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An eco-village and hippie commune awaits its next chapter
This article is based on interviews from the Capital Daily podcast. You can listen and subscribe here or on your podcasting app of choice.
There is a place on Vancouver Island, beyond the timber trucks that rumble in and out of Port Alberni and past the T-junction where Highway 4 doglegs north and west toward Pacific Rim National Park, where stories take on the air of local legend. It is closed and emptied now, awaiting an eventual sale where it will, in all likelihood, become another multi-million-dollar residential development. But for 30 years, it held a different reputation in Tofino: an eco-village and hippie commune that was both a vital source of affordable rental housing in the supply-scarce peninsula township and, at times, a difficult neighbour—a place with a reputation for abundant psychedelics and loose rules that could attract the wrong crowd.
Poole’s Land hosted an estimated 20,000 visitors in its three decades—some of whom stayed for a day, a week; others, whole years. It became a cultural phenomenon: the subject of documentaries, books, bylaw complaints. And it was all started by one man: Michael Poole.
Before Poole ever set foot amongst the Douglas firs and Western hemlocks on the 17.5-acre Mackenzie Beach Road property that would become his home of 30 years, he saw it in a dream.
It was a recurring dream he’d had as a teenager growing up in southern Ontario—of a place in British Columbia, somewhere amongst the pines, to call his own—only he feared it would require too much work to realize.
“[A] voice came back and said, ‘Well, there'll be plenty of people to help you,’” he told Tuff City Radio in 2020.
Tofino, at the very edge of an island leaning away from the rest of the continent—and pulling farther, millimetre by millimetre, with each seismic tremor—has long attracted those seeking escape from the rest of the world. It is, quite literally, the end of the road: Pacific Terminus, as the orca-bedecked sign informs visitors at the bottom of First Street, next to the dock where seaplanes take off and water taxis shuttle residents of Meares Island back and forth into town.
Poole bought the forested property for $50,000 in 1988—or roughly the equivalent of $99,700 in 2021. It was every dollar Poole, then 36, had to his name. It was October: a time when the rain arrives in earnest in Tofino, dumping nearly 400 millimetres in the span of a month and continuing unabated until May. Poole lived in a tent and set about building trails through the property by hand.
It must be said: to write about Poole’s past is to engage in a bit of myth-making.
“He was able to access other worlds and magical realms,” says Tofino resident and radio host Cameron Dennison, a longtime friend of Poole’s.
Even to those who knew him, he was a hard man to pin down. He’d spent time at both the University of Guelph in the early 1970s, studying philosophy, as well as biology and physics at Vancouver Island University in the early 1980s, but it isn’t clear whether he graduated from either. (“I was seeking to compare ‘hippie PanTheism’ with hard science,” he wrote on his LinkedIn page.)
“I’m a business hippieman, a hippie businessman. I’m a weird blend of things.” - Michael Poole, on Tuff City Radio (May 29, 2020)
The first Poole’s Land arrivals came within about a year of Poole buying his Mackenzie Beach Road property—though it isn’t clear how they found him to begin with, or when the word spread beyond Tofino. From the start, they were an eclectic bunch.
“There were the really intelligent, the best travellers, and university-educated people that really came from good families, and then there were the ones coming from totally broken situations with no education and poor working skills and all of that,” Poole told Westerly News reporter Andrew Bailey in 2019.
Poole offered them a place to stay in exchange for help developing the property—often following any one of the million ideas that kaleidoscoped through his mind, from building elaborate boardwalk networks, to composting toilets, to growing and harvesting whole gardens full of marijuana. (A place like Poole’s Land does not exist without marijuana.) He saw it as an “anarchist experiment”: an intentional community where people could exist free of the fetters of capitalism and corporate influence.
“I call it the end of the road gang,” he told Vice’s Manisha Krishnan in 2017.
“The people who are looking, looking, looking, going, going, going, as far as you can, to the end of the road.”
Poole’s Tofino arrival coincided with a major movement that put the region on the map: the Clayoquot protests, a series of blockades and demonstrations against old-growth logging, had been simmering since the mid-1980s. At the time, MacMillan Bloedel and BC Forest Products had announced their intention to begin logging on Meares Island. The Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, for whom the Clayoquot Sound had been home for millennia, took issue. So did the environmentalists who filled the BC Legislature’s lawn.
By the summer of 1993, 11,000 protesters had flocked to Clayoquot Sound to join the “War in the Woods.” Nearly a thousand were arrested, in what was—prior to Fairy Creek—the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
Michael Goodliffe was one of them. Born in Manitoba and raised across the country by “a pack of wild hippies,” he’d been working in a fishery camp east of Port Hardy when he saw the first televised coverage of protests in Port Alberni. He quit his job on the spot and hitchhiked there.
Tofino in the Clayoquot protest years was a hotbed of hippies and counterculture idealists —“gutter punks” and “radical kids,” Goodliffe called them—the same kind of people who gravitated to Poole’s Land, and who would form the clientele for one of Goodliffe’s next business ventures.
“After [the protests], I made my living selling pot. I went [back] to the West Coast with 12 pounds of weed,” he says.
“I had a couple pounds left, and I asked, ‘Who else wants it in Tofino?’ And somebody said, ‘Michael Poole will buy it off you. But he’ll probably rip you off.’”
Poole’s Land, in its earliest years, was little more than a gravel road jutting off into the rainforest. Poole lived in a trailer on the property.
“I loved him from the minute I met him,” Goodliffe says.
Most nights, Poole’s trailer would serve as the party base. As more arrivals came, more huts and shacks went up—from “The Pyramid,” a treehouse shelter built by author and filmmaker Andrew Struthers, to the “Magic Bus,” a converted GMC bus where Goodliffe eventually lived.
“It was kind of like the Lost Boys village,” Dennison says.
Four rules came to govern Poole’s Land: no hard drugs, no violence, respect all beings, and recycle what you use. Poole believed so strongly in the latter that he would fertilize his garden with his own urine.
“He really went out of his way to live the way that he spoke and thought, in terms of his integrity about the land, and he didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t considerate of the land,” Dennison says.
The Clayoquot protests of the 1990s had an unintended consequence: they put Tofino and its long, windswept beaches on the global tourism map.
As the former fishing town turned from a hippie haven to an international tourist destination, the cost of housing soared astronomically—one Campbell Street home, sold for $183,000 in 1996, is currently listed for sale at nearly $3.3 million; and in May of 2021, a Tofino townhome near Chesterman Beach sold for $1 million over its initial asking price—and what little supply of rental housing that existed turned into $300-a-night short-term vacation rentals.
“It's one of the hallmarks of Tofino life: rain, tourists, pricey food and the ‘Tofino shuffle’—the twice-yearly forced move when the house-owner turfs you out of your suite to do summer-vacation rentals, and then accepts you back in in the fall,” former Tofino councillor Greg Blanchette wrote in an op-ed for the Globe and Mail.
Every year, an estimated 750,000 tourists arrive in Tofino (pop. 2,000), which both provides an important income source and poses a prickly problem for the low- and modest-wage workers who staff the surf shops, cafes, and clothing stores: there’s work to be had and money to be made in Tofino, but hardly anywhere on the peninsula to stay. As staff housing options dissipated like a North Chesterman fog, Poole’s Land became a sort of lifeline for service workers: a place where they could stay for as little as $50 a month. On any given summer night, as many as a hundred workers and travellers slept at Poole’s Land—though some visitors estimated the number was much higher.
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“I had companies calling me, booking spots for their employees [and] pre-paying their summer so they could stay there,” Goodliffe says.
“I wouldn't have been able to make it in Tofino if I didn't have Poole’s Land to land in,” adds Rachel Leghissa, a sales coordinator with Best Western Hotels & Resorts.
“And I feel bad for a lot of people trying to make it in Tofino, because housing is so difficult.”
(Blanchette, in his op-ed, professed to have moved 19 times in 2017 alone.)
Back in 2018, Leghissa had moved to Tofino on a whim after quitting her job as a yoga instructor in Whitby, Ont., and moving into a 1993 Chevrolet Beauville that she’d bought off Kijiji for $1,000. There was no power steering, and the previous owners had nicknamed the van “Roach.”
“I went out to Tofino for two weeks, thinking I could just kind of park anywhere and live, and then learned quickly when I got woken up by the bylaw... So I started asking everyone that I met where I could park,” she says.
She ended up living at Poole’s Land for a month—and even met her future husband, Aaron, there.
“I think [he] was impressed that I was willing to poop in a compost toilet and also barely shower,” Leghissa jokes.
Despite Poole’s Land’s colour-outside-the-lines attitude toward local bylaws—it was an unsanctioned campground with a single shower, and most of its DIY dwellings likely wouldn’t have passed a fire inspection—there existed a sort of truce between the transient community and the District of Tofino. Formal complaints or bylaw-related fines, at least for most of the community’s existence, were rare.
“We’re in such a critical housing shortage. 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,” Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne explained to the Globe and Mail when she was still mayor of Tofino.
The bylaw complaints did come, though—perhaps an inevitability after 30 years and over 20,000 passers-through. In the spring of 2019, Poole received three fines, $1,000 each, for contravening zoning regulations. There were other complaints from Tofino residents: unchecked noise, fires, stolen property—“It became sort of famous for, if your bike was stolen, you could generally find it in Poole’s Land,” Dennison says—and a reputation for drugs.
“They would open their doors to people who’d had addictions with hard drugs, and you could tell some people were [still using],” says Aaron Leghissa, who lived in Poole’s Land for eight months in 2018.
“We aren’t a shelter, and we aren’t an addictions centre. What we can offer is a nice, quiet space to put up a tent for $50 a month,” Goodliffe said in 2019.
Beyond the hippies, punks, and van-lifers, the commune also attracted another, more dangerous type of visitor: those who were on the run from the law, or looking to avoid society entirely. Goodliffe recalls one evening, needing to evict an axe-wielding traveller who’d set up camp and refused to leave.
By the late 2010s, Poole’s Land had also become Internet-famous, largely thanks to a Vice documentary and a blog article professing visitors could “live for free” and be paid in drugs. Visitors came to Tofino purely to see Poole’s Land.
“It just became something that I don’t think was maybe [Poole’s] original vision,” Dennison says.
Poole openly mused about selling the 17.5-acre property off and on through the years.
As early as 2010, he had discussed selling Poole’s Land, suggesting that it could be turned into a housing co-op, with a portion of the land remaining under ownership, or sold off entirely—provided he could find a buyer with a sustainably-minded development plan.
On Feb. 27, 2011, in a public post on the “I lived in Poole’s land” Facebook group, Poole wrote: “I am giving all the long term parked people notice to move by ‘MAY DAY’ ! … This place needs a change to accountability … (the drop in camping is ending) … to become a place for families showing how neighbors [sic] can create all the food, housing, power and water that is needed to live well !”
Still, the drop-in camping continued.
At another point in 2017, Poole shared plans of leasing the property, or granting the Poole’s Land visitors, past and present, the option to pool together to buy the land from him. He had hopes of raising enough money to purchase an additional 160 acres of land near the West Coast Landfill, dubbed DL404 on Alaska Pine Road, where the community could move—and no longer fall under the bylaws of the District of Tofino.
“There’s no neighbours out there,” he told the Westerly News.
“That takes the whole problem of staff accommodation out of Tofino and Ucluelet. It’s large enough to be a small town of its own.”
That same year, Poole wrote a letter to Tofino’s town council titled “The future of Poolesland.”
“I have grown older here. At 66, it is time for me to sign off from the responsibilities,” he wrote.
“Until recently, the land has been active [Tla-o-qui-aht] territory providing forest, fish and all nature, sustainably for at least 5,000 years. This was community land … This begs the question, ‘What is the best we can do now?’”
The Alaska Pine Road property plan never came to fruition. Poole never managed to find buyers for his Mackenzie Beach Road property, either—or rather, he never got around to selling it.
He’d been battling prostate cancer—first in 2013, and then it resurfaced in 2018.
“I’ve been the garbage man here and I don’t want to be in charge of anything anymore... It was good, but I’m kind of burned out on it, honestly; more than burned out,” he told the Westerly News.
Just over two weeks before Michael Poole died on June 16, 2020, at the age of 68, he made one final public appearance, joining Tuff City Radio host Cameron Dennison for a two-hour special. It was an emotional affair: Poole’s cancer had spread to his spine and hips. (“I joked about saving heroin for my old age, and I haven’t tried it yet,” he said.) He was considering a medically assisted death; it was planned for just a few weeks later.
Friends and well-wishers gathered on the small lawn outside the Main Street community radio station.
“I think probably 20 or 30 people were just waiting to see him and give him a hug and tell him they loved him,” Dennison says.
Dennison and Poole played Frank Zappa and talked about fatherhood, reincarnation, and Poole’s dreams for the future of his property.
“I'm going to be passing the land on to [my children] Lilly and Clay,” he told Dennison, mentioning they would continue the process of working to find buyers for the land.
“There's all kinds of options. But we'd really still like to hold to the vision and see if there's some way we can work well with the district of Tofino and really help a good thing happen for our whole community.”
Poole’s vision in his later years had been to build a community of tiny homes. He’d already dug and built the foundation for a number of them. He saw the land as an affordable-housing solution: a national model where Tofino residents could live in community and feed themselves from food grown within a 10-kilometre radius.
“I hope that we could really make a big splash with people who ever want to visit Clayoquot and come to Tofino and Ucluelet,” Poole said.
The 17.5 acres are mostly quiet these days. Poole’s Land closed permanently to visitors in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in British Columbia and set off ripples provincewide.
“We lost so many people when it shut down,” Rachel Leghissa says.
“These people were just living, and they [didn’t] give a shit what you think of them. And it was kind of cool to be around that energy all the time,” adds Aaron Leghissa.
The property itself, and Poole’s estate, is the subject of a court dispute. (“Discussing the property publicly is very difficult right now,” Lilly Woodbury, Poole’s daughter and the executor of his estate, wrote in an email to Capital Daily.)
Poole’s legacy, though, lives on in Tofino.
“He lifted a lot of young people up. He gave a lot of people a home,” Dennison says. “He did what he set out to achieve: he brought a ton of people together—from all over the world, from all sectors of society, all ages, sexes, creeds. And so many of those memories, people won't forget [for] their whole lives.
“Maybe some people thought he was wild,” he adds.
“And he was. And I appreciated him for that.”