Offshore: Jewel in the Salish Sea

by Trysh Ashby-Rolls – 

Fog hangs low over the valleys. From my car I notice a few sheep, six white and one black, huddled together by the fence. The moon slowly disappears behind the trees from where a raven calls to its mate deep in the forest. This is North Pender Island just before dawn on a winter’s day.

A couple of cars hurry to catch the 7:45 a.m. Victoria-bound ferry. The Vancouver ferry already left at 7:05. A hearty-looking dog walker wearing a heavy coat, touque and mittens, waves. Everyone has bundled up the last few days, unusual for this island’s inhabitants. They usually dress in jeans, hoodies and gumboots. Or shorts, tees and sandals. Not this morning.

It’s unusual weather. An Arctic outflow bringing below-freezing temperatures has blown off to grip the rest of Canada. The legacy of two major storms and a power outage is incrusted snow that crackles and squeaks underfoot. After two mild winters I can’t find my winter coat and certainly not my woolly mittens. The car heater is turned all the way up.

Down in the vineyard the grape vines are dormant. It will take warm spring sunshine to swell the buds, just as it will take the heat of summer to bring back the part-timers who own property here, and the thousands of tourists who swell the island’s population at the height of the season. They flock here to kayak and hike, and fill up the variety of restaurants and cafés that suit every taste and dietary need. Maybe look at a cabin to purchase.

You can’t find cheap cabins here anymore, say at $60,000 or $70,000. Or rent an overnight shack for fifty cents a night. Or even dance on the bouncy floor at the Browning Pub. Those days are gone. But ask an old-timer, if you can find one among the influx of newbies, about Ashton Ross-Smith. When the lads came home after WWII without jobs to go to and with only one set of clothes on their backs, Ross-Smith gave them work on his 350-acre farm and told them to build their own cabins with whatever they found lying around the property. Likewise with shell-shocked escapees from the Vietnam war, draft dodgers from across the U.S. border mere kilometres to the south and later, a few hippies.

Even RCMP officers have a special welcome for certain newcomers. Corporal Linda used to make a point of visiting convicted felons who moved here. She’d knock on the door and say: “Just want to welcome you to Pender Island. If there’s anything you need, let me know. Don’t worry, I know where to find you.” A pedophile who thought himself safely hidden didn’t stay long after that.

We’re not called the “friendly islands” for nothing. However, as in any small community, we have our share of gossip.

One icy Christmas I had a serious car accident. We have no hospital and my injuries were such that I had to be medevaced to Victoria General. In answer to whomever put it about that I’d lost an eyeball, I started a counter rumour: it had rolled down the road and, after dropping off the bridge linking the north and south islands, had fallen into the water. A fish then ate the tasty morsel for supper.

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