TRAVEL: Living the utopian dream

In 1901 a ship packed with Finnish settlers arrived on Canada's wind-battered Malcolm Island determined to create a harmonious outpost. Almost a century later Taras Grescoe discovers that their descendants remain true to the cause
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The Independent Culture
I had expected the mid-afternoon ferry to Malcolm Island to be a quiet sort of milk-run - a few loggers, maybe some sports fishermen heading for one of the island's small lodges. I had long since left behind the city of Vancouver on the Canadian mainland, travelling by ferry to Vancouver Island, which runs the length of the southern coast of British Columbia. Then I'd spent three hours driving north, gradually trading roadside golf courses and crows for temperate rainforest and bald eagles.

But instead of the serene wilderness experience I'd expected, I feel more like I'm caught in the terraces during a big-city basketball game. A weary deckhand explains that I've picked the boat that takes dozens of teenagers home to Malcolm Island from the only high school in the area. They spend the trip jumping over the seats, tossing drink cans over the heads of the other passengers, sharing cigarettes outside and yelling to each other from deck to deck. Many of the children are native Indians, but some are blond and blue-eyed, with names like Kiiskila, Pakkala and Tynjala - the descendants of a group of Finnish settlers who first came to Canada in 1880, participants in an ambitious plan to establish an idealistic utopia on a Pacific island off the coast of British Columbia.

In many ways, Sointula, the little settlement around the ferry dock, looks a lot like other Canadian coastal communities. With one post office and one hotel, it is too small to have its own high school, and only just large enough to support a sewer. Gill- netters and traditional fishing boats bob behind a breakwater, logging trucks barrel down twisting roads, and recreational vehicles with Washington State license plates lumber towards fishing lodges on the fog-bound beaches of the island's south coast.

But Malcolm Island differs from other coastal settlements. The first structure you see from the dock is the whitewashed Co-op - a two-storey, community-run general store, "Incor-porated 1909" - which has long been a symbol of the island's independence from the commerce of the mainland. In Sointula, people still leave their keys in their trucks, and their front-doors unlocked. The streets here have no names, turning every newcomer's request for directions into a bemusing recital of local landmarks. After passing the trailers and prefabricated homes of the small logging towns that dot Vancouver Island's highway, it almost feels as though I've switched oceans. The small, solidly built houses with saunas and overgrown, turn- of-the-century farmhouses wouldn't look out of a place in a cove in Brittany or on a fjord in Norway.

Sointula's oldest residents emphasise that it is not only physical isolation that sets their island apart. It was a desire for freedom that brought the Finnish settlers here in the first place, and their descendants (about a third of the island still claims some Finnish an- cestry) haven't been able to give up their taste for independence. Even today, long-time islanders say Sointula will never become a town; and any newcomer tactless enough to point out the advantages of incorporation gets shouted down at the annual Co-op meetings. Janet Tanner, who came here as a child over seventy years ago, sums up a still prevalent suspicion of institutions that the outside world takes for granted: "Right up until the Sixties there wasn't a church, there wasn't a beer parlour, and there wasn't a policeman on the island. On Soin-tula, you had to dole out your own punishment." Usually, it wasn't even a question of barter and exchange, but just simple generosity. A woman mending a gill net by the road tells me about a widow, too old to get around during the long winter months, whose woodpile is magically restocked - without comment - anytime it seems to be getting low.

The founding of Sointula - and the tragic dissolution of the original settlement - is a tale told best by the local museum, a former one-room schoolhouse that has been turned into a kind of warehouse of the community's mementoes. One of the volunteers unlocks the door for me, revealing a room that could be the attic of a squirrel-like great aunt, should your great aunt happen to have communist sympathies. Among the sets of fine bone china and hand-hewn furniture are photos of Stalin, copies of the Communist Manifesto and a mural depicting a red-garbed lady of liberty leading workers towards a tree-covered island. One of the most striking images in the museum is a sepia-toned photograph of a handsome, goateed man staring into the distance with Messianic fervour.

His name was Matti Kurikka, and he was responsible for leading the first group of 240 Finnish settlers to Sointula in 1901. They had come to Canada to escape Tsarist oppression in their homeland, only to find a worse kind of servitude working in coal mines. Their leaders called upon Kurikka, a journalist and anarchist, to establish a community founded on utopian principles, and settled on this mist-shrouded, uninhabited island. Kurikka hoped to establish a community where work would be shared and love would be free, but the experiment ended in acrimony and disaster as the group's cedar apartment building burned to the ground - killing eight of the settlers' children - one winter's night a year after their arrival. Kurikka left Canada forever, eventually dying in New York State, but most of the Finns stayed on, making a hard living first as farmers and then as fishers of halibut and salmon.

These days, the living can be easier, depending on how the fishing season goes. When the fleet is in, and the breakwater down the road from the ferry dock harbours a full contingent of brightly coloured boats and gill- netters, Sointula can be a pretty lively place. The island was always known for its parties - its residents were considered legendary dancers - which would involve the entire community and sometimes last for two or three days.

