In May of 1969, North Vancouverites Barry and Margaret Higgins wrapped their newborn daughter Keeley in a blanket and brought her, in an apple box, across Howe Sound to their newly-purchased island hideaway on Gambier Island.
Arriving at the government dock in West Bay, the Higgins, both in their 20s, placed their tiny bundle in a wheelbarrow and wheeled her up a gravel road to a plot of land known as The West Bay Church Camp, ‘discovered’ by accident when Barry found an old for sale sign overgrown by the bush that had, by his telling, “probably been there for ten years.” And so, underneath a towering stand of hemlock, cedar and Douglas fir trees, a lifetime of memories began.
The Higgins joined three other young couples and purchased the seven-acre property for $6,000. “At the time it was quite a bit of money for us,” says Barry. “It was a big deal.”
After diplomatically ‘evicting’ the members of the Church Camp, the four couples moved into a large and airy four-bedroom cabin, built in the 1920s to house workers in a logging camp, while the families’ kids all slept in a smaller cabin behind the main house. Each weekend throughout the summer months, the new owners would cross the sound to cut and split wood, fix things that had rotted over the winter, build an outhouse, or clear new land.
“Whatever we needed, we did ourselves,” Barry says. “With that many people you could get a lot of work done in four hours. The rest of the time was for recreation.”
As a kid, Keeley remembers collecting water from the creek and mowing the lawn, then going fishing and playing horseshoes for fun.
“The place at the time was pretty rustic,” she says. “It didn’t have any power, and we used oil lamps and candles at night. Growing up, life was pretty simple. We’d all come together in a shared boat to the island to relax.”
Jump ahead 20 years to a less relaxing locale—Buffalo Bill’s Bar & Grill, a Whistler nightclub where Keeley met Eric Berger, a transplanted Quebecer on his way to becoming one of the ski and mountain bike industry’s most prolific photographers.
At the same time, Keeley carved herself a niche in the Whistler fine dining scene, serving and managing at establishments like Il Caminetto, Trattoria, and the Red Door Bistro.
In 2001, Keeley and Berger (with Keeley’s brother Jamie) bought out the other partners and family members and took over the island compound, rechristening it Whispering Creek Retreat. “Eric borrowed every jack on the island and jacked up the house to replace all of the termite-infested beams and posts,” Keeley recalls, adding that she wants to keep the old structure around. ”We’ll probably create an indoor gathering space, and revive the old fireplace and its big square hearth, maybe funk it up with some lights. We don’t really want to just knock it down. I feel like the place has a good vibration… It’s really energizing to share that.”
Sharing the island vibe is exactly what the couple hopes to continue into the future, a vibe that comes from not only from the impeccable hosting and culinary skills of Keeley and Berger, but from the decades of hard work put in to make the place what it is today: an amazing patch of West Coast life. Canvas tents and yurts punctuate the clearings, while a wood-fired hot tub, clawfoot cold bath, and a fireside nook made from salvaged wood, offer pure relaxation after a long day on the water. The campfire hosts conversation and laughter all night long, while mornings are best for barefoot walks in the grass and visits to the waterfall at the bottom of “Fern Gully,” before heading out on a boat or a board to experience West Bay and Gambier’s marine life from the water.
The Skwxwu7mesh (Squamish Nation) call Gambier Island Cha7élkwnech, in reference to its deep protected bays, and used the island for resource-gathering, a tradition that Eric and Keeley have continued to this day.
What brings all of the elements of Whispering Creek together is the tiki bar—a rustic, open-air bar and kitchen space where guests can prepare their own food, or have Keeley and Berger craft unique cocktail-and-culinary magic that all (except for the Tequila of course) comes from the island’s bounty. Berger sets his own crab and spot-prawn traps, and Keeley maintains a flourishing garden that supplies fresh produce eight months of the year.
“It’s her biggest passion,” says Berger, putting the final touches on his signature agave-smoked margarita. “She spends a lot of time there and she can zen out, gardening barefoot and getting her hands and feet dirty. It’s all a very organic process, right down to the compost.”
Over the course of a season, Keeley will harvest and serve everything from spinach, asparagus, carrots, radishes, leeks, beets, scallions, garlic, dill, chives, cilantro, green beans, onions, peppers, and blueberries (transplanted from Hare’s Farm in Pemberton).
Berger sets his own crab and spot-prawn traps, and Keeley maintains a flourishing garden that supplies fresh produce eight months of the year.
“What I love most about this place is escaping to another world so close to home,” says Berger, who is more likely to be checking his crab traps these days than he is shooting skiers on Whistler Blackcomb.
“We’d really like to keep sharing it with others,” Keeley adds. “Keep it rustic as possible with the idea of doing retreats so people can come and enjoy the space and what we’ve created there.”
What they’ve created is a well-thought-out collection of coastal character—a place where you can be yourself and escape from reality for a few days. Whispering Creek’s rich history lives on as a destination for wellness, yoga and SUP retreats, weddings and small corporate getaways, as well as nightly Airbnb rentals.
“All walks of life are welcome here,” Keeley says. “The place just has great energy… and I feel like people really kind of need that.”
As another summer dawns, Barry Higgins says he still loves coming to the island to reminisce, relax, and to “get my fingers dirty in the garden with my daughter. There’s a lot of memories for me there that’s for sure” he says. “Keeley and Eric have put so much sweat and love into that place. I’m happy to see it flourishing.”