A Year of Living Precariously

While it would be high drama (and wildly misleading) to suggest our last year was “dangerous”, it was marked by constant change, joy, loss, grief, and now, with Coronavirus dominating the news, “precarious” does not feel like an overstatement. The whole world is precarious.

What the heck is going on? If our original plan three and a half years ago was to “leave ourselves behind”, we’ve done that in spades. But the world is no longer cooperating and the rules have suddenly, totally changed.

So let’s go back to when we last chatted, in August. We had finished our travels in the Yukon and were anxious to get back to Vancouver to see our grandson. (For those of you who already know this story, just scroll down to the coronavirus part.)

When we first started travelling full-time, friends warned us that things would change with a grandchild. “You’ll travel less”, they said. “Hmmm,” we said. (secretly believing otherwise.) Now, we’re not so sure. Our Leo is a pretty compelling draw, and we’re not sure we want to leave him for months at a time. Plus, we really like his parents.

I could show you dozens of photos, but I do know better. Well okay, let me add one more – our creative daughter-in-law’s first Hallowe’en outfit.

So, yes, we are smitten grandparents – the kind who show photos of their grandchildren to complete strangers.

Leo was our first big change of the year.

The second big change was our decision to sell our trailer. We put a lot research into deciding what type of RV would suit us and the Escape trailer seemed to be it. Made in British Columbia, lightweight fibreglass body, well-designed, and virtually problem-free, this was the ideal introduction to RV-ing for newbies.

Our challenge was we never got the hang of backing up. One day we would wheel right in to our campsite like pros and the next day we would wrangle it for what seemed like hours. Our other challenge was we felt like we were taking up major real estate on the road. We didn’t feel free, we felt hindered. We were “dragging ourselves behind.”
At some point, we will look for a smaller unit – a truck camper or a van. We knew our upcoming travel would be overseas, and figured it might be a couple of years before we would hit the road again. So we handed our trailer over to an excited new owner and we have many very happy memories to tide us over until the next time.

The third huge, unthinkable change was the death of my mother in October. At 89, she was a force to be reckoned with, full of life and brimming with health – we all thought she would go on forever. She and my dad came out west from Ontario in September to meet their great-grandchild, and this is the last photo I have of her before she died.

My parents had to cut their trip short because my mother was not feeling well, and two weeks later she was gone.

The months since then have been a blur of shock and grief and sadness, as well as the busyness of helping my dad get settled into his new life. We all continue to cope with a world that does not have my mother in it.

Also, we are facing the unpalatable reality that we’re next up to bat. Not yet old, but no longer young. So how do we make the most of our valuable time remaining?

Our fourth big change was our decision to put down roots and buy a condo. For the past few years we had been balancing our travel time with housesitting and renting Airbnb’s and for a while that worked very well.

Increasingly though we were feeling the need to come “home” between trips. We knew we didn’t want to buy a house, with all the yard work and maintenance that required – we wanted a comfy roost we could lock up and leave without worry. At some point, I think, I want to have a garden and house plants and a bit of a yard, but for now, we want to continue travelling as much as we did before, but come home to our “stuff.”

We decided to buy in Nanaimo – central to our friends on Gabriola and Vancouver Island, family in Vancouver and an easy walk to downtown and the ferries. We bought this condo in September, but spent the next three months in Ontario with my dad. We’ve only been living here and setting up our home since early January. We began with an inflatable mattress and two camp chairs and by now we are getting close to being furnished. The “stuff” collecting has begun once again, but this time, we are choosing everything very carefully and minimally. It has been fun feathering our nest.

This is our condo building in Nanaimo – we are the corner unit on the second floor.

And now…to travel. We had planned a trip to South America this past winter, but of course those plans were shelved. We did get away for two weeks in February to Puerto Morelos, in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Heat, colour, fabulous swimming and snorkelling, and great food. It didn’t feel new, or demanding or even exciting, but it was a tonic and exactly what we needed.

In April, we were going to drive down to Portland to visit friends. This summer we were planning to drive through the northern United States, up into Ontario and visit family and friends in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Next winter we were planning to go to South America – Colombia, Ecuador, Galapagos and Peru. Now all of that is up in the air.

Everything has changed – who knows what the weeks and months ahead will bring? Will we be allowed across the U.S. border in April? What will our road trip look like this summer? As for South America – another big question mark, even so many months away. We are all adjusting our realities on a daily basis.

