Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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Gulf Island Grace

For BC's laid-back Salt Spring Island, stress is reserved for ferry schedules and the rest of the world

It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon on BC's Salt Spring Island. The brilliant sunshine has burnt off the early morning fog, chasing it back down steep hillsides of towering cedar trees to pool in the low corners of valleys filled with fruit trees and grazing sheep. A bald eagle wheels in the blue sky above, keeping a watchful eye on the rolling progress of dolphins and killer whales far out to sea. Today is market day in the town of Ganges. Named, like other Salt Spring population centres (Vesuvius, Trincomalee), after the British Navy frigates that charted the area during the 18th century, Ganges is the island's bustling hub and at no time does it come more alive than during Saturday's market. Stalls line the walkway of Centennial Park by the town harbour, which overflows with fishing boats and pleasure craft from all over the west coast. Everywhere you look, you see fantastic stone and wood carvings, intriguing pottery and accomplished artwork for sale -- all the products of Salt Spring's colonies of artists and highly skilled artisans. A little further, other wares are offered up: delectable cheeses, exotic soaps, mouth-watering preserves, downy sheepskins and handcrafted throw rugs, every item produced locally and a testament both to the bucolic climate of the island -- positively Mediterranean by Canadian standards -- and to the industry and ingenuity of Salt Spring's 10,000-odd inhabitants. There's a lot more going on too. At a makeshift bandstand in the middle of the park, the Raging Grannies sing a ditty denouncing a logging company's attempt to clearcut the pristine hills that tower over the southern part of the island. Local luminaries like Robert Bateman, Canada's premiere wildlife artist, or celebrity land-owners like actor Al Pacino, wind their way unmolested through the crowds as the beating of drums clears the way for a procession of Hare Krishnas watched curiously by tourists clad in golfing whites. A clown hands out balloons to scampering children, seniors in tweed, visitors in yachting caps and farmers in bib overalls. Overhead, the lone eagle circles and then, utterly unimpressed by the market-goers, climbs the warm wind to head out to sea.

Island Zen
Salt Spring, the largest of the Gulf Islands, is the crown jewel of this chain strung like a necklace down the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and British Columbia's southern mainland. Just a two-hour ferry ride from the glass towers of downtown Vancouver, it seems a whole ocean away from the rat race of modern Canadian life. Time slows as you step off the ferry and plunge into a world where life proceeds according to the dictates of the seasons. On an island where the rhododendrons bloom as early as February and where deer cluster under the ivy-clad eaves of houses to escape rain squalls, stress is a word lost in the pounding surf, silenced by the piping frogs and the splash of fish in one of the island's 11 lakes. The serenity of the valleys and hillsides is so complete that it's a real effort to remember BC's capital, Victoria, is only a 45-minute hop across the water.

Isle of Plenty
The name of the island derives from its saltwater springs, although an abundance of fresh water was the key to its settlement in the 1850s. The island's original inhabitants, the Saanich, called it Cuan or paradise between the mountains -- a reference to the steep hills that bracket Salt Spring's 27-kilometre expanse at each end. Decimated by a smallpox epidemic in the late 1800s, the Saanich gave way to settlers, many of whom were Hudson's Bay Company employees turned farmers or Hawaiians tired of the toil of work on Pacific whaling boats. African-Americans arrived, transported to freedom via the Underground Railroad. By the early 1900s the island also had a thriving Japanese immigrant community. Sadly, much of this early diversity has vanished -- the black population was forced out by the racism it had sought to escape and the Japanese relocated after they were sent to internment camps and their properties seized during WWII. The first settlers were fishermen and loggers, sheep farmers and fruit growers, planting pear, cherry, plum and apple orchards along the hillsides. Life remained largely unchanged until the 1960s, when the island became a preferred destination for American draft dodgers opposed to the Vietnam War. Since then, the island's beauty has attracted all types: from back-to-the-landers to city dwellers seeking vacation properties, retired professionals, young parents wanting a healthier place to raise their families and artists and craftspeople attracted by a strong community of the like-minded. Somehow, all these people manage to not only coexist, but band together to preserve what even newcomers recognize as the Salt Spring heritage.


