In late 2018, I was put in touch with Joan who was looking to re-home her entire flock of 16 birds. She was advised by her doctor to give up her chickens immediately because the dust and dander exacerbated her respiratory issues. I offered to take eight and posted online to find homes for the others. My friend, Laurie, took seven and I was contacted by Emily who only wanted one. She was living off island, but was coming to visit relatives and picked up the last one, Cranberry, a few days later.
Several months went by and I made another online post: this time about a large number of trees we had taken down that would make suitable firewood. I was hoping to find someone who’d be willing to carry the bucked up logs out of the forest, pile some for me and in exchange, take the rest. When Emily and her husband, Luke, showed up I recognized them from their years of commuting on the ferry to high school. The two of them diligently worked away, splitting and stacking cedar logs. Luke took a pick up load to his grandmother who lives on Gabriola, and another load back to their home in Nanaimo.
A few more months past and I reached out to them asking if I could interview them as part of my ‘Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours’ series. I had done 30 profiles of on-island chicken keepers and was searching for new folks wanting to participate. I’ve since included a couple with non-Gabriolans, but I thought this couple would be ideal with their connection to this community. There are also a couple of other things that make them unique: they’re my youngest ‘neighbours’ (by a couple of decades) and they’re the first urban chicken keepers in my series – true backyard chicken keepers.
Emily and Luke grew up here; both of them third generation Gabriolans with family members still living on island. Emily’s grandparents settled here as homesteaders when her dad was in his teens. They had a 20-acre homestead on Berry Point Road – a desirable patch of real estate in today’s market with its views of the ocean and distant mountains on the mainland- with sheep, goats, highland cattle and chickens.
Luke’s grandparents came here 35 years ago, followed by his parents. Until his early teens he was involved in 4H, raising chicks and showing Buff Brahmas.
There’s a five-and-a half year age gap between them. When Emily was commuting to high school, Luke was attending Vancouver Island University. After graduating with his B.A. in psychology he worked in construction, and then went back to school to become a psychiatric nurse.
Living in a small community their social circles overlapped. She remembers that in 2014 she was going to give Luke the ‘I just want to be friends’ talk. They went on a hike, got lost and by the time they got home she’d lost her heart to him. A few months later, overwhelmed with the stress of her final year in nursing school in Kelowna and not knowing if she wanted to return to the coast, Emily ended the relationship.
Luke spent his first year as a nurse living on Gabriola and commuting to town for his 12 hour rotating shifts. When the ferry schedule eliminated the 5:30 am boat off-island he was forced to move to Nanaimo, where he bought a house near a bird sanctuary. It’s not surrounded by the forest or wide-open spaces he grew up with, but it’s a peaceful slice of life in an otherwise urban setting. He felt a tiny bit guilty having all that space to himself, and, maybe, even a bit lonely. Just a few months later things turned around for the both of them to change all of that.
During a practicum at the local hospital Emily found herself watching for Luke as he left work after his night shifts. On the day after she wrote her R.N. exam he asked her out on a date; they’ve been together ever since and married just over two years ago.
The two of them, along with her sister, all work in different departments of the local hospital. Emily works in post-surgical care; Luke in psychiatric emergency and Naomi is a surgical nurse. Although they are all working at the same place, they rarely see each other due to the size of the hospital and their varying shifts.
As young folks just starting off in their careers they seem to have focused on what is important and how to achieve it. Both of them work long hours in stressful jobs. For a year they hardly saw each other because they didn’t have the same days off. Emily found by the time she got home she had no energy for other people or their problems. Seeing as the rewards in her life come from her connection to family and friends she knew things had to change. She opted to work part-time: just nine 12 hour shifts/month. Luke works ¾ time as a casual and is able to choose his shifts so they are able to share their days off.
They don’t have kids, currently don’t plan on having any of their own, but take a lot of pleasure in playing a role with other folks’ children. Between them, they’ve got five nieces, with another one on the way. They have the kids over for sleepovers and feel privileged to help their siblings’ families.
They thought they’d miss Gabriola, but their home has become a hub with relatives dropping by or staying overnight if they miss the last ferry. Emily grew up in a household with a revolving door: sometimes they’d put a pot of tea on at noon and six hours later they were still sitting there, having hosted a number of pop-ins that wandered in throughout the day.
They felt their home lacked a little something and wanted a pet. Their long work hours ruled out a dog and their close proximity to a bird sanctuary nixed a cat. Luke suggested chickens; Emily was a bit skeptical. She remembered disliking her grandmother’s birds when she was a kid. Luke started building a coop without a clear plan on actually getting birds. Before the coop was even completed a lone chicken appeared in their yard. They went door-to-door and reunited the hen with her owners.
By the time the coop was done they had decided to get two Silkies: small, gentle birds that would be good with kids. They later added Valentine, a very large Buff Orpington to protect them against the neighbour’s cat. The girls enjoyed supervised time in the garden, being bathed and blow dried. Unfortunately both Silkies were killed by hawks, leaving Valentine on her own.
That’s when they adopted Joan’s Rhode Island Red, Cranberry, as company. The two girls have a large, fenced backyard where they can free-range and cause some havoc. Anyone who’s got chickens knows what great rototillers they are, no matter how much space they’ve got. These two have managed to dig up 80 tulips and mow down the kale. Luke and Emily have built a large raised bed that the hens don’t get into. Although they are allowed five hens within the city limits they seem happy with just two. They’re also considerate of their neighbours who might not be so happy hearing clucking at 6am or a hen’s egg song. They’ve even made a black-out curtain for the coop to keep the girls in bed for as long as possible.
We value quality over quantity. They were broody most of the summer so we don’t rely on them for eggs. They’re like glorified lawn ornaments – we’d starve if we were farmers. – Emily
Emily and Luke, in their pursuit of a more balanced life, find their chickens a restful diversion. They sit on their patio each morning and watch the girls putter around, scratch in the dirt, dust bath and catch flying termites. In return for being so entertaining these girls have a fantastic life: a beautiful yard, full of diversions and are the centre of attention for Luke and Emily.
I’m happy to see the next generation take up chicken keeping and experience the calming influence that the pitter-patter of feathered feet can bring to our busy, and sometimes stressful, lives. Chickens remind you to slow down, live in the moment and enjoy the beauty in your own small patch of paradise.
Additional photos courtesy of Emily & Luke