Hippy Living on Vancouver Island

Leaving the Rocky Mountains I really didn’t know where I wanted to go. I had a rough idea to either head towards Nelson which I’d heard was a very laid back hippy town, or over towards the coast and out to Vancouver Island, which sounded like an entire Island of the same thing. The decision was made for me when I scored a ride all the way to Vancouver Island from just outside of Jasper. It wasn’t a bad thing in the end because I only had about 2 and a half weeks in British Columbia and the Island is somewhere that I could have spent months. I was very fortunate that the nice guy who gave me a lift was able to find me a spot on his friends floor in Vancouver where I could roll out my sleeping bag for the night, so I spent a nice night with great company on the mainland (I know you’re probably reading this Ralph, Doug and Bryn; thank you so so much).

Mandolin Jam at Trout Lake - Vancouver

Mandolin Jam at Trout Lake – Vancouver

The next day we headed out to Vancouver Island and I spent a few nights in quite a large town called Nanaimo. It was really to just get my head around the place and to find some locals who could steer me in good directions to go (or offer me free places to sleep). The place was big and from what I heard/saw had big drug problems, but from what I saw there it reminded me of Batemans Bay and I got a feeling that my time on the Island was going to be relaxing rather than adventurous. The streets smelled of weed and bong shops sat around every corner, there were a group of gulf Islands of the coast and a floating pub out in the bay which you could get the ferry to or just kayak along side for a ‘water-level’ beer. I did find a nicer place to head off to and left after two days to a little place called Courtenay with a new German friend Matthias.

It seemed rather fitting

It seemed rather fitting

35 degrees is too hot to carry backpacks - Nanaimo

35 degrees is too hot to carry backpacks – Nanaimo

Courtenay is just how I picture the 60’s or 70’s. Vancouver Island is full of washed up hippies and the pace of life is by far the slowest and most relaxed I’ve ever experienced, there seems to be not much to do but drink beer in the sun and read a book; or in the case of Courtenay, tube down the river. The river in Courtenay is fresh water and the flow is monitored up stream at a fish hatchery/dam where they release surges at different times of the day. Walking up the hill to the jump in point to tube the river, you didn’t even need to hitchhike, people would see you walking topless with a giant car tube and immediately pull over because there was only one place you cold possibly be going. The tube ride took about an hour and was through rapids and slow sections, under bridges and past secluded little beaches that you had to swim to. The best part was that it was all fresh water and was really very refreshing. Families dotted the little beaches and kids jumped from rocks into the river. As you approached some of the bridges, kids would see you coming and hold off from backflipping off the deck until just a moment after you had passed them. The more expensive tubes were properly purchased and had beer coolers built in, and if you were tubing empty handed people would yell out at you before tossing a frosty can your way. On one side of the river it seemed to be families and the other were tie-dye donning hippies on pot or acid who would drift along side you spurting water out of their mouth, it was lots of fun and I spent two days tubing that river. I stayed for quite a while in Courtenay just because of the small, homely feeling it had, there were also some really interesting people about.

What Island living is all about - Nanaimo

What Island living is all about – Nanaimo

SOME fun in the sun - Courtenay

SOME fun in the sun – Courtenay

I was lucky enough to meet one of only 600 or so travelling German Journeymen. The journeyman concept is from medieval times and really only exists in France and Germany still. The idea is that after an apprenticeship for a trade (in this case carpentry), the journeyman would pack his belongings into a small swag to be thrown over his shoulder (like you see hobos depicted in movies) and set off for a period of no less than 3 years to practice his trade and share his company with new masters in new places. They stand out like sore thumbs, wearing flared corduroy pants and tight black vests, and some sort of extravagant hat as a symbol of their group. They wear an earing of a key and carry twisted staffs. I had no idea that this sort of tradition was still practiced and the Journeyman I met had been on the road now for over 4 years and was soon to return to his village, it was fantastic to receive such a profound take on travel from such an interesting person.

I love peoples attitudes here

I love peoples attitudes here

So splitting from the East coast of Vancouver Island with a very heavy heart after being in such a beautiful place I headed over towards Tofino on the opposite coast. Tofino boasts Canada’s surfable coast and this was really my motivation from going, I wanted to see just what sort of waves the country could produce. It was much better than anticipated anyway but the water was a pleasant 7 degrees, my run of luck with money savings continued though when I found a group of Californian surfers with spare boards and wetsuits and booties (yes you NEED booties in that temperature…I value my toes). I choked back laughs when I realised the North American surfer stereotype is completely true, lots and lots of bleached blonde surfers walking around saying things like ‘gnarly’ and ‘rad’ like it was going out of fashion. The beach over at Tofino was home to a tent town after dark and it was very funny to watch the tents pop up in the bush and be run down to the sand after night fall as people raced for the best real estate. I spent a few days down on that beach sharing fires and stories with anyone around and because it was so warm I just slept right on the sand and never had to pack my gear up during the day meaning I had the best spot for shade in the morning sun. While I was on the Island the West coast had a heat wave and were getting temperatures of around 35 degrees for close to two weeks, after being out of Australia for some time I struggled with the fairly balmy Australian summer temperature too.

