Tofino Profile: Katie Harrison
by Chris Lowther, Tofino
One dark night soon after World War II, Katie's grandparents escaped from Lithuania with Katie's mother and aunt during the Russian occupation. Katie's mum was just three months old, but she would make sure her children were avidly conscious of this episode as they grew up.
Katie's father was born in Canada but his grandfather came here from Wigan, England, of George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. Katie's parents travelled a lot; she was born in England twenty-nine years ago but lived most of her first five years in Abu Dhabi. Back in England, when she was eight, Katie had her first--and only--boyfriend, Anthony Davis. He wrote her a love poem still in her possession. Unfortunately, when they went to see a movie, Labyrinth, Katie remarked that David Bowie was a babe, making Anthony jealous.
Her best memories of this time were train trips into London with her older sister Kim. The two girls would shop for 45s of The Police, Depeche Mode, Wham, New Order and others. Kim also spoke passionately to her younger sister about human rights, wars and famines (Live Aid was happening). Somehow, their youngest sister Lisa was excluded from these times.
Yet Lisa is the one now who is finding all their old friends on Facebook.
The family moved to Toronto. Katie was an argumentative and rebellious teen, who at one point decided that, 1. she was an existentialist and 2. that she didn't exist. Eventually she got into drama and sports, became "marginally cooler" and even made out with someone else's prom date.
Vancouver and ubc's film program next claimed Katie. She spent a year making a twenty-minute movie about three people who go on a road trip resolving to kick their addictions, only to get stuck at a giant metaphysical rave. Her creation was a rich experience which gained awards but too stressful to be the beginning of her life's calling. So, after waitressing for six months after grad, Katie travelled around Scotland and Morocco. She hitchhiked around Iceland, where deep crevasses, hot springs, geysers and volcanoes were common. "It was desolate: like Mars, no trees. All the food was imported, so it was even more expensive than Tofino." A new island had risen from the ocean and was banned to humans so that scientists could watch how life without us would evolve.
After spending half a year surfing in Cornwall, something deeper beckoned.
How many people seek out a volunteer situation in Ethiopia with the sick and dying in a hospice and, across the street, with abused, neglected children in an orphanage? Katie stuck it out for three months. "I had a lot of fun and met amazing people, especially the most wonderful little kids, but I never know what to say about the experience as a whole, because I did see many of the darker consequences 'humanitarian' work can have. You can't change the world with good intentions alone."
Back in Vancouver, while waitressing again, Katie was leaning towards outreach work. Eventually she was hired by a company which does fundraising for large non-profit organizations like Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders or Amnesty International. She felt good about this path. But everything changed again, thanks to an animal.
Katie had been visiting Tofino for many summers. On one of these visits she was approached by a dog that had lost all its fur and was covered in lice and scabs. Katie nevertheless lifted the dog into her arms and immediately felt a complete shift. Within the hour she was on the phone: giving up her job and apartment, making plans to move to Tofino.
She named her new female dog Kojak. Kojak's fur grew back. A psychic said that the dog is the spirit of one of the Ethiopian children who passed away.
Castaways, Tofino's first long-awaited second-hand clothing store, came about when Katie was lucky enough to qualify for the Community Futures program. "I feel very lucky to be able to work independently, be creative, and because I have a special love for scruffy little things that tend to get rejected by other people. My job doesn't take itself too seriously, yet somehow I can't stop myself from trying to rescue things."
Her favourite times in Castaways are in the dead of winter when a couple of girls will stop in because they're bored and it's stormy out, and "they end up spending half the morning in the change room giggling their asses off." Her creative side excels--while her business benefits--most at Halloween.
Is there life after/beyond the store and Tofino? Well, this year Katie visited Lithuania with her mother. They met cousins, sat around an old Soviet apartment block, drank vodka for breakfast.
"I'm committed to Tofino for the next few years. It is the most beautiful place on Earth and I have found some of my best friends here. I love Vancouver Island but I also love the freedom, danger and excitement of travelling alone, especially in challenging locations. Something is telling me I might try to go up north--the Arctic."
Christine Lowther is co-editing a nonfiction anthology, In Love With Place, about living on the west coast. It will be published in 2008.
Tofino profile of Katie Harrison. Written by Tofino author Chris Lowther for Tofino Time Magazine.