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Dark and Stormy Nights on the Gulf Islands

Stewart Clayton

...I love the darkness at nights.

Salt Spring Ferry

On the ‘wet coast’ of Canada, snuggled between the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island, a cluster of more than a dozen islands rest in the Straight of Georgia. Many of the islands have Spanish names–Galiano, Cortez, Saturna, for example– evidence of the first European explorers in the area more than 200 years ago. They have long held a romantic appeal to settlers in the region. The cliché in these parts is that they are populated by aging hippies, writers and other assorted misfits. The truth is that poets, potters and painters share the islands with the super-rich, commuters and developers. Peter, a webmaster on Salt Spring Island states: "There is such a vast variety of inhabitants now: the very rich and the not so very rich. Environmentalists and developers." Many of BC’s foremost creative souls live here. To name-drop just a few: crime novelist, William Deverell; performing artist and playwright, Ann Mortifee; rock guitar legend Randy Bachman; world-renowned nature painter Robert Bateman; and watercolourist Carol Evans. What the islanders share is a self-reliant spirit and a desire to be close to the land and to the sea. They seek a quiet, rural lifestyle, with the convenience of Vancouver and Victoria both just short ferry hops away. There is usually a positive, close-knit community spirit among the islanders—except when there is tension with developers seeking to spoil the rural charm.

The residents have chosen this lifestyle for a variety of motives. Kate Carson, assistant to world-renowned nature painter and Salt Spring resident Robert Bateman, notes that the Batemans moved to Salt Spring for several reasons. "The 'push' came from the urban development in the 1970's of the area in Ontario where the Batemans lived and worked, i.e., Burlington. The 'pull' was from their desire to be closer to nature. Mrs. Bateman also grew up in Vancouver and was familiar with the area.

Hailing originally from landlocked Manitoba, the gulf islands appealed to Carolyn, a bed and breakfast owner on Galiano Island. "I always have had a dream to live on a small island," she states. And, although she commutes to her job in the Vancouver area each week during the school year, the quiet of the rural island holds its appeal: "I love the darkness at nights. I love being able to walk along the beaches, along the bluffs and in to forested areas."

The inhabitants would love to keep their slice of lotus land private from the world, however the secret is out. In summer, tourists flock to the quaint B&Bs and the arts and crafts galleries that dot the islands. The island dwellers – some willingly, some begrudgingly – share their paradise and their pastimes such as whale and bird watching, beachcombing, and lounging in hot tubs while watching sunsets shimmer off the Straight’s waters. But, as winter approaches, the festive atmosphere dissolves into drab, damp skies, a thick fog rolls in, and harsh winds that can cut power for days at a time buffet the islands. Tourist traffic reduces to a crawl. Many islanders enjoy the solitude and quiet that winter brings, but others escape. Writer Deverell, for example, is only a part-time Salt Spring resident: in the winter he flees to the warmth of Costa Rica. "The weather changes with a jolt. It gets dark and a raw East wind topples trees, knocks out power and blows chimney smoke from the hills into the villages," notes Peter. Of course, no part of the province escapes the grey, wet skies of winter. Island winter weather is nothing compared to what is experienced in the north, but the isolated reality of island life magnifies itself during a fierce storm.

Living on an island means being dependent on– and at the mercy of the–the ferry service, which Peter remarks can often be unreliable: "The ferries cancel and break down frequently... it really hits me like a wake-up call. Remember, it is an island!" The ferry schedule also limits the islanders’ freedom. "The last ferry off the island is 8pm to Victoria and 9pm back… (it) limits what you do in the evening 'off island'…" adds Kate.

For those inhabitants who live here year-round, fast approaching winter is not looked forward to with dread. Rather it is a time to get in touch with friends and catch up on hobbies and pastimes.

But isn’t it an isolated place?
Kate states that Salt Spring has activities year-round; life does not shut down just because the tourists have left. "Salt Spring Island is big enough and has easy access to Vancouver Island so that it is not isolated. There are courses and concerts all year, with a large, creative population so there are lots of things to do. Young people who are not creative or into sports find it isolated." Carolyn concurs: "No the island is not an isolated place for me... It definitely is much quieter in the winter months but there is always something going on...." Peter adds: "Isolated? Only for me in the best sense of the word, although there come times in the deepest darkest months when a trip to bustling Victoria– movie theatres and malls–beckons."

© Stewart Clayton - Writer/Teacher/Import-Export Business Developer -
Intern on hackwriters
November 2002

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