House Beautiful: Living on top of the world

When photographers Rosemarie and Pat Keough finish shooting assignments in Patagonia, Antarctica or Siberia, they head home to an equally exotic location: their mountaintop hideaway on Salt Spring Island.

Here they can focus on 360-degree views stretching more than 500 kilometres to Mount St. Helens, or enjoy a close-up landscape they created inside and around their extraordinary home.

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“We were very lucky to find such a spectacular location,” said Pat, who tells friends it’s like living in Toronto and being able to see Montreal.

It’s also like living in an airplane, and they know all about that, having circled the globe for decades while collecting dozens of awards, including Nature Photographer of the Year and World’s Best Photography Book for Antarctica.

The $5,000 tome was launched at St. James’s Palace, London, during an event hosted by Prince Charles.

Pat and Rosemarie have travelled from pole to pole, lecturing and photographing everything from people to pyramids, from elephants in southern India to coral reefs in New Guinea, and their house reflects their peripatetic lifestyle. It bristles with harpoons, didgeridoos and aboriginal talking sticks.

But their fascination with nature and culture, as well as their vigour and resourcefulness, are also seen in their handcrafted home itself, which is unique in many ways.

Most houses have four external corners, but this one has 45, and although they worked with an Oregon architect on the footprint and roofline, Rosemarie and Pat did 90 per cent of the design and 30 per cent of the labour themselves.

Construction on Salt Spring in 1993 began after a major eureka moment.

“We love to hike and canoe, and one day realized it was crazy living in Toronto,” said Pat, who explained artist and friend Robert Bateman introduced them to the island, where life is more aligned with their passion for nature — and there are no horse flies.

They didn’t travel light when moving west.

During a visit to the Ottawa Valley, they had noticed a pulp mill was closing. “We saw acres and acres of huge fir beams stacked high along the shore, some up to 50 feet long and 16 inches thick,” said Pat. They had been shipped to Ottawa mills from B.C. 100 years ago as log-boom retainers.

“We bought a truckload of them. It ended up costing $8 to $9 a linear foot, landed on the island.”

These magnificent beams frame their home, along with recycled wood from old mills on Vancouver Island.

Originally, the Keoughs bought land and planned to build at Isabella Point, but one day, Rosemarie spotted a sign in Ganges advertising view acreage. There was no road into the property, and it was a challenging hike, as the land had been clear-cut, but they came up over the edge of a knoll and couldn’t believe the views of Mt. Baker, the Cascades, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams and an armada of sailboats sprinkled over glistening water below.

Their creativity was inspired by architects Hank Schubart, and Americans Greene and Greene, as well as ancient Japanese farmhouses and alpine homes in Austria and Italy.

These influences merged with their fondness for wood: their living room boasts 14 types of wood, including mahogany, African padauk, Pacific yew reclaimed from clear-cuts, fir, diamond willow, cherry, white spruce, oak and white pine.

Each room in the 9,000-square-foot house is a work of art, but the 1,000-square-foot living room is a showstopper, with massive beams and an immense red cedar trunk planted in a bed of stones.

Many of the stones were collected on their travels to places such as Siberia and Papua New Guinea. Where others might fill pockets with pebbles, these two strap boulders under helicopters or lash them onto trailers.

Every beam in the house was carefully cleaned and finished by the Keoughs, retaining all the chain marks, rope burns and historic scars before cutting and setting.

The two also ground and sanded all the wood floors, giving them a wavy quality that’s “perfectly imperfect,” said Pat, who did the rough grind while Rosemarie did the fine.

Inspired by the undulating floors of European cathedrals and colonial homes in Zimbabwe, this labour of love took nine months. Rosemarie said they achieved the look by cutting parquet squares to slightly different thicknesses before Pierre Bois laid them.

“It’s called an obsession,” she said with a grin. Pat added: “We are obsessive perfectionists.”

Rosemarie painted and textured every ceiling and wall in the house after Bateman showed her how to apply an outdoor stucco premix by hand, with a plastic bag over her forearm. Victoria craftsman Alexander Vido spent seven months building the hexagonal staircase.

Most people hang chandeliers above stairs, but not the Keoughs, who flew home from an expedition on the South Nahanni River with a white spruce log “swinging like a pendulum under a Jet Bell Ranger helicopter,” said Pat. It was drilled for electricity and John Wiebe created a Japanese-style lamp on top.

“Each of the artisans who worked on the house was pretty amazing.”

The house is overbuilt in almost all aspects, with sprinklers in every room and closet, and fire escapes from every upstairs room via windows opening onto the gently sloping Decrabond metal roof. The shakes are fireproof, safe to collect water and rated to withstand 150-kilometre winds.

Every wall is covered in plywood as well as drywall — “So we have sheer walls throughout,” said Pat. Rather than eavestroughs, they have Japanese-style streambeds circling the home, flowing under a bridge and into a pond. “Stone gutters in the ground are more work to build and more costly, but aesthetically beautiful and the system is plumbed so we can recirculate the water,” said Rosemarie. “It’s not hard to do things right. It just takes more time.”

Beyond the stone gutters, the owners have created an extraordinary landscape in their 27-hectare property. Besides the nearly one-kilometre driveway, a network of wilderness walkways weaves through rough-hewn rocks and sarsen-like standing stones, one of which lines up exactly with the setting sun at summer solstice.

The owners determined each rock’s resting place and Pat chained each to be hoisted and positioned, but they credit two experts for helping shape their vision: stonemason Robin Doobenen, who cut rock off and on for seven years, and Mark Hughes, who was “a magician” with an excavator.

“We felt like symphony conductors,” said Rosemarie, “with the extraordinarily talented Mark moving massive rocks around and placing boulders, while Robin did the fine tuning and cutting.”

One of their most striking outdoor elements is a miniature amphitheatre built to seat 150 on jutting rocks and ledges. The Keoughs are members of an international society called the Explorers Club, formed in 1904 and dedicated to the advancement of field research. For 10 years, they have hosted symposiums here.

“In 10,000 years, some geologist will probably stumble upon this mountain top and go mad trying to figure out how all these rocks got here from around the world,” said Pat with a chuckle.

As he spoke, he gave one of the standing stones a friendly pat and it let out a deep, eerie tone. When others tried the same trick, nothing happened.

“Pat can do it because he’s Celtic,” said Rosemarie. “I think he has Druid in him.”

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