Comox, B.C. – Land of Plenty

I doubt that it was because we’d been away from civilization so long that the town of Comox felt so welcoming. If anything, we were a bit wary of returning to places with cars and supermarkets. But in our two nights and a day in Comox lived up to its native name, which means “plenty”.

First it was the forty odd small sailboats in the bay with hundreds of youngsters learning to sail. When we arrived at the fuel dock, a sailing instructor who was was competently giving instructions to first time crews pushing off in in three 10 foot catamarans, helped us in after a gust push our bow off the dock. And we liked George, the fuel pump guy so much that when he invited us to dock right nearby, we did.

The people of Comox love being out on the water. Small boats laden with fishing gear passed one after the other in the wide fairway behind our stern. Venturing up on the docks in the evening we found that the fairway led to a double width launching ramp leading to a flower bed-ringed parking lot full of empty boat trailers. A vast park with milled timber gazebos and a totem pole extended to the east; a balconied pub with laundry, showers and high definition Beijing Olympics events on the other. Over the local lager and IPA, we watched beautiful women from the warring states of Georgia and Russia fight it on the sands of beach volleyball.

What is it about Comox? The best civic infrastructure I’ve ever noticed? Perhaps the wilderness has helped me notice. The place is intensively floral. Hanging baskets start at the fuel dock. Every bit of ground is gardened, even around the fire hydrants. The main street is so pedestrian friendly that there are no stoplights. Rather there is a slow polite minuet that comes with four way stop signs and striped pedestrian crossings that even families of deer have learned to use properly.

Everywhere you look there are interesting places to sit and watch the world go by. Or walkways and bike paths to explore. The businesses all seem to be local. The Lorne Hotel, the Pub at the main intersection of town was the original hotel, little changed from 1887. The coffee shops have toy-filled play areas. This is a town that invites you to just hang.

Between Comox and the mighty Comox glacier in Vancouver Island’s Beaufort Range is a gentle river valley that is home to the towns of Courtenay and Cumberland. The bus service is smart and convivial. Yes, like Portland, this is a place where people call out “Good bye” to fellow passengers and “Thank you!” to the driver, even when exiting the rear door! Like many towns in the Northwest – but very few elsewhere – school and civic transport are merged into one caring system. Attractive bus shelters – no two alike – are sponsored by local businesses. And it’s official policy that night or day the buses serve as safe havens for anyone in need.

In Courtenay we visited an excellent small museum and learned about the mining, fishing, forestry and farming that sustained the valley’s economy. Staffed by six full time professionals, they hardly asked us for a donation. Today the relative affluence of the area is helped by regular federal salaries of Coast Guard and Fisheries and Navy staff and the pensions of retirees from Alberta and Saskatchewan. The mix is morelike Vancouver than Vancouver Island, with Canadians of African and Asian descent. Bulletin boards everywhere speak of dense community fabric. Everyday pleasures like badminton, baseball, basketball, belly dancing, bowling, boxing, community choirs and so forth down through the alphabet abound. A good sign. And the public restrooms are open all the time.

Most North American towns built in the late 19th Century boast grand courthouses, banks or other significant buildings. Nothing of the sort in Comox. The tiny blue and white town hall looks as if it has taken over the site of a convenience store fitted out with huge hanging flower baskets. Across the street, adjacent to the senior center and overlooking the marina are the Council Chambers. The marina is municipal. As a visitor you “feel” it’s owned by the taxpayers and you are their guests. Along the breakwater between the fishing boats and the bay is a dock whose only purpose is to take pedestrians to watch the sailing races or to buy fresh salmon from native fishermen.

And there was something else we had never seen before. Public grids. None were in use and even after reading the fairly complex rules for physical and environmental safety, we couldn’t quite figure them out. So we asked George. “Oh, that’s so we can all take care of our boats ourselves,” he said, with evident pride. “Commercial marinas make you pay to be hauled out with travel lifts. But we just pull up, tie up, wait for low water and work until the tide comes in.”

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