– The ferry runs from Port Hardy, near the northeastern extreme of Vancouver Island, to Prince Rupert just south of the southern extreme of the Alaskan panhandle. Most of the year, the ferries are generally overnight, with stops in small towns like Bella Bella along the way. But, May through September the ferries tend to be a straight-through 15-hour sailing, from early morning to late evening.
I was up at 4:15am to be in line by 5:30am. The ferry doesn’t depart till 7:30am, but a 2-hour check-in is required. In front of me are a long line of Harleys, some of the riders with Hells Angels – British Columbia vests. The older guys are gruff and stand-offish, but the younger ones are friendly enough. One tells me, laughing, about how he bought his Harley with its gold-flecked, orange paint job because it was such a match for his similarly colored hair. Another talks to me about my bike for a bit and then nods his head and says “That’s the next bike for me.”
The M/V Northern Expedition is a new boat, put into service in 2009. The previous ferry, M/V Queen of the North, struck a rock and sank in March 2006
. It had been lightly loaded – just 101 passengers and crew – but it was the proverbial dark and stormy night, and two passengers died, though their bodies were never found. Interestingly, the ferry sank near the mouth of the same long, winding channel where fully loaded oil tankers would transport crude away from the terminus of the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline
at Kitimat, BC.
This entire motorcycle trip is kind of a long slide into the beyond. By the time I had reached Powell River I already felt far away from the crush of people. The long ferry passage was another increment down the slide. More than 200 miles of remote, forested coastline and islands slide by throughout the day, with just an occasional lighthouse, remote hunting resort, or small village along the way. By the time we reached Prince Rupert, the sun had set and I felt far away, indeed.
Early morning ferry lights and mist
Carving our way through the Inside Passage
Humpback sitings along the way
I met Kelly (GISdood) and Brandi on the ferry. They were wrapping up a week-long spin. "Yeah, I go back to work for a week and a half, and then we go on another long ride!" They generously offered me tent space in Prince George, though as things evolved I didn't have the chance to take advantage of it.
– After an overnight at Pioneer Hostel near the historic center of Prince Rupert, I take a morning walk and grab some coffee and a fresh-out-of-the-oven pastry at Cowpuccino. I really mean it, too. Behind the counter at this funky coffee shop is the small, tidy kitchen where the pastries are baked. The woman told me how she gets up at 5am each day to come down and start baking. “You must love baking,” I said. “I love feeding people,” she replied.
My idea for the day is to head to Hyder, Alaska, an isolated town in the extreme, southeast inland corner of the state. The only way to enter and leave Hyder (assuming you don’t have access to a good boat) is via Stewart, BC – a 40-mile spur off of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.
The 140-mile ride from Prince Rupert to the southern end of the Stewart-Cassiar parallels the Skeena River for much of the way. It’s the season for the salmon run, and all along the river are camps of anglers taking advantage of the bounty – tents, folding chairs, campfires. In some places it’s just a few people, in others it’s dozens. Getting to experience the salmon runs is one of many advantages to doing this ride in the late summer.
Kitwanga, just a few miles up the Stewart-Cassiar, is a quiet First Nations village off of the main road, with a remarkable collection of totem poles. A couple of dozen of them, including one that’s purported to be the oldest in existence at well over 120 years. The small museum is locked up, but it’s an easy and worthwhile stroll to take in the totem poles.
The rest of the ride to Hyder is scenic, but uneventful. Once in Hyder, it’s about 20 miles or so on a gravel road, up twists and turns and back in to BC, until you reach the Salmon Glacier. The route moves from thickly forested lowlands up into the alpine zone, with cold waterfalls and patches of snow as you reach the higher bits. The few times I’ve seen glaciers it’s been mostly small ones, or the “toes” of large ones. But the viewpoint for the Salmon gives you a sense of the real mass and immensity of what a glacier can be. Not to be missed. Each spring a glacial lake forms near its base and eventually breaks its ice dam, raising the water level in the river to rise by 4-5 feet for several days. That would be a site to see.
Afterwards, I wander back down to Stewart, a town with a mining history that saw a peak of population to 10,000 prior to World War I. Today it’s at just 400, but along with the tourists that’s apparently enough to support a gourmet food truck, Dash, where I have a dinner before wandering out on the town’s estuary boardwalk for a stroll. You get the sense that Hyder and Stewart are two towns that have fought long against their own extinction. Community improvement projects, some left half completed, are easy to see; and the towns split their promotions between tourists and miners.
That night, I sleep in a former bordello on Stewart's main drag. The floors and stairs are creaky hardwood and it's not hard to imagine the antics that took place here decades ago.
Pioneer Hostel - Prince Rupert, BC
Prince Rupert Mural
A salmon fishing camp on the Skeena
Starting up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway
Totem Poles in Kitwanga
The Salmon Glacier
Street Scene in Stewart
Evening outside of Stewart
Port Hardy to Stewart