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Reviews by Maclean's and Vancouver Sun

Maclean's Review
This is very much a regional book about Howe Sound, that painfully beautiful, Norwegian-like fjord drivers glimpse on their way from Vancouver to Whistler. That little-known slice of natural wonder, ringed by permanently snow-capped extinct volcanoes, features Canada's best windsurfing and the country's first underwater marine park. The area's romantic history is beautifully told by retired Vancouver teacher Doreen Armitage, who also includes lively portraits of some of The Sound's more eccentric hermits.

Vancouver Sun Review
The next time you are heading up to Whistler of the Sea to Sky highway, take a look at the terrain speeding past.

If you are behind the wheel, it might be a good idea to pull over first, but remember: don't stop in an avalanche area. This is no easy task - most of steepsided Howe Sound is an avalanche area.

Pause in Lions Bay and look up, way up, toward the peaks of the Lions. Stop at Britannia Beach and try to visualize the thriving mining community of 70 years ago, now gone to seed.

Park your car beneath the Stawamus Chief and scan the massive granite face for the coloured specks that are climbers, or see if you can make out the figure of the fallen Indian that the mountain is named for.

Or simply choose any pullout and look around you. If you look north, on a clear day and from a certain angle, you might make out the sinister shape of Black Tusk jutting into the sky.

All these landmarks are described in Around the Sound, Doreen Armitage's new history of the rugged region of mountains and sea just north of Vancouver called Howe Sound.

Although Point Atkinson and Gibsons provide the area's southern boundary and Squamish the northern, the author has chosen to include Whistler. This is a good idea, as the histories of both areas have been intertwined, especially in the last two decades.

Armitage begins with the last ice age, when glaciation and volcanic activity collided to form some striking features (Black Tusk, Table Mountain, Mount Garibaldi), and ends with the recreational nirvana we have carved from that topography, present-day Whistler/Blackcomb.

Along the way she provides side trips to significant stepping stones in the, sound's history: Point Atkinson, Bowen Island, Gibsons, Britannia, Squamish.

She describes the area as "a land of superlatives - the best skiing in North America, the first underwater marine park in Canada, the largest eagle population in North America and the second largest granite monolith in the world."

But as recently as the 1950s the value of Howe Sound was figured differently. Skiers, windsurfers, scuba divers, rock climbers and eagle appreciators were less numerous then, but many miners, loggers and railway builders were profiting from the area's abundant resources. Howe Sound was a place to work, not play.

Before these workers came the goldseekers, frontiersmen and settlers, people trying to carve out a living in this rugged and dangerous part of Canada's newest province.

Tough and adaptable, the early settlers of the sound - only a couple of generations distant from us thought nothing of rowing from Squamish to Vancouver and back for mail and supplies, sometimes at night and in treacherous seas.

Many of their stories are reminiscent of Woodsmen of the West, Martin Allerdale Grainger's classic novel of turn-of-the-century hand-loggers on the B.C. coast.

I guess that none of these hardy and optimistic pioneers had read the journals of George Vancouver, which document his famous exploration of the Pacific coast in 1792. If they had, they might have thought twice about settling in Howe Sound.

Poor George Vancouver. Perhaps an early sufferer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, he was so sensitive to the coast's frequent rain and gloom that he named one of the most spectacular inlets in the world Desolation Sound.

He was equally melancholy in his exploration of Howe Sound, which he described as a "gloomy spectacle," a "dreary prospect," and "this dreary and comfortless region." If only he could see, two centuries later, how much money people are willing to spend for a tiny piece of that dreary and comfortless place.

Of course, before any settlers arrived, there were the local Indians - Coast Salish and Squamish - who had been hunting and fishing in the sound as many as 9,000 years ago.

Remains of their camps have been found on most of the islands, at Horseshoe Bay and up th Squamish River - the original residents displaced by European settlement, the ruined villages long since swallowed by the forest.

Armitage describes aboriginal customs of a century ago, but ignores the fate of the people after the Europeans took over. Yet many natives still live on Howe Sound; aboriginal history did not cease with the establishment of reservations. Why not write of their lives today?

Each major community on the sound is given a detailed history. Over the years some pros er more than others, but they all share a common problem: isolation.

Obviously, island communities were only accessible by boat, but it was not until 1956 that the railway extended to Squamish; the highway above it was completed two years later.

Most of the early settlers simply accepted their isolation as a fact of existence. In 1883, when the wife of the lighthouse keeper at Point Atkinson fell ill, there was no way to summon medical attention. The day was stormy, and the only means her husband had of contacting the outside world was to send a note with some passing natives who were canoeing to Moodyville (North Vancouver).

They gave the message to a young nurse, and she immediately set out with the Indians con the four-hour return trip.

A gale forced them ashore a mile short of their goal, so they hiked through the roadless forest to complete their journey to the sick woman: just a day's work for a North Shore nurse in 1883.

Sometimes entire communities were cut off by bad weather or natural disasters, and simply had to wait until a boat could come to their assistance.

And there was never a shortage of disasters. Squamish was plagued by flooding until the 1980s, when the region's dyke system was finished.

Bowen Island was home to an explosives company that was beset by accidents, the most spectacular of which was an explosion that killed five men and was flet as far away as Nanaimo.

Perhaps the most unlucky community was the mining town of Britannia.

In 1921 it experienced a fire in the mill so fierce that the windows bubbled in nearby houses. A few months later a massive debris torrent roared down the mountain, washing homes into the sea and killed entire families.

But Britannia's worst disaster occurred in 1915, high up the mountain where workers and their families were housed. Nearly 60 people were killed as they slept when an avalanche swept down the Mountainside. The outside world did not hear of this until the next day, when an employee of the mine rowed to Horseshoe Bay with the news.

Not all was tragic on the sound. People who worked hard in the face of great adversity also knew how to enjoy themselves, and a great sense of camaraderie existed among even distant neighbours.

Armitage writes of great summer picnics, usually on the islands, with the Union Steamship Company transporting revellers to and from the city.

The author also includes some pieces of information that do not fit smoothly into the history of the region, but are nevertheless fascinating, such as the tiny jade figurine of a "speak no evil" monkey that was dug up at Hopkins Landing in 1920. Archaeologists determined it to be about 1,500 years old and originally from China. How it came to the B.C. coast is anyone's guess.

As a popular history, Around the Sound works quite well. It is carefully researched and well-documented but also very readable.

The writing is clear and insightful, which is not always the case with local histories, many of which seem to consist of lists of names, obscure recipes and a lot of exclamation points.

There are plenty of excellent black and white photographs, although a few more maps wouldn't hurt.

On the whole, however, Around the Sound is a fine addition to Harbour Publishing's ongoing series of excellent local histories.