When she arrived in B.C. at age 19, Nicole Musgrave had only $50 and lived in the woods in a tent near Whistler.
But her life changed dramatically over the years as she took on challenges and set out on adventures that would make even the bravest person tremble with fear, including being tracked by pirates.
Musgrave, now 40, was born in the town of Lindsay, Ont., where she had worked at McDonalds through high school, saving enough for airfare to Vancouver. Her best friend gave her a tent, and it was one of her only possessions when she flew into B.C.
She didn’t think of herself as brave, Musgrave told me over green tea in a downtown shop. As she told her story, she looked polished and fashionable in jewelry and heels, a successful realtor and a far cry from the girl who once lived in the woods.
“It was just a survival thing,” she said of her early days. “Things weren’t the greatest in my family, so it was an exciting time to get the heck out and start my own adventure.”
In the woods, she encountered bears and occasionally felt scared but said, “I was a tough kid. There were days of doubt, but when you have $50 in your pocket, you don’t have much of an alternative.”
She got a job in a boutique in Whistler but continued living as a squatter until the shop owners, a kind couple, bought a new house with space above the garage they rented to her “dirt cheap.”
Musgrave took any good opportunity that came her way, including selling auto parts and driving rock trucks in Pemberton. She eventually went to BCIT to become a recreational mechanic, allowing her to find work fixing dirt bikes and other vehicles.
She also learned how to drive logging trucks from a man she had met. “He hadn’t even taught his own son how to haul logs, but he taught me,” she recalled. “When things are handed to me, I always grab the opportunity.”
As a mechanic and truck driver, she always worked surrounded by men. Asked whether she minded that, she laughed. “It’s nice to be in real estate.”
Early on, her highest-paying job was on the Miller Creek hydroelectric project near Pemberton, where she earned so much money, she decided to set out to travel the world. She intended to work in Australia, but on a stopover in Thailand, Musgrave met Mike Dugan, who owned a 40-foot sailboat. Together with Chris Finn, they decided to sail around the world.
But it wasn’t easy.
Setting out from Thailand, they travelled to Sri Lanka to the Maldives to Yemen, where they encountered pirates in the Gulf of Aden who tried to board them and smash into their sailboat. Watching the pirate boats skulking on the horizon, Dugan and Mike told her to stay below and dress like a man. She had recently shaved her head, which she thought might save her from being kidnapped and raped, but she was still terrified, especially as the boats approached.
“They could take me and torture me,” she said. “I was thinking of the ways I could commit suicide before they got me…. They would ram our boat, try to get on our boat.”
A few hours later, Musgrave and her friends heard a “crazy sound” of a British warplane above them, with a voice through the jet’s loudspeaker announcing they were there to help. The pirates soon vanished.
The experience was so frightening that at the next port, Musgrave debarked and worked for a while before resuming the sailing voyage. The entire around-the-world trip lasted from 2002 to 2007, when they sailed the boat back to San Francisco. That was when she returned to Squamish, bought a logging truck and started her own company, hauling logs.
Five years ago, she decided to pursue the career she had always wanted and became a realtor. An agent with Re/Max, she is enthusiastic about her work finding people new homes or helping them sell. “I love the challenge…. You have to be a lot of things to people. People think real estate is just buy a house or sell a house, but it’s an emotional thing for people. People are very tied to houses. Their children grow up in them…. You help them.”
Sipping her tea, Musgrave said the around-the-world sailing trip had given her new confidence, transforming her from the teenager who had lived in a tent, trying to survive. The trip was “a game-changer” that altered her perspective on the world and allowed her to pursue her dreams. “It changed me as a person. I am forever grateful.”