Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

Archive photos courtesy of the Mack Laing Heritage Society

Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

By Guest Writer

Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries may be a second best to local legend, Hamilton Mack Laing’s account of his motorcycle ride from New York to the San Francisco World Exhibition of 1915.

One hundred and two years after he wrote The Transcontinentalist, this local legendary naturalist’s account of his journey on an early 14 horsepower Harley Davidson continues to fascinate Canadians, some of whom` easily filled the Courtenay Museum’s auditorium this week to hear readings from the new edition of his memoir by author Trevor Marc Hughes.

Hughes presented an animated and illustrated presentation of Hamilton Mack Laing’s previously unpublished memoir, under its new title, Riding the Continent, published by Ronsdale Press, and which is to be released July 15.

Author Trevor Mark Hughes reading excerpts at the Courtenay Museum this week

The lecture presented some of the rich silverpoint photos taken by Laing. The photos reveal a young Laing fresh out of the Pratt Institute Art programme as an early Ansel Adams, pushing the limits of wilderness landscape photography as an art form.

Laing, who built two famous houses of certified national heritage interest in Comox — Baybrook and Shakesides — lived here for many decades (1922-1982).

He was an illustrious early British Columbia writer and naturalist in his own right and is increasingly recognized for his many contributions to Canada’s scientific history. Notably as the mentor of Dr. MacTaggart-Cowan, who was himself the mentor of David Suzuki, and as an early influence on no less than the late Farley Mowat.

Although Laing was a giant in natural history, he is less known as a Harley-Davidson rider. Laing described himself in his mid-30s as a “motorcycle-naturalist.”

For several years beginning in 1914, Laing used the motorcycle to access the natural world, believing it gave him a distinct advantage over other forms of transportation. During this period in his life, he would take on a transcontinental journey, riding across the United States from Brooklyn to Oakland in 1915.

In his presentation of excerpts from Riding the Continent, Hughes presented the story of a pioneering motorcyclist and independently thinking naturalist, as well as an unusual road trip As a well-published motorcycle enthusiast and historian, Hughes ranks Laing’s account as “perhaps the best piece of motorcycle-writing” known to him.

As Laing put it, “the lure of the unending road is a call that will not be denied.”

Hughes pointed out that Laing’s tale presents his experience of a pre- First World War America unspoiled by real roads or automobiles. He meticulously presents the beauty of North America’s bird life, describes the sights, scenery and people he encountered, and takes us along for the ride on a 1915 Harley-Davidson he named Barking Betsy.

As North-America is becoming increasingly conscious of its natural heritage, this is undoubtedly the first of many books by and about Laing that will be coming forth this decade. Hughes’ excellent presentation made a great case that this book is a must for the bookshelves of Comox Valley residents wishing to understand Canada’s history.

Laing’s legacy lives on in his gifting of his house and property to the Town of Comox as a nature preserve. Laing left this gift to the Town of Comox in trust, and it is to be hoped that the Town of Comox will one day find the wisdom of respecting this important national treasure.

Riding the Continent will be available for purchase after July 15 ($19.95, Ronsdale Press).




Hamilton Mack Laing was an important Canadian naturalist, photographer and writer. He moved to Comox in 1922, cleared his land and built his home from a “Stanhope” Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. In 1927, he married Ethel Hart of Portland and they established a successful and commercial orchard which included walnut, pecan, filbert, hazelnut, apple and plum trees. They also grew mushrooms and vegetables. After his wife, Ethel, died in 1944, he sold his original home, Baybrook, and built a new home, Shakesides, on the adjoining lot. He bequeathed the waterfront property to the Town of Comox and it became Mack Laing Nature Park — excerpted from content on the Mack Laing Heritage Society‘s website.


Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More Arts & Culture | Mack Laing

Court will allow opposing evidence in Mack Laing case

A BC Supreme Court has granted the Mack Laing Heritage Society intervenor status in the Town of Comox’s application to alter the naturalist’s public trust. MLHS hopes the new council is open to out-of-court discussions

Town’s Mack Laing “hub” aims to influence court

The timing of the Tow of Como’x new information hub about Mack Laing seems to indicate that it will function mostly to justify the town’s controversial decision to have the terms of the Mack Laing Trust altered by the B.C. Supreme Court and to report on the outcome of the case.

Questions the Town of Comox doesn’t want asked in court

Why is the Town of Comox fighting so hard and spending so much money on lawyers to keep the Mack Laing Heritage Society from presenting evidence during a BC Supreme Court trial to decide whether the town can vary the terms of the famous ornithologist’s financial gifts in trust to municipality?

