The Pacific Coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska
is well served with ferries. It needs
to be. As well as the many island communities,
even places on the mainland have no road links with the rest of continental
North America. As a taxi driver in
Juneau, the capital of Alaska, said to us “There are three ways arrive in Juneau. By plane. By ferry. By birth canal.” In theory, you could also walk but that would
involve miles and miles of trekking over very high mountains – many over 10,000
feet (3,000 metres) – across vast glaciers and through bear country.
For the independent traveller, the ferries provide a
relatively low budget means of transport to amazing scenery. We booked most of our journeys directly with
the ferry companies through the internet from the comfort of our home. It was straightforward and proved to be trouble
free. In reality, June is not actually peak
season so we could have just turned up and would have been able to travel where
and when we wanted without pre-booked tickets.
There used to be a ferry service that ran from Washington
State in the US right up the coast serving British Columbia in Canada and
Alaska in the United States. Today, with
all the issues of security and cross-border travel, the service is totally
fragmented. We chose to fly from Seattle
to Vancouver though you can also do this journey by train, coach or ferry.
The coastal route followed by the ferries is known as the
Inside Passage. Essentially the route
takes advantage of the shelter proved by sailing between the coast and the
chain of off-shore islands. Of course,
not all of the route is protected from the Pacific. There are exposed gaps between the
islands. On one occasion, the ferry stopped
at Sitka, the former capital of Alaska and situated on the Pacific facing shore
of Baranof Island. To get there the
route left the shelter of the Inside Passage through the ominously named Peril
Strait and into the open Pacific.
In Canada, the ferries were operated by BC Ferries. They seem to have a monopoly of routes except
in the busiest area for services which is between Vancouver City and Victoria
on Vancouver Island. Our first ferry journey was from Horseshoe Bay, half an
hour’s drive northwest of Vancouver.
We took advantage of the connecting bus service from the magnificent art deco Union Station in Vancouver to the ferry terminal. The combination of the bus and the ferry should have given us a very scenic journey but it was a typical British Columbia day of rain, rain and more rain. The Queen of Cowichan was to take us to Departure Bay, Nanaimo roughly half way up
the 400 mile long Vancouver Island. The
route crosses the Strait of Georgia and takes a little under 2 hours. The boat, although 40 years old, was comfortable and had plenty of seating. It was not a day to spend much time on deck so once on the ferry, it being lunchtime, a
visit to the cafeteria seemed the best plan.
The food was excellent and the cooked-to-order sockeye salmon burgers
were generously portioned and delicious.
The ferry terminal at Departure Bay is a modern building. There was a large inside area to wait for
connecting buses. This worked well for
locals as they could watch for their bus arriving and make a dash through the,
by now, heavy rain. For us strangers it
was a little different. The buses didn’t
have signs to say where they were going so we had to dash out to each bus as it
arrived and check with the driver if it was going to Campbell River, our
destination for the night. Sods law, our
bus was the last to arrive by which time we were drenched.
We spent six nights on Vancouver Island, using buses and a
rental car to slowly make our way up to the northern end at Port Hardy, for our
next ferry journey. This time we were
going up the Inside Passage on a more modern boat, less than 10 years in service, the BC Ferries Northern Explorer. The journey took eighteen
hours to sail to Prince Rupert at the most north westerly corner of mainland
British Columbia. We boarded the ferry
just after 6am. A modest fare supplement
gave us reserved seats in the luxury of the forward observation lounge and included all
This must rank as one of the world’s most scenic scheduled
sea journeys. It was a day of mixed
weather but that didn’t detract from the beauty and magnificence of the
mountains, cliffs and islands.
The boat made one stop at the port of Bella Bella on
Campbell Island. A lot of vehicles
disembarked including cars, lorries and the ubiquitous RV’s. A few disappeared over the hill out of the
terminal, others joined queues waiting for smaller connecting ferry services
but the majority turned around and lined up ready to re-board. It looked as though not a lot of thought had
been given to boarding at Port Hardy.
This added about an hour to the journey but it did afford us with a most
magnificent experience with loads of wow factor. Suddenly, with the ferry still tied up in the harbour,
two massive humpback whales surfaced right at the front of the boat. They were just yards away but appeared
without warning so cameras were not at the ready. After breaching, with their bodies almost
completely out of the water and a final flourish of the tail, they dipped back
below the surface. They then slowly swam
out of the bay showing their route by blowing large spouts of water and
occasional flips of their tails. To see
such massive creatures at such close quarters more than made our day.
By this point on our trip, we were getting used to seeing sea
life, especially seals and porpoises, but it didn’t stop a buzz of excitement
whenever some came into view. The seals
were mostly near to the coastline. As we
moved further north, the Inside Passage narrowed to two or three hundred metres
wide, sometimes even narrower, so we saw more seals. The Dall’s Porpoises, relatives of the whale
family, regularly passed the ferry in schools of six to eight. They move very quickly, up to 40 knots, and
leave a wake behind as they race across the ocean.
Our first sighting of a bald eagle had been on an island off the east coast of Vancouver Island. It had been
fishing and was now perched near the top of a tree with its wings outspread to
dry. We were amazed to see the
emblematic bird of the United States at such close quarters. Weren’t we in luck. Actually, no.
Over the course of our time along the Pacific coast, we saw hundreds of
them. In numbers, they vied with the
big, black, noisy ravens that were everywhere in the forests. The ravens made their presence known but emitting
loud squawking noises. It’s no
co-incidence that these two large birds have such a prominent place in the art
of the First Nations people especially on totem poles.
One advantage of being in these northern latitudes in June
is the long days. Although it was nearly
midnight by the time the ferry docked in Prince Rupert, we had good views of
the mainland and the passing islands until the last hour when the sky became
heavily overcast and the rain started to fall.
After a whole day seeing only scattered, sparsely populated coastal communities,
the street lights of the city looked rather incongruous. Prince Rupert only has a population of some
12,000 but to us it seemed like a real metropolis.
It would be our home for the next three nights whilst we waited for next
ferry to take us north to Alaska.
(note : There will be one more posts in this short series covering the two ferry journeys that took us to the northern extremity of the Inside Passage. It will be published very soon.)