North Islanders take for granted a super-highway that spreads before them in wondrous splendour. It is a highway, wide and smooth that never needs to be paved or maintained. We are fortunate to have it at our very doorstep for people from all over the world come to travel on it, since it can be found only here on the North Coast. It is, of course, The Inside Passage.
I've just returned from a four day, guest-artist stint aboard B.C. Ferries' "Queen of the North" , as I do every summer; never tiring of this exquisite excursion. Long before I was so fortunate to be a guest on board, my wife, Ann and I took every opportunity to make this journey, often with our truck and camper, heading for the Queen Charlottes or up the Skeena and Bulkley Valleys. At other times we would continue on up the Alaska Panhandle to Skagway, continuing on to Whitehorse.
The Inside Passage has two functions: one, as a safe, smooth avenue (since most of it is very sheltered from the open Pacific) to the North Coast and onward and two, as an enjoyment in itself. This second function is one that The Queen of the North fills very efficiently and the one on which I would like to expand.
The Queen of the North, considered by many to be the pride of the fleet, was built in 1969 in Germany for a Swedish company and purchased by B.C. Ferry Corporation in 1974, naming her Queen of Surrey. In 1980 she underwent major alterations to prepare her for northern service and, renamed Queen of the North, she began sailing the Inside Passage from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy on May 29, 1980.
Let me take you on the 15-hour voyage North from Port Hardy. Morning comes early since the Queen takes off at about 7:30. There is a great deal of excitement among the passengers, many of whom have come from the other side of the globe to take part in a trip that most travelers can only dream about. Everyone has heard about the beauty of the Inside Passage, every bit as magnificent as the fjords of Europe and much, much wilder and pristine. All are hoping for good weather and to see whales. We glimpse the Gordon Group of Islands mysteriously floating by in the early morning mist while glimpses of blue directly above boost our hopes for a sunny day. After we pass Scarlett Point Light we head out toward Pine Island and a one and a half hour crossing of places where Queen Charlotte Sound is interrupted by the open ocean.
Egg Island and Addenbroke Island lighthouses and Namu, all on the starboard, pass by within 3 1/2 hours and soon we view the biggest community on our voyage, Bella Bella and its accompanying light at Dryad Point. The Queen of the North used to stop here and still does during the winter months but the Mid - Coast ferry now serves this thriving First Nations village. An hour later we are at Ivory Island, lying exposed to the Pacific in Milbanke Sound. This is the second time on the trip we feel the swells of the open ocean but it is short lived and from here on we are truly traveling "inside".
The next lighthouse, the one in the accompanying painting, is the most picturesque on this route and the captain makes sure we don't miss it by announcing it on the public address system. This light has been here since 1909 and can be seen for twenty miles. The lighthouse keepers are still there and wave to us. Proceeding north the highway gets narrower and the mountains close in displaying their snow capped crowns, resulting in hundreds of waterfalls. The visual beauty is so stunning that, instead of becoming saturated by it all, we become gluttonous, our eyes feasting ever more as we turn each new corner.
Grenville channel is the narrowest part of our journey. Measuring 70 km. in length and as little as 1400 feet across, it is nevertheless very deep and navigable. The scenery here is the most spectacular with mountains rising directly from the sea to 3500 feet. We no sooner pass the fishing-logging community of Oona River than we spot the rail terminal at Ridley Island and, in the hinterland, the smoke of the pulp mill at Port Edward. Prince Rupert is just around the corner.
The evening sun is kind to us and gives us a golden display as we pull into the harbour at Rupert. It's 10:30 and we're right on time, tired but filled with memories that will last a lifetime. Some passengers, including yours truly, are sleeping aboard and guess what? We get to do it all over again tomorrow!