Returning Home to Passage Island

It was 1968 and Phil Matty was heartbroken. He’d recently buried his mother, a shooting buddy, and his best friend. His marriage (26 years, a couple of sons) was at an end. Aching to leave the city and its ghosts behind, he scraped together enough money to buy, of all things, Passage Island-32 inhospitable acres rising from the Strait of Georgia like a hyphen between Lighthouse Park and Bowen Island. A realtor and developer, he subdivided the land into 61 lots, confident that he could recoup his investment by attracting urban refugees like himself. In Guadalajara, he’d seen an unusual Félix Candela house design called The Saddle, and he set to constructing his own version, from the concrete roof’s convex and concave curves on down. It would challenge any novice homebuilder, but with the West Coast damp, on an island so remote that materials, equipment, and workers all had to be barged over, it was doubly arduous. Still, he made the refuge habitable within a year-1,000 square feet as idiosyncratic and purposeful as its owner.

Matty remarried, and with bride Julie moved into an edenic new life. They had two sons together who grew up a couple of Huck Finns, rigging rope swings in trees, swimming off rocks, chopping firewood, catching fish from the front yard. “It was a fantastic place to grow up,” Kim, the elder boy, says. “I loved being so connected to nature.”

Isolated as it was Passage was growing too. As more owners joined the Mattys, they were asked to follow “the covenants,” an informal set of bylaws discussed and enforced a few times a year over potluck dinners. Passage is only a 10-minute walk from end to end, with a central trail accessing the mainly waterfront plots, but that was distance enough for neighbourhoods to develop: the south end, where the Mattys settled, was home to more established residents; the north end, newer residents and weekenders. Because the seas were so rough docking was impossible; islanders bolted gangways to the bedrock, sunk concrete weights offshore to moor buoys, and bought dinghies to reach their boats. Yet gentrification still ensued-wealthy snowbirds purchased lots and built massive summer homes-and with it, appreciation. A lot worth $6,200 in 1969 is now valued at $250,000; add a luxury house, and the price triples. Property tax is cheap, under $600 a year in most cases, but insurance is sky-high. The fear of fire is constant. A carelessly butted cigarette could decimate the island. Recycled fire hoses, buckets, cisterns of water, and calls to the Pacific arm of the Canadian Auxiliary or Coast Guard are all options, but by the time the water was pumped up from the ocean or help arrived, it would likely be too late.

In 1979, an architect from the city bought a third of an acre at the north end. He couldn’t settle on a design for a home, so every summer the family would arrive in a boat laden with supplies, offload, and pitch a tent and set up an outdoor kitchen. It was bliss, daughter Philine Scholz recalls, the happiest time of her life. The days-with their profound connection to the weather, the land, the wildlife-were simple. Mornings she’d meet up with a gaggle of Passage Island boys on an expanse of rocky flats and tidal pools perfect for sun bathing and inner tubing and swimming. “We would just play forever, from dawn to dusk.”

As Philine grew older, her father hoped Passage could be a safe idyll, far from the dangers and temptations of the city. Summers he still dropped her off with camping gear and supplies, and she and a girlfriend would hang out with the Passage boys, unsupervised, for a week at a time. Every year brought a new crush. “But I was such a scrawny, late-blooming, awkward girl. The boys were like, ‘Philine, bring a friend out!'”

Utopias, it seems, never last. After high school, both Kim and Philine left Passage Island in pursuit of the world. “Once I started wanting to party with my friends, the logistics of getting back and forth at 2 in the morning were ridiculous,” Kim says. At 17 he tried an apartment in North Vancouver. Within months, the north-facing gloom and his Nintendo-playing, TV-watching lifestyle so depressed him that he bought a boat instead, and for a decade he lived aboard it in Coal Harbour. For her part, Philine spent years on the road, moved to Texas with a boyfriend, and later returned to B.C. to go back to school. By 1997 she’d landed in Kamloops, where she worked at a local hotel. One day, while chatting with a guest, Passage Island came up. As it turned out, the woman not only knew Kim, she knew he had just gotten married. Philine, surprised by pangs of jealousy, wondered how life might have turned out had the two kids stayed.

Kim found himself reliving his father’s life. In 2000, his parents died, and with a divorce of his own to navigate, he too was heartbroken and in need of a change. His thoughts turned to Passage, and by 2003 he managed to scrape together the money to buy his childhood home back from the family estate. The house had fallen into disrepair, but its bones were solid. Perched over the ocean, close enough to be hit with the spray, it had been carved right out of the bedrock-its rear wall is literally stone.

Family members and island neighbours showed up with buckets and cleaning supplies, and started scrubbing out the cobwebs-a perfect expression of island life: Passage is no tourist destination; there’s no public land, and no place to dock, anyway. The lines between neighbour and family blur: it’s the kind of place where you can trade firewood for jam. When Kim’s boat broke down one morning, three offers to help came in before lunch.

