Voices of Comox

“Here! You should read this!”

Suddenly, a light blue paperback is thrust before me by a set of hands turning open the cover and luring me in. “You’ll love it.” The woman who’s sidled up up next me goes on, “Stories by 34 women who lived in Haida Gawai and other parts of the North Coast in the 60s and 70s. I’m Jane,” she says, snapping the volume shut and pointing to her name on the title page, “And I got these women to write about their lives.”

We’re at Blue Heron Books in Comox. On arrival I’d greeted the saleslady, telling her how good it was to be back and inquiring what about new titles for our shipboard library. Hidden in the art supplies corner overhearing our exchange is Jane Wilde, who masterminded a unique look at a period and place. By the time I check out Gumboot Girls: Adventure, Love and Survival on the British Columbia’s North Coast a is signed and waiting for me at the cash register.

Jane’s right. Great book. In our three days on the hook off Rebecca Spit I devour it along with Grant Lawrence’s Adventures in Solitude, stories of life in Desolation Sound over the past 50 years. Serendipitous companion volumes.

“When are you going to get rid of your president?”

At the Salvation Army store next to Blue Heron, I find a treasure trove of used forks, teaspoons, chowder spoons, and so many knives that I choose only the smaller bistro style ones. Ten cents each. When I’m ready to pay up, I spread I spread everything out on the glass jewelry case. The clerk wonders if I’m organizing an outdoor wedding, “Nope. This is to help save the Salish Sea! We’re getting rid of plastic at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival.” With so many schools and organizations going plastic free it’s hard to find good utensils I tell her. And yes I’ve left enough behind for a couple of households.

My colors revealed, my fellow shopper voices her distress. She looks a typical Port Townsend progressive. But she’s Canadian and Canadians are taking Trump really hard. They need reassurance.

Slowly and surely the wheels of justice are turning, I say. Meanwhile look at what’s happening at the state and local levels. People in the US are awake, learning the ins and outs of government and taking it back. State legislatures are stepping up to salvage social justice and climate action. And communities everywhere are launching new initiatives to strengthen democracy and local resilience.

“I’ve been here forty years and this was the worst winter yet.”

Jack and I are in line at the Comox Valley Harbour Authority to pay for another day’s moorage at the Fishermans Wharf we can enjoy the Sailfish catamaran races.
The sun is intense. The joy is palpable. Kids skip. Bounces in the steps of sandaled feet. Skin and ink everywhere. The weather out of the northwest seems to have finally vanquished the the unbroken wintry systems from the southeast.

The man ahead of us, shakes his head with a smile. He’s fished these waters – commercially – his entire career. Winter was bad. No, it wasn’t just imagination. Not just aging joints complaining. “Do you remember how it started? Before the end of September? Not a decent stretch of a few days until now.”

The wharf on the seawall had music and a beer garden, the perfect place to watch the Seafest multi-hull races, which featured everything from professional trimarans to small cats crewed by very agile teenagers.



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.”