The White House On Cortes
The White House On Cortes
Charles M. Bidwell

Robyn put down her tuna salad sandwich and wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Why don't we head down the shoreline to the east after lunch. It's a sunny day and the dogs need a good walk."

We were eager to go exploring anywhere on Cortes Island, since it was our first visit to this rustic, rural spot where she and Alice had homesteaded on a peninsula.

After the dogs had been fed any leftovers of food from lunch, we stacked the dishes in the sink, and went out onto the deck and down the trail to the rocky shore. It was low tide and about 1:30 on a May week day. The sun was bright and warm but the breeze off the sea water was brisk.

The first purple star fish we saw was spectacular, but once we were alerted to them we began to see them in every crevice, waiting for the tide to wash in their next meal. The novelty gone, we kept our eyes on the rocks we had to step on, one after another, like a gandy-dancer hopping from log to log. Their cove gave way to a steep pile of rock at its east end and we climbed up and over to the next cove. The waves were gentle as they hit the rocks and accompanied our halting walk with a rhythmic beat.

The next cove was larger and on its east point was a huge white clap-board house. It stood three stories high on an outcrop of rock. It was large enough that it functioned as a landmark from miles away, to boats traveling the inter-island waterways.

Our route took us up and over the top of this promontory and as we approached the white house, I asked if we would be trespassing on their property and if so I assumed that they were friendly neighbours.

"Oh Chuck's friendly enough, I suppose, but he hasn't been here for a year and a half. He's a geologist and gets jobs all over North America."

"Who looks after this place while he's away?" I asked.

"The good spirits of Cortes, I suppose." said Robyn, "because I've never seen, or heard of anyone even checking up on its condition."

"What a waste to have all this house not being used, and not being taken care of."

"Yes, but Chuck has two other houses, one in Hawaii and one in Arizona, so I guess he's not too concerned about this one. Besides, there's nothing much in it except work tables and ladders and boxes of outdated geological journals and papers."

"Have you been inside or is that what you can detect from looking in the windows?"

"Both, as a matter of fact. The second floor door is unlocked and it's a fairly easy climb up the scaffolding at the north end. We check in every now and then to make sure that nothing major is going wrong like the roof caving in somewhere or a window breaking open from a tree branch falling against it."

"Can we snoop around now?" I asked, in hopes of satisfying my curiosity about how such a large house would be structured by rooms.

"Sure, but it's not much more than a shell. Floors and exterior walls but not divided into rooms yet. Be careful climbing because we're a long way from a hospital if you fall and break something."

We climbed the large and high front steps. Robyn had told us earlier that Dr. Kowall was a large man and so everything in the house is a bit higher and larger than in the average house. The door was solid wood and nicely carved and there was a plywood walkway all around the house so we could look in all the many windows and see that work had been stopped in the process of painting. The first floor was above the open under-house area where wood was piled for storage. The first floor of the house was about a third longer than the second floor and stuck out over the rock outcrop. It had a row of windows on the south end that gave a panoramic view of the waterway and nearby islands. It was a completely open space and looked like it was waiting for a bunch of tables and chairs to turn it into a dining room with a dance floor in the middle. There was an over-sized ladder in the middle of the room leading to the second story.

The scaffolding at the north end gave us a way to get to the second story walkway. The second story was smaller that the first, as I said, and had a door leading out onto the roof of the first floor. This roof could be easily turned into a deck with a railing. Such a deck would have an even better view than the first floor 'dining room' since it was a story higher and its windows were above the shorter trees that were around the house on three sides. The second floor had more reasonable room space. Again there was ladder in the middle leading to the third floor which was even smaller than the second floor.

The third story had the same row of windows as the first floor, only not as many since it was narrower than the first floor. It had a peaked roof with two windows in the attic so the whole effect was to make you think of a tall ship in dry dock.

"What a huge house for one man and for the remote location."

"Not only that but he has a guest house near the north end." Robyn added.

"He must really cherish his solitude, if he has all that space and still plans to put guests somewhere else."

"It's his dream home, I guess, because he's put a lot of work into it over the years." Robyn speculated.

"I still think it's a shame to see it abandoned for so long between his visits."

"Well that's the way it stands. Shall we head on out. There's a neat inlet just around the corner, and my guess is that with the tide will be out, so the water will be shallow and warmed up enough for us to be comfortable to take a dip."

We climbed on around the point and down to the shallow inlet. The water did feel inviting and so we stripped off our clothes and dove in. It was brisk, but refreshing and we welcomed the sensation after days of wash basin bathing at the cabin.