We have two sets of friends who have had to cut their trips short and come home, and another who is stranded in Peru for the next two weeks. Our son was supposed to have left on Monday for Thailand – he cancelled that trip just last week, as the news became more urgent.

Covid-19 – it’s not unscary. Don’t watch the movie, Contagion, by the way – it’s not going to help your state of mind. It is immensely prescient.

We’ve been madly hand-washing, have become acquainted with the term “social distancing”, and have been postponing get-togethers with friends for at least the next week or so. We ran into an old friend today at the grocery store – someone we hadn’t seen in five years. We began this awkward hug-not-hug dance, until we gave up and took the chance on an embrace. We stopped for coffee at our favourite spot, normally packed, and today with just three other tables. Wherever we go now, we feel “germy.”

Worst of all, at 67 and 70 years of age, we don’t fit into the “frail elderly ” category, but we are considered vulnerable.

So what do we do? We go for walks in the many glorious parks around Nanaimo.

We’re reading, watching Netflix, keeping in touch with friends and family and waiting it out. Waiting for, if not better news, at least something more definitive.

Future travel – unreservedly, yes! As soon as we get the all-clear, we’re booking our trips. Not for one minute to minimize what the entire world is facing, but let’s face it, if one goes down, we’re all going down. It’s a new world order and what we knew to be true two weeks ago is no longer the case.

When we get back on the road, what will have changed? Small businesses gone? Significant health risks attached to travel that can’t be ignored? Environmental damage that can’t be ignored? None of us know.

In the meantime, we are doing as we’re told, being responsible citizens and trying to find the light and look for the humour.

Funny sign on a Nanaimo liquor store: ” Free roll of toilet paper with every six-pack of Corona.”

Stay healthy, dear friends. With any luck, we will be chatting again soon.

Gabriola: So you want to move to a Gulf Island?

The first time we drove off the ferry from Nanaimo to Gabriola, we had just driven across the country from Halifax to B.C.  It was 2005, and after decades of living in cities, we were ready to try rural life “lite.” We felt like we had landed in paradise – albeit a paradise lodged firmly in 1973. Gumboots, tie-dye and 20-year-old cars – where had we found ourselves?

We bought this house in part for the view across the street to the ocean – it was incredibly romantic to see the ferries going by every couple of hours. It took a while before we stopped yelling out, “there’s one!“, as though we had just sighted a rare bird.

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In the early days, we still thought fondly of the ferry. Stephen taught at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, and he liked to say he took two ocean crossings a day to get to work. Our ferry terminal:

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…and the lineup:

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During the winter there are at least six crossings that are overloads, so to be assured of a place, you pack a book and arrive 45 minutes ahead of schedule. In the summer, when the tourists arrive and home building crews are in full force, almost every ferry is an overload. If you use the ferry frequently, this situation can make you cranky, resigned, philosophical, or ultimately, it can be a tipping point.

There has been much discussion about a bridge over the years; at times it has been extremely divisive. While bumper stickers with the message “Real Islands Don’t Have Bridges” would be news to those living in Manhattan or Montreal, fears that a bridge would harm the quality of life on Gabriola are considerable.  As well, B.C. Ferries have jacked rates to an almost unsustainable level, and bumper stickers that read ” Waterways Are Our Highways” have fallen on deaf ears. We regarded our ferry costs as a trade-off for having lower property taxes than other municipalities until that was no longer the case.

Still, watching two ferries pass by in the harbour (one the Gabriola Ferry and the other the Vancouver ferry) remains a stirring sight.

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We moved from Gabriola to travel extensively, without being tied to the responsibility of a property and to consider where our next home might be when we land again in a few years. We left behind a community of dear and wonderful friends, as well as a cast of characters that I could tell you all about, but then…I might not be allowed back.

Gabriola is home to the internationally-renowned centre for transformative learning, The Haven, where participants come to take courses, listen to noted speakers and stay for a few days. Gabriola is a safe place for those who need to heal – there are a number of folks who find refuge here, and for some, it has provided a transition and comfort.

