Winter Hamlet Echoes Its Pioneer Beginnings

Below Egmont, on the northwest shore of Sechelt Inlet--reachable only by boat, floatplane, or a long and difficult hike--an echo remains of an older era: the tiny hamlet of Doriston. Its dozen or so homes were built for year-round use, but most are occupied today only in the fair-weather months. In summer I sometimes paddle my kayak past this compact community and admire the orchards, the well-maintained gardens, the workmanlike sheds and boat ramps.

In winter, though, Doriston presents a lonelier face. Late each December, three of us pass through powerful Skookumchuck Rapids in a small open boat and patrol the northern portion of the inlet for the Pender Harbour Christmas bird count, enumerating grebes, sea ducks, bald eagles, and whatever else we can find. At this time of year, Doriston is still inhabited, though only just: woodpiles bulge and plumes of smoke rise from one or two chimneys. A dog comes out to bark, and a friendly figure sometimes waves. On these chilly annual journeys, we catch a glimpse of Doriston as it must have been in the old days: isolated, self-sufficient, and seafaring, a typical B.C. coastal community of the early 1900s.

Doriston got its start at the turn of the century with a sawmill built by Bert Whitaker, an entrepreneur who owned a number of stores and hotels in Sechelt. The first permanent resident was a man named Austin Shaw. Other settlers moved in, and they logged and fished and farmed. A school opened as early as 1912. There was a post office, named Shaw Cove, by 1915, and telegraph service by about 1920. Sam Lloyd arrived before the First World War, and when Shaw went off to join the army, Lloyd became postmaster and managed to rename the community after his daughter, Doris. As part of his duties, Lloyd rowed to Sechelt and back once a week, a distance of 55 kilometres, to fetch the mail.

The post office was closed by 1923, but the school lingered on until 1939. Enrollment normally varied between eight and 12 children. The teachers were dedicated souls; Hilda Cuttle, for instance, served at Doriston from 1930 to 1938, teaching all grades, from one to 12, giving music and woodworking lessons, overseeing sports and outdoor activities, and organizing parties and picnics. She "never used the strap", a former student remembers in Barbara Ann Lambert's delightful Chalkdust & Outhouses: West Coast Schools, 1893-1950. The school population, tragically, diminished in the late 1930s when three young girls drowned in the Skookumchuck.

The Gjerdin children--Gunnar, Martin, and Harriet--attended the Doriston school. The family arrived in the inlet in 1924 from Sweden via the U.S. Oskar Gjerdin, with the help of his wife, Albertina, carved a "stump ranch" from the wilds, built and repaired boats, grew a huge garden, raised sheep, and, according to the Peninsula Times, "cured his own tobacco for over 40 years". The Gilmour family, represented in recent years by two octogenarian brothers, Don and George, also had a long history at Doriston and built a home there with a marvellous chimney constructed of bricks purloined from the abandoned brickworks at Storm Bay, across the inlet.

Martin and Gunnar Gjerdin spent most of their lives at Doriston. They built their own fishing vessels, the Echo and the Orivo. They dredged out a boat harbour in front of their property and constructed a breakwater for protection. In winter, they logged. For electricity, they put in a Pelton water wheel. Their gardens were legendary, and so was their hospitality. Everyone on the inlet knew the Gjerdins.

Gunnar, in particular, as the oldest inhabitant, became known as the "mayor" of Doriston. He was an openhearted soul, quick to drop his tools and greet or entertain visitors. He loved parties, and the Gjerdin home was the site of an annual event known as Doriston Days, as well as other, more impromptu celebrations. Social functions were always marked by an abundance of fresh local foods. Fortunate indeed were the souls who sampled Gunnar's ginger oysters, rolled in cornstarch with salt and pepper, then fried in butter and olive oil with a generous sprinkle of lemon juice and Crabbe's ginger wine.

Gunnar was 90 when he died, in December 2003, having outlived his younger brother and his wife, Cherry. In January of last year, a final party was held in his memory, at Egmont Community Hall on the northern end of the Sechelt Peninsula. The place was packed. Friends sang songs in his honour, read poems, reminisced. Many tales were related of Gunnar's garden and his frequent gifts of giant vegetables. One speaker described how she'd teased Gunnar by bringing along an oversized zucchini to Doriston Days. "This is one of my smaller cucumbers," she told him. A short while later Gunnar reappeared, pushing a wheelbarrow filled with an enormous cabbage. "This is one of my smaller Brussels sprouts," he retorted.

The final eulogist at the memorial asked the audience to join her for the Doriston anthem, composed by none other than Gunnar Gjerdin. The entire hall rose and, to the tune of "O Tannenbaum," belted out, "Oh, Doriston, oh, Doriston, ta-ta-da-da, oh, Doriston." It was Gunnar's last laugh.