Posted by: Kiersten | November 22, 2009

Out to Town

A couple of days ago we got an email from Cheryl, one of our possible financers, asking if we could meet her in person in Nanaimo in a couple of days – of course we had to pull it together and go!

Pulling it together meant renting a car and driving it to Nanaimo, since the island bus will only get you one way in a day.  There isn’t an actual car rental depot in Ukee, but there is a small lot in Tofino, and Bob, the Budget fellow who works in Tofino and lives in Ukee drove the rental into Ukee for us on his way home Thursday night. 

Thursday night, Kat & I went to our first local knitting circle, something we’ve been wanting to do in Toronto but had neither the time nor the energy to do.  The circle meets at Cynamoka, the local coffee house, and there were three other women there besides Kat & I.  Donna and her sister operate the coffee house, and stay open late on Thursdays for the sake Donna’s spinning and knitting. 

I haven’t done any serious knitting in months, I can’t seem to get into the mindset.  I’d started a mitten project I was sure I’d finish on the train, but it turned out I was perfectly happy to stare outside the window for three days.  I think the knitting projects I’ve been attempting are just too complicated, given all the other challenges in life right now, and I found it more enjoyable to help Donna pick bits of hay out of some wool roving she was carding and preparing to spin.

We sat in the coffee house for three hours, Kat with her sock project, me with a pile of bright blue roving and bits of straw on my lap, Donna with two massive slicker brushes carding the roving into long puffy caterpillars ready for spinning.  Donna has lived in Ucluelet for over 30 years, she’s one of the Originals.  She has an incredible wealth of knowledge of the area’s history, more specifically, of the region’s families.  I learned that there is a Japanese family on the ridge by the lighthouse that had been evicted from their land by the government during WWII, and that this family managed to get their land back after the war was over. 

I learned a bit more about Norma, a woman who passed away a few months ago, who ran “The Wreckage”, a glorious store of odds and ends, second hand treasures, beach combing finds and amazing antiques.  (Here’s a link to a blogger who has some nice pictures of the Wreckage  The 200 year old cash register, the stuffed sea lion, the Japanese glass floats, the pieces of ship wrecks that washed up on shore, The Wreckage is a place of treasures.  There is so much to write about that place and the woman who founded it, it’s going to need an entry of it’s own, so more on that later.

Norma, I learned, was a knitter and a spinner, and she taught all three of the other women in the circle how to knit and spin.  It’s a wonderful thing to feel connected to this fascinating woman whom I’d never met, by learning from her students.  I suppose that’s romanticizing it a bit.  In Toronto, if you want to learn to spin you need to figure it out by watching you-tube videos, or pay $75 to take a course.  In Ukee, these skills are passed along freely as a way to pass the long, rainy winter evenings… so it feels romantic to me now.

We told Donna about our coffee roasting plans and our meeting in Nanaimo on Friday.  “Ah, so you’re going Out to Town then.  That’s what we say here, whether you’re going to Port Alberni or to Vancouver, you say I’m going out to town.” 

And so we were.  Friday morning we woke up to an alarm for the first time since our arrival.  That wouldn’t have been as painful as it was if we’d gotten a decent night’s sleep the night before, but the anticipation made us fitful, and both of us were up multiple times in the night.

We put our coffee in travel mugs and our breakfast smoothie in a nalgene bottle and hit the road by 7 am so that we could be sure to make Nanaimo by 11:30.

There’s this rumour that it takes an hour and a half to drive the mountain pass between Port Alberni and Ucluelet – let me tell you that is an outright lie.  It takes at least two hours in perfect conditions, and usually two and a half hours if there’s any sort of freight traffic or rain.  Considering that Port Alberni is about the halfway point between Ucluelet and Nanaimo, you have to budget at least four hours to drive across the island.  If the land were flat and the highway straight, it would take about an hour to drive from Nanaimo to Ukee; but winding through the mountains across narrow bridges and beside sheer cliffs, you just have to take your time.

