Marine Link Tours In the Media
Reprinted with permission: "Canada by Cargo Ship", by Margo Pfeiff, Los Angeles Times; August 3, 2003
Canada by Cargo Ship
The little Aurora Explorer plies British Columbia's Inside Passage, giving a novel taste of the north.
Yvette Cardozo and Bill Hirsch
By Margo Pfeiff, Special to The Times
It was early evening, and it seemed as though all of nature's creatures were looking for dinner. The two black bears onshore were turning over rocks and pawing at whatever goodies scrambled from beneath them. For my part, I had my fishing line over the side of the Aurora Explorer, hoping to score my first-ever saltwater fish.
By dusk I had finally reversed my lifetime of bad angling luck, snagging two fine sea bass. They weren't the salmon I'd hoped for, but fileted and sautéed in butter, they were a nice accompaniment to the six Dungeness crabs and 99 prawns we had hauled from traps set the previous day.
After dinner we passengers stood contentedly on the deck of the Explorer, glasses of chilled white wine in hand, watching the Carnival Spirit cruise past. The 2,124-passenger behemoth looked like a vast floating city as it made its way down British Columbia's Inside Passage. We, on the other hand, were a scant 12 passengers in our cozy little craft. Dwarfed, yes, but unhappy, no. Not one of us, a quick poll revealed, would have traded places — despite the Carnival's promise of Jacuzzis and champagne — for our five-day voyage around the Broughton Archipelago on the Aurora Explorer.
I had heard about this trip years earlier from friends who had sailed on it as part of their 25th anniversary celebration, and I liked the idea because it was an insight into real life on a rugged, otherwise inaccessible piece of spectacular coastline between the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast. Life on a mammoth ship didn't appeal to us; we preferred the intimacy and personal attention of a small vessel. The Aurora was especially intriguing because it offered a glimpse into the ways of loggers, fishermen, fish farm managers and people living in far-flung coastal communities.
We puttered among hummocky islets, which resembled hedgehogs, and along steep-walled fiords. We saw dolphins, porpoises, abandoned native communities and bears foraging on the shore.
It might be a stretch to call the odd-looking Aurora Explorer a "cruise ship." It's a 135-foot riverboat built in 1972 and shipped piecemeal to the Beaufort Sea, where it was used for seismic surveys. Alan Meadows of Marine Links, a ship-borne supply company for remote communities and camps, thought people might be interested in exploring the fiords and islands of this remote and convoluted coastline on a working freight boat, so in 1992 he bought the boat and moved it south.
His hunch was right. Berths fill up months in advance of sailings, despite the shudders and rattles on this slow little boat that has, as its priority, the delivery of all manner of unromantic cargo, from portable powder rooms to powdered milk.
All 12 of us knew this when we came on board in June last year near Campbell River, halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, and took possession of our six small but comfortable bunk-style staterooms on the main deck, where we shared two showers. One level above was a compact dining/lounge area with a good library of nautical and local books, and up one more floor was the sunny wheelhouse, where everyone was welcome anytime. The four decks were stacked at the stern of what looked like — and, in fact, was — a landing craft. The long, cargo-laden deck was a jumble of boom chains, spools of wire, backhoes and 1-ton sacks of fish food. The Explorer is flat and shallow, excellent for running up on pebble or sand beaches to make deliveries where there are no docks.
Our first business stop, before dinner, was an aquaculture farm on Sonora Island. As engineer Bruce Stockand manned the on-board crane unloading sacks of fish meal, we got an informal tour. "When this farm operates at full capacity, we have 1.2 million salmon," the manager told us, "and when those fish are at market size, they'll eat through 30 tons in a single day at a cost of $1,000 a sack [about $721 U.S.]."
A bald eagle was perched on a fence overlooking the pens, and it eyed the ponds of live churning chowder. Did it ever take any? "He's like a pet," the manager said. "Any he can catch he's welcome to." As if on cue the bird swooped, hooked a fish in its talons and flew off.
We tied up alongside the pens for the night, and I drifted off to sleep to the sound of jumping salmon.
A pajama-clad audience
Sometimes the tides dictated our schedule, and we would have to run at night to catch high water at the heads of fiords. The engine noise and vibration soon became part of shipboard life.
