During the 1970s and 1980s, I spent parts of sixteen summers on Gabriola Island with my two sons, trying to teach them that there’s a world beyond television, telephones, and playground supervisors, and that’s it’s actually kind of fun to inhabit. Gabriola is the most northerly of B.C.’s Gulf Islands, a short ferry ride from Nanaimo. I chose the island for the obvious reasons—it is arguably the most beautiful of the Gulf Islands, with the sheltered sandy beaches of Gabriola Sands provincial park at the north end, and a wealth of sandstone moonscapes on the foreshore for much of the rest. The island’s interior, much of it now moderately developed, still managed to feel like a forested idyll, including the 7-kilometre stretch of sun-dappled road along the northeast side that is my favourite drive anywhere in the world. And it helped that the ferry ride to Nanaimo is relatively short when you run out of food or books.
I also liked the island for a less conventional reason: its unfriendliness. Visitors to Gabriola don’t have to suffer the artsy insularity of Galiano Island’s unfriendliness, or the elevated sense of self-worth found on Saltspring. Gabriola’s unfriendliness is a look-you-in-the-eye kind, indifference without hostility. Over those sixteen summers I spent close to a year there, and during that time I socialized with just two people—a doctor and his wife who owned a place a couple of properties up the beach from the cabin I rented. I noticed, over the years, that the full-time residents spent an excessive amount of energy squabbling with one another over nearly everything under the sun, which may explain their lack of interest in outsiders.
Since I went there to provide my sons with some media-free contact with nature and to do some reading and writing of my own, the solitude was completely welcome, as was the islanders’ utter lack of nosy curiosity. We were left in peace to swim in Pilot Bay , forage along the foreshores, dig clams, trap Dungeness crab. My sons developed a competent grasp of the natural world, and I read a lot of useful books, even if I didn’t write much of anything.
A two-day visit after a 14 year absence convinced me that nothing important has changed. Gabriola is still beautiful, and it is still a wonderfully unfriendly place to visit.
I was with my then six-year-old daughter, and we stayed at Surf Lodge, on the island’s north east coast. Surf Lodge sits just south of the not-so-famous Camp Miriam, where generations of good-natured but insular Jewish kids have learned that Zion isn’t everything—or at least that Gabriola Islanders don’t want to hear about Zion one way or another. The lodge itself is a miracle of accretive inattention to the rest of the world. The Internet hasn’t arrived, television is of minimal interest, and the last culinary advance to penetrate its kitchens is Teriyaki sauce.
I’d tried to contact the lodge before arriving, but the island’s group Internet site had shut down the page for it, probably due to some minor squabble with the site operators, although I couldn’t quite get anyone to admit that. Thus I arrived at the front door without a reservation, and simply asked the middle-aged woman poking around the water-parched front garden if there was a room available my daughter and I could stay in. She looked me over, decided I wasn’t a terrorist, and said, “I guess you can have Room #3.”
I told her that this was fine, that I knew the place and the island.
That didn’t interest her in the slightest. “If you’ve got a million dollars lying around,” she added, a propos of nothing, “You can buy the place. We’re getting tired of running it. Come back in an hour or so, and I’ll give you the room key.”
I took my daughter off to see some of the island’s many sights, and we didn’t return for three hours. No problem. In less than 15 minutes, we were checked in, unpacked, and perfectly content. Room # 3 turned out to be a jewel, with an 8×12 foot balcony overlooking the ocean. At $85 a night, it was more than reasonable even though one of the beds squeaked if you merely brushed against it, there was no television, and the one lamp in the room had only a 40 watt bulb in it. Wise to the island ways, I didn’t bother anyone for a brighter bulb. The next day I stopped into the store at the entrance to Gabriola Sands Park , and bought two.
Check-in had been as laconic as the initial conversation with the owner, save for an introduction to her slightly-addled Springer spaniel, who, she assured me, was fond of children albeit prone to jumping up on them and licking their faces. I had to ask about the restaurant hours and the use of the spacious lounge.
“Everything closes down around 10 PM ,” she said. “Except the bar. But we don’t lock the front door, so you can come and go as you please. Breakfast is 8:00 to 9:30 . The food’s okay, I guess.”
All of this turned out to be accurate and perfectly unexaggerated. The food was “okay”, although by the second day it became clear that the chef’s one gourmet condiment was teriyaki sauce. The first night’s special was Teriyaki Steak and Shrimp, which was, well, okay. On the second day it was Teriyaki tuna skewers, and an attempt to get them to serve it without either the teriyaki or the application of the restaurant grill met with simple incomprehension. That said, the addition of a drinkable house wine would have made for a more-than-pleasant dining experience. Despite his fixation, the chef knew how to do teriyaki, didn’t overcook either the steak or the prawns, and was competent with rice and vegetables. What else is there to want? A floor show?
There was a floor show, actually. It’s a permanent feature and perfect entertainment for small children. But it’s not run by Surf Lodge. It’s just across the road on the beach, which is sandstone and pocked and cratered like the moon by the tides. Everywhere you look, from low to mid-tide, are the aquariums. Some are basketball sized, and some are as large as four or five feet across. They’re barnacle encrusted, and they’re filled with sea anemones, small beach crabs, sculpins and various kinds of seaweed. After high tides, you can find a wild and unpredictable assortment of beach glass, starfish, cling-fish and sometimes even small Dungeness and rock crabs.
They’re everything a six-year-old could ask for, these aquariums, and if your head is on straight, they’re more than enough for full-grown adults. I had to pry my little daughter away from them to visit the big attractions on the island. She was content to exercise her Aristotelian nature within them, counting the different species and listening to their stories while she conducted experiments with their denizens. She particularly liked the anemones and the fact that they’re carnivores. We made a serious dent in the barnacle populations around several aquariums satisfying her curiosity about how and what anemones enjoy for lunch and dinner.
I didn’t mind the carnage. Barnacles are the most populous of the beaches fauna, hell on bare feet and anyway, about as interesting as a mob of over-testosteroned guys at a boxing match. If barnacles were human, they’d be transvestites with seven-foot penises, which is why they’ve remained stuck to rocks for 300 million years without evolving. And no, that isn’t one of the stories I told my daughter.
I told her lots of other stories as we fed the anemones and still more stories as we traipsed around the island. I showed her the rope swing at the head of Pilot Bay where we used to find her older brother’s border-collie lab cross hanging by its jaws every other day, snarling half-seriously at the only thing in the world it truly found offensive. I told her of the summer luminescence in the bay, of the crabs and clams and salmon I and her brothers collected or caught—and I ate alone while they munched on ham. But mostly we cruised the foreshore, where she renamed nearly every landmark I couldn’t attach a name to.
We did stop at the cabin where her brothers and I used to stay each year, now rebuilt by a charming couple of stained-glass artists who knew exactly who I was and were more hospitable than anyone had been in the entire 16 years I came to the island. They were, I realized halfway through the visit, still outsiders on the island, and grateful for the human contact. Their renovation treated the cabin with considerable sensitivity, and that was more than enough to get me onside. Midway through the century, the locals will probably accept them, too.
My point in all this, if there is one, is that Gabriola Island is a lovely and unique place to visit, and Surf Lodge is a destination worth considering. But only if you understand that half of the fun isn’t going to be meeting people.
July 2006, 1537 w .