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First Trip to Ukee

11 April 2013

Okay, so it wasn't actually my first trip to Ucluelet. I've been there several times before, in fact. But it was the first time since we'd bought the house.

The trip started in panic. Friday was the completion date of the sale, and I was scheduled to fly from Edmonton to Comox at 1:10 that afternoon. Possession was set for noon on Saturday, and I had an inspector coming from Nanaimo, across the island, booked to meet me at the house to write up an initial scope of work for contractors. The trouble was that somehow, we had dropped the ball on lining up insurance on the place. So I had spent much of Thursday on the phone to insurance companies, underscoring the urgency of the situation and waiting for my cell to ring as the broker tried madly to find someone to underwrite the place. The situation was complicated by the amount of work that needs to be done there: the hot water tank is garbage, the furnace is ancient, the shop out back is in disrepair, and the place needs mold remediation because the renters who lived there before us never bothered to tell anyone that everything in the place that carries water leaks. We knew this going in, and of course it was all factored into the price we paid. But insurance companies get very uncomfortable with this stuff. Also, currently living in Alberta but trying to insure a place in British Columbia makes the policy even more intricate. And I needed the broker to get it done in a matter of hours so the deal could actually get done, and the keys could be handed over to me on Saturday, so I could let the inspector in, and so on.

I was at Edmonton International, checking in for the flight, when the call finally came. The insurance was arranged and in place; someone had broken the three-way tie of "you can't insure it until you fix it, you can't fix it until you buy it, and you can't buy it until you insure it". The deal would go ahead. The lawyers were happy, the banks were happy, and the realtor was instructed to hand over the keys.

The flight to Comox was uneventful enough, and I managed to split a cab with another guy going from Comox airport into Courtney so I could pick up my rental car (it was outrageously expensive to rent from the airport). They put me into a little Dodge Dart and sent me on my way.

It took two and a half hours to get to Ucluelet, including a quick stop in Port Alberni for gas. The little Dart proved gutless on the straightaways but nimble on the turns, and anyone who has ever driven Highway 4 across Vancouver Island to Ucluelet or Tofino can tell you that "nimble" is about the best you can have. I sang along at the top of my lungs to Mumford & Sons, Radiohead, The Naked and Famous, alone and uninhibited in the car, and feeling nearly alone on the Island itself for as many others as I encountered.

It was cloudy and rainy when I arrived, and the town was eerily quiet. I had never seen it in the off-season before, without all of the bustling tourists and seasonal workers and surfers. It was just past 6pm and practically everything was already closed. Harbour Pizza Factory was still open, so I popped in there, starving, and managed to find a fairly passable greek salad. Just across the street from Harbour Pizza Factory stands St. Aidan on the Hill, the old Anglican church (the same church Clark Kent stands and stares at in the trailer for Man of Steel, part of which was shot in Ucluelet). I finished my salad and walked out onto the street to get a few photos of the church, which I've always found a little magnificent, as decrepit as it has become.

I made a stop at Big Beach, only five hundred meters or so straight down Matterson Drive from the back of my new property, rainy as it was. Big Beach isn't really a beach in the conventional sense. The shoreline is rocky, not sandy, but you do have a view straight into the Pacific, and you can watch the waves break on the bigger rocks further out. Between Harbour Pizza and Big Beach, I noticed that the rain didn't seem to stop people from doing what they do. I noticed quite a few out walking, or walking dogs, or with shopping bags. Still not many, since it's a small tourist town in its off-season, but enough to convince me that we, too, would get accustomed to life in the rain.

I checked into the hostel at the edge of town, met Peter the manager, got my linens and picked a bed in the dorm room. I would be alone in the hostel for the night, a far cry from last August when I had gone out for the inspection the first time we'd tried to buy the place. There wasn't a lot to do. Peter gave me a key so I could come in when I liked, and I put on my raincoat and walked out to Peninsula Road, leaving the Dart behind.

It's a twenty minute walk or so, past the gas stations and the hardware store, past the Canadian Princess, up the hill to the liquor store on the corner of Bay Street and Peninsula. Then you turn left and walk down Bay, almost right to the water of the harbour, and there on your left is the Eagle's Nest Marina Pub. This would turn into my regular evening haunt, as I was in Ukee alone with not much else to do after suppertime.

The bartender's name was Krista, and as it turned out, her day job was as the first mate on a whale-watching ship with Jamie's Whale Watching. The pub wasn't busy, so we had a fair bit of time to talk. It's interesting to see the subtle shift in attitude people get when they find out that you're not just a tourist. Suddenly they seem to want to help you. Once I told her I'd bought a house in Ukee and would be moving there, she was instantly ready to tell me anything I wanted to know about the place. Which I appreciated, since things get done differently out there at the edge of the world.

