The village of Alert Bay represents in many ways a perfect microcosm of the coastal dispositions towards mobility. Alert Bay lies on Cormorant Island, in the Broughton Archipelago off the north eastern corner of Vancouver Island. Alert Bay is a small village of about 600 people who are members of the Namgis aboriginal First Nation. Another 600 people or so leave off the reserve land, in the houses south of the village. Aside from very limited commercial fishing there is no sizeable economic production of any kind on the island.
As the cultural epicentre of the Kwakwaka’wakw linguistic territory, Alert Bay has long been attracting many people to the island. From neighbouring tribes travelling back and forth to the island for Potlaches, and from the waves of anthropologists who followed the Potlaches, to the raids of Indian agents sent to ban potlatches, confiscate artefacts, and arrest band leaders, and to the more recent waves of cultural tourists, Cormorant Island has experienced multiple and radically different constellations of mobilities. Even the Namgis themselves do not consider themselves rooted here in any inalienable way, since their oral history reminds them that they came from the Nimpkish Lake area of Vancouver Island.
Cozily tucked away in majestic Howe Sound, Bowen Island stands as an obvious reminder of why ferries matter. While it would be no more than ten minutes away from the urban culture of West Vancouver at car speed, Bowen Island is years away at ferry speed. Yet Bowen is no remote, forgotten island. Its proximity to the mainland allows easy commuting for hundreds of workers and high school students. Bowen also feels the development pressures surging from the greater Vancouver area, as home prices surge and homelessness rises. But Bowen is also the home of a few ferry culture gems: from the most complex line-ups to some of the most dedicated performers of the art of commuting, not to mention the annualcompetitive run for the ferry.
For tourists, this is the “Discovery Coast:” a remote wilderness area of unsurpassable beauty where you can get close enough to BC’s wildlife and ancient First Nation cultures to see them, without getting in danger or feeling inconvenienced. Well, that’s what the BC Ferries brochures claim in their words. For locals this is simply the “central coast;” it’s Bella Bella, Shearwater, Klemtu, Ocean Falls, and Bella Coola. In one word, it is home; a home serviced by an expensive, slow, unreliable ferry service marred by poor scheduling and profound lack of concern with local access needs and the consequent social problems.
Like a few other locations on the BC Ferries map, Cortes Island is the end of the line. You need a ferry from Vancouver to get to Vancouver Island, then a ferry from there to Quadra Island, and finally a ferry from Quadra to Cortes. You don’t find this place by accident, you have to seek it out. And when you do, it’s hard to leave it. Not only because there are very few ferries departing from here, not only because the boats are tiny, and not only because the waters they cross are often feisty, but also because Cortes is a true gem of an island. You can find self-proclaimed kings here, delicate oysters, nudist beaches, and other great pleasures of life–such as a spot on the first ferry of the morning.
As I write these words Denman Islanders reflect on the future of their mobility, weighing alternatives that may end up deeply shaping their community. As ferry fares continue to rise Denman residents know they cannot cope with increasing costs forever. So, given their proximity to Vancouver Island they have begun to examine the possibility of replacing their current ferry with a cable ferry, in order to reduce their dependence on carbon fuels and the carbon economy. Somewhere else in the world islanders might go for a causeway, but not here. A fixed link is a threat to island life.
Gabriola Island is ground zero of this project. The research began here five years ago, spurred by curiosity and animated by the vibrancy of the regional culture. And some five years later it is on Gabriola that it ended, after the island had become my new home. Throughout that time Gabriola was also the site of an interesting survey administered by Vancouver Island University and initiated by BC Ferries. When polled about their transportation options Gabriola voted strongly against the idea of a bridge to Nanaimo. Self-styled “the Island of the Arts” Gabriola epitomizes (southern) Gulf Island living, with a feisty but tight community, a strong environmental ethic, and a proud island identity.
“Scratch the dirt off of a Galiano Islander,” I was told on my first visit to Galiano, “and you’ll find a PhD.” With so many full-time, part-time, and retired academics it’s no wonder that Galiano Island is so full of opinions. Known throughout the region for its intense politics, Galiano has been the battleground of many legal and social conflicts between developers and conservationists over the last decade–though neither development nor conservation ever seemed to be black or white realities here. Galiano is equally pulled left and right by the ferries, at it lies precisely halfway between Vancouver and Vancouver Island.
