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Satch Robertson lives on B.C.'s Vargas Island with his girlfriend, Kaylyn Kwasnecha. She jokes that their time here has made her forget how to drive any vehicle other than this tractor.

Photography by Melissa Renwick/The Globe and Mail

As the sun hovered above the Pacific Ocean, Satch Robertson walked through the rain forest on Vargas Island. He let out a whistle, as if to say, “what’s up?” It was his way of communicating with his closest neighbour, who whistled back to let Mr. Robertson know he was there.

The 27-year-old has lived on this remote island in Clayoquot Sound, which sits on the west coast of Vancouver Island, for nearly a year. Home to only six residents and a pack of wild wolves, Vargas Island is quiet. On occasion, you can hear the faint hum of boat traffic as fishermen drive by.

At a time when the rest of the world is learning what it means to isolate, in many ways, Mr. Robertson’s life has remained the same. “It just doesn’t feel any different because there’s very little human interaction,” he said of his day-to-day. Spending the majority of his time alone, working on the land or sailing around his coastal backyard in his boat – a.k.a. “adventure-mobile” – the current COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t disrupted his lifestyle. But “operation-wise, everything has changed,” he said.

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The fog rolls in over the northeastern side of Vargas Island, with Flores Island in the background.

After landing the role of station co-ordinator for the Cedar Coast Field Station in the spring of 2019, Mr. Robertson moved from his sailboat, which he had called home since 2016, to the off-grid system he helped build for the not-for-profit research centre.

He doubles as a field technician, helping to conduct and facilitate in-house research and monitoring programs. This includes a grey whale-monitoring project, which Mr. Robertson co-heads.

The small station team is required to follow COVID-19 protocols, such as staying six feet apart, which left no choice but to scale back some of the fieldwork. “I had applied for a number of grants for the grey whale project, and two of them cut their funding for the spring,” he said. “That’s been a bit of a bummer.”

In mid-March, his girlfriend, Kaylyn Kwasnecha, who normally resides in Tofino, came to the island to get away from the frenzy surrounding the pandemic and wait things out together. It was hard to adjust in the beginning, she said at the end of her first month. But as the moody West Coast skies have cleared and a little bit of the uncertainty around the virus has lifted, “it’s sort of become the norm,” she said.

It’s a simple way of living. Without anywhere to be, the 27-year-old said that she has found more ease and relaxation. “You only bring what you really need. It gives me a chance to focus on what’s really important.”

In their isolation, the couple has found comfort in each other. “It’s really nice to have that rock,” Mr. Robertson said of Ms. Kwasnecha. “It’s super key to have that companion and person to share the lifestyle with.”

While Ms. Kwasnecha may not be prepared to make the move out to Vargas Island permanently, she is grateful for the separation from the pandemic and the time to work on the land. “It’s like Satch said this morning, ‘You get really strong on Vargas.’”

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Island living

Northeast of Vargas Island lies Freedom Cove, an artificial island anchored with armoured Styrofoam blocks and tied to shore by ropes. It was built by artists Catherine King and Wayne Adams. They get their water from a nearby mountain stream and grow most of their fruits and vegetables aboard.

Mr. Adams and Ms. King began buliding their island in 1991 after a storm blew a pile of wood to shore. Now occupying half an acre and weighing around two million pounds, it floats 'like a leaf on a pond,' Mr. Adams says. They travel to Tofino around every two weeks to get groceries and collect mail. 'I have found where I'm supposed to be,' Ms. King says.

Mr. Adams's son Shane moved to Freedom Cove 13 years ago after a summer helping his father renovate the walkways. He ended up working on fish farms, then began trading fish for vegetables before expanding his 'yard' with old walkways from a fish farm. He dreams of being able to stay at home and grow fresh produce that he can sell to local resorts and markets.

To the south, off Meares Island, Ivy Cargill-Martin's float home rests in a cove behind the First Nations village of Opitsaht, where her father is from. Ms. Cargill-Martin, 22, was raised by her mother along Clayoquot Sound and lived in Port Alberni for a while, but eventually returned home and brought her boyfriend, Matt Leonew, right, with her. 'It is really nice to know that it is your own little world,' she said.

Around the corner from Ms. Cargill-Martin's home is Lemmens Inlet, the heart of the island. The Tla-o-qui-aht people have called Meares Island home for generations. 'We've got it pretty easy,' Mr. Leonew says of their life here. 'We can still go outside and go out for a walk. We can go up the inlet. We can go clamming and go check our crab traps – we don't have to be stuck inside.'

Jane Hunt moved to the West Coast from Vennachar, Ont., in 1964. For the past 30 years, she's lived on a farm down an old logging-road system with a view of Barkley Sound. 'It's quiet,' she said. 'There are no streets or close, noisy neighbours. It's a lot like Vennachar, only it's warmer and wetter.'

Another Ontario émigré is Robinson Cook, right, who lives with Mary Forest, left, and their daughter Cedar Forest. Mr. Cook left Peterborough at age 19 with just $500 in his pocket, and hitchhiked by sea around the world. When he reached Tofino, he met Ms. Forest at a chakra class, and they made an island home together. 'I love that we're separated by the water,' Mr. Cook said. 'It's a dimensional shift and very few pass over that threshold to come here. If they do, well, I probably want to meet them.'

Cedar, now 15 and in Grade 10, has spent her whole life on the tiny island near Tofino. She says it can be isolating, but that's also a reason she wants to be an artist: 'If I could just leave, I would have done something else with my free time growing up.' She dreams of moving to Victoria after high school.

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