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For those whose lives are more manageable, Gabriola is simply a community that welcomes everyone. It takes very little time to join in, make friends and find your niche and that is a big attraction. Whether you are rich or poor, single or a family, there is less of a class or status divide here than in other centres; everyone blends in. The day I found myself shopping at the Village, wearing a filthy gardening shirt and no makeup was the day I knew I had made the switch. I’ve hitchhiked many times on Gabriola, which for a woman in her 60s would be both hazardous and vaguely ridiculous elsewhere, but this is a help-your-neighbour kind of place. Sure, we’ve had break-ins, drunk and disorderlies, domestics, and even a murder, but mainly people here don’t lock their doors. If you get sick, have a fire, lose your cellphone or can’t find your cat, we’re all here to help.

There are so many things I want to tell you about Gabriola that there won’t be room for  photos and backstories about our friends. They have all found their way to Gabriola by interesting and varied means, with wildly different backgrounds and professions. Our friends are artists, graphic designers, writers, musicians, singers, professional chefs, educators, doctors, a former London police superintendent, a figure skater, sculptor, hairdresser, radio producer, radio personality, house builders, publishers, director of a tap dance school, journalists, Emmy-winning writer, retired Anglican minister, jewellery makers, gym owner, actors, potters, sailers and scientists.  I know I’m forgetting someone – there is such a wealth of talent and ability here.

After a nine-month absence, we’re back for a month to housesit and look after a shy, beautiful grey cat and these two little characters – (names withheld to protect their privacy). They have provided us with hours of entertainment and laughter and it will be very hard to hand them back to their owners.

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This time has been both wonderful and bittersweet. By moving away, we have removed ourselves from daily life on Gabriola and all the small routines and hobbies and activities that go with that. Our friends are still our friends, but incredibly, they have carried on without us. In a few days we will take the ferry over to Nanaimo for the last time and not be back here again until next spring.

From that perspective, I offer you my view of Gabriola through the eyes of a visitor. Pick a beautiful day, take an early ferry and drive over. This is some of what you will see.

The main shopping area on Gabriola is comprised of a number of businesses (grocery store, clothing store, gift shop, restaurant, liquor store, library, pharmacy, real estate office), housed in the original Folklife Pavilion from Vancouver’s Expo 86.

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Newer additions to the retail scene on the island were added over the past few years, to include a gym, hardware store, restaurant, coffee shop, outdoor store, architectural office, gift and specialty food store, health food store, jewellery store and tourism office.

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Gabriola is well-served with this state of the art medical clinic that was built entirely through island fundraising. It includes a helicopter pad and has provided much-needed emergency triage for residents as well as office space for additional doctors.

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The new firehall, just down the road from the medical clinic, is another point of pride among the locals. Gabriola has a robust and dedicated volunteer force.

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Gabriola is not that big – about the size of Manhattan. A main road runs around the periphery of the island, with several smaller roads leading to neighbourhoods. The year-round population is around 5000 souls; it grows by several thousand in the summer.

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Gabriola is known as “The Isle of the Arts”, with at least 200 artists of all stripes living here. The annual 3-day Thanksgiving Studio Tour attracts visitors from all over, as artists open their homes and studios to display their wares. It is a stellar event and just one of the many artistic festivals held here each year. The Theatre Festival, the Isle of the Arts Festival, Brickyard Beast, the Salmon Barbecue, Spirit Feast and countless musical performances, plays and movie nights are a staple of island entertainment. The Saturday market (May to October) has grown into a one-stop shop for island produce and crafts, as well as being a guaranteed gossip corner.

Gossip! Gabriola breeds independent thinkers and professional scolds and almost any issue can stir up a level of controversy normally reserved for seriously life-altering events. There is really no subject so innocuous that it can’t provoke dissent within a crowd of three.  So when a local artist suggested that it might be an idea to brighten up the landscape a bit by painting a few poles leading up from the ferry into the village, all hell broke loose.  “Tampering with nature!”  The project was eventually stopped in its tracks, but not before a handful of poles were transformed, including this pencil and notepad, at the NorthRd./South Road intersection.

Yes, nothing says “nature” more strongly than a telephone pole.

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As you drive around the island, keep an eye out for cyclists, who will often be coming around a blind corner. You may also encounter someone on horseback.

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Or if you are hiking on one of the island’s many excellent trails, you could find yourself here. You’re not really “nowhere”, of course, but you do need to pay attention, as people have been known to take a wrong turn and end up on the other side of the island. If that happens to you – stick out your thumb and get a ride back to your car.

