Hidden Jewel: Powell River

Where Highway 101 ends and the Sunshine Coast Trail begins, find a vibrant community that was built on forestry and the arts.

By Janet Gyenes

It’s never hard to find nature, art and culture in Powell River. At 32 Lakes Cafe and Bakery, for example, there’s a composition of objects such as flowerstone from nearby Texada Island and sunbleached shells and sea glass. The installation was created by Ryan Mathieson, who co-owns the cafe with Nevada McCarthy, and guests can contribute when they drop by for a pastry, to pick up locally roasted coffee beans or to see work by emerging artists.

“We were looking for more of a sense of belonging, a sense of community,” says McCarthy, sharing what lured the couple to the Sunshine Coast from Vancouver four years ago. She was working in the coffee industry and both studied art, so 32 Lakes is a culmination of passions that has evolved into a community hub.

That’s typical in Powell River, part of qathet Regional District that includes the unceded traditional lands of the Tla’amin Nation. The city of Powell River itself (about 14,000 people) sits on a 58-kilometre-long peninsula between Saltery Bay and the village of Lund. Highway 101 ends there, but just beyond is Sarah Point, the start of the 180-kilometre Sunshine Coast Trail, Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hiking trail.

An easy way to get a feel for the area’s allure is to take a 20-minute hike among the arbutus trees to Valentine Mountain. At the peak, the forest opens up to panoramas of the Salish Sea plus Cranberry and Powell Lakes. You’ll see about 400 buildings born out of the Arts and Crafts movement, when the Townsite (a neighbourhood that’s now a National Historic District) was planned in 1910 for what was once the world’s largest pulp and paper mill. The Indigenous name for the large Tla’amin settlement that originally occupied the mill area is tiskʷat, meaning “big river.”

One reminder of Powell River’s early dedication to the arts is the neighbourhood’s Patricia Theatre; the 1928 building that replaced the 1913 original is Canada’s longest running. Festivals like the International Choral Kathaumixw (started in 1984) and PRISMA (Pacific Region International Summer Music Association) celebrate the art of music. “Students come from around the world [for PRISMA] to study with the first-chair instrumentalists and conductors from world-renowned orchestras,” says Scott Randolph, director of properties, development and communication for the City of Powell River.

The community’s affordability has always been a draw, Randolph adds, and lifestyle enhancements are ongoing. Fibre-optic internet keeps the community connected, enabling remote workers and businesses to thrive. In addition to two BC Ferries routes to Powell River, the city has a regional airport. Harbour Air Seaplanes has daily flights between downtown Vancouver and Powell Lake, which is home to some 200 off-the-grid floating cabins that are popular as vacation rentals.

Nevada McCarthy sums up how Powtown locals spend their downtime: “We’re outside. Campfires on the beach in winter. Hiking, biking, swimming. We’re constantly going from ocean to lake, lake to ocean: how many different bodies of water can we swim in in a day?”