I often say I came to Campbell River for a year…
…that was 1990.
Twenty-four years can go by in a blip on the grand scale, but those 24 all left a mark on me in a remarkable community grounded by even more remarkable people.
After three years at the Clinton (Ontario) News-Record – two years too long, I sometimes think – I sold my old and rusting Nissan 200SX and headed west with a one-way plane ticket and two suitcases.
With relatives in Vancouver, I had a stable nest to branch my young journalist wings in the southern portions of beautiful British Columbia. As luck would have it, after a few mediocre job offers in the low-lying mainland, I got a call from Alistair Taylor.
I like to think I noticed the desperation in his voice after another sports reporter had fled rainy Campbell River. Instead, what occurred was that rare occasion known as perfect timing.
The very recent owners, Gerry and Vera Soroka – independents, I might add – were determined to make the Mirror the top newspaper in Campbell River, and they knew the best news gets people talking and advertisers buying space.
Well, at least Gerry knew that having weened in the journalistic meat market of London’s Fleet Street; Vera managed the books and was just as feisty and demanding, thank goodness.
I arrived on Vancouver Island for the very first time in early November 1990. As luck would have it, it was pouring rain and I was wearing a suit.
Pouring is putting it lightly as you couldn’t even see Quadra Island from the Beehive Restaurant.
In spite of the “sprinkle” I did notice a vibrancy in the community which I had hardly expected. I was picturing a small, East-coast type fishing town, but it was easy to realize Campbell River was much more.
As for the job interview I believe the editor wanted me to start that minute, but Soroka, as publisher, had the final say. Gruff, over-bearing and barking out orders from under a curly mop of grey hair, I found Gerry Soroka to be a very likeable guy and a terrific mentor.
I handed over a resume, a sorted collection of ho-hum stories and a decent collection of pictures, and told him I could turn around his two-bit photography department in a week. That probably sealed the deal.
I started a week later as the sports reporter, photographer, general reporter, bottle washer, etc., and went back to work after being on the public dole – for the first time ever – for a grand total of three days.
I’ve always worked and not surprisingly it started as a paper carrier. My Dad was in the biz and then when my best friend graduated in journalism from Sheridan College, I figured it was right for me too.
Since the age of 12, after the family’s first camping mission to the Great West Coast, I had always wanted to move to British Columbia.
I had no idea of landing in one of best places in the country.
I didn’t quite know that at the time. Campbell River appeared vibrant, but it rained like hell! Poured solid for the first week of my employment, but on the seventh day – hallelujah – the north winds blew away the cover and my eyes were opened to spectacular beauty.
From the high point of Dogwood and Merecroft I looked in awe at the fresh snow-capped mountains of Strathcona Park and then spun around to gape at the equally-magnificent coastal mountain snow cones and the foreground of green islands surrounded by a swirling blue sea.
I was captivated immediately, “Good Lord, Paul, you lucky bast—.”
I felt blessed to be here and that feeling has never wavered.
Mind you, after three years of covering sports in a small community with no junior hockey team, well, things get a tad dull.
I was intent on pulling up stakes then and continuing on my quest to get to the “very top” of the biz, when another “right time, right place’ moment landed in my lap.
The new owners, Black Press, wanted a regional newspaper, something different and they needed a one-person editorial show. Of course I convinced them that was me and for some reason the new publisher, Jim Hayes, agreed.
It was a great gig.
I travelled around the North Island going to new places, meeting new people, telling wonderful stories and taking some terrific photographs too. Let me put it in another way: In the world of journalism, this is known as Nirvana.
Paradise lasted about five years when the economic crunch came in the late 1990s. Rather than try to find a job when there were few, I happily returned to the Mirror as a full-time reporter and photographer.
It was hardly a move down. Since then, I have been the somewhat humble recipient of several provincial and national awards for writing and photography.
I won’t bore you with all of them, but I am particularly proud of being a two-time Canadian winner for Outstanding Reporter Initiative. One was for successfully overturning an overbearing publication ban in high-profile B.C. Supreme Court case and the other for my, and the Mirror’s, coverage of the challenges and problems facing the residents and merchants of Campbellton.
It’s always been my desire to help educate and inform the public, because without knowledge, how can we ever change for the better?
And I’ve always abided by a simple rule: Readers are smart people and can decide for themselves.
Did I say it’s been a remarkable career?
I’ve sky dived, snorkelled with salmon, spelunked in caves, climbed majestic mountains, kayaked between islands, flown the “milk run” in float planes, rode helicopters to remote locations, hiked old growth forests, rode in countless vessels photographing orcas, whales, sea lions, seas, eagles, bears and the stunning surroundings.
And the piece de resistance: Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of a CFB Auroua, flying over the Pacific Ocean and the pilot looking over at me and flipping off the auto pilot switch, “Just keep it at 1,100 feet,” he said with a confident nod.
I felt the full-power of the huge engines in my hands immediately as we flew the wild blue yonder. Then, with a an almost imperceptible twitch, the plane dipped to 900 feet.
“I said 1,100 feet!” the pilot scolded.
He smiled as we climbed to cruising level and for 45 glorious minutes I flew one of the world’s largest propellor-driven aircraft. The memory will always make me smile.
Those are just the thrills. More important are the people I’ve met and whom I’ve learned from.
They have enabled me to tell the compelling stories which have informed, inspired, angered or just made you say, “Hey honey, did you read this?!”
I say thanks to all of you. And to those who had rather not seen their names in print, well, all I can hope is you’re doing better.
After 24 years – who knew! – I leave the Mirror in excellent hands. This is a first-class group of talented and professional people who still know how to have fun working together.
I think that shows in every publication and that positive spirit truly reflects our community. I thank everyone who’s put up with me all these years and I will miss you.
If there’s one thing I am most proud of, it’s my involvement with community and high school football in Campbell River.
I spent about 17 years coaching here, from week one with the Fighting Eagles, and it’s always been a ton of fun.
I’ve coached teams that lost every game and teams that won every contest.
Every year has been a pleasure and that’s entirely due to the young men, and the few young women, who chose to play one of the most challenging team sports.
And little did they know at the time, but they were also learning the game of life: how to work hard, to work together and to become better at what you do.
Those traits have served most of them very well and it’s so gratifying when they come up to me, grown men now with families of their own, shake my hand and say, “Hey coach!”
And now, after “just one year,” I say: Hey Campbell River, thanks for having me!