Review by Wayne Swanson •
It’s not easy to find Doug’s cabin. Or Doug himself, for that matter. Doug lives deep in the rainforest at the remote northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. He’s the proprietor of the San Josef Heritage Park and Campground, a grand name for a struggling collection of primitive campsites. He’s a real person, but in Karianne Bueno’s photobook he’s also a metaphor for life in a place leading “away from the inhabited world.”
Bueno, an Amsterdam-based photographer, discovered Doug on a camping trip in 2010, and was captivated by his life in the wilderness. After a complicated search to get back in touch with him, she returned over the following years in an attempt to chronicle his life and his connection to a place where nature is constantly rebuffing man’s attempts to tame it.
Getting to know any person or place is not a linear process, and Doug’s Cabin is certainly not a linear book. That’s clear from the layout. The front cover is just a forest image of moss-covered branches. To find the title you must flip to the back cover. The index and colophon are placed somewhere in the middle of the book.
The book begins with several full-page, full-bleed spreads of dense rainforest — no title page or introductory text — that establish the remote setting. Then you find the first of several newsprint inserts sewn into the binding. These pages are perforated, opening to fold down or across to reveal artifacts, found photos, and diary and email fragments. Over the book’s 190 pages, Bueno’s full-color photos and these inserts slowly reveal the history, people, wildlife, and the ever-encroaching forest.
Doug’s Cabin is set in the wilderness heading inland about 12 miles from San Josef Bay to the town of Holberg, population 35 and falling. Western settlers first came to the area at the beginning of the 20th century with dreams of taming it. But nature keeps pushing them away. At the start of the Cold War, Holberg became a thriving community when a military radar station was established there to detect Soviet bomber attacks on North America. When the Cold War ended, the base was closed and its buildings burned. New-growth forest has taken their place.
Bueno tells her story through imagery and text that provide a mosaic of the landscape, the history of the area, her experiences there, and Doug. The 10-page “Index” fills in many details by providing annotations for some, but not all, of the images. These text passages, some of them several paragraphs long, show the depth of her research, which was facilitated by Doug.
But who is Doug? Is that him, by the stream, looking away from the camera? Is that his cabin, on the edge of the clearing? These associations are implied, but never directly explained. We find more clues about Doug in the snippets of emails he sent to Bueno in the increasingly rare instances when he could get internet service in this remote place. But we only find his full name once, at the end of a poem on an insert page near the end of the book.
In a documentary sense, the portrait of Doug is incomplete. But that’s not really Bueno’s intent. As she notes in her acknowledgments, “Like all stories, this work is an interpretation of the truth.” As a character in a story, Doug is a compelling presence. Through him we ponder the importance of place, the impermanence of a community, and the fickleness of human destiny. “To what extent do we truly control our lives?” Bueno asks in her epilogue. “Are choices made, or does life just happen? My guess is, however positive or proud you might feel, life just happens. With or without you.”
Doug came to the area nearly 50 years ago. He was a carpenter for the military base, and when it closed he moved some of the cabins and salvaged memorabilia to his campground. He hoped to develop the site as a hostel for wilderness explorers. But visitors come only sporadically, and flood water from the heavy rains has damaged or ruined much of the salvaged history. Today, Doug is still there, and some visitors still come. Their reviews call his campground “primitive but nice,” and remark about the “friendly” and “eccentric” camp host who has “a lot of local knowledge.” He is one of the few remaining settlers who can tell the story of this area.
In her epilogue, Bueno admits that she had a story in mind about Doug’s life in the forest, but somehow lost sight of it. “Just like the expression — not seeing the forest for the trees — I ironically got lost in among pictures of trees.” Nevertheless, through Doug she takes us on a fascinating journey deep into the wilderness. It’s a melancholy look at a place being reclaimed by nature, and a man trying to keep its memories alive.
Doug’s Cabin, Karianne Bueno
Photographer: Karianne Bueno, born Leeuwarden, NL, resides Amsterdam, NL
Publisher: The Eriskay Connection (Breda NL) copyright 2019
Essay: Karianne Bueno
Softcover book, sewn binding, perforated foldouts, full-cover offset, printed by Zwaan Printmedia NL
Photobook designer: PutGootink