Before moving to Hornby Island, I knew next to nothing about life west of Vancouver. Sure, I had been to Vancouver Island twice (Victoria when I was barely old enough to stand up, and Campbell River as an adult to visit forestry friends), but I had never been to any of the Gulf Islands, or Hornby for that matter.
Just in case you are as naive as Lana-circa-6-months-ago, the Gulf Islands are a group of islands in the Salish Sea (a.k.a. the Georgia Straight), which lies between Vancouver Island and mainland BC. There are 9 major islands in the Southern Gulf Islands (Galiano, Mayne, Pender, Salt Spring, Saturna, Kuper, Thetis, Valdes and Gabriola) and 4 or 5 in the Northern Gulf Islands (Denman, Hornby, Lasqueti, Texada, and/or Qaudra which is often considered part of the Discovery Islands). As far as size, Hornby is the among the smallest of the all the major Gulf Islands. I wouldn’t be doing the Gulf Islands justice however, if I didn’t acknowledge that there are many more small Gulf Islands, many of which are uninhabited.
Having lived on Hornby for approximately 6 months now, it feels like we’ve gotten to know the intricacies of island life a little better, at least somewhat. Without a doubt a life-long Hornby Islander would tell you a much different story, but a fresh pair of eyes can sometimes bring interesting perspective. So here we go, life on an island as told by a prairie import.
You simply can’t talk about living on the Gulf Islands without mentioning a word on ferries. Ferries are a fact of life for all Hornby Islanders. Unless you’ve got a friend with a barge, you are at the mercy of BC Ferries in order to get your and your car on and off the island. There is only one route to Hornby, and it involves either two or three ferries, depending on where you’re coming from (3 from Vancouver, 2 from Vancouver Island). Now, these ferries wouldn’t be such a burden if it weren’t for all the extra time associated with the relatively short sailings; we’re talking about the time it takes to drive from home to the ferry terminal, getting there early enough to guarantee yourself a spot on your desired sailing time, waiting in line to board, loading the boat, sailing, unloading the boat, driving across Denman Island to the next terminal, waiting in line at that terminal, loading the second boat, sailing the second boat, unloading the second boat, then finally driving the 20 or so minutes into Courtenay!
So basically, the name of the game here is patience. Expect to wait and always leave earlier than you think you need to. Aaron and I are still pretty new to the whole concept of ferries as transportation, so we haven’t gotten tired of it yet. In fact, I find it kind of exciting. The whole process can be a great time to sit a read a book, enjoy the scenery, and do a little shameless people watching!
When we were packing for our move to Hornby, I had a tough time. I had never lived in a small town, or one that was surrounded by water. I didn’t know what amenities would be there. I found myself asking questions like “Is there a gas station?” and “Can I get groceries on the island?”. This may sound completely ridiculous, but when you are uprooting your entire life and moving to an island you have never been to, you find yourself asking these questions!
Well, my worries were unnecessary. There is a gas station, and there is a grocery store. In fact, there are two places to buy groceries. The lovely Co-op has been around for 60 years, and serves as a grocery store, liquor store, hardware store, garden center, post office, gift shop, and kitchen/craft/camp supply store. The place really does have everything. You can mail a letter and buy 12 screws, potting soil, a bottle of rum, head of organic lettuce and a pint of ice cream all at the same store. There is also a fantastically scenic convenience store on the other side of the island called Ford’s Cove. They are also exceptionally well stocked, plus you can pick up a fresh croissant and latte while you’re there. Oh, and they also serve pizza by the slice. YESSS.
We cook for ourselves at home 95% of the time, but for that other 5% there are options! There are several places to eat out, especially during the summer. The full array of fine dining, pub food, pizza parlour, food trucks/caravans, and cafes are open in the July and August, but in the off-season there are fewer options and fewer opening hours. The moral of the story is to do your homework if you plan on eating out. Know the hours of operation in advance, or have a back up plan for what to cook at home.
Hornby has a full-time population hovering around the 1000 mark, but grows to several times this number in the summer. If I had to describe the spirit of Hornby succinctly, self-sufficient would be it. Many people don’t work “traditional” jobs commonly seen in cities. Instead, many work two to three part time jobs at various times throughout the year, with summer often being the busiest season. You will also come across lots of organic growers, artisans, musicians and builders on the island, which is a huge part of what brings so much character to Hornby, a place with innate creativity. All it takes is a quick drive around the island and this creative identity is everywhere: the wonderfully unique community hall, market in the woods, painted water tanks, and colourful roadside signs. Coming from a city with an addiction to suburban sprawl, I breath a sigh of relief when walking down a street to find that no two houses are the same.
The Hornby community is responsible for all of the things that make the island awesome. For example, CHFR 96.5 FM is Hornby’s local community station, which just happens to be fully run by volunteers. Locals fill hours of programming with unique content that you won’t hear anywhere else. Even Aaron got to roll up his sleeves and get his 15 minutes of fame on the radio when he hosted a couple two hour shows earlier this summer. I can’t get away without mentioning some of the other organizations on the island that exist solely due to the work of the community: volunteer fire department, recycling depot and free store, library, medical clinic and numerous others that I have yet to discover!
Water conservation is a big deal on Hornby. All properties are serviced by their own well, or water is purchased and delivered. This means that when the well or cistern runs dry, that’s it. Normally this isn’t an issue during the winter when rain is plentiful, but in the summer Hornby turns pretty crispy. It isn’t uncommon to experience month-long stretches without rain. July and August happen to be the driest months, and also the busiest months on Hornby for tourism, resulting in severe water shortages when it’s needed the most.
Farmers and gardeners across the island are wise in their water collection during the winter, but once the dugouts and rain barrels run dry you must tread lightly on water use from the well and cisterns. Despite the 170ft well depth at Middle Mountain Farm, we had to forgo watering certain non-essential plants (ornamentals) in order to ensure we could water the consumable crops. Now that September has come along we are no longer feeling quite as water strained, but if you visit Hornby, expect to see many artfully painted signs reminding you to conserve water!
What do you do for fun?
The island has a killer network of trails which are a paradise for mountain bikers, hikers and adventurers. Aaron gets out on the trails often, and we try to get a hike in about once a week. There’s also plenty of secluded and not-so-secluded beaches for you to visit, including Tribune Bay. Tribune Bay has about 1km of fine white sand and is considered to be one of the warmest salt water swimming areas in BC. And then there’s Helliwell Provincial Park. This place will blow your mind as you walk out of the forest and onto golden coloured grassy bluffs overlooking the ocean. If water sports are your thing then you can kayak, SUP, skimboard, windsurf, dive, or snorkel until your heart’s content. We’re still working on our water sports skills. Once a prairie kid, always a prairie kid.
There’s also endless music and art events on the go. Almost every night there’s either an art show or concert at the various venues on the island, not to mention 10 straight days of music in the summer during the Hornby Island Music Festival. There is quite the selection of drop-in community sports such as basketball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, and even ping pong. Something a little more my style is yoga, which occurs on a daily schedule year-round, and moves to a some really neat outdoor venues in the summer (a.k.a. a killer platform at Little Tribune Bay and the meadow at Sandpiper Beach). Sign me up!
Now, I know that five categories are not nearly enough to describe Hornby. I could probably write an entire thesis on the island and still not do it justice. No island, town, city or country is without its flaws, and Hornby is no exception. Aaron and I just consider ourselves lucky, given that we are able to live here and experience the ups and downs as members of the community, regardless of whether we have lived here for 6 months or 60 years.