Off of the Grid

On Route to paradise; Lasqueti is the island in the foreground of the picture.

Lasqueti Island is a modern-day Walden sandwiched safely in between Parksville to the north on nearby Vancouver Island and Texada Island located to the southwest. As far as gulf islands go in British Columbia, this is the most remote of the bunch; accessible only by foot passenger ferry, private plane, boat and or barge, don’t expect to have your daily caramel macchiato during your stay. Besides the local pub and a tiny café located on the north end of the island, which doubles as a convenience store, there aren’t any chain stores located on this island.  For the estimated three hundred and fifty Lasquetian’s who call the island home year round, this arrangement suits most of them just fine. This is especially true, for the few commercial small business owners on the island, who run a monopoly on everything ranging from: beer, to biscuits and even gasoline.

Waiting in the French Creek Harbour, to my immediate left is the passenger ferry.

Like most of its’ neighbours to the south, this gulf island was heavily logged for reasons of sure accessibility in and around the 1950s. Ironically though, you’d be easily fooled into thinking otherwise, if it weren’t for almost stumbling upon the old growth Douglas fir and Western Red Cedar stumps that prominently border the main road on the island. This main road is of vital importance for commerce and transportation, as it connects the residents of the south end to those who live in the north end. Without a car, travel of any measurable distance is slow going at best and at worst a muddy nightmare; on roads that have enough ups and downs to make even the most seasoned of sailors motion sick. During the ‘commute’ into the North End one morning, Amber one of our hosts can’t help but chuckle, while listening to traffic reports from the Lower Mainland on the CBC about back-ups and stalls along the Massey-tunnel into Vancouver, as we seldom see another car pass by us on the narrow stretch of road in front of us. While in the car, Amber makes several pit stops at roadside produce stands to pick up groceries. As we found out, the island isn’t entirely self-sufficient, as many necessary supplies have to be brought in from Parksville on at least a monthly basis. Many Lasquetians have vegetable gardens in addition to their seasonal fruit and vegetable preserves, but they aren’t enough to get by on throughout the year

False Bay, Jessie and I were perched up on a hill killing time before the Nashville v. Vancouver game started at the local bar. Lasquetians know how to throw down and cheer on the 'nucks!

The way in which the local flora and fauna have rebounded over the past sixty years, to literally cover the island in a blanket of green, speaks to the resiliency and tenacity of Mother Nature on the west coast. The same can be said for the residents of Lasqueti; according to the wisdom of one local, spending one winter on the island is akin to making a transatlantic crossing in a rubber dingy. Having spent a week on the island, this is completely believable; our WWOOF hosts Amber Pikula and Reid Wilson pointed out to Jessie and I, that at least one or two community fundraisers are held every year, to help aid families whose homes have gone up in smoke from improperly sealed chimneys. On Lasqueti almost everyone heats and cooks their meals on wood stoves. In many ways, this lifestyle requires the cultivation of a ‘Do It Yourself’ work ethic because calling a contractor to come over from Parksville, to fix your house is both costly and untenable; the majority of Lasquetians live on fixed incomes.

Room at the Top. This shoot was taken of the sweeping vista overlooking the Salish Sea from Axel and Anne's property. Must be one of the highest altitudes on the island.

Without idealizing the citizens of this island, it is refreshing to see, that in an era of pre-fabricated homes, that people are still capable of building and fixing things themselves. This harkens back to a time when the coast was a place being built not on laws but instead on ideals.

There are no building codes on this island and local law enforcement is noticeably absent which helps to explain the boom in the local ‘green’ economy, which has recently gone into a prolonged bust cycle due to the competitiveness of producers in Northern California. Nothing is out of the ordinary on this island, from the roaming gangs of mangy wild sheep to the many uninsured automobiles, which are often ‘retired’ on the side of the road, because they are too costly to barge back over to Parksville on nearby Vancouver Island. Also of interest, is the operating arrangement for life on this tiny island, which is maintained through an intricate system of: work trades, IOUs, bartering and maintaining good relationships with neighbours. Failure to keep close and familiar ties with those around you is often all it takes for a minor spat between neighbours to balloon into a full-on debacle Amber explains. This often results in the losing party being driven off of the island. In spite of it’s few shortcomings Lesqueti Island offer’s a true reprieve from the pressures of life in the rat race.

Just so we didn't get lost on one of our evening walks, conveniently signage was posted on a nearby tree directing us back towards Amber and Reid's cabin.