The isolation means islanders are off the grid in almost every capacity. Responsibility for all the services a city normally delivers fall to individuals, who must monitor their water and power. Water for washing and plumbing is gathered off the roof into cisterns, then filtered by small pumps. Power comes from solar panels, wind generators, and battery banks. Fridges, stoves, space heaters, and hot-water heaters are all powered by propane delivered by barge and stored in large tanks outside. Yet for all its seclusion, Kim created a surprisingly cozy retreat with all the features (TV, cellphones, internet, indoor plumbing) of urban life. A bank of 14-foot windows faces West Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park and the city lights beyond. There are a couple of bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a large living space. Outside, a two-level deck accommodates piles of wood ready for the fire, various handyman projects, a backup boat and crane, cornflower-blue Adirondack chairs, and a saltwater hot tub.

The same year, Philine, too, found herself reliving the past. Eager to flee city life, and to heal the wounds of a broken relationship, she returned to her parents’ empty plot on Passage. Up on the bluffs, now with a four-year-old daughter in tow, she waved to Kim, out at sea below. They hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, but their friendship revived instantly and in no time, she was making the trek to visit Passage, and Kim, every weekend.

Until one fateful afternoon two years later. Through sheets of unforgiving rain, Kim watched Philine struggle to pitch her tent on a wedge of brush-covered bedrock. Douglas firs leaned dangerously in the wind; waves battered the rocks far below. Her daughter, wet and miserable, waited nearby. Finally, Kim did what any islander might do: he invited them to stay at his place. Before Philine could answer, the child, now six, was charging through the forest to the other end of the island, where a cozy fire and warm, dry bed waited. Like her mother before her, she could run the route blindfolded.

Romance ignited. “There was something very attractive in his confidence,” says Philine-the way Kim would monitor the power for the house, chop wood, or make boat repairs. She remembers a moment on the beach when he smiled at her and she realized that not only had the boy she knew turned into a man, she was drawn to him. “Once, he put his arm around me and said, ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ I know it sounds like a cliché, but those words had never been said to me before.” Even Kim, newly divorced, was surprised by the force of his emotions. “I fell in love with Philine right away. I could finally let myself fall.”

A few months later, mother and daughter moved in with Kim permanently. After so many years apart, they discovered they shared a life philosophy. “We both have very strong family values,” says Philine, “we both want children, and we both have a passion for Passage Island, which makes the relationship that much stronger.”

on the island everything takes longer, and everything takes extra effort. Weekdays, the three leave at 7:15 in their 18-foot hard-top Hurston and boat over to Thunderbird Marina in West Vancouver (anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the weather). Until a few years ago, Philine worked at a credit union. After snagging yet another pair of nylons on the Velcro of her survival suit (without one, she got pneumonia her first winter), she started tossing her office clothes, shoes, and makeup in a plastic bin in the back of the boat. At Thunderbird, she would choose her wardrobe, and run to the marina bathroom to get dressed and do her hair and makeup. Now Philine works in a less formal environment, so mornings Kim drops her off at Horseshoe Bay then continues on to drop their daughter off at school then to his job in the dairy at a Safeway.

Five years after moving to Passage, Philine Scholz married Kim Matty. The ceremony took place on her parents’ plot, that wedge of bedrock where she’d tried to pitch her tent in the rain all those years ago. Amongst red cedar, Douglas fir, and shoreline pine, they committed their lives to each other and to raising Philine’s daughter in this place apart. Friends and family arrived, camped, slept on floors. The celebration lasted into the wee hours, then the next day, and the day after that.

Philine calls Kim the Superman of the island, although he grumbles when she says it. He’s devoted to Passage, and his history makes him the lynchpin of the community. Island kids call him Uncle Kim; he’s involved in every aspect of life there. He scuba-dives to check on neighbours’ moorings, heads up communal builds, and fights the war against ivy introduced by a visitor 10 years ago. No one knows the island better.

Philine organizes Easter egg hunts, wienie roasts, and crafts. She does whatever is needed, from helping with a cement pour to nurturing new growth in the forest. She revels in the close connection to nature that Passage inspires and encourages other young families to build a life on the island. “You can disconnect from city living, and just get to know yourself,” she says. “You value different things. We spend a lot of time together as a family.”

Kim and Philine always wanted a child of their own, and for years they tried to conceive. Philine’s daughter desperately wanted a sibling too, and when she was seven she decided to do something about it. She had heard about adoptions and that they cost money, so she started saving for a baby. The $500 sitting in her account six years later may have to be spent on something else, though, because Kim and Philine have become pregnant. A third-generation Matty knows tides and waves in its very bones: maybe that’s why the baby is due in July, when the weather is best.