Monday, December 5, 2011

A much-loved surfer rides his last wave

Isaiah Oke, wearing a wetsuit against the cold, gets a peck on the cheek. The Oke family, famous for their surfing prowess, has been struck by tragedy since being evicted from Sombrio Beach.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 7, 2011


The flags flew at half-mast in Port Renfrew for tragedy had again struck the Oke family.

A quiet, muscular man with a goofy, lopsided smile, Isaiah Oke was born into a famed surfing clan, their family name familiar to all who have ever ridden a wave off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Mr. Oke, 30, a fearless, hard-charging surfer a newspaper once described as a “big wave deity,” died late last month.

On Wednesday, residents of the hamlet gathered at the local elementary school for a remembrance ceremony.

On Saturday, a smaller group of friends and family headed east along lonely Highway 14 for an informal ceremony at Sombrio Beach. Mr. Oke’s ashes were spread atop the sea foam, washing up on the sand and the water-smoothed rocks of the beach on which he had been born.

It is also the place where the ashes of his father, his sister, and two brothers have been committed to nature in recent years.

How much tragedy must one family endure?

To be an Oke in Port Renfrew is to know grief.

“It has been a series of tragedies. Hard to fathom,” said Paul Manly, a Nanaimo filmmaker who produced a documentary, Sombrio, about the last days of a squatter and surfer community that lived on the beach.

The family, whose name is pronounced like that of the sturdy tree, were longtime residents at Sombrio. Back in the 1970s, Steve Johnson, a Californian who preferred to battle waves rather than the Vietnamese, came to Canada, where he worked as a tree planter. He eventually settled on the beach with Barbara Oke. The couple had three children from other relationships, adding eight more of their own, a hippie Brady Bunch.

In time, the family built a sprawling, ramshackle, shake-shingle cabin on the beach. It had no electricity and running water was provided by a hose attached to a nearby creek.

Nature provided a bounty of blackberries and edible kelp, salmon and octopus. Barbara coaxed a vegetable garden from the forest floor. Running water was available from a hose linked to a nearby stream. There was no electricity.

In turn, each of the Oke children learned to surf, more from example than instruction. Some were riding waves before knowing how to swim. Bernardine Boudreau, who visited the beach in 1995, remembers a gaggle of happy children. “Life shone in their eyes,” she said “and declared their guileless spirit.”

The beach idyll also attracted misfits and adventurers, dropouts and outlaws.

“People not just off the grid, but on the run,” said Harry Abrams, a frequent visitor back in the day who created a Facebook tribute page for Isaiah. “It was like a cross between Woodstock Nation and Deliverance.”

On the beach, Sombrio Steve, as he was known, acted as an unofficial mayor, while Barbara was a Madonna-like figure for the lost souls who arrived like flotsam on the beach.

Paradise was lost when bureaucrats evicted the squatters to make way for a provincial park. The shacks were torched.

The family wound up living in a tiny house in Port Renfrew, a fishing and logging settlement at the terminus of Highway 14, the West Coast Highway. Their wandering goats annoyed their new neighbours. Their bush life was an uncomfortable fit for them and the town.

Much worse was to come.

In November, 1999, Clearlight Johnson, 27, the oldest of the 11 children, died in a car wreck, likely after having fallen alseep at the wheel. A month later, Dawn Oke died when she lost control of her car. Then, Jesse Oke, a surfer of exceptional skill, drowned after his truck slid off the dock of the government wharf in Port Renfrew. Three children gone in a four-month span.

In 2002, Mr. Johnson, the patriarch of the clan, died of cancer.

Now, Isaiah, a gentle, laid-back fellow, is gone, too, a suicide. He leaves a wife and children.

“You were 220 pounds of solid muscles with a barrel chest with a big heart,” remembered Rivermouth Mike Calloway, one of the Sombrio regulars.

Isaiah’s wife, Lenore Jones, has not spared her friends the raw emotions of grief in her Facebook postings. Amid the pain and anguish, amid the encouraging words of her family and friends, a single plaintive cry will be familiar to any who have ever grieved for a partner: “I really just want my Isaiah back.”

The exploits of the surfing clan have been featured in such movies as Sombrio, 5MM Canada, and 49 Degrees, as well as Grant Shilling’s history book, The Cedar Surf.

There is talk of creating a trust fund for Isaiah’s children. As well, a Victoria business, Salts Organic Clothing, has begun collecting money for the family.

The Biblical Isaiah was a prophet, the surfing one a more down-to-earth figure.

A decade ago, when it came time to bid adieu to Jesse on the beach at Sombrio, it was young Isaiah who paddled on a board out into the cold surf to sprinkle his brother’s ashes.

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