HANNA PETERSEN PHOTO The view of Winter Harbour from the Outpost deck on a rainy spring day in April.

Winter Harbour: Survival on the edge of Vancouver Island

One of the Island’s most remote communites to focus on eco-tourism as industry leaves

They dot the history books as afterthoughts and the back roads of Vancouver Island like the smoke of an extinguished fire.

Holberg, Granby, Leechtown — once vital Island communities built around gold, coal and the heat of the cold war, diminished to memory and shadow as their raison d’etre evaporated to the whims of the economy and the vagaries of the time. None of these communities have vanished entirely, but what they are and how they are perceived has certainly been changed by factors largely outside their control.

Will Winter Harbour suffer a similar fate?

Most Vancouver Islanders have heard of Winter Harbour, few have visited. A quaint Island outpost located at the mouth of Quatsino Sound, it is brief respite of humanity along one the Island’s most isolating stretches of coastline — literally and metaphorically, a port from the storm.

It has carved a lengthy existence as a way station for vessels passing along our northwest shores, for sport and commercial fishermen chasing their catch, and for loggers leapfrogging rugged mountainsides for their harvest. It offers shelter, food and fuel in the remote wild.

And it has reason to question its future.

The 2016 census marks Winter Harbour as having just five permanent residents down from the 20 listed in 2011. It also lists 59 private dwellings, an indication of the transient nature of the community. Few live in Winter Harbour. More visit for while. Or at least they have.

First the fishing boats dwindled, a victim of the decline of the commercial fishery in the 1990s. The village used to see roughly 1,500 boats come throughout the season and was home to a multitude of fish buyers. But after reductions to the commercial salmon allowable catch, the industry completely disappeared.

Then, last September, the economy struck another blow: the loss of W.D. Moore Logging, a family-run business that had been operating in Winter Harbour for more than 90 years. About 25 lost their jobs.

READ MORE: How will Winter Harbour survive?

“Winter Harbour is in quite a transition right now with us downsizing the camp,” said Jon Moore, whose great-grandfather Albert Moore founded what became W.D. Moore Logging in the late 1920s.

“The Moores will always remain up here, we will have houses up here, but as far as business is concerned, that is sort of done for now. We have been a big part of the community for a long time.”

Jon’s grandfather Bill Moore was a notable fixture in the logging industry as former president of the Truck Loggers Association and founder of a non-profit organization called the Festival of Forestry. He even financed three ‘Downtown Winter Harbour Music Festivals’ in 1967, 1969, and 1971, bringing his love of jazz to the village during its heyday.

But the closure of the firm he nurtured, and the impact of recent changes to the Fisheries Act which reduced sport fishing size quotas and allowable catches, have Winter Harbour wondering what’s next.

“The town itself has revitalized substantially over the last 15 years via the sports fishing industry supported by the logging industry,” said Greg Vance, a part-time resident, and co-owner of the general store, marina, and fuel dock known as the Outpost at Winter Harbour.

Despite the challenges the community is facing, the Outpost remains open, especially for the 2018 season, providing access to food, fuel, accommodation and moorage.

“The harbour is continuing to survive and operate as normal, despite major changes and challenges,” said co-owner Andrea Vance, Greg’s wife.

Mike Lawrence has been doing maintenance work in Winter Harbour for the past 15 years. But the loss of income from W.D. Moore makes doing any maintenance work on the village nearly impossible now.

“I’ve been building docks and trying to keep up to a little bit of it here, but you just can’t keep up to it all,” said Lawrence. “It’s a sad thing because it’s such a beautiful place.”

Like many Island outposts hit by the erosion of a resource-based economy, Winter Harbour may try to capitalize on its natural beauty.

“I think what Greg and Andrea want to do, and the people who are trying to hang on here, is getting some tourism of some sort back into Winter Harbour,” Lawrence said. “We have beaches up and down the outside of the coast, surfers come here, kayakers, divers, fisherman — lots of fishermen.”

“The store is still open here, it’s a great place to view wildlife and whale watch, there is a museum people can go to, and there is a beautiful boardwalk that lines the whole harbour,” said Sarah Moore.

Jon’s wife, Sarah remembers a honeymoon partly spent in Winter Harbour. They watched a humpback whale teach its baby how to feed for a week straight.

“It was doing full breaches out of the water and everything,” she said.

Jon said he sees new life being breathed into the place as one of the local guides has purchased a set of cabins and increased his operations, and that there is still a lot for people to see and do in the area.

“If you like the outdoors, this is the place to come,” he said.

One of the more popular activities for tourists to do is paddle the Mackjack River to Raft Cove.

WATCH: Raft Cove Mackjack River adventure on Vimeo

Normally to access Raft Cove, tourists have to hike for an hour to get to the beach, but a five-minute walk from Winter Harbour allows tourists access to the river where they can instead canoe or kayak there.

“It’s like a meandering stream down old growth forest,” said Sarah. “It’s probably one the best things I’ve done in my life.”

Sarah noted with year-round accommodation and close proximity to many beautiful beaches like Grant Bay, hikers can easily stay in Winter Harbour and extend their West Coast day trips into longer adventures. Her greatest hope for Winter Harbour is to see the infrastructure brought back to life.

Jon said he hopes that people continue to keep visiting, but he also hopes people continue to respect the industry that built the community.

“The only way you are getting here is by logging roads, and the main thing you are coming to do here is fish,” said Jon. “I think this is the kind of place that people come and still understand that.”

“There is so much history here,” Sarah added. “We need a little boom of people and we need the new generation to come visit.”

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