On the Edge of the Ocean

By Mary Anne Hajer


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Steveston has always been defined by its proximity to water - the Fraser River to the south and the Strait of Georgia to the west. Even when there is no water in sight, the tang of the salt air and the maniacal cries of the seagulls remind people that here, they are on the edge of the ocean.

Once known as the Salmon Capital of the World, there was a time when no fewer than 15 fish canneries were operating on Cannery Row, and fleets of clipper ships waited off shore for the favourable wind and tide that would permit them to dock and fill their holds with treasure - canned salmon that was in high demand in Europe.

But the canneries that once lined the waterfront are gone now, and people can only wonder at tales of the enormous salmon runs that sometimes allowed a fisherman to catch his limit of 400 sockeye in an hour, right at the mouth of the river. Now, a shadow of its former self, today's fishing fleet numbers approximately 500 boats, compared to close to 3,000 at the turn of the century.

Yet, Steveston is thriving. No longer able to rely on the fishing industry to keep its economy humming, the village has reinvented itself as a desirable residential community and as a tourist destination, attracting visitors from all over the globe.

Steveston's extensive system of boardwalks and trails make it walker-friendly and, on pleasant days, everyone seems to be out and about. A good way for a first-time visitor to take in the area's natural and historical highlights is to join this procession at the town's eastern edge and work west.

Our starting point is Gilbert Beach, a sandy stretch of riverfront at the foot of Gilbert Road. For many locals, Gilbert Beach is a destination in itself, a place where families can picnic, children can clamber over the driftwood scattered along the shoreline and birdwatchers can look for strays from the Reifel Bird Sanctuary located on Westham Island on the opposite bank.

As we follow the wide, gravelled South Dyke Trail westward from the parking lot, we notice a long, slender island just offshore. This island is called Steveston Island on nautical charts, but the locals know it as Shady Island.

Although manmade, the result of the pile-up of silt dredged from the river bottom, it is now one of Richmond's most important natural areas, a safe habitat for nesting birds, including bald eagles, and a variety of waterfowl. The shallows surrounding the island are exposed at low tide, allowing ducks and shorebirds, such as the Great Blue Heron, to forage in the salt marsh vegetation. According to UBC's Department of Geology website, the flora and fauna of Shady Island today are similar to those existing here before the changes wrought by European settlement.

Of course, long before the arrival of Caucasians, aboriginal tribes came here to harvest the natural resources. Coast Salish people established seasonal camps while they caught and preserved salmon, eulachon and sturgeon, gathered and dried berries and hunted beaver, deer, seals and sea lions.

But the first Europeans came to farm, recognizing the potential of the fertile delta soil. Two of the original settlers were the London brothers, and the home they built towards the end of the 19th century is now a designated heritage site. Located between Gilbert and No. 2 Road on the north side of Dyke Road, it has been fully restored to reflect turn-of-the-century life and is open to the public.

Signs invite us to explore the park-like grounds and inspect the house, heritage gardens, restored barn, small hand-tool museum and antique farming equipment. We can also refresh ourselves with cups of London Farm's own blend of tea, London Lady, served along with homemade scones and other goodies on fine English bone china in the Tea Room.

Once more on the trail heading west, we come upon a pier built out into the river. A large information board tells us that this is the location of London's Landing, a wharf the family built to facilitate the unloading of supplies and loading of their farm produce for shipping to New Westminster. The City of Richmond has placed many informational plaques and boards such as this along the South Dyke Trail and throughout the village, explaining the significance of each historical site.

As we continue towards Steveston Village, we come to Paramount, the current main industrial area of Steveston Harbour. Dyke Road ends here, but a small thoroughfare takes us past docks crowded with commercial fishing vessels, wharves where fishermen can unload their catch, dry land repair facilities for boats and nets and rows of huge storage sheds. They remind us that Steveston Harbour is still the largest commercial fishing harbour in Canada under the DFO Small Craft Harbour Authority Program.

Just west of Paramount, we once again go back in time as we enter another designated historical site, the Britannia Heritage Shipyard. The large wooden building jutting out into the water, built in 1889, started out as a cannery, and it was from its wharves that the 200-foot [70 m] tea clipper, *Titania*, left with the first shipment of salmon that would go directly to the U.K. The cannery was converted to a shipyard in 1917. Today, heritage boats are restored to their original condition here.

