Searching for Simplicity on Saltspring Island

There are jokes about Saltspring Island, habitually repeated by locals. We call this place an argument surrounded by water. Some refer to it as the suburbs of the Gulf Islands. Others have dubbed it Bed Spring Island, thanks to a prolific divorce rate. People ask: “How do you make a million dollars on Saltspring?” We answer: “Move here with two million.” Funny stuff after a few drinks, maybe, although there’s nothing quite as hilarious as a newly arrived oaf from the city struggling to fix his septic system.

Hi, my name is Adrian, and in 2016 I moved here with my family after 25 years in Vancouver, seeking a simpler life and long summers near a warm lake. What we got was a breathtaking if unmanageable two-acre property with a dozen microclimates and a barn-style home built by a lunatic. And access to a warm lake, depending on the length of the summer and how much weight you care to load onto the word depending. As I write, and I bring this up because it’s hardly relevant, our woodsy neighbourhood on the north end of the island happens to be stalked by a cougar. Dog-walking has thus become a little tense, or as my wife puts it, “Terrifying.”

Ditching the city has become all the rage in recent years. After nearly half a century of steady growth, Vancouver’s population declined between 2020 and 2021, exposing a trend that was well underway when we fled six years ago, a phenomenon commemorated, you may remember, in seemingly endless newspaper and online editorials, each featuring a variation on the headline “You Broke My Heart, Vancouver, and So I Am Leaving.” Some of those doleful expats made the lateral move to a different city, but most fanned out into small towns along the Sunshine Coast or into rural areas and the islands, pursuing—like a previous generation of back-to-the-landers—some hazy idea of self-sufficiency.

In truth, and this should have been obvious, a simpler life and self-sufficiency are mutually exclusive. We’ve achieved precisely neither, but I’d still recommend this existence to anyone romantically conflating the two. Humans are stubborn creatures who will tackle an unwelcome challenge over copping to a naive miscalculation. Eventually, a steep learning curve eases into a gentler gradient. As our sixth winter approaches, we’re better prepared to meet the needs of a half-year isolated in a drenched and mossy forest, sitting on the edge of flood-ready wetlands, buffeted by ferocious winds relentlessly blasting our way from the Pacific Ocean. Even surrounded (possibly) by cougars.

I can wield a chainsaw now, and not just the 14-inch beginner’s model we inherited with the property. Size really does matter, and these days you’ll see me taking a full 18 inches of gas-powered cutting power to the mayhem left behind by an island storm that has toppled a 150-foot cedar like an invisible giant kicking over a shrub. If we’re lucky, I won’t have to deal with a crushed deer fence or an atomized living room.

Every winter is a gamble. That’s the truth of self-sufficiency.

Summer 2022 was just summery enough to dry out that mysterious septic field, allowing us to finally probe an unsettling problem that spooked the local expert. He proudly informed us that his septic system was still working perfectly after 61 years, but the sound coming out of our septic system? “Never heard anything like that before,” he said with a frown. “Jeez.” By and large, a septic system isn’t a device that produces sound. Yet there it was, a grotesque gurgling noise emerging from the field as if it rested upon a subterranean upset stomach, conjuring images of viscous tar bubbles emptying into an ever-growing sinkhole ready to collapse and regurgitate years of effluence, forming a sea of sewage lapping forever against our back deck. Our new normal.

Anyway, turns out that a root had lifted the concrete lid from the distribution box, permitting septic water to lap over the side into a minor cavity. It was an easy fix, but digging into the earth and investigating required a kind of bold, hacky recklessness that we need to embrace as city-brained softies prey to unscrupulous tradespeople. To that end, imagine for a moment the strength it takes for a small tree root to lift a concrete lid. That same silent force invades every inch of the property, creating havoc with all the underground systems, water in particular.

Our home was built entirely from found materials salvaged by a maniac, so nothing—nothing!—is standard, least of all the hundred feet of wrongly gauged water pipe winding to the house from a distant well. Part of that journey takes the pipe beneath a creek that reliably spills over during B.C.’s monsoon season, or forever, as we like to call it. Preparing for winter means exposing and patching any accessible parts. A single leak will leave our taps belching air while a geyser erupts somewhere yonder, majestically cresting the tree line. If the leak empties underground, then I search for a telltale wet spot in an acre of sodden jungle—which is impossible, and doubly impossible if the breach is under the raging creek. Every winter is a gamble. That’s the truth of self-sufficiency.

We’re appalling gardeners, but nature carries on, producing fruit regardless of the inept humans sharing habitat with apple, pear, and plum trees. Currants, salmonberries, grapes, and figs routinely produce themselves, along with the ubiquitous blackberries. The final weeks of summer are given over to making jams, cordials, and pies. We can feel good about this—I don’t recall ever being so industrious when we lived in Hastings Sunrise—although a mountain of split wood brings the greatest satisfaction. The reality of summer isn’t lazing on St. Mary Lake with the tourists. It’s three months of felling, bucking, splitting, and carrying wood. The work is backbreaking; the rewards are endless.

When the freak windstorm of 2018 left most of Saltspring without power for two weeks over Christmas, we understood that the most valuable commodity on the island is wood. If the house is warm and the stove is hot, decent food and clean drinking water will follow. It’s also true that Saltspring has the kind of infrastructure, including two well-stocked supermarkets, that presents an easy way out of a bad fix. So let’s be honest: we’re essentially LARPing as junior preppers over here. It’s a tentative step away from urbanization and modernity, not a giant leap. But it’s a sincere step. Nobody wants to go back. I’ve got my eye on a magnificent 20-inch chainsaw, and my wife, she’s become curious about Lasqueti, where BC Hydro makes routine visits to offer the miracle of electricity. The big joke on that island? They always say no. They always will.

Read more from our Winter 2022 issue.

Post Date:

March 10, 2023