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The last man in Jordan River

JORDAN RIVER — From the front yard of his Jordan River bungalow, Hugh Pite watches a surfer ride the crest of a wave and reminisces about his 30-year love affair with the sport.

JORDAN RIVER — From the front yard of his Jordan River bungalow, Hugh Pite watches a surfer ride the crest of a wave and reminisces about his 30-year love affair with the sport.

“I’m looking out my window and I see the surf is out, there’s surfers on the waves, the sun is on the water. It’s absolutely a West Coast paradise,” Pite said.

It was that passion for surfing that led Pite in 1987 to buy the home in the hamlet just west of where the Jordan River meets the ocean. That same passion compels him not to sell, even as his neighbours move on, their beach-front homes set to be demolished in late March or early April.

B.C. Hydro has bought nine of the 10 homes below the Jordan River diversion dam because of fears they could be wiped out by flooding if an earthquake strikes. After a six-year, $10-million seismic study of B.C. Hydro’s 79 dams, the Crown corporation found that the one above this community would be the most likely to burst in a major earthquake, due to its precarious position near a fault line.

Pite said his cabin isn’t going anywhere.

“People have come up to me quite a few times over the years and asked to buy it. I said: ‘It’s not for sale.’ ”

Part surf shack, part workshop surrounded by a driftwood fence, the home is rustic, with a single wrought-iron bed pushed up against the window, a perfect view of the ocean.

As he gives a tour to the Times Colonist, men are working on a house next door, removing the siding and shingles before the home is torn down.

The retired oceanographer lives full-time with his wife Jennifer in Brentwood Bay, but comes to Jordan River for surfing and solitude.

Pite wants to keep the home as his West Coast retreat, even when he’s too old to drag his surfboard out into the Pacific. Pite plans to leave the cabin to family members after he dies.

“It’s quite possible I become so decrepit that I can’t surf anymore,” said the 72-year-old. “But I can still come here and look out the window and surf vicariously.”

Pite, who grew up in Oak Bay, started surfing when he was 24 while living in Australia. When he returned to the Island in his 30s, he became a part of that early surf community, where only a handful of surfers would be in the water each day.

He met Hally Hofmeyr, a 22-year-old Ontario boy fresh out of university who, on a whim, booked a one-way plane ticket to Victoria and then hitchhiked to Jordan River in search of the country’s best waves.

“It was magic, absolutely magic,” said Hofmeyr in a Victoria café as he remember one of the best times of his life. “It’s a little oasis.”

After an afternoon of surfing, Hofmeyr and Pite would walk to Shakies, a little food stall run by Les and Ruby Wade that served the best hamburgers and fries in town.

“We called them Papa and Mama Shake,” Hofmeyr said. “They were a part of the personality of the place.”

Ruby would pick all her own berries for her pies and she would always save a piece at the end of the day for Hofmeyr and Pite.

“She treated us like her grandkids,” Hofmeyr said.

Sara Ross and her sisters, Resa and Olivia, would spend their afternoons helping cut potatoes for French fries in the food hut, run by their grandparents.

“I’m not sure how much help three kids under the age of 10 could have been,” said Ross, who now lives in Victoria.

Les and Ruby Wade had five sons, including Ross’s father George.

Ross, 41, lived with her family in Jordan River until she was in Grade 5. Her father worked for Western Forest Products and there were only about 50 people living in Jordan River in the late 1970s.

Ross said she and 11 other children were taught by Eleanor Michelsen in the two-room schoolhouse.

“She was the best teacher I’ve ever had,” Ross said.

Randy Michelsen said he still marvels at how his mother managed to teach several different grades each day. The 67-year-old looks back on his idyllic childhood, walking along the shoreline to China Beach, fishing in the river when it was flush with salmon, before it was contaminated by toxic residues seeping from an abandoned mine.

“There was a terrific place to go fishing and hunting,” he said. “It was one of the best places a kid could grow up.”

Ross’s family moved to Colwood, and the Michelsens moved to Sooke in the mid-to-late ’80s, when the logging industry collapsed.

“People moved away and it was pretty much Shakies and surfers for a long time out there,” said Ross, adding her grandparents finally retired about 15 years ago.

By the time Pite bought the house -- which had a cracked foundation, crumbling walls and broken windows -- for the princely sum of $28,000, the hamlet was starting to shrink.

“I remember when I was first here in 1987, the elementary school was just being demolished,” Pite said.


Jordan River’s history: boom and bust

In tracing its history, Jordan River has always been a boom and bust town. During the logging boom, which started in 1907 and lasted until the 1980s, Canadian Puget Sound Lumber and Timber Co. and Western Forest Products employed hundreds of people. The community reached 1,000 people in the early 1900s.