For instance, to set up cable and internet, you go to Barry's Pharmacy. I would not have guessed that.

I had some time Saturday morning to just go look around. Grabbed breakfast at the Barkley Cafe and drove off to find Little Beach. It's more of a "beach" than Big Beach, in that it has a lot more sand and less rock, but it's so far into a little bay that there really aren't any waves left by the time they meet the shoreline. I checked out the Co-op, taking special note of their gluten-free options, and picked up some groceries to eat at the hostel. Then I went back to the Barkley again, grabbed a second cup of coffee, and went across the street to St. Aidan's, sitting on the bench beside it. You're at the top of the hill when you're right next to the church, with a view out over the Visitor's Centre, the Aquarium, and the Whiskey Dock right into the Inlet. I just sat and sipped my coffee and counted down the minutes until the appointed possession time, when I would be handed the keys to the new house, responsible for it, committed to this venture that still seems at the edge of reason. I had sunshine for those few minutes, on a day in which the weather would change on me six or seven times. We sometimes say in Edmonton that if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes; this, it turns out, applies far, far less in Edmonton than in Ucluelet.

I arrived at the house right at noon. The inspector was already there, along with a contractor the realtor had sent. The realtor showed up a few minutes later. I had her take some pictures as I turned the key in the lock for the first time, then walked inside, not really sure what to expect.

The last time I had seen the house was last August. Then, there were still four or five people living in the place, and they didn't seem to possess the faintest spark of responsibility. Despite being told that there would be a house inspection at a given time, they had thrown a party the night before. There were three or four people eating cold pizza and drinking beer and watching skateboarding videos on the couch in the living room while the inspector and I went through the whole house, stereo blaring the whole time. In one of the lower bedrooms, the floor was nowhere to be seen for the mass of clothes and dishes and whatever else.

It had been virtually emptied since. There was still the odd item here or there, but nothing compared to what it was months ago. In fact, the place didn't look that bad. Both the inspector and the contractor said they had expected it to be a lot worse. Given that there had been many times in the purchasing process that my wife and I had wondered if we hadn't made the biggest mistake of our lives, to see the place emptied out and fixable was a relief.

The inspector took air samples. I chatted with the contractor about ideas for the place, then went out to the shop to talk to the gentleman who, in exchange for maintaining the yards, has been parking an old car he's restoring there. There were so many details. There is a lot of general junk left on the property, and I'll have to sift through it. Dealing with the yard will be its own special project, even after all of the work that this gentleman has put into it (the yard, like the house, is now in far better shape than it was last August). The joy of new ownership did not come without its own dose of dread of the work that lies ahead. The inspector was writing a scope of work to hand to the mold remediation company. The sheer number of items, walls, or fixtures in the house that he was marking as "remove and replace" was intimidating.

We all left after a while. I went back to the hostel and had some soup, then drove out to Wickaninnish Beach and walked out to the water. It was cloudy and raining (unlike in the picture, which was taken the next day). I looked up and down the long stretch of sand and driftwood, but there was not another human soul in sight. I was alone with the Pacific. A strong wind came in off the angry ocean, and the waves were more violent than serene. It was cold, but not freezing. I didn't stay too long. It seemed like I had a lot more to do, but I couldn't figure out what to do next. I was all-in with a shaky hand now, and still reeling from the knowledge of it.

A bachelor party from Victoria showed up at the Eagle's Nest that night, keeping Krista on her toes. Apparently she makes a mean Caesar. At one point, they all were prepared to toast the groom, and, having sent a shot down the bar to me for good measure, thought it would be fun to see what I had to say as a toast. So I said "Here's to whatever it is you're doing right now, which looks as though it will turn into a really, really good time in... ninety-minutes or so." Everyone laughed. In the half-hour or so that followed, I heard numerous references to my ninety-minute figure and suddenly realized that though I thought I was merely predicting, in reality, I was goal-setting on their behalf. Not long after, they all left for the cabin they were renting, at which they apparently had plenty more alcohol that they had already paid for and felt they really should put to good use.

What struck me most was that I had been in Ukee for just over twenty-four hours now and had owned property there for nine, and already, I felt like I was the local and these boys from down-Island were the visitors. I had not expected to feel that way so soon, and a part of me really thought that I had no business feeling that way, but the sensation was there nonetheless. Maybe it was simply the fact that the bartender knew my name and didn't know theirs. But whatever the cause, Ukee was starting to feel familiar, like a normal backdrop for my life.