Everywhere on the highway there were signs posted “Use winter tires or carry chains!”  Donna told us that until recently, Port Alberni used to have death count posts at various places along the mountain highway – blue numbers for accidents, red numbers for injuries, white numbers for deaths – these posts were meant to scare the locals into SLOWING THE HELL DOWN when driving the highway, but were removed a few years ago after the method of information was deemed to be in bad taste, and bad for tourism. 

Despite the lack of death count posts, the danger of the drive was quite clear to us as we passed a place marked by piles of bouquets, the site of a fatal accident between an SUV and a transport truck at a curve in the road.  The accident happened the day before we arrived in Ucluelet, and we heard about it not from the media but from our landlord.  We learned that the woman killed had a husband and two children.  The next morning we heard Jeff Johnston, the DJ for Long Beach Radio, solemnly and with genuine sadness communicate the news of her death to the community.

For a little perspective, I’m sure that the 401, Ontario’s major freeway, claims many more lives in a year than our modest Island highway.  I’m sure my life was in greater peril as I negotiated eight lanes of traffic at 120 km/hr, heart pounding and adrenaline buzzing in my fingertips.  But none of the statistics delivered by the detached and perfunctory reporter on the CBC could ever convey the personal sense of loss and grief that hit home as we passed this roadside monument. 

This was the fifth time I’d driven the mountain pass since June, and it seems the scenery changes a little every day.  The fall foliage had been shaken from the trees, but the highway remained quite green with fir and pine trees taking their place in winter’s spotlight.   The trickling little roadside streams had flooded out into rushing rivers that roared so loudly we had to turn our music up to hear it over the water. 

The snow that had appeared as jaunty white hats on the hills outside our apartment manifested as real, honest-to-goodness snow on the mountain highway.

As we neared the crest of one of the higher points on our drive, I spotted a black furry form with a short brown muzzle and fuzzy round saucer ears pointed right at us.  A full grown black bear focused intensely on us, then whirled and stomped straight back into the bush.  Our first black bear sighting!  We were thrilled!  (We’ll let you know if we’re still thrilled in the spring when these critters descend upon Ukee to dig through the garbage.)  We celebrated Ukee style by sharing a solid high-five.

We arrived in Port Alberni for more coffee and a light meal, and then hit the road again by 9:30.  The stretch of highway between Port Alberni and Nanaimo contains the mystical Cathedral grove, home of massive 800 year old Douglas fir trees, and always a beautiful drive.  I was surprised to see how well the pumpkins along the road have held up:

The clouds lightened up and let in some welcome sunshine over Nanaimo, and we had about 30 minutes to soak it up before Cheryl arrived to meet us.

The meeting went very well.  Cheryl was pleased with our financial projections, instructed us on a few changes and then advised us to proceed as though we were going to get the funding.  She could not, of course, confirm that we were going to get funding – we will have to wait at least two weeks for a committee to evaluate our package – but she told us to go ahead and open a business bank account and shop for a commercial space.  We shouldn’t sign any leases until we’re sure we have the funding, but there was no reason in her opinion to delay the development of the business at this point. 

She emphasized the need for monthly financial reporting to the organization, and I assured her I could do no less for my own piece of mind.  If any of my former co-workers are reading this they’ll understand how absurd the concept of allowing bookkeeping to lag behind for months would be for me, she who has lived the accounting cycle for the past seven years.  I still feel unnatural during the first week of every month, I hear a whisper in the back of my mind, “Must reconcile bank accounts… must balance books… must…work…overtime!”

We celebrated the great meeting with a visit to PetsMart where we bought a big cat tree for the kitties, two nylabones for the pups and shiny engraved name tags for everyone.  We stopped at a hardware store for some multi-coloured Christmas lights and then, resigned to the prospect of driving home in the dark, hit the dusty trail once again.

