The Fate of Ruby Lake

Published by Western Living Magazine in 2003.

I landed at Ruby Lake through a series of misadventures: I was supposed to catch a bus to take me to Malibu Resort and got my instructions mixed up and ended at Ruby Lake instead. A lucky mistake, as it turned out, because the owners welcomed me and showed me around their little paradise so I simply had to write about it. The story I was supposed to do, on the Malibu resort, appeared in the Courier.

Pause on the tiny, overgrown porch outside the Ruby Lake Resort Restaurant and listen to the birds–honking, twittering, trilling and whistling. Look up and watch as a dozen bald eagles and Turkey vultures ride the updrafts high above the trees. Then ask the Cogrossi family, owners of this rustic spot, about a huge white banner on the floating lagoon bridge: Help Save the Lagoon! Welcome to an Italian/Canadian environmental drama unfolding here, at the northern end of the Sechelt peninsula. The final outcome is still up in the air. But the omens are fortuitous.

It’s a drizzly Monday morning and the Malaspina bus to Powell River is half empty, but even in the rain, the small towns bustling with escapees from city life beckon. Galleries, studios, restaurants and B&B’s abound. The Sunshine Coast is a haven for people who’ve had it with malls, big hotels and expensive developments. Here you can still taste the pleasures of small town BC life, albeit with an international twist. Some of the passengers get off at the Ruby Lake Resort for lunch—they’ve heard about the sumptuous Italian fare created by Aldo Cogrossi; his ‘orgasmic prawns’, platters of home grown organic greens and shade grown coffee. Not to mention the hugs and ‘Ciao Bella’ greetings from his elegant brother, Giorgio, ex Armani model and man –about- Milan.  Between them, they’ve created a resort with a unique Italian /West Coast sensibility—the kind of unlikely fusion possible only on this corner of the globe.

Aldo is not just a great chef—he’s a dedicated environmentalist who’ll give you lessons on how to build a bird nest, and what it takes to nurture one nesting Wood Duck pair into a colony worthy of an annual Wood Duck festival. He’ll take you around Ruby Lake Resort for a show and tell, explaining how his informal garden sustains his beloved birds. Handsome and intense, he is the older brother who persuaded his entire clan–parents, grandmother and younger sibling Giorgio to exchange la dolce vita in Milan for a run down truck stop and a few ramshackle cabins located in the BC outback. An experienced bird activist in the Italian Alps since his youth, he saw a chance to create a bird sanctuary of his own. Giorgio saw an opportunity to work his charm and business acumen on a run down greasy -spoon. A decade later, it’s a favourite getaway for weary Vancouverites, and armies of Americans in search of something different. The bird habitat has the support from several environmentalist organisations. It seems to be a winning combination.

But Aldo is a worried man– worried that a decade of cooking risotto a la Papa Cogrossi and habitat building for ninety species of birds could come to naught. His neighbour, a certain Doug Bryant who owns the ninety acres surrounding the lagoon, had decided to develop this land. He was planning a Disneyfied camping and holiday centre, causing Aldo nightmares of noisy kids paddling into flocks of frightened birds. Adios, bird sanctuary. Good-bye resort.  “I got so depressed about the whole thing, I couldn’t cook,” he says, his handsome features morose.

At first, it looked like Bryant’s plan for development of ‘Footloose Trails’, would succeed. He wasn’t about to co-operate with his environmentally minded Italian neighbours, and went so far as to pay for attacks on the Ruby Lake Resort in the local advertising rag. This is when the Cogrossis got their first lucky break—in spite or maybe because of garish, over life size animal figures beckoning tourists, the ‘Trails’ failed to prosper and fell into receivership. It looked like a victory for the Cogrossis.  Except that the land ended up on the market for half a million dollars. Now the Cogrossis have something new to white knuckle about –potential buyers who could log, carve into parcels, or otherwise destroy their bird habitat.

Half a million dollars had to be raised, and raised quickly. And they needed help with their environmental ambitions. This is when they got their second break. Enter the effervescent Michael Jackson, Research Associate in the department of Forest Sciences at UBC, and Ph.D. candidate specialising in shallow water lake invertebrates at the University of East Anglia at Norfolk, England.  Because his wife is Canadian, he relocated to Vancouver. A chance dinner at Ruby Lake introduced him to the Cogrossis, the birds and the lagoon issue—and he was hooked. “I’m in a privileged position, because I’ve seen what can happen to this kind of healthy lake system in Europe,” he says.

