Searching for Utopia in Sointula

Malcolm Island is really far away from pretty much everywhere. From Vancouver it is a ferry ride and at least five hours of driving on an isolated stretch of highway to reach the northern tip of Vancouver Island, where you then need to take another ferry to Malcolm Island itself. I can only imagine how isolated this place must have felt to the Finnish idealists who first settled there in the early 20th century. Sointula, the main town on Malcolm Island, is Finnish for “place of harmony” and was created as a socialist Utopia for those looking to escape the hardships and prejudices of life as a poor immigrant in colonial British Columbia. But things were pretty rough for the Sointulans: building a village in the harsh northern climate with little money and few resources proved challenging and rather uncomfortable; the society’s leader, Matti Kurikka, (as might be expected from the founder of a Socialist Utopia) was a bit off-kilter and impractical and made some bad decisions; their debt continued to accumulate; and then a tragic fire killed 11 of its members. Eventually the commune disbanded, but the Finnish language is still heard here and there around the community as many of the early settlers’ descendants still live on the island. The village now has a population of just over 500 people.

After reading an article about Malcolm Island and the nearby Alert Bay in the (super rad) arts and culture publication, SadMag, I longed to see this place for myself. Rachel, Julia and I (the whole Peace Out team!) booked a little blue house in Sointula on AirBNB, which would be our home for the three days we spent on the island (It took us quite some time to find the place after arriving in the dark, especially since there is practically no cell service on the island and we couldn’t get in touch with our host. We only realized we’d found it after accidentally driving onto the lawn). 

We arrived on a long weekend in November so almost all of the local businesses were closed, including the museum, the much-hyped bakery and, most tragically, the ocean-front sauna we’d been told about. After asking around, however, we were given the address of a woman who was willing to rent us her own private beach-front sauna for the day. This was one of the best November afternoons I’ve ever spent. The day was perfect: cold; end-of-autumn clear; thin golden light. We spent hours dragging our naked bodies from sauna to ocean to the sauna’s front porch, again and again. We watched the sun set and eventually, using all our willpower, got dressed and turned the sauna back over to its kindly owner.

The rest of our trip was spent exploring the island, reading, and snacking. At Bere Point, if you’re lucky, you’ll see orcas come and rub their bellies on the pebble beach, something that has never been observed anywhere else. With no orcas in sight, we walked the ocean-side trail for the afternoon through forest and field, and then ate a finger-numbing picnic in the freezing wind. The town of Sointula itself is incredibly charming, with an east-coast fishing village vibe and hints of its utopic past here and there. We explored the town on foot, poking around the beaches and little ocean-front huts; peering in windows; taking photos of the old houses and boats. We didn’t get a chance to explore all of Malcolm Island’s trails and parks and beaches, nor did we have time to go to Alert Bay, but the little taste of Malcolm Island that we did get was just plain perfection.

For more information about visiting Sointula and Malcolm Island, see their tourist information site.

For more about the history of this failed utopia, see here or visit the Sointula Museum.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 1.29.41 PM

(Map sourced from www.sointulainfo.ca)

EmailFacebookTwittertumblrPinterestReddit

Be first to comment