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Island Diaries: Misty Lawson of Atleo Air

Island Diaries: Misty Lawson of Atleo Air

Misty Lawson was born and raised on a remote, offshore island outside Tofino (population: six, her family). She talks to us about off-grid living, the lessons deer have taught her, and why taking a flight with Atleo means more than just sightseeing. 

As told to writer Dre Turner. Illustration by Kevin McBride.

I grew up on a remote, offshore island outside Tofino. It was just me and my family living on the island; there were no other year-round residents. My siblings and I were all born on the island—other than my oldest brother, Matahil (or Mat), who was born in Duncan, on the way home from Victoria, which he hates—and my sister, Quoashinis (or Cosy), who was born on the beach. With Cosy, my mom went into labour on a nice summer day so she just stayed and laboured there until she was born. We were homeschooled, so both my parents were around almost all the time, which was so great. We were very lucky; I don’t take my childhood for granted. My father is Ojibwe and endured a lot growing up—his mother died and he went into the foster care system, then later dropped out of high school. But he was so smart. My mom is too, though she has a university education. The combination of both of them really impressed upon me how intelligence doesn’t come in one form. 

My father passed away three years ago, but growing up, he did a bit of everything. He drove water taxis, guided for whale watching tours, built homes—he was pretty amazing. He built our family home from driftwood and other materials he could find on the island and its beaches. Both of my parents did jail time for their part in the [Clayoquot Sound] blockades protecting the old-growth forest. The authorities threatened to take us kids away because they were both looking at jail time. Neither of them identified as hippies; my mother intentionally showed up to serve her jail time in her best, tailored pantsuit. But they negotiated a way to serve their time consecutively so one parent could stay home with us. They knew what needed protecting—to my parents, these were old-growth areas where they spent time camping, but to logging companies, these were areas they saw on a map and had no idea how special they were. One area in particular where my parents used to camp wasn’t saved, but it used to be crazy—trees bigger than Cathedral Grove—and it’s gone. They logged it all.

I really appreciate the way my siblings and I were raised, and how we learned to be resourceful and live off the land. There were times when we didn’t have much money, but we probably ate better because of it. We always had a garden and caught fish. We didn’t have any pets growing up—no cats or dogs or anything. It’s something that didn’t make sense for us. When pets hunt or chase the deer away, it messes with the natural balance of the ecosystem. We had animal friends though, and people would bring us fawns if their mothers had been killed, or whatnot, and we’d raise them until they could go out on their own. We had an orphaned baby seal friend who we taught to hunt and eat; we built it a plywood pool and pumped fresh saltwater into it every day, catching live herring for it to eat. But mostly we had a lot of deer friends. They’re such smart animals—I learned a lot from them. One deer was so maternal; we’d play hide and seek with her, and if you hid for too long she’d freak out. One time she forced us all home, biting our butts and hurrying us back. The next day we found cougar prints all around the beach we had been playing on. She knew and she could have left on her own, but didn’t.

From the deer, I learned how to listen to the birds. Through the birds, we were able to understand and read our surroundings. My brother used to say, “Don’t act like food!”—it was just the way we lived. If you were really young, you didn’t go wandering alone. When we got older, we always knew how to be aware and alert. 

We didn’t have any pets growing up—no cats or dogs or anything. It’s something that didn’t make sense for us. When pets hunt and catch bears or chase the deer away, it messes with the natural balance of the ecosystem.

My parents believed that giving your kids responsibility makes them, in turn, responsible. Growing up, we were allowed to use the family boat by the time we were about nine or so. This meant my sister and I could run bear watching tours. A woman in town who wanted to protect the bears from trophy hunters heard what we were doing. She made an arrangement with my parents and paid for a better motor for the boat that helped us run our little business. Looking back now, I realize that must have seemed crazy to some of the guests; my older sister was 13 and driving the boat. I was 10 and serving them hot chocolate. To think about my daughter, Mila, who’s 13 now—she’s so small—to think about her doing that is crazy. But she’s also great on the water. My partner Jay and I live on an island in the harbour with our kids. It’s just a quick commute across the harbour to school and work. Because Mila goes to school in Ukee, she starts an hour earlier than her brother who goes to school in Tofino. Some days, she’ll take the little boat across to catch the bus or one of us will take her if it’s dark out or the weather isn’t great. There’s added work to living off-grid but it’s worth it. 