Come to Hornby the day summer tourist season ends, and you might find yourself right in the middle of a unique ferry ritual. For years, on every Labor Day night, Hornby Islanders organize an improvised festival called “wave off.” They gather by the pub adjacent the ferry terminal, drink beer, and set off fireworks as the last ferry of the evening carries away the last tourists of the season. Some revelers even streak on their boats, and the ferry captain sometimes even celebrates by “doing a donut” in the water with the boat. Young men dressed in drag moon the Queen of Capilano as she sails away from Bowen Island on Labour Day. Summer crowds last three months, and islanders can’t last one day longer with them on their roads.
“Worry Hill” is not the name of a psycho-horror movie, but rather the nickname of the ferry terminal at Village Bay, on Mayne Island. Here your mind easily becomes preoccupied with the coming and going of four different ferries: the Queen of Cumberland, the Queen of Nanaimo, the Mayne Queen, and at times the Bowen Queen. You gotta keep your wits about you if you’re on Worry Hill. You could be going to Saturna and find yourself headed to Galiano. You might want to Vancouver and find yourself headed instead for Pender Island or Vancouver Island. Because Mayne is the hub of the Souther Gulf Island ferry routes, this is where you transfer. You need to know where you’re going, and often you need to do it quickly. And don’t let the loud echos of the ferries cruising by Active Pass distract you.
The M/V Mill Bay is the smallest ferry in the fleet, at a car capacity of only 16. Despite her small size and old age the Mill Bay does what no other ferry in the BC Ferries system does: compete with a highway. On this coast ferries generally replace fixed links, but not this one. The Mill Bay-Brentwood Bay ferry route is the only one that can be entirely circumvented by driving, and thus the passage across Vancouver Island’s Saanich inlet is an actual alternative, not just a replacement. And to everyone’s amazement, it still works.
The Hub City–Nanaimo–is home to three ferry routes. Duke Point, south of Nanaimo, serves Tsawwassen, which lies south of Vancouver. This is your best bet if you wish to travel to the Vancouver airport, to the US, or to the southern interior of BC and the Trans-Canada Highway. Departure Bay, central Nanaimo, serves Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver. This is what you choose if the city of Vancouver is your destination. And then there is Nanaimo Harbour, where you catch the ferry to Gabriola. Further solidifying its standing as a ferry destination, Nanaimo is also home to the BC Ferries workers union. But it doesn’t stop there. Besides serving the city of Nanaimo and its surroundings, Nanaimo’s ferry routes are the preferred ways to reach the mainland by residents of Western and Northern Vancouver Island. It’s no wonder that Nanaimo’s long ferry lineups on a summer weekend rival no other destination.
BC Ferries boats are no cruise ships. There just isn’t too much to do on them. Well, unless you’re an ethnographer who needs to write field notes or maybe a kid with spare change and amazing arcade skills. Otherwise, travelling to the North Coast can be especially taxing for someone who aches to be entertained. There are neither payphones nor cell-phone reception. No Titanic-like orchestra. No saltwater pool on the outer deck either. And there are no books or large screen movies good enough to compete with the humbling scenery of snowcapped peaks towering one after another in endless succession, an infinite wall of trees, the possibility of spotting bears, whales, or porpoises on either side of the channel, and the never-ending game of guessing how deep inland the next fjord can reach. By the time you reach port you’ve drunk a lot of coffee, eaten a lot of French fries and gravy, and met and spoken with everybody about everything, especially about the ferries, everyone’s favorite topic.
A small handful of people from Pender will likely email me after reading the book and viewing this website to complain. You see, there is no such thing as Pender Island. There is North Pender, and South Pender. They are two different islands. Historically they have been separate until a short bridge was put in place to link them. After that revolution in the mobility history of the two islands, “Pender” Island was born. Today, almost everyone refers to Pender Island as a whole, but a few sourtherners like to remind their northern neighbors that they are quite different. To me this works as a fantastic reminder of how much mobility matters in the formation of place.
Few locations on the BC Coast serve as greater reminders than Powell River of the power of ferry boats. Tucked away from the rest of the mainland by steep mountains and deep channels, Powell River is not one but two ferry routes away from Vancouver. Indeed to get here it’s just as fast to reach Vancouver Island first and then catch the ferry from Comox/Little River. Once in Powell River it becomes immediately clear that the place is a de facto island. Powell Riverites even have their own version of island time: Powell River time.
