Gus Jacobson is already breaking a sweat, despite the cool air and the fact that it’s not even 9 AM yet. He’s using a chainsaw to carve sturdy slices of wood out of a thick log. Once he’s finished, he’ll grab his wedge and a sledgehammer to cut smaller bolts. It’s not an easy task, but it’s an important one. He’s making western red cedar shakes to restore the roof of a building that was first raised over a century ago.
Tall and slim, with grey hair and excellent posture, Jacobson looks how one might expect an eighty-two-year-old Finnish fisherman and carpenter to look. His face is weathered from the sun and his hands have deep creases, some of them filled with residual dirt from his morning repair tasks. Every inch of him speaks to a life of hard work, spent close to nature.
It’s a bright morning in early March, and I’ve driven in from Vancouver through the stretches of Richmond, British Columbia’s farmland to meet Jacobson where No. 4 Road ends at a calm pocket of the mighty Fraser River. On my way in, I passed acres of dormant crops that will be rich with blueberries and corn in several months. These are the vistas the area is known for. But as you drive further, the farmland is interrupted by something else: monster mansions. These gigantic homes, sometimes several storeys high, have become as much a part of the landscape of Richmond as its agricultural fields, the mark of creeping urbanization. Jacobson is not a fan. “They’re no better than a chicken coop,” he grumbles. “Six years after they’re built, they’re rotten. They’re just not built of the right material.” He of all people would know.
Before us stands a ramshackle collection of wooden sheds and houses on either side of a twelve-foot-wide bridge that joins the road to marshland. Most of these buildings perch on stilts, a narrow passage of water running beneath them. Reeds and mud line the water banks, as do several raggedy boats and pylons. Some of the structures look to be abandoned and in disrepair, their shingles escaping the frame. But others are clearly lived in and cared for, the cedar timber of their walls fresh. If it weren’t for these details, and for a few faint lines of smoke wafting out of a chimney or two, I’d be sure we had stumbled upon a ghost town.
For Jacobson, though, this is home. Working steadily, and entirely by hand, he is replacing the wood panelling of these houses and sheds in an effort to preserve an important slice of BC history that may otherwise be forgotten. Yet despite his dedication and care, the structures around us will one day almost certainly vanish—if not lost to memory, then likely to the land that once welcomed them.
The historic fishing village of Finn Slough—pronounced “slew,” a British word meaning “inlet on a river”—has nearly winked out of existence more than once in its long life. In its 130-year history, the community has endured threats from both humans and nature. The first came not even a decade after its founding.
In the early 1890s, the area now known as Richmond was mostly dense forest and marshland. The first European settlers were farmers who had arrived three decades earlier, eager to reap the agricultural promise of the rich delta soil—land that Coast Salish peoples had been using as seasonal encampments for millennia before them. The township of Richmond was officially incorporated in 1879, allowing its residents to begin what would become a century-long fight against nature: diking the boundaries of a delta that stood only one full metre above sea level.
Living on the banks of the Fraser River, it wasn’t long before the pioneers discovered the true gold mine of the region, not on its land but in its waters: one of the richest salmon stocks on the continent. As word spread, more settlers arrived—among them a group of Finnish people. At the junction of what is now No. 4 Road and Finn Road, they laid claim to their own small portion of the collective dream.
The handful of Finnish families had come from farther east in Canada, having saved up money working as loggers and coal miners. They bought property on a site called Green Slough—now Woodward Slough—at the head of an inlet that ran deep into the delta from the Fraser. Here, they built houses from the cedar of the surrounding forest and cleared the land by hand, sowing crops and building boats they would use to access the river. They also built those bastions of Finnish culture that would help them through the cold winters: wooden saunas. But the peace of this new life would be short-lived.
