Marine Link Tours In the Media
"No pool. No buffet. No spa"
But for fans of offbeat travel, there's plenty to like about cruising the coast of British Columbia aboard a freighter.
By Yvette Cardozo and Bill Hirsch, Photos by Yvette Cardozo
Sunday, August 3, 2003
The Aurora Explorer is a reconfigured landing craft that now hauls freight to British Columbia ports.
A crewman operates a forklift aboard the Aurora Explorer during a stop in port.
Right: The boat is a freighter but the scenery is the same that cruise ship passengers take in.
At midnight the changing pitch of our ship's engine wakes us with a start.
A wide metal landing ramp at the bow of the Aurora Explorer is down and dug into the bank. Slowly, laboriously, the crew is trying to bring aboard an excavator, a huge orange construction machine with a lumbering arm. It is not an easy process backing the thing down the steep ramp, turning and easing into an empty space aboard our vessel.
Two 1,000-watt bridge lights cut through the night, turning pouring rain in their beams into twin swarms of angry fireflies. The scene is so surreal - dark and soft in the rain, with slices of it etched in bright light.
We're fascinated by the whole process. Several times, we try to go back to sleep but we just can't. We've GOT to see how all this ends.
Obviously, this is not your standard cruise ship ride up the Inside Passage. Not even the pocket cruisers can duplicate this experience. We're aboard a small freighter-cum-landing craft for four days. The trip along the middle British Columbia coast is so much more than just gawking at the usual waterfalls, glaciers and eagles. We're on a working boat, watching the delivery of goods and getting a chance to nose about offbeat places NO regular tourist ever gets to go.
Though our cargo is trucks and fish food, the ship delivers just about anything imaginable: potted palms, pianos, kits to build entire houses, the occasional live horse.
The Aurora Explorer is a far cry from the sleek, 17-story cruise ships with their 2,500 passengers, lounge singers and slot machines. It's 135 feet long and 34 feet wide, with three-fourths taken up by the cargo deck and the rest by a boxy cabin housing the six crew and 12 passengers.
Ungainly, ugly, strange looking. Yes. But it's also a sign of the times where backwoods industry is turning to tourism. In the old days, freighters were the life link along the 1,700-mile B.C. coast, bringing everything from pianos, livestock, machinery and, of course, people to isolated logging camps and villages.
The roads came to many areas and the need for transporting people dropped. And when the logging industry faded, the freight industry faded, too.
Roadless villages and logging camps still existed, just not enough of them. So in 1992, Alan Meadows began taking passengers aboard the Aurora Explorer, one of three steel landing craft that Marine Link Transportation had operated on the B.C. coast since 1979. But these weren't locals trying to get home. They were tourists.
And it worked.
The Aurora Explorer is the only freighter offering overnight trips to passengers along the Inside Passage. There are four trips that span the area from Vancouver to the northern tip of Vancouver Island.
We were at this logging campe at 2 a.m. because that's when the tide was right for unloading freight," Meadows said. "When you see eight of your 12 passengers in their housecoats at the dining room lounge windows watching you work, there's a message here. It was the middle of the night but they weren't going to miss a single delivery."
Ah yes, we know exactly what he means.
The "working" part of our working-boat trip started soon after we got aboard at Marine Link's dock just north of the town of Campbell River, half way up Vancouver Island. As we headed out of Menzies Bay, Capt. Philippe Menetrier pulled out a map of a 24-square-mile area. The map was covered with small dots.
"This is just one company's fish farms...20 in this small area," he said. "There are 120 up and down the coast."
We would be hitting two of them before sundown, he added.
Just after dinner (turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy plus spinach salad), we pulled into farm No. 2. From our vantage point high above the deck we could see a shed and round net pens frothing with salmon. Most of the cargo aboard our ship was fish food - 130 1,000-kilo bags of small, dark pellets that looked and smelled amazingly like dry cat food.
From here, we lumbered north at all of seven knots. The convoluted B.C. coast is more subtle than Alaska. No soaring glaciers calve house chunks into the sea. Instead, we observe rolling coastal hills and high mountains covered with spruce, cedar and hemlock, black bears on shore and eagles inthe trees. But best of all are the funky little villages, the occasional solitary dock (how DO these people earn a living?) and abandoned villages with amazing history.
At 10:30 a.m. we passed Shoal Bay on East Thurlow Island, once the most populous village on the B.C. coast. In its heyday as a gold mining town in the 1880s, Shoal Bay had hotels, stores, dance halls, hospitals and more than a few brothels for its 5,000 people. Today, it is a collection of crumbling cabins.
The coast was once dotted with such boom towns along with canneries and logging camps. Now all that is gone, replaced by isolated restaurants, hardy homesteaders and fish camps. As we cruised midday, we explored our ship. The four-story structure above the cargo deck held refrigeration units on the first level, six passenger cabins on the next, then the dining/lounge area with large picture windows overlooking the cargo deck and the wheelhouse on the top.
Marine Link's brochure is up front about the fact that the Aurora Explorer is a working freight boat, complete with all the vibration and noise of a vessel running or unloading freight at night. Ear plugs are supplied, though we honestly never needed them. The cabins are small but comfortable. the food is yummy.
There is an intimacy to this trip you can't get on any standard cruise ship, even the pocket cruisers. With only 12 passengers and eight crew, you quickly get to know everyone, what their grandkits look like, what tea they prefer and whose cats snore.
Our third day, we awoke to classic Northwest weather: low clouds and soft drizzle hitting the windows. The slick, gray sea stretched before us, intensifying the green of nearby trees and turning the far-off ones to olive silhouettes on the horizon. The occasional gull skimmed low over the water, leaving a perfect reflection of itself in the liquid silver. Wispy fingers of cloud flowed between hilly ridges, settling in vast platinum lakes in the valleys below.
We crusied by beaches white with broken clam shells. And we visited an old local codger, Billy Proctor, who has lived here all his life, earning his living from the sea and land, and more recently selling crafts to the sporadic wandering yachtsman.
"A government guy came by the other week and condemned all the water out here, but we've been drinking it all our lives with no problem," Proctor harrumphed characteristically.
His museum - which holds 1940s Life Magazines, old typewriters, century-old bottles, arrowheads and evil tooth-shapped stone labeled "part of a slave killer," among many MANY other things - was worth the stop by itself.
The rest of the day was given to putting down crab and shrimp traps (enough for appetizers which we ate withing 30 minutes of their catch) and cruising by waterfalls. After dinner, we drew up within inches of Lace Falls, a 200-foot-tall fan of water cascading in a curtain of froth over a wide apron of granites. It's odd to think of something as bulky as this ship mincing around a waterfall, but we tucked close by with a precision that was feather-touch delicate.
On our last night we watched the loading of the excavator. We got it on board OK, but the slope at the offload site was too steep. So after all that, we had to take it back. It was 5 a.m. before the crew got to sleep.
By the next morning, our last, the weather had cleared and we climbed to a bluff on Maude Island, headquarters for the Ripple Rock destruction project in 1958. Workers used 1,500 tons of explosives in the world's largest nonnuclear blast to blow away two pinnacles that had sunk 120 ships.
All that's left on the island today is some pits. But we could see down Seymour Narrows to where we had been, back among the green ridges, blue fjords and beyond to the receding lines of blue-purple mountains where Proctor was no doubt tending his bottle collection and the fish farmers were spraying pellets at voracious salmon.