The winters in Bamfield during my childhood were harsh. A small fishing village on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, we rarely saw snow but experienced winter storms in the form of unrelenting rain and wind. The days were short and dreary. I left for school in the dark, the first one on board since my dad was the school boat driver and arrived home at dusk. While other kids hoped for snow days, we hoped the inlet would freeze and prevent us from going to school.
Storms brought their share of hazards. One early morning, as my mom headed to work, her outboard unexpectedly ran atop a half-submerged float loose in the inlet. Another time, as we embarked on a family vacation to Disneyland, we discovered our boat had sunk at the dock. Fortunately, our neighbour stepped in, rallying to transport us on his trawler to where we'd parked our vehicle. Gusts rocked us side to side as he safely steered us up the harbour. A particularly windy day nearly took my grandma and her rowboat out to sea.
Most days were a little more subdued. Our house, on the land of the Huu-ay-aht nation, was only accessible by water. Our routine involved bundling up in sweaters, rain gear, and lifejackets, turning our backs to the elements, or trying to shield our faces enough to navigate through the downpour—and always, without fail, getting drenched. Our outerwear never seemed to dry completely over the winter months, no matter how long they were hung by the fire with care.
Maybe it was this misery and discomfort that fueled the festive season for us locals. Over those years, we went caroling dock-to-dock on decorated fish boats, hid fancy clothes under floater coats for the New Year's Eve dance and skated when the pond occasionally froze—the holidays somehow protected us from the severe weather.
Community members united to make sure those in need had sufficient firewood for the cold nights, assisted neighbours by bailing out their boats when they began to list, and ensured everyone's comfort during power outages that, at times, stretched on for days.
This season didn't have the same glossy picturesque appeal as we saw on TV—when the generator was running, and the antenna aligned just right. But it held its own special magic. Our Christmas Tree hung over the edges of our small skiff in a scene that would have made the Griswalds proud. Santa still called on Christmas Eve despite us sharing a phone line that crackled at high tide with six other houses, and we all still donned our paper crowns around the table even though we were soggy from our voyage to get to dinner.
While our travels were marked by westerlies and freezing hands that prickled when we finally got somewhere warm, being together with the community at school concerts, potlucks, and open houses made it all worthwhile. I protected the construction paper of my star costume with a garbage bag, relished the flavours of delicious traditional foods, hid under the tables when the elders scolded us kids for being too rambunctious and marvelled at the vintage decorations passed through generations adorning other people's trees.
As those seasons, marked by rain-soaked commutes and stormy adventures, retreat into my past, memories of our tight-knit community's festive celebrations and unconventional traditions remain ever-present. Today, as I embrace the holidays, I pay homage to the enduring spirit of Bamfield's community—a timeless influence that continues to shape the way I celebrate this season.
About the author:
Gear up for winter on water