Road Report #8
August 10, 2008
No problem getting onto the ferry from Prince Rupert to Skidegate on the Queen Charlotte Islands. In fact, looks like there is lots of empty space so don’t know why they could not give us a confirmed reservation. The same thing happened when we wanted to leave a few days later. Much huffing and puffing about whether we could get on the boat but when we arrived, LOTS of room. Lesson in this – don’t be discouraged when they say they cannot give you a reservation because the boat is “fully booked.” Show up anyway.
The ferry finally leaves at 11 am (we’ve been here since 5 am) and arrives at Skidegate at 5:30 pm. It’s not a cheap trip - $566 return for a 21-foot van and two passengers.
The Queen Charlotte Islands, also known as Haida Gwaii, are composed of hundreds of islands. Most are remote and inaccessible except by boat. In fact, most of this area is within the National Park Preserve and Heritage Site – protected through the cooperation of the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation.
About 5,000 people live here, primarily on two of the islands, Graham in the north and Moresby in the south. Some 90 km of paved roads connect the major towns. Access to the most scenic areas is by gravel logging roads. We put 536 km on our odometer, most of it gravel.
The more northerly island is Graham with the town of Massett at the north end, Skidegate and Queen Charlotte City in the south. The ferry lands in Skidegate but most amenities are in Queen Charlotte City, a few km down the road.
The visitors centre there was very helpful, providing us with good maps of the logging roads and recommending that we stay at the free forestry campsite at Kagan Bay, just a few km beyond town. The sites at Kagan Bay are really nice - wide open sites right on the water with tables, fire pits and pit toilets. All very clean and no charge.
We spent a pleasant evening there, walking the beach – disappointed that it was so rocky but were to learn that virtually all the waterfront in the Queen Charlottes is rocky. What rocks though! The most colourful and interesting I’ve ever seen.
Next morning we took a much smaller ferry south to the other inhabited island, Moresby. Enroute the rain started in – spitting sometimes, pouring others. This is just part of the QC experience I am afraid. The ferry cost $37 return.
Arriving at Alliford Bay, we headed right. This is a logging road and we did run into a few huge trucks but there was no problem, we just squeezed right over to the side. There is not a lot of signage, just enough to keep us on track and the occasional regular-sized vehicle (not a logging truck thundering by) stops and offers advice. People are friendly. The road is gravel and this varies from quite good to horrendous washboard with major potholes. They also still use quite a bit of shale here so hard on tires, although we managed without a flat.
The scenery is ethereal, mystical, the stuff of legends and mythology. Moss drips off the limbs of the ancients. Look carefully at the photo to the right - a shy little deer peers out from behind the bushes.They are everywhere. We never saw one, but apparently the Queen Charlotte Islands is home to the (world's?) largest black bears. Creeks burble through. Lots of deadfall with ferns and lush foliage covering. Other areas are dark and deep and the earth beneath your feet is spongy with moss.
There are many “spur” roads as they call them that head out to active logging sites. We stuck to the main road as instructed. Came to Camp Moresby. This is a nice camping area with a boat launch in a pretty bay. They’ve even erected a large roofed area with a cement floor so you can pitch your tent under it or hold a gathering or whatever. Many of the boat tours take off from here – saw the open zodiacs with seats – those would be miserable in this kind of weather and frankly, “this kind of weather” is what prevails here. The one-day tour was $176 each and included a trip around Louise Inlet and visits to a few old village sites if time permitted. The full tour of the UNESCO world heritage site is a multi-day trip that includes overnights, either camping or in a B&B enroute.
Gray Bay is another beautiful area – miles of beach, both sand and fine gravel. You can camp there for free. Unfortunately when we arrived the rain started in a few moments later. Steve went out for a bit and gathered a few shells.
By evening we were back to Charlotte City and Chinese food for dinner. Checked out the local souvenir shop, the Rainbow Shop. Without doubt the most eccentric shop I've ever been in. There was LOTS of arty stuff here to buy but most interesting was the local polished rock. The fellow must have some massive tumblers going somewhere because he had such vast quantities of these gorgeous rocks - the same ones I was picking up on the beaches. What was odd though, was that he sat at a table gluing them to objects - lamp shades, vases, mirror, shoes - you name it. No apparent artistic muse directing his hand. Just pick up a rock, give it a hit of hot glue and press it onto a flat surface. It was baffling. But he seemed happy. The shop is for sale though, if you are interested in finding your bliss in rocks.
Walked around the waterfront – there are so many eagles here - counted five in just one tree. Saw two of them sparring – flying at each other then doing barrel rolls to evade – a highflying game of chicken.
Back to our free campsite at Kagan Bay – fall asleep gazing out the window at the most amazing waterfront view.
August 12, 2008
Drove out to Rennell Sound on the west coast of Graham Island today. This is via active logging roads – ran into one humongous, seriously overloaded offroad “wagon” as they call it. Fortunately we were in a spot on the track where pulling over was not overly dramatic. There were plenty of patches that had us praying we did not run into a wagon because where we’d go, we did not know. The one-lane road dropped abruptly off into nothing – no shoulders. Guess we’d have to back up but fortunately, it never happened.
Exposed as it is to the open ocean and situated on the edge of the continental shelf, we had expected the west side of the island to be considerably more rugged. But what we found was a lovely, peaceful seascape. The recreation site provided for campers has a dozen official sites with a common pit toilet but no drinking water. All the official campsites were occupied so we just chose a nice patch of grass along the beach, popped the roof and pulled out the chairs.
Other campers all seem to be here for the fishing – it is an obsession. Raining off and on all day but they are sitting, standing or rowing about out there nonetheless. At one point a couple of them got really excited about a five-foot shark said to be cruising just off shore. Would have like to have seen that. Guess it’s like the grizzly bears – only on the deluxe tour.