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There are too many deer on Gabriola. They have no natural predators and multiply like rabbits. Sometimes they meet an untimely end by losing a fight with a car and once a year a discreet cull takes place. We still want to protect the babies and signs like this one are common all over the island.

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The stunning natural environment is the reason most of us live or visit here. If you are  lucky, you will see whales. Yesterday, a number of us watched this big humpback having a grand time feeding – he was in the area for over an hour.

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We watched a fishing boat go by, and then another, and suddenly we clued in – a massive school of fish (salmon?) are currently in the area. That is Entrance Island in the background – an active lighthouse, complete with a colony of extremely noisy sea lions.

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The humpback obliged with enough fin and tail shots to keep us all happy.

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These folks had tripods set up and in addition to capturing the whale, they were snagging great shots of a sea lion swimming with a fish in his mouth and trying to fend off the aggressive attacks from three seagulls intent on stealing his catch. A bald eagle flew overhead at the same time and our Discovery Channel moment was complete.

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When we lived here, one of our favourite things to do was to cycle or walk from our house down to this area, called Orlebar Point. We would sit on this bench, watch for whales or dolphins, solve the problems of the world and head back home. Best therapy in the world.

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Equally beneficial and head-clearing were our swims at Clark Bay. There are many great places to swim on Gabriola, but we stuck with this one, as it is a sheltered cove that about five or six weeks of the year is not freezing.  I was always the water chicken in our group – the barometer for acceptable water temperature (“Ginny’s in, it must be warm.”)

We had an amazing experience a few years ago – we swam with a pod of orcas. There was a raft out toward the point, and as we were swimming toward it, we became aware of a commotion – a school of about 10 orcas were passing by, just past the point. A family on a sailboat were lucky enough to be right there, as the orcas surrounded their boat. We were lucky enough to be right in the same water as the whales, just metres away from them. It is an experience I will never forget. 

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A popular beach on the island is Twin Beaches  – one side facing toward Nanaimo; sandy and shallow for young families. The other side faced out to the ocean – perfect for longer swims and kayaks.

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The water around Gabriola is busy with marine traffic – ferries, tugboats, Seaspan container ships,cruise ships, kayaks, canoes, sailboats, motorboats, fishing boats, and this – a log boom being carefully guided to the sawmill in Nanaimo.

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There are a number of restaurants on the island, including the two waterfront restaurants that have helped to define Gabriola’s dining-out scene for years.  If you lived in the south end, you went to Silva Bay (although you won’t for a while – they just had a serious fire), and if you lived in the north end, you went to the Surf Lodge and Pub. The big draw for the Surf was the view – set back from the ocean, it was the place to have a burger and beer and watch the sunset.

The Surf Lodge has a long and storied history – at one time it was a full-service resort (complete with pool and waterskiing), and it has changed hands a number of times since then. Mainly, it works well – we have attended weddings, birthday parties, funerals, plays and musical events in the lodge and enjoyed many a night gabbing with friends at the pub.

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There is a challenging and scenic  9-hole golf course on Gabriola, with a dedicated group of golfers who have been keeping it alive for years. Sadly, as that group shrinks, there are fewer and fewer young people to take up the sport and its future remains uncertain.

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A story about Gabriola would not be complete without a mention of Mudge Island, which is situated between Gabriola and Vancouver Island.  About halfway down the island, there is a parking lot for Mudge Island residents and visitors. There are about 60 full-time residents whose only way on or off their island is to row their boats across the Narrows and its sprightly current to Gabriola. Everything is carried on and off the island by boat (including their garbage), which requires Mudge-kins to be highly organized and dedicated to this lifestyle.

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This is a long posting and I could make it even longer – there is so much to say about island life.  Gabriola has a big piece of our hearts. It is complex, maddening, limited, limitless, rich in scope; at times claustrophobic and at times absolutely elevating. We may follow in the footsteps of people who move away and then return, or we may find our next home in a place we don’t even yet know exists.

Until next time,  I’ll leave you with a final, iconic and much-photographed image – Entrance Island framed by an arbutus tree.

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We’re on our way to Nanaimo for a two-month housesit – I’ll pop back again in a while to tell you about that area. After that – off to India for a few months.