On the way back, I took another long look at the white house and wondered what it could become. I wondered all sorts of possibilities as I hopped from rock to rock in the afternoon sun. The stone stepping was becoming almost automatic and I had attention to spare for the house. It was large enough for a big family or a small resort with guest rooms and a common reading dining room (and kitchen) on the first floor. My fertile imagination percolated all sorts of options for the white house, and I dreamed of writing to the owner with a proposition of living in it, in return for some work to keep it maintained to a better degree than it was in now.

I shared my imaginings with my partner Gord and he seemed interested. We talked about the fun of dreaming of possibities and the dragging influences of reality. We didn't discuss the white house again for months.

The white house remained a lonely sentinel for another year, until Gord and I visited it again. This time I got more concrete in my dreams and took the time to get the full name and address of the owner. Alice and Robyn had learned it from the local postmistress and they had been given a tour of the house by Chuck about two years earlier. Gord got intrigued by the fantasy and together we drafted a letter to him. We felt that there was nothing to be lost in taking action and seeing if my imagination would bear a child of realization or not. After all, the worst he could do was never answer our letter or warn us to stay clear of the place on threat of being charged with trespassing.

We wrote about my dream and our offer.

Dr. Charles Kowall

Box 107

Whaletown, BC V0P 1Z0

May 17, 1994

Dear Dr. Kowall,

Please be patient and read this entire letter before you toss it away.

I am a soon-to-retire professor who is intrigued by your white house on Cortes Island. I have twice visited your house while staying with your immediate neighbours Robyn and Alice who are good friends of my partner Gord and mine. Each time we walked around your house we were saddened to see it so abandoned and lifeless. We sense that it is a majestic house just aching to have some people living in it and giving it life.

we have learned from Robyn and Alice that you are seldom around the house and yet we can see that you have put a great deal of caring effort into its design, location, and construction. I will soon have lots of time and energy, to care for your house in your absence, if that would be satisfactory to you.

Such an idea may be strange and unusual, but please read on, and see if it is possible that we can both benefit from an arrangement that allows Gord and me to live in your house, while you are not.

The primary consideration would be that both of us benefit from the arrangement or else either one of us can terminate the arrangement with due notice. Let me draft some aspects of the arrangement which we shall call our agreement.

The insurance and taxes and mortgage would continue to be your responsibility and you would rent the house to us at an agreed upon monthly rental amount of $800.00. We would look after all aspects of maintenance, such as painting, roofing, replacing broken windows, etc. In return, we would charge you $10.00 per hour for the labour involved in such maintenance plus the material costs. That rate is based on four hours a day for five week days and four weeks per month. We could report these hours of work and include copies of the purchase bills on a monthly basis and then you could either authorize greater expenses and repay us or keep a running tally and allow monthly charges that exceed the $800.00 level to be carried forward to cover a month or two when we either did very little maintenance or were ourselves absent for a trip.

It would be agreed that changes to the property could be suggested by either you or us but that no permanent changes would be made without your signature on the sketches or photos and documents describing them. We are both ecologically concerned and enjoy the challenge of working with nature to provide electricity and heat and food. Our friends Robyn and Alice have inspired us in this way and are almost experts in these matters. We would also utilize the natural beauty of the land to create a vegetable garden for our use. We would see that your belongings, already in place, would be stored in safe keeping, and that your geological files would be well stowed and cared for with respect for your confidentiality. We would also maintain your guest cabin and restore again any necessary items that may need tending to. We would provide our own transportation with our own boat as well as fix the existing walkways for our own safety.

Our plans would be to furnish the second and third stories of your house with our possessions in a style appropriate to its majesty and live there year round as caretakers of your property. We would make a later arrangement with you as to what will be agreeable to you when you come for a short (in weeks) visit and when you come to live for a few months. In such cases, we have several options: staying in the house with you and working with you on projects; staying in the guest cabin or staying with Robyn and Alice or going on a trip ourselves. If your intention is to retire and live in the white house permanently then were would return to our home in Edmonton at that time. In any case, we think 90 days notice would be agreeable for any change in the living arrangements beyond short visits by you.

We do hope that you will give serious consideration to our offer. Our credentials and letters of recommendation are enclosed.

Yours sincerely,

The Reverend Charles Bidwell, PhD and Mr. Gordon A. Woolley

11143-70th Ave.

