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Island Life: Beauty and Isolation Mix Together on B.C.'s Far-West Queen Charlottes Story and photos by Andy Stonehouse For the past few months, readers of the Lower Mainland dailies have been seeing some extremely promising display ads, offering up what could be the province's best deal on vacation property. Little do they know that they're also the most creative real estate offering this side of the La Brea Tar Pits. The ads detail the picturesque Driftwood Landing, with three and four bedroom recreation or retirement townhomes, close to fishing, ocean and hiking. Full amenities are nearby, plus the added colour of genuine First Nations culture, all for $39,000 apiece. Complete. Not a time share, outright sale. Compared to the price point more familiar to Whistler properties, Driftwood Landing is the deal of the century. Until you realize that the scenic and charming creation just happens to be a particularly flowery prospectus for renovated officers' housing at CFB Masset, the recently mothballed electronic listening post on the north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands. You say the Charlottes don't ring a bell? Possibly a quaint spot somewhere between Saltspring and Saturna? Potential second-home owners hoping for a weekend excursion from Whistler had best dig out the B.C. highways map. Spot Vancouver on the map, and then follow the coast approximately half way to Anchorage, Alaska. The long, elegant and wonderfully isolated archipelago along the province's Northwest coast could be your new home. Getting to your new vacation property is even more interesting. First, head to Horseshoe Bay and hop a ferry to Nanaimo. Drive 500 kilometres up-island to Port Hardy, and catch a scenic 18 hour ferry ride up the coast, another 500 kilometres north to Prince Rupert. Stop at Smile's Restaurant for fish and chips, then jump back on the same ferry and head west towards the Charlottes. Six hours later, barring storm warnings in Hecate Strait, you'll almost be at your new home, which is still an hour and a half drive north from the Skidegate ferry terminal. Conversely, you can also make a quick highway trip from Whistler to Prince Rupert in about 19 hours, provided you remember to hang a left in Prince George and you don't stop too long at the 7-11 in Burns Lake. Taking the logistics into consideration, it's obvious that Driftwood Landing's backers are banking on that unfamiliarity and hoping for the best. As for those already living on the Charlottes, the whole trumped-up offering is just another off-Island exercise in the absurd. Life on one of B.C.'s most remote settings is indeed very different from the rest of the province. The redevelopment of CFB Masset's housing is an attempt to reinvigorate the depressed economy of one of the province's most spectacular but least-known areas. After years of isolation and obscurity, the Charlottes are at a transitional point. Long beloved by kayakers, self-contained ecotourists, mushroom pickers and legions of hippie artists, the island chain is finally making some long-needed steps to open itself to the outside world, as its forest industry jobs dwindle and commercial fishing operations remain precarious at best. A tourism council is being created, and with millions of dollars in federal money bankrolled and ready for a variety of visitor-drawing local projects, the Charlottes could become the next big thing. Or so the entrepreneurial wizards behind the Driftwood Landing project are hoping. But given the history of the islands, the offbeat mixture of people who make them their home and the sheer obstacles of physical isolation, don't count on any wholesale change. The islands' population is centred on Graham Island, home to Masset, Port Clements, Tlell, Queen Charlotte City, plus the Haida communities of Old Masset and Skidegate, with the less-populated Moresby Island to the south. Cruising the streets and back roads of the Charlottes' tiny communities can make a visitor think what a town like Whistler or Pemberton must have been before the days of Eldon Beck and a thousand teal-coloured condo-hotels. Spend a week in Queen Charlotte City, Graham Island's south-end business and government centre, and you very quickly realize the self-supporting social milieu which fosters in a town where the comings and goings are almost completely regulated by a few weather-dependent B.C. Ferries departures a week. It's the Queen of the North or nothing, except for those who've got the bucks to catch a bumpy ride to Rupert on a Harbour Air 1950s-era Beaver floatplane, or shell out as much as $1,000 for a normal return fare to Vancouver. Even getting to the jet airstrip in Sandspit requires a ferry ride to Moresby Island's Alliford Bay. Consequently, those 7,000 or so who live year round on the Charlottes have clearly invested a significant amount of time and money in their decision, and many newcomers who survive a first winter's worth of storms and the occasional two- to three-day period without power or telephones simply concede that there's no other life like it. And with good reason. Where else could a simple walk on the beach yield daily whale sightings or a dozen bald eagles fighting it out for food with the same grace as seagulls behind a suburban fast food joint? Where else can you visit pristine beaches 50 kilometres long and not see a single person for hours at a time, leaving you free to collect scallops and glass Japanese fish floats in an almost eerie tranquillity? Where would true locals wave at each other with such frequency that one might expect their children to grow a third arm as a future genetic adaptation? Like any other area where residents draw the Northern Living Allowance, life in the Charlottes has its complications. Bad weather can cancel ferry sailings for a week or more, leaving the residents without new shipments of bread or milk for a while. Residents are known to frequently dream about fresh salads and produce, so infrequent is the real thing. Gas sells for a cool 67 cents a litre, and the regular niceties at the grocery store price out at 20 to 30 per cent more than you'd pay down south — which might not be that big a shock for Whistler shoppers. And the weather is definitely reflective of the North Coast, with long periods of rain a given throughout the year. It's easy to concentrate on the difficulties, but locals learn to live with them and celebrate the unique life and the small-town feel in their communities, some of the last places in the province where the towns are never flooded by weekenders and the worst traffic jam might last a minute or two. The islands are a place where doors remain unlocked and keys are left in car ignitions — it's pretty hard to really steal a car on an island — and everyone knows everybody else by name. Which can also be troublesome if you're not into the collective community experience. Long-timers on the Charlottes are indeed a curious breed. Some families have been there for decades, descendants