A reconstructed boardwalk, originally the main street of Steveston's waterfront, takes us among buildings typical of those built around canneries to house and service a mix of workers of diverse ethnic origins: Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese and Europeans - all had separate living quarters.

Not to be missed is the Murakami House, built in 1885 over the marsh. Otokic Murakami was a master boat builder, and his wife, Asayo, was originally a "picture bride," a young woman chosen through her photograph to be the sponsored bride of a Japanese man already in Canada. This arrangement fell through, however, and three years after her arrival in Steveston, Otokic and Asayo were married. The Murakami family lived in their house from 1929 until 1942, when they were evicted, their property confiscated and they were forced to work as low-paid farm labourers on the prairies. Their home has now been restored and is open as the Murakami Visitor Centre.

The trail system ends here and it is time to return to our cars for the short drive into the commercial centre of Steveston.

Moncton Street, Steveston's main thoroughfare, is only three-blocks long and contains an eclectic mix of shops and services. Trendy boutiques, spas and specialty shops that cater to the needs of visitors and new residents are interspersed with marine stores, some of which have existed for decades.

Some of the store buildings, with their wooden structure and false fronts, are reminiscent of Steveston's wild and raucous past at the turn of the last century. That was when the fishing industry was in its heyday. In the 1880s and '90s, Steveston was also one of the homeports for the sealing fleet. The streets were crowded with fishermen, sailors and cannery workers, all looking for a good time and a place to spend their money.

Harold Steves, great grandson of Manoah Steves, after whom the village was named, remembers many stories told to him by his father, who was born in Steveston in 1899.

"My father told how he would come to Steveston on his horse," Harold says. "He would come in at the end of Moncton Street by the Steveston Hotel and buck his horse all the way down the street to the other end."

Harold also tells how in 1907 a reporter for a newspaper, the *Vancouver World*, counted 76 saloons, gambling dens and brothels in the space of six to eight blocks. Some were still there 50 years later. He recalls one memorable day in the fifties when he came into town alone.

"I walked down Moncton Street, and the prostitutes in the brothel weren't wearing very much," says Harold. "It sure shocked a 10-year-old kid. Some of the buildings that were brothels are still there."

In the centre of town sits a small, yellow building that was erected in 1905 to house Steveston's first bank. After a number of changes in ownership and a major restoration, it re-opened as the Steveston Museum and Post Office in 1979. Inside, we can see rooms set up in turn-of-the-century style to depict the bank manager's office, a kitchen and bedrooms. A small park behind the museum offers welcome shade on a warm day as well as a place to sit and rest.

Only a block south of Moncton is the riverside promenade, where an international crowd strolls past souvenir shops, take-out eateries, and restaurants offering indoor or al fresco dining. Gangways lead down to a network of docks crowded with fishing boats, and on the Public Fish Sales Float you can buy dinner in the form of fresh or frozen-onboard fish, crab, shrimp and prawns from fishermen and their families who are selling their own catch. Other vessels offer whale watching or wildlife viewing tours that promise glimpses of killer whales, seals, sea lions, eagles and more.

At the western end of the pier, we come across the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, now a designated historic site and fishing museum. Constructed in 1894, the building houses a replica of a 1930s canning line, as well as interactive exhibits, a feature film presentation entitled *Journey through Time* and many artifacts relating to the fishing industry.

The last stage of our journey through Steveston is a stroll around Garry Point, an open park on a small promontory that juts out into the Strait of Georgia. From its tip, we can see the Gulf Islands and the mountains of Vancouver Island to the west, Mount Baker to the south and Howe Sound to the north. We can watch sailboats, cabin cruisers, fishing boats and large ocean-going vessels entering and leaving the river. On a warm day, we can sunbathe and picnic on its sandy beaches or watch seagulls, eagles and kites soar high in the currents created when the cool sea air meets the warm air over the land.

And, if conditions are favourable, we can end our day in Steveston by watching the sun set in an explosion of colour on the western horizon.

SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER - May 2009

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