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My book tour up the west coast of the United States has finally brought me back home to Canada…I have a few thousand kilometres more to go to get to my actual home in the Hammer, but just being back in my birth country makes me happy. I’m in Vancouver, spending time with friends here in the seaside city that just rocked out with the Winter Olympics (various friends here have said that though they were very critical of the games at the start, they had way too much fun during the actual event to keep frowning). I planned on being here for two weeks but already extended my stay as a good friend is arriving on the day I was booked to leave and it just wouldn’t be right to leave now.
To break up the almost three weeks I will be in this big city, I decided to get out to the bush and go and visit my friend John who lives on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He invited me to come to Bamfield, a place I had never heard of before. Now that I’ve been there, I hope to return one day for the little town with the not-so-pretty name is another sweet spot on the earth well worth discovering. I love when I am introduced to new places and find them irresistible – then they get put on my boomerang list.
Bamfield is situated in an enviable location on the rugged Pacific coast on the south shore of Barkley Sound, adjacent to the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and neighbours to the Huu ay aht First Nation. It is all mainland, though it feels like you have gone to an island when you cross Bamfield Inlet from East Bamfield, which is accessible by car, to West Bamfield which is not.
Bamfield must have more stellar views per capita than any other little community of a few hundred people. Each house I visited looked out in a different direction to a different vista of sheer beauty. In the area there are countless islands – the Deer Group, the Broken Group – as well as the mountainous horizon of Vancouver Island to the east and endless sky to the west over the Pacific Ocean.
You can get to the town by driving up a 100 km logging road from Port Alberni. There is still logging going on in the area and you need to keep an eye to avoid the massive trucks (many of them transporting massive logs) on your way up the road since they have very little swerving ability. Except for the views of clear cuts on the surrounding hillsides, the drive is quite pleasant (coming from an old bush road frequent flyer).
You can also take the Francis Barkley ferry – the ship that took over from the original Lady Rose – from Port Alberni on the days that it runs. Its arrival in Bamfield is a major social and commercial event – like going to market day in Central America. People arrive, goods arrive, mail arrives, and the locals all head to the dock to see each other, help unload the skids and find what surprises may have come from the outside.
There isn’t a lot of commerce going on in Bamfield and for that reason it is a dying town (though there is still a lot of life to it). Apparently the school has dropped from around one hundred students to only nine! The main employers are the Coast Guard and the Bamfield Marine Biology Station, started in 1972 by five western universities as a center for marine research. According to the locals, at one time Bamfield had more PhD’s per capita than anywhere in Canada. No shortage of brains in the area, just jobs. There are several fishing charter companies and lodges, there is the trailhead of the West Coast Trail nearby at beautiful Pachena Beach, and the native community of the Huu ay aht which recently completed extensive negotiations over treaties and settled with the government. Their future may decide much of the future in the whole area.
The Huu ay aht have a beautiful community long house built several years ago and are now in the process of building a large administration building overlooking Pachena Bay. Apparently they are discussing moving their homes to the higher ground where these community buildings are, in anticipation of the much expected tsunami that may one day wipe out everything along the west coast of North America.
People who live in Bamfield have to make a living – there seem to be a lot of carpenters as well as some galleries and a nicely stocked general store – but what the locals know is how to live a good life together in this rather isolated post and that includes making a lot of music. My friend John is a fine musician and so he fits in with all the talent in Bamfield.
One of the local musicians is Fay Bennet who has lived in Bamfield for several years and has a lovely voice and, along with making exquisite pottery, writes songs that tell tales of life on the west coast. She just produced a CD of her music – Kinda Corny, Sorta Sweet – and among the songs there is the line “salty sea-spray kisses”, an evocative image that stays with you from her song about sea women waiting for their fishermen to return safely home. Fay and her partner Malcolm had us over along with some other musicians for a night of Canadiana roots guitar-playing and song-a-long which also included another visitor, Mitch Anderson, who sings Stompin’ Tom songs like the man reincarnate. I knew I was back in Canada listening to lyrics about hockey and trucks and dogs and Sudbury Saturday Nights.
It rained much of the time I was there but fortunately the sun broke out enough to go exploring. West Bamfield is very much a water community, but then you get out of the boat and walk along the boardwalk that follows the shore. John told me that the boardwalk came about when a company accidentally delivered a load of lumber to the town – the town folk had the thing halfway built before the company came back to claim their lumber. Whatever its history, that meandering pathway is the social center for a community that walks more than it drives.
A beautiful place to walk to is Brady Beach, on the northwest side of the community. The beach and sea are rugged and wild, but you are really only minutes from town – and it is one of the last places you can go camping in the area without some kind of permit or trespassing on private or government land.
John and I ran into a couple who were camping – they were almost rained out the night before but were basking in the clear evening sky and almost warm sun around a driftwood campfire. The young woman from Port Alberni, Lisa, has visited this beach all her life – she was one in a long line of people who made me realize that for many Bamfield is their hidden paradise. I thoroughly get that.
Just like in my own piece of paradise, Costa Rica, I was still in rainforest, evidenced by the wide array of vegetation that is as common in the tropics as everywhere else up the temperate west coast but would only be found in summer planters if you were inland in Canada, unable to survive our frozen winters. The Gunnera leaves were as big as you see in Monteverde.
The community was welcoming and musical and compassionate, as revealed by the existence of the little village of cathouses for neutered feral cats. Members of the town built these whimsical dwellings and continue to care and feed its feline residents (as well as the racoons who know a good deal when they see it).
And just like in Costa Rica, the rain fell much of the time but it didn’t dampen the warm hospitality or dull the spirited conversation of the characters who live there. I was only in Bamfield a couple days but felt like it was a place that could be home – well, except for all that cool rain – largely due to the kindness and friendliness of the local folk. So big thanks to all the friendly people of Bamfield, especially Lars, who drove me there from the Nanaimo ferry and filled the time with colourful stories of the history of the town; Fay, who drove me back to Nanaimo and shared more tales and laughter; and my ol’ pal Johnny Blue who invited me there in the first place and kept the music and conversation rolling. I hope the sun shines brightly on you all. Save a little for the next time I make the trip to Bamfield, the land of music, well-fed feral cats, and a thousand spectacular views.