Edmonton, Alberta

T6H 2G9

We mailed the letter and awaited his reply. Would he even bother to write back? Weeks passed with no reply. Then a letter arrived from Oklahoma. It was addressed to us both on geological survey paper, hand scrawled, and food stained.

Dear Dr. Bidwell and Mr. Woolley, June 15, 1994.

Your letter of May 17th reached me while I was out in the field. I am doing a geological survey in Tulsa and time has been of the essence, so I will be brief. Your letter intrigues me. I have given this a great deal of thought, and decided that a trial period of six months would be in order, with a visit from me at that time to determine if an extension could possibly occur. I have read your recommendations and your credentials seem to check out. I contacted both your referee and a colleague of mine at the University of Alberta. The contract will be drawn up by my lawyers and my accountant will look after the financial details. Good luck.

I will mail you a set of keys and you may legally inhabit the house once the papers from my lawyer have been signed by both of you and returned and the counter-signed copy is in your hands. We will send all correspondence to your Edmonton address until we hear otherwise from you. I would like to meet you before you sign but my work schedule will probably not allow it so I will have to trust the referee comments and my neighbours and see you in six months or so.


Charles D. Kowall, PhD.

It was a go! It was exciting with possibilities and we rushed right over to our calendar to see when we could arrange a trip to Cortes to look the house over in more detail and get serious about the practicalities of water, power, and access (I don't recall any dock). It couldn't be managed until September and even then it could only be for a week. I wasn't retiring until June 30, '95 but we needed to do some serious planning before we could move. We needed to arrange to rent our house in Edmonton and be ready to ship what furnishings we needed to Cortes.

We also needed to arrange for heating the house (water was available from water barrels under the eaves and light can always come from kerosene lamps) for the winter months. The income from renting our house in Edmonton would provide for our living expenses in the White House but we needed to arrange for solar power and telephone if we were going to maintain our connection with the electronic and radio world; that we regarded as essential to maintaining our sanity. Seclusion and getting close to nature was important and nurturing as well as challenging but we were both city boys from birth and too much isolation did not seem prudent until we chose it.

The months flew by and the agreement from the lawyer came in August and went back without much of a hitch other than we had to make some minor changes with regard to what had to be in place and operating before our 'rent' and habitation would go into effect . The counter-signed agreement arrived in September while we were on Cortes so we didn't get it until we got home.

In September, we worked on getting a stove installed and worked out an arrangement with Robyn and Alice that if we bought all groceries and shared in the cooking that we could eat our dinners with them and have cold breakfasts and lunches at the White House until we got self-sufficient with electricity. With the challenges of living on a remote island we came to appreciate all the conveniences of living in the city and also to realize how few of them we really needed. Our garbage was nil. There was no garbage collection so you either learned to use or recycle everything or how to dispose of it responsibly. There was also no sewage system so we learned how to live with pit toilets just outside the house.

We got a lot of coaching from Robyn and Alice not only because they were friends and neighbours but because they were politically active in getting the residents of Cortes to run ecologically responsible homes and we were a test case from the ground up you might say. It also got the White House started off on a natural footing before anyone ever lived there.

While the stove got installed, we cut and stored firewood from the dead-fall tree limbs that we had gathered from our walks on the property. Dr. Kowall owned 160 acres so there was no worry of running out of wood and having to fell live trees. In addition to the dead fall, there was a small but constant supply of drift wood. All we needed was a chain saw and ax and Robyn and Alice had both until we got our own or Dr. K. bought them through our 'rent'. Dr. K. had agreed to the installation of solar panels to generate electricity, so they were ordered along with their storage batteries to arrive later. We arranged to have a local technician install them, and connect them to the house wiring in the fall.

That is all that we could accomplish in that week, but we were prepared to make another visit at Christmas to try out the stove and electricity.

It was an unusual Christmas for us - no snow and no tree in the house and no gifts and no church. Instead, we sang carols with Robyn and Alice at a worship service we created with our individual contributions to the liturgy, and lots of candles. The white house was gifted with a pair of kerosene lamps and we toasted with a mug of hot mulled wine from the pot on the stove. Gord and I snuggled beneath the down duvet and to our delight, a light dust of snow fell outside our window. We were as snug as bears in a cave with a superlative view.

Christmas morning we awoke to find Cortez looking like it was covered with white sugar frosting on a cake. It was a fairy land, so we hauled out the Minolta that we were using for documenting work around the house and shot some outside photos of Christmas on Cortez 1994.

