Bernard the German is Grant Lawrence’s latest story-telling podcast: the tragic tale of the giant of Desolation Sound, a true story of an ox of a man who died just as he lived- very remarkably, while following his dreams right to his grave. This 10-part series will take you on an adventure around the world, from the war-torn rubble of post-war Germany, to the coastal wilderness of Desolation Sound, B.C., to the dangerous but alluring tropical climes of the South Seas. Told in a fast-paced serialized format, this epic tragedy will appeal to anyone with a thirst for wanderlust. Download all ten free episodes here.
Hope this finds you well and happy this fall season. As I write this, it’s momentarily a beautiful, crisp, dry autumn day in Vancouver.
Earlier this afternoon, I had the simple pleasure of watching my precocious 2-year-old daughter reach down and grab two tiny handfuls of red and yellow leaves. She bounced up and threw them into the air over her head, delighting as they drifted down around her. It brought smiles to strangers’ faces. Mine too.
I’ve being doing a lot of rather intense parenting of my two lovely children this fall, since my wife Jill has been on the road all over North America promoting her new record Metaphora. Solo parenting can be very rewarding, but it can also at times be very challenging. In those moments it feels like some sort of karma for the decade-plus that I spent on the road and didn’t call home to my parents enough.
More on Jill’s touring in a bit.
Desolation Sound tour: You may remember this past summer that I did my first-ever official tour of Desolation Sound, BC, to the many coastal nooks and crannies that I wrote about in my first book. It was sold-out and a lot of fun – we even visited the location of the “Nude Potluck.” While I was reading that passage aloud on the boat, no joke, theactual guy who hosted that crazy potluck so many years ago walked out onto the beach. It was pretty surreal. Sadly, 40 years later, he was clothed. The tour culminated at the Homfray Lodge, which is a spectacular place. Humpback whales, orcas, ridiculously friendly seals, crazy warm water, grizzly bears, you name it. It was so much fun that we’re doing it again twice next summer. Here are the details. You gotta come!
Dirty Windshields: I’m honoured to note that that my most recent book has picked up some international awards. Back in the May, Dirty Windshields won a medal at the IPPY Awards in New York City (which I wrote about here), and last month, it won a Bronze Winner at the Foreword Indie Book Awards in Chicago. Bronze! To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, that means I was the second-best loser in their entire competition. If you’re looking for a signed Xmas gift for the dirty rock ‘n’ roller on your list, you can purchase your own mail-ordered signed copy here.
The Smugglers:Dirty Windshields is about the exploits of my rock ‘n’ roll band, and in 2018 we are marking our 30th anniversary. To celebrate, we’re performing one single, solitary show on Saturday November 24 at Amigos Cantina in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. WTF? Well, Amigos was not only THEE first club outside of Vancouver to not fire us, but it was also THEE first club outside of Vancouver to book us again. We eventually became good friends with all involved. November 2018 just so happens to be Amigos’ 30th anniversary as well, so it all lined up. 30-30 hindsight! Also on this one-off gala night is Chixdiggit and the Garrys. There are a few dozen tickets left as of this writing. ROAD TRIP! Grab yours here.
Podcasts: For over ten years I somehow hosted the CBC Radio 3 Podcast, which was me and a bunch of brilliant Canadian indie rock tunes every week. Lately, I’ve been having fun telling stories from Desolation Sound in short-form serial podcasts. You can download the entire 15 episodes of “The Cougar Lady Chronicles”, and the entire 10 episodes of “The Spaghetti Bandit” (which is geared towards a parent-kid listening experience), here. Let me know what you think! I’m working on a new story from the outer coast of Vancouver Island that will hopefully see the light of… iTunes?
Grant Lawrence and Friends: an evening of stories and songs: Doing this show for the past year around the West Coast of BC has been amazing! Every event has been sold out, so if you’ve been a part of one of these shows, whether as a performer, organizer, or audience member, thank you! We have a few more coming up this fall with more amazing performers. Hope you can be at one. We’ll eventually bust the show out of BC.
That’s it for now. Be courteous to one another, speak to strangers, ask questions, please vote, try hard, and have fun.
All my best –
Thu Oct 11, Grant Lawrence and Friends: Dave Bidini, Janet Marie Rogers, Dustin Bentall and more, Whistler Writers Festival, Whistler BC. Tickets.
Fri Nov 9, Grant Lawrence and Friends: Kathryn Calder, Luke Wallace, Bradley Thomas Moore. Saturna Community Hall, Saturna Island BC. Tickets.
Sat Nov 10, Grant Lawrence and Friends: Kathryn Calder, Luke Wallace, Lauren Mann, Agricultural Hall, Mayne Island BC. Tickets.
“It’s definitely the most bizarre incident that’s ever happened to me on the ocean.”
That’s what tugboat captain John Dolmage of North Vancouver, now 65, recently said about a high steaks story from Sept. 28, 1976, in the waters of Burrard Inlet. This same story has long been a favourite around our family dinner table, because of my father’s direct involvement (that’s him pictured above).
In the early 1970s, long before my dad got involved with Desolation Sound, he had entered into a partnership to purchase an old farm on Gambier Island in Howe Sound. The plan was to subdivide the property into lots to sell for cabins, and keep the main farm operational. They named it the rather quirky sounding Gambier Island Sea Ranch.
There was livestock on the farm, including cattle. At the end of each summer season, the cattle were loaded onto a barge and taken to market.
In the fall of 1976, Dolmage, then 23 years old, was captain of the tugboat Defender. He and his first mate, Colin Lester, were tasked with loading nine head of cattle onto a barge that they would tow from Gambier Island to the loading dock in North Vancouver.
My dad, then 36 years old, was surprised to see that the barge had no railings.
