Marine Link Tours In the Media
BY KERRY MCPHEDRAN
"Scenic thrills, no haute frills" Page 1
DEPARTURE, FRIDAY EVENING.
A buzz of nervous excitement runs through our merry little band -- one short of a six-pack of strangers -- as we totter down Marine Link's dock at Menzies Bay for our first gander at MV Aurora Explorer. This working freight boat, departing Vancouver Island just north of Campbell River, will be home for the next four days and nights.
Think barge with the look of adventure. The 27.5-metre cargo deck appears a virtual Rubik's cube -- an interlocking block of tractor trucks, crew cabs, Caterpillar treads, spools of wire rope, propane tanks, 300 boom chains, pallets of groceries, and books marked "Little Wolf Preschool." From dock-side, the white two-story superstructure at the boat's aft end looks impossibly small -- about eight by nine metres -- to house passengers plus a crew of five. Holy moly! Will we sleep in shifts? Standing up?
In 1994, Alan Meadows began taking passengers aboard Aurora Explorer, one of three steel landing craft that Meadow's Marine Link Navigation has operated on British Columbia's coast since 1979. It was an immediate success. "We were in Scott Cove, a logging camp," says Meadows, "and it was two in the morning because that's when the tide said we had to unload the freight. I remember looking up, and there were five of the eight guests on board -- all in their housecoats -- watching us through the wheelhouse windows. Two a.m., but they weren't going to miss a single cargo delivery!"
I understand why. In that wheelhouse they had stumbled, pyjama-clad, into seats offering a glimpse into an unknown world. For while you are snug in your bed at home in the dark of night, if the tide is right, somewhere along B.C.'s convoluted 27,000-kilometre coastline -- in some remote native village, logging camp, fish farm, or homestead -- a small barge is "pushing the beach" powered by two 260-hp Caterpillar diesel engines. As in a scene from D-Day landings, the bow door drops down. Under the glare of floodlights, a handful of men unload the freight: everything from food and propane supplies to horses and palm trees. Crew cabs rumble off; empty fuel drums and bags of laundry take their place. Onshore, a local dog races back and forth in a predawn dither.
Aurora Explorer is the only scheduled vessel working B.C.'s Inside Passage that welcomes passengers. From March to October (when the weather is best), as many as nine travellers -- often, like my fellow travellers, retired professionals -- join the Explorer's crew. Passengers choose from four inlet cruises: Jervis, Bute, Kingcome, and, new this year, Seymour/Drury Inlet. But year-round the Explorer delivers heavy equipment and general freight throughout the Gulf of Georgia, along Johnstone and Queen Charlotte straits, and up inlets as far north as Bella Coola and Rivers Inlet. En route are such magical places as Hernando Island, Hole in the Wall, Goose Bay, and Deep Sea Bluff.
If you've read Margaret Craven's 1967 novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name, you'll understand why I picked Kingcome Inlet for my late August trip. Craven tells the story of a dying priest sent by his bishop to Kingcome Village to minister to the Tsawataineuk people. The bishop believes that, there, the young priest may live deeply for his remaining time, and "learn enough of the meaning of life to be ready to die." Craven's powerful story and her descriptions of Kingcome have long stirred me to seek out the isolated inlet. But until now, it had remained accessible only by private boat, water taxi, or charter floatplane.
Marine Link's honest brochure makes no bones about the fact that Aurora Explorer is a working freight boat -- comfortable, but not luxurious, with all the vibration and noise of a vessel running or unloading freight at night. "Some passengers will experience difficulty sleeping, particularly at the beginning of their cruise." A fair trade-off, I reason, for the prospect of dining on fresh prawns bought from local fishermen. In a pinch I could stuff prawns in my ears.
On boarding, my fear of cramped quarters is quelled. Four shy of the maximum passenger complement, we seem almost to be wallowing in space. (Indeed, when a paid-in-full couple from Vermont fails to appear, Peggy Mattock is permitted to move into their cabin -- thereby avoiding an arm wrestle for lower bunk with sister Catherine Greene.) An efficient nautical design on the main passenger level, reached by stairs from the cargo deck, accommodates us easily. There are four bunk-style staterooms, two shared bathrooms, a shower across the hall, a galley, and the crew's dining area -- all shipshape and clean enough for a landlubber to lick. The forward passenger lounge/library doubles as dining room, with large picture windows overlooking the cargo deck. A small fridge for passengers, alongside tea and coffee fixings, is stocked with cold drinks; we are welcome to help ourselves to snacks from the galley.
A second steep staircase climbs to the wheelhouse (open to passengers 24 hours) and the crew's quarters. The surrounding bridge deck, with a few lounge chairs and two small exercise bikes, offers the smallest of promenades. Yes, you could be lapping kilometres on the teak decks of a behemoth Love Boat making its Alaskan run up this same Inside Passage; but you'd also be one of thousands of cruisers never to see the Kingcome River, nor drop a crab trap over the side. And about Aurora Explorer, "dress for dinner" means "don your slippers."