Growing up, I started working when I was twelve. I got a job on a neighbouring island, so I would take our other boat, and row across to work and back. Then I started baking at a place in town when I was about 14, which meant super early hours. My sister [who was 18 at the time] and I got an apartment that we would stay at so we could go to work and not worry about making the crossing in the dark or in bad weather. After maybe six years of living in town, I ended up being offered a caretaking position on another offshore island, which was amazing. It’s a lot of work, living like that, and it’s not for everyone, but I love it.

There’s added work to living off-grid but it’s worth it. 

Jay and I run Atleo River Air Service, doing scenic flights and adventures by floatplane and helicopter around Clayoquot Sound and the surrounding area. Jay’s originally from Ontario, and when he first came out here, he worked for the original [Atleo] owners. They were based out of Ahousaht until they were ready to retire, then they sold the company to him. At the time, I was working as a guide for Ocean Outfitters during the summer—I’d been doing that for 17 years—but when I got pregnant, I took a season off and started working in the Atleo office. Being a full-time boat driver while also being a parent to young children isn’t super conducive, since you’re out of cell reception and on the water sun-up to sundown. You can’t be there when they need you. I soon switched to guiding part-time and working for Atleo part-time. This is the first year I’ve done full-time at just one place. Jay and I work so well together. And our staff are such a great group of weirdos. Mila even pointed it out the other day saying, “The Atleo crew is so solid.” Everyone is amazing. There’s no hierarchy or boss per se—Atleo Air is all of our bosses, not just Jay, not just me. Everyone’s job is as important, from the dockhand to the dispatcher to the pilot. Every person is equally valued.

Being able to show people this place from the air is such a special thing. Even growing up here I had no idea. I knew every nook and cranny by boat, but seeing it from the air for the first time was incredible. It really blew my mind. That’s how I met Jay, actually. My parents would go camping by boat and if I couldn’t go with them because I had to work, I would sometimes get dropped off by floatplane to meet them and Jay would be the pilot. So we knew of each other from around town, but our first date was pretty special—he took me up to this little lake and I was sold. We’ve been together for 15 years and I think it’s really about sharing the same passions. The things we love to do are the same: camping, exploring, mushroom picking, being on the water, just being out in nature. We just love doing the same things and still do. And he’s always game with the adjustments to living off-grid on an island and in dealing with my family. My siblings are my best friends. I have many “chosen” siblings besides the three others I was raised with too. But my immediate family and I hang out all the time, like, at least once a week—it’s great. My older brother is seven years older than me, my older sister four, and my younger brother three years younger. All of them are still on the water. Mat, the oldest, is a captain with the Coast Guard and a boat designer, my sister Cosy operates Tofino Wilderness Resort, and my younger brother Oren manages the boats for the resort. 

Sometimes I’ll paddleboard across the channel to work when the weather is calm and think about how this is what’s normal for me. How this is what some people spend their year working to be able to do on their two weeks of vacation.

I don’t take where we live for granted. I see it, I look at it every day from work, from home and during my commute. Sometimes I’ll paddleboard across the channel to work when the weather is calm and think about how this is what’s normal for me. How this is what some people spend their year working to be able to do on their two weeks of vacation. Seeing Tofino from above is so special. It’s what I love about Atleo—getting to share that with people, seeing both the beauty but also the human impact. There’s a ridge up north, and as as you come over it, everything looks so pristine and untouched. But as soon as you crest the ridge there’s this massive cut-block from logging. I love getting to show people this place so they can understand what needs to be saved, why it needs to be protected. Without seeing it, people have no way of understanding how special and sacred this area is—there’s nowhere like it in the world. 

To take a flight with Atleo Air, head here.

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