There is a place that lives so large I have a hard time describing it to people. Keats Island is in Howe Sound, where the mountains seem to plunge into the ocean; the sound is visible from the highway that runs between Vancouver and Whistler.
My parents bought a long, narrow sliver of paradise in 1981 for $11,000; for their dollar they were given the key to a 10×10 plywood shack with rotten floorboards, 6600 sq ft of ferns, big leaf maples, douglas fir, ferns and blackberry bushes so dense they covered the front of the property, obscuring the view of the shack and completely obliterating the road.
Our first summer, we camped in the shack while building an A-frame cabin with the help of friends and a couple of my mother’s brothers. They hired a builder brimming with enthusiasm who had never built a house. I can still picture his rusty truck with no floorboards; he had to fill the radiator with a gallon of water each time he stopped.
Part of what makes Keats Island so magical is its inaccessibility. To get there, you need to take two BC ferries, or a water taxi. Should it be necessary to get building supplies, appliances or a backhoe on the island, you have to rent a barge and be in the good graces of someone who owns a truck on the island. Most people opt to hire one of two contractors if they want their project finished in less than three years; some opt to do it piecemeal, spending their weekends and summers carrying up laminate flooring and tools by hand on the Stormaway, a thirty passenger aluminum charter boat, pictured above, that serves the island twice a day.
There is no licensed commerce on the island, so groceries have to be carried up, and all garbage is packed out. The exception is Barnabas, a Christian family camp located midway across the island; they have a small general store, open three hours a day, that serves espresso and ice-cream.
Both of my parents worked in the school system, so we spent most of our summers at Keats when I was growing up. These were formative years, shaping my love of the ocean, and also my expectations of summer leisure. We were never a family of hikers or mountaineers, nor did we camp. Why would we when there was ‘Twin Maples’, a cabin built to provide just enough comfort to keep us warm? Until my parents renovated this year, we always relished the sense that we were roughing it.
Our cabin is located amidst a small community of cottages in Eastbourne; there are roughly 150 families on our end of the island, though no more than one third of the homes are ever occupied. ‘Who’s up?’ people ask as they get off the ferry at the government dock, wondering which of their friends might be staying that weekend.
My closest friends were Amy and Laurie, sisters who lived two cabins away, just close enough that we could stand on our front porch and yell ‘Kayo’ to see if chores were done and they were free to play; their family bought an old cabin the year before we did, so they already knew the Grays, sisters Tara and Alana who lived near the path to Maple Beach. Alana and Laurie were ‘up’ last week with their children; our children played together just like their mothers did so many years ago.
The family who owns the cabin across the road from ours have four children, gifted with inventive spirits. Perhaps it is because they have been renovating their cabin for eight years, a heritage relic of the early years, their property is the defacto depository for all things potentially useful, while not immediately obvious to the adult observer. The favorite toy was a go-kart built out of a rusty tricycle, a handtruck or dolly and a boogie board.
Summers are about families and children falling all over each other; the headache that comes from swimming in the Pacific Ocean for more than fifteen minutes; pooling the last egg, cup of milk and three slices of bread with homemade blackberry jam for a shared breakfast on the patio, the freedom to read a book while your children are playing somewhere, and serenity of a long walk in the woods.