We have this lofty goal, we curmudgeons, that one day a week, we shall crawl out from under our rocks and head out to hike a Vancouver Island trail and then stop in at a nearby coffee shop. This is one such outing:
The Disappearing Cafe’ aka Woodwynn Farm
An overcast day couldn’t subtract anything from the charm of our backroads route through the Saanich Peninsula at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The road winded past sloping sheep-dotted pastures, winter-shuttered farm stands and tiny steepled churches, one planted more than 150 years ago. Our GPS was set to Horth Hill regional trail and to the Spitfire Grill on Willingdon. We would only get to one of those.
It was on West Saanich Road that we passed by a ship-lapped white barn, paint peeling, a little soft around the corners, marked with a flatbed truck-mounted sign that read “Farm Market.” In smaller print, the words “Ice Cream” caught my eye and the Spitfire Grill was instantly scratched off our itinerary. Ice Cream. The drug of choice for curmudgeons. The Spitfire never stood a chance.
We pulled in the gravel drive. Past the blackberry berms (I think they were blackberry bushes – but remember – no fact-checking!) several small white outbuildings came into view. The front parking lot was small so we rolled around to the back, chased by a large black and white Akita-cross that we would later learn bore the misnomer Buddha. I would have named him Bruiser. Or Jaws. Either one would work, but definitely not Buddha (except that now that the Buddhists are muscling out the Muslims in Rohingya, it could be this bowser has been appropriately named).
Dave said, “Is it safe to get out of the car?”
“Not for you,” I said as I opened the door. “Just wait a minute.” I am built of plentiful flesh, I could take a bite without risking any vital organs. It would even take a few chews just to get through to my kneecaps. I stepped out and Bruiser/Buddha approached, black hackles raised, stiff-legged, nose in the air, barking with just a strain of growl in his voice. The hackles and stiff legs made me wary, but the nose in the air told me he was still just announcing our arrival. I stepped around to the door, giving Bruiser some space but not avoiding him or moving very quickly (I would later be told, “Oh, he’s friendly. He’s just welcoming you. That’s just his way.” Another example of dog-owners being blithely unaware of what their pet’s posture is telling anyone who pays attention). He walked sideways to me, still barking, but his eyes didn’t meet mine. I opened the barn door and Bruiser lunged at me, I took a step back like a bullfighter and he slipped inside the doorway like a dog not allowed. I’m sure he was really just going for the door. If he had wanted to eat me, this post would be written by Dave and good thing, because it would be considerably shorter. Something like: Hike bearable. Wife dead. Coffee and pies at Woodwyn absolutely delicious.
I expected a small portion of the barn to be cut off into a coffee shop, flanked by a straw-layered wood-boxed display of artisan jams. Artisan jams.* What does that even mean? Aren’t jams just sugar, fruit and pectin with a dab of butter? Does artisan mean they’re old? In which case, would they still be good? Or does it mean someone took greater care to make them, but I’ve made jam quite successfully and that means the amount of care required is minimal. I’ve never fully understood “artisan,” but it doesn’t matter any more as the term has been elbowed out by organic jams. Organic? I won’t start on that one.
What was before me was a sweeping barn market – the floor still bowed down to the middle as it was in its earlier livestocked life, but lacquered over and decorated. Rows of elegant stoneware, tee-shirts, those jams (!!!!) and fresh produce were lined up, leading to a coffee bar, and at the very end stood a smiling kerchief-ed woman posted over a table of pies.
I almost forgot Dave was still in the car. I called him out, partly to keep him from getting bored, but partly to make sure I was really seeing what I was seeing. It was so at odds with the building’s exterior that it occurred to me that I might be having a stroke.
It was no stroke.
We had wandered into the storied home of Woodwynn Farms, a nine-year-old venture on 193 acres** in Central Saanich created as a turning point for the lost, a therapeutic working farm (organic!!!!) for the addicted and the homeless. This is getting dangerously close to fact-checking, so you can read about it here, if you like.
And that is about all that I knew about the farm – it’s grand intention, that it had weathered a few hiccups along the way, and that it was the beneficiary of so much effort from the community. What I did not know was that all of that had fallen short and that very day two of my former colleagues at the local newspaper had published a story about Woodwynn and its seemingly inevitable demise. Foreclosure was/is looming.
Olivia was the smiling pie-baker stationed at the north side of the barn. What is it about someone in an apron standing in front of homemade pies that makes them automatically likeable, even to curmudgeons?
Sick horses started Olivia down the road to her apple-pie baking business. Her horses were suffering intestinal woes from overeating the fallen apples on her acreage, so she had to pick them up (the apples, not the horses, although I suppose that could have happened, too) and then one day she noticed the hundreds of cars backed up waiting to get into the Saanich Fair. She did a little math, started harvesting the apples from her orchard and the next year she walked along the roadway, selling her fresh-baked pies and mini-pies to the idling drivers and their passengers. That led to a corner pie stand on Wallace Drive – a lovely venture in the summer time, but not so good in the winter, and so she pitched the idea of moving her pie stand inside Woodwynn Farms’ barn market.