While many residents guard their privacy, a spirit of neighbourliness and trust is evident everywhere: eggs are left out at the end of a drive for sale -- you just take your dozen, drop your dollars in the jar and wave vaguely in the direction of a far-off farmhouse hidden in the jungle-like undergrowth.

To Traffic or not
Salt Spring is sometimes described as a difference of opinion surrounded by water. There is usually some issue dividing the resident community. Islanders intent on keeping an ocean between themselves and the rest of the world quashed a proposed bridge between Vancouver Island and Salt Spring. New developments are always hotly contested. These days, vociferous debate surrounds the ongoing logging of the mountains at the island's south end. Residents are bitterly divided between those who uphold logging as a traditional, noble practice that speaks both to BC's heritage and the sanctity of private property, and those who view logging as unnecessary and destructive. The current debate has landed on the pages of national newspapers and periodicals abroad -- not surprising, if you take into account Salt Springers' flair for publicity. One group of protestors, led by the ex-wife of pop star Phil Collins, produced a nude calender of local middle-aged women to raise funds for their cause; another group snarled traffic in downtown Vancouver with a parade led by a naked Lady Godiva on a white stallion! But all of these local contretemps are virtually undetectable to the visitor, drawn in by Salt Spring's tranquility and welcoming attitude. Tourism has been the mainstay of the island economy for decades, but keeps a low profile. Fast-food chains, garish attractions and motels are nonexistent. Bed and breakfasts are the main type of lodging, and each has its own particular appeal. The Booklovers' Cottage (tel: 250-537-4155), for instance, provides guests with the perfect atmosphere in which to write, be it a novel or a letter, all in walking distance from Ganges. If you're out to commune with nature in a fabulous, exotic setting, Seido-En (tel: 250-653-2311) offers a Japanese-style forest house as a calming retreat, where you are greeted by a Buddha sitting on an alder stump and can soak in an outdoor hot tub looking up at the foliage. But the grand dame of all the guesthouses on the island is Hastings House (tel: 800-661-9255), a country house hotel which can boast of being a Relais & Chëteau inn. Just half a mile from Ganges, an elegant sign points down a dirt lane to the inn. Sheep graze peacefully in the meadow and paths wind up the hillside into the forest. A full-time gardener tends the herbs and flowers that are used to adorn guest rooms and seasonal dishes. Three-century-old guesthouses sit on 12 hectares of manicured lawns that spill down to the water around the corner from Ganges harbour. Hastings House itself is a Tudor-style mansion built as a replica of a home in Sussex, England in 1939. This is where, every evening at 7pm sharp, in both the formal and less formal dining rooms, guests and visitors flush in anticipation of what Chef Marcel Kauer has in store for them. The five-course meal is likely to feature wild mushrooms, fresh greens and, of course, sumptuous Salt Spring lamb. Swiss-born Kauer arrived at Hastings House as a sous-chef in 1992 and is now so much a part of the Hastings House experience that it's difficult to imagine the place without him. He, in turn, is committed to Salt Spring and its inhabitants and makes a point of recruiting local talent for his staff. As a Hastings guest, you will be coddled by an attentive staff who will pick you up at the ferry, pack a picnic for your walk on the beach and even set you out exploring the island by mountain bike.

Sheep Signs
If you manage to emerge from the seductive comforts offered by your bed and breakfast, Salt Spring has a plethora of natural wonders to explore. Biking the countless lanes and quiet roads of the island is extremely popular. Mount Maxwell offers stunning views and walking trails, while Ruckle Provincial Park has both beaches perfect for picknicking and a recreation of a pioneer homestead, complete down to 19th-century spinning wheels for the island's coveted wool. But the main attraction are the islanders themselves and their various pursuits. It is home to some of Canada's most accomplished potters and artists, as well as such folk music mainstays as Sylvia Tyson and Valdy. Many farmers, potters and artists open their doors to visitors, indicating their welcome with a sheep sign, which serves as a mascot for the island. The shops on Ganges' main street are also prime sources of local produce: exquisite chocolates produced by Harland's chocolate factory; Heather Campbell's bread, baked fresh each day in an outdoor wood-fired oven and Moonstruck farm's organic cheeses. Salt Spring Island's beauty and tranquility stays with most visitors long after they have boarded the ferries that take them back to their busy lives. Many, in fact, are so seduced that they return time and again, until one day they find themselves gravitating toward the local real-estate office.


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