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Station: Stoltz Retreat

It couldn’t have been any more of a typical West Coast day.

Rain pounded the windshield as my RAV climbed the rabbit trail driveway. Fog grew thicker and nestled between the arbutus and mossy rock bluff.

And over the SUV’s speakers came Jon and Roy’s Little Bit of Love.

I was about to meet two people who had put more than just a little bit of love into my destination.

Tonya and Leon Gaber poured their hearts and souls into this idyllic retreat perched high above the Cowichan River — a place that represents a kick-back, West Coast lifestyle drenched in an obvious environmentally friendly mantra.

The making of the Stoltz Bluff Eco-Retreat has been a long, hard journey for the Victoria couple, but a satisfying one, to say the least.

“The odds were really stacked against us,” said 35-year-old ecologist Leon, of the cob-structure guest house which officially opened its doors last fall. “When (Tonya) hit me with the idea, I thought ‘We’re not stupid. We could probably do it.”

“And my motto has been if others can do it, it can be done,” said 34-year-old Tonya.

The genesis of the idea came from a common urban dilemma: the couple found itself in need of a supplemental income. But instead of following the common path of renting out a basement suite, they wanted to try something different.

They built their own retreat.

“I thought if we’re going to build a vacation rental, I wanted it to be green,” said Tonya, an architectural technologist who specializes in green building.

During a tour of Shawnigan Lake’s O.U.R. Ecovillage, they instantly fell in love with the cob building style.

“The decision to build a cob ‘mud’ house for us was a logical one,” said Tonya. “People who know us often find it strange that we chose to build in this style, which often comes with the stigma of a mushroom-shaped ‘hippy’ house. We always tell them that we did the research, a lot of it, on many, many different building options, and cob just made the most sense.”

They found a 40-acre property — on Stoltz Road, just off the old Cowichan Lake Road, about 15 minutes past Duncan — through an MLS listing. It fit their criteria: remote, surrounded by Crown and Parks lands (meaning no big neighbouring developments could creep up years down the road), near walking and hiking hotspots, yet relatively close to town.

The couple drove to the site and walked up the one-kilometre driveway. Upon reaching the bluff, that has remarkable 360 degrees views of the valley, Tonya said Leon knew it was “it.”

Unfortunately, the listing disappeared.

“We were heartbroken,” said Tonya.

They persevered and drove to the site again. This time the gate was open. They were met about halfway up the driveway by owner Glyn Bailey, who at first treated them as if they were trespassing.

“So we explained we’re actually interested in buying and immediately his eyes lit up,” said Tonya.

But finding a willing seller was just the first small bump of several.

No one in Canada had ever secured a mortgage for a cob structure. No one wanted to appraise their house. No financial institute wanted to lend them money.

“We thought (our biggest hurdle) would be with the building inspectors and the municipality actually approving what we wanted to do — the first structural cob home in the CVRD — but no, they were great,” said Tonya.

Several appraisers agreed to view, then cancelled at the last minute before they found one willing to take a stand.

“No appraiser around here had ever assigned value to a cob home before,” explained Tonya. “Without an appraiser stating the value of our home and property, no bank could give us a mortgage, so it all hinged on this.”

Eventually, they worked a deal with the owner, a “vendor mortgage” on a very tight, one-year deadline and convinced Islands Savings to become the mortgage-holder.

The trepidation came from the unusual nature of the guest home.

It is built from a mixture of clay and sand from Shawnigan Lake, straw from a local farm, and pumice from the Pemberton area.

Everything about it is eco-friendly, energy-efficient, and about 80 per cent of its materials were salvaged.

“Almost everything, every inch was built by us,” said Leon, noting his father and brother camped out with them through the summer to help as well.

“A lot of people went the extra mile and took on our labour of love,” said Tonya.

The 1,000-square-foot interior includes salvaged old-growth posts and beams, a low-flow dual flush toilet, a shower with a built-in bench, finished with natural lime plaster, an energy-efficient fridge, full-size gas stove, and a huge cast-iron sink.

Another key feature is its Rumford wood-burning fireplace faced with a natural rammed earth design.

Tonya made natural lighting and heat and window placement a big priority.

The house is also 100% off-grid. Power is supplied by solar panels, water comes from an on-site well. The roof is set up for future rain water collection. And waste water is not waste at all, but fed into a constructed wetland which purifies it and makes it available to the surrounding plants and trees.

Large, earth-inspired canvasses are in every room, from photos the Gabers snapped themselves.

“Our main hope for building in the way we did was to give people the most eco-friendly vacation option possible,” said Tonya. “Our hope is our guests will find our place to be a unique and comfortable experience, and that it may open people’s minds a little more.

“It was built for people to go back to having that simple kind of life, where they can get away from it all, no television, just books, and curled up in a blanket, with maybe some wine and some strawberries.”

Now that their dream retreat’s complete, the Gabers want to eventually embrace a phase two: five or six one-room, cottage style retreats, spaced out on the property far enough apart they’re still private.

That, and eventually building their perfect retirement home on one special chunk.

Stoltz Bluff Eco-Retreat is open for booking year-round. For more, click here.

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