Shack Island in Nanaimo British Columbia is a charming non-conformist holdout against real estate developers and cookie cutter construction. This motley collection of shacks has occupied a warm place in my mind since I was a teenager and lucky enough to spend some time there.
I accompanied some lucky friends who had a shack that they used in the summer. At that time, the shoreline was still forested and rowboats left on shore would be there when the owners’ returned. As kids we could explore the rocky outcroppings and the large lagoon, eating raw oysters if we dared.
Modern times have hit this area. Shellfish poisoning warnings grace the entrance to the lagoon, the forests are gone and high end houses elbow each other on their way to the beaches, yet these messy little shacks have held out over the years. No electricity, no running water and a communal privy away from the water. Although by now I would guess that chemical toilets grace the hovels.
People started living here in the Dirty 30’s when even the cheap land in Nanaimo was beyond their means. Fishermen could make a living catching fish and rowing into the town to sell it. A Japanese family predated them, losing one son to WWI, yet when WWII came along and people of Japanese descent were being interned, they were targeted.
The descendants of the shack owners use these buildings weekends and summer times. They are repaired and painted to prepare for the wind and sea water that works at them constantly. Most are built in the shelter of two rocky hills that break the stormy winds and the cabins rest on stilts to keep their skirts above high winter tides.
The fact that they still squat here today is a testament to the will and determination of the owners. In the 50s real estate developers bought the old Pipers’ property for a ritzy sub-division. Those renters and owners who were on shore were evicted and those on the islands were soon under pressure. Largely forgotten now, a flurry of activity resulted known as the Battle of the Stakes. The shacks are still here and Pipers’ Lagoon Park dedicated where houses were slated to be built. Owners can maintain their shacks and bequeath them to family members, but are prohibited from rebuilding should disaster strike.
The lagoon itself has a colourful history itself ranging from a short-lived whaling station to an unsuccessful sheep farm. Too many hungry cougars found mutton to their liking.
Yesterday when I visited the park it was a cold blustery day. Even the Garry Oaks looked chilled. Leaving the flat, easy path behind led to sheltered bays and early spring flowers. The thwarted dreams of development have given the public a rare and quirky jewel on the ocean.
Nanaimo is well served by provincial government ferries and planes. It is located across Georgia Strait from Metro Vancouver.
For loving details about Shack Island, look for a book written by Ruth English Matson, called Shack Island.