Jackson put together a scholarly report on the possible uses of the property. His energy and enthusiasm for saving the lagoon—the banner was his idea—-is infectious. Ruby Lake, he says, is the kind of pristine lake the British have been trying to resurrect without success for forty years. Sometime during the ‘sixties, the lake systems in Britain suddenly ‘flipped’ from an apparently healthy “mesotrophic’ state rich in aquatic plants to what Jackson describes as ‘pea soup’, caused by nitrates which kill healthy diversity and encourage algae. “I was seeing this place through rose coloured glasses, but the pressures are building here, too,” he warns. Which is why he is now the newly minted Chairman of the Ruby Lake Nature Society, a duly registered non-profit group.  It has the support of The Pender Harbour & District Wildlife Society, Paul George of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Tony Greenfield of the BC Wildlife Watch, Wayne Campbell of the Wild Bird Trust, the Sunshine Coast Natural History Society and the Conservation Association, among others.

Jackson is optimistic about realising the society’s plans for turning this wilderness into an ecological field study centre. Ever the realist, Giorgio cautions that it’s a risky business. Aldo agrees: they still have to pay the mortgage. Everyone who comes to the resort eventually asks why they should help save the lagoon, and many decide to contribute something, says Giorgio. Still, raising that much money is a daunting task.  A large green glass jar collecting donations for the cause clearly isn’t enough.

Improbably, Fate stepped in again; an anonymous benefactor, a long time patron of the resort from Ontario, donated a large sum of money towards the land acquisition. It was enough to allow the Cogrossis to make a substantial offer. It was rejected. Although no other buyers materialised, the holder of the first mortgage said nix and the deal fell through. Undaunted, the Cogrossis put in a second bid to the two other mortgage holders. Giorgio, who says the original assessment was outdated brought in his own assessor, and put in a bid just below the asking price.

If it weren’t for the impending land sale, they could relax and just keep working on what has become a unique and profitable enterprise. But the uncertainty has forced the family to re-assess their priorities. It turns out that they have rather different ideas for the future.  Aldo’s vision is to expand his present bird sanctuary and turn it into a world-class ecological field research and teaching centre. The property is flat and grassy near the highway, but includes a steep mountain overlooking the lagoon. A BC Hydro power line cuts through a mix of first and second growth forest. Where the ordinary hiker sees a lot of berry bushes, Aldo envisions a flypath for birds, and a station for bird banding. “I’ve already talked to BC Hydro; they like the idea,” he says, his serious features breaking into a sunny smile. “I’ll be old when all this is established, groans Giorgio, who’s in his mid thirties. Not that he’s against his brother’s vision.

It’s just that for the urbane ex-organiser of parties for the European jet set, birds in and of themselves can get a bit boring. “I want to do something cultural on that land, you know, have some concerts in the woods, host some artistic events—it can’t just be about birds,” he says, adding that he wants to develop a dream of his own—singing. “I love to sing, I could have been a singer myself, and I want to surround myself with people who sing,” he muses.

Meanwhile, glowing articles in papers from Vancouver to Los Angeles have made the resort, the restaurant and the Cogrossi family almost famous. There’s no doubt the business is a success. This is partly due to the fact the brothers have acquired competent Canadian wives who also work in the business. Laura Tetzlaff, Giorgio’s new Canadian enamorata, has used her marketing expertise to keep the business alive. His brother’s new Canadian wife, Brigit, has started experimenting with desserts, and is as avid about birds as her husband. They have a young son, Paulo, the pride and joy of the grandparents. Antonio and Gabriella, as improbably handsome as their offspring, have adapted to life in the BC wilderness. Gabriella does the books while Papa Antonio goes fishing on the lake and brings his catch into the kitchen. Life is good. As for the future, Laura has a theory: She’ s convinced that as far as the land sale and the brother’s competing vision is concerned, nothing will happen until they have ‘worked it out’ between them. Whatever the outcome, the sounds of Ruby Lake will no doubt be birdcalls. Possibly abetted by someone singing Italian arias.

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