Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 20, 2009


       I open a road map to British Columbia and let my eyes sort through the chaotic jumble of islands dotting the ocean between Vancouver Island and the mainland, until I find the tiny speck labelled “Stuart Island”. Here, I will wash dishes.

      Two weeks later that island has become a reality and, once freed from my daily obligation of soapy servitude in the kitchen of the Big Bay Marina and Fishing Resort, I can explore my temporary home. There are no roads, cars, streetlights, or cinemas on the island. Just clear polarities: mind-deadening work and the mind-blowing beauty of the place; the green land and the blue sea; and the moneyed and the moneyless. The area is simultaneously a playground for the (mostly American) elite, cruising through the calm channels in destroyer-sized yachts, and home to a small number of squatters and other urban refugees.

       Bill Gates has a private resort, with a golf course and a landing strip, on the far side of the island, and the fishing guides boast of having taken the likes of Julie Andrews and Wayne Gretzy out in their little aluminium boats. The resort’s liquor store, the only outlet for many a nautical mile, tempts George Bush Senior and his entourage ashore one day.

       On a neighbouring island, across swirling tidal rapids that can suddenly yawn empty beneath a boat, stands another resort. I hear many things about this mini-Gomorrah over the course of the summer: that its $1000 a night charge buys you anything you want, including contraband drugs; that it is frequented by suit and tie clad Hell’s Angles leaders; that RCMP boats have it under surveillance; that the dock boys are armed with submachine guns. But the only thing that I know for certain is that they put on one hell of a fireworks display. Not for Canada Day, mind you. In this distant corner of the Dominion, the first of July isn’t even an excuse to get drunk. All the celebrations, and the fireworks, are reserved for the culmination of the annual fishing derby.

       Yet beyond the observation deck windows of the luxury yachts, hidden back in the heavily wooded islands, are the homesteaders. On my way back to Vancouver at the end of the summer, I get the chance to visit Mark and Eliza at their home on a nearby island. It’s a huge island, yet Mark tells me that only fifteen people live on it.

       Mark is a quietly intense man, who works as a fishing guide during the summer, while Eliza, a powerful tattooed and pierced woman, tends to the house, large garden, several sheep, and two small children. The kids instantly amaze me. They are barefoot, dreaded and filthy, and their faces beam with the biggest perma-grins I’ve ever seen. Though they have never been to school, they have an intimate knowledge of the world around them. Once, when Mark injured himself, the youngest ran off into the forest, against his mother’s orders (cougars occasionally make meals of small children), and returned with the appropriate medicinal plants to treat his father’s wound.


       Eliza ushers me into the kitchen, puts an Arrested Development CD on the battery-powered stereo, and begins preparing dinner. She bounds out the door to grab fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden as they are needed, and fits in a quick shower under the garden hose in the late evening light just before we eat.

       Mark opens a home brew and Eliza passes around a sweet wine made from last season’s fruit, and we eat a delicious meal, far better than anything I’ve eaten all summer at the resort. Later, as I lend my dishwashing expertise to the washing up, a luxury yacht floats by in the channel below the house, its lights shimmering in the blackness between the land, the extent of its glow silently demarking the measure of its awareness.   

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 16, 2003



  1. Great story. Something of reminiscent Fitzgerald in this.

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