Story last updated at 9/26/2012 - 2:37 pm
About 75 days into our kayak trip from Juneau to Southwest British Columbia, we found the town of Sointula. Placed in the center of Malcolm Island, off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, Sointula has many elements of what some may consider an ideal community. Established in the early 1900s by Finnish socialists, the utopian experiment was founded on the principles of hard work and equality. The English translation of the Finnish word Sointula is "A Place of Harmony," and although the modern state of the town might not meet the idealist standards of the original settlers, the concept of harmony continues to guide the lifestyles of the citizens. A sense of balance seems to resonate between the human and non-human residents of the island. The plants and animals living there might be regarded more as symbiotic neighbors than as consumptive resources.
The people of the town are particularly admirable in the ways that they meet their basic needs for food. The primary feature of sustenance is the co-op member-owned and operated grocery store in the middle of town, providing quality products that are generally not found in places with such small local populations. Like most towns in the Southeast Alaska/Coastal BC region, fish are a staple in the diet of the people. However, in addition to the fisheries, much food is grown in the soil of Sointula. Almost every home seemed to have an extensive edible garden surrounding it. A number of larger scale farms are said to be scattered around the outskirts of town, although we did not get a chance to visit them in our time there.
The librarian, who provides fresh eggs at $5.50 a dozen from a public access honor system booth in the middle of town, runs one of those farms. We met the librarian while stopping in to use the computers to back up our video footage onto hard drives. Once she heard about our film project on localization and sustainable lifestyles, she excitedly showed us a short documentary about a local artist and recommended that we try talking with him.
A few hours later we were having a barbecue with Stewart Marshall in his backyard. The professional painter has spent his career kayaking the BC coast in a homemade boat, capturing the beauty of the land and sea. He entertained us with incredible stories from his solo adventures through the northern waters. From paddling to Haida Gwaii, to fighting off Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, to getting chased by a swarm of hornets, it was apparent that we were schmoozing with a living legend.
After finishing dinner we stepped into the sauna and truly realized the skills of this talented artist. The intentional mix of wood, light, fire and water made for the most beautiful sauna any of us had experienced. Stewart's sauna, kayak, garden and paintings each demonstrated an affinity for craftsmanship that is almost certainly amplified by the place where he lives. The town of Sointula seems to be full of creative minds, allowed to thrive and flourish when some of their more basic needs like nourishing food, a healthy ecosystem, and supportive social relations are fulfilled. Original artwork can be found decorating nearly every house, building, or public space. It's an environment where solutions to complex problems are regularly being considered. From the expression of freedom to the regulation of greed, imaginations are being employed in Sointula.
Alexandra Morton is possibly the most creative scientist I've encountered. My meeting with her came from the recommendation of another filmmaker in town who was producing a documentary on salmon farming. While living in the nearby wilderness of Echo Bay for over twenty years, raising two children and studying whales, Alexandra intimately experienced the near collapse of BC's wild salmon population with the onset of fish farms. She is now striving to save wild species before its too late.
Morton hauls nets, walks streams, and attempts to record and share as much data as possible while wading through aggressive industry and corrupt government. So much official legislation has been enacted to oppose her work that she no longer places faith in the lobbyist groups and non-governmental organizations that try to change the score by playing the game. Instead, she chooses to be non-affiliated, doing her research independent of any university or stake-holding company.
"None of the labs in BC will take my samples," she told me, explaining how the fish farm companies will boycott any laboratory that she does business with, thereby causing the lab to lose the majority of their customers. "I have to send my samples to Sweden."
Rather than engaging with ineffective enforcement authorities, Morton goes straight to the media when she finds conclusive evidence of diseased farms. It's a tactic that works, and although it has gained her much respect among fishermen and activists, it has also given her an equal number of rivals.
The struggle of battle was evident in her stories and her attitude. It was obvious that she had been passionately fighting to save a piece of her home that was being destroyed, and that she had suffered many losses. All was not yet gone, but I could see that optimism was hard to maintain as I left Sointula with her business card from the "Department of Wild Salmon."
Two days and many mammal encounters later, I found myself in Port Neville, pondering the future. Port Neville was a logging town whose population peaked in the 1920s as the timber industry rolled through. Now the town is down to just a few solitude-seeking citizens, a community of four separate addresses. It made me wonder if this is what happens in the wake of resource-dependent, boom-bust industries. If the wild salmon population crashes from the diseases brought by fish farms, what will happen to some of the small fishing towns in our region? How will dependent communities recover?
It seems likely that Sointula would be resilient enough to stumble out of such a disaster with no more than a broken leg and a black eye, but I'm not so sure about most of the other towns in BC that we have visited. I am doubtful that many of those places could exist without a dependable population of healthy salmon. The perceived likelihood of a total collapse of the salmon population will vary depending on where you are and whom you ask. But I believe that all people of this North Pacific coastal region could benefit from the songs Sointulans are singing: respect your salmon and strive for harmony.
Kanaan Bausler and his friends are taking a trip south - from Juneau to Argentina. Learn more about their trip at www.atripsouth.com.