Inside Passage journey not your average Cruise Trip

calgaryherald (1)

Reprinted with permission: "Inside Passage journey not your average cruise trip", by Yvette Cardozo and Bill Hirsch, Calgary Herald; Saturday, July 31, 2004

Inside Passage journey not your average cruise trip

Freighter voyage mixes work and pleasure

Yvette Cardozo and Bill Hirsch

For the Calgary Herald; CanWest News Service

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Midnight and 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 it and easing it 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.

Obviously, this is not your standard cruise ship ride up the Inside Passage. 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, also, getting a chance to nose about offbeat places no tourist 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 horse.

The Aurora Explorer is a far cry from the sleek, 17-storey cruise ships with their 2,500 passengers, lounge singers and slot machines. It's 41 metres long and 10 metres wide, with 30 metres of this taken up by the cargo deck and the rest for a boxy cabin housing the eight 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 2,700-kilometre B.C. coast's life link, bringing goods and people to isolated logging camps and villages. Then roads came to many areas and the need for transporting people dropped. And when the logging industry faded, the freight industry faded with it. There were still roadless villages and logging camps, just not enough of them. So in 1992, Alan Meadows began taking passengers aboard the Aurora Explorer, one of three steel landing craft Marine Link Transportation had operated on the B.C. coast since 1979. But these weren't locals trying to get home. They were tourists.

"We were at this logging camp at 2 a.m. because that's when the tide was right for unloading freight. 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," said Meadows.

"It was the middle of the night, but they weren't going to miss a single delivery," Meadows said.

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 Campbell River, halfway up Vancouver Island.

As we headed out of Menzies Bay, Capt. Philippe Menetrier pulled out a map of a 62-square-kilometre area. The map was covered with small dots.

"This is just one company's fish farms ... 20 in this small area. There are 120 up and down the coast."

We would be hitting two of them before sundown.

Just after a dinner of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy plus spinach salad, we pulled into farm No. 2.

From our vantage above the deck, we could see a shed and round net pens frothing with salmon. Most of what we carried was fish food that looked and smelled like dry cat food.

The next morning, we toured our third fish farm. The delivered food went into a hopper, then into hoses and was sprayed into the pens.

The surface of the water boiled with a thousand little twitching points and the fish jumped and twisted in the air, sometimes colliding with each other.

The 90 tonnes of fish food we dropped here would, in 10 days, become 66 tonnes of fish growth.

From here, we lumbered north at all of seven knots.

The convoluted B.C. coast is more subtle than Alaska. No soaring glaciers calving house-size chunks into the sea. Instead, it's rolling coastal hills and high mountains covered with spruce, cedar and hemlock, black bears on shore and eagles in the trees.

But best of all are the funky little villages, the occasional solitary dock and abandoned villages.

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.

Midday, as we cruised, we explored our ship. The four-storey cabin had refrigeration units on the cargo deck, six passenger cabins on the next level, then the dining lounge with large picture windows overlooking the cargo deck and, on top, the wheelhouse.

Marine Link's brochure is upfront about the fact 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 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. With only 12 passengers and eight crew, you quickly get to know everyone.

Our third day, we woke to classic northwest weather -- low clouds and soft drizzle. The slick, grey sea stretched before us, intensifying the green of nearby trees and turning the far-off ones to olive silhouettes. The occasional gull skimmed over the water.

Much of the day was given to putting down crab and shrimp traps (enough for appetizers which we ate within 30 minutes of their catch), and cruising waterfalls.

After dinner, we drew up within centimetres of Lace Falls, a 30-metre-tall fan of water cascading in a curtain of froth over a wide apron of granite.

It's odd to think of something as bulky as this ship mincing around a waterfall, but we tucked into it with a precision that was feather-touch delicate.

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 bring it back. It was 5 a.m. before the crew got to sleep.

Later that 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 that used 1,500 tonnes of explosives in the world's largest non-nuclear blast to blow away two pinnacles that had sunk 120 ships.

All that are left on the island today are some pits. But we could see down Seymour Narrows to where we had been ... back among the knife-edge green ridges, the blue fiords, and beyond to the receding lines of blue-purple mountains where the fish farmers were no doubt spraying pellets at voracious salmon.