of loggers who first arrived at the turn of the century, taking part in the island's long-prosperous forest industry. Others flocked to the islands as Viet Nam-era draft dodgers, taking up residence in Brittany-styled hippie barn-houses along East Beach at Tlell. The islands boast one of the province's largest populations of artists, plus back-to-the-earthers by the dozens. Recent years have brought a wave of semi-professionals, receiving postings at government offices or to work as co-ordinators for the distribution for a myriad of federal trust funds. And those are just the recent arrivals. The Haida, the islands' First Nations community, have lived on the Charlottes (or Haida Gwaii, as they and local activists call the islands) for more than 8,000 years, and continue to exert a political and social presence virtually unmatched in other native communities across the country. Their protests helped bring an end to logging on the entire southern end of Moresby Island in the mid-80s, leading to the establishment of the Gwaii Hanaas National Park Reserve. The Graham Island Haida village of Skidegate features dozens of huge new homes, and plans call for a multi-million dollar complex including a hotel, theatres and cultural facilities, honouring legendary carver and craftsman Bill Reid. Reid's work can be seen at the Vancouver International Airport or at the Canadian Embassy in London. Years before the Queen of the North was unloading Alberta-plate-bearing Jettas loaded with sea kayaks and mountain bikes, the Charlottes' primary role was as a giant logging outpost, one of the province's most profitable venues for forest giant MacMillan Bloedel. Steady cutting on both Moresby and Graham Islands exploded in the mid-70s, with only spotty replanting. Comparing satellite photos of the islands show about 68 million cubic metres of old-growth timber in the 1960s, versus a mere 9 million cubic metres in second growth lining the cutblocks in the present day. Get off the main highway and the clearcuts can be astounding. The shortage in old growth led MacBlo to shut down two Graham Island logging camps this year, and the resulting slowdown in the industry has put a significant hamper on island business. And despite the sunniest optimism of ecotourism promoters and Parks Canada officials, locals concede that new tourism alone won't turn a resource-based economy around. In the meantime, local forces have helped launch the Islands Community Stabilization Initiative, a rudimentary forest council many hope will help co-ordinate future logging projects and provide some hope for the long-mismanaged industry. As is the case in Whistler, a community forest plan is under way, and islanders hope to see some value-added manufacturing or similar projects begun, instead of more football field-sized loads of raw lumber heading south by sea. Islanders have also placed huge faith in the effective management of the Gwaii Trust, a $45 million trust fund established by the federal and provincial governments to serve as a payback for loss of cutting rights in the South Moresby park reserve. The first projects to be built with the money have included a huge public harbour at Sandspit and a new tourism centre, with a million dollars per community for infrastructure plans including sewer systems, firehalls, ball fields and church buildings across the islands. Other initiatives include an educational fund for students to pursue post-secondary education or bursaries for local artists. Many say the education money couldn't come at a better time. A Fraser Institute-sponsored study of education across the province earlier this year indicated that Charlottes’ schools were the absolute worst in B.C., with high drop-out rates and poor academic results. For months, the Queen Charlotte Island Observer newspaper was filled with letters from locals, contending that the stats reflected the fact that the islands' best and brightest students tend to go off-island to finish high school. The Observer's letters page is itself an interesting reflection of the dynamic community on the islands. The newspaper, launched in a backyard shack in Tlell in 1969, has continued to offer residents a balanced perspective on islands issues throughout the years, despite the huge cultural rift felt between logging communities like Port Clements and the ongoing north-south battle between residents in Masset and Queen Charlotte City. Part of that hostility stems from the sense of physical disconnection felt amongst the various island towns, each of which have a completely different feeling. At the south end, Queen Charlotte City is a rambling, free-spirited mixture of fishermen, government officials and business people, with homes and offices stretching along the highway. Walk up from the government dock and you'll find the community's unofficial town centre, with vegetarian samosas at Harry Martin's Eatery or south island boozing at Howler's Pub. Follow Highway 16 along the ocean 40 kilometres to the north past Skidegate and you'll eventually pass through Tlell, where farms back up against wide open beaches and a decent cappuccino and second-hand hipster polyester goods can be found at Dress for Less, located more or less in the middle of nowhere. You can also head up the beach and across the Tlell River at low tide for an easy walk to the wreck of the Pesuta, a 1930s era log ship which ran aground and still sits desolate and eerie amongst the crashing waves. Back on the road, it's a straight shot through a mid-island clearcut to the rough and ready Port Clements, the islands' logging town, and then another 45 minutes to reach north-end Masset, the former military community changing its concentration from fishing and spying on the Russians to hosting European tourists at the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary. The Charlottes' most magnificent views can be accessed by heading east from Masset toward Tow Hill and Naikoon Provincial Park. Once the blacktop ends, the rain forest forms a canopy over the winding gravel road to the park, passing beach houses and bed and breakfasts. Climb the micro-mountain on a clear day, and you can see the bottom reaches of the Alaska Panhandle across the water; otherwise it's kilometres and kilometres of pristine beach all the way to Rose Spit, at the island's north-west tip. At the Charlottes' south end, Moresby Island's network of battered logging roads holds beautiful treasures like Gray Bay, a pristine beach about 20 teeth-shattering kilometres south of Sandspit. Moresby also serves as a beachhead to some of the world's best sea kayaking. Guided trips can also be arranged to head as far south as Ninstints, an ancient Haida village now declared a World Heritage site. Given the mixture of lifestyle and completely unadulterated nature found on the islands, maybe a home at Driftwood Landing doesn't seem so insane. Just don't expect life to be the same once you make that first trip across Hecate Strait.

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