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.