property changed hands — Dunsmuir then Weldwood then Hancock — which is how she got the inside information about their logging plans.

“I was a troublemaker in my early days. I really believed I could take on everything,” she said.

She recalls the first fundraiser for the society was a plant sale and dance at the Elks Club.

Sproule also served on the original board of the Comox Valley Lands Trust.

But the candidate also has other objectives for her next term that include continuing to develop the village’s safe walk-bike network. She’s happy to have the water treatment project completed and hopes to see the wastewater project through to a similarly successful conclusion.

And she continues to work on her most personal project: keeping alive the memories of Cumberland’s industrial days, its coal mines.

She has recorded hours of interviews on audio tape with the village’s oldtimers and miners before they passed on.

“We need to keep our history alive. It’s the reason why Cumberland exists,” she said.

She regularly speaks to groups and teaches classes on the history of the mines and Chinatown. She does walking tours of the mine sites, and advocates for the preservation of the last remaining concrete structures marking the mine entrances.

Sproule taught primary school in England before moving to Canada in 1976 to live in an old gold mine shack and plant trees in the Cariboo where she met the camp cook, her future husband. She moved to Cumberland two years later.

Her first visit to Cumberland was to attend the Renaissance Faire in 1978.

Sproule’s history of settling on Vancouver Island in the 1970s is one of the stories in the new anthology Dancing in Gumboots, just released by Caitlin Press Inc.