Marine Link Tours In the Media
Reprinted with permission: "Destination Canada ", by Margo Pfeiff, San Francisco Chronicle; May 30, 2004
Slow boat mixes business with pleasure Coastal islands, inlets explored on cargo runs
By Margo Pfeiff, Special to The Chronicle
May 30, 2004
The Aurora's shallow draft allows it to simply drop its gate on the sand to move cargo and passengers onto shore in isolated areas where there is no dock. Photo by Margo Pfeiff, special to the Chronicle
It was early evening and it seemed as though all of nature's creatures were looking for dinner. Two black bears onshore were overturning 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 filleted and sautéed in butter, they were a perfect accompaniment to the six Dungeness crabs and 99 prawns we had hauled from traps set the previous day.
The Aurora Explorer, which plies the waters between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast, is a funny-looking little vessel to call a cruise ship. The 135-foot-long river boat carries just 12 passengers. Alan Meadows of Marine Links, a maritime transport company, purchased it in 1992 because he thought passengers would be interested not only in exploring the fjords and islands of a remote and convoluted coastline, but that they would also be interested in doing so on board a working freight boat.
And he was so right: Berths fill up months in advance of sailings on this slow boat that mixes work with pleasure. The Aurora shudders and rattles and has as its first priority the delivery of all manner of unromantic cargo from Porta-Potties to powdered milk, but you can see bald eagles chased by flocks of agitated crows, screeching ospreys, seals lounging on rocks and pods of harbor and Dahl porpoises breaking the surface in unison, all with the backdrop of the snow-topped Coast Mountains.
Making room for cargo
Six small but comfortable staterooms (three with bunks, three with beds) on the main deck share two showers. One level above is a compact dining/ lounge area with a good library of nautical and local books, and up one more floor is the sunny wheelhouse, where everyone is welcome at any time. The four decks are piled at the stern of what looks like -- and in fact is -- a landing craft. The long, cargo-laden deck juts out front; on our trip in June, it was a jumble of Caterpillar treads, boom chains, spools of wire, backhoes and 30 hefty sacks of fish food.
The Aurora is flat and shallow, drawing only 6 feet, perfect for running up on pebble or sand beaches to make deliveries where there are no docks. After coming on board near Campbell River, we puttered between hummocky islets that resembled hedgehogs bristling with Douglas fir and cedars. Our first business stop, before dinner, was an aquaculture salmon farm on Sonora Island. As an engineer unloaded fish meal with the onboard crane, we took an informal tour around the grid of pens, then tied up alongside them for the night. It was to the sound of jumping salmon that I drifted off to sleep.
Marine Links runs four- and five-day trips along various circuits within the Inside Passage. The itinerary changes with each trip and even changes en route as last-minute pickups or drop-offs are requested by radio. Sometimes the tides dictated our schedule, and we would have to run at night to catch high water at the shallow heads of fjords to make deliveries. Up in the wheelhouse, Capt. Ron Stevenson remembers having delivered some odd cargo in his time, including horses, a piano, totem poles, sand and sod for a private golf course being built for a millionaire on Stuart Island.
Time for hikes
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 ship's whistle sounded -- mindful of reports of increased bear activity throughout the area -- but on some stops there was an hour or so for a hike.
We detoured one day to Yorke Island, where the Canadian military had installed two 6-inch guns in 1938 as defense against the Japanese they feared would be coming down Johnstone Strait, now more famous for killer whales than killer subs. With no landing dock on the island, the Aurora moved straight into 10 feet of water, then neatly dropped the front "gate" on sand. It felt like a D-Day landing as 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, and "going Yorky" was how they described their cabin fever.
As we cruised the calm waters, we spotted white shell midden mounds on beaches alongside the ruins of log villages. At Nicholas Point, an old pictograph gallery with a stagecoach and square- rigged ships was etched into the rocks. One afternoon we visited the "float house" community of Sullivan Bay. Floating homes -- owned mostly by Americans -- a general store, laundry and a marina were connected by a grid of floating boardwalks with "street" names like Halibut Harbour and Coho Cul-de-Sac.
On the third day, we began the slow trip up Kingcome Inlet, one of the longest fjords on the coast. Lined on both sides with nearly vertical cliffs streamed white with waterfalls, it was a stark and lonely landscape with no sign of human life. Capt. Ron noted that this part of the coast gets interesting when people "go bush."
"One guy logs in here all by himself. His wife left after seven years," he said. "He shows up for deliveries in his underpants and a pair of cowboy boots."
It occurred to me the next day that I'd been away from civilization too long when I thought I saw a ceremonially dressed native 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.
Tom was entertaining, frank and informative. He'd grown up on the island and been schooled in traditional ways, but had run amok in his teens in Vancouver's bars and clubs. In 1989, as a means of redemption, his grandfather sent him to the now abandoned island with the mission of maintaining the crumbling village. Tom came around and is now the avid guardian of the site of one of the last big potlatches on the coast, held in 1939 before the federal government confiscated native artifacts and sold them into museums and private collections. With his two dogs -- Fish Food and Land Claim -- at his side, Tom 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.
It was the following morning, on our final day afloat, that I saw the treasures taken from that last potlatch. The magnificent collection of masks, rattles and implements now resides in a longhouse within the U'mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, after the traditional owners' long struggle to reclaim them from the government in the 1970s. The predominantly native community of Alert Bay stretches along the waterfront, resembling the archival photos of traditional villages right down to the burial ground with its forest of totems.
The ship's whistle blew, and I headed back on board. From the aroma, I could tell the cook had been busy while we were ashore, baking her trademark ginger snaps. Ron turned the Aurora Explorer south and we began to steam back to its home port of Menzies Bay, near Campbell River.
Every day we had kept a watch out for whales -- without success but without losing hope. Now, as we worked our way through plates of warm cookies, someone spotted a pair of black and white creatures surfacing alongside. We all raced outside.
They were magnificent, but they were Pacific white-sided dolphins. "Killer whale wannabes," mate Ted Kirk said, with mock disgust. He grabbed another cookie, winked and headed up to the wheelhouse.
If you go
The Aurora Explorer departs from Menzies Bay, a 20-minute drive north of Campbell River, (a 45- minute flight from Vancouver on Pacific Coastal Airlines). Four- and five-day cruises from mid- March to mid-October start at $288 Canadian ($209 US) per person per day (all inclusive, with wine). Book early (typically, it's 80 percent booked by March 15). Contact Marine Link Tours, Box 451, Campbell River, BC, Canada, V9W 5C1. (250) 286-3347, www.marinelinktours.com.
Margo Pfeiff last wrote for Travel about the Atacama Desert in Chile. To comment, e-mail email@example.com.