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A Saltspring Education

By Denise LaPointe


A weekend getaway from Vancouver's urban lifescape transforms an uptight city slicker into a laid back islander—at least for the short term.

"I'll leave the door unlocked," Sue, our Salt Spring Island, British Columbia host, informed me on the telephone. "I'll be gone when you arrive; so just have a wonderful weekend, and forget about the city." "But what about thieves?" I asked, thinking her six months of island living couldn't have dulled her wits so much. "Aren't you afraid of a moving van pulling up and emptying your house, or something?" Sue's response was one of those breathy "What planet are you from?" sighs that caused me to think that, after giving up a life of action and convenience in the concrete jungle of Vancouver, she had crossed over and become what I saw as a typical island flake.

My partner, Jean, and I had arrived at Ganges, Salt Spring's largest town, after a pleasant three-hour ride on a ferry that wound its way around rocky isles forested


with pines and reddish-barked arbutus trees. Compared with the urban mayhem occurring only thirty-five kilometres across the Georgia Straight, Ganges brimmed with an easiness that made me feel as if I was in Pleasantville: Drivers of cars honked tuneful greetings to each other, and relaxed looking people window-shopped in mom - and pop-style stores that sold everything from homemade chocolates to wild sockeye salmon.

"You're from the city!" a perky, middle-aged clerk at the local shoe shop exclaimed after we'd exchanged the necessary greetings. I half expected a grinny "Shucks, I've been there!" But instead, she dragged over a couple of chairs, plopped herself down and said, "I'm ready for a break. How 'bout you?" I was immediately intimidated by the prospect of kicking back and having a conversation with someone I didn't know. What on earth would we say to each other? "I've only got a few minutes," I lied, glancing at my watch. "Someone's waiting for me at Thrifty supermarket." I'm still not sure what we talked about, but Aldyth and I must have chin-wagged for a good fifteen minutes before I was able to shake myself to my senses.

The rest of the afternoon was much the same: people everywhere wanting to chat — not from a desire to sell or complain, but simply to satisfy a fundamental need to connect. "It's a city thing — ,"


writer and former urbanite Jane-Eliza Hasted once told me, referring to my social anxiety, "a product of overpopulation. One needs to escape occasionally, to get away from all the concrete and having to think — even unconsciously — about where you step, what you say, who you talk to, and from the constant energy of all those people!" Indeed, too much time in the urban ant heap, with nearly two million other ants scurrying about, was taking its toll on me. It took a visit to the largest of the BC's gulf islands to show me another way of living.

Salt Spring, named by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1800s after a series of saltwater springs had been discovered on the island, is regarded by many as a bucolic alternative to life anywhere. Its easygoing nature, mild climate, and stunning beauty seem to transform any visitor into an islander wannabe—the reasons the population there has, in less than two decades, doubled to over 10,000 people. The mass migration of off-islanders has resulted in skyrocketing property prices that might soon render land affordable only to the rich and famous. With the influx has come the inevitable flurry of urban and industrial development.

Despite Salt Spring's evolution, however, old-world charm remains. Ganges' weekend market is a colourful collection of stalls attended by earthy-looking folk selling handicrafts, art, and organic food, such as local vegetables, creative cheeses and homemade preserves. Throughout the year, festivals abound, the largest being the annual Fall Fair, a two-day extravaganza that draws tourists from both Canada and the USA. Home-based art studios dot the countryside, quaint villages hug the rocky coastline, and quiet roads amble scenically through gentle farmland and forests of pine, arbutus and Douglas fir trees. It didn't take long for us to fall under Salt Spring's spell.


On our first night, Jean and I decided to see a movie at the Fritz Movie theatre that Fridays through Tuesdays shows the latest films. There was no line up to get in and no pre-movie advertising; just a slow tide of people and slides of last year's Fall Fair projected onto a portable screen. I was surprised, being accustomed to commercial overload in the big city, by what seemed a missed opportunity for the business sector. After all, here was a captive crowd waiting to be sold to. Surely an ad or two wouldn't have been out of place. Soon, however, I found myself oddly comforted by pictures of islanders — young and old — as well as cattle and sheep all having a good time.

After the film, we walked into a night decorated with a dazzling canopy of stars. I'd forgotten, living in Vancouver's downtown core, how brilliant the night sky could be in the absence of city lights. There was no Saturday night congestion of traffic and no ambulance siren or car alarm to shatter the silence. I inhaled deeply, feeling as if I truly had been transported to a different planet.

The drive back to Sue's was enchanting: groves of giant cedars and Douglas firs lined the road, building an impenetrable wall, and lights from homes, which in day are hidden by forest, winked like fireflies in the darkness. A cool breeze wafted through my car open window, carrying with it faint scents of wood smoke and seawater. Outside our weekend getaway, we were mesmerized by the utter tranquility of it all. As bedtime approached, my anxieties returned and I found myself struggling with the notion of leaving my bedroom windows open. As an evolving islander wannabe, I wanted to mimic the ways of Salt Springers, who, I learned, rarely bolt doors and routinely leave car keys in the ignition.

City-learned habits die hard, though, and despite the island's nearly non-existent crime rate, I was soon neurotically checking and double-checking every possible entrance to the house to make sure they were well secured. It took two days on Salt Spring for me to better understand Sue's perspective. She had left Vancouver as a retreat from ant heap living, and her trusting ways on this little island of sanity were a simple fact of everyday life.

As Jean and I sailed home to the Lower Mainland, the evening sun danced fairylike on the rippling waters of Long Harbour, and the papery flesh of arbutus trees glowed softly with peach and amber hues. Pondering our visit, I promised inwardly to incorporate aspects of island living into my city lifestyle. The doors to my downtown apartment would stay locked, I decided, but perhaps taking deep breaths, mellowing out and trying to feel comfortable in passing conversations with strangers would add a little dash of Salt Spring to my life.