The water in the inlet often flooded over the dikes that had been built to contain it, ruining the crops of the wealthier non-Finnish farmers on the surrounding land. In 1900, only several years after the Finns had arrived, their neighbours blocked off the inlet and installed a dam, forcing the Finns to look elsewhere for proximity to the Fraser. A small, insular community whose members didn’t speak much English, the Finns were viewed as outsiders, their interests considered of little importance. Cut off from their livelihoods as fishers, they might simply have given up on their new village.
Instead, less than a mile away, they began to set up shop on a marshy piece of land not yet accessible by any road. Needing a place to house their boats and linen fishing nets, they soon built a long wooden dock extending into the mouth of the inlet, as well as several sturdy sheds. The homes would come later, as they gradually expanded their community from the original settlement on Finn Road to the riverside. Over the ensuing years, other Finns would join them, fleeing the repression of Russian rule in Finland, and eventually creating a bustling enclave filled with activity and exchange.
Though Finn Slough was still quite physically remote, the slough’s fishermen would make weekly trips to nearby Steveston—the rapidly expanding heart of the local fishing trade—to gather supplies and sell their catch. It wouldn’t be until the early 1930s that the village would open itself up to non-Finns, as other fishermen arrived to partake in the spoils of its prime location on the Fraser.
“There used to be thirty-four boats here in total, and fifteen families,” Jacobson tells me as he leads me along the northern edge of the slough, where the row of houses and boat sheds meets the road. The village is calm and quiet, but as we walk, I can see signs of life that I didn’t notice at first glance: well-tended gardens around some of the houses and new coats of paint on some of the buildings.
Jacobson keeps a brisk pace in his sturdy worker’s overalls, heavy boots and well-used flannel jacket. One of only two remaining descendants of the original Finnish families who first settled on this land, Jacobson was raised on the slough. Although he no longer lives here, he comes to the village nearly every day to care for the place that shaped him. Besides repairing and rebuilding homes and the sheds that store fishing nets, Jacobson helps people out with maintenance work and is invested in the long-term restoration of several historic slough fishing boats. He is the last of Finn Slough’s old guard.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a small group of outsiders—alerted by word-of-mouth—began to trickle into the community, buying up homes from Finns who were starting to move out. Today, the houses that fill the slough range from minimalist and modern to eccentric. One home is painted bright blue while another is chock full of scavenged bark, which Jacobson tells me its owner uses to build fires in wood-burning stoves. Despite its cobbled-together feel, there’s a warm coherence to it all.
About twenty residents now inhabit the slough—a mix of artists, tradespeople, teachers and nature lovers. With no central heating or sewage system, Finn Slough is an off-the-grid oasis that provides respite from the chaos of city life, but it’s also not for the faint of heart. As with the Finns before them, the community is held together by its existence on the periphery of the rest of society. Residents see themselves as outliers, united by their commitment to their home. Everyone who lives here has chosen to do so with conviction.For more than a century, this commitment has kept Finn Slough and its residents afloat.
In many ways, Finn Slough has been defined by its ability to adapt to and survive challenges. But as the threats of climate change and rising sea levels grow, this spirit of tenacity may not be enough to save the village from its seemingly inevitable fate. Residents are facing their most difficult, and perhaps final, fight. Yet they remain intent on preserving their chosen way of living, even if the tides may one day carry their home away.
Gus Jacobson’s family has lived and worked on the slough for five generations. His grandfather, Mike Jacobson (a name he anglicized from Mikko Hinhala), was the first Finn to buy property in this area, spearheading the community effort that created Finn Slough. Jacobson was born in a hospital just down the road from the slough in 1939. He remembers coming home from his neighbourhood school each day and spending his afternoons—after he had finished his chores and cut firewood—playing with the other children in the village, building tree houses along the dike and trapping local animals, from pheasants to raccoons. “We didn’t know how lucky we were,” he says.
