Shack Island: The Little Island that Could

The view of Shack Island from Hammond Bay
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Nanaimo is full of small parks and nature to explore. Bowen Park, offering tranquil duck ponds and amphitheatre. Icarus Park’s meandering stairs down to the beautiful beach. And Pipers Lagoon Park, with its picturesque view of Shack Island.

It’s hard to miss the small collection of buildings that cluster on the strips of land stretching away from the northern tip of Pipers. There’s a certain rustic charm to them, each boasting a quirky defining detail. The one with the freshly painted Canadian flag on its roof, the olive green abode that stands apart from the others, the maroon one with a Wales flag flapping in the wind, the bright yellow paint job of another.

With these fine points of care to each house, the question that they might be old, long-abandoned relics quickly fades. The two individuals sitting on the porch of one house, a third working on the roof of another, strengthens the notion that these buildings are well lived in. The collection of dogs that happily yap at each other as they meander down the beach and park themselves on their own preferred porch solidifies the fact that a strong community exists on this little spit of land in the shelter of Hammond Bay. But as high tide approaches, and the shell-covered beach that connects Shack Island to Pipers Lagoon slowly disappears underwater, one might wonder just how this community came about.

The current cabins on the island find their roots in the 1930s, arising as people struggled with the Great Depression. But Shack Island’s full history dates back a little earlier than that. In 1907, the Pacific Whaling Company set up a factory in Pipers Lagoon (known then as Page Lagoon). Humpback whales frequented the coast at the time, following the herring runs through the Salish Sea. In one year, the factory caught close to a hundred whales, and it’s believed to be responsible for their near complete population wipe-out in the area. Pipers Lagoon had a short history as a whaling station, and the factory was soon dismantled and sent north to Rose Harbour, located on Kunghit Island, Haida Gwaii. But Shack Island was not yet done as a key location for those making their living from the sea. 

As the Great Depression took hold of Canada in the  ’30s, the small collection of islands became a key fishing spot for those willing to take their catch back into town to sell. With property taxes becoming harder and harder to pay as the economy struggled to rebuild, those fishers that frequented the area began building shelters and lean-tos on the small spit of land. A seasonal rotation formed, with life on the sea somewhat perilous in wintertime. The higher tides, thick algae, and harsh winds would force residents back into Nanaimo to wait out the colder months. Come spring, repairs would be made, supplies would be ferried out for the new season, and the island would once again come to life.

Life on and near the sea is always tuned to the tides. But residents of Shack Island are especially knowledgeable of the change, as the rising of the tide cuts the island off from the rest of Nanaimo for part of the day. In the island’s early years, supply runs timed up with the lowering of tide. Bundles of goods, small children, and even beloved pets would be carried over the oyster-laden ground as the waters receded. As kids got older, and explored farther and farther from home, the tides became the curfew point. Be home before late tide came in or be stranded on the lagoon’s beach, trying to calculate whether you could swim back home and dry off before your mother noticed your late arrival.

As the population increased, the community’s dependence on interdependence also grew: everyone looked out for each other, because far out to sea, no one else was there to do it. Residents combed the rocky beach for driftwood each morning, storing their finds under the cabins to dry out for later use. Anything that could be recycled and reused was, a must when you could only head into town at certain times of the day. Boats were treasured, and kids were taught early on how to row and care for them.

The gathering of eclectic abodes on the island

The community and cabins soon became beloved for the families that lived there. But in 1955, trouble began brewing. Philip J. Piper, landowner of the area, had died, and the land that Shack Island resided on had just been sold. Residents were told to tear down or abandon the shacks and move back to official city limits, thus began the Battle of the Stakes. As real estate developers began making claims on the island, the residents banded together to fight the development. Letters backed by Nanaimo Fish and Game Association, a local organization that supports outdoor learning and living, were written to members of parliament to dispute the purchase of Shack Island. They also applied to purchase the land back in a co-operative ownership, only to be told that this wasn’t an option due to BC’s Land Act, and that the purchase would not be in the public interest.

The struggle over who would own the island, and the land around it, slogged on for years. Eventually land developer and politician Deane Finlayson acquired the land that would come to be known as Pipers Lagoon and Neck Point Park, with Shack Island a part of the land package. He proposed various projects, including the construction of condominiums all through the area. Residents of Shack Island, along with allies in Nanaimo, successfully fought each proposal. Finally, in 1974, Finlayson sold the land to create Pipers Lagoon Park. With the area now federally monitored, residents of Shack Island were allowed to keep their homes.

In a 1991 Nanaimo Free Press editorial, the thoughts around Shack Island seemed to be summed up well.

“…we tend to believe that the shacks on Shack Island in Hammond Bay add a little bit of whimsical colour to our community. It’s just the sort of thing big city types from Toronto like to see here on the West Coast: A little bit of anti-establishment feeling where a small group express the freedom of ‘doing their own thing’ on their own little island.”

There is a whimsical sense that arises when you spot the collection of homes out in the waters of Pipers Lagoon. But that whimsy does have an end, somewhere down the line. Ownership of the cabins are passed down to family members and cannot be sold, and new homes cannot be built on the island. If one is lost to fire, weather, or time, it will be the end of that cabin’s story. Until then, the homes are treasured by those that own them, and all who catch a glimpse of them in the rush of their day.