Long weekend

There are dozens of islands scattered around the east coast of Vancouver Island. Each is accessible only by boat or by seaplane; no bridges connect them to Vancouver Island or the mainland. That sort of isolation, combined with the small populations of islands, forces islands to run more gently, more slowly than mainland communities, even ones of comparable size. Boats are slow, and small towns can’t operate as efficiently as cities, and no amount of rushing will make either of them any faster; so you might as well slow down, too.

I decided on a whim to spend a few days on one of the smaller of the southern Gulf Islands. The attendant at the harbour gave me an information pamphlet containing a map and a ferry schedule. The map looked like the sort of thing one would draw by hand in giving directions, showing only the relevant streets; but this map was complete. This island was around 12 square kilometers in area, and had a population of 350 at the time of the last census.

Nothing manmade could be seen from the ferry:

All of the local businesses were listed on the pamphlet. There was one store, named simply “Store”, at a marina in the south; a donut shop’s hours were listed as “9:00 am until we run out.” There were a dozen or so bed and breakfasts listed; more surprising was the address of the recycling depot. “We are a small community,” explained the pamplet, “and our garbage collection is not covered by taxes; we must take care of it ourselves. If you are visiting the island, we request that you bring your garbage with your when you leave. If you are staying for too long to make this practical, please consider making a donation to our garbage collection service.”

The exit from the ferry led right into secluded roads:

Soon after was the local elementary school, serving students in kindergarten through grade six:

The door to the school was unlocked, and no one was inside.

Older children, I found out later, go to school on Vancouver Island, commuting by ferry, which makes ten trips a day and is synchronized to the school schedule.

I drove around the island for an hour, stopping to take photos. In that hour, I did not encounter a soul. I stopped at what looked like a camping site on the east side of the island, with roads that looked more like wide trails than streets. Near the beach was a large building; looking inside, I saw that I’d happened upon a Christian retreat. Further inland were a dozen or so smaller cabins, each with bunkbeds and small bathrooms.

None was locked.

The mattresses of the bunkbeds were propped up, off the beds; it was clear that no one was staying in any of them. But they weren’t abandoned: no dust had collected anywhere, and everything looked new. I could, I realized, stay in one of them for the night. I contemplated the possibility for an hour or so as I wandered about the grounds, before finally deciding against it. It wasn’t a matter of being discovered and then kicked out; it was a matter of being discovered some days or weeks later, when someone found that the grounds were not exactly as they’d been left when I arrived at the island. And then people on the tiny island might react by beginning to lock their doors, and I didn’t want to be responsible for that.

I left the campgrounds, and then drove up north, along winding cliffs:

And to a beach at the northmost point:

Around dinnertime, I stopped at the only restaurant that was open, a pub right beside the Store, at the marina at the south. They closed at seven o’clock, I was told; after all, it was a weekend.

As darkness fell, I made my way to a B&B. The hosts, a retired couple from Vancouver, asked me if I’d eaten; “it’s hard to find anything to eat around here, I know,” said the husband. “Hard to find much at all,” he continued. “My truck’s almost out of gas; I’ll have to head over to Vancouver Island to fill up.”

The B&B had a private entrance for guests, and I sat on the balcony overlooking the water and the forest for an hour before darkness completely consumed the landscape. Inside, I found a breakfast menu, and ordered a light meal without thinking too much. By the time I arose at 6:30 the next morning, I was starving, and the meal, which arrived on schedule at 7:00, did not disappoint. Half an hour later, I asked the wife if I may have some more orange juice. “Certainly,” she said. “I was worried you’d ask for more earlier, and we were all out. But my husband just got back from Vancouver Island with more, so we have plenty.” Later, I checked the schedule: he’d taken the earliest ferry, which, round trip, takes an hour and twenty minutes.

As I packed to leave, the hosts asked me what my plans were for the day. “Well,” I said, “it’s Easter, so I don’t expect anything will be open, and I’ll need to eat – I’ll probably head back soon, anyway; I’ve got plenty of work to do.”

“Oh, you don’t have to go back just yet if it’s food you’re worried about,” the husband said, “I talked to Marilyn by the harbour, told her we had guests. She said in that case she’d open up her shop.”

At lunchtime I drove by Marilyn’s, a tiny shack no bigger than my bedroom. The previous day, the CLOSED sign had been visible from the road; that day, Easter Sunday, it was clearly marked as open.

I parked by the side of the road, and entered. A radio was on, tuned to CBC Radio Two, and there were pies and produce on the shelves. There was no cash register, though, and no attendant. Nor was there anyone in back, I knew, because there was no back, just the one room. I stepped out to see if Marilyn or someone else had left for a minute; but the area was isolated, and there was nowhere to leave to. But this wasn’t the first time in the past day that I’d entered unattended, though obviously not abandoned, buildings; I shouldn’t have been surprised, and I was in no rush. It’s impossible to be in a rush on small islands. It was then that I saw the sign on the wall:

I’d wanted to buy a package of spring rolls, but I had no change, only twenties. I picked out the spring rolls, a pie, and three apples, put $20 in the locked box by the door, and recorded my purchases in the ledger. The previous record, I saw, was four days old; but the pie, I could tell, was fresh. Then I set out for the ferry, back to a world thirty minutes and a hundred years away.

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