Cool little hideaway for sleeping - Tomquin Park Beach, Tofino

Cool little hideaway for sleeping – Tomquin Park Beach, Tofino

Hitching on the Island is fairly easy and most of the time I was never waiting more than 5 or 10 minutes for a ride, I got a ride back to the other side of the Island in no time. The gulf between Vancouver Island and the mainland is dotted with tiny Islands with small populations; I headed out to Hornby Island for a few nights. Hornby Island meant a ferry to Denman Island and a ride over to the next ferry terminal to get to Hornby…very remote. Hornby was full of hippies and draft-dodgers from the Vietnam War, and it was such a cool place to stay for a few nights. It was mainly filled with land cooperatives and had a real sense of community among the locals, who called their way of life ‘alternative living’. I set up camp on the local nude beach and was drifting off to sleep on the first night when someone with a guitar popped up and starting playing; before I knew it there was a 50 person jam session happening around me with fire twirling and two absolute virtuosos playing gypsy jazz together. I have never heard such fantastic guitar, but possibly because I’d never heard of this genre of music before (which after hearing you would immediately associate with gypsies). The Islands locals would often move out of their homes for the summer and rent them to tourists, they would then set up camp somewhere isolated in the bush and live as gypsies for the season. It was also full of young people who would move out for the summer for the relaxed lifestyle; the really cool thing was that they were all actually gypsies, they had their places set up in dense forest all over the island and no one seemed to know where anyone else was staying. I met an Australian guy and his girlfriend who had moved out there after an exchange semester and were planning to be living there until November, they had a little driftwood cabin that they’d thrown together and were living very simply off the island…it’s an interesting crowd in those parts.

Lazy fishermen at Tofino - Tofino

Lazy fishermen at Tofino – Tofino

Waking up on a nude beach was pretty novel, to open your eyes to find yourself surrounded by naked people everywhere, some of them covered head to toe and in every crevice with mud that they had dug from the sand; and others doing naked tai chi in front of the rising sun. That evening there was a big concert to celebrate the start of the Hornby Festival and a local artist played who I need to compare to Xavier Rudd, he was a one man band with didgeridoos and everything else; there was probably 500 people in the field to watch him play and everyone danced into the early morning before sleeping where ever they fell… I beg people to go to this place, I’m sure that the other gulf islands are similar, if not better, but it’s such a beautiful and amazing place and you can’t help but slot in and envy their lifestyle.

Red Sunset at Tofino - Tofino

Red Sunset at Tofino – Tofino

As my time on the Island ended I went down to Victoria to the capital of BC thinking that it was probably just another big city. Victoria is beautiful and bohemian, I walked around the city at dusk and found an open air dub and DnB concert happening and beautiful girls in flowing dresses danced and sang while fire dances twirled more poi. Little kids danced on pedestals and it was just so nice to see that this ‘big’ place still retained the laid back lifestyle of the rest of the island.

 

The BIG city, Vancouver

After this trip, I know that although I can appreciate the convenience of living in a city, though I really have no interest in travel there…Vancouver is no exception. For some reason I thought I might think differently of it because I had this image in my head of a laid back Western city where people rode bikes and public transport almost religiously, I can honestly say after only a few days there that there are FAR more people riding their bikes in downtown Toronto than there are in downtown Vancouver, yet for some reason Toronto is given the bad rep as the big city in Canada. Although Toronto has its problems too, I think I prefer it to Vancouver which I know lots of people will curse me for saying. I can only argue that maybe I’ve seen a different side to the place.

Another thing I noticed is that people on the West coast talk down of Torontonians by saying they think that there is nothing East of their city, and they talk about themselves like the maritime provinces don’t exist. It’s weird when you tell people you had travelled from out East to hear them come back with “oh from Toronto?” I don’t quite get it. Either that Toronto attitude has rubbed off on them too, or they’re the ones failing to acknowledge the Maritime Provinces.

The other big problem Vancouver has is their homeless population. It’s warm enough over here to live outside all year around so they attract homeless people from all over the country. They all congregate on East Hastings Street where a blind eye is turned to them. There are panhandlers all throughout the city and they are somewhat aggressive when asking for money, but a stroll along Hastings Street and you’ll see homeless people who are too messed up to even talk let alone beg for coins. I walked along and saw people openly shooting up in the street and others smoking crack; the day I walked along there were 3 ambulances along a 2 block stretch reviving people who had overdosed on heroin in the gutter. A scary but fairly safe place and a nice little snapshot of the homeless population in North America… Toronto definitely doesn’t have the problem on a comparable level. No-one seems to know what the city will do about the homeless people during the winter Olympics next year.

 

Ahead…

This may be the last proper entry I write for a little while. As of tomorrow my nomadic summer will come to a close and I’m heading to Chicago for a music festival and then to New York City to visit a friend for a little while. So big city living resumes and I won’t be sleeping in any parks in NYC I don’t think. A brief visit to Italy in about a month’s time to see the folks before university starts again in full swing! I’ll try to write something for you though after all of that.

Travel at the end of the year could be to Cuba and Central America so there is something to look forward to.

 

Jesse

Leave a Reply