Writing Retreat

Faced with a large pile of books, magazines, articles, letters, and several recorded interviews, I knew the best way to focus on reading and transcribing all that material was to get away from it all. So, in the spring of 2016, I hit the road, able to dedicate an entire month to the task. I needed to go alone, and away from home and its usual distractions so that I could really focus, and spend every waking moment I could to the project.

With more people to interview along the east side of Vancouver Island, and with more information to source in the areas of Campbell River, Alert Bay, Sointula, Port McNeill and Telegraph Cove, it was obvious that the best place to park myself was Telegraph Cove. And besides, I really wanted to go there again! The idea of writing about the place actually in the place was very appealing.

I chose April, as it was:

  1. quiet season before the tourists were set to descend
  2. not winter, but
  3. rainy season and so I would be less distracted from the work I needed to do
  4. less expensive, and possible to rent a room for an entire month.

Packing for a month was not hard. There was a laundromat at the Cove, and I was not expecting any fancy dinner reservations, so a change of clothes, rain gear and pyjamas filled a small case that fit around all the paper matter and technology I was bringing with me. I took a bottle half full of gin and a couple of bottles of wine.

My first stop was just north of Nanaimo. I had an interview with Pat Ogawa, the son of Rin Ogawa, one of the Japanese women who lived in Telegraph Cove in the 1930s and who died many years ago. Pat’s sister, Clara, is in the book as well, but Pat is the keeper of the family archives and kindly gave me a few hours to answer questions and show me some artifacts.  

Next was Evylen and Marvin Farrant in Parksville. Marvin grew up in the Cove and, when he married Evylen, they both lived there for over 40 years. I was treated to Evylen’s home baking, which is legendary. Before I went on my way, I was given a cake and two tins of home tinned salmon.

Thelma and Jimmy Burton’s daughter Lorraine lives in Comox, so the next day I took the long slow ocean-side road there, which reminded me of my youth, travelling up Island as a family for our annual visit to Telegraph Cove and my grandparents, 6 of us crammed into our station wagon. In those days, we’d stop over in Kye Bay, near Comox, staying in a little motel unit across the street from the beach. Dad had to work during the day, and the rest of us spent sunny days on the beach and rainy days indoors with reading and colouring books, driving Mom crazy.

The most exciting thing about staying in that little community of summer cabins stretching on either side of a single road, a thin ribbon of holiday leisure, was watching the airforce jets shoot overhead, as the force’s base was at the top of the hill directly behind Kye Bay. They were loud and fast and unpredictable, coming out in pairs or singly, or in formation. We loved the chaos that required hands on ears and squinting up to the sun to see them peeling off and wheeling in sharp turns before disappearing, like super-birds.

What I didn’t love was the seaweed that seemed to consider Kye Bay the perfect place to gather and accumulate. What I didn’t know at the time was that Kye Bay’s collective toilet facilities were emptied in the bay, and no doubt encouraged the compounding growth of several species of plant. The golden, brown, black and green seaweeds and kelps and algae mingled together in a slimy, briny  carpet that young bare feet had to traverse to get to the water to swim, again not knowing that we were swimming in the diluted end product of everyone’s bowel and bladder activity.

Continuing up the coastal road to Campbell River, my second night was spent at the Above Tide motel. It’s a long-time favourite. For one thing, it was cheap(ish). All the units have the most incredible view over the strait. And, since childhood, the name has always made me wonder if somewhere there is a Below Tide motel. It is also located very close to the excellent little Museum, which also has a photo archive. Many of the photos I was looking for were those my aunt had donated, without thinking that maybe making copies of them first might have been a good idea.

Campbell River is the last big stop before the highway to the north of the Island, a highway first built in 1979, running up the Island’s spine and bereft of towns and services except the few logging communities that can connect to it: Woss, Tahsis, Zeballos. I filled the car with gas, loaded up every space available with groceries, and thankfully drove up under sunshine and blue skies, so I was able to put the roof down which meant more groceries could fit inside. A month is a long time, and I like to eat.

I put on some tunes, turned on the heat (it was early April after all), wore my sunglasses and didn’t stop smiling the entire way, my brain filled with other people’s stories and a desire to write them down.  Next stop, last stop – Telegraph Cove.