With rapacious glee, children are dashing in and out of the Free Store carrying armloads of junk. Gloves with missing fingers. Cracked lampshades. Frayed vacuum hoses. Charlotte Ross, 8, emerges triumphant with a pair of rusted loaf tins for shoes. Bridge Warwick, 11, brandishes an old hockey helmet like a crown. While a steady stream of islanders arrives to sort paper, cans, and glass into bins here at the Hornby Island Recycling Depot, the children give life to a half-dozen scrapheap scarecrows, a fraternity of clownish Frankensteins with colourfully mismatched limbs.
I can’t imagine a better example of Hornby’s artistic and ecological community spirit than today’s Recycled Art workshop. This northern Gulf Island, two island ferry hops off Vancouver Island’s east shore, exudes creative energy. The island’s studio directory lists nearly 90 artists and artisans, creators of pottery, puppets, sculptures, baskets, photography, paintings, tapestries, stained glass, among many others working in preferred seclusion.
Islanders who arrived here in the 1960s have kept their ideological candle alight on Hornby, sheltered from big-box retailing and chronic 21st-century hurry-up-ism. Here is a place where male ponytails, tie-dye, and layered gypsy skirts retain their hippy fashion cachet. Where tarot readings and spiritual healings are commonplace. Where the food co-op stocks gourmet items the envy of villages 10 times Hornby’s size. And where locals pioneered a recycling centre in 1978 and now produce less than 0.5 kilograms of garbage per person per day, a quarter of the provincial average, according to British Columbia’s Coast Waste Management Association.
Islander Stevi Kittleson, an art teacher and mixed media artist, volunteered to lead the children’s Recycled Art workshop today. When I suggest that the event seems metaphorical of Hornby’s unique spirit, she laughs.
“Oh yes! In all ways. In terms of miscommunication, and disorganization, and everyone just flailing about, with fabulous results.”
It’s not always easy, on an island of 1,000 free spirits, to find consensus. But there are two topics sure to get islanders nodding: the rare beauty of their 30-square-kilometre island, and the impact of visitors upon it.
My ecological initiation on Hornby begins with a welcome message in the pine-floored, French-doored garden cottage I’ve rented for a July getaway with my husband. The owner’s note explains how we’re to sort our compostables and recyclables, and stresses water conservation:
“Summer on Hornby is very dry and water is limited. Please help to conserve: don’t run taps unnecessarily, turn off while brushing teeth, take short showers, don’t flush after every pee!”
Hornby is governed by the Islands Trust, which aims to protect “the unique cultural and environmental amenities” of the islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Hornby’s cup of amenities runneth over. As we drive past the island’s western farm fields and sheep-shorn pastures and along Central Road, the main thoroughfare, some new distraction pulls us off the road every few kilometres. “Look, a vineyard!” “Oh, a shale beach!” “Stop, an art gallery!” At this rate, we’ll be all week getting round to Ford Cove in the south.
We soon discover some key gathering places around the island. Our first find is the Cardboard House on west Central, housing the island’s premier bakery (where every good day begins with a chocolate croissant), pizzeria, café, and gift boutique. Two evenings a week, music lovers pack the adjacent orchard for free outdoor concerts.
Eastward down the road, Joe King Park is a local hangout with a baseball diamond and rough-hewn auditorium. When we show up here for an afternoon cowboy poetry reading, it’s obvious we’re the only non-islanders. No matter. We’re soon tipping back brews with the locals, enjoying bunkhouse odes performed by Albertan Raleigh Perry, 93, Canada’s oldest cowboy poet and father of a long-time islander. The reading is followed by das macht, a Manitoba band billed as “the bastard spawn of bluegrass and burlesque.” Clearly, Hornby Islanders have eclectic cultural appetites.
Next stop is Hornby Hall, whose artful design inside and out reflects this community’s eclectic creativity. Behind the hall, a farmers’ market is underway. We stroll among vendors’ offerings, including fresh herbs and baby potatoes, sizzling veggie pakoras, spirit wands made of crystals and animal bone, and some delightful paintings of pious roosters swathed in cardinals’ robes. The surprises continue when members of Wild Indigo Theatre drop by to perform an impromptu song-and-dance number, enticing visitors to their afternoon production of The Ant and the Grasshopper.
From the community hall, it’s a hop-skip to “the four corners,” where Central meets Ostby Road. Visitors here congregate at the Co-op grocery and Ringside Market, with its pottery gallery, small used bookstore, ice cream stand, clothing shops, and assorted eateries. Michael indulges in a plump oyster burger at jam-packed Jan’s Café, followed a chair massage in Peter Cloud Panjoyah’s open-air shiatsu tent.
Just a five-minute stroll from the Co-op, we come upon the tropical eye candy that is Tribune Bay Provincial Park. Here, the outgoing tide peels back to reveal a great curved smile of white sand along a sheltered aquamarine cove, with a sensual sandstone rise at the southwest end. We claim a high perch, taking in the cotillion of sun worshippers, castle builders, kayakers, thong flashers, surf chasers, and bocce players below. I close my eyes and listen to the lapping laze of the waves, the distant buzz of a motorboat, and the echoes of laughter and bocce taunts.
Later, we round the rocky point that separates Tribune Bay from Little Tribune Bay, Hornby’s clothing-optional beach. It’s an easy walk through a spectacular natural gallery of sandstone hoodoos and tilting conglomerate boulders.