These are just some of the reasons that help to explain the allure of a ‘homesteading’ lifestyle for our WWOOF hosts Reid and Amber and their two children. “ I’m an unintentional radical, I really liked camping and then I got carried away with things,” says’ Reid cracking a charismatic smile whilst polishing the dishes after dinner. Both Reid and Amber came of age in the woods, finding themselves and each other in the process via tree planting.  After replanting clear-cuts throughout British Columbia and Alberta for many seasons, they were able to pay off mountainous student debt-loads and purchase two ten-acre pieces of property on a unique 100 acre Lasqueti housing co-operative. Owning two ten-acre properties and having a home, mortgage free for a couple in their mid-thirties wouldn’t be possible anywhere else beams Reid. “It’s beautiful. There are a few practical considerations, like I could afford to buy here. Honestly, that was a big part, I had a lot of time as a tree planter living in the bush and you know I like the idea of continuing to live in the bush and make that my permanent [home] and not just something I did in the summertime as a job.”

As a self-described homesteader, an individual who builds his or her home from the ground up and lives off of the electricity and water grid, this couple is keenly aware of cause and effect, and the connection between consumption and waste. Amber stopped tree planting soon after her contract ended, replanting the decimated Walbran Valley near Cowichan Lake on central Vancouver Island. What had once been a thundering forest, of centuries old West-Coast giants had been reduced to nothing more than heaps of slag and impassable stumps, the size of compact cars. Reid motions around his property, pointing towards the various stumps, that we are now standing upon- as they have become integral floorboards, jousts and load bearing support beams in his home. “I think that so much of being green has to do with really being in touch with where things come from.” This was a primary motivation for building his home by felling trees on his own property. Personal consumption is not something that we should obsess over, as Reid elaborates, but rather it is something that we all need to be keenly aware of. Being disconnected from where your household products and conveniences come from ferments ignorance, as to the size and impact of our carbon footprints.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood- Robert Frost

But when asked if he feels as though, what he is doing makes him an environmentalist, he is uncertain. “I guess so, but I know that I certainly turn that [environmental] consciousness off a lot and just go for a night out on the town. I feel like lately, we have just hit a good balance, where we just go and have fun and don’t worry about it too much. Maybe, I don’t feel guilty about that, we live here and have our little footprint. So maybe our day to day [life] is a low footprint but we certainly go and do high footprint things, its not like we are really ideological about it or anything. I don’t like to preach at people, nor do I want to be an absolutist about it.” Instead Reid leads life, by example, showing willing workers on organic farms [WWOOFers] like myself how to live more with less. I am curious to see what the biggest practical challenges are, for him and his family, to live in the woods year round.

 

Mermaid perched on a rock. Was sculpted by Amber and Reid's neighbours and is located on their private beach.

For Reid, installing solar panels and having reliable access to electricity was a cakewalk, he hasn’t even bothered to clean them since he installed them five years ago. “Living off of the grid is easy, so long as you are not trying to make toast with electricity or so long as you don’t try to dry your clothes with electricity. So there, is only a couple of small lifestyle adjustments, and otherwise you can live like a regular suburban Canadian on 10% of the average electricity usage. I heard that an average Canadian house uses something like 20 kwh a day.” Comparatively Reid and his family get by on only 2 to 2.5 kwh per day, and from what I can observe cutting back their electricity consumption hasn’t lead to an austere existence, “look around,” says Reid in the kitchen which doubles as a living room,  “and there is Boris [his son] over playing chess on the computer and I don’t even think that we turned off the computer, while we were eating dinner and there we have a couple of lights on.”

Reid Wilson: An amazing multitasker, what you can't see is that while washing the dishes, Reid is also monitoring the kids and conducting an interview for this blog post.

Comparatively developing and installing a running and potable water system year round is a source of ongoing frustration, Reid explains. “I don’t have enough toes, fingers and hairs on my arm to describe the number of hours that I had to put into that [water] system. Every year, I have to put in several dozen hours and days of building and tweaking and improving our water system here. Electricity no problem.”  I learn, exactly what he means, as he shows me the winter water pump, which he has recently disconnected from a retention pond owned by his neighbours Axel and Anna, halfway up an imposing hill on the housing cooperative.  Towards the beginning of May, this pond runs dangerously low at which point he needs to switch his water lines over to those running up along a steep ravine towards a mountain top that connects to a large cistern. As we double up on the clamps conjoining the PVC water piping together, every hundred feet or so along the steep incline, I gain a better insight into the housing cooperative model, which Reid explained to me the evening beforehand.

The back entrance to Reid and Amber's.