Supreme Court rules in favor of Mack Laing Heritage Society

The Mack Laing Heritage Society has won a major legal ruling in its battle to force the Town of Comox to honor trust agreements with the famous naturalist. It’s the first step in a case that will decide the future of Laing’s iconic home and clarify the status of his trust agreements.

Shakesides supporters encouraged, hearing adjourned

A B.C. Supreme Court hearing scheduled for this morning (March 15) to determine whether to grant standing to the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) in the Town of Comox’s application to vary one of the famous ornithologis’s trusts has been adjourned until April. But Shakesides supporters left the court session encouraged.

Town of Comox confesses: we misspent Laing’s money

The Town of Comox has, for the first time, admitted to spending money left in trust to the town by Hamilton Mack Laing. And the town took a first step toward reparations. But not everyone agrees the town did enough.

Comox Council ignores good faith offer to fix Shakesides roof

The purposeful neglect of the Mack Laing heritage house by the Town of Comox has reached a new low. Hamilton Mack Laing gave his house, known as Shakesides, along with a substantial sum of money in his Last Will and Testament for the purpose of converting it into a...

What was the point of Shakesides’ graffiti?

Vandals spray-painted the historical home of Hamilton Mack Laing, known as Shakesides, this week with what appears to be a lame version of tagging. Squiggles of red paint were carelessly sprayed on three sides of the building, and a circle with an upside down ’Y’ was...

Tell us your story! New health care advocacy group asks public for help

Tell us your story! New health care advocacy group asks public for help

BC Government illustration

Tell us your story! New health care advocacy group asks public for help

By Guest Writer

If you have personal experience with health care, including home care, residential care, if you are waiting for residential care, or need respite care, Seniors Voices Comox Valley would like to hear your story.

The group is fairly new but has been working privately for a few years. It formed out of a frustration with the shortage of available residential care in the Valley and then an interest in the numbers behind the hospital running at over-capacity.

Seniors Voices Comox Valley became increasingly concerned about the state of seniors’ health services for the Valley and for the province of British Columbia. The group says on their website, “we have decided to lend our not-yet-retired talents and experience to creating a voice for seniors. A voice especially intended for those of us who are least able to advocate for themselves.”

Delores Broten, one of the group’s founders has been trying for year to determine what the real need for residential is in the Valley.

“My husband was very ill, paranoid, and delusional and I just couldn’t take care of him anymore, but there was no relief in sight.,” she said. “I tried all kinds of avenues to get information, and heard so many different stories from the system. There was a list. There was no list. There were 70 people waiting for beds on the list that didn’t exist; there were 29 people waiting for beds. It would take months. We would have to go to Nanaimo. Meanwhile the front line workers said, ‘Hundreds, and in dangerous situations.’”

Eventually the group developed an analysis and statistically based projections that, with our growing and aging population, the Valley will need at least as many new long-term care beds again in 2021 when the newest facility, Golden Life, opens. Our new hospital will also remain sadly over-crowded.

But that’s a number crunching exercise, according to retired management consultant Peggy Stirrett, another founder of the group.

“To understand and convey the true story, we need to know the real impact on people for all seniors health care services. Only the people of the Valley can tell us that based on their own experience,” she said.

The group has recently launched a website so they can connect with the community. It displays useful resources for seniors and about seniors’ healthcare advocacy. It is a source of information and research for the group’s current advocacy support including the Comox Valley Seniors Village families project.

There is also an analysis on our care bed shortage and its impact on our hospital operating at over-capacity.

“We also need all kinds of other help,” Broten said. The group is looking for volunteers to look after the website, to maintain a database, to help with economic analysis, to make a Facebook page, to answer correspondence, to write letters, and eventually to help with public events.

But most of all, right now, they want to hear your story. Readers can start participating by filling out a confidential questionnaire.

For more information, people can contact the group at info@seniorsvoices.ca



Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More Health Care | News

Petition put to BC Legislature: restore North Island pathology

North Island MLA Claire Trevena presented a petition signed by over 2,500 people to the BC Legislature Nov. 20 that calls for the return of onsite clinical pathologists’ services to the Campbell River Hospital and to investigate possible conflicts of interest within Island Health

BC’s logging practices called out by Comox Valley group

Supporters of Save Our Forests Team – Comox Valley (SOFT-CV) rallied outside Claire Trevena’s office in Campbell River to protest the provincial government’s continued logging of the last stands of productive old-growth on Vancouver Island

Day of Action planned to protect Island’s remaining old growth timber

Day of Action planned to protect Island’s remaining old growth timber

By Guest Writer

Comox Valley citizens will stand others across the province this week to demand that the NDP stop provincial government-sponsored clear-cutting of the little remaining old growth forest left on the Island and South Coast.

