It’s pretty amazing when a short ferry ride off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island can transport you to another world, but that was pretty much what happened to us when we recently visited the isolated village of Sointula on Malcolm Island.
The name Sointula means place of harmony, which should come as no great surprise considering that it was founded by Finnish immigrants as a Utopian community. The Finns were keen to escape the drudgery and danger of work in Vancouver Island’s coal mines, so they migrated to Malcolm Island, now a 25 minute ferry ride from Port McNeill, and founded Sointula in 1901. It is estimated that at its height the community saw 2,000 settlers, who came not for jobs (there was no industry there at the time) but simply to build a socialist community that would afford them a better life.
Ultimately, the Utopian dream died. But the Finns remained on the island and established a community and lifestyle that, to this day, resonates with anyone who longs for a more measured pace of life. Sointula is a place where little kids set up lemonade stands, unaccompanied by adults, in the middle of town. There is a free bicycle sharing program (well-utilized, from what we saw), the oldest co-operative store in western Canada (founded in 1909), an enduring reverence for the Finnish influence and heritage. You can still hear Finnish spoken from time to time; walk into the excellent Upper Crust Bakery and you will find a blackboard with a few Finnish words translated to English. The Finnish language is, in fact, still found in much signage in the community.
We had booked a couple of nights at Midden Lane Bed and Breakfast, a pretty 25-minute drive along foxglove-lined gravel roads to the south end of the island. Our spacious suite had an attractive covered deck that looked out over Mitchell Bay – a perfect place to start the day with a cup of coffee, the sound of pounding waves the only backdrop.
Back in Sointula, we wandered through the village enjoying galleries and the myriad of things in the huge old co-op, then headed to the amazing museum, staffed almost entirely by friendly volunteers. We spent a couple of hours wandering through and enjoying the extensive collection of items, photographs and written records from Sointula’s heyday. There is an intriguing display of gill net rugs, invented by a local woman in the 1950s and an item unique only to Sointula to this day. It’s mind-boggling to see the amount of effort that goes into one of these small pieces, but somehow not surprising – the Finns were noted for their hard work and thriftiness, and it seems that all those old used gill nets just couldn’t be allowed to go to waste. We also learned while at the museum that it was a Sointula resident who invented the gill net drum in 1931 – a piece of fishing equipment now used world-wide. Somehow that didn’t surprise either – resourcefulness seems to be the Finns’ middle name, out of sheer necessity if nothing else.
From the museum we headed out to Bere Point Regional Park, where we enjoyed a long sweep of beach, vistas of the Coastal Mountains on the mainland, views of passing cruise ships and a two-hour hike on the lovely Beautiful Bay Trail. It’s not uncommon to see Orca whales rubbing on the beaches along the trail but we had no such luck during our visit. We were regretting that we hadn’t allowed for more time on Malcolm Island, as it has a number of well-marked and maintained hiking trails that would be a great temptation.
Our final adventure during our brief stay was an evening visit to the local cemetery – a history lesson in itself, where most of the original Sointula pioneers are buried. The cemetery has an intriguing variety of headstones and grave markers, some of them quite poignant. It has one of the most stunning locations imaginable, with views to the water, the continuous song of the waves on the beach and the wind sighing in the trees. It is, in its own way, Utopia.