Jacobson learned to fish at the age of eight thanks to his father, who had learned from his own father before him. “They were good fishermen, they knew how to fish and they worked hard,” he says of his ancestors. “Fishing was a kind of gentleman’s agreement. You left a distance and then set your net—everyone would take their turn.” Jacobson recalls how Japanese and Indigenous fishermen joined the Finns on the Fraser, and how they all shared the area respectfully. After long days on the water, the reward was an abundance of salmon of all types: coho, spring, pink, steelhead, sockeye.
“Your early spring salmon in February were the best,” Jacobson says. “Their bellies were an inch thick and full of goodness. You just couldn’t spoil it no matter how you cooked that thing.” Some seasons, he says his father would fish for three days straight. There were just so many fish that he couldn’t bear not to. One time, Jacobson himself caught nine hundred salmon in a single trip. “Then I slept for twenty-four hours after,” he laughs. “It was like someone had banged me over the head.”
Jacobson went on to join the burgeoning commercial fishing industry and purchased a boat for himself. He moved out of the slough to a home he bought just down the road, but continued to spend most of his time in the village, where his family and friends all lived. Eventually, he started a family of his own. He’d take his son fishing with him and they’d spend full days together on the slough.
His life would continue in this way for decades, until Finn Slough and its fishermen began to feel the effects of a problem that extended far beyond their community. The last sizable Fraser River salmon run that Jacobson remembers was about ten years ago. Since then, each year has seen a steadily dwindling supply of salmon, and during the last two seasons he didn’t go out at all. There simply weren’t enough fish.
It’s hard to figure out where all the salmon have gone, and there is much debate about what has caused the previously abundant stocks to diminish. Everything from unregulated commercial fishing practices and fish farms to pollution and disease has hurt their delicate life cycles. And, as water temperatures steadily rise due to climate change, it’s increasingly harming their natural habitat. Their decline has meant that Jacobson, like many local fishers, has had to move on to other industries.
For the past decade or so, Jacobson has worked part-time as security for the harbour in Steveston. He misses running his fishing business with his son, selling their daily catch along the highway and seeing customers return year after year. But the times have changed. It’s the same with the surrounding farmland of Richmond, he tells me. Many fishermen Jacobson knew used to work on the farms when fishing wasn’t good, but now the land is being bought up by developers, gradually morphing into the massive homes that have made it all but unrecognizable.
The steady destruction of the land and water surrounding the slough pains Jacobson. He and many of the residents of Finn Slough see development and industrialization as the most pressing and immediate threat to their current way of life. They view themselves and their community as one of the last real holdouts against these forces. “When all this farmland is gone, when all the fish are gone, where are all the groceries going to come from? We’re using up the most fertile delta land in the world and when it’s gone there won’t be anything left,” he says.
“We’re really good at wrecking things. And we don’t admit to our wrongs. That’s the problem.”
“The last Finnish resident must have left in 1982,” David Dorrington tells me over the phone one evening. He’s calling from a cabin on Hornby Island, where he and his partner spend their time when they’re not living in Finn Slough. “Fishing is a hard life,” he says. “Eventually you get worn out and you have to retire. What are you going to do with your boat? If there’s no more Finns moving in, which there weren’t, you sell it to an outsider. You sell your boat and your float home.”
Dorrington is the de-facto historian of the slough. He has been researching the community and its culture for the last three decades, almost since the day he moved in. A visual artist and tradesman, Dorrington’s first visit was in 1976. An artist friend of his was living in Finn Slough at the time (one of the first non-Finns to join the community) and had invited a group of other artists up for a photoshoot.
Dorrington remembers feeling like he had entered another universe. “There were huge trees all along both sides of the dike, enormous trees, so it was really like coming to the end of the world,” he says. “It was cut off completely. You couldn’t see north at all. It felt very private and like an unusual, funky place that was so close to the city but so secretive, so hidden.”
The non-Finnish community that reclaimed the slough in the seventies and eighties has helped to keep an important legacy alive. Dorrington says life in the village is “about a way of living that is organized according to nature, rather than according to rules.”
