As a youth, Jeff Willis cried when it was time to leave summer camp. “Why can’t life be like this?” he lamented.
Fortunately, he learned it could. He’s spent his life working with camps, outdoor education programs and, ultimately, as executive director for Fircom, a camp and retreat on one of Howe Sound’s best kept secrets, Gambier Island. Less than an hour by public transit from downtown Vancouver and situated at the centre of Howe Sound, Gambier is like entering another world. “It’s a place where you get to wonder,” says Jeff.
“I have the best job in the world…” he says, arms spread wide. “And all of it is completely centred on this appreciation and access to nature.”
A raven’s call echoes from above and Jeff’s eyes light up as he speaks about how Fircom, a social enterprise, is designed to create a healthy and sustainable community in nature. “I have the best job in the world…” he says, arms spread wide. “And all of it is completely centred on this appreciation and access to nature.”
Fircom visitors include schoolchildren, wedding parties and society’s most marginalized. It’s where people can reconnect to nature, learn to feel safe in the wilderness and find a haven, perhaps for the first time. Jeff refers to the experience as creating a sense of belonging.
He’s afraid many people are missing the value of connecting to nature, which he sees through his four-year-old daughter’s eyes. “We’ve lost that ability to put effort into exploring, wondering, preserving, protecting.”
Howe Sound is a treasure for which we’re responsible, says Jeff. With more developments proposed alongside rebounding aquatic life, he’d like to see a common table where people can discuss the coexistence of industry, recreation and preservation.
“We’ve lost that ability to put effort into exploring, wondering, preserving, protecting.”
Appreciating nature is a hands-on experience. Fircom land and farm coordinator Jill Wheatley began working on Gambier as a teenager. The island gave her independence and built her skills. Songbirds fly from trees and hop across garden plants while she explains how her farm-to-forest approach is a gateway for people to explore nature.
Forget the 100-mile diet —Fircom offers a 30-metre diet of organic food. “A lot of kids come through the summer camps that may have never been in a garden before,” says Jill.
She immerses children initially afraid of getting their fingers dirty into food harvesting and watches as they become comfortable on the land. She bakes scones with them using farm-fresh raspberries and wild Oregon grapes and demonstrates how garden processes also take place in the forest.
Gambier, she says, is a giant natural playground where you can feed garden slugs to chickens, find salamanders under forest rocks and see whales surface while you kayak. “That is the kind of experience that, as a child, you remember,” she says.
She’d like those same experiences to be available to many more generations. “I think it’s so necessary that we protect an area that is showing improvement.”