Local Summer Getaway: A Weekend in Sointula

This seaside town on B.C.'s Malcolm Island is full of great campsites and even greater hospitality.

Credit: Christer Waara 

This seaside town on B.C.’s Malcolm Island is full of great campsites and even greater hospitality.

Some camp gear you can do without—string lights, say, or a cornhole set. What you can’t do without, as we grasp while ransacking our packs on a cold evening in a remote island campsite, is a cooking pot.

Our genius idea was to blow northward past the South Coast crowds, taking the ferry from Port McNeill on the northern end of Vancouver Island over to Malcolm Island, where the shoulder season gave us a good shot at securing a chunk of oceanfront campground to ourselves. But no neighbours also means no borrowing, and it’s soon clear that we’ll have to head into town right away if we want to eat anything warmer than a granola bar.

Luckily, town isn’t far away. The busier campsite here is Bere Point, where itchy orcas come to scratch their sides on the just-sloping-enough-to-not-get-beached pebble flats. But we haven’t come for fins, we’ve come for Finns: Sointula, the main village, was founded as a collective utopia by Finnish free-love idealist Matti Kurikka in 1901, and my half-Finnish husband was looking for some cultural history with our camping getaway. That original utopia collapsed, as utopias do, but the Finnish flavour remains in the road signs, the practical Nordic architecture and the village name itself: sointula means harmony in Finnish.

So, with a little “oh look, that’s Finnish”-style walking about in mind, we’d booked at Harmony Shores Campground, which is an easy four-kilometre hike to town along the waterfront. As we finish setting up our tent, a cool ocean mist is pulling back into crisp bands of low-lying cloud—tempting us to stick around. But, hot food calls. Someone, somewhere out there, is going to have cookware for sale.

With the North Island weather shifting from fair to moody and back again, we follow the Kaleva Road seaside art trail into Sointula, spotting folksy installations like 20-foot macrame, scrap-metal sculptures and tongue-in-cheek (probably?) alien warnings. Since long before any Finns arrived, the island has been a Kwakwaka’wakw foraging site; we forage too, feasting on the huckleberries and blackberries that grow along the path.

In town, we score that hot meal: Coho Joe Cafe serves up fresh-baked cinnamon buns and hearty bennies inside a homey heritage house (the B&B suite upstairs is one of a handful of options outside of the Oceanfront Hotel for non-tent-types). We’re soon thankful for the fuel; the general store—B.C.’s oldest to operate as a co-operative—has a casserole dish and muffin tins, but no pots. The clerk directs us to a hardware store a further 20 minutes past town; the added walk scores plenty of Scandi heritage in the form of ramshackle boathouses featuring names like Tarkanen and Sjöberg, but still, we do not score a pot.

We trudge back empty-handed, spotting too late the visitors’ kiosk with its collection of adorable (and free) loaner bikes. But all is not lost: a helpful local suggests the thrift store, which is hidden behind the community museum. It’s closed, but a knock on the window produces an angel of a volunteer, who lets us in and digs up one precious pot, for which we happily offer ten times the $1 sticker price.

Hot dinner secured, we grab some Finnish pulla bread from the Upper Crust bakery and hike back to camp to comb the kelp-strewn beach and toast a gobsmacking sunset. We’d been warned that ferryloads of one-time residents are on their way back for a blow-out weekend wedding, so the next morning we opt to spend the day exploring the island’s quiet back roads—and are rewarded with a jewel of a swimming hole, complete with lily pads. Big Lake, which is actually a very small lake, can also be accessed from town via the six-kilometre Mateoja heritage farmstead trail.

Back in Sointula, there’s just enough time to poke inside the Wild L’il Gift Shop, where mother-and-daughter team Anissa and Freyja Reed sell locally made candles, art and sea-glass jewellery. As the ferry nears the dock, we end our visit with a co-operative action of our own, releasing our pot back into the donation pile outside the thrift shop so it can once again restore harmony to some future forgetful camper.