Friday, August 10, 2018

Bowen Island, British Columbia

My family took a short vacation to this place, not too long ago, the details of which are neither here nor there.

I took some photographs and there were some things happening, which have prompted me to do a little research and think about some things, and so here we are.

Bowen Island is located at the mouth of Vancouver's outer harbor (Vancouver, British Columbia, west coast of Canada), in a sound (Howe Sound) that leads north. Vancouver proper is south across the harbor, and further in to the east a bit. About 10-15 miles by water, depending on where you're going. In the early twentieth century, the island was a tourist destination for people from the city, with multiple steamships heading out there daily. At various times various vacation indulgences were available. Day trips to sunbathe and ride a carousel, overnights, evening dinner and dance trips tucked back in bed at home by midnight. Other times, other people, stayed overnight, or for a week, or the whole summer long.

This was a common theme at least in the United States. On the east coast, people with sufficient funds (this went down as far as the thrifty schoolteacher) would vacation at "the lake" or "the shore" depending on their tastes. Coney Island to the Hamptons. My in-laws began visiting Lake Winnipesaukee in those days. Vancouver in the same era had Bowen Island.

More or less between the world wars, cottages were erected for rent. By the week, by the season, or year around. Small, 1 or 2 bedrooms, a common area, a tiny kitchen tucked out back under a shed roof. Tons of charm, comfortable and quaint. Sometimes with water views. Often, I dare say, with water views. Bowen is essentially a low mountain sticking out of Howe Sound, you have to work a bit to avoid sightlines that touch the water.

In the 1950s car ferry service arrived from Horseshoe Bay (the ferry route indicated in the map, above), first from a private firm, and then from the "nationalized" version of the same firm (the province bought them after a strike). This service has a different character, as it originates from more or less the furthest point west in the metro Vancouver mainland, rather from the centers of population. Today, this is the only service to Bowen Island, and it is essentially an extension of the highway system. The modern British Columbian ferry system is built entirely this way, to maximize the time on roads and minimize the time on water. While efficient for cars, it leads to a very car-centric system built around ferry terminals in far remote locations.

Artists of one stripe or another have been living and working on Bowen Island since the earliest part of the 20th century. At present, they represent something of an "old guard" of residents on the island. While the old guard is surely not all artists, the artists are more or less entirely old guard. They are part of what make the island desirable, fun, and interesting. There are no shortage of places to purchase poorly made pottery, a slapdash painting, or some trite photographs of tall birds standing in short water.

This old guard is, of course, in conflict with the newcomers. Since Vancouver began spiking wildly in the 1980s or so, Bowen Island has increasingly been the weekend getaway spot of the white and affluent. They don't want a quaint cottage, they prefer to own a modern home in what resembles as closely as possible a modern suburb, except with a better view and maybe a place to put their boat. And so they do that. The artists, on the one hand, like selling slapdash paintings to wealthy dolts, but dislike both modern suburbs and large boats, to say nothing of deplorable wealthy dolts.

As you can imagine, this leads to friction. The wealthy dolts and the old guard exist in an inextricable and not entirely friendly symbiosis, in the same way gentrifying dolts and sloppy artists live in every artsy little district undergoing gentrification (i.e. all of them).

This has manifested itself in the Davies Orchard.

At the ferry terminal, in Snug Cove on the island, a man named Davies planted an orchard, 100 years ago or thereabouts. This orchard now lies, according to the historical society Bowen Heritage, in the heart of the village of Snug Cove. I can attest that while this is true, it also lies on the outskirts, and indeed somewhat outside that self-same village, on account of the village being very very small indeed. Davies rented tent platforms to campers in the very early days of Bowen's tourist industry. In 1928 a group of cottages was built in the orchard itself, and the remains of this group is essentially the last of the historical cottages which formerly dominated the island.

When we arrived on our vacation, 9 cottages remained. 4 are available as rentals by the week. One houses Bowen Heritage, and another houses a museum.

When we left, there were 6 cottages remaining, as the 3 not counted above had been stripped hulks when we arrived, and were demolished when we left.

The old guard, the hippies, had left a single sign printed on two sheets of letter sized paper expressing their disappointment with the failure of the various relevant organizations (they are legion) to preserve the vital and significant history blah blah blah, but nobody bothered to show up for the demolition. Nobody lay down in front of a bulldozer. Bowen Heritage has a web site which has not been updated in at least two years.

The fight for history appears to be over. The orchard and much of the surrounding area is being folded into a large, already existing, park well suited to day activities. There is a softball field, where the local men play softball (men's softball? say what? they're very very in to it on Bowen Island, uniforms and the whole bit. Recall that, these are for the most part affluent white people.)

It's still a great spot to go for a day or a week. The island is no longer filled with quaint cottages, but it is filled with AirBNBs, VRBOs, and honest to god Bed & Breakfasts, invariably in four season modern homes in modern suburbs, but usually with a good view and access to a beach. Mainly you drive there, the ferry ride a short blip in which you are not actively piloting your vehicle for a few minutes, before you drive off the ship and into the thoroughly modern suburb where you will vacation.

You can purchase some art, take short hikes through classic Pacific Northwest Forest, walk your dog, buy an ice cream cone or a latte or, no doubt, some fudge. It is Island Living, still. But different. The frenetic and highly social days of closely packed cottages and dance floors with live bands on the waterfront are over. The carnival atmosphere, if it ever truly existed, is gone, each of us vacations in our sealed bubbles. Perhaps we exchange a few words over breakfast with the elderly couple also staying at the Bed & Breakfast before going to do our own thing, purchase our own blotchy mugs and splatchy paintings, hike our own dog around the point, and rent kayaks with our own family for a clumsy paddle in the afternoon.

The cottages, though, are largely gone. And not without reason.

1 comment:

  1. In the late 40s and early 50s it always rained on company picnics on Bowen Island. The best part was the ship from Vancouver there and back.