In case you have never heard of Cougar Annie, she is known as a feisty character, a pioneering woman who survived four husbands and lived in the isolated wilds of the west coast of Vancouver Island at Hesquiat Harbour in the early 1900s. Annie was a survivor who grew a terrific garden in inhospitable territory and was famous for the number of cougars she shot while defending her territory and her family. When I first met Dr. Pam Aldis, she put me in mind of Cougar Annie. Pam didn’t seem to mind when I told her so, in fact she said that if she had lived in Cougar Annie’s era, she believes she would have lived as Annie did.
Dr. Pam, now retired, lives in the wilds of Merville with her two cats, and two students she rents rooms to. Her warm and inviting West Coast style house sits on a seven acre property with the Tsolum River running through it.
Dr Pam Aldis at home
She is regularly visited by ducks and other wildlife, but instead of cougars, raccoons are the pest that she defends her goods against, with the help of a shotgun. Pam is no stranger to shooting. At the tender age of eleven, while on the family farm in Norfolk England, Pam was given a shotgun by her father. (She still has the shotgun-a 410, today and uses to shoot grouse with). Although Pam did become a doctor while still in England, she developed all the tools for survival at a young age, and like Cougar Annie, today lives off the land in many ways.
Pam’s life started out as an adventure. She was born in Malaysia just before the advent of the Second World War. For safety, her family was shipped off to Australia, except for her father who became a POW. In fact, he was among those who built the bridge over the River Kwai (a story which was made famous by the 1957 film ‘A Bridge On the River Kwai) “My father was Alec Guinness”, Pam told me – a personage pivotal to the story and the building of the bridge. The family was reunited when the war ended, and a wealthy uncle helped them settle in England on a farm.
When asked what made her decide to become a doctor, Pam said that as a young child, she was asked to assist in the birthing of a calf and realized that she wanted to do something like this for a living – but not quite. She wanted to be able to talk to her patients, so instead of becoming a veterinarian, she decided to apply to study medicine. Although the family could not afford to send her to school, Pam was able to get a scholarship and was accepted into the prestigious St Bartholomew’s Medical College, attached to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. ‘Barts’ as it is commonly known, is in fact the oldest hospital in Great Britain, established in 1123.
As can be imagined, there were not many women studying medicine in the 1950s (10 women to 90 men) and she says that the female students relied on each other for study support. After graduating and practising medicine for one year in England, Pam decided she wanted to try another country, and her father suggested Vancouver or Victoria (where he had visited), as English was spoken there. Pam came to Canada in 1964 and found work at Vancouver General Hospital and established a practice there for ten years. Although she was a family physician, she delivered over 120 babies every year as she found that pregnant women often preferred a female doctor. Pam met her husband (who was also a doctor) in Vancouver. They frequently visited Vancouver Island during those years and had a ‘shack’ at Ship’s Point in Fanny Bay. When an opportunity came for her husband to practice in this area, they made the move here.
Pam learned to hunt on Vancouver Island from a neighbour at Ship’s Point who was known to the family affectionately as ‘Grandpa Reynolds’. Pam maintains enormous respect for Reynolds, (who has since passed away) and says that he was a true outdoorsman, with extensive knowledge of wildlife and the Vancouver Island wilderness.For many years, she and Reynolds travelled together to the best hunting areas of the island – Sayward and Port McNeill, and Mt. Washington, where they camped and hunted for deer, elk and bears. Although Pam has never shot a cougar, she has seen them up close and says they are a truly beautiful animal. Pam would also never shoot a goose, as they mate for life.
In terms of her career, Pam was initially not quite so fortunate. She was unable to find a position in Courtenay as the medical community did not look favourably on female physicians at that time. Instead, she worked in Campbell River for one year and enjoyed the hospital and the people she met there, then went to work at CFB Comox in 1975. Eventually, she opened her own practice in Courtenay on 6th street, and was joined by another female physician. In her late 50’s, she split her practice with another female MD and they each worked three days per week.
During these busy years, she raised two daughters, one who now owns an organic strawberry farm in Royston and with whom Pam shares a sizeable garden, and the other who is following in her mother’s footsteps and will shortly be practicing medicine.
Bear skin gracing the wall of Pam's home
Pam retired in 2005 and since then has been able to pursue her other passions full time – hunting, fishing, gardening, mushroom hunting and travelling. Now at age 70, she still makes forays over to the mainland with new hunting partners to hunt black bear, which she says is delicious meat if you get a spring bear. The fat rendered from the bear apparently makes great pastry. She also still likes to hunt mule deer and moose. Judging by her kitchen and her well stocked larder, good food is important to Pam. She refers to wild meat as ‘orgasmic’ and believes in the health giving properties of it. And this is one doctor’s opinion I certainly would not disagree with!