We had brought in our supplies a good sized turkey and so while I updated our journal of our work we had done for Dr. Kowall, Gord prepared the bird and we invited Robyn and Alice to be our guests for Christmas Dinner. We also asked along Hubert and his wife, Helen, and Bruce, the electrician who made possible the power supply to the white house and the new telephone. Bruce was a widower and a bit of a loner, but he gladly took us up on our offer. Everyone brought a contribution for the table and it turned out to be a very festive occasion. We brought in a broken cedar bow and collectively decorated it with popcorn and newspaper chains colored with the felt pens we used to color our drawings to Dr. K. when we had suggestions for improvements on the white house. After dinner, we sang Christmas carols and told stories of all our combined adventures on Cortez.

The Spring of 1995 arrived and so did we for another week of work and play at the white house. Our arrangement with Dr. K. was working out well so far, we had arranged over the winter months that a well was to be sunk up on higher ground away from the ocean, so as not to cause any salt water seepage. We would oversee a crew who were to come in and drill by barge and it was good to know that once completed, we would have a fresh water supply to carry us through the summer months, even if a drought occurred and the rain barrels could not supply our needs. A cistern was installed on the bluff as well and a pump was placed nearby with a small gas powered generator. It worked like a charm. The essentials were beginning to fall into place. First power, heat, and now water. Dr. K. was due for a visit, so we cleared out and headed for Arizona to a yearly church convention. When we got back to Edmonton, there was letter from Dr. K. indicating his pleasure that our planning and hard work was beginning to pay off. He advance us another $2000.00 for maintenance supplies and suggested that we look into a permanent docking facility. We knew that from our talks with Robyn and Alice that this was no small proposition and that it would probably cost in the region of $10,000 not to mention the yearly taxes necessary to hold a permanent waterline installation. We outlined this in our next correspondence to Dr., K. and were surprised to receive a check back in the mail of $15,000 for work to begin on a safe dock to be installed by summer's end. This was great news and that was to be our project for the summer.

Gord started the monumental task of painting the outside shell, since it had not been done in some five or more years. We had suggested another color to Dr. K., but the reply was white, so white it was. Fall arrived and the dock was now in place located west of the main house in a small protected bay. It was a bit of a hike from the dock to the main house but we had been advised that due to the location of the house being on a peninsula the weather conditions could become quite severe at times, so this was the safest location for the dock. All the door frames had been newly painted and the window frames had one coat, so we were very pleased with our progress to date.

Spring of 1996 brought a new challenge: a rock garden with vegetables. And planter boxes built from a cedar tree that we had felled; it was too close to the house and was beginning to become a hazard if a storm were to hit from the right direction. Gord created them with the help of wonderful new addition, an electric chain-saw hooked up to a generator. The solar panels were not functioning as planned and so we suggested a wind machine to Dr. K. in one of our copious letters. Our file to him was beginning to flesh out, since we copied everything to his lawyer and accountant and always seemed to find him agreeable. Dr. K. seemed as driven as we were in completing the next phase of the five year plan we had now created. We would set a goal, and work toward that end. It was fun to write about what we were planning to do prior to it happening, and then look back on the notes after the project was complete.

Charles was ready to retire full time now and it was the summer of the year 2000. We had put away quite a nest-egg, and with all the work we had put into the white house and the relationships we had made over the years, we felt that Cortez was our second home. Almost from the start, we had become members of the F.O.C.I. and were dedicated to going into the next century with Cortez still being a rural island community. The organization had now grown in membership to 300 and the in-fighting and arguing was still as fierce as the day we joined. That was what you could expect from a diverse group of independent, intelligent people and that was what made it so colourful. One internal disagreement was usually resolved in time and by consensus before the next one arose but not always. It was good to be part of such a passionate community and know that when we were challenged by Victoria or some non-Cortes power base, we were united in protecting our basic way of life on this island.

The White House had inspired us to leave our comfortable city home and venture into an entirely new way of life. We had done it and it had been a rich experience but now that Dr. K was wanting to sell the property we would be returning to Edmonton. The asking price for this house and its land was much more than we could afford and we had voted in the bylaw that restricted subdividing properties after 1994. To protect the rural nature of Cortez we had prevented ourselves from living here permanently but it was worth it to maintain the treasure of Cortes for generations to come. Someone else would bring life to the white house. We had prepared the way and now it was time for us to move on--to be open to the next adventure that would present itself to us as a dream to realize.

Copyright © 1994 Charles M. Bidwell