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COVER STORY: Pocket communities of the North Shore
Despite incidental challenges, residents would never move from these secluded neighbourhoods
Standing steady on a small barge, Stephanie La Porta cranks the motor and steers towards her house on Eagle Island.
It’s less than a minute ride to the 13-acre island in West Van, but the commute separates two worlds.
There are no roads or cars, just a garden tractor with a wagon used to haul heavy items.
In 2008 residents firmly voted against building a footbridge — most like the peace and privacy open water provides.
Over in Indian Arm, Kathy Cole drives along a remote road at the base of Mount Seymour to pick up her son from elementary school.
She pulls over to the side as a car approaches — this is a winding, one-way route.
Many Woodlands residents carry chainsaws with them in case a tree falls across the road. It’s easier to take care of the obstacle than to wait for a municipal worker to arrive.
Then there is the cabin community on Hollyburn Ridge, a cluster of homes that stems back to the late-1920s when Hollyburn Ski Camp opened.
Groups of young people built cottages close to fresh water and building supplies, usually flume boards or trees.
Concerned about the future of the heritage cabins, owners formed the Hollyburn Ridge Association to preserve their “cherished way of life.”
These are examples of “pocket communities” made possible by the North Shore’s unique geography of abundant forests and peninsulas.
Unlike other Lower Mainland areas, North and West Van provide many options for private and secluded living — attracting an eclectic group of residents.
Eagle Island is home to an diverse group including restaurateurs, dentists, film industry professionals and an acclaimed Chinese poet.
After parking her barge, La Porta, a real estate agent, makes the five-minute trek up a winding tree-canopied path to her waterfront home.
“Most properties are waterfront and that’s the big attraction, but the short boat ride is not for everyone and, as a result, property values are less than half of what they are on the mainland,” she says.
Many residents, however, unwaveringly insist their homes are priceless.
“Seclusion isn’t a word that comes to mind when I think of Eagle Island, but certainly residents enjoy their privacy. There is almost a feeling of exclusivity.”
Each house has a key to take a small barge back and forth — rain or shine.
However, residents do enjoy some luxuries.
With only a few hundred metres to the shore, they still use the same electricity and municipal sewer and water as the houses across the water.
And then, of course, there is the stunning ocean view.
“A bridge?” La Porta asks rhetorically. “For cars, never. For walking and some sort of personal transportation like golf carts? Maybe sometime in the future.”
It’s been six years since residents voted on whether a pedestrian bridge would connect Eagle Island to the mainland. It was soundly rejected.
“Regardless of any personal views regarding a bridge, from a real-estate perspective, property values would skyrocket if one was ever installed.”
Homes on the water can go for around $4 million — across inlet they are on the market for three times that amount.
Winding dirt paths leading to the seaside houses offer privacy and a low crime rate that can’t be found anywhere else on the North Shore.
“We have newborns to those in their 70s and with only one or two exceptions, residents live on the island full time and know each other well,” says La Porta, an example of the eclectic group who lives there.
La Porta was once married to Ed La Porta, an acclaimed Hollywood art director and Emmy nominee whose credits include Cheers, Taxi, The Tonight Show, General Hospital and Bill Cosby. She now lives on Eagle Island with her son and husband and works as a real estate agent with Vancouver Property Group, a boutique firm based in West Van.
Currently a part-time actress rehearsing for an upcoming movie, she once gave up the lead role opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian.
“My ex-husband regrets I gave up the role but I have absolutely no regrets because everything in my life has led to this idyllic little island.”
Don’t forget the chainsaw
Woodlands recently started popping up on Google Maps.
“Someone here must have added it,” says Terry Cole, who has lived with his wife Kathy on the oceanfront property for 14 years.
It’s easier to get this pocket community now but GPS routes aren’t perfect.
“We like to tell people, ‘when you think you’re lost, you’re heading in the right direction,’” says Kathy with a laugh, standing in her renovated kitchen overlooking Burrard Inlet.
Residents are spotting an increasing number of tourists, which the couple says may be a side effect of the neighborhood’s new internet presence.
Newcomers don’t know the unspoken rules of the narrow road and challenging hair-pin turn. Plus, it’s common for neighbours to wave as they pass.
“Houses tend to stay in families,” says Terry, listing the eminent last names McDonald and Paterson.
Kathy’s grandparents settled into Woodlands with their five children in the late-’50s. At first, they spent summers at the house roughing it without power or water.
Her grandfather, a river boat captain from Burma, ensconced his family to the remote area when electricity was introduced in the 1960s.
Now Woodlands, with 100 or so houses, is the end of the line for vehicles. Homes further up Indian Arm are boat access only.
A water taxi once took students to and from school but it was canceled by the district around 10 years ago. For many commuting is now done by boat.
“See over there,” says Terry, pointing towards a small powerboat speeding by. “He commutes to work that way.”
Despite the idyllic view, the Coles have to worry about problems other North Vancouverites don’t have to.
A quaint grocery store was once located at Government Dock but now residents have to drive into Deep Cove. And households don’t have individual garbage pickup. Instead, they put their trash into communal dumpsters and recycling bins that are emptied once a week.
“Playdates for our son can be challenging but we get there in our car,” says Kathy, nine-year-old Sam standing by her side.
Despite the rural terrain she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else on the North Shore.
“He was just four years old when he jumped in a kayak. It’s great here because we have the beach and the forest so close to us.”
In fact, the family is surrounded by it.
Island in the midst of traffic
Living in a pocket community has one major perk — a tight-knit sense of fellowship not found in mainstream neighbourhoods.
Unlike Eagle Island and Woodlands, however, there is a community in the middle of one of the busiest spots in North Van.
The North Shore’s tiniest pocket community is surrounded by the constant buzz of cars. Driving up Capilano Road before merging east onto the Upper Levels Highway, the small neighborhood isn’t easy to access by car and even more difficult by foot.
It’s completely surrounded by busy streets — an island in the middle of traffic.
“It was created as a result of construction of the Upper Levels Highway in the early-’60s,” explains District of North Van spokeswoman Jeanine Bratina, who grew up nearby.
An oddity on the North Shore, the island is owned by the Ministry of Transportation.
With only five houses, neighbours know each other well, holding communal barbecues in the summer.
Some people, however, prefer a much more secluded spot.
By 1931 more than 200 cabins had been built on Hollyburn Ridge. Today there are around 100 left, most accessible only by trail.
Concerned their beloved community was in jeopardy, the Hollyburn Ridge Association was formed in 1973.
While most cabins on Grouse and Seymour mountains have disappeared, Hollyburn is still a thriving community.
“You often see one community able to organize while another cannot,” says Catherine Rockandel, past president of the Hollyburn Ridge Association.
“The biggest reason is the amount of social capital or trust, collaboration through volunteerism and organized community events…”
Rockandel echoes the thoughts of everyone The Outlook spoke with. A strong sense of cohesion is what keeps these pocket communities thriving.