Okay, “dusty trail” isn’t very accurate.  Flooded trail is a bit more descriptive.  The marsh surrounding Cathedral Grove outside of Port Alberni had been overcome with rain run-off during the day and a portion of Highway 4 had become a modest stream.  There’s a reason why everyone in the region drives jeeps and pickup trucks – they have four wheel drive, they’re heavy enough to get traction in the mountain pass and high enough to cruise through three feet of water flooding out the only road home.  Wow, was I ever glad we sprung for the rental jeep instead of the economy compact.  The water came to the top of the wheel wells on the car and didn’t slow us down one bit.  I tell ya I felt downright masculine; I think my arm hair got furrier.  I felt like a kid splashing through a puddle – a really big puddle with a REALLY big toy!

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Star Trek lately; the return drive through the mountains in the dark felt like getting sucked into a black hole and trying to find a way out.  It was dark.  Not just kinda dark, anti-matter dark.  The kind of dark that makes you wonder if you’ve died and somehow missed the event of your demise. 

The sky was overcast so there was no stars, no moonlight.  There was no artificial light of any kind, just our meager headlights which barely managed to illuminate six feet of road ahead of us.  Six feet is fine when you’re driving between farmers fields, but when you know that there are cliffs and hairpin turns on your route, driving through pitch black becomes an unnerving funhouse ride. 

You drive up a steep bank and then the road drops away – in the daylight you could see that it’s a dip in the road, but in the dark it looks like the road suddenly ends, like the world has dropped away and you’re about to pull a Thelma & Louise.  Sometimes the dip is filled with cloud which obscures the little visibility you do have.  It’s like driving through the bottom of an ice cream sundae, trying to get out of the bowl without driving over the edge.

We made it home again (jiggidy-jig!) at 7 pm, twelve hours since we’d left the house.  In our absence, our home had apparently born the brunt of the animals’ anxieties.

Mocha, my 11 year old cattle dog shepherd cross, who is so beyond acting out in loneliness or frustration, had helped herself to a bag of brown sugar from the cupboard.  She didn’t seem to eat much of it, she just shredded the bag and spread the sugar over the scatter rugs in the kitchen and living room. 

Where there wasn’t a dusting of sugar, there was cat puke.  Three piles of cat puke stood between us and the bathroom.  I should’ve left my shoes on once I’d ascertained the damage, but my mind was a little foggy from the eight hours of driving.  Inevitably, I stepped in cat puke and brown sugar. 

There’s nothing you want to do less after a long day than clean up messes you didn’t make, but that’s part of living with animals.  I calmly mopped the floors while giving myself the pep talk that the floors needed cleaning anyway, and it was one less chore for me this weekend.  It was hard to find the bright side when we found that the bed had been puked on at least ten times.  All of the blankets, the sheets, the pillows and the floor, even the bedside table, had cat puke.  Leo had apparently decided to rid his system of the mother of all hairballs.  Either that, or he’d been possessed by an evil spirit in our absence.  He’s getting plenty of hairball remedy this weekend.

The Christmas lights are now up and the cat tree is a big success.  Here’s Sunshine modeling her shiny new name tag:


 Overall, I’d say our trip out to town was quite successful.



  1. So glad that your meeting went well! Been thinking of you! Yikes – you described that drive home a little too well… my heart was in my throat reading that!

    Oh the animals… they always seem to push you, just when you think you can’t take any more. The girls both soaked my freshly washed winter down comforter just before bed a few weeks ago. The things we overlook because we love these hairballs! Though, don’t know if you notice it, but I find the misbehaving usually correlates to my stresses. I think it’s their way of expressing anxiety.

    Miss you, but so glad you’re truely home and happy. xoxo


  2. I think they’re also still decompressing from the move – a big change like that is bound to take them a few months to recover from.

    Sunshine went outside yesterday and had a small altercation with Okie, the landlords’ cat. Okie tried to chase her, she just flopped on her side and screamed bloody murder. I was able to intercept Okie and Sunshine went back up to the deck, which I guess they’ve agreed is “her territory”.

    Leo has absolutely no interest in going outside, thankfully, but Sunshine is insisting. She’s also door crashing whenever I take the dogs out, so we’ve just decided to go with it. She was an outside cat before the rescue got her (and spayed her) whereas Leo’s been an indoor cat for more than a decade.

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