Although I had the chance to see many beautiful objects on the riverbanks of my hometown – restaurants, nightclubs, bars, vacation homes etc. – it was from my very first sight of this new neighbourhood that I was impressed. Every now and then, I would make up a reason to go for a walk by the ocean to take another look.
There are no two identical float houses; at least I haven’t found any so far. Every house has a unique design and carries a different kind of energy. Some are small, with terraces sheltered from the rest of the world and face the ocean; while others are modern, brightly colored, with spacious balconies on the rooftop and windows full of flowers. I noticed that some of them would be a better fit on the mainland, as they don’t have the typical features of a waterfront house.
Today these neighbourhoods are not a rarity, nor the specificity of any part of the world. In recent decades there are float houses all over the planet, in cities like Amsterdam, London, Hamburg, Oregon, Seattle, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Wellington… In some countries, people buy them because they are still less expensive than the ones on the mainland. Sometimes, they offer a solution for those who wish to stay in an overpopulated city, but mostly people are attracted to the lifestyle they provide.
While being immersed in this topic I came up with an unusual conclusion that I found particularly interesting. People could be roughly divided into two groups; one who like living in the houses and the others who prefer apartment buildings. The first group would often say that a house is the only place where one can have privacy. People have the freedom to set up their own rules, plus backyards where they can relax and unwind. On the other side, many of us who grew up in apartments don’t consider as a challenge the fact that we need to share the space with others. We are used to the daily interaction with people, used to hearing sounds or noise, which doesn’t affect us as much. Besides, many of us still believe that having one list of regulations for everyone is the only true guarantee for peace.
From that point of view, float houses are an exception. They are rather an unusual and interesting combination of these two different worlds. Like a house on the land, float homes stand for themselves. They are surrounded by the water and therefore are more clearly separate from others. But, at the same time, the water creates the impression that these houses share their backyards with everyone around them. Some of these communities are gated which prevents people to get closer to them. However, despite this inaccessibility, for truly unforeseeable situations, natural and other kinds, these residents rely on their neighbours more than those living in buildings. And finally, inside houses people are free to live like they want, but as soon as they walk out the door, they must respect the clearly prescribed general rules.
I wanted to find out firsthand how life looks in these settlements, so I dared to deliver a letter to one of the tenants at the famous Fisherman’s Wharf. At the same time, it happened that I suddenly encountered a woman, who gave me insight into how she grew up in a float house in the early 1940s.
I met Mrs. Myrtle Siebert one night in a local cafeteria, where I went to hear a collection of Canadian authors speak. In the break, between the scheduled readings, I found a variety of biographical books displayed at the entrance table. The picture on the cover page of one of them drew my attention.
Mrs. Siebert was born in Vancouver in 1938. She spent the first few days of her life on land before she sailed back home with her mother. Their family home was in Port Neville, an isolated and water-constrained area of British Columbia. A few families lived in the bay, among them the members of Myrtle’s closest family – her grandparents, uncle, father, and mother. The most important point of Port Neville was the house of the Hansen family, which was built on the only cultivated land in the area. On the front side of the big property, the Hansen’s had the general store and a post office. The Union Steamship arrived at the dock every few weeks bringing mail and supplies for the residents, which made this house the most important place for the entire community.
At the very end of the 19th century, Myrtle’s grandfather emigrated from Norway to America. Soon after he settled in Canada and spent most of his time working as a hand logger. He lived in a float house and moved from place to place, every time a government would identify new timber sales. All locations were located in remote areas that could not be reached by land. That is why every house had to have a boat in the event of an emergency. People kept in contact with the world by listening to their battery-operated radios, reading a few weeks old newspapers and writing letters.
( Myrtle’s grandfather’s camp, 1907/08…taken from the above-mentioned book)
Although she was born 40 years later, Myrtle spent her early childhood in a similar way. She described her family home as a small place “which sat on skids, two logs braced together much like an overgrown sled. The house on its skids was positioned on high-floating logs tied together to form a float.” For the location, they tried their best to find a place on a wide, flat beach, to protect them from storms and more importantly close to the river or creek, which they would use as their water supply.
I wasn’t very surprised by the poor conditions of this household since I found a lot of similarities with the life elsewhere on the mainland. Wooden, cedar shake roofed houses, without insulation, electricity, bathrooms or sewage. They would use a wood fire stove for heating and cooking; they washed their laundry by hand, repaired and sewed all their clothes. If they wanted to visit a friend or have a regular checkup with the dentist or doctor, they had to plan trip months ahead.
There are a number of facts in the book exclusively accounting the challenges of life in a float house. One of the biggest was certainly food. Not only did these households not have refrigerators, but they also didn’t even have something that was more necessary: land. They couldn’t have animals – such as chickens, goats or cows, or grow fruits and vegetables. For weeks in advance, they had to order canned food, which arrived in shipments from the mainland.
Myrtle’s early experience of life was particularly influenced by isolation from the rest of the world. In Port Neville, all she had were her relatives as neighbours and the only house she knew well was her grandparents. The same could be said with friends. She spent her early childhood without one, as her younger sister was the only child within a 20minute boat ride. In 1947, they relocated to land where she could finish her correspondence lessons with her mother as her teacher, or she could start in a proper school building with all the other kids. Myrtle finally had the freedom to explore the land, the opportunity to learn to ride a bike and the space to play with her peers.
On my next visit to Fisherman’s Wharf, I saw it with a different pair of eyes. A friend asked me:
“What is it that you like about this neighbourhood?”
I immediately responded: “These houses are now part of the city.“
They are located right across from residential buildings. They are near hotels and restaurants, the local church and the central library. It is less than a 15minute walk from here to the Parliament buildings; one can bike, walk, drive or in the warmer months reach them by water-taxi.
The float houses today have all the benefits of modern life: heat, electricity, access to the Internet, communal water, and sewage. In addition, the docks to which they are attached, because of the width and the specific look, appear like the streets of some old cities.
Although I am not familiar with any of the tenants at Fisherman’s Wharf, I doubt I would be wrong to conclude that these people share at least two characteristics. The first is their need for direct contact with nature, and the second is their obvious creativity. I enjoy walking by their houses. I take great pleasure in their uniqueness and the imaginative exterior of all of them.
In the end, I did not meet with the tenant, the one to whom I sent a letter. I understand their wish to take a break and rest after the heavy tourist season, which sometimes can bring on the Wharf half a million tourists per year. However, I am grateful because in turn I was sent a video, which, I have to admit, assured me that this small neighbourhood is a very friendly and optimistic community.