The Lagoons is one of the most attractive condo developments in Vancouver - a small number of beautiful suites on False Creek, clustered around a well designed water feature and looking out at downtown and the North Shore mountains beyond. The famous Vancouver seawall meanders by; full of walkers and joggers whatever the weather, and the amenities and excitement of Granville Island are but a stone’s throw away.
Over the past few years, six residents of The Lagoons have found a yet more idyllic place to live – Salt Spring. Although they had struggled together through meetings of their strata board, and shared their preferences in good literature at the monthly book club, none knew of the others’ plans to relocate.
Some never contemplated a move, and none imagined ever being neighbours again. Yet, somehow, they all found a way to the island, and to reconnect. One was returning to a place he’d lived before, two came for love, and the magic familiar to all islanders captured three.
Dorothy Finnigan, who spent most of her 74 years in Vancouver, was the first to abandon False Creek. Her career as a professional fundraiser was over and the area around The Lagoons was losing its appeal as the city grew and Granville Island traffic and noise increased.
“The islands of BC always attracted me,” she says wistfully. “I always wanted to live on an island and on every one I visited I always looked at real estate.” Water and sailing were always a big part of her life. As a volunteer, she’d set traps and captured fish on the Belize Barrier Reef - over a thousand caught, weighed and measured over a 12-day stint. Another adventure saw her tracking humpback whales in Maui for Earthwatch, a science-based international non-profit organization concerned about the Earth's future.
Between her travels, Vancouver remained home base and, over the years following her husband’s death, thoughts of living on an island faded. That is, until she decided to surf the internet for a companion with similar interests.
“I was showing a friend some matchmaking sites and found one that offered two free weeks of use,” Dorothy explains. “So I thought why not, signed up and got about eight replies. But none seemed right.”
Until the ninth. Mariner Bob replied but it took two weeks for her to respond. “I was on a trip to Alaska and didn’t check my emails until three days after my return. There he was, reassuring me that he could hold a knife and fork properly before inviting me to dinner.”
As it turned out, Bob (Jones) was living on Salt Spring. “He is a Master Mariner and races his 41-foot Beneteau racer/cruiser - with a Philippe Starck interior - year round on routes such as Salt Spring—Vancouver—Nanaimo—and back.” Dorothy notes precisely. “A perfect fit. We married and love our life together in our home off Beddis Road, overlooking Ganges Harbour. We have a dock, and a garden, and now I feel my feet are comfortably on the soil.” And, she adds, “My island dream is complete.”
Ron and Margaret MacKenzie, each in their late 60’s, wandered a bit before settling on Salt Spring two years ago. Both had careers—he as an entrepreneur in biotechnology and she as a social worker—and had lived for 37 years in various Vancouver locations. They frequently wondered aloud where they might go “if “they left Vancouver, but neither ever mentioned a “when” of leaving.
“Then, to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, we bought a van,” Margaret remembers. “We’d had one in our youth and it seemed the right, sentimental thing to do.” They didn’t have a final destination in mind when they set out on their road trip. Instead, they meandered, stopping first in the Okanagan and then towns such as Qualicum, Parksville, and Nanoose Bay. “I didn’t want to live in a town that had a highway running through it,” Margaret says. “I wanted a community where I would meet people and enjoy local activities.”
“When we got off the ferry in Nanaimo and found a place to stop, the interior was smoky and we had no electricity. That ended any thoughts of living there,” Ron continues. “So we boarded the ferry at Crofton and headed for Ganges.”
The manager at the Ganges campground asked why they were visiting. Ron jokingly replied, “ To buy property”, leading the manager to point out immediately that the campground was for sale. That wasn’t going to work, but the conversation did get them motivated to look at houses. On their next trip to Salt Spring, some two years ago, Margaret says, “we found a place in July, bought it in August and moved in November.” She still shows signs of bewilderment at their spontaneous decision.
Now they are fully integrated into the community and volunteer in many island activities. Margaret’s list of volunteer activities is long: the board of the Salt Spring Singers, a hiking club, ArtSpring Treasure Faire, the Lavender Festival, Centre for Child Honouring and POD captain for Emergency Preparedness for her street. Ron is on the board of the Salt Spring Forum and the Salt Spring Fruit Action Society. He volunteers for other local activities and joins Margaret for island hikes.