The Day of Action will take place at 4:00 p.m. Thursday, June 6, on the Courtenay Courthouse lawn.

“We need to send a strong, clear message about catastrophic clear-cutting sanctioned by our Premier, John Horgan, our Minister of Forests, Doug Donaldson; and our local MLA, Ronna-Rae Leonard. They and the NDP government in Victoria are using BC Timber Sales, an
agency that supposedly represents the people of BC, to auction off significant tracts of old growth to the highest forest industry bidder,” said a spokesperson for the event.

The group wants the provincial government needs to stop telling British Columbians that BC has enough old growth left to sustainably harvest “when the truth is that less than 10 percent of productive, valley-bottom Island old growth remains.”

“The Day of Action will call out our government and its representatives who are relentlessly abandoning old growth forests to the interests of the logging industry,” she said.



Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More News
Test drive electric cars and bikes at Saturday’s Comox Valley show

Test drive electric cars and bikes at Saturday’s Comox Valley show

Test drive electric cars and bikes at Saturday’s Comox Valley show

By Guest Writer

Lave you ever thought of owning an electric car? If so, you’re not alone. BC Hydro expects one out of every three new car buyers to reach beyond traditional fossil fuel powered vehicles and grab the keys to an electric car.

To help guide your decision-making, several Comox Valley groups have organized an electric car and bike show at 10 am on Saturday, May 18, at the Comox Valley Sports Centre on Vanier Drive.

In addition to the car show, World Community Film will screen What is the Electric Car? at 7 pm Tuesday, May 14, in the Stan Hagen Theatre on the North Island College campus.

The Move2Electric show on Saturday will feature a number of zero-emission vehicles — including a Tesla — available for test drives, a speaker series and panel discussion and  information about how to access up to $16,000 in incentives for electric car purchases.

Move2Electric is hosted by: Comox Valley Nurses for Health and the Environment, CV Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of BC, Glasswaters Foundation, CV Electric Vehicle Association, EmotiveBC and the Watershed Sentinel magazine.




Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More Environment
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

The headline from this famous editorial from the Editorial Page of New York Sun in 1897 is well-known. The actual letter is less well-known, and neither is the back story about the editorial writer and the letter writer. We reprint the letter here, and below it the story of Virginia  O’Hanlon and Frank Church.



We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view andpicture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus?Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!



Francis P. Church’s editorial, “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” was an immediate sensation, and became one of the most famous editorials ever written. It first appeared in the The New York Sun in 1897, almost a hundred years ago, and was reprinted annually until 1949 when the paper went out of business.

Thirty-six years after her letter was printed, Virginia O’Hanlon recalled the events that prompted her letter:

“Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said there wasn’t any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my father, and he was a little evasive on the subject.

“It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in doubt, we wrote to the Question and Answer column in The Sun. Father would always say, ‘If you see it in the The Sun, it’s so,’ and that settled the matter.

” ‘Well, I’m just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,’ I said to father.

“He said, ‘Go ahead, Virginia. I’m sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does.’ “

And so Virginia sat down and wrote her parents’ favorite newspaper.

Her letter found its way into the hands of a veteran editor, Francis P. Church. Son of a Baptist minister, Church had covered the Civil War for The New York Times and had worked on the The New York Sun for 20 years, more recently as an anonymous editorial writer. Church, a sardonic man, had for his personal motto, “Endeavour to clear your mind of cant.” When controversial subjects had to be tackled on the editorial page, especially those dealing with theology, the assignments were usually given to Church.

Now, he had in his hands a little girl’s letter on a most controversial matter, and he was burdened with the responsibility of answering it.

“Is there a Santa Claus?” the childish scrawl in the letter asked. At once, Church knew that there was no avoiding the question. He must answer, and he must answer truthfully. And so he turned to his desk, and he began his reply which was to become one of the most memorable editorials in newspaper history.

Church married shortly after the editorial appeared. He died in April, 1906, leaving no children.

Virginia O’Hanlon went on to graduate from Hunter College with a Bachelor of Arts degree at age 21. The following year she received her Master’s from Columbia, and in 1912 she began teaching in the New York City school system, later becoming a principal. After 47 years, she retired as an educator. Throughout her life she received a steady stream of mail about her Santa Claus letter, and to each reply she attached an attractive printed copy of the Church editorial. Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81, in a nursing home in Valatie, N.Y.