From brief adventure to new way of life

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Sonya Lake and her husband, Graeme Irwin, planned to spend just a year in the small town of Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. The couple loved life in Calgary, where he worked as a software developer and she worked in IT until the first of their two children were born. But they also yearned for a change, and a chance to shake things up.

That was four years ago.

After that first year in Rocky Harbour — home to Gros Morne National Park, a World Heritage site — the couple knew they had to stay a bit longer. Two years turned into three. Sonya and Graeme bought a house, and recently decided to sell their Calgary home and commit fully to Rocky Harbour, population 900.

Today, Graeme does his IT work from home and teaches kiteboarding on the world-class shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Sonya teaches yoga and works as a cannabis coach, advising clients who suffer from a variety of medical issues, such as chronic pain and Parkinson’s, on strains and doses that might be helpful. In the summer, she also runs a low-waste juicery: her smoothies come in Mason jars — no plastic straws or disposable napkins required. She’s trying to figure out how to avoid buying frozen fruit in plastic bags. That particular challenge, she says, may determine whether she’ll continue with the business.

The family loves living on the ocean, being able to see whales, and to disappear into the forest from their backyard. They love the proximity to Gros Morne, and the community of biologists, conservationists, and other outdoor enthusiasts that has grown up around the park. And they love the friends they’ve made, the way that Gros Morners come together to support each other and protect the place they call home.

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Sonya and Peter (10) on a hike.

The Gros Morne Mamas Facebook group, for example, hosts lively discussions and shares ideas on how to repurpose, recycle, and keep stuff from going to the dump. “We swap kids’ clothes and host bi-monthly adult clothing swaps. This year I hosted a Christmas toy swap, which was great — especially for little kids, who really don’t notice whether something is new or not.”

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The Gros Morne Mamas at their 2018 Christmas Toy Swap.

For her part, Sonya has committed to buying as little — and as little new — as possible, preferring instead to buy second-hand, make things herself, borrow, trade, or simply do without. Packing for the move to Newfoundland was a real eye-opener. “I thought I was a minimalist, but then I realized just how much stuff we had that we didn’t need: clothing, jackets, blankets and sheets, mugs, shoes, half-filled bottles of shampoo or face cream. I didn’t think my kids had that many toys, but we took loads and loads to Goodwill over the course of a year. I felt really guilty about that.”

Following the move to Gros Morne, Sonya undertook a year-long shopping ban. The year has passed, but she hasn’t returned to retail.

She talks often about minimalism with her kids. Peter, 10, and Greta, 7, have grown up understanding that clothing comes from the thrift store, and paying as much attention to the packaging as they do to the toy inside the box. “They’ll say, ‘I like that, Mom, but look at all the plastic it’s wrapped in,’” says Sonya. The family even asked Santa Claus not to wrap their gifts — and he complied.

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Sonya and Greta (7).

Their home isn’t some perfect zero-waste haven, though. There’s still clutter, Sonya says, and the children seem to attract a constant stream of toys and plastic trinkets. Still, she and her family work hard to build a strong community and to minimize their impact on the magnificent natural landscape that surrounds them.

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