“The skipper assured me that they transported animals all the time and that the cows would settle down,” my dad recalled.
Dolmage concurred that there were no sides to his barge, but said he did have five-foot posts with rope between them, creating a barrier.
“That sort of situation was usually fine and the rumble of the tug’s engine calmed them right down,” said Dolmage.
The ocean was dead calm that night. They departed Gambier at high tide, roughly 7 p.m.
“By the time we rounded Point Atkinson, the cows were all lying down on the barge and everything was smooth,” remembered Dolmage.
Dad had already returned to our West Vancouver home. We watched the tug and barge pass by along the shore from our dining room window. All seemed well and my dad went to bed rest assured.
“When we got under Lion’s Gate Bridge, I asked my first mate Colin to see how the cows were doing. Well, he did a double take that I’ll never forget,” laughed Dolmage.
“He says to me, ‘John! Oh Christ, they’ve jumped!’”
Dolmage looked back just in time to see the last cow take the plunge.
“In the moment, we didn’t know what the hell happened, but later on we figured that the overhead car noise from the bridge must have spooked them. So I followed protocol and called it in right away to the First Narrows Signal Station. I said, ‘I just lost a load of cows and they’re swimming around in the narrows.’”
There was a long pause. The marine operator responded with, “It sounded like you said cows. Could you repeat?”
Dolmage yelled back, “Yes, cows! Cows overboard!”
“All of a sudden the radio came alive, because every ship in the harbour heard my call, eh?”
Soon the narrows under the bridge was filled with boats, including a Vancouver Police launch, all taking part in a never-seen-before-or-since rodeo at sea.
“There was this one really big Vancouver cop named Jack who grew up around cattle. He came aboard Defender and we managed to it get alongside two of the calves. This cop reached over and lifted the calves one by one right out of the water and onto the tug,” Dolmage said.
The rest of the full-grown herd was swimming off in different directions, so the responding crews fashioned their ropes as lassos. “That actually worked on a couple of the cows, and we towed them into shore alongside the tug,” said Dolmage. “But it was chaotic and getting darker. We were losing sight of the rest of the herd.”
A few of the cows swam for Stanley Park, where the mounted VPD were radioed. The police thundered down the hill on horseback for a Third Beach roundup. More cows were spotted by freighters and other boats throughout Burrard Inlet.
Dolmage and Lester didn’t give up on their cargo, and the tug’s radio crackled with sightings. They eventually found one that had been swimming for several hours. The heifer was heaving with fatigue, so Lester tied a life jacket around its neck and they towed it to the nearest beach.
Two others had come ashore at West Bay Beach in West Vancouver, which is where Dolmage next steered to find the steers. When he arrived at around midnight, West Van police were already on scene.
“The cops had just pulled this soaking cow out of the water, when a North Shore News photographer walked up and, out of the blue, took a flash photo right in the cow’s face,” Dolmage said. “Well, that spooked the cow, and it took off, thundering into someone’s yard.”
At 2 a.m., our home phone rang. “Mr. Garth Lawrence? This is Sergeant Aikenhead of the West Vancouver Police. We have two of your cows down on West Bay Beach and we’re going to have to shoot them to avoid further potential property damage.”
Dad jumped out of bed. You can imagine his shock: he assumed that his cows were safely to market. Instead they were running through people’s yards a few blocks away from our home. Dad managed to convince the police to instead call a veterinarian to tranquilize the cows, which they reluctantly agreed to. Dolmage was still on the scene.
“While we were waiting for the vet, we finally managed to catch the cows and calm them down. A cop had his arm around one cow’s neck and was stroking it when, I kid you not, the North Shore News photographer snuck up again and took another flash photo. This time that cow took off running down the beach with the cop still hanging on to its neck. The police were furious with that guy.”
The vet and my dad arrived at West Bay in the early morning hours. The vet successfully tranquilized the rampaging cows, but one 1,500-pounder dropped near the tide line, and no one could budge the bovine. Dad realized the only way to get it off the beach would be with another barge, hopefully before the tide came in.
By the time Captain Rick Byrne arrived from Gulf of Georgia towing, Dad and several WVPD members were waist-deep in the rising tide, holding the sleeping cow’s head above water so it wouldn’t drown. With a sheet of plywood slid under the cow, they somehow managed to load it aboard.
Further down the beach, Bellevue Avenue resident Barbara Brink, the founder and former CEO of Science World and member of the Order of Canada, woke up to the sound of dogs barking. “I looked out my bedroom window and there was a cow standing on the beach. It was a misty morning, so it looked like a surreal English painting,” Brink recollected. “I rubbed my eyes and wondered if I had eaten something hallucinogenic the night before.”
Of the nine cows that went overboard that night, seven were rescued. One was spotted by a Coast Guard cutter the following afternoon, still swimming, a full 16 hours after the herd had jumped ship. It was safely towed in to Sandy Cove in West Vancouver. Two cows drowned, their bodies eventually washing up on Bowen Island and Horseshoe Bay. The story made international news.
Dolmage received a thorough teasing, too. “Oh yeah, I heard about it. ‘MOO DAY, MOO DAY’ and all that. At 4 a.m., when I was finally heading in, another guy radioed me and asked, ‘Were those union cows!?’ There was a lot of labour trouble back then, so I replied, ‘They must have been, because they walked off!’”
There was a 40th anniversary party for the Gambier Island Sea Ranch on Saturday, July 21, 2018. You can be sure that my dad was there, re-telling the cows-overboard story, with maybe a little extra bull thrown in for good measure. For all involved, it’s certainly proven to be an extremely memorable mooment.
This story originally appeared in the Vancouver Courier, July 18, 2018.