Residents live in tandem with the water and seasons as the river fills and empties each day. They check the high tides most mornings, since an especially high tide or wind can mean the difference between getting over the boardwalk to one’s home or not being able to make it. They are intimately connected to their neighbours and the land, too. Besides lending each other a hand where needed—repairing buildings, offering support and supplies—they are devoted to keeping their environmental footprint as light as possible.
But life in Finn Slough is also one of insecurity. Finn Slough partly occupies provincial Crown land, meaning that it is not officially part of any municipality, including Richmond. As such, its residents are not legal occupants of their homes: by some definitions, they are squatters (though both Dorrington and Jacobson take issue with this term). They pay a small share of land tax and donate money each year to the City of Richmond in exchange for basic services like running water and garbage removal.
While their tenancy does not currently seem to be at risk, Dorrington says residents have faced challenges in the past. Most notably, in the early 1990s, a developer claimed to have purchased the title to a portion of the slough’s land and came knocking with plans to build luxury development on the inlet.
The ensuing battle to protect Finn Slough ignited a rousing cry of support from the wider community of nature photographers, artists, historians and curious tourists who had stumbled upon the village. They banded together, established the Finn Slough Heritage and Wetland Society, and eventually raised enough money to hire a lawyer. This same lawyer told Finn Slough’s residents that they would need to document the historical and cultural value of the community in order to help protect it. Dorrington has been working on that task ever since.
Finn Slough fought the developer for the better part of a decade until, in 2000, the City of Richmond clarified that the land fell both under the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve (land zoned for farming) and Richmond’s protected wildlife areas, designated as such for the slough’s biodiverse wetland habitat. Neither designation permitted luxury development. The developer eventually gave up, though his estate still legally holds the land title.
After paying off a $120,000 legal bill with donated funds, Finn Slough’s community returned to its previous way of life. But there was a new sense of precariousness to its existence—the threat of capitalism. “It could turn into another battle anytime,” says Dorrington. “For now, though, the authorities seem to have forgotten us.”
Still, there are some who seem to think that Finn Slough’s residents don’t deserve to be there. Over the years, the slough has seen its share of unwelcome visitors: people throwing garbage and empty beer cans on the property, driving by in sleek cars to yell at the people who live there. “The thing that challenges people about Finn Slough is that it is not playing a role in the capitalist system,” says Dorrington. “We’re living on land that is under dispute and some people like to call us squatters, ignoring the fact that every non-Indigenous person in BC is a squatter.”
Finn Slough, Dorrington believes, exists in opposition to the hectic rhythms of contemporary life. “I think part of the reason people are drawn to it is because it speaks to things people are subconsciously longing for,” he tells me. “Nature decided to make the slough, to make the tide go in and out. Those are things that I think we are always longing for, and we respond to them very strongly.”
But the sad irony of Finn Slough is that the very wilderness the residents love will one day cause their exodus, as the tides slowly reclaim the land.
Dorrington has seen nearly a dozen buildings disappear in his thirty years at the slough. They’ve been lost to disuse and the ravages of time, but also to irreparable flood damage caused by increasingly high tides and storm surges. In 2018, Finn Slough experienced the biggest storm that current residents had ever seen. It was in the spring, after an already challenging winter of extreme weather. Dorrington remembers waking up early in the morning to find twigs and bits of detritus only inches from his doorway. He realized, though the tide had already gone out, that the river water had flooded his entire porch.
“There are houses that go fully under,” Dorrington tells me. Most people have been steadily raising their homes or raising the stilts that some of them sit on (a laborious manual process that can take weeks, and that Jacobson often helps with) in an effort to adapt. Dorrington has raised his own home by four inches. But he knows it may not be enough.
Normally, Dorrington says, the slough is protected from waves and weather by Whitworth Island—a narrow, marshy slice of land that sits on the inlet’s southernmost edge—and its vegetation. But when the water rises with a particularly high tide or severe storm, the vegetation is submerged and it’s a different story. “You suddenly realize that you are in the south arm of the Fraser River and that it’s going really fast and is very powerful.”
