By Howard Clifford
As far back as I can recall, I have felt the tug of wilderness. The first four years of my life was spent, first on a farm, then in the small hamlet of Ribstone, Alberta near the Saskatchewan border. It is strange why some early experiences rather than others retain their vividness into adulthood. The details may have faded but the broad outlines of the experience and its emotional components are still with me. I was visiting my cousins about a half-mile down the road from our house and my attention became fixed on a trail leading into the woods that I had heard went past our home. Dare I? It was a forbidden trail. I knew my parents would have heart failure if they knew what I was contemplating. I can still feel my heart in my mouth as I started down the path and around the first turn. To my young eyes the trail seemed awfully long and I began to worry that I was lost. It was with decided relief accompanied with a feeling of pride in my accomplishment that I finally stepped onto the gravel road and saw our house. To a three year old this was high adventure. I couldn’t share it with my parents for I knew I would be punished if they knew what I had done. It wasn’t that I was a disobedient child -the call of “wilderness” was just too strong.
This identification of nature with high adventure was reinforced when my mother, following our supper, took me and a wagon to find firewood. This was not something my mother would have done if it had not been for the fact my father was in Edmonton about to be shipped overseas for World War Two duties. Sure enough my mother’s sense of direction failed her and she was soon turned around. As evening shadows cast a somber mood upon the woods, I sensed she was lost. Secretly I was delighted. Imagine being able to stay out all night in the bush! I would have been afraid if I was alone but felt safe on my mother’s company. However picking up on her gathering fear, I too began to worry. May be it is not safe after all or else why is my mother so fearful? I recall putting my hand in hers and saying “Don’t worry I can find our way back.” I still remember my own anxiety, as I was a lot less sure than I let on and was almost as relieved as she was when my sense of direction proved accurate. It was with certain pride that I heard my mother repeat the story on different occasions always ending up with ‘I don’t know how a three year could be so at home in the woods’.
At about four years of age we moved to Edmonton and some of my favorite recollections involved sneaking away to the forested Saskatchewan River valley. The ravines became a sanctuary for me. Never did I feel more whole or freer than when I wandered those forested trails.
This love of nature never diminished as evidenced by the numerous vacation times I spent as an adult traveling remote northern rivers. To this day these trips remain indelibly imprinted in my mind.
Jean shared my love of nature and motivated us in 1978 to start looking for wilderness property in the Ottawa vicinity. The plan was to use the property for recreational purposes while securing a spot where we could build a home when we got nearer to retirement age. We had found nothing of interest on our country excursion Sunday afternoon, January 7th. It would have been long forgotten if it hadn’t been for two unexpected events. We were on our way home driving through Richmond and for some unexplainable reason decided to stop at an open house. An agent for Glengarry Realities pulled up at the same time and we told him what we were looking for. He gave us his book of listings to look at while he prepared for the open house. There was nothing that struck our interest but we did notice a home on Dwyer Hill that we had just driven past. For some strange reason both Jean and I seemed drawn to it. The realtor said he knew the people and was sure they wouldn’t mind if we came by for a look. Neither of us knew why we agreed to go as we were not in the market for a home. We walked into the house, stopped and looked at each other. Both of us had instantaneously fell it love with it. We walked outside and discussed it for a few minutes and impulsively made an unconditional offer.
What had we done! Our plans for a wilderness property put on indefinite hold! We took possession on April 2, 1979. On Sunday, April 14th I saw an ad for a 100-acre bush lot about a fifteen minute drive from our new home. The low asking price was due to the fact that there was no road access. Just an old trail containing beaver floods. What depressed the value of the property was just the thing that attracted us. A remote inaccessible wilderness a few minutes away. The best of both worlds! Needless to say our financial situation was now stretched to the limit.
We were completely happy with our choice. So out of this background of contentment how did what we now call the Alba Wilderness Property come into our possession? It happened this way.
I was home alone with our youngest son, Barrie and was reading the Ottawa Citizen. It was an early autumn day, 1980, a full a year and half since I had searched the newspaper for properties. Absolutely no need nor interest in so doing. I still am without answer for whatever moved me to glance at the Out-of-Town properties. I was only flipping through the pages when an ad ‘a lodge on 10 acres’ barely registered. However the next line suddenly caught my eye ‘or will consider selling it with 1250 acres and part of a small lake’. The price was extremely reasonable but also far beyond my means. I remember thinking ‘if I had the money I would look at this’.
Suddenly and inexplicably I was overcome by this urge to take a look. I had less than five hours before Jean would be back. If I hurried I could take a quick see. All the way I berated myself with the absolute irrationality of what I was doing. Each time I considered turning around something prompted me to keep going.
