Almost everything is do-it-yourself out here on Mayne, one of the lesser-visited of British Columbia's Gulf Islands. It's nine square miles of lazily winding roads with no traffic lights and only about 1,100 year-round residents — a count that triples in summer.
It was the first day of spring, so naturally we were watching Mayne Island volunteers remove Christmas lights from a big tree in the park.
That’s what you call “island time.” No strict deadlines. No rushing about.
And almost everything is do-it-yourself out here on Mayne, one of the lesser-visited of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. It’s nine square miles of lazily winding roads with no traffic lights and only about 1,100 year-round residents — a count that triples in summer.
“The whole island runs on volunteers!” volunteer Joanna Weeks told us earlier as she jotted down prices and added up our purchase — two previously owned wine glasses (50 cents each) and a souvenir Seattle World’s Fair teaspoon — at the island’s lovably ragtag Thrift Store, not much larger than your average Seattle espresso hut.
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When open — from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday — the store seemed the center of the island’s offseason social life. Cars lined the road out front. A sign inside noted that all proceeds go to island causes, ranging from a new floor for the Ag Hall, to those aforementioned holiday lights.
Weeks, a longtime resident, lamented that “it’s getting harder and harder because fewer people want to volunteer. We have so many snowbirds!”
But the independent air of these islanders is plain, and that’s part of the draw. That and the quiet beauty of this isolated place, where residents honor an interesting history.
The expected and unexpected
Hiking trails abound. Our expectations were happily met by natural wonders along a half-mile walk to the tip of Campbell Point, part of the multi-island Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, established in 2003. Through towering firs and myriad gnarled madronas — they call them arbutus here — we looked out at the wide Strait of Georgia, backed by snow-capped peaks and the distant Vancouver skyline. The tin-horn “whee, whee” call of nuthatches echoed, and wood ducks dove among offshore rocks shared with harbor seals and red-billed oystercatchers.
On the far side of the island, we found something we didn’t expect: the island’s Japanese Garden, dedicated to a past little known beyond the island’s shores.
The manicured acre of formal garden, complete with reflective pond, bridges and torii gates, opened in 2002. Island volunteers built it as a memorial to the Japanese immigrants who farmed the island starting around the early 1900s.
Japanese Canadians were one-third of the island population by World War II, when, as in the United States, they were sent to internment camps — most not to return.
“It was a black mark in Canadian history,” said Jerry Betker, an island old-timer we met as he tended the garden, built on a site where the Adachi family once farmed.
The Adachis and other Japanese immigrants raised strawberries, orchard fruit and hothouse tomatoes — the main supply of tomatoes to Vancouver in the early 20th century.
“They were very much the economic engine of the island,” we heard from Alan Guy, another garden volunteer.
The garden has not gone unnoticed by those it honors. The Adachi family plans a reunion there this summer, with more than 100 expected from Japan and across Canada.
In a tribute to native culture, islanders last summer recognized the contributions of a local First Nations couple, Emma and Felix Jack, with the placement at a prominent crossroads of a 20-foot-tall wood carving with outstretched arms, “The Honouring Figure,” based on a traditional Coast Salish welcome figure.
A small world
Mayne is not a big island. That was brought home to us when my wife, Barbara, and I stopped to peek inside its historic church, the 1897 Church of St. Mary Magdalene, nestled among trees on a knoll next to the island’s old cemetery.
Joanna Weeks had told us of the unique baptismal font, a large wind-sculpted sandstone boulder brought years ago by rowboat from nearby Saturna Island. (“They were tough in those days!”)
A bustling church helper, Janet Guy, let us in, showed us about, even let us pull a rope to ring the church bell (“You always wanted to do that, didn’t you?”).
She invited us to Sunday services, which are Anglican.
“The church ministers are a couple who live on Pender (Island), where they have an organic farm. They come over in their own boat on Sundays, he to this church, she to the one on Galiano. If it’s rough weather, they might just fax over the sermon and someone reads it.”
A mixed crowd
Mayne is an interesting mixture of old-timers, well-off and not, juxtaposed with newcomers who’ve achieved success elsewhere and can afford to live where they choose.
“We have some really amazing and talented people here,” said Dawne Cressman, whose cozy, wood-heated cottage we rented at Bennett Bay. She came from Vancouver 22 years ago, a single mother looking for a good place to raise a teenage son.
“Raffi used to live here, but now he’s on Salt Spring,” she said, referring to the well-known children’s musician and Mayne’s larger, more-discovered neighbor island. An animal-rescue group on Mayne is led in part by David Scearce, who wrote the screenplay for the recent Colin Firth movie, “A Single Man.”
Politically, island clout has shifted in recent years from the old guard to newcomers who have brought yoga studios, a health-food store and new ideas.
“The new recycling people and tree-huggers and people into this modern stuff pretty much have the influence now,” said island artist Jim McKenzie, who came from Vancouver in the 1980s “because it was the cool artist thing to do.” He accepts changes with equanimity, though: “You have to accept the differences in people or you just won’t have any friends.”
Said Cressman of the newbies, “I’ve appreciated how they have brought new things like a folk club and the market” — a summertime Saturday farmers market outside the 100-year-old Agricultural Hall, which is also the site of an annual August agricultural fair.
Respecting the royals
If anything on Mayne Island seems too newfangled, just take a walk down to the Miners Bay waterfront and sit for a while on the octagonal bench that was built to commemorate the occasion when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mum) sailed past on their way between Victoria and Vancouver in 1939.
Sailed past. Didn’t stop.
Yet islanders built a memorial bench, still marked with a battered brass plaque, which continues to accommodate those yearning for a peaceful water view more than 70 years later.
Maybe that’s another example of island time. This remains a quaint place, a 90-minute ferry ride from the harried modern world, looking back with dignity to its varied cultural roots.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com