Historic harbour to peaceful retreat




Our home holds more stories than we could ever know. We live remotely, and alone, and yet we have learned over the decades that this place touched the lives of so many people before us. This remote and spectacular little bay, Shoal Bay, was once the largest settlement on the British Columbia coast. Walking among the trees now shows little for it, perhaps thankfully so.

In the summer of 1888, the first steamship in the Pacific Northwest, the historical S.S. Beaver, left Vancouver early, laden with logging and mining supplies, only to crash into the rocks of Prospect Point and sink. This is a well-known part of British Columbian history. What is not so well-known is where the Beaver was headed on that fateful evening: Shoal Bay; at that time a hub for lumber production and gold mining. Estimates put the population then between five and seven thousand people—miners, lumberjacks, mill workers, fishermen, cooks, gamblers, bartenders, and support staff.

Shoal Bay’s population decline

In the years after the Beaver sank, other communities in BC continued growing, while Shoal Bay began its long population decline—down to just two. Certainly a slide, yet Shoal Bay has thrived in other ways with the absence of people and industry.

Shoal Bay, Vancouver Island, BC

Popular with coastal boaters and artists, Shoal Bay, today, has avoided the paparazzi, kept a low profile, and appears to be all the better for it. When you arrive there is little to indicate such an industrial history, and its accompanying pollution and waste. It is simply a small, horseshoe-shaped bay in a breathtaking setting surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It sits at the very centre of the finest trophy fishing found almost anywhere, with an ecosystem of bears, whales, and plenty of stories.

One of the most striking things about the place is the dock—600 feet long, stretching out over the bay, and large enough to handle ships well over 100 feet in length. Not the only reminder, but certainly the most obvious one, of a past that was far more grandiose but no more pleasant than the present.

To meet visitors who tell stories of working here in mills, on fishing boats, and even being born here is humbling. My wife and I own and live on a property that has played an important role in the lives of countless people. All places have stories, but our home tells more than most. Fantastic stories of grand ships, tall timber, gold, death, fish, and love. Like many places along this coast, it is a place where an emerald sea meets a forest of green that reaches for the sky. And on the days when those tree tops disappear into heavy grey clouds, they do indeed touch the sky.

Shoal Bay, Vancouver Island, BC

Preserving the stories of Shoal Bay

We do our best to preserve and respect the stories. We do our best to help the forest and the river heal from prior damage. Mostly, we do our best to stay here. Difficult, expensive, and challenging, remote off-grid life can be exhausting, even crushing. Shoal Bay currently has three rental cottages that generate revenue we depend on to remain here. We live in an absolute paradise and cannot imagine ourselves in any other place.

Through the centre of our property—the old Shoal Bay town site—a creek runs. Beautiful and babbling it flows over fallen trees, swirls around boulders, and empties into the little bay. For the first two decades of our existence here, it was benign, if not lifeless, and ceased to house any fish. About two winters ago, when pushing a walking trail along the creek, we decided to do all that we could to make the creek hospitable again to salmon and all the creatures that salmon support. It has not been easy—working with a chainsaw and rubber boots, we attempt work normally tasked to excavators and teams of engineers. Yet we have had visible success. This past fall, we had a measurable return of both pink and chum salmon spawning there. More than adequate compensation for tired limbs and cold feet clearing debris and restoring gravel beds. We have had wonderful guidance from A-Tlegay Fisheries Society who help re-establish and maintain salmon spawning waterways.

Shoal Bay, Vancouver Island, BC

Restoring the surrounding forest

The creek will never be truly healthy until the forest that surrounds it is healthy, so restoring the forest has become part of the journey. The planting of new cedars and firs along the creekside has quickly resulted in a noticeable improvement. Cynthia’s pottery has come to visually reflect this connection to the bay, the creek, and the forest surrounding us.

This home belongs to us now, but its history is shared. A place that has left an indelible mark on many, it seems to constantly draw them back with memories of the vistas, the wildlife, and joy. It is one of those places that intentionally instills a sense of stewardship over ownership.