I left the Nest early that night, and the next morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and gluten-free toast, headed into Tofino, a half-hour's drive away, for church. St. Columba is a little Anglican/United church, beautifully constructed in the old style and well-maintained, right in the heart of the town of Tofino, and is the only Anglican parish in the area. Like our own parish here in Edmonton, they're looking for a minister, so they have interim priests and lay people doing the job. We had attended a service there back in July, and a couple of the parishioners there remembered me, and that I was a machinist, which was encouraging. The service was taken from the Book of Alternative Services, and though I'm used to the Book of Common Prayer, it was familiar enough. Reverend Dianne spoke on the topic of the gospel reading for the day, which was the account of Thomas after the resurrection. As so many sermons seem to have been since we first started this whole moving-to-the-island endeavor, it seemed apropos. It is through our doubts, she said, that God strengthens us and deepens our faith. Thank God for Thomas, she said. Because without him, the Gospels might be extremely disheartening. If we felt we were expected to live without doubt, none of us could ever feel like we measured up. Thomas doubted, and Jesus did not scold him, but met him in his doubt. And he was then the first to see the truth of things, the nature of Jesus, and confess: "My Lord, and my God!"

And the weekend had surely been filled with doubts. One might have even said it was the theme. Would the insurance come through? Would the sale go okay, and would I get the keys, or would the trip be a waste? Would the house be worse than we'd left it last summer? Will the repairs cost more than we have? Will we get a renter? Will my wife be alright out here on her own with the kids while I'm still working in Edmonton? Will my older boy, who has had a tough year, make friends out here? Will I be able to make enough to support us out here? Most of these doubts remain, to varying degrees. But as I've said many times, there's exactly one certainty about our moving to Ucluelet: If we don't try it, we'll regret not trying. We're sure of that. But everything else is uncertain.

On the way back to Ukee, I took the turn inland marked by the sign for the landfill and followed the road based on something I'd heard from someone, somewhere, who and when I couldn't recall. But after dodging more potholes than I thought the Dart could survive, I found what they call "The Pacific Rim Rifle Range", indicated by little more than a hand-written and laminated piece of paper tacked to a tree at a fork in the road. It's basically a part of an old mine, a sheer rock face that provides an unquestionable backstop, with a row of rocks spread before it to create an identifiable firing line. Perhaps only forty meters from the line to the rock face, but it would do for rimfire shooting just fine, and the site itself is surrounded by forest.

I stopped again at Wickaninnish. Sunday was a beautiful day; windy, but sunny. Wick was nearly empty again, and I moved on to Florencia Bay. There I found a dozen surfers or so in the water, and quite a few people on the beach. Florencia Bay might be one of my favourite places on earth, I think. One of the surfers started to tell me the things about the area that the tourists just don't seem to get told: where to get fresh cheese, who in the area grows organic greens, where the better trails are. I ran into the same surfer at the Barkley later that afternoon as I looked over my photos from the day.

I headed out later to Amphitrite Lighthouse, parking my car in the lot at the trailhead and starting the short hike. On the way, I was provided with views of Barkley Sound and the islands to the south that themselves could make one utter the Confession of Thomas. Creation is just more apparent out there than it is here in the city. A greater, fuller, wondrous variety, huge trees and rugged coastline, all manner of creature great and small, from bears to the iconic slugs of the Vancouver Island rain forests.

I hiked to the lighthouse and stood in front of it, then texted my wife to look at the webcam. I waved. She saw me. My boy sent me a text that said "Great job, dad!" and I headed back to the car, stopping on the trail only to photograph one of said slugs.

Lee was the man tending the bar at the Nest for my last night in Ukee. It was a discount night (half price draught and burgers), and a well-known offer among the locals, apparently. Two of the staff from the Barkley showed up, and since I'd seen them probably six times in the previous two days, we recognized each other and met fairly easily. I had hoped to meet as many people as I could in those few days, and I think that went pretty well.

Monday morning was another gorgeous day, and it killed me to leave. I stopped by the house once more for another look, grabbed coffee for the road (from a hungover barista I'd met the night before), and said bye-for-now to Ukee, looking long at St. Aidan's as I passed it.

It was hard to believe, as I drove back to Comox, that I will be back there in only weeks. It's still hard to believe. Edmonton seems so grey and cold to me now, though I know the summer here will be hotter than in Ukee. And I'm still scared of all the reno work and expense and uncertainty.

But I'm all-in now. So I guess I'll get moving.

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