If you like to get a sense of Quadra Island before you reach it, upon boarding the ferry in Campbell River walk up to the passenger lounge and read the bulletin board. Bulletin boards contain precious signs of island life in small, often handwritten, characters and vivid colors. Need a ride to Victoria? New to the island and looking for a place to rent? In the mood for a spiritual retreat? Ready to re-do your patio or deck? Want to sell or buy photography, paintings, ceramics, stone jewelry? You’ll find it all on the Powell River Queen’s lively bulletin board–one of the best on the coast.
Saltspring Island is the most populated, the most politically-influential, the best-known, and the most developed of the islands served by BC Ferries (except for Vancouver Island). Three ports and three ferry routes connect it to other places: Vancouver Island (Crofton and Swartz Bay), Pender Island, Mayne Island, Galiano Island, and the mainland. Even though it is beautiful and charming, many islanders all over the coast and on the island too view Saltspring as an example of what the future can hold for them too unless they are vigilant against rampant development. The “Saltpsring index,” a semi-serious measure of development, gauges how developed an island is in comparison to Saltspring. While its multiple ferry routes are obviously not the only cause of its development, they certainly play a role in it.
Someone should invent a small-island version of GPS technology, one that is not based on street names and civic numbers, but rather on the address system used by locals. Forget 1356 Sunrise Street or 123 South Road; the small-island GPS would just need to know whose house you live in and what funky stuff there is at the end of your driveway. Take Ken’s residence, on Saturna Island. Ken hasn’t lived at his house long enough for it to be known at “his house.” A guy by the name of John Barber lived there for twenty-four years before Ken moved in. So, to all Saturna islanders Ken’s house is known as John Barber’s house. And “there is no civic number out front,” Ken told me when he gave me directions, “just keep driving when you get off the ferry. Once you see the large blue heron made of driftwood by the roadside, turn right at the next driveway.” There map that, GPS!
You gotta love Malcolm Island! It might very well be the place of harmony–since it was settled under that mantra by a proto-hippie commune of Finnish migrants early in the 20th century–but Sointulans are as feisty as it gets. They refused to be governed by Islands Trust to maintain their autonomy. They–some of them at least–have been fighting against an early morning ferry to Vancouver Island to avoid becoming dependent on a commuter economy. And they are known to bicker loudly with their neighbors on Alert Bay to get the ferry schedule the way they want it. And listen to them complain in style too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQ7thblbcHo
Stretching from its southern ferry terminal at Langdale, near Gibsons, to its northern ferry terminal at Earl’s Cove past the Pender Harbour area, the Sunshine Coast faces Vancouver Island and Texada Island to the West, and the steep Coast Mountains to the east. This is not an island, but it doesn’t quite feel like a mainland either. Ask any teenager how to get to the nearest mall hangout and they’ll tell you that Park Royal Mall requires a trip on the Queen of Surrey, and a whole lot of parental permissions and patience.
“This is the strange thing about Texada,” a resident of this hard-working island tells me, “we are the largest island in the Strait of Georgia. When you go from Vancouver to Nanaimo the ferry could literally make a course correction on the way to Vancouver Island and drop off Texadans at the southernmost tip of the island. But instead, Texadans chose the northernmost side of the island to build a ferry terminal. So, instead of getting there from West Vancouver in forty-five minutes we either take three ferries through the Sunshine Coast, or a ferry to Vancouver Island, one to Powell River, and one to Texada. Either route you take, it can take half a day or more.”
Thetis Island and Penelakut (formerly known as Kuper) Island could not be any more different. Thesis is in many ways a typical Southern Gulf Island. Pretty, peaceful, quaint, and green, it is home to retirees, artists, some farmers, and a handful of commuters who travel regularly to Vancouver Island for school or work. Penelakut is instead a First Nations’ reserve, and a reserved one at that. To even catch the ferry from Chemainus to Penelakut you first need to phone the Chief and Council office and ask for landing permission. Penelakut was scarred by a particularly harsh residential school, and more recently by unemployment and related economic struggles. The two communities come together at low tide, however, when it’s possible to walk from one island to the other. And of course they come together through the same ferry boat–on which islanders meet.
As the provincial capital Victoria has a lot to offer. But while it would be easy to say that life doesn’t feel much like island life in the greater Victoria area, one would miss the point by doing so. A student from Calgary who had just settled to Victoris once told me that coming to Victoria requires a dramatic transition to island rhythms. “It’s a bit like stepping into molasses,” she put it. And while it does have its fair share of traffic back-ups and stop lights, what Victoria and southern Vancouver Island don’t have is an easy way to drive to Vancouver. And it seems like that’s the way most people like it.