The hydroelectric dam was built by Vancouver Island Power Co. between 1909 and 1912, and in that year a gravel road was built to connect the community to Sooke.

“That was the heyday,” said Elida Peers, a historian at the Sooke Region Museum. “In the 1920s, they had an orchestra, they had a playing field, they had a really big community.”

In 1935, Duncan Irvine Walker built the Jordan River Hotel, its pub a popular drinking hole. The hotel was razed by fire in 1984.

Dick Poirier’s family moved to Jordan River in 1939, when Poirier was eight years old. His father moved the family from Victoria to take a job with Canadian Puget Sound Lumber. Poirier followed in his father’s footsteps, working in the logging industry for 47 years.

“When I first started working here, there were 200 men in the camp in the bunk houses that worked in the woods,” he said.

Poirier said the safety standards were minimal to nonexistent in those days.

“It was hard work and dangerous work in those days. I saw a couple fellas get killed,” he said. Anyone who slacked off “went down the road,” Poirier said, “or in other words you were fired.”

Despite the hard labour, Poirier said loggers lived comfortably, particularly after the logging industry unionized, which lifted wages.

“I can honestly say I had a really nice life living in Jordan River,” said Poirier, who lives on a hill just east of the hamlet with his wife Doreen.

In 1962, a mine owned by Sunro was reactivated by Cowichan Copper, which brought an influx of miners to the area. The mine flooded in 1963 after a blowout during mining operations, and residents and conservationists complained that the mine tailings poisoned marine life, soiled the beach and left a strong odour.

The reconstruction of the diversion dam between 1969 and 1971 created a boom for the economy, with 350 employees settling down in work camps. It was a welcome injection following the exodus by the forestry and mining industries.

However, the dam reconstruction created tension with surfers, who were furious when bulldozers removed fill at low tide and moved it to the dam site. Two 19-year-old surfers quoted in a Sept. 9, 1969, edition of the Daily Colonist said they were worried the sandbars being dug away would threaten the surfing conditions.

Harry Young, a journalist writing in the Daily Colonist on Nov. 2, 1969, reflected on the undulations of Jordan River’s boom and bust times.

“In all these periods, Jordan River bustled and fussed as only a pioneer town does, but once the construction workers left, it relapsed to its outpost quiet,” Young wrote.


The future of Jordan River

Except for the Cold Shoulder Café, which serves homemade cookies and fresh coffee to the remaining locals, bikers doing the Cowichan loop and surfers, the hamlet is in a permanent state of quiet.

B.C. Hydro also bought 15 hectares in the flood zone, including the old townsite, from the Capital Regional District for $3.13 million.

Pite said he has never been pressured by B.C. Hydro to sell and has received a letter stating the hydro authority has no intention of expropriating the land.

“They do ask me if I’ve changed my mind, but they haven’t said: ‘You better sell.’ Everyone thinks Hydro is forcing people out, but Hydro didn’t force anyone out.”

Hofmeyr said Pite’s place is not a palace, just a modest little cabin, but it’s worth saving.

“I think it’s unfortunate that all those houses are going because it will look even more desolate,” he said.

Pite said he’s not looking forward to the day when all waterfront homes, except for his, disappear.

“I’m not sure I really like the idea, I’m not happy with all the houses going.”

Ross, too, said on her frequent visits to the place where she grew up, “it makes me sad every time I go out there and something’s different, something’s gone.”

But the café’s owner, Josh Constandinou and his wife Christine Winsby, do not want Jordan River’s story to be one of boarded-up homes and demolished buildings.

About 100 new homes have been built up the hill, populated by surfers, retirees and young families. There are about a dozen kids under 16.

At least two of the waterfront homes will be moved up the hill, including Doug Harvey’s two-storey modern home, which his architect son designed and he built 10 years ago. Harvey plans to sell the home in its new location and build another home closer to Sooke.

The Cold Shoulder is the unofficial community hub, but an old Western Forest Products building on the waterfront near the Welcome to Jordan River sign could soon fill that role. The building has been donated by the CRD to the community, which was set to meet there on Saturday for a potluck dinner and a discussion of the future.

Wayne Jackaman, whom Winsby jokingly referred to as the mayor, is organizing the gathering with a few other residents and said, while it’s early days, there’s a bubbling sense of excitement.

“There’s lots going on, there’s still a very engaged community that lives in the area,” said Jackaman, who bought a piece of property on the hill about 12 years ago, but built his home two years ago. “It’s unfortunate what’s happening, but we want to move on. We’re hoping the Cold Shoulder will remain as the last remnant of what the old community was like.”

“It’s sad, this is all Jordan River ever was,” Constandinou said about the ocean-front landscape on West Coast Road. “But now it’s up there,” he said, nodding up the hill.