A visit to a local spa in rainy February sparked Janet Smith’s interest in Salt Spring. Once the most senior woman in the federal government bureaucracy, her career and retirement had been in Ottawa, Vancouver and other big cities. “I hadn’t thought about moving here but the idea of living in a small town had some appeal,” she explains. “I was born in a small town in Quebec and grew up in another small town in Alberta. So Salt Spring is like home to me.”
Like the MacKenzies, Janet considered and rejected Qualicum, Parksville and even Victoria. By choosing Salt Spring, she says “I can choose to go to Victoria when I want, but still live in a small, friendly place with lots of cultural activity, intellectual stimulation and good restaurants.”
Three months after her February visit to the spa, Janet purchased a Salt Spring home. She’s spent the past months renovating it and will move in by the end of October.
She continues to be intrigued by ‘the Salt Spring network.’ “I meet people who tell me about others and suggest ways to get involved. I’m a member of the Painters’ Guild, where I just sold my first painting, and I’m on the Meadowbrook Board. I’ve joined the University Women’s Club and am enjoying the Rainbow Road pool. It all comes easily.”
Former BC Supreme Court Master Shelley Nitikman sailed to Salt Spring. Like Dorothy, Shelley loved the water and had stayed on the island many times before relocating. But it wasn’t until she married Cliff Jones that she committed to living full time on Salt Spring.
She recalls Cliff issuing a tongue-in-cheek ultimatum. “If I didn’t move here,” she says with a grin, “he said he wouldn’t marry me.” So in December of 2007 they married after a long courtship. And in April 2008, after Shelley’s retirement, they moved to the island. “It sounded like an adventure and I was up for one.”
Cliff lived on Salt Spring in the 1970’s when he was a road manager for the band Chilliwack, and for Valdy’s first album. He left for a while and returned in 1975, bunking in with Elvis Presley’s bass player while becoming Valdy’s manager. But, like others in the music business, the gigs he picked up were elsewhere – in his case, to Victoria and Vancouver. When the Art Institute bought the company he was working with, he became its public relations director.
“Imagine me a public relations guy at age 72,” he quips. “I had always liked Salt Spring and was ready to retire and live here. Lucky that Shelley said yes.”
“We considered Vancouver Island but after viewing a yet-to-be listed property with a to-die-for view we decided this would be home,” Shelley explains. “It was the spectacular view from the front window, 700 feet above sea level looking east over the gulf islands and Mount Baker, that confirmed our decision.”
Together they renovated the 1982 house extensively, staying there on weekends to work and keep workers on track. Now both are caught up in a myriad of community activities. Cliff manages Garry Oaks’ tasting room where he practices on his saxophone in the wine cellar. He’s never shy about his views, political or otherwise, and now heads the ISG group.
Shelley sits on the ArtSpring Board, volunteers at the library and is a Salt Spring Choir member. Like the other Lagoon escapees, she is grateful for the recognition given to volunteer work on the island.
“Our time and expertise is valued and acknowledged here,” Shelley explains. The others nod in agreement. “There was something patronizing about my volunteering in cities,” Janet adds. Chiming in, Margaret points out that she “always felt as if I was starting on the bottom rung despite my many years as a professional. I had to start licking envelopes before doing anything meaningful. Here my skills are put to use right away.”
The False Creek six see one another about as often as they used to in Vancouver. They still get together around the interests they have always had in common: good food, great wine, music, art, animated discussion of current issues and events. But the context is different and they no longer worry about The Lagoons’ budget or the latest outbreak of anti-social behaviour along Vancouver’s famous seawall.
Pat Preston is a former journalist, journalism instructor and public affairs executive. She has worked and lived in several cities in Canada and the United States. She and her husband, John Tylee, moved to Salt Spring in April 2011. She is now a Board member of the Salt Spring Arts Council and an advisory committee member of the Salt Spring Forum. Contact Pat with your story ideas at saltspringstories@gmail.