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Home away from everything: A beach house on a remote island becomes a 10-year retreat

Twenty years ago, kayaker John Dowd stumbled upon an empty beach house on Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound, part of an off-grid, 10-acre stretch in a provincial park reserve

Twenty years ago, two ­empty-nesters with a love of the outdoors moved into a vacant beach house on Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound, part of an off-grid, 10-acre stretch in a provincial park reserve.

Their book Escape to ­Clayoquot Sound: ­Finding Home in a Wild Place is an affectionate ­retrospective chronicling the decade John and Bea Dowd spent as ­year-round caretakers of the property.

Spring 2004. Viewed from the beach, the buildings blended nicely into the ­surrounding forest. There were two of them. The house, tucked in behind

a broken snag, had a large bay window and a porch down one side. Facing it was a workshop from which the windows had been removed.

Sheathed in sun-bleached shakes, they sat atop a six-metre bank beyond a fringe of glossy green salal bushes. A corduroy ramp led to a grassy patch between the two. At the bottom of the ramp sat a sturdy boathouse built on skids, tied with a ship’s hawser to a bent hemlock that curved out from the bank.

Untrampled grass grew up to broad steps that led to the covered porch. Overhead joints had been carefully notched and spiked, and the front door looked unusually thick, inset with a tall oval window.

A couple of straight-backed chairs sat beside a round of cedar that served as a table; on it, an enamel cup held the desiccated remains of coffee and bugs. From this vantage point, one would be able to watch the sun set over the Shot Islets.

At the back of the house, tall south-facing windows looked onto an ancient cedar that branched into a mossy, fern-encrusted candelabra. Nearby was another cedar, tall, ­silvery and dead, its branches reaching skyward as if in a final appeal to the heavens.

To the north, the panoramic window I’d seen from the beach offered a view of the verdant slopes of Flores Island and the low, forested peninsula that obscured ­Ahousaht on the Marktosis Reserve.

I pressed on the front door. It resisted momentarily, then yielded. Against my better instincts, I went in.

It was like entering an old sailing ship. Driftwood logs had been notched into a sparse post-and-beam frame with naturally bent braces, every feature built-in.

The floor was of coarse planks worn smooth. Thick spiral steps built of golden hardwood and notched into a heavily weathered driftwood post gave access to a loft.

There, a home-built double bed surrounded by empty bookshelves and an empty closet occupied most of the space. At the far end of the sleeping gallery, a narrow, solid door by a diamond-shaped window opened onto a wide, skylit mezzanine above the south-facing room.

Clearly, whoever had lived here was no longer in residence and, judging from the dust, had left some time ago.

It looked a bit rough. Tar-papered back wall, half the space a jumble of old cardboard boxes and newspapers. In all other respects, the perfect studio space.

I proceeded back to the living room to find a small kitchen two steps down. On one side, it had a stainless-steel sink and old-fashioned water pump, with a corner cupboard by a window that looked into a thicket of young alder.

The cupboards were empty except for one that held a first aid kit and some ancient cans of pop, gritty on top from being washed ashore. Against the north wall, a small, rusty old box-type wood stove was attached to an equally rusty chimney running through the ceiling and the loft.

A thick door led to the sunroom seen from the mezzanine: almost six metres high and crisscrossed with driftwood beams and braces.

Light came from two huge, slightly clouded vertical panes meeting at an outward angle at the back, West Coast style, and two wide side windows.

There was also a pair of Plexiglas skylights. A friendly, joyful place to be, I thought; airy as a ship’s deck, yet fully protected.

Outside again, I breathed a little freer. A chilly wind swept across the beach from the north. I tried to imagine living here, surrounded by wind-scarred forest giants amid a sea of salal.

The workshop had an open doorway and consisted of one large room with nine metres of sturdy workbench backed by window gaps with a beach view on two sides. The missing windows were intact and stacked in a corner.

The workshop was full of pulpy firewood casting a melancholy mood over what had clearly once been a fine workplace. Moss-encrusted lumber lay against the back wall, and a dark stain on the dirt floor drew my attention to a leak in the roof.

Every square yard of the spongy, mossy grounds out back was littered with flotsam, jetsam, plastic pipe, steel offcuts, and polystyrene trash.

