Memories of Christmas past

Tlelligraph, by Elizabeth Condrotte: When our family arrived on the islands in the early 70’s, Cape Ball a was sort of suburb of Tlell.

  • Jan. 4, 2016 9:00 a.m.

When our family arrived on the islands in the early 70’s, Cape Ball a was sort of suburb of Tlell with some seven families, living on the banks of the Ball River on what was once a ranch in pioneer times, and some along the beach which was actually the road at low tide. The latter were squatters who were later to be evicted and their cabins burned when Naikoon Park was formed. Over the years, most Cape Ball residents left but others moved in until they too eventually moved on. We ourselves moved into Smokey’s cabin in Tlell and as we had a telephone, found ourselves often hosting our Cape Ball visitors who needed to use it when they came out to check the mail or head to town. This earned us our first Christmas invitation to Cape Ball.

We had a couple of horses which we kept in the “Dunes” stable and pasture next door (later to become park headquarters) so we decided to ride them to the Boxing Day party which was to be an overnight affair. The next morning we all enjoyed the sauna followed by a plunge in the river and I gashed my foot either on a piece of the ice we had to break to get into the river or something sharp on the bottom. Either cause gave me a profusely bleeding wound that needed stitches. The Cape Ball vehicles would not start on that cold morning so we were back on the horses with my throbbing foot seeping blood through the bandage and marking our way home to our own vehicle for the trip to the hospital.

A few years later we had left Tlell and moved to Port. The horses were gone as was their accommodation and Bill, Wendy and little Nathan had decided to spend the winter in Fran Fowler’s cabin in Cape Ball. They used a tractor to make their trips out and just after Christmas invited us to spend New Years Eve with them at Cape Ball. We packed up our party supplies and headed up in the wagon behind the tractor, a much faster trip than the horses had been. All the Cape Ball women were dressed in “hippie formal” and the men in their finest with party hats and noisemakers. We welcomed in 1977 while the kids tried to stay awake and enjoy the excitement. New Years Day found just the four of us sitting around the table making a plan that would change our lives. On January 2, we came out to make an offer on the Turner place, which had just been logged. We sold our respective properties, pooled our money and went in together to buy what are now Tlell Bay Farm and Riverworks.

During the 80s though, Tlell Bay Farm was Naikoon Guest Ranch and home to a herd of Haflinger horses. Ken and his dad Dogfish were farming the old ranch at Cape Ball while Jeannie was living in a trailer in a corner of my property so Tian could go to school. Ken would take them up to Cape Ball in his old beach truck for weekends. Christmas holidays started late one year and the truck needed a part. Ken walked out to order it and Jeannie would bring it up before Christmas. It was usually easier to get a ride up the beach but not that year and two days before Christmas I volunteered to take them up with the horses. We saddled up our three most reliable to ride and one of the others to pack all the stuff that was needed for Christmas, including the part. Not having a proper pack-saddle or any skill with a diamond hitch, we hung everything on young Naikoon’s saddle or in our own saddlebags and planned on a slow trip to Cape Ball. We got to the park headquarter with no trouble but then Tian’s dog ran onto the highway just as a car rounded the corner there. She was hit. Luckily the driver stopped and took her and Jeannie back to the Veterinary Clinic. Tian and I waited, each holding two horses, until Jeannie returned with the good news that the dog was fine and the bad news that her Christmas would be spent in the animal hospital.

A slow horseback trip to Cape Ball takes about five hours. By the time we crossed the river, the tide was coming up and we were worried about getting caught in the early December darkness. Fortunately CBC was still broadcasting message time on their noon show and Jeannie was able to get a warning to Ken and Dogfish that we were coming but would be late and that I please wanted a fire in Fran’s cabin. It was dusk when we crossed the river but the men were there to help unload and take care of the horses, which went into the corral beside Fran’s cabin.

After a delicious hot meal, I turned down the offer to stay in the farmhouse, and I walked the frosty trail over to the cabin under a full moon and starry skies. A warm cabin and the mellow glow of a kerosene lamp reminded me of my childhood Christmases and I fell asleep to the sound of grazing horses outside the window. That same window filled with rising sunlight the next morning as Ken and Jeannie arrived with a thermos of hot coffee and help. The horses all had to carry their saddles back and I hoped none of them would roll. They must have been feeling their morning oats as the trip home was made in only half the time as usual, and with the low tide we were able to cross at the mouth (not recommended) to shorten the distance. All four horses cantered or galloped along the sandy beach and only walked where it was rocky. It was the most exciting ride of my life and we made it into the barn with plenty of Christmas Eve left to decorate the tree with candles and enjoy the traditional supper.

The horses are gone, Fran’s cabin at Cape Ball has changed hands and subsequently burned down one winter. The farmhouse and the little cabin across the river have collapsed and I haven’t ridden the beach or even been to Cape Ball for more than twenty years to see the changes that time has wrought. No-one actually lives there now except a few of the cows that went wild several years ago. There are still cabins more recently built that are visited from time to time. But memories keep the ghosts alive especially those of Christmas past.