Cougar Annie takes aim at P.G.

Some people manage to live a simple life with flair.

In Prince George we can look to Granny Seymour or Six Mile Mary as examples - people who transcend their rustic lifestyle so profoundly, they become household names in their community even though most people can't even tell you their real ones.

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For the record (according to British Columbia Heritage), Six Mile Mary was born Mary Boucher and got her nickname based on the hunting and fishing she did in the Six Mile Lake area near Prince George. She lived to be 108 years old.

Also according to British Columbia Heritage, her friend Granny Seymour was born Margaret Bouchey and, in addition to working at her father's Hudson's Bay fort at Prince George, she obtained her food and medicine from the land, living to the age of 114.

On Vancouver Island, there is another such figure, and local audiences get to meet her, in musical spirit at least. On Saturday night, singer, songwriter and actor Katrina Kadoski will introduce Prince George to Cougar Annie, a woman who lived off the land and waters in the Clayoquot Sound area. She passed away in 1985 at the age of 97. Her actual name was Ada Annie Rae-Arthur (Lawson) but she earned her popular moniker for defending her little house, orchard, garden and family from the cougars stalking nearby, or collecting the provincial bounty once offered in the early-mid 20th century.

She was a sharp shot. In 1955 alone she dropped 10 cougars. And when one of her husbands turned abusive, she ran him off with a shotgun aimed his way. He knew she wasn't kidding and he knew she wouldn't miss. He never returned.

People have been returning to her little farm for decades, however, because it is to this day one of the points of interest in Hesquiat Peninsula Provincial Park a little north of Tofino. After her death, a friend purchased the property and began the ongoing preservation work that makes it an oasis of human history on the B.C. coast.

One of the caretakers and tour leaders was Kadoski. She was not from the area, but she found she could never leave it behind once she got Cougar Annie in her sights.

"I heard about her on my first date with this guy I was interested in, and the question came up in a conversation we were having about where he most wanted to go in the world, if he could pick absolutely anywhere. And for a guy who was well travelled, really smart, who could have picked just about anywhere, he said it was Cougar Annie's garden."

Kadoski wasn't content to leave that conversation as rhetorical. In 2007 she moved to Cougar Annie's museum homestead as part of the Boat Basin Foundation's care and maintenance of the unique place. She was there, off and on, for three years.

It is a five-acre spread (the foundation's overall parcel is about 117 acres) with a healthy garden. It is an homage to homesteading on Vancouver Island and the woman who carved this one carefully within the oceanic rainforest starting in 1915. She raised some animals, had a commercial plant nursery, operated a small general store, was the area's post office for awhile, and that still shows thanks to her pioneering skills and the passions of caretakers like Kadoski.

It's about as isolated a place today as it was in Cougar Annie's day. Kadoski was naturally lonely while living on-site on the far-west coast of the island, but like the matriarch herself, she channeled that into creativeness.

"It was me making friends with the muses around there," she said. "I was inspired, it kept me busy, and it was fun to have a project that was coming naturally to me."

At first, Kadoski just wrote songs of any subject matter that came to mind. But soon, the power of that place asserted itself in her composition.

"The more I told that story (to tourists), the more I felt the impressions come to life that went into the songs," she said. "After a while I'd look at different areas and different times of her life. If I felt particular moments were dramatic, then I concentrated on those. It was so easy to be inspired by those stories, and it sure put my own life in perspective.

"It told me that even when I think things are going bad, they aren't as bad as they could be, comparatively. I don't have to run out with a shotgun to get a cougar off my chicken coop in the middle of the night. It has made me so grateful for all the civil unrest that went on from her generation to mine that gave us the tools to communicate better than ever before.

"We don't always use them, but we have them."

Kadoski eventually realized she had more than a collection of folk songs inspired by Cougar Annie. She had a stylized biography. With her access to the foundation's materials, by talking with Annie's family and people who knew her real-life protagonist, and delving into historical documents, Kadoski added elements of theatre to the package she named Cougar Annie Tales.

"I would estimate it is 40 per cent theatre and 60 per cent music," she said. "There are also some real documents I got access to - letters written to her - so I dramatize them. Some of it is pretty funny, but it informs the show."

She added costumes and props for production effect, the most informative visual element being Kadosi striking her Cougar Annie sharpshooter pose that has become the symbol of the show. The gun isn't real, by the way. The barrel is a modified broom handle.

"I got it from this six-year-old I know, and I was always asking to borrow it for shows, so I eventually just asked if I could have it on full-time loan. He looked so sad when he agreed, but he definitely gets a kick out of how I use it," she said.

She has been performing the show for several years, but it is still being honed, Kadoski said.

"Many people randomly know the story and some have met this woman, and that's a real gem for me, because they come up to me after the show to tell me these stories and I have to sometimes work it into the show."

These human peepholes into the Cougar Annie reality, along with the careful study she has made of the official documents (there is the Margaret Horsfield book Cougar Annie's Garden that won the 2000 BC Book Prize and surpassed 16,000 copies sold at last printing) makes Kadoski a unique authority on the pioneer's life. She has no definitive plans to write her own book about her mentor muse, but doesn't rule it out either, subject to spending more personal time there.

"If I did write about it, I'd want to walk that land and experience that culture and that landscape where the next point of land is Japan, just to put me in that space of consciousness," she said.

But she has other creative projects, too. She was part of a five-piece band called Honeygirl for a while. Now she is forming a trio, and counts four different endeavors she is currently involved with, including one with Prince George's Kathleen Greenfield (now the co-artistic director of Snafu Dance Theatre in Victoria).

In the immediate frame of time, Kadoski will be working through the area in her Cougar Annie garb. She is looking forward to Prince George in particular because she has such fond memories of 2005 when she came through as a member of Allen Dobb's band. It's also home to other musicians she appreciates.

"My favourite songwriter comes from there, so I often think of Prince George. Raghu Lokanathan is the best, we're so lucky to have him. I often noodle around with his song Ramona, I just love that one, but he is an amazing talent for us songwriters to look to."

Cougar Annie Tales will be performed on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at Art Space. Tickets available now at Books And Company.

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