Driving past Betsy and Hector’s place there’s not much to see from the road. The property is sloped with a long, steep driveway with a set of concrete stairs leading up to a cottage perched at the top. It’s a peek-a-boo view of what’s hidden from view.
I decided against negotiating with the buttons for their automatic gate. Instead, I parked at the bottom and trekked up the winding driveway to the top on foot. Once there the property opens up to expose a house and cottage, built side-by-side, rolling lawns, vegetable gardens, a greenhouse and storage buildings, masses of rhododendrons and a huge wisteria all in full bloom, flanked by the forest on three sides.
I have been there a couple of times before. Betsy ran a dog daycare service and we occasionally brought our Standard Poodle, Lola, for the day. Dropping off your pooch is not quite the same as getting the tour and seeing the garden at its best. I sat down with Betsy, and her husband Hector, meeting him for the first time.
It turns out we have some parallels to our stories here.
They moved to Gabriola at exactly the same time as Jan and me: November 2000. They live on seven acres with a 1960s house and 1940s cottage, while we have 4.5 acres with a 1940s house and 1960s cottage. Like them, we live on the same main road but have very little road frontage and a long, winding driveway so our place is well hidden.
Both of us – Betsy and I – had our mothers live with us, in our cottages, for a number of years. We’ve both got dogs and of course, we both have chickens – but more about birds later.
Hector worked as an electrician, building B.C. Hydro sub-stations across the province. Since his work took him away for long periods it didn’t matter so much where home was. They decided to move here from the Lower Mainland, selling their house on 1/3 acre for pretty much the same as what their place here cost. It was a lateral trade, but they got so much more by coming here.
Betsy calls it her ‘Freedom 44’, kids no longer at home and a husband who wasn’t there full-time. She did have company, and I imagine some work too, caring for her mum for seven years. In the time we’ve lived here the average age of the island’s residents has increased. It’s a great place for seniors: Betsy’s mum was active with the Lions and the Bridge club. My mum, who lived with us for six years, kept busy attending the seniors’ discussion group, scrabble and the soup socials.
Both of our mothers loved living here and attributed being in this community for increasing the quality of their lives. They both stayed until health issues forced them to go into care off island.
Freedom 44 seems to have morphed into Full House. Their two daughters have followed them here: Vicki and two-year old son, Jackson, now live in the cottage. Jessica, her husband and three kids live in a house Betsy and Hector helped them buy. Although the real estate boom hasn’t hit here like some other places in the province finding affordable housing is a challenge. They were happy to help their kids and grandkids put down some permanent roots here.
Hector is retired after having worked away from home for two decades. Betsy jokes “we’re more like newlyweds because we haven’t lived together much”.
While Hector was working off-island Betsy worked at a local garden centre and looked after her grandchildren as preschoolers. Fourteen years ago she opened a dog daycare service after having dog sat for a friend. The business has shifted from drop-in daycare to boarding. She’s got a client list of 125 people, taking in dogs year round. Up to six dogs get the run of the property and hang out in their 800 square foot living room. It’s the kind of job that requires you to be home pretty much 24/7 365 days a year. They’re off on a much-anticipated break next month, taking their 26’ sailboat out for two weeks around the gulf islands.
Now Hector has retired he’s got projects on the go. In addition to taking care of grandson, Jackson, who was motoring around during our visit, he likes to bake (bread, cookies and pizza) and makes his own beer using their own hops. They’ve also made wine, apple cider and what they call ‘girlie pop’, a carbonated fruit wine. Future plans include joining a brew club in town.
He also volunteers at the Fix-It Fair, a semi-annual event held at The Commons where skilled volunteers offer to fix an assortment of household items. Betsy recalled seeing me there a couple of years ago and I couldn’t believe that she remembered what item I brought in (weed whacker) and what was wrong with it (failed battery). Hector was one of the guys who lent a hand to get it working again. His help was much appreciated – I used it just last week.
One of his big projects was building a chicken coop. They did a lot of research and incorporated some interesting elements in what looks like a conventional design.
The south-facing wall includes a passive solar feature called a trombe wall made of concrete blocks, painted black and stacked behind a pane of glass, with a buffer of air, that acts as a heat sink during the day. That heat is then released at night, helping to maintain a higher temperature in the coop during the colder months.
He’s also got the most innovative low-tech automatic door system I’ve ever seen. The roost bar is affixed to one wall and free on the other – with a stopper – so that it looks like the moveable bar on an old-style weigh scale. The roost bar is attached to a bucket full of gravel equal in weight to the sum total weight of their flock. The bar is carefully calibrated so that when all the birds are on the roost bar the bucket rises and the door shuts. Conversely, when they wake up in the morning and all hop down, the bucket lowers and the door opens. If their flock changes they can easily adjust the weight of the bucket by adding or reducing the amount of gravel. Of course, this only works if all your flock consistently roost together, which apparently their birds do.
They’ve got lots of windows and predator-proof ventilation.
Despite their efforts and having dogs – lots of dogs – around they have had some losses. They started off ten years ago with ISA Browns and Columbia Rocks. One of their dog-sit clients dropped off their dog, a Husky, without a personal hand-off and it killed all eight of their birds. They’ve also had issues raccoons and mink – their dog managed to kill one mink right in the yard.
Another time, after they’d just brought home three cockerels, a hawk, in one quick blur, swooped into the pen and took off with one of the boys. The other two, Black Copper Marans, are still with them and looking spectacular. Seven hens: Black Austrolorps and Production Layers, round out their flock.
One of them has a very interesting silhouette – she’s got a slightly arched back, with a rounded rump and odd tail. I know there are rumpless birds – a genetic defect in which they are missing their last vertebra, the ‘parson’s nose’ – and even one breed, the Araucana, in which being rumpless is part of the Standard of Perfection (SOP). This hen appears rumpless, but has a tail.
I was curious and posted her photo on a poultry genetics group and there were varied opinions on what caused her condition: some people suggested she would be considered an incomplete rumpless, or roachback, while others thought she might have sustained a pecking injury in which the feather follicles in her tail were damaged so that her tail feathers never regrew. Whatever the origin she’s a conversation starter for folks into chicken genetics.
Some of the gardens were there when Betsy and Hector moved in, but others have been expanded. They’ve put in areas to grow vegetables and ornamentals. Betsy pointed out an area destined for even more rhodos. If they are anything like the ones they’ve already got, they’ll be spectacular. It was a bit of treat, having a tour (and a snoop) at the property atop the hill. The climb to get there was definitely worth it and the gardens did not disappoint.