For decades, the southern shoreline of Vancouver Island was the idyllic home to social misfits, free spirits and unreconstructed hippies. And then the government started sending eviction notices.
By Deborah Jones
Sombrio Beach, British Columbia, Canada 1997
WHEN Mike Callaway arrived on this remote beach 15 years ago, he just wanted time to recover from the painful break-up of a band he’d played in, the Codfish Cowboys. And so, on a rocky strip of land sandwiched between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the towering mountains of southern Vancouver Island, accessed only by a narrow coastal road winding from Victoria 90 minutes away, Mr. Callaway set up house in a crude shelter under the moist canopy of rain forest. “I had a spiritual feeling that I belonged around here.”
He surfed the massive rollers that incessantly crash on his doorstep, played music, made forays to far-off stores to supplement the local seafood, drank clear water from the Sombrio River and only occasionally returned to his North Carolina home for brief visits.
Eventually he acquired a family of abandoned cats he was too kind-hearted to let starve. He constantly improved his jerry-rigged home with driftwood and funky artifacts and erected an out-building where, behind a vast window with a view to die for, he started a business repairing surfboards. Now Mike Callaway has fully metamorphized into Rivermouth Mike, a cheerful guru of British Columbia’s surfing scene and by dint of age (45) and tenure a relative old-timer in the diverse community of Sombrio Beach squatters.
Within weeks, that community will change forever. Last fall, the provincial government formally warned most squatters that they’d have to move on. Starting yesterday and continuing through next week, they are being served legal notice of eviction.
The arrival of bureaucracy heralds the end of an era on Sombrio. For decades, it and a chain of other beaches on the Canadian side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca have been home to free spirits who refuse to march to middle age and conformity with the rest of the baby boomers. Here amid abundant plant and animal life across from Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, the old ways — early homesteader meets flower power — prevail. Society’s misfits and dropouts have also taken up residence. A less unusual group are the hardy campers who periodically spent a few months living on a beach before returning to everyday life.
Now the British Columbia government wants to open up their exclusive preserve to the public. It has turned 47 kilometres of spectacular coastline, owned by the Crown and private forest companies, into the Juan de Fuca Trail. The new park consists of four established parks, from Botanical Beach at the west end to China Beach at the east, and a trail linking them.
During the past two years, park workers have built the rugged hiking trail between the beach and the “squats.” Outdoor toilets have been erected, as has modern signage and information boards, gravel paths to the trail and a series of suspension bridges across rushing rivers. The relatively easy access and rave media reports have caught the attention of ambitious hikers, families on weekend outings and many more surfers.
Some of the squats, including Rivermouth Mike, see themselves as hosts to these visitors from the outside world and cheerfully give them directions, teach them how to surf and clean up candy wrappers and pop cans after them. “The parks department should hire me!” he jokes.
Others rail bitterly at the intrusion: Some systemically tear down park structures or simply keep out of sight when tourists appear.
Park wardens, however, are taking a tough line. Under British Columbia Parks rules, people are not allowed to reside on park land for longer than 14 days. And, points out Dave Chater, district manager for British Columbia Parks, there are matters of sanitation (the squatters’ toilets are holes in the ground in the woods), concerns about confrontations between more garrulous residents and park visitors, and the squalour of some of the dwellings — rough, smelly hovels with dirt floors, that are surrounded by garbage.
There is no running water, no electricity, no phones, no garbage dump. “There is also concern about damage to cultural sites,” says Mr. Chater, noting that some huts are built over historical artifacts of the Pacheenaht First Nations.
If the squats refuse to abide by eviction notices, they will eventually be escorted off park land, he says. “People could be arrested, but obviously that’s the worst-case scenario. One hopes it will never come to that.”
Sombrio is by far the largest of the squatter communities. Its 15 to 20 dwellings each shelter between one and 11 people. Because so many of the people are transient an accurate population count is impossible, although Mr. Chater estimates there are as many as 35 squats.
A few Sombrio residents will escape immediate eviction: Rivermouth Mike is one. So too is his next-door-neighbour Steve, an American who arrived 25 years ago and lives with his wife Barb and their nine bright children in two cedar houses surrounded by pens for goats and domestic fowl.
