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Notes on the Geography of Canada (B.C.): Saltspring Island

Saltspring is the largest of the Canadian Gulf Islands, a group wedged between southeastern Vancouver island and the broad swath of Georgia Strait. By Canadian West Coast standards, it has a long agricultural history, but since about 1950 it has had daily ferries to both Vancouver Island and the mainland, which means that it lies within commuting distance of both. Upshot: the island has become a microcosm of the common problem of accommodating growth without destroying the qualities that attract newcomers in the first place.

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Canada (B.C.): Saltspring Island picture 1

Saltspring land is almost absurdly expensive, certainly too expensive for most farmers to come in, buy a farm, and pay down the mortgage with farm income. A few fairly large tracts remain, some with driveways echoing the Edwardian society of younger sons who once left London to grow apples out in the Empire.

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There were homesteaders, too.  Eventually they faced ruinous property taxes.  In this case the Ruckle family transferred the property to the provincial government as a park, with the family retaining lifetime residency rights.

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A pretty typical contrast: coast forest and sheep pasture. The forest is all secondary or tertiary: century-old stumps suggest a more towering forest when the first European settlers came.

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Late summer pasture, with the glacially plucked leeslope of Mt. Maxwell in the background. The summit is another provincial park, thick with moss.

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Up top: a softened exposure.

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The view from Mt. Maxwell toward Fulford Harbour, where the Victoria ferry docks. Although British Columbia generally adopted a cardinally oriented grid-survey system, it allowed for topographic variation. Here, a line of rectangular plots of arable land has been laid off across the lowland at the mountain's foot: none of the lines run north-south or east-west.

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The Vancouver ferry steaming into Long Harbour, a fine anchorage. With traffic like this coming half a dozen times daily, the island is hard-pressed to retain an agrarian character.

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The entrance to Ganges, the main town on the island.  You can spend $200 for a room and $60 for a meal.

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At least in summer, shoppers mostly look for art, not hardware. The old general store, which once faced the Canadian Pacific dock, now has all the froufrou of New York's Long Island and Massachusetts' Cape Cod.

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Right there, at Ganges Harbour, summer brings a steady drone of sea-planes. A rocky point is loaded with condos for dot.commers flying in for the weekend.

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Compared to the American San Juan Islands, where beaches are privately owned--"if you want some, buy some!"--beaches on the Canadian side of the line are generally public. Here, however, a long ridge of beautiful land reaches down the east side of Long Harbour and emulates American practice. It would be interesting to know how many owners here are Yanks.

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And what kind of agriculture do you expect on this new Saltspring? Why, same as on Long Island, where potatoes have been replaced by vineyards. The vine acreage on Saltspring is small, but it's probably going to rise. You can bet the new owners will be hellbent on keeping their little paradise the way it is.

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During the summer of 2000, many residents were up in arms about the plans of Vancouver developers to log a huge block of land abutting Mt. Maxwell. They promised to be sensitive.

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Of course, the whole island has already been logged or burned or both at least once. Now, though, people see the island as a precious vestige of a world they want to retain, and so they dread the Paul Bunyon feats that their grandparents admired. Here, a truck gets ready to dump logs from the same property.

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Getting ready to tow the forest away.

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