Holidayers enjoy a wheelbarrow race on the sandy beach at Stubbs Island, near Tofino. A private owner is now dedicated to returning the island to its natural state as the Clayoquot Island Preserve. Photograph courtesy the Ken Gibson Collection.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 16, 2011
Once a year, Joan Nicholson returns to her birthplace, an island off Tofino long ago home to a thriving coastal village.
Mrs. Nicholson, 76, is one of the few people to have been born on Stubbs Island, a spectacular landscape of sand dunes and old-growth forest surrounded by the sea.
The island was once home to a hotel, a school, a jailhouse, a beer parlour and a general store, as well as a fishing village. A post office opened 121 years ago this month to deliver mail addressed to the residents of Clayoquot, B.C.
For a child, the island was a dream playground.
“Beautiful beaches. Kids playing all over the place,” she said.
“We raced through the sand dunes, especially when there was a rainbow. We’d chase the rainbow thinking we’d find a pot of gold. We never did.”
Perhaps being on the island was treasure enough.
Today, the island’s permanent population is two.
Their names are Sharon Whalen and Chris Taylor, a couple who are caretakers for the owner, Susan Bloom, an apt surname for an environmentalist who cherishes what the earth provides. The island is a privately-owned paradise with magnificent gardens and century-old rhododendron trees.
Every May, on the Victoria Day long weekend, the island is opened to residents of nearby Tofino, the oldest of whom will have enjoyed the island as a recreational playground in years past.
Much of the Clayoquot (pronounced CLAH-kwat) Island Preserve, as it is now known, is returning to its natural state, a rainforest “smothered by the trees,” Ms. Whalen said.
The island is off the grid, so the caretakers rely on solar panels to power generators, an achievement in a place as cloudy as the west coast of Vancouver Island. Water is made potable through a clever system of sand filtering.
The island is home to colonies of ducks and geese. Bears and cougars swim to the island.
While the caretaker was on the telephone on Sunday, a raccoon and a blue jay found shelter in her home, a temporary reprieve from the weekend’s unrelenting rain.
“It’s a demanding island,” Ms. Whalen said. “It has its hardships. People get freaked out by the heavy rains and the storms.”
She adds: “This place requires complete devotion and loyalty.”
The home in which she now lives is the same in which Joan Nicholson was born.
Mrs. Nicholson’s grandfather, Walter Dawley, built a grand, three-story hotel between the wharf and the sand spit. The island, on which a trading post opened in 1855, was popular with sailors and workers all along the coast, not the least because it was a rare place where one could slake a thirst with beer.
In time, he bequeathed the island to his daughter, Madeleine, and her husband, Pierre Malon. They had a daughter, Joan, born in a cabin on swampy ground, the only building still standing on the island.
She can remember when cabins and wooden buildings stood in a crescent around the bay.
A short walk away was a hamlet where the family names were Igarashi, Katsuro, Kimoto, Okada and Karatsu. In those days, it was known as Japtown.
She can remember being with her friend Gloria Karatsu one summer day in 1942.
“The two of us were walking to the approach to the wharf where the old Princess Maquinna came to pick them up. The two of us couldn’t figure out what was going on.
“I wasn’t near the houses when they were taken away.”
A world war had come to an isolated island along the coast. The Japanese-Canadian families were removed from Stubbs, never to return. Joan’s family sold their property and left the island, too. The pub and hotel continued for some years. The post office finally closed in 1964.
Joan never again saw her friend, Gloria, who died in 1989.
She will remember her on her annual pilgrimage to the island.
This year, she will be joined by Ruby Middeldorp of North Vancouver, who is Gloria’s sister. Ruby, too, was born on Stubbs Island.
Her homecoming will include a visit to the site of the home in which her fisherman father, Naochi, her mother, Sen, raised a family of eight children until forced from the island.
The cottage’s footprint is all that remains. It is a ghost house.
Beside it, however, is a rhododendron tree, planted in a happier time by her father. It flourishes.
Walter Dawley built this grand hotel on Stubbs (now Calyoquot) Island. His granddaughter is returning to the island on a pilgrimage on the May long weekend. Photograph courtesy the Ken Gibson Collection.