Upon arrival I realized why the asking price was so reasonable. There was a 5-year logging lease allowing the total property to be clear-cut. The loggers were about to start their third year of the lease and already the property looked like a war zone. The only saving grace was the Ministry of Natural Resources would not allow the picturesque high ridges to be cut nor deer yards located in the low areas. Neither could they take cedar or pines, which had been previously reserved to the crown.
As my eyes took in the desolation, I felt like crying. In the midst of this devastation, how can I explain the feeling that swept over me that this was home? My natural eye could still see immense beauty in the landscape and in my mind’s eye I could see down the vista of time to the return of the forest in all its majesty.
On the way home my mind struggled with the impossible dream. How could I acquire the property? Perhaps if I gathered a number of like-minded friends to collectively purchase the property with a covenant to let nature restore itself without further intrusion or development. We would use it only as a recreational area.
This option crumbled before me as one friend after the other told me that the timing was wrong for them. Although I had ran out of options, the property still had a hold on my soul.
Bob and Lorene Martin came by for supper. I knew they were not in a position to become involved and I suppose I only mentioned the property because I found it difficult not to talk about it. It didn’t surprise me when Lorene said: “I would love to have such a property”. It was not with any thought that this would lead anywhere that I suggested we drive out and take a look. Neither did it surprise me when she quickly responded: “Oh no. We have only debts. We have nothing to contribute to a down payment!” What did startle me was what came out of the Jean’s mouth. She laughed and said: “Let’s take a look for the fun of it. We don’t have any money either but that has never stopped Howard before.” I was floored. Jean is the stable, cautious person in our family. Never in a million years would I have anticipated her making such a statement. Perhaps she thought there was no way on earth we could acquire it so she would not have to worry about her compulsive husband.
An hour later found us at the property, which we walked for about an hour. They were able to look past the ugliness of what man was doing to the property and see it both for its current beauty and its potential.
Back at home and over coffee we light heartedly talked about what it would be like to own it. Out of the blue I said ‘let’s phone him’. As Mr. Brian Clements answered the telephone my head was swimming. Why on earth am I bothering him? The conversation went like this: “We don’t want to waste your time. You will have to come down at least $20,000 or there’s no point in discussing it further.” A long pause was followed by “Maybe we can talk.” “Well you will also have to take a couple of properties in trade as we have no down payment.” “Are you Crazy? I am in the logging business not real estate. Why do you think I’m selling it in the first place?” Then just as I thought the conversation was over he asked in passing: “What do you have?” “A small cottage on the Madawaska River near Calabogie.” A long silence followed. “You might not believe this but last week a friend knowing I was working in the area told me to keep an eye open for cottage on the Madawaska.” Following some discussion he said, “well the cottage might be a possibility.” My heart leaped with a surge of hope. Then with great trepidation I nervously added, “I told you we had two properties.” He groaned and asked where the second property was located. I told him we had a lot in the Gulf Islands. (We had bought this when we were in Edmonton thinking we might retire someday to B.C.)
“Where is the Gulf Islands?” “In B.C.” “Out of province, that’s ridiculous!” My heart sank. Then he asked “Where ‘bouts’ in B.C.” “Near Nanaimo.” Another agonizing long silence. He started to laugh. “My mother-in-law lives in Nanimo and she’s always talking about wanting an Island lot.” He seemed quite non-committal when he said he was pressed for time but could possibly meet with us tomorrow at a restaurant in Calabogie.
Although the Martin’s and Jean were listening to my end of the conversation, I had no idea what they were thinking. If Mr. Clements could be persuaded to accept the two properties, the down payment would be covered but we would still have to secure a sizable mortgage. I could hardly expect the Martin’s or Jean to agree to something this quickly and I had visions of having to telephone Mr. Clements back to cancel the appointment.
I think all of us felt surreal as we discussed the matter. No matter how we sliced it, it would be difficult for both families. We ended up agreeing that the two families would share mortgage payments.
The next day found Bob and I meeting with Brian Clements and we left with an agreement to purchase!
When we took possession several of the neighbors came by to introduce themselves. Most started with the same statement; “So you purchased the house and ten acres.” “No, the whole 1250 acres.” Inevitably this was met with disbelief. It turned out that the only day that Mr. Clements had advertised the possibility of including the rest of the property was the one-day I looked at the ad. He had intended to wait for the logging lease to be over and sell the land at that time. However since he had been unsuccessful at selling the house and had run into a serious cash-flow problem leading to a crisis with Revenue Canada, he advertised the total package. A number of the local residents said they would have bought the land but didn’t think it was for sale.
To this day I still can’t explain the mysterious chain of events that made the purchase possible or the power of the feeling that came over me and kept me going when it seemed to be an impossible dream. To this day it just seems “right” – “Meant to be”. We feel truly blessed!