“Well, I’ve found the place I want to live,” I announced when I returned to the crew back at camp.

My companions looked at me in disbelief.

“You mean that old cabin at the end of the beach?” Gerry asked.

“It’s perfect,” I said. “Needs work; a bit gloomy, but we can change that.”

A few days before, I had flown over the area for a sea kayak video project, not noticing the cabin from the air.

The Tofino Air seaplane had roared and vibrated its way along the coast from its home dock while I pressed my nose to the window, soaking in as much of the view as I could.

Scattered islands and ragged coves of black rock laced with white stretched to the horizon. Dawson, our intrepid cameraman/director, poked his lens through the open window, camera winking its red running light. It was a glorious day for filming.

As Vargas Island crept closer, a more tormented coastline came into view. Ocean swells lashed the La Croix islets at the southern end, rocks awash with foam. Dawson tapped the pilot and pointed down.

We dipped low till we could clearly see the faces of people aboard a small fishing boat weaving a course around a gigantic bed of bull kelp. Then on up to the sweep of bright white sand at Ahous Bay with its drab swamp hinterland.

More sandy beaches: Dunes, Little Baja, and Dick and Jane’s with its sandspit that almost reached Burgess Islet.

“That’s where we’ll be filming the next on-water stuff,” Dawson yelled.

I nodded as we turned east past Catface Mountain. Hard to see the face of a cat in that old logging scar, I thought as we floated past at eye level from it. Below were a handful of squatter cabins, tucked into various coves along Calmus Passage—then the near slopes of Meares Island, steep and heavily forested still.

Meares Island: the site of the first blockade in the decade-long War in the Woods, pitting loggers against a coalition of environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and hippies in their claims over old-growth forest starting in the mid-’80s.

The fight had split the community of Tofino down the middle, a division that persisted still, judging from the bumper sticker I had recently seen of a revving chainsaw on a battered pickup: Think Fast Hippie. It was a scar gradually being healed by the money tourism brought as gentrification took hold in the rough fishing and logging town.

I returned to Vancouver with pictures of the cabin to show Bea.

“It needs work and a mood change,” I said. “Our nearest neighbours would be Neil and Marilyn at the Vargas Island Inn. Four hours hike to the south and across the island.”

Bea already knew something of the area from our video shoots. She was ready for adventure.

Our kids were grown, doing their own thing. We’d travelled all we wanted.

And from our fifteen years in a log cabin on Hollyburn Mountain above Vancouver, we already knew a thing or two about living off-grid.

We arranged to visit the owner, Mel, at his home the next weekend. A sleepy-eyed, moustachioed man with a gentle smile, he took us in through the garage, where he had his work furnace.

Mel was a glass artist, a serious one. He had also been a trader in antiques and memorabilia.

From our conversation, it turned out he owned not one but two (maybe even three) cabins on a four-hectare lot that took in the south end of Dick and Jane’s beach as well as the peninsula across to the next beach down (Mel’s beach, appropriately enough), where he had a workshop of his own.

Mel had mentioned he didn’t much like kayakers when we’d first spoken, so we knew to be careful around the topic.

It helped that we were no longer in the business, at least not as merchants. But what was it about kayakers? we asked.

“They were a plague in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said. “Hundreds of them taking over the beach in their carnival tents, pooping in the woods, festooning the place with toilet paper.”

The memory of it was enough to upset his usual soft monotone.

“So then,” he asked after a lengthy pause, “why should I rent the place to you?”

“We like it, it’s what we’ve been looking for, and we’re pretty good at leaving things better than we found them,” I offered as brightly as I could.

It turns out our timing was good. He was anxious to have someone living there to reduce potential pillage and we were not locals who might have wanted to use the place mainly as a party house.

“Okay,” he said. “You can have it for fifteen hundred, on condition you don’t cut down any trees more than twelve inches across.”

I must have frowned.

“Fifteen hundred a year,” he clarified.

We left with a handwritten agreement giving us first option to buy the place because, who knew?

And Bea hadn’t even been there yet.

Excerpted from Escape to Clayoquot Sound: Finding Home in a Wild Place by John Dowd & Bea Dowd (Heritage House, 2024), reprinted with permission of publisher.