Little Trib is as alluring as its sister bay, and less crowded. It’s mainly the swimmers going nude; most others are saving their skins from the intense afternoon rays. As we amble up the beach, we spot five bikini-clad women wiggling into position for a beach blanket photo; in the blink of an eye, their halters are off. Click: “Topless Bathing on Little Trib.” They immediately bundle up and depart, laughing and exulting in their bravado.
It’s hard to believe there could be a downside to all this sunshine. But on a sky-blue morning outside Cardboard House Bakery, we witness an urgent reminder of the island’s water shortage. When a visitor spots an overflow from the bakery’s small gravity well, staffers respond like a fire brigade. Two women with tense, flour-streaked faces run out and plunge their hands into the muddied hole, working frantically to clamp off a sprung hose. Afterward, they empty their bailing buckets into a parched side garden; no water is wasted.
Most rain falls on Hornby between October and March, yet the greatest usage occurs in summer. You can understand, then, why islanders might feel some ambivalence toward visitors: in peak periods, holidayers may outnumber residents 10:1. We draw down the water table, pound the grassy clifftop trails of Helliwell Provincial Park into dust, and dramatically increase the odds of a wayward cigarette or campfire spark igniting the tinderbox landscape.
Yet we tourists are the lifeblood of the economy. We buy flowers from the back-road honour boxes, lap up the $3.50 ice creams, tour the artists’ studios. We take belly-dance lessons on the beach, rent kayaks and bicycles, hire boats to tour local heron and cormorant rookeries. It’s ecology versus economy, a paradox acknowledged annually in a symbolic Hornby ritual.
“You’ve heard of the Wave Party?” asks Karen Young with a grin. We’re touring her Outer Island vacation property. A delightful 5.5-hectare “agri-villa” with a Noah’s arkload of cats, horses, chickens, rabbits, and a darling miniature donkey named Dove.
“At the last ferry at the end of the season, Labour Day weekend, the locals gather at the dock to wave goodbye,” she explains. For some, it’s a cheery “see you again,” a genuinely fond farewell. “For others,” she admits with a wry smile, “it’s more of a kiss-off. ‘Good riddance, at last we have our island back.’”
I can imagine how Hornby folks might feel at the end of a long, hot, crowded island summer – though we’ve received nothing but smiles and friendly vibes during our stay. As we drive toward the outbound ferry, passing cyclists, walkers, and horseback riders, Michael remarks on a sign repeated along the winding, narrow route: “Share the Road.” There is a deeper message here, we agree, a communal sentiment nurtured in island isolation. If it catches on, it could change the world one day.
How to get to Hornby Island
From Buckley Bay on Vancouver Island’s east coast—about an hour’s drive north of Nanaimo. Visitors make two 10-minute ferry trips: first to Denman Island, then to Hornby. See a BC Ferries schedule here.
Some good sleeps
A sign at the Buckley Bay ferry terminal reads: “Hornby accommodation limited. Have you booked ahead?”
Hornby has no hotels or provincial campgrounds. Other than a few small cabin complexes and two commercial campgrounds, most lodgings are privately rented. Summer homes and cabins generally rent by the week; try B&B properties for shorter stays. Search accommodation listings online (www.hornbyisland.com; www.hornbyisland.net), but renter beware: while some private properties are every bit as lovely as described, others may be little more than beach shacks.
Outer Island R&R
Telephone: 250-335-2379, 800-364-1331 toll-free
Address: 4785 DePape Road
Description: Pasture and orchards surround a charming cottage and farmhouse with seasonal pool and tennis court; weekly bookings only in summer.
Sea Breeze Lodge
Telephone: 250-335-2321, 888-516-2321 toll-free
Description: Fowler Road off north Ostby. Family-oriented complex of 15 sea-view cabins with central dining lodge; summer rates include three daily meals.
Some good eats
Note: Approaching Labour Day, most eateries shift to weekend-only service, then close up shop until spring.
Jan’s Café (250-335-1487) “Fresh Food Experience,” Ringside Market at the four corners. Breakfasts, picnics, bagels, burgers. One of the few year-round dining establishments.
Sea Breeze Dining Room (250-335-2321). Non-guests of the lodge may reserve for dinner specials: Italian, Mexican, Greek, and curry buffets, seafood and prime rib nights.
Cardboard House Bakery & Café (250-335-0733), 2205 Central Road. House of gustatory delights: try anything and everything, it’s all delicious.
Hornby Island Co-op (250-335-1121), at the four corners. Gourmet soup to organic nuts; general store downstairs.
Things to do on Hornby Island
Ogle artwork at: H.I. Artist Run Gallery (250-335-2660), 1665 Central Road; Hornby Hall, Central and Sollans roads; Island Potters (www.islandpotters.ca) in Ringside Market; and Arbutus Arts in Ford Cove.
Belly dance on the beach, with instruction (250-703-7160).
Jump and shout at the Hornby Island Festival (www.hornbyfestival.bc.ca), a nine-day music extravaganza in early August.
Stop by the big top for a musical performance by Wild Indigo Theatre (250-335-3118), opposite Hornby Community Hall.
Tour the studios; free directory available at H.I. Gallery.
Hike Mount Geoffrey Regional Park: trails follow the beach and climb to the park’s 330-metre namesake peak.
Treasure hunt at the Recycling Depot and Free Store (250-335-0550), 3600 Central Road.
Stroll the arbutus-lined ocean cliffs and shady cedar groves of Helliwell Provincial Park.
Escape the crowds on Tribune Bay; great beaches ring the island, including Grassy Point’s cobble shores and sunset-bathed meadows, and Sandpiper Beach’s curious low-tide landscape of long, fossil-studded shale fingers stretching out to sea.