Michael Poole jabs a claw-headed garden tool deep into a matrix of roots on his 17.5-acre property in Tofino, B.C. Surrounded by moss, the 66-year-old crawls on all fours with a furrowed brow, puncturing the ground over and over. He’s looking for a jar containing $3,000 that he buried two years ago.
Like a squirrel hiding its bounty, Mr. Poole stashes his money and “earth medicines” beneath the forest, dismissing any worry that someone might try to steal his treasures.
“Oh no,” he grins, “that would just make it so much more fun.”
To Mr. Poole, money is a secondary concern; his real interest is in instigating cultural change, which may help explain why over the past 30 years he’s had an estimated 20,000 strangers pass through his property and take refuge for just $10 a night. Despite sitting on a multimillion dollar property, Mr. Poole lives in an old trailer that he lends out whenever he’s away.
“This profiteering at any expense to the people and the earth is wrong,” he says. “And so, I’d be a hypocrite to do anything differently.”
Famously known as Poole’s Land, it is often referred to as a “hippie commune,” or an “ecovillage,” but Mr. Poole describes it as an “anarchist experiment. “ It has become a Tofino mainstay, a travel destination passed down through generations. But as Mr. Poole is confronted with aging, he says he can no longer go on and is finally ready to sell.
Mr. Poole bought the property in the eighties, hoping to create a communal living area free from any corporate structure.
Having spent his last dollar purchasing the land, he couldn’t afford to pay anyone to help him build roads, composting toilets or boardwalks. So he decided to let people camp in exchange for labour.
Located on the border of town, Poole’s Land has been a topic of contention in Tofino for decades because of the people it attracts. There’s a saying among locals that sounds something like, “If your bike goes missing, you’ll likely find it at Poole’s Land.”
“We’re talking about the poorest people in our society,” says Michael Goodliffe, 48, who helps manage the property. Because there are no limitations on who is welcome to stay, the promise of utopia draws quite the cast of characters. On any given day, you can find travellers, transient workers or homeless people scattered about the property.
People fall out of the societal roles they’re expected to play for all kinds of reasons, says Mr. Goodliffe, who theorizes that drugs, alcohol and mental illness are the main contributors.
Often stigmatized by people in town, some Poole’s Landers feel the need to hide from their employers the fact that they live on the property, because of its ties to partying and drug culture.
Mr. Poole is the first to admit that he’s been dispensing since he arrived on the land 30 years ago. He continues to microdose with magic mushrooms “at least two or three times a week,” he says.
Any place such as Poole’s Land, where people have chosen to live in a different way than the rest of society, “is something that really confronts our perceptions and our biases about lifestyles and the way people choose to live,” Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne says.
Poole’s Land is legally entitled to have two dwellings, Ms. Osborne says, but “everybody knows it has more than two.”
“We’re in such a critical housing shortage right now,” she continues. “If people are living safely in a dwelling – that may or may not be legal – it’s not going to rise to the top of our list.”
With a population of only 1,932, the town receives 800,000 visitors each year, Parks Canada estimates. This spike has created a housing crisis, which flares up every summer when the municipality’s long-term rentals transition to short-term accommodation for tourists. The continuing trend leaves seasonal workers and locals with nowhere to stay, forcing many to sleep in their tents or campers on Poole’s Land.
Housing crisis aside, thousands of people have travelled to Poole’s Land from across the world in search of something a little different. They weren’t forced there out of necessity, but came by choice.
Haley Vanwatteghem, 18, heard about the “ecovillage” through a friend who visited last summer. She only intended to spend a week, but, overnight, decided to stay through to the end of the summer. “It feels nice to be in a place where you can be completely yourself,” she says. “It’s magic here. I feel like I’m in a fairy world.”
Many people have echoed Ms. Vanwatteghem’s sentiments and resent the harsh criticism of Poole’s Land. To them, it’s a transformative place.
But Poole’s Land’s future is unknown. Ever since Mr. Poole bought the land in 1988 for $50,000, he’s led various groups of people to believe he’d sign the land over to them for a communal living area or a new development project – always pulling the plug at the last minute.
But, after a cancer scare two years ago, Mr. Poole says he’s realized he’s not immortal and feels time is running out.
“I’m really tired of it,” he says. “I can feel the aging slippage of memory and word power, strength – all of those things.”
While not officially listed, the land is for sale for $2-million, says Mr. Poole, who dreams of purchasing a 160-acre lot near Long Beach “to solve the staff-accommodation problem and the homelessness.”
But even those closest to him aren’t convinced.
“Michael Poole is a fascinating man who is completely unpredictable,” Mr. Goodliffe says. "So, maybe he’ll sell, maybe he won’t.”
Like his buried treasure, Mr. Poole is a difficult man to unearth.
“Trouble,” Mr. Poole says, “is my middle name.”