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Goats On a Roof and More Curiosities on Vancouver Island

12/08/2014 04:51 EST | Updated 02/07/2015 05:59 EST
Farm Sanctuary

Ken Nicholson calls it "The most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. People come from all over the world to see the goats on the roof."

Nicholson is a self-professed hippie, one of many on Vancouver Island. He's also a business owner and like many business owners around the central part of the island, he has benefitted from the "ridiculous" goats atop the Coombs Country Market.

More than one million visitors arrive every year to see this accidental tourist attraction. The goats first appeared 40 years ago, when the Coombs market was built by Norwegian immigrants who had grown up with sod roofs and wanted to bring that feature to their adopted country. When the grass started growing higher than expected, a family member suggested that goats be recruited to serve as lawnmowers on the roof that is about eight feet above ground.

Even before the Internet age, word of animals doing odd feats spread quickly. The Coombs market became one of the most bizarre destinations in Canada. While the goats may now seem gimmicky and old-fashioned, Nicholson's T-shirt shop, Coombaya, is anything but. It's irreverent, wacky and unique.

The store is among the many that run alongside and behind the main market building. Coombaya has been operating for 20 years and Nicholson has embraced the marketing opportunities the goats present. He's planning to launch Coombstock, a music festival inspired by Woodstock and whose logo features a goat on a guitar handle in place of the bird that adorned the symbol of the historic 1969 gathering.

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Renovations to the stalls surrounding the market will push Coombaya down the road in 2015 to a colourful storefront facing the Alberni Highway (also called Highway 4 and is part of the Trans-Canada Highway). The market itself will continue to operate, providing local food products to residents and treats to visitors who want to snack on something while craning their necks to catch sight of the half-dozen or so goats chomping away.

If goats on a roof are Vancouver Island's manmade phenomenon, the surf is this idyllic setting's most sensational natural wonder. Surfers from afar discovered Tofino en masse following the paved extension of the Trans-Canada Highway to the Pacific Coast in 1971. It's along this route that Colin Kearns saw opportunity. Similar to how Nicholson and other entrepreneurs around Coombs have leveraged the goats on the market, Kearns has taken advantage of the popularity of Tofino as a surfer's destination.

His Island Surf Co. was established in 1998 but it struggled in its initial location in downtown Qualicum Beach, a community of about 9,000 people along the shore of the Strait of Georgia. The waterway separates the island from mainland British Columbia and visitors most often travel between the two land masses on BC Ferries.

"I kept driving by on this highway and I said to myself, 'I've got to be here,'" Kearns told me as we walked through his surf shop, which may be one of the few of its kind that's worth a visit even if you're not in the market for a board. "There is so much traffic going on the way to and from Tofino, and those are my customers. I knew if I could get a spot here that it would work and fortunately the opportunity came up."

What makes Island Surf Co. unique is the products inside. It is one of the few surf shops in the world that sells a wide range of top-quality brand-name surfboards. Most often, consumers will have to go directly to a Hobie or Bing store to shop for those brands, but Kearns -- a competitive surfer from South Africa -- has a decades-long relationship with many of those companies and has been able to stock his walls with an array of boards. Many of the boards are hand-crafted works of art and that fact gives Island Surf Co. the atmosphere of a gallery.

I've never surfed but after coming into the store, learning about the sport and spending time being dazzled by the boards, I want to give it a try.

Another watery wonder in this part of Vancouver Island is the bioluminescence that occurs beneath dark, moonless skies. Biologist Patricke Walsh has made a hobby of guiding tourists at night through the harbours around Parksville. On his tours, Walsh paddles a canoe through the water that is pitch black except for the beautiful dashes of illuminated organisms, which flit by at high speed. Stellar sea lions congregate on rocks, barking at the stars while Walsh makes note of the mysteries of the bioluminescence. The phenomenon is most often caused by a chemical reaction. An enzyme produced by the aquatic creatures encounters oxygen, causing the light to appear. The bioluminescence could be a defence mechanism for species like plankton, Walsh says.

His tours occur during the summer and fall and the best time to participate is in the days preceding the monthly new moon. That's when the sky is darkest and the chance of seeing the bioluminescence peaks. Guests on the two-hour Coastal Revelations tour also have the chance to snorkel along the shores of the Strait of Georgia, where simply splashing the water can allow you to see the organisms beneath the surface glow in front of your eyes.

Like Kearns and the Graaten family who started the Coombs market, Walsh is a transplant to Vancouver Island. He arrived from Ontario and found both the lifestyle and climate of British Columbia appealing.

"As someone who is interested in science and the natural world, I find it fascinating," he says. "There's always a lot to do and a lot about the environment to discover."

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