We’re delighted to welcome Rachael Preston today, author of The Fishers of Paradise. Rachael joins us today to share the story of her move to the island of Saturna.
Notes From a Very Small Island, or I Wanna Live in a Log Cabin and Write – Rachel Preston
“We should go live on Saturna.” Ian was on the phone to his sister Peg, who has been part of a hippie land cooperative on Saturna, one of a collection of small islands between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, since 1974. We’d been grumbling about being in a rut and almost as soon as I’d given voice to the idea, it began to grow on me. Secluded and spectacularly beautiful, the playground of orcas, sea lions, seals and bald eagles, Saturna had to be the perfect place to live, the perfect place to write. We could grow our own food and keep chickens, maybe even graduate to a cow or two. Sheep. Spin wool, buy a loom. The whole back-to-the-land dream. I was tearing up at the thought of all we could achieve, the adventures we were going to have, the rat race we were going to leave behind.
“Tell Peg. Peg,” I said, raising my voice so she could hear me on the other end of the line, “we want to live on Saturna.” Peg laughed. I think. She must have heard that kind of thing before.
Saturna. Southernmost of the Southern Gulf Islands, British Columbia. North of the San Juan Islands, WA. Resident population: 350 (I think that’s including the sheep). Industry: none. Average age: 60ish. Did I know these things at the time? No. As a sometime visitor to Saturna I knew the island had two stores, a dark dingy pub and a lot of trees. Not a lot to go on. Peg, who commuted every weekend from her job and her other life in Vancouver, said she wasn’t using her cabin anymore as her Saturna boyfriend had his own house.
Peg’s cabin. I had fond memories of splinters in my feet from the plywood floor, hanging the black shower bag outside the back door and running out of warm water with soap still in my hair, pink insulation poking out around the frameless windows and doors, Ian stung by a sleepy wasp carried in on the firewood, the recalcitrant futon sofa bed. I’d had my first editorial discussion on Tent of Blue, my first novel, from Peg’s cabin, trying to picture the woman who held the key to my literary future while I twirled the phone cord nervously and watched a pod of whales blowing and breaching as they passed by. (Okay, I made the whales up.) Peg’s cabin would be a good stop-gap. We could stay there for a few months while we got on our feet. Then we’d buy our own place. I don’t recall her asking us what we intended to do once we were on Saturna.
Little more than fifteen months later we were driving west across Canada, uhaul in tow, dog perched atop sleeping bags and pillows in the back seat. I’d chucked my precious creative writing teaching gigs and resigned as Chair of gritLIT, Hamilton’s Literary Festival. Ian had said goodbye to printing and we’d sold most of our antique furniture along with our really cool Victorian house with inground pool and the kind of great open kitchen/dining-room layout that lends itself to great parties (and oh did we have some great parties there).
A week before we were due to leave steeltown, boxes of vetted stuff piled on the dining-room floor in the shape of a uhaul tow-behind, one of the new owners of Saturna’s Lighthouse Pub called, having heard from Peg that Ian had years of restaurant management experience. They needed help. Badly. He even offered to drive our things out so we could fly and shave ten days off our trip. Ian’s dreams of fishing and whittling wood vanished in an instant. He was full on publican from the day we arrived. I was hired to clean, which made my mother proud. Master’s Degree in English Literature, and I was cleaning toilets.
I’ve since graduated to bartending. I’m the face you see when you come in the door, pulling pints, taking orders for fish and chips, flogging my books over the bar (much brighter now, thanks to renovations). It’s been five years. We’re still in Peg’s cabin. I haven’t written any more (and possibly less) than I did when we lived in Hamilton. We don’t own a cow, sheep or chickens and I have just about given up trying to grow vegetables in the dark, damp lee of a mountain. And in the middle of winter when the sky is hanging around my shoulders and the dog towels are wet and muddy, and the firewood is too damp to do anything other than spit and smoke, and it’s dark by 4 p.m. (very dark, Saturna boasts one streetlamp and it’s at the ferry terminal), and everywhere you turn someone is grumbling because Ian cut the pub’s hours and beer costs more than it did in 1981 and yet another bylaw has gone too far or not far enough and ferry fares have increased again, I wonder not only what I’m doing here but how on earth I’ve managed to stay as long as I have.
And then spring happens along, dragging a reluctant summer in its wake. Doe-eyed fawns gambol alongside their mothers, and the harbour seals begin slapping the water in courtship, sea lions chorus and sometimes the whales do go by, and the sun warms the cedars and grass creating the sweetest most arresting scent Mother Nature ever dreamed up and I remember why we came here. And when people flag me down on the road to ask “Is the pub open?” I can forgo my sarcasm and flash them a genuine smile. I can even tolerate the odd, “You know what you should do…” in regards to the pub, because the community here is built on friendship, sharing and cooperation. I might be the island’s bartender, but I’m also their resident novelist, and their pride in and support of me is more than I could ask of any group.