Once, when we stopped in the middle of the night, the silence startled me awake. I threw on a sweatsuit and raced up to the wheelhouse to watch skids of groceries, propane canisters and a flatbed truck being unloaded at a logging camp in an efficient, wordless exchange beneath spotlights. I wasn't the only one; the other passengers, all pajama-clad, were there too in their eagerness to see everything that went on.
The itinerary for the three- to five-day Marine Links trips changes; it can fluctuate even at the last minute when pickups or drop-offs are communicated by radio. Many of the passengers are repeat customers, often retired Canadians, but about 15% of the passengers on my trip were Americans, including one young honeymooning couple, Sandi and Don Hagel, who had bicycled north from Marin County.
A length of yellow cedar had been loaded at the logging camp that night, and the next morning the smell of newly sawed wood drifted into my cabin, mingling with the aroma of fresh coffee and baking cinnamon buns.
Days started early for cook Donna Sawatsky, and by the time the cinnamon rolls were hefted out of the oven, four loaves of bread were already cooling. The food on board was hearty and delicious. Freshly baked cookies or muffins were always available at tea time, and on sunny days, Sawatsky would fire up the barbecue grill on the stern deck.
Ron Stevenson, a 13-year veteran of the Explorer, was our captain. As we passed through the whirlpools of Seymour Narrows, he remembered rounding the bend several years ago and seeing a Viking ship in flames. He was witnessing the climax of an Antonio Banderas film called "The 13th Warrior." He has delivered some odd cargo in his time: horses, a piano, totem poles, and sand and sod for a private golf course being built for a millionaire on Stuart Island.
"Don't forget those palm trees," mate Ted Kirk said. Kirk, like Stevenson and engineer Stockand, was a character. His specialty is salvaging all manner of "stuff"; his collection includes a Model T and an entire blacksmith's shop, complete with anvil, from a long-abandoned logging camp. The three men are clearly best friends, and when the good-natured ribbing starts, they are a formidable comedy team.
Few pleasure craft ply this working coast of logging and fishing camps, oyster leases and remote native villages, but there are tugs and fishing boats aplenty. With a backdrop of the snow-topped Coast Mountains, agitated crows chase bald eagles, ospreys screech, seals lounge on rocks and pods of harbor and Dall porpoises break the surface in unison. We kept a watch out for whales; we were ever hopeful but, ultimately, luckless.
Our voyage was light on cargo, so we had plenty of time to sightsee. Even at logging camps we were free to get off the boat and stroll about until the whistle sounded. On some stops we had a chance for an hour's hike, mindful of reports of increased bear activity throughout the area.
We detoured one day to Yorke Island, where the Canadian military installed two 6-inch guns in 1938. They feared the Japanese would come down Johnstone Strait, which is better known for killer whales than killer subs. Yorke Island had no landing dock, so the Aurora Explorer moved straight into 10 feet of water, then neatly dropped the front "gate" on sand. We simply walked across the ramp and onto the beach.
Hiking through forests of giant Douglas fir to the island's high point, I scrambled over concrete gun and searchlight emplacements, poked down mossy stairwells and into decaying officers' quarters. Much of the compound was still encircled with rusty barbed wire. At one time 260 men were crammed on this tiny island. They described their cabin fever as "going Yorky."
As we cruised the calm waters we spotted midden mounds on beaches alongside the ruins of log villages.
One afternoon we visited the float house community of Sullivan Bay. Floating homes (most owned by Americans), a general store, a laundry and a marina were connected by a grid of floating boardwalks with such street names as Halibut Harbour and Coho Cul-de-Sac.
That afternoon at Indian Point logging camp, we watched agile little "dozer boats," which behaved like motorized cowboys, herding logs into booms while Kirk and Stockand unloaded explosives (to be used for road building) and siphoned off 6,500 liters of bulk fuel from the tank. We tied up to the log boom for the night, and I pulled out a rod and reel. Kirk smirked with amusement. "You won't catch anything but dogfish here because there's so much bark in the water," he said. Groan.
An odd group of souls
On the third day we began the slow trip up Kingcome Inlet, one of the longest fiords on the coast. It was lined on both sides with near-vertical cliffs streaming white with waterfalls, a stark and lonely landscape. It's a veritable Hobo Coast where some of the inhabitants appear to have "gone bush."
"One guy logs in here all by himself," Capt. Stevenson said. "His wife left after seven years. He shows up for deliveries in his underpants and a pair of cowboy boots." It's an odd collection of souls, ex-this and ex-that, heading into the wilderness for a new life.
