One crisp winter day in 1972, a light southeasterly rippled the Strait of Juan de Fuca as we made our run from Victoria in the Puffin, a sturdy cabin cruiser. We were comfortable if a bit crowded. Stacked about the deck and piled high in the wheelhouse was shooting gear — several shotguns, waders, food, several bottles and other supplies. Two dogs milled about the deck as the vessel rolled in a light chop. These were happy days indeed. Penny sat beside me and, together with her family, we were on our way. Our destination, somewhere in the fetch of that silver sea, was Sidney Island, the southernmost of Canada’s Gulf Island chain.
Mid-morning we nosed into the tiny wharf at the head of the lagoon and were met by Jack Todd in a Volkswagen bus with two more dogs. Chaos. People shouted introductions over the gunwale as we offloaded the baggage; too many hands at the mooring lines and too many dogs tumbling in circles over one another. But things were soon sorted out and our safari was bumping down the overgrown ruts of the island’s only road.
I was the outsider. Jack was the major owner of the island, having bought out nine of the original 10 members of a group of Victoria businessmen who, attracted by the island’s prolific flocks of brant, ducks and other waterfowl, had bought it whole in 1916 as a hunting retreat. The tenth interest, originally held by Penny’s grandfather, was now held by her father, Richard Wilson, mayor of Victoria at the time. Being a minority owner, Wilson was not much involved in the running of the island, but he usually took his family for a visit in December to find a Christmas tree. This year, my relationship with Penny having grown closer, I was invited to join the group – Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, Penny, and her brother David (“Wick”) a Victoria lawyer.
Jack, an avid hunter, had proposed we augment our quest for a Christmas tree with duck hunting, and we had come prepared. But we were to gather first at the farmhouse halfway down the island to have coffee, warm up and get organized. The road took us through the forest and, being a forester, I was immediately struck by the vigorous canopy of Douglas fir second growth, with a remarkable variety of other conifers and hardwoods, including rare Garry oaks and our only native broadleaf evergreen and — my favourite — the stunning arbutus, with its rich orange bark and shiny green leaves in the middle of winter. The forest made a lasting impression on me. And does to this day. Including the arbutus trees that ring our house on the southeastern tip of the island; the orange bark the first thing we see each morning.
That day passed quickly. We idled at coffee, lunch and ducks, and as the sun dipped to the northwest horizon, we realized we had made no progress on the Christmas tree. A good Christmas tree is hard to find in a wild forest; most trees too big or too small, too scrawny or lopsided, and we had not given enough time and attention to finding a suitable one.
Nevertheless, there was one last pond at the south end of the island that Jack insisted we hunt. After that it was time for us to pack up. As Penny and I walked back toward the van, sharing our frustration about the lack of a Christmas tree, we suddenly came upon a perfect specimen. Alas, we had no axe or saw, having left them in the truck where our companions were now waiting for us. But this was our last chance, so after a brief assessment of our alternatives, Penny stood back. I raised my shotgun, fired, and the tree fell cleanly from its stump. When asked about our hunting success, we could now boast four mallards and a Christmas tree.
For more than a quarter of a century, we have been working on a dream: to turn Sidney Island into a self-sustaining conservation community.
My wife Penny and I built a home at Wymond Point, at the southernmost tip of the island. And, over the years, I have hiked every inch of the forest, played with grandchildren in the meadow and circumnavigated the lovely beaches that ring the island.
The place is in my blood now and I love it. But with that affection comes a daunting responsibility: to protect Sidney Island, to make it grow in a sustainable way. That means tough decisions for major challenges. In these pages I discuss some of those challenges and suggest some solutions going forward. But above all, I remain confident. At every turn, Sidney Islanders have proved themselves a creative, resourceful and dedicated crew.
I have been fortunate in my academic career: as a resource economist at the University of B.C., I chaired Royal Commissions on forestry, fisheries and water. Little did I know that, during my retirement, I would have to roll up my sleeves to apply those lessons learned — in my island work.
Now retired, I have time to walk the forests, chat with neighbours and read history. During the summer, I occasionally take visitors or neighbours on tours of the forest, which gives me great pleasure; as a young man I worked as a timber cruiser on Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands.
The Gulf Islands are famous for summer sun and sandy beaches. Less restful but more interesting, indeed thrilling, is the site of a southeast gale tearing at trees with a line of broken waves on the rocks below. Walking high on the ridge, Penny and I bear witness to the forces of nature that so define this special place.