Dances still take place at the "F O", the Finnish Organization Hall, a massive wooden building on a hilltop that overlooks the plump heads of the kelp bobbing in the inlet. The woman showing me through the hall says parties can still be memorable. As we walk down the stairs from the attic she points to a second-storey window. "Last party we had, I remember seeing some of the fishermen falling past this window. They were taking turns to jump off the roof." Rolling her eyes meaningfully, she says: "When the fleet's in, things can get pretty rowdy around here."

Sointula today, though, offers more rustic tranquillity than port-town exuberance. Almost all of the island's 1,000 residents live near the ferry dock, with a handful of homes clustered around Mitchell Bay on the island's eastern tip, seven miles of rough gravel road away. A second-growth cedar and fir forest, criss-crossed only by narrow logging roads, covers the gentle hills of most of the island. Life is largely concentrated on the calm southern shore, where sheltered bays provide a refuge from the Pacific winds which relentlessly buffet the sparsely populated, savage northern shore.

A drive along the narrow shoreline road from the Finnish Organization Hall towards the Co-op takes me past the tiny waterfront houses painted in colours as bright as those of the boats behind the breakwater. The driver of a pick-up truck honks his horn and waves as I pull over to the side of the road: it is the rule here, that cars coming from the ferry dock have the right of way over anyone heading into what's loosely referred to as "town". At the ferry dock, T-shirt-clad children shiver as they wait their turn to leap from 20-foot-high pilings into the icy Pacific, cheered on by a group of diners on the terrace of the restaurant. A kind of unrestrained playfulness seems to prevail here, something that is lacking in more workaday communities on the west coast of Canada.

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that Sointula grew up not around the promise of a railway or the proximity of a coal mine, but around a desire for a better way of life. On the waterfront, the mixture of abandoned sawmills, boat sheds and farms show that here, at least, industry was an afterthought, a distant second to living a decent life.

It's one of the things that attracted Ralph Harris to Sointula in the first place. The youthful-looking 62-year-old lives on the east end of the island, in Mitchell Bay - no more than a collection of houses. His place is easy to find: it's the one with the fence made out of gnarled pieces of driftwood that overlooks his shorefront sauna. As one of a group of Americans who showed up in the Seventies, Harris was part of the only significant wave of immigration to arrive on Sointula since the Finns. In 1970, Harris was too old for the draft to be an issue, but still young enough to imagine an alternative to his narrow, office-bound life in San Francisco.

After scouting much of the Pacific coast, he settled on this 40 acres of beachfront property, complete with 1,000-year-old cedar trees, a weather- beaten but solid home, and a building that used to be a sauna, as ubiquitous in this Finnish settlement as outhouses once were just about everywhere else. We stroll among the Muscovy ducks that run free in his yard, and have a seat in the two-room sauna Harris has built for himself on the beach. Harris explains that it takes at least an hour for the wood-fuelled oven to heat the sauna to a reasonable temperature, so we content ourselves with sitting in the glass-enclosed anteroom, watching the waves washing towards the roots of the overhanging arbutus trees.

It turns out that on an island founded by anarchists, some of the old- timers were more radical than he could ever be. "I got some very good reactions when I first arrived," says Harris. "In the post office - it's always been the place you end up seeing everyone - this old Finnish woman would come up to me and say, 'Oh, look at your hair! Do you mind if I touch it to see how it feels?' And there was an old guy who always wore a raincoat, no matter what the weather was like. He was a die-hard leftist who loved telling me about his communist principles."

On the road back to the ferry dock, past a graveyard whose tombstones read like a registry of sea disasters, bed and breakfasts and fishing lodges are scattered among abandoned pioneer farmhouses and horses at pasture. The fog that has swaddled the coast for most of the morning slowly unravels as I drive, blowing away in cottony strips, revealing a brilliant blue sky and the gravelly sand of the beaches. I can see a sea otter in the channel, balancing a sea urchin on its belly; in the distance whale-watching boats scout for orcs. The Finns who first settled on this island may have faced some hard, lonely winters; but, if afternoons like this one are any indication, Soin-tula wasn't a far-fetched choice as a setting for utopia. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

Both British Airways (0345 222111) and Air Canada (0990 247226) fly direct from London to Vancouver. Return prices start from around pounds 539 plus pounds 22.50 airport tax for both carriers. Connection can be made to Victoria, Vancouver Island, on Air Canada from pounds 60 return. The journey to Vancouver Island can also be made by coach and ferry. From there it is a further coach trip to the tip of the island from where the ferry to Sointula runs. This trip can be arranged by the Vancouver Island Coach Services (001 250 385 4411) and takes around nine hours. Avis (0990 900500), Budget (0800 181181), and Thrifty (0345 22525) all rent cars on Vancouver Island from around pounds 80 a day plus tax.

STAYING THERE

Malcolm Island Inn (001 250 973 6366); Ocean Bliss Bed & Breakfast (001 250 973 6121); Rogue House Retreat (001 250 973 6222); Sea Four Miles Cottages (001 250 973 6486).

FURTHER INFORMATION

British citizens do not require a visa for travel to Canada. For further information contact the Canadian Tourist Office (0171 258 6582) or the Visit Canada Centre (0891 715000).

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