The two families’ clean and well-kept homesteads are located on a 1.2-hectare strip of private land owned by the estate of a deceased Seattle resident. Mr. Chater says the British Columbia government is trying to contact the estate in the hopes of buying the land and adding it to the Juan de Fuca Park. But if the government is unsuccessful in acquiring the land, Rivermouth Mike, Steve, Barb and the children plan to stay put.
Many of their neighbours have left, or are getting ready to do so. One that has already departed is the builder of an elaborate two-storey, cedar-sided house that sits abandoned on a rocky point, its valuable cedar shingles in the process of being ripped off. Visible through a gaping hole in the walls is an abandoned calico cat.
As winter storms buffetted the coast and the Jan. 31 deadline for eviction neared, a few long-time residents made plans to set up an organic farm in Nelson, in British Columbia’s interior, and continue their loosely communal lifestyle. For others, notably those who viewed Sombrio as a haven from a society they despise, the future looks unkind.
Across the misty Sombrio River from Rivermouth Mike’s home, right at the end of an incongruously modern suspension bridge, a hand-hewn cobblestone path leads to the home of Blue and Wendy, who settled at the beach nine years ago (Blue objects vehemently to being called a squatter).
Their crude dwelling consists of a ground-floor room large enough for a few shelves, two tattered armchairs and a black wood stove. In the middle stands an artful winding staircase. Numerous soot-smudged cats crawl over the chairs and staircase and sprawl under the stove, while a big brown dog sits by Blue. “Home Sweet Home” reads a sign on the wall, not far from the eviction notice. The air reeks of urine, and everything, including animals and people, is coated with grime.
“I hate the rich,” Blue says, glaring at a reporter and photographer who have come inquiring about their eviction. “The rich want to make a park so they can play in it. They’re kicking the squatters off it. Have you got any tobacco? We’re out. Did you know that I’m a Zen Buddhist? And it’s the judges who are the real criminals in society.”
Wendy, whom Blue says had four of their children taken away from her at birth by the provincial Social Services Department, huddles in one of the armchairs. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she whispers to Blue, as he starts describing how he was arrested by police when he tried to stop the department from taking the infant.
It’s not clear if Blue is more angry at the social workers or the park people. “They were buddy-buddy with us,” he says. “They cut down trees and built the bridge and there was not one whisper about kicking people off [until last fall]. Nine years ago this place was really beautiful. Now it’s completely destroyed.”
Abruptly, he gets up and holds the door open for me to leave. Asked what they will do about the eviction, he shrugs. “I’m not worried about it.”
Just outside the house a man and a toddler, clad in expensive outdoor clothing and leather hiking boots, cross the suspension bridge over the river, gazing curiously at Blue and Wendy’s house amid the ancient forest.
Is this a case of big government moving in and removing the little people? It’s not that simple, of course. Some of the squatters happily live off government, collecting social-assistance cheques. The don’t report their income from sporadic labouring jobs or selling crafts.
Even the most enamoured residents admit beach life hasn’t been perfect, but it has its special delights. “When you get up in the morning you can do whatever you want to, all day,” smiles Lori, who comes from Ontario and has spent the past few years living an alternative lifestyle throughout North America with her partner Paul, whom she married on Sombrio beach last summer. Living expenses are minimal and the couple obtains money from welfare, craft sales, odd jobs and, recently, the sale of their dog’s puppies.
What does the future hold? “I don’t know,” she shrugs. “We’re hoping they won’t actually evict us.”
Nineteen kilometres down the road, in the hard-working forestry and tourism community of Port Renfrew (population 400), there are mixed feelings about the eviction of the squatters.
Says Tomi Smith, who ran a community recreation program and counts many of the beach people as friends: “There are a few down there who are highly educated,” she says, “but they can’t live in society. They clean the beach after the tourists and if somebody is hurt, they would get help for them. But other people in town say they’re on social assistance and shouldn’t be spending their time squatting on the beach.”
Despite the changes, Barb and Steve hope to remain. “If I was raising nine kids in town, I’d go nuts,” says Barb. “Here they can play.” Steve points out, though, that they do have to watch out for cougars and, in the summertime, bears.
And, sometime in the future, officials bearing eviction notices.
Copyright © 1997 Deborah Jones
Originally published by The Globe and Mail, February 1, 1997