Heavy rainfall, storms and other extreme weather events are only projected to intensify as climate change increases. Coastal communities across the globe are facing flooding from sea-level rise and melting glacier ice, coastal erosion and heavier storms. Many have inadequate infrastructure to support proper adaptation. In Canada, a country largely defined by its rugged, natural coastline—the longest in the world—communities along our western, eastern and northern coasts are being put to the test.
British Columbia is bearing the brunt of this struggle. With over 80 percent of the population located within five kilometres of the ocean, we are at the mercy of the water we call home. Researchers have determined that sea levels in BC are likely to rise by up to one full metre over the next eighty years. The Fraser River Delta is the most at-risk area in the province. Municipalities like Delta and Surrey have been aware of high flooding risk for decades and have several management strategies in place, including dikes, storm walls, pump stations and comprehensive emergency evacuation plans. Yet according to Kees Lokman, a professor of landscape architecture and research director at the University of British Columbia’s coastal adaptation lab, these tools may not be enough.
Lokman and his team are conducting a four-year study looking into alternatives to the conventional “hard structure” models that are usually employed in flood-risk planning. Instead of concrete dikes, which don’t prevent wave surges and can damage important coastal ecosystems, Lokman and his lab are interested in more natural approaches.
Born and raised in the Netherlands, a coastal country full of rivers, Lokman says he grew up caring about water and, later, started trying to understand how we live with it. The Netherlands is one of few countries that has, with relative success, implemented a comprehensive national flood management plan for both coastal and riverine communities.
Dutch landscape architects and designers understand that flood protection strategies shouldn’t always try to block water, says Lokman, but can accommodate it and find ways “to let ecological systems and other, softer strategies appear.” They have opted for innovative natural solutions like flood bypass channels (manmade diversions used to accommodate high water levels) and living dikes (sediment mounds that permit waves to break more gently and allow delicate wetland habitats to flourish).
Lokman’s research explores how BC might implement similar systems. For his project, called “Living With Water,” Lokman is speaking with various municipalities in the Lower Mainland, the BC government and several First Nations, including the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Musqueam, to discuss options for future coastal adaptation. Over the past decade, municipalities have come to understand the risks of sea level rise, says Lokman. “It’s time now to start planning.”
One of the options that currently exists for coastal communities planning for climate change-induced flooding is called managed retreat. It’s a process that involves systematically pulling vulnerable communities back from the coastline, as opposed to holding in place, as Finn Slough has opted for up to this point. Most communities along the Fraser River Delta are aware of the option, but none is seriously considering it at the moment. It’s prohibitively expensive, given the cost of land, real estate and relocation, but there are other considerations, too.
Lokman understands resistance to managed retreat, especially in the context of coastal First Nations in BC. “The added challenge, really an injustice, for a lot of these communities is that they’re on reserve lands and the communities around them are on unceded territories,” he says. “Their options of retreat, even if they were more sympathetic to it, are really limited, because they don’t have the land.”
Though the cultural, historical and political context differs greatly, Lokman sees some parallels between flood-risk planning for coastal First Nations and small non-Indigenous communities like Finn Slough. “Their livelihoods and way of living have been so closely related to the way they live on the land and on the river,” he says.
“If managed retreat was even something that was considered a solution within the community, where would they go? And how would you help a community like that find new connections to a new piece of land? You’d probably want to put them in a similar type of location that might actually face similar issues. Or it might mean they aren’t going to be as closely connected to the water as they used to be.”
Finn Slough’s residents don’t view the rising tide or increased flooding as an ultimatum—at least not yet. For now, it’s just something they live with, raising their houses when necessary. Most people assume things won’t get truly dire until the majority of current residents have already passed. One thing is certain: they aren’t ready to give up and leave.
