Author Tags: Outdoors, Women

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Having never been camping before, Sunny Wright, at age 28, quit her "man-sized job for a female wage" in a Vancouver sawmill and went driving into the wilderness with her daughter Lisa and her friend Betty, determined to build their own cabin and live off the land. For ten years she accomplished her naive ambition, adapting to rural life near Vanderhoof complete with bootlegging, dogsledding and subsistence farming. To Touch a Dream: A Wilderness Adventure (Ronsdale, 2005) is Sunny Wright's memoir, published after she moved to Sardis in the Fraser Valley. She moved to Edmonton in 2008. 1-55380-035-4

[BCBW 2008] "Women" "Outdoors"

To Touch A Dream
Review (2006)

Feats of survival have been a mainstay of B.C. literature ever since American sailor John Jewitt hired an editor to sensationalize his Robinson Crusoe-like captivity memoir of nearly three years on the west coast of Vancouver Island, from 1803 to 1805, as the “white slave” of Chief Maquinna. Jewitt’s original 48-page, self-published version of his ordeal flopped in 1807, but the (ahem) “enhanced” version by Richard Alsop has never been out of print.

During the 200 years since then, there have been more than a few wilderness survival classics. Eric Collier’s Three Against the Wilderness (1959), in which Collier recalls how his family re-introduced the beaver population at Meldrum Creek, could be the most-translated B.C. non-fiction book. Similarly, Leland Stowe’s Crusoe of Lonesome Lake (1957) is an oft-reprinted account of how Ralph Edwards and his family nourished trumpeter swans. It was mimicked by Ed Gould’s ‘as-told-to’ autobiography, Ralph Edwards of Lonesome Lake (1979), which, in turn, gave rise to Isabel Edwards’ Ruffles On My Longjohns (1981).

The first female Thoreau of B.C., Gilean Douglas, originally published River For My Sidewalk (1953) under a male pseudonym, Grant Madison. She led the way for Deanna Kawatski’s Wilderness Mother (1994) and a superb follow-up, Clara and Me (1996), as well as the popular memoirs of Chris Czajkowski who lives alone near Nimpko Lake. Now the “back to the land” movement of the Sixties and Seventies is turning up a fresh crop of rustic reminiscences, such as Sunny Wright’s To Touch A Dream (Ronsdale 2006).
Far from being a hippie, Sunny Wright yearned to get out of the rat race ever since she ran away from an orphanage at age 17.
In 1969, with no clear destination in mind, and six thousand dollars in the bank, Wright and her shy best friend Betty, a fellow millworker, quit their jobs, sold their possessions and drove north in two small import pickup trucks, accompanied by a dog and Sunny’s five-year-old daughter, Lisa.
Intending to build their own cabin, they bought rifles, axes, saws, lanterns, hammers, canned goods and sleeping bags. Only trouble was, they had never even tried camping.
On the road almost a week, driving as far north as Dawson Creek, they gravitated back to Vanderhoof, exactly in the centre of the province. There, by a fluke, they stumbled upon a quarter-section of selectively logged land, sixteen miles northwest of Vanderhoof, which they bought for $4,850.
Their new home became a two-room repair shed with hibernating flies—and not much else. “We managed to keep from freezing,” Wright recalls, “but just barely.”
They melted snow to get water. “Getting the wash took the entire day and, depending on the weather, could take up to a week to dry.”
To get Lisa to school in the mornings, Sunny had to thaw the truck engine and transmission by using two cake pans full of sand saturated with motor oil. One burning pan was placed under the engine with the other under the transmission.
Whereas the helpless and overtly feminine Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire always relied on the kindness of strangers, decidedly non-girly Bunny & Betty relied on the kindness of neighbours.
Crotchety and reclusive Roy Walker, who lived four miles up the hill, turned out to be an angel of mercy in disguise, educating them on the realities of log cabin building and encouraging Sunny to shoot her first moose.
Jim Moon, at the building supply store, voluntarily bought all the lumber they needed, then delivered it to them in his truck, for a mere $430.
A neighbour and his two sons helped with construction. Another friend helped Sunny operate a lucrative still, supplying bootlegged whisky to remote logging camps, until Sunny could no longer tolerate the unsuccessful RCMP raids on her property. “I lay awake with the thoughts of going to jail and even losing custody of my daughter,” she writes.
The cops were not their worst nightmare. Late one night a truckload of drunken men arrived and threatened to rape them.
“There were twelve or fourteen of them, and they had us terrified as they circled the cabin, banging on the windows and the door while yelling at us. We three stood clinging to each other in the centre of the cabin, not knowing if the men would come at us through the only door or one of the windows. It was pitch dark outside but the moonlight outside made it possible for us to see their silhouettes as they passed by the windows.
“We had been silent in our shared fear for what seemed like an awfully long time when Lisa, who had been holding onto my leg, in a soft trembling voice asked, ‘Mommy, what is going to happen? Are they going to hurt us?’ The fear I heard in my child’s question instantly changed my frame of mind from helpless victim to protective mother. Kneeling down to hug her, I whispered, ‘Don’t you worry, Lisa. They are not going to touch any of us.’
“I told Betty to lie down on the floor with Lisa and stay there. I crawled back across the room in the direction of the back window where our guns were stored in a cabinet. Feeling my way in the dark, I found the cabinet and searched the drawer under the guns until I felt the boxes of shells. As I was doing this, I could hear the men attacking our one and only door….
“Kneeling on the floor in the dark, I felt my whole body tremble as I carefully loaded fifteen shells into the .22 calibre semi-automatic rifle. When I stood up, I used the butt of the rifle to smash the window. I could see the outline of the white pickup truck and the shadowy outline of a few men, but nothing in detail.
“It was not my intention to kill anyone, so I shot into the air, letting go seven rounds in rapid fire. When I stopped shooting, everything was dead quiet for a moment. Then a loud voice from the direction of the truck shouted, ‘That was seven shots. Let’s go get ‘em!’ Obviously, they had assumed that I had fired all of my ammunition. They had no way of knowing that we had the latest model semi-automatic which held fifteen rounds.
“Bullet number eight was aimed directly at the voice, and now I was angry, rather than scared, and did not care if I killed one of them or not. All of us heard the shell hit the truck, and once again, there was complete silence. Into that silence, I yelled, ‘I am going to count to three, and then someone out there is going to die!’
“For the next few minutes there was a mad scramble as the men ran to get into the truck. We heard someone shout in a frightened voice for the driver to, ‘Hurry up and get the hell out of here.’ Once the truck started, it still had to be turned around, during which time I emptied the seven remaining shots in their general direction. A few hit the truck as it raced past the cabin and down the driveway in a cloud of dust
“We learned a very important lesson that night. A gun is absolutely no value unless it is loaded.”
Raising rabbits, trapping, bears, skunks, pigs, skidoos, canoes, running a dog kennel, building a new log home, dogsledding, dealing with breast and lymph cancer in her late 30s, a radical mastectomy in Prince George and a remarkable recovery...
Sunny Wright’s unfettered style isn’t going to get her confused with Bunny Wright, the late novelist, but it gets the job done.
A postscript: Sunny and Betty continued to raise Lisa together until Betty fell in love with a man from Fraser Lake and married him in 1979. After Lisa left to take a government forestry job, Sunny sold her dream home and moved to Sardis.

[Alan Twigg / 2006]