Stories of Island’s trailblazing women include global adventurer, First Nations photographer

Aloha Wanderwell: Driver and Photographer

“Brains, beauty and breeches — World Tour Offer for Lucky Young Woman … Wanted to Join an Expedition.” So read the advertisement in the Paris newspaper. The restless and bold sixteen-year-old English schoolgirl couldn’t resist. She applied.

The advertisement was for a filmmaker and secretary for a seven-year ­adventure around the world. The man advertising the position was Walter Wanderwell. Originally called Valerian Johannes Pieczynski, he was a former sailor, hiker, avid adventurer, and referred to as “Captain.”

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In 1919 Walter and his wife Nell started Wanderwell Expeditions, a round-the-world endurance race with competing teams trying to log the most miles in their 1917 Ford Model Ts. In 1922 he and Nell separated, and he sought a new filmmaker, driver and secretary.

The schoolgirl who responded to the advertisement spoke French, German and some Italian. After the tour she would speak some Japanese and Russian also. She was fit, strong, and six feet tall. Her mother gave her permission to join the tour on the condition that she change her name for it to safeguard the family name. And so, Aloha Wanderwell came to be. Could there be a more fitting name for an adventurer than that?

Virtually unknown, but utterly worthy of knowing, Aloha proved to be the ultimate adventurer. In 1922, still aged sixteen, she began the trip that would make her the first woman to drive around the world.

When most young women her age were preparing for marriage and settling into domestic roles, she was speeding around the world — driving, flying, and developing photographs. She’s been called the world’s most travelled woman, a female Indiana Jones, and the Amelia Earhart of the automobile.

Aloha was born Idris Galcia Hall in 1906 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her family moved to North Vancouver, Victoria, Duncan, and then Qualicum Beach. Her childhood was spent in Qualicum Beach, where her family had a large amount of waterfront land that later became Judges Row and is currently filled with beach houses. Hall Road in Qualicum Beach is named after Aloha’s family.

In 1917, Aloha’s father died in the Battle of Ypres, and her mother subsequently moved the family to Europe. Aloha attended a convent boarding school in Nice, France. The school bored and stifled Aloha.

She was smart as a whip, restless, and adventurous. She read adventure books that had been her father’s, hid romance novels under her mattress (sneaked in by the convent housekeepers for her), and was repeatedly disciplined for ­opening her dormitory windows. She yearned to gaze at the ocean, see roads and smell the fresh air. On her fourth visit to the principal’s office over open windows, the school gave in and allowed Aloha special open-window permissions.

Aloha was born for adventure, and her adventure of a lifetime began with her acceptance into the round-the-world driving tour. Finally, she could live ­authentically. She wore beige riding breeches, a white shirt, goggles, and a flying helmet. She was living her dream life, but she didn’t forget her family — she sent her wages home to her mother and sister.

By day, Walter, Aloha, and their crew drove and filmed, with Aloha and Walter driving in separate Model Ts. By night they developed and edited the day’s footage. The documentaries they made, what were then called “travel lectures,” showed the amazing places they travelled through, and the lecture screenings funded their trip. They played the movies to audiences in every city they stopped in.

Audiences were enthralled by the footage. It’s easy to forget how difficult it was to access information in the pre-Internet era.

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Aloha Wanderwell and Miki Hall. - Courtesy of Richard Diamond and www.alohawanderwell.com

Upon joining the tour, Aloha travelled fourth-class on a ship from Marseilles, France, to Port Said, Egypt. The ticket manager nearly did not allow her onto the ship as a fourth-class passenger, because she was a young woman. Aloha insisted she be let aboard, explaining she had a job waiting for her and that her ticket was her way to make more money.

The manager let her aboard. Fourth-class conditions were filthy and crowded. Her sleeping cot was among French soldiers, and on her first night she kicked one in the face when he tried to assault her. The other soldiers beat him up, put him in chains, and put tarps around Aloha’s cot for privacy.

