Who’d have thought a girl born in France to a Canadian Air Force serviceman and a boy who grew up in a Scottish lighthouse would one day meet and retire on Gabriola as tiny homesteaders?
Nanette grew up in small town Guelph, Ontario, where she attended university, graduating with a B.A. in Theatre, specializing in Stage Management. She worked as a theatre stage manager in Toronto before heading out to the west coast in 1988.
Steve’s dad was a lighthouse keeper from the 1956-1966, during which time the family lived in a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides islands. When he was made redundant because of automation he found work on a mixed farm – oats, barley, dairy and beef cattle – something he’d done before his lighthouse days.
The family set their sights on a new life in Canada, moving to Southern Ontario when Steve was 14. He, like Nanette, also got a degree at the University of Guelph. After graduation, he worked for private IT companies before landing a job in the University’s IT department, staying for 23 years before retiring in 2010.
Nanette, the youngest of four kids, has a long relationship with Gabriola. One by one, her three brothers ended up here in the 1970s. Her first visit, in 1974, was to visit her baby niece. A couple of years later she spent the summer visiting her brothers and living in a tent on their property. She was sixteen and certain she “made my parents grey that summer”. After the birth of their first grandchild, sparked by ‘grandma pangs’, they settled here too.
Last to arrive, in 1988, were 7-months pregnant, Nanette and her husband. Daughter, Jessie was born on Christmas day. In the eleven years she lived here she worked in the bakery at Village Foods and as an artisan doing knitting, sewing and stained glass. Her introduction to chickens was her first flock on Gabriola, which was also the learning curve of dealing with predators.
In 1990, a friend gave her six sex-link pullets, which were joined by six day old Barred Rocks chicks. A few years later she adopted a small flock needing to be re-homed.
“One night driving home I found a poor crippled hen on the shoulder of the road – she had fallen from the (poultry) trucks heading to the ferry. I took her in, she could hardly stand. I kept her separated from the others so they didn’t hurt her, but a raccoon got her instead. Over the course of a few years I eventually lost them all to raccoons.” – Nanette
Having chickens proved to be very lucrative too. Nanette won first prize for this photo of 2-year old Jessie feeding their chicks. The $100 award was a small fortune back then and went towards the purchase of her first car, a used BMW, for the princely sum of $150. (I wish my chickens made me that kind of income).
Like many families, they moved off-island before Jessie started high school and the dreaded daily ferry commute. Nanette took a job as a bakery manager at a local grocery store and hated it. Six weeks later, she quit. Unemployed, she joined a job finders’ group, enjoying it so much she decided that’s what she wanted to work at. Her twenty year tenure at the Multicultural Society began with helping new immigrants find employment; she’s now their Assistant Director.
Nanette and Steve met in Guelph, but not until 20 years after she’d moved away. She was attending a reunion of old university friends and met Steve, who socialized in some of the same circles. Their first couple of years were long-distance: each had a house, a job and a life, more than 4000 kilometres apart, that they were reticent to give up until they were sure of their prospects. She ended up moving in with Steve for a one year trial.
Her property was well taken care of in her absence: her mother had a suite in the house, and Jessie, now grown up, still lived there. One of her brothers also had a trailer in the property so everything hummed along without her. Nanette packed up her car, taking one dog and leaving another behind as a companion for her mother. She was able to work for the same organization in a different role, remotely for the year she was there.
When their relationship looked like a sure thing, Steve opted for early retirement and they headed back to Nanette’s place. Steve was a bit outnumbered by three generations of women from her family: Nanette, her mother and daughter.
They got their first chickens – a combination of a dozen heritage hens – six years ago: Australorp, Chantecler, Barred Rock, Silver Laced Wyandotte, Buff Orpington and Light Sussex. Unfortunately some of those birds came with respiratory issues: their Buff Orpington died the first week. Others died from illness or predators; the ones who survived must be made of hardier stock because they’re still around.
A couple of years ago they came over to Gabriola for a “fun filled day of snooping” with a realtor. They saw five houses and just before they were about to leave, caught wind of a property about to be listed. They took a look and bought it on first viewing for the asking price, with no conditions. It’s turned out to be just what they wanted.
They’ve got ¾ acre, sloping in the back, where they have built a series of terraced gardens, raised beds and retaining walls. Their focus is on food production rather than ornamentals: 120 garlic plants, veggies, figs, plum, and apple trees. Nanette went a bit overboard with the tomatoes: she’s collected seeds from 16 varieties and planted 200! Far more than they could use or have space for. Most of the seedlings were passed to friends. Steve quips that “she needs an intervention”. They’ve made pear cider before and plan on more cider as their fruit trees mature. They’ve also taken a cheese making workshop and make their own cultured butter and yoghurt.
And of course, they still have chickens. Their flock of four hens – Barred Rocks, Australorp and Chantecler (a Canadian breed) – are now seniors, 5-7 years old, and from their original birds. For the first few months they lived in the garden shed, while the yard was fenced and Steve built a very practical, but attractive coop. The couple clearly haven’t been hit with ‘chicken math’ – their modest number of birds has stayed small and their housing is more than adequate. The coop looks like a tiny house, matching their house colours, with full sized door and opening windows. Everything is predator proof.
Nanette sent me a photo recently, happy to show off 4 eggs, all laid in the same day, a testament that senior hens are still useful in their retirement years. Steve says they’ve all got names and none will ever hit the stew pot. One of them has pendulous crop, but seems to be fine in spite of that. As they lose them to old age they’ll probably take a break before starting with new birds again. For now, they seem quite healthy.
Last summer, Nanette was looking out at the coop when she saw a raccoon coming down a tree and drop into the pen. She was out there in a flash and chased it off, but that scare led them to confine their birds in a smaller space. They’ve now got access to a fortified pen which is totally predator proof. They are allowed out, under supervision, in the off season when they won’t cause damage to the garden.
It probably helps that they have a dog to help deter predators. They’ve adopted senior dogs hoping to give them a year or two of a good life before they’re gone. Their latest – a large fluffy beast named Molson, was in a senior dog rescue. After they adopted him they discovered that he was only four and has many more years ahead of him.
Jessie moved back here seven years ago, after reconnecting with one of her elementary school classmates, Nigel. They bought a house four years ago and have three dogs, a German Shepherd and two Chihuahuas, who Nanette and Steve dog-sit on a regular basis.
They’re also both avid knitters: Nanette from way back and Steve, a more recent convert. He’s advanced from making socks to working on his first big project, an Icelandic sweater. They’ve invested a small fortune in a circular sock knitting machine. Apparently they were very popular in households during WWI – for sending socks to overseas troops to combat trench-foot – but were melted down for munitions production in WWII, going out of style after that.
I was visualizing something the size of a loom, but was surprised to see a very compact machine that looks a bit like a table vise. The design is old, the manufacture is new. There is a crank handle that produces the tube shape and various attachments that create the toe and top band sections. What would take hours to create with knitting needles is done in a fraction of the time.
They’ve converted an attached workshop, Steve’s man-cave that was full of tools, into their knitwear studio. Even with mechanical assistance knitting clothes by hand is labour intensive, and hand-dyed and produced wool is not inexpensive, so they are stockpiling their socks for future sales. They love sitting around the fire over the winter months, keeping occupied with their knitting.
I’ve been envisioning Nanette and Steve, housebound by a winter storm, comfortably ensconced in their snug home with a healthy supply of cider, cheese, chicken eggs and warm woolly socks.