Lokman says it’s still too early to tell whether more natural flood management solutions like living dikes may work for Finn Slough, but he feels cautiously optimistic that his research may provide some answers. He also acknowledges that managed retreat might end up being an attractive option for residents once seasonal flooding becomes too much for some to bear. But any option would need to account for the community’s history, lifestyle and value system.
Lokman believes the conversation around climate change and disaster management has centred too much around capitalist cost-benefit analysis when considering what deserves protection and preservation. In addition to protecting people, property and economic assets, “there’s a whole range of other values—cultural, spiritual, generational—that should be considered when we’re doing these analyses,” he says. “If we can demonstrate that other solutions might have much more cultural and ecological value, that might be a tool to talk to communities and help them in these situations.”
The word “resilience” comes from the Latin resilire, meaning to rebound or recoil. In its present-day definition, it is generally accepted to mean “the ability to recover quickly from adversity,” or, in psychological terms, the ability to mentally and emotionally cope with crisis. Plants can be resilient; so can people, families, ecosystems and nation states. What makes a community resilient? Is it the people who inhabit it, some inherent quality of their combined character? Some feature tied more to geography and circumstance than anything else? Or perhaps it’s some combination of the two—a factor determined by both the people who inhabit it and by the place itself.
Researchers who study community resilience seem to agree that communities that are able to bounce back from adversity all possess some combination of the following traits: the ability to function well under stress, successful adaptation to change, self-reliance, and social capacity, or the ability to use shared resources to respond to change in an adaptive way.
In 2008, researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland released the results of a study examining the factors that contribute to resilience in rural communities. Residents of the small town of Stanthorpe, just south of Brisbane, overwhelmingly concluded that having strong social networks was fundamental to their ability to withstand hardship. A sense of belonging and shared identity, and the ability to draw together to confront difficulty, was also key.
Other research on community resilience has found that a sense of belonging can come not just from people and community, but from a shared cultural, economic, or geographic experience. It can involve a psychological attachment to a place or to the history of a specific area. Research on community resilience as it relates specifically to natural disasters and climate change emphasizes that social bonds and community cohesion are crucial for recovery.
But those aren’t the only factors. In the Australian study, community resilience also came from the ability to learn and grow from past hardships. Researchers discovered that both positive and negative experiences could provide valuable skills and coping mechanisms for individuals in the community to better confront subsequent setbacks. In other words: past resilience begets future resilience, if a place and its people keep that history alive.
Finn Slough is a survivor. It has survived the loss of its raison d’être—the Fraser River’s rich fish stocks—and original inhabitants; it has survived a greedy developer and the precarity of a homesteading existence on borrowed land; it has survived the tossed beer cans and barbed insults. It has survived a full century and more, drawing on its past resilience to weather each new crisis.
Still, for all its grit and tenacity, for all its acquired resilience and steadfast determination to remain, Finn Slough is missing two key factors isolated in research on community resilience, especially in the face of natural disaster. The first is solid and dependable infrastructure. Of equal importance are social and governmental resources to fall back on in times of vulnerability. The village, a member of no municipality, with no authoritative body to turn to for support, is, quite literally, out at sea on its own.
While Richmond, like Delta and Surrey, has been steadily implementing protective measures in anticipation of future flooding and storms—strengthening its dikes, setting back developments from areas at most risk, building flood boxes and pump stations, and generating storm surge models—Finn Slough sits outside the dikes. It is dependent on strengthening its old wooden buildings and pilings, and on residents raising the village’s homes. Like other vulnerable coastal communities, it has had to cut its losses to remain. But its time is also borrowed.
No one wants to acknowledge what will probably come to pass. “There will be damage,” says Dorrington. “People will recover. But then it will happen again, there’ll be more damage, some people will recover, and slowly but surely people will get fed up with it and they’ll move away.” The slough will eventually get washed away, he says. “It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen gradually or overnight, it’s more like it will happen in one instance of storm surge.”
