Ready for a quiz?
Question: How do you tell a BC central coast resident from a tourist? Answer: From the way they ride the Queen of Chilliwack.
For starters, this is the “Queen of Chilliwack” only for tourists. For the locals it’s just “the Chilliwack,” or “the Shoebox” (given its size), or “the Chicken Boat” (given her chefs’ famous crispy fried chicken recipe).
For tourists, this is the affordable cruise-like mellow journey that navigates through 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 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.
And for the tourists this is a marine photographic safari. Equipped with powerful cameras and long-distance panoramic lenses Germans, Dutch, Americans and a few other Europeans take pictures of everything in sight: from impassable armies of evergreen trees and mountain peaks, to the occasional eagle, porpoise, and whale.
On the other hand for the locals this is the “corner” to the “corner store.” Equipped with grocery boxes, bags full of supplies, and armed with enough snacks to avoid buying cafeteria food for the long ride (anywhere from 8 to 36 hours depending on the destination) both First Nation and white locals sleep, read, play, get bored, and catch up with each other while the Chilliwack sputter along.
I love this route; it’s probably my favorite. But I’ve been on the Chilliwack long enough to know how to make the ride better than it is. I’ll share these secrets with you.
First, line-up in Port Hady as a foot passenger, early. Footsies load the ship before car drivers, and they get the early bird prize: comfortable reclining chairs in the small middle section of the forward lounge. It doesn’t sound like much, but in the absence of beds those chairs are the difference that can make a night’s sleep restful.
Second, bring along plenty of sleep gear, because sleep is the best thing you can do on this ship, during both day and night. Pack ear plugs, an eye-mask, an air mattress and pump, pillows, blankets, and maybe even a tent.
Third, the solarium on the upper outside deck may look like a great place to spend the night, but there is a reason why this is called the “sun deck:” a bright, shiny reason that will dawn on you at about four o’clock in the morning.
Fourth, respect the crew. Make friends with them. Especially if you’re a local these are familiar faces that you will see over and over again over the years, and they are basically your neighbors for about one day, once a month or so. Because they spend two uninterrupted weeks at sea, they know how to make this boat a home better than you ever will. They have the stuff, or the power to get the stuff, that sooner or later you might need: from a cigarette to medicine, from access to the kitchen to the ability to look the other way if you need privacy or a bit of secrecy.
There is little, very little privacy or secrecy here, after all. There are about 150 passengers on this boat tonight. Most are headed back home to Bella Bella, after a large wedding on Vancouver Island. They know each other all too well, indeed well enough to call each other “cousins” regardless of the formal definition.
Others are for the most part headed all the way to Bella Coola: the last stop. These are the tourists, bound for a long, scenic car journey from the central coast through the interior of BC and the Rockies. Tourists don’t know each other in Port Hardy, but they will by the time the locals are dropped off at Bella Bella. Rather than family affairs like the locals, the tourists have travel exploits to share, common maps to consult, and tidbits of advice to dish out. A few more passengers, only a small handful, are sailing to Klemtu and Shearwater.
What some might view as lack of privacy on this boat, I view as intense sociality. Here you drink beer together; offer each other snacks; pace the boat back and forth, over and over, exchanging glances and greetings, disclosing biographies. Here you talk about the places you come from and the places that surround you; you wake up on the floor next to each other; you smell each other’s feet and toothpaste; you hear each other’s snore, and each other’s babies cry, all bloody night long.
As the sun starts to go down a few passengers, both local and tourists, play cat and mouse with the sun and the shade on the sun deck. Their quest for warm sunrays is almost as eager as their quest for a glance at a whale. My field notes capture the rough description of a lone man drinking coffee and staring at the horizon, standing still, and a couple smooching and holding each other tenderly, seemingly unconcerned with those around them. They’re making time, as the boat loses time, slowing down after slowing down.