“So what we have within our cooperative is 100 acres that we own together and so we have subdivided nine house sites. The reason we decided nine is because there is a minimum ten-acre subdivision [law]. You can’t make a piece of land smaller than ten acres. So if everything goes to hell and we decided that we hate each other, or that our kids hate each other, we can always subdivide and turn this into separate pieces of property if it has to go that route. Our house sites are determined by geography and they are little three acre islands, in a sea of forest that is up [on] a mountain, so there is a lot of buffer zone and we get together and have meetings and talks and decide about setting up rules for the [management of the] buffer zones.”  Sometimes these rules pan out, but more likely than not, they end up becoming goals that are continually heaped upon a never-ending project list. In terms of work on the island, it’s continual, which helps to explain the rocky adjustment period that I went through.

One of the things I can’t help but notice, about life on Lasqueti, is the culture shock. Not being able to get a chocolate bar on a whim, had me jonesin’ for white sugar for the better part of the week. Strangely too, was the way in which my sleeping schedule changed dramatically; mirroring the natural rhythms of the day. Without all the excessive ambient light being generated from streetlights and neon signs, when the sun went down, so did I. It was as though some sort of trigger flipped inside my body. Overcome with sleepiness, I was most often in bed at nine and a sleep by nine thirty. Conversely, Reid explains the phenomena he calls North American culture shock, something he first experienced after he returned from his travels to India, to stay with his parents in suburban Edmonton in his twenties.

 

The wood shed. This is where Reid stores most of the family's firewood and building wood, that he has often cut down and milled himself.

“They went off to work, and I was in my parents empty house all of a sudden, while I was getting over my jet lag. I was their all by myself in the wintertime and their were no cars on the streets and there were big wide streets, and I looked down the streets and there were loads of these big houses, which were all presumably empty as everyone had gone [off] to work. And I was, in the house, in a big wide space with soft furniture by myself and then the fridge kicked on [and] I could hear it and I don’t think anyone in India ever hears their fridge kick on, there is just hum and humanity, and there is just way more stuff going on there. People don’t waste so much time washing the hell out of everything.” Comparatively, as I discovered from Reid and Amber people on Lasqueti have rediscovered what it means to lead the good life.

 

The Cabin: a true labour of love for Reid- he plans to complete an extension this summer.

This life means connecting with those around you and becoming active participants and members of your community, Reid is one of the two school teachers at an elementary school of forty kids and Amber is also active with the PAC at the school, in addition to helping to make the island a healthier place by teaching her biweekly yoga classes.  As Reid explains, the diversity of people from different backgrounds is what makes this island an ideal place to raise children. “I feel like, certainly for young kids out here in the bush there is more [here] than there is in the city. There is way more. There are lots of hands on artistic stuff [to do] and people to help them out, [like] people starting up chainsaws and then a couple of hours later, there are people showing them how to mix watercolours.

The guy who runs the excavator is the Marimba band dude. There are all these people who wear different hats.” But Reid concedes, that Amber and he will have to eventually pull up their roots and take off these hats, and relocate their family to nearby Parksville or Nanaimo when Boris, his son completes elementary school. There is no high school on the island. About his future he is uncertain, but as it is, the house and the cooperative will hopefully play and important part of it for him. “I think the hardest thing after building this house by hand; [is that] I know every railing and all this custom driftwood stuff here, even if this house isn’t a total beauty to everybody it is so…” Reid’s sentence abruptly tapers off, it becomes apparent that this house has become like an appendage, and much like losing a leg he would also be at a loss without his home. In hindsight, I couldn’t take Lasqueti home with me, but like any place or person that you become deeply attached to, you learn to carry it and it’s life lessons with you.

 

Union Break.

What I take home from Lasqueti Island is a newfound understanding and appreciation for the need to live my life in greater balance, with a keen eye to monitoring the difference generated between what I purchase and what I then subsequently through away as waste.  This is a daily struggle. When I throwaway fast food wrappers into the garbage following a quick meal, in between appointments, I fail to realize the impact of my action on the planet. I am contributing to the mountain of trash that will soon fill nearby Hartland landfill to capacity.

Sometimes you just have to grab life by the rope!

But, it is important to realize the need for tact and thereby not making people feel guilty for the effect of their consumptive behaviour. The last thing anyone wants’ to see is a stern and disapproving head nod from an: acquaintance, friend or family member for failing to brown bag your lunch than go through the drive-threw instead. As Reid suggests, preaching will make little difference in the quest to green behaviour and worse off, it drives people away from making the greener choice. Perhaps it is because of this, that pollsters consistently rank the economy as a more prescient concern for the majority of Canadians than implementing environmental protections to mitigate the impacts of climate change. This is the Achilles heel of the higher than thou environmentalists.

In reality, leading by example is a far more effective tool when it comes to greening personal and collective behaviours, because it generates personal empowerment.  Such is the case, when I reflect on my WWOOFing experience on Lasqueti Island, having seen and experienced the way Amber and Reid live with their two children I want the same for myself in the near future.  To which Reid and Amber would reply “just go for it”.

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