She camped in a tent on the back of the sphinx in Egypt. She walked through Cairo’s red-light district and witnessed funeral pyres in India. She was the first woman to drive from Bombay to Calcutta. In India, a raja tried gifting her an elephant, but she graciously turned it down. He then tried giving her a camel, which she also politely declined. Undaunted, he then offered Aloha a monkey, which she accepted and named Chango. Every good adventure should have a monkey.

While at a masquerade ball in Calcutta, India, Aloha had her most dangerous experience of her travels. She got a mosquito bite that became seriously infected. She eventually saw a doctor who was paid a quart of quality whisky to lance the bite and treat the infection.

Aloha had travelled unscathed through areas embroiled in civil wars of the time, escaped the threat of death squads in China, diplomatically spurned advances by powerful, often dangerous men — and then nearly died from the bite of a tiny mosquito. Aloha and Walter not only fell in love on the tour, they married in California during it.

Marriage did not slow Aloha down or tempt her into a life of domesticity. She ate coconut and lychee fruit picked from the roadside near Singapore. In the United States, she was arrested and charged $200 for impersonating an army officer after her outfit was mistaken for an army uniform.

She hunted crocodiles, braved storms on a freighter from the U.S. to Africa, camped near lions and jackals, and was made an honorary colonel of the Red Army of Siberia. Aloha and Walter edited their footage in a real film studio in Kyoto, Japan. Before she was twenty, Aloha had visited places many men and women never visit over the course of a lifetime. Her passport had more stamps than the passports of many avid modern-day travellers.

Aloha’s sister Margaret Hall, whom the family called Miki, was also an amazing woman. She had been at the same convent boarding school in France as Aloha. The girls’ mother told Miki to go along on the tour as a chaperone, so Miki joined the tour for several stints between 1924 and 1929. She was present for the Cape-to-Cairo leg of the journey, which was one of the journey’s most gruelling sections.

The expedition finished in 1927, and in 1932, Walter and Aloha bought a yacht called the Carma, which they planned to sail while they continued making films. That plan was crushed when Walter was fatally shot on the yacht in Long Beach, California. The main suspect was found not guilty. No one has ever been charged with his death.

In 1933 Aloha married Walter Baker, one of Walter Wanderwell’s former cameramen, whom she met while in Wyoming. The couple travelled, explored, and made documentaries from 1933 until 1942.

***

Aloha was rebellious but also wholesome. She was open to adventure and did whatever it took to get her car through myriad countries. She refused to drink, smoke, or swear. She loved driving steep, treacherous roads. But she also loved lavish hotel rooms and hot baths.

In 1939, when she was thirty-three, Aloha wrote a memoir based on her detailed trip journals. She titled it Call to Adventure. It chronicles her seven-year, round-the-world expedition through eighty countries and makes clear that she craved adventure and thrived on novelty. New food, new cultures, new people, and new experiences. She was most at home in new and exciting places.

Her retirement years involved preserving artifacts and films from her many adventures. She and Walter Baker lived on Lido Island, a manmade island near Newport Beach, California. Miki lived on Vancouver Island, in a house in Merville built by Walter that she named Windsong. She spent her summers there and winters on Lido Island with Aloha and Walter.

Aloha passed away in 1996 in Newport Beach, California, a year after Walter, and also a year after Miki had passed in Comox, B.C.

Aloha Wanderwell had a fulsome career. Her varied jobs included cinematographer, driver, director, documentary maker, writer, and photographer. She was also a lecturer in travel at the National History Museum in Los Angeles.

Adventure was the theme of her life. She chased adventure from the moment she was old enough to make her own decisions, and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the first woman to drive around the world.

Aloha was a brave woman who lived life authentically, valuing adventure and travel over other more traditional roles.

Elizabeth Quocksister: Cultural Teacher and Photographer

Elizabeth Quocksister was many things: cultural teacher, community leader, dancer, nurse, mother of ten, and photographer. Her photographs preserved moments, displayed changing ways of life, and promoted culture. She loved music, dance, and traditional food. She witnessed enormous changes in her life but throughout it all wanted people to get along in harmony. She advocated for people of any cultural background to be able to learn about Indigenous cultures.

***

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Elizabeth Quocksister - Courtesy of the Museum at Campbell River

Elizabeth Gordon Glendale was born in Knight Inlet, 80 kilometres north of Campbell River on B.C.’s central coast, in 1925. Her mother was Katherine Henderson, a midwife from Alert Bay who lived to be 104; her father was George Glendale, a hereditary Chief.

Elizabeth’s home Nation was the Da’naxda’xw Nation, whose traditional territory lies in Knight Inlet.

Being the eldest child of high-ranking parents, Elizabeth was considered a princess and had ten princess names. With this inherited honour came a large copper shield that represented tradition, power, prestige, and wealth. She was thus said to be “born into the copper.” Hereditary status always goes to the eldest sibling, with other siblings not having the same honours.

When Elizabeth was ten years old, missionaries from a residential school came for the children of her village. Elizabeth and her family knew only too well that the missionaries would take the children from their parents and forbid them from honouring their language and culture. Young Elizabeth hid under her mother’s long dress when the missionaries came to the door. Not noticing her, the missionaries left.

However, on a subsequent visit they succeeded in capturing Elizabeth and taking her to St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay. The residential schools were places of abuse, suffering, and horrific treatment — shameful marks on Canada’s history.

Years later, Elizabeth met a man named George Quocksister at a community event in Campbell River. George had attended the same residential school as Elizabeth and was a hereditary chief from Campbell River. During his time at residential school, he and his younger brother were constantly hungry; they ate moldy bread and regularly found bugs in their oatmeal bowls. They remembered their father telling them not to eat anything bad, so (like many) they decided to run away. They took shoes, bread, and water and left secretly in a dugout canoe.

After paddling over seventy kilometres north, they landed in Kelsey Bay, near Sayward. The boys hid the dugout and then began hitchhiking, only to be picked up by police, who laughed and took them to a Port Alberni residential school. George eventually left residential school when he turned fifteen by convincing the judge that if they let him go, he would become a commercial fisherman and wouldn’t be a burden on society.

He fished for seventy-two years and made a very good living. Elizabeth and George married in 1946 and had ten children together. They vowed none of their children would attend residential school — and none of them did. Some went to college and others became top-notch skippers on fishing boats.

Both Elizabeth and George were extremely hard-working. George fished his entire life, and Elizabeth had a variety of jobs. She worked with George on fish boats. She worked at canneries in Bella Bella and Ocean Falls. She worked as a nurse’s aide at Lourdes Hospital in Campbell River. All while running a household, caring for the homeless and less fortunate members of her community, and promoting traditional culture and language.

She also found time for a hobby: photography. She had received a camera as a gift and used it to take striking photos wherever she went. A collection of her photos from between 1940 and 1960 is part of an online collection belonging to the Museum at Campbell River. They do exactly what excellent photos should do: capture the moment, make you feel something, and tell a story. They teach something about that time, beginning from when Campbell River’s population was under two thousand and the Island Highway was a single lane road. To say they show great change is an understatement.

Some of the photos are family portraits, taken in the doorway of a house, on a bench in Kingcome Inlet doing what families do — smiling, laughing, arms draped casually over one another. Elizabeth’s photos show mundane life moments in a fresh way.

Cute children crowded together on a porch. People at work—fishing, or working in the Bones Bay Cannery in Johnstone Strait. Miss Campbell River beauty pageant contestants in a fancy convertible.

A Canada Day parade. They also tell stories of injustice and sadness. They represent times of rampant racism. Photos taken before 1950 feature Indigenous children who couldn’t attend public schools and adults who couldn’t practise their culture, vote, or be considered citizens of Canada.

Her photograph collection shows remarkable contrast and variety. A woman in front of an intricately carved totem pole; a man in a sleek and shiny car. A child, bicycle at his side and cedar bark gathering basket on his back; two teenagers sitting in the grass, very evidently in love. A woman standing on her porch, leaning on a pole and looking dreamily at the camera while a little girl in gumboots and braids tugs at the hem of her dress, vying for her attention.

All this without any formal training.

Elizabeth was also deeply involved in preserving her local language and culture and spoke both Kwak´wala and English fluently. She learned ancient songs and dances and taught them to others, including her children, after anti-potlatch legislation was repealed. A talented seamstress, she also taught her children how to sew traditional regalia.

When Elizabeth’s children were young, adults in the commuity were careful not to speak Kwak´wala in front of their children. This was because if children were found speaking Kwak´wala, the parents would be arrested. Elizabeth valued her language so much that she went with other community members to speak their language in an orchard near their homes. The orchard was chosen because it was out of earshot of the children.

Traditional food was a big part of Elizabeth’s life. She survived off the land. Her children remember Elizabeth in her garden, growing beets, potatoes, corn, and string beans. Her son George described the land as being a “candy store,” covered with berry bushes, apple trees, and pear trees.

Elizabeth smoked fish and canned various foods—salmon, deer, fruits, and vegetables—and loved making desserts. She often made soft baked apples filled with sweet brown sugar. At Halloween, she made candy apples—a tradition still going strong in her community today.

***

Elizabeth’s legacy includes helping others whenever she could. A major way in which she changed the lives of others was by saving many girls from the horrors of residential school. She would find babysitting work for girls from St. Michael’s Residential School, which helped them escape. They could then return to their family, community, and culture, free to move on with their lives.

In 2008 Elizabeth was recognized by the City of Campbell River. They honoured her with a Community Builder Award for her public service and selfless contribution to the betterment of the City of Campbell River. She was the founding member of a group of people keeping culture and language alive. Her children said she started the traditions of Easter egg hunts and Christmas trees in downtown Campbell River. Every Christmas Elizabeth would bring a box of cookies to each household, with her daughter Carol and son George assisting her.

In July 1981, Elizabeth’s children describe her as “going home to the Creator.” She was fifty-four years old and had had cancer. Her husband, George, followed her in 2017.

Elizabeth’s legacy lives on through her children. George Quocksister Jr., Carol Bear, and Louella Serhan are all involved in their community. Louella designed regalia with her late mom and knows all the designs. Carol was recognized by the City of Camp- bell River in 2016 for her leadership in initiatives like Walk Away from Racism and other events by Kwakiutl District Council.

Like their mother, Carol and Louella do all they can to maintain their culture by sharing what they know, by teaching singing and dancing, and sewing button blankets. George Jr. is a hereditary Chief and committed environmental activist. He works with the marine conservation NGO Sea Shepherd to fight against fish farms, which he sees as taking away livelihoods and food sources—not only fish stocks but also clams and prawns.

The children remember their late mom as a hard worker who was friends with all. They remember her being brilliantly smart, with her education coming from reading books. They remember her being left-handed, valuing education, taking them by bus to pick strawberries in summers, and being gifted at teaching culture. She loved music and played the mouth harp, harmonica, and accordion. Elizabeth and George survived off the land and worked together always.

Their children remember them holding hands together as best friends. Both did very well for themselves financially. Elizabeth had absolute respect for her culture and believed everyone should be able to learn about other cultures.

Elizabeth Quocksister was a remarkable woman whose legacy of cultural teaching and photos are truly admirable. They chronicled changing times and add to the understanding of history. And it can be argued that a better understanding of history can contribute to reconciliation—which is vital to a healthy, equitable society.

From On Their Own Terms: True Stories of Trailblazing Women of Vancouver Island, by Haley Healey.

Published by Heritage House Publishing, 2020.

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