We followed the road out another 14 km to the Bonanza Beach Trailhead and took the walk down to the water. Lovely beach with the most amazing rocks – layered and striped. Must have collected 20 pounds of them. Few shells.
Woke up at Rennell Sound to POUNDING rain. Had some concerns about making it back up that 28% grade hill. No worries but once back in Charlotte City we had to find a carwash to clear off the mud once again. Cheapest one yet, only $4.
Heading up-island the next day we stopped enroute at the new Haida Gwaii Heritage Centre in Skidegate. The centre showcases the rich Haida,culture, established on the islands for at least 12,000 years. Designed as a series of longhouses, there is a “Saving Things House” with impressive exhibits that highlights Haida culture as well as communicating the everyday challenges of living on Haida Gwaii through the centuries.
The “Performing House” will share Haida tradition through song, dance and storytelling performances. We were there prior to the actual opening of the centre but even so a young fellow was sitting in this longhouse-style theatre relating the history of his ancestors as well as his own experiences. There is also a carving shed and an Eating House and a Trading House (gift shop) and the Bill Reid Teaching Centre with classrooms and studios.
During our visit staff and volunteers were very busy preparing for the grand opening in a few weeks. Even so, they took time to be friendly and explain what we were looking at. Some carvers were busy on totem poles, others were putting the finishing touches on a new canoe. It was interesting. The place is well worth a visit. Plan a full day if you want to see it all and absorb an understanding of the history and culture of this remarkable people.
Further north upisland we came to Tlell, apparently a hotbed of artists and free thinkers. Great coffee and baked goods at the Rising Bread Bakery there. This landscape is pastoral, rolling meadows full of grazing Herefords.
In Port Clemens we paid our $2 to visit the museum – a repository of all things old from sewing machines to apple corers to logging tools and photo albums. Well worth a couple of hours.
Masset is the big city at the top of the island. Here we stocked up on bread and milk before heading east to Naikoon National Park on the far eastern edge of Graham Island. It was only $15 but this was the first time we paid to camp on the islands. Beautiful campground though with sites ranged along the edge of the open ocean. Rocky beaches again but oh what wonderful rocks. Collected another big bag full.
Next morning headed up to Tow Hill – end of the road. Here we walked to the Blow Hole located on beds of black lava. It was about a 20 minute walk out through a mystical mossy forest. It is high season, but there are not many people out here – only three or four other parties of campers and only passed one other person walking out to the Blow Hole.
Coming back into Queen Charlotte City before we board the ferry for the night passage we look for a shower. There is a fellow who runs a hostel and charges $8 per person. What a rip off that was – absolutely filthy. So we declined to pay his extortionist rate and returned instead to the Visitor Centre’s modern and private bathrooms where we had sink baths and washed our hair. Better than nothing.
Later in the afternoon we noticed that the laundromat in Skidegate was advertising showers. Should have checked there before because we had actually seen that service offered in other northern cities – pay showers in the laundromats.
August 16, 2008
Boarded the ferry at 10:30 pm – last people on. There was lots of room for our van but by the time we got onboard there was no sleeping space left on the floor – managed to wedge in between some others. We laid our sleeping bag and pillows down. Floor was hard and fellow to my left was snoring like he’d swallowed a tractor riding its jake brakes but what can you do? Stuck my earplugs in and thought happy thoughts. Managed to sleep “okay.”
Got up at 3am and walked around for a bit. The whole ship was asleep, people on foamies and cots and bags on the floor, tucked into every corner. Obviously the locals who travel this route regularly know all the best places and race aboard as foot passengers to make their claim. That’s what I should have done – left Steve to bring the van aboard while I came on by foot. Live and learn.
Ferry docked in Prince Rupert at 5:30 am. Trip was supposed to take another 90 minutes but apparently they put the pedal to the medal so passengers could connect with the Port Hardy ferry.
Seems like last on is first off so we zoomed off the ferry and made a pit stop at Tim Horton’s for breakfast. It was about the only thing open at that time so we enjoyed our breakfast. Enjoyed it even more, watching about 300 people line up as the rest of the ferry passenger load disembarked and made their way into town.
The drive out from Prince Rupert, rising sun poking through the fog, was ethereal.
Carried on to Terrace where we took advantage of the $1 showers at the municipal park. We were also able to clean the van up really well so we are feeling fresh for the first time this week.
Heading east towards Prince George we stopped in Smithers for lunch. This is an attractive, prosperous, bustling little town set in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This area is called the Bulkley Valley – a pastoral landscape of rolling fields which at this time of year are dotted by big fat rolls of hay.
We spent the night at Sunset Beach, a free forestry site
outside Topley. The “beach” refers to the edge of a very pretty
lake which would have been blissful except that it was the weekend and
there was a group of young women partying all night – very noisy.
We have a book that lists all the free forestry campsites. These are always
great but they are often quite far off the main highway. But when we can
find one within a few kilometers we always use it and have never been
disappointed. There are never any services beyond pit toilets and usually,
water but that is no different than the provincial and national parks.
Today we traveled towards Vancouver and home through the Cariboo Chilcotin – gorgeous ranching country graced by thousands of lakes. At this time of year it’s a mellow landscape with the leaves on the trees already turning, hay fields dried yellow and ready for harvest. In the towns we are seduced into stopping for the farmers markets and on the roads we are slowed down by tractors pulling home the harvest on overloaded wagons. There does not seem to be any reason to rush through. I know, living as I do in this province, that the place names we are driving through will be in the news soon enough – sites of some of the countries nastiest winter weather once the Arctic fronts descend and the blizzards sweep over the rolling hills. No hurry just now – time to savour the last scents of summer.
Journey concluded: 15,000+ km