It couldn’t be a better marriage. But it’s on the rocks.
The pie-baker will soon be out and so will the rest of the Woodwynn workers and not through any fault of their own. I did not know the wounds were just cut and haemorrhaging freely so when I asked the others working the counter what was up, they dished up their troubles – suspicious neighbours fearful a sweeping tent city complete with syringe-layered ditches would soon appear in their bucolic countryside (they did not)(but no one can blame a community for asking the question), a mayor and council that appear unsupportive (although in the press, the mayor sounds frustrated in his efforts to help, whatever form that may have taken), funding woes, operational issues, the troubles of trying to eke out a mission between the rock of being told their farm didn’t produce enough to really be a farm, and the hard place of not being allowed to house their workers who could ramp up production. Remember, the workers would also be their clients seeking a way out of their drug-addicted lives and so support staff of some sort would be needed. One must wonder where the Ministry of Health and the Vancouver Island Health Authority stand on this community, but to find that out, I would have to dig deeper. Keeping it shallow here.
I had read a little on it while sipping on coffee at their corner table and had to ask: Is there a personality clash between your director and the mayor? They wouldn’t say, except that their own board had not informed them of recent decisions, and at that point, it was too muddled to follow. We came away with a feeling that this was a waste of an opportunity, and yet it had the support of so many. How did this happen?
It could be lurching planning, inexperience, a failure to change leadership at a critical juncture, lacklustre lobbying, who knows. We had recently toured a support organization at the centre of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and it seemed to us that Woodwynn might have been able to steer clear of the rocks if only it had some seasoned oversight such as that at the DTES (although, this is not an equal pairing – the populations are different and the DTES is effectively an open-air psych-ward, if the stats in the American Journal of Psychiatry are correct).
It would take a more serious audit to figure out what went wrong here, but the loss is significant. Other rehabilitative farms have had notable successes in a field where success is usually the exception, not the rule. It could have happened here, in a region where addicts are being stuffed into downtown motels, still a few steps away from their old dealers and dope-friends. How long will their recovery last?
And ironically, Central Saanich will soon be home to a marijuana-farm – it will be industrial-clean and concrete-poured and there won’t be any fear of syringes or addicts wandering about, but will it be any better? It’s a symbol of our times – that we don’t like the dirty part of drug use – the broken lives and crime and all that goes with it – but dust it off, legitimize it, certify it, stamp it with a bar code and no one seems to mind.
As of this writing the Woodwynn Market is still open. If you’re in the area, drop in. They’re a friendly bunch, the coffee is grand, the pies fabulous and they sell a better-than-drugs chocolate-peanut-butter-krisp concoction.
What we spent:
- $15 Apple Pecan pie (whole) (normal price according to the card is $12, but there’s a little stipend of sorts for Woodwynn that brings the price up to $15)
- $4 for two apple caramel pie pockets
- $6 for peanut butter chocolate thingy and two mugs of coffee
The Hike at Horth Hill
“Easy,” was the description one website used for the Horth Hill trail in North Saanich. It also said there was a rise of 75 m, and after the trail levelled out, the views would take in
Satellite Channel, the Saanich Peninsula and the Gulf Islands. A 75-m rise easy? Panoramic views from an “easy” climb. Ha! My nose started to twitch. I switched over to the official Capital Regional District Parks website where the climb was upgraded to “moderate.”
Lies, lies, lies.
The Horth Hill trail, while deliciously short, is a serious climb – not if you’re a 20-year-old triathlete, as I suspect is the writer of the first website or a 38-year-old forestry-major Sierra Club-esque CRD Parks staffer, as I suspect is the writer of the second. So, if you go, wear hikers with earth-chewing treads and be prepared for a thigh-burn. My prairie-bred sensibilities told me there was no absolute level on any part of this trail, it was all up and all down, with most of that at a significant pitch.
On the up-side, the trail, much of which is cut into a steep hillside, is relatively dry in the wet season with only one patch of serious muck and mud to navigate. The undergrowth is spartan, the trees are towers and they groaned ghoulishly in the light breeze. Most delightfully, the signage is excellent with reassuring clear postings at every fork, so the odds are low that novice hikers might steer far off course. CRD Parks would do well to repeat this system at the Thetis Lake trails.
Kid-friendly? Sort of. Not really for under-sixes. There could be too much crying (from parents having to carry them).
*Despite my artisan-jam scepticism, as I wrote that paragraph I feared offending my friend Mary who used to make and market artisan jams and chutneys. Ahem. Mary, your products are excluded from my rant. They were absolutely fantastic and way beyond anything I could make. Sorry news for everyone else: Mary has retired her artisan goods business.
**Small point – a recent newspaper article described the property as being only 78 acres – I cannot explain the discrepancy and if I was reporting, I would probably spend about two hours trying to unravel this mess. Not reporting, therefore, not unravelling.