By the time we arrived at the head of the fiord it was well after dark. All 10 folks who worked the logging camp had made the trip to the edge of the glacial water to watch the delivery.
"Must be a slow Saturday night if 1 1/2 skids of food brought them all out," Stevenson said.
The next day I thought I'd been away from civilization too long when I saw what I thought was a ceremonially dressed Indian chief standing on the dock of Village Island. But sure enough, it was Tom Sewid, the honorary caretaker of the island's abandoned native village, called Mamalilakula, and he was indeed wearing his ceremonial killer whale blanket and button robe.
Sewid was entertaining, frank and informative. He had grown up on the island and been schooled in traditional ways but had run amok in his teens in Vancouver's bars. In 1989, as a means of redemption, his grandfather, Kwakwaka'wakw Chief James Aul Sewid, sent his grandson to the abandoned island to try to maintain the crumbling village. Tom Sewid is now the guardian of the site of one of the last big potlatches, traditional native celebrations of dance and feasting that lasted for days.
With his dogs Fish Food and Land Claim at his side, Sewid led a moving and heartfelt tour among the fallen and standing totems, beneath the massive log entranceway to the ceremonial house and around the village homes. The beach was littered with pottery shards and trade beads. As we left, a group of kayakers arrived, and Sewid began his story again.
On our final day afloat I saw treasures taken from the Kwakwaka'wakw at that last potlatch. After a long struggle, the magnificent collection of masks, rattles and implements was returned and now resides in a longhouse in the U'mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. The predominantly native community of Alert Bay stretches along the waterfront, resembling archival photos of traditional villages, right down to the burial ground with its forest of totems.
As I walked along the seaside road, I stopped to listen to a young man sitting on an old kitchen chair outside the laundry. He was pounding rhythmically on a hide drum, singing in his native tongue. Farther on I waved at a man gazing out his living room window. He rushed from his house to show me something wrapped in a cloth: a 2-foot-long walrus tusk with exquisite scrimshaw. His grandfather had traded some pieces of his artwork for the ivory, which said it had been carved in 1841 aboard the American Whaler Prince.
I thanked him for this unexpected treat, and we shook hands as we said goodbye.
The ship's whistle blew, and I headed back. The captain turned the Aurora Explorer south, and we began to steam back to Menzies Bay, its home port near Campbell River.
As we worked our way through plates of warm cookies, someone spotted a pair of black-and-white creatures that surfaced alongside, and we raced out to get a look.
They were magnificent, but they were Pacific white-sided dolphins. "Killer whale wannabes," Kirk said with mock disgust. He grabbed another cookie, winked and headed up to the wheelhouse.
At civilization's edge on the Aurora Explorer
From LAX, Air Canada and Alaska offer nonstop service to Vancouver, connecting with Pacific Coastal to Campbell River. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $285.95 round trip. It's a 45-minute flight to Campbell from Vancouver. You can book a ticket to Campbell separately through Pacific Coastal, (800) 663-2872, http://www.pacific-coastal.com; restricted round-trip fares begin at about $150.
WHERE TO STAY:
Painter's Lodge, 1625 McDonald Road, Campbell River, B.C. V9W 4S5; (800) 663-7090, http://www.painterslodge.com. Well-known waterfront fishing lodge. Doubles from about $135 a night.
Annie's Place B&B Suite, 165 S. Alder St., Campbell River, B.C. V9W 5J1; (250) 287-4014, http://www.bbcanada.com/5989html. A 1,200-square-foot suite with ocean views and outdoor hot tub. About $90, double occupancy.
Marine Link Tours, Box 451, Campbell River, B.C. V9W 5C1; (250) 286-3347, fax (250) 286-1149, http://www.marinelinktours.com. The company's Aurora Explorer departs from Menzies Bay, a 20-minute drive north of Campbell River. It runs mid-March to mid-October. Three-, four- and five-day cruises are offered this season; only four- and five-day cruises will be offered next year. Prices start at $192 per person per day, all inclusive (wine provided, but bring your own beer or hard liquor). Book early.
TO LEARN MORE:
Tourism British Columbia, P.O. Box 9830, Stn. Prov. Govt., 1803 Douglas St., 3rd Floor, Victoria, B.C. V8W 9W5; (800) HELLO-BC (435-5622), http://www.hellobc.com.