I rolled to a slow stop at the gate, an uncomplicated two metal bars preventing access on the one road in and out of the lumber mill. I stepped out onto the packed gravel road, dust still billowing in the warm autumn air, painfully aware of the outlandishness of my newly-washed car in the middle of a deserted forest path. A few strips of rust bites through the patches where the paint has chipped away from the bars, whether from overuse or harsh outdoor conditions, I did not know.
My destination was my new home a few kilometers out of the small town of Port Alberni, home of 17,000 people. The town is situated on the edge of the Somas River, which is more an inlet than a river. Travelling east to west, Port Alberni is almost the center of Vancouver Island and a popular stopping point for tourists stocking their supplies before heading to the ever-popular ocean-side town of Tofino. Port Alberni is what you would call a mill-town. The dominant businesses centered around the few mills dealing with paper and lumber; the forests around the town were bountiful, as I was soon to experience. I pulled out my phone, GPS still showing I was over a kilometer away. Pulling up the number for my contact, I arranged for him to drive down to the mill to open the gate.
I had entered the town along the two main streets, Johnston and Third Avenue. Passing by an aged brick post office and buildings that did not exceed two levels, I noticed there weren’t very many people for a Saturday afternoon. Aside from the occasional car waiting at a stoplight, the town seemed deserted. Later, I would learn that the three blocks punctuated by stop signs was Port Alberni’s “downtown”. The two most common signs were for liquor stores and thrift shops. Welcome to Port Alberni.
I’m sitting in my apartment, the ruckus of the latest downpour drowning out my music. Three of my walls and many windows are facing the open inlet that is the Somas River, a vulnerable spot for gusts of wind blowing through Alberni Valley. From the outside, my apartment looks no more stable than a portable, causing me t. I hear mournful clangs as metal bangs on metal. Curious and a little frightened, I bundle up to investigate the noises. Just outside the doors, a couple lights stave off the smothering darkness. Even the lights of Port Alberni are obscured from my view. The clangs turn out to be the hulls of the boats impacting the dock. The darkness obscures the water from my view, but I’m sure it’s rough.
When I arrived, it was still early autumn. Warm, sun-filled days gave way to mild nights. I still recall the first night spent down at the mill, quiet compared to the nights to come. The most vivid recollection was about the seclusion. I was accustomed to the annoying glow of street lights pouring through my blinds, loud voices of people walking the streets late at night and an occasional engine roaring through the empty streets. As I looked out onto the river that first night, I couldn’t see anything past the dock. The darkness was absolute.
One of the enjoyable aspects of Port Alberni would be nature. The town is known for the plentiful fish in nearby lakes and rivers, amazing views and abundant wildlife. I even heard that there were bear cubs wandering through town the summer before I arrived. There were many small indicators like the signs around town and the way people dressed that indicated the involvement of nature in everyday life. My guess was that half of the people lived in town, the rest were probably in a more secluded location off the highway. In my second week, I hiked an overgrown trail to one of the many lakes in the vicinity. Like many trails, the origin was found close to a well-used logging path. I enjoy hiking immensely, but to enjoy these trails you have to be entirely comfortable with the feeling of being alone in the forest for several hours. I was careful to track every turn and notable tree to ensure that I wouldn’t get lost. Noises in the forest, even on a sunny day, can be frightening. At the end of the trail, I came across a small beach looking out upon Sproat Lake and noticed only a few sparsely placed homes on the opposite side. I can see the allure of living in such a remote location, but for one to enjoy such a place requires a certain temperament.
My new position placed me around many engineers and skilled laborers. It wasn’t difficult to tell which ones were locally bred and which were not born here. I was surprised to find that many of my co-workers, some seeming to be in their forties, had never traveled far from home, comfortable in the outdoorsy and rustic lifestyle that surrounded this town. As the only non-white employee in the building, I felt a little marginalized. My co-workers, while polite, tended to address the other people in my division over me. I was also specifically asked if I enjoyed the Asian food in town. I’m a reasonably level-headed person, so I wasn’t too perturbed by the statements, but I could see the prejudices forming. The transition was made a little easier because the people with whom I spent the majority of my work hours were from Vancouver or Nanaimo, two cities that were very multicultural.
Moving away from home, which I spent 23 years of my life, is definitely a shock. I am used to having easy access to a variety of restaurants and living minutes away from my friends and family. I miss the perceived safe feeling from Vancouver (although parts of the city aren’t exactly safe) and the closeness of people who I grew up around. However, nothing builds independence and fosters learning like a foreign and challenging experience. I am glad that I took the step away from the familiar to live in a small town. If anything, it has brought me the knowledge that I can survive.