Nevertheless, Dorrington’s neighbour Jim Munro is confident that this storm won’t occur in his lifetime. Munro has lived on the slough for forty-one years, making him one of its most senior residents. While he’s raised his house, he says the main difference in weather conditions that he’s noticed is that winters are milder. He says storms haven’t yet changed dramatically, but admits that if a high tide hit with a particularly aggressive southeast wind, things could get messy.
“It seems to be a bigger problem for people who don’t live here,” he tells me. “We’re fine—we’re above the high tide, and most of us are above the level of [Richmond’s] dike. I suppose, conceivably, if there’s a massive melt-off in the Arctic and the ocean goes up twenty feet, we’ll be in trouble.” But at the moment, he says, the threat is exaggerated. “We’re all worried about climate change. But it’s not something that I lose any sleep over, in the sense that I worry that the water is coming in next week or something. It’s just not that imminent.”
When I asked BC’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development about Finn Slough’s future, a spokesperson told me that municipalities are responsible for any proposed structural or non-structural flood mitigation projects within their boundaries. Though a significant portion of the land is Crown land, Richmond’s official map includes the slough within the city’s boundaries. The City of Richmond did not respond to several requests for comment.
Munro says every heritage body in Canada has recommended the slough be designated a heritage site, but since nobody really owns the land they live on, it can’t be done. “We’re not taken care of by the city or the province. We know how things work and how to fix things ourselves and make things run,” he says. “I would say that gives one a semblance of control over your life, which is missing more and more.”
Munro isn’t optimistic about the possibility of any government stepping in to help Finn Slough, and he thinks managed retreat is unlikely. “Because of who we are and the way we’re situated, they’re not going to move us.” If anything, he says, “I would see that as an excuse for them to get rid of us.”
As Jacobson and I conclude our tour of the slough, the light of mid-morning has hit. The newly green tips of each tree branch seem eager to drink in the sun. Spring is starting to show itself. Across the water, on Whitworth Island, a choir of songbirds fills the air with its excited chirps. Jacobson tells me they are finches, sparrows and starlings—only a few of the many diverse species that make their home here.
Jacobson says he doesn’t have the same strength and energy that he once did. “I can’t do what I used to do. My wife gets angry with me and tells me to slow down.” It takes an immense amount of time, money and effort to maintain the village, and he wishes he had started earlier, when he was busy raising a family and fishing. “We’re realizing that it has to be done, or else it will disappear,” he says.
When I ask Jacobson what the residents of Finn Slough make of their current situation, and all the science that predicts that in the next half-century their home could be washed away, he tells me that people are “taking it in stride.” No one is talking about leaving, he says. “We love the peace and quiet and serenity we have here. You can’t buy that.”
Crossing over the village’s wooden walkway, I spot a small shed that I hadn’t noticed on the way in. It’s on the north side of the slough, adjacent to the road, and has been spray-painted with large white letters that read: SISU. I ask Jacobson what it means. He tells me that sisu is a Finnish word that doesn’t have a direct translation in English, but means something like “stubborn perseverance.” The idea is integral to Finnish cultural identity and has become the unofficial motto of the community. “To have sisu is to be stubborn and strong in your thoughts,” he says.
Perhaps this is what has kept Finn Slough going for all these decades, then. Maybe, more than anything, resilience is simply in the DNA of this place, passed on from one generation to the next, from the original Finns to their descendants and then on to the people who picked up the torch. And perhaps it’s this determination that will help the village survive in some future intangible form, even if its physical structures cannot.
As we leave the slough, I turn around to catch one final glimpse of what lies behind us. Though it won’t live on forever, and though there will come a day when it is gone for good, the slough is a place that has endured. Through the decades, with the tides and against all odds—a small, tenacious fishing village at the end of the world.
Paloma Pacheco is a writer and journalist based in Vancouver, on unceded Musqueam land. Her reporting, criticism and narrative nonfiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Tyee, MONTECRISTO and cléo journal.