A return to The Surf

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Tuesday, June 14 2016

Shirley Henry Thomson returned to the Surf Lodge to celebrate her 70th birthday.

And when her family says she returned to the Lodge, they mean a true return, as Shirley was a regular summertime visitor and then employee of the Surf Lodge between 1952 and 1965.

She first came to Gabriola in 1952 with her parents, and they holidayed every year on Gabriola for many years after.

“I decided when I was old enough, I wanted to work at the Surf.”

She spent the summers of 1963, 64, and 65 working at the Surf Lodge. That also included the Easter and May long weekends.

Pointing to one wall of the Lodge, she says she remembers spending one Easter helping insulate the logs with fibreglass.

Coming from her home in the City of Vancouver, she says, “This was a big change.”

Water use - which has always been a concern of islanders - was just one of the lessons she learned.

“You have to watch the water, it was a real big change. We were only allowed one shower a week.

“One girl brought soap so you could bathe in the salt water. By the end of the week you were so coated in salt from swimming, because you wanted to stay clean.”

As she grew up, certain guests would try to show up at the same time each year, each typically staying in the same cabin.

Shirley can still point to different cabins, the one her family stayed in, and others who they were friends with.

“And you’d mix with the island people, we made friends with a lot of the island people. I knew Tim Brown and Ernie Brown. Some of the friends are gone now.”

Eventually her mom Pat Henry moved to Gabriola, living in a home on Malaspina Drive from 1971 until 1986.

Shirley says that over the years, she has noticed the population boom.

“It used to be you couldn’t walk on to the Gabriola ferry without people knowing on the other side you were coming over.”

The Surf though, has stayed very much the same as she remembers it.

“The only thing that is different is the doorway from the kitchen into the dining room.

“I’m sure this [the Lodge] is the same floor I vacuumed in the mornings.

“In those days, you did everything, you rotated shifts.”

Employees were given two days off every three weeks. Shirley said her wages were $60 a month (which included her room and board) and she would typically make another $60 in tips.

Staff would stay in the upper cabins. As there was no washroom. Shirley said, “We’d wash in the ladies’ room in the bar [now Surf Pub] and pray that when we were having a wash, that no one would open the door when the men were going in their washroom opposite in the hall.”

During the summer, there was a dance at the Lodge every Saturday night.

“It was an incredible mix of guests and island people.”

In between getting to have fun, staff would work 13 to 16 hours a day. 

“The payoff,” according to Shirley, “was you got to waterski.”

“I was reserved and quiet in those days. The Surf owner would take you out and waterski right past the BC Ferries, and the captain would be out on the deck shaking his fist.

“I was worried sick I’d fall in the ferry wake the first time I went out and said don’t ever do that again.”

During the work days, one of the shifts would need to be up at 6:30 in the morning - no easy task after having been partying the night before - and vacuum the Lodge and clean the cabins. That shift also then served the 4:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. teas.

The other shift would be working in the kitchen and serving meals.

“You kept busy, but it was fun, and it was really worth it.”

Coming back was a surprise from her family.

“They knew it was my favourite place, and that I hadn’t been back in some time. The last time I came back was 2009.”

While she came over often while her mom lived on the island, Shirley’s latest visit is only her third since 1986.

“The people are still friendly, the artists are still here, it’s still great.

“Gabriola and the Surf are very special. People try so hard to work within the environment. There are so many artisans here, people are into health, it is a more simple way of living, it is so relaxed. You wouldn’t have to twist my arm to live over here.”

Shirley Henry Thomson in front of the Surf Lodge, where she worked during the summers of 1963, 1964, and 1965. Derek Kilbourn photo. 

As the evening grew long on her birthday supper night, Shirley joined the rest of the Surf patrons outside for the nightly routine of watching the sun go down.

“There is nothing like the sunsets on Berry Point. When there was a pool here, the sunsets were incredible. With the trees around, and the sunset reflected in the pool.

“It was beautiful.”