Review: Galena Bay Odyssey by Ellen Schwartz

My Quick Take: This back to the land memoir of homesteading in the British Columbia wilderness in the 1970s proved to be a captivating read.


I’m a child of suburbia, and now live in Vancouver, so I’ve never had the chance to try my hand at farming, or inhabiting a piece of property somewhere I could live off the land. And I’m good with that! But sometimes I fantasize about what I might do if I could live two lives. What alternative might I choose? The answer? One thing I’d have loved to try is homesteading, or living as self-sufficiently as I could.

I like to think that I’ve given it a token try with my small patch of grass. I’ve torn up a fair amount of my lawn, and planted veggie gardens. I love to plant edible things, and my garden expands a little each year. Last year I added some gooseberry and redcurrant bushes. I thought of having backyard chickens, but in an urban setting I think it might be too much.

Reading Galena Bay Odyssey was so fun. Ellen Schwartz and company were hard core. She and two others, one of whom was her partner and future husband Bill, moved to rural BC in 1972 with nothing but a bit of cash, a desire to leave the US, and live a back-to-nature life with as little environmental impact as possible. They bought undeveloped land, and proceeded to build a cabin, outhouse, a sauna, a barn, a beehive, a chicken coop, and a huge garden.

Can a homesteading memoir be a page-turner? It was for me! It kept me up at night, especially reading about the chicken-raising adventures, the bees, and the encounters with bears. At first, I was thinking, “Oh yes, I’d have loved to do this in my alternate fantasy life. I’d be a great homesteader!” However, by the time I got to the section on bears, and also the occasional medical emergencies, the almost getting lost in the woods, the freezing showers…I had second thoughts.

Ellen and Bill lived on the property for 10 years, and I am amazed at their determination. Ellen had no idea how to do most of what she had to do to survive. She grew up in an urban setting too, and wasn’t used to being in nature. When she and Bill were first travelling across Canada from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast of Canada, she first learned to camp and hike.
“We went on a hike in Banff National Park. Me…in new boots with Vibram soles, hiking up a mountainside! Huffing, certainly. Feeling jabs of pain in my side, frequently. But still, I was hiking, enjoying the muscle-weary feeling, and even keeping up with Bill. And the feeling when we reached the top of the trail: all my straight-A report cards were nothing compared to this. I’d never imagined a colour as beautiful as the milky turquoise of the glacial lake that spread out below. It is still my favourite colour.”
And when she first saw the piece of land that would become her homestead:
“Before, I had thought of wilderness as something wild and chaotic, a dark place where animals ripped out each other’s guts. But now I began to see that wilderness wasn’t all mystery and danger. It was this lichen-covered rock, that fallen hemlock; this woodpecker’s tapping, that glacier occupying that position in the sky. I felt the quiet spirit that arose from the gently sloping land, the broad expanse of the lake, the silence of the forest.”
I love how they just forged ahead, even when they encountered difficult things. If something needed to be done, they just had to do it and they figured it out. Books, homesteading magazines, a couple of knowledgeable neighbours, and occasional visits from friends who had skills, and they created a homestead. They made lots of mistakes, but they endured. “This attitude–'I don’t know how but I can learn’--became our motto, not just in building but in everything else we undertook. It is perhaps the most important lesson we learned in Galena Bay.”

The writing is fantastic in this book, creating a sense of time and place (the 70s counterculture and Galena Bay), and it was just so interesting. In the end, I got to live vicariously through this book, which was a treat. I have realized that maybe my gardening efforts are really something that I can enjoy as a small taste of self-sufficiency, “farming” my small patch of dirt. Though I’m unlikely to ever be a homesteader, I can do just a little bit.

Thanks so much to Heritage House Publishing for a copy of this book in exchange for my review.