Malcolm Metcalfe’s earliest childhood memory is of being in the pilothouse of the SS Nasookin during the grand old ship’s final days.
Once the largest sternwheeler on Kootenay Lake, it was by then a car ferry plying between Gray Creek and Fraser’s Landing three times a day. Metcalfe’s namesake grandfather, Malcolm MacKinnon, was its captain.
Metcalfe recalls sitting on a shelf behind the ship’s wheel.
“I remember my grandfather trying to get me to put my hand on this cord that came down from the ceiling and had a big tassel,” he says. “I wouldn’t touch it. So he pulled it, and of course it was the whistle. I screamed bloody murder.”
That whistle blast is forever emblazoned in his memory — the only thing he can remember from that far back, much less with crystal clarity.
“My mother tells me I was two years old at the time. I told her that story, not the other way around. That’s by far the earliest memory I have as a kid.”
Metcalfe has a photo of himself with his grandfather, taken on that voyage, looking out the ship’s front window.
He also has another memorable souvenir: the Nasookin’s original wooden wheel. His grandfather received it when the ship was refitted as a ferry in 1933.
The modifications included removing an entire cabin deck, lowering the wheelhouse, and substituting a smaller steering wheel to fit the new dimensions.
The old wheel, which is 8.5 feet (2.6 metres) in diameter and weighs something like 150 lbs. (68 kilograms), sat in an attic at Capt. MacKinnon’s Procter farmhouse.
He gave it to his daughter and son-in-law in the early ‘60s, who cleaned and varnished it, and in turn gave it to Metcalfe a little over 20 years ago. In all, it’s been in the family’s hands for nearly 80 years.
“We had houses in West Vancouver with high ceilings so the wheel stood proudly in our house,” Metcalfe says.
However, when they moved to their current place, its much lower ceiling couldn’t accommodate the wheel.
Metcalfe and wife Linda had to decide what to do with it. They could give it to one of their children, but neither had met Capt. MacKinnon, who died nearly 30 years before they were born, nor had they spent much time in the Kootenays.
“So we thought that wasn’t really appropriate. If I gave it to any of the rest of our family, same problem. Most of my cousins have moved all over.”
Metcalfe started looking for a long-term home for the wheel where it would be well cared for and people could see it. Over several months “we sniffed around and found two or three options, but none really made sense.”
Then by chance, they met one of their son’s friends, who grew up in Gray Creek — the Nasookin’s former terminus.
“Next thing I know I got a phone call from her mother, who was an active part of the Gray Creek Historical Society. Then Tom Lymbery called me. He knew my grandfather and sent pictures that showed him in Gray Creek with the boat.”
Metcalfe explained his requirements for the wheel, and the society agreed to abide by them.
“I was absolutely thrilled to give it to them,” he says.
The handover took place last month, and the wheel will be unveiled tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. in its new home at the Gray Creek store, where it will hang from the ceiling.
Lymbery’s father Arthur founded the store in 1913 — the same year the Nasookin launched, with MacKinnon at the helm.
The store also took phone messages for the boat. According to Tom Lymbery, MacKinnon would wait a few minutes if someone phoned to say they would be late for the last sailing — unless the call came from Kuskanook, where there was a beer parlour.
The Lymberys have other pieces of the Nasookin, including the freight door and a small cabin door.
The wheel was made of “very good quality wood,” Metcalfe says. “I believe it’s solid oak. It’s very hard and very strong. I assume it was all hand-cut and put together piece by piece. It’s a remarkable piece of work.”
Metcalfe, 67, was close to his grandfather, for shortly after he was born, his father went overseas with the air force.
Metcalfe lived with his grandfather and mother on the farm at Procter for about a year and a half, and he “was the only man in my life,” until his father returned from war.
“He and I were always special friends until he died when I was seven, which was pretty traumatic for me,” Metcalfe says.
Metcalfe grew up in Trail and worked for West Kootenay Power before moving to the Lower Mainland.
Capt. MacKinnon skippered the Nasookin until it was